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Journey to Marmande

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“I still don’t understand. You haven’t even been a musketeer a week and you’re leaving?”

D’Artagnan tightens the final strap on his saddle bag and turns away from his horse to face his friends. Aramis stands in front of him, arms crossed, an eyebrow raised in disbelief. Porthos is behind him, looking equally confused but less affronted. As usual, Athos slouches some way off to the side, leaning against a pillar, watching from beneath his hat.

“Labarge raised my farm, I have to go and see what I can save,” D’Artagnan tells Aramis, for the fifth time. “My father and I left the farm in the care of our farm hands. I must go and find out how they have fared. How can I do otherwise?”

“And Treville approved this?”

Athos pushes himself away from the pillar.

“Treville understands duty,” he says, joining them at last. “How long will you stay?”

A shadow crosses over the newest musketeer’s face.

“That depends on Labarge.”

Athos nods, understanding.

“You can’t approve of this,” Aramis cuts in.

Athos keeps his eyes fixed on D’Artagnan’s face as he answers.

“What I want or approve of is not important here. This is something D’Artagnan feels he has to do and it is our job to accept it.”

He nods slightly at D’Artagnan who returns it mutely. Aramis huffs.

“Well. I had a feeling you might say that. Now come here and receive your farewell with good grace.”

D’Artagnan dutifully comes to stand in front of Aramis, who with a flourish, produces a small stoppered flask of brandy and presents it to D’Artagnan with a courtly bow.

“Try not to drink it all before you leave the city,” he warns, wagging a finger.

“I won’t!” D’Artagnan promises, laughing, and tucking it away in his bag. “Thank you, Aramis. That is very kind of you.”

“Ah well,” Aramis smiles his friendly, charming smile straight into D’Artagnan’s face, and only lets his eyes twinkle at the blush that creeps over his friend’s face. “Just make sure to be back as soon as you can. I have not even begun showing you the sights of Paris yet.”

“I believe it,” D’Artagnan says, and allows himself to be pulled into a quick, tight hug before Porthos demands his turn and hands over a new pack of playing cards, along with a bone-crushing slap on the back that D’Artagnan is hard-pressed to pretend doesn’t jar his teeth. “Porthos. Thank you.”

He doesn’t dare glance in Athos’ direction, couldn’t bear it if Athos thought he expected a token from him. The gifts he has received are already unexpected, the gratitude he feels for his friends and this new life he has found washing over him, making him clumsy as he tosses the reins over the horse’s head.

“Thank you,” he says, turning back to them. “I’m – I will return as soon as I may.”

He nods quickly at them, then prepares to mount his horse, and is surprised instead by a heavy hand landing on his shoulder and squeezing lightly. He turns to find Athos standing nearby, hand slipping away from his shoulder, and dark eyes startlingly close.

“Come,” he says. “I’ll walk you to the edge of the city. If you don’t mind the delay?”

D’Artagnan shakes his head and catches the reins to lead the horse out of the garrison, Athos following a step or two behind him.

They walk mostly in silence, but D’Artagnan is acutely aware of every breath Athos takes, finds himself cataloguing each brush of their gloved hands, and storing away each sound of his friend’s voice.

His feelings towards Athos are complicated at best. He’s never felt such admiration for another person before, nor been so drawn to their presence, or been so determined to be worthy of their good opinion. He wants to know more about Athos, about how he became the good, honourable person he is. About the silent demons the man battles constantly. He aches to mean something to Athos, but he doesn’t yet know what.

“You’re quiet,” Athos observes eventually as they near the edge of the city, open plains slowly coming into sight before them. “Are you well?”

D’Artagnan stares straight ahead.

“I do not wish to be returning,” he confesses. “My life has just started here.”

“Ah, Constance.” Athos says wisely.

No,” D’Artagnan breaks in. “I mean – yes. No. It’s the Musketeers I was thinking of. When I came here,” he blushes, thinking of the manner of their first meeting, but Athos just waits for him to go on. “When I came here, well, my father had just died. I had no plans but to avenge him. I don’t know what I thought I would do after. Return home, I suppose. But when I met you – when I met the Musketeers … I became someone else. More than a farm boy from Gascony. Someone who … had a purpose, I suppose.” He cuts himself off, blushing. Making speeches is not his style, especially when they involve his own feelings. “That sounds ridiculous,” he mutters, scrubbing his hand through his hair and casting his eyes away from anywhere they might meet Athos’.

“No,” Athos says with finality. “I understand.”

The words bring a warmth to D’Artagnan’s heart but Athos isn’t finished.

“When I … arrived here, I too was another person. The Musketeers gave me something back I thought I’d lost.” Athos’ voice is tight, like he can’t decide whether to let the words out or not. “Standing up to serve king and country does make you see yourself differently.”

“Yes,” D’Artagnan agrees quietly, and silence falls between them again until they pass through the gates of the city out into the grassy plains. Athos walks with him far past the edges of the city, but D’Artagnan says nothing, listening to the swish and crunch of their footsteps through the grass.

Eventually, Athos stops walking just as they reach a copse of trees. He clears his throat.

“You didn’t expect a farewell gift from me,” he observes quietly, and his eyes won’t meet D’Artagnan’s. D’Artagnan doesn’t know what to say so he says nothing. “Nevertheless I have one for you anyway.”

D’Artagnan starts a little with surprise and Athos huffs a small laugh.

“I know. I am not normally the gift-giving type. However …” he reaches into his pocket and brings out a small oval copper pendant. It is not new, bearing the marks of being carried and perhaps fondled regularly, but D’Artagnan is fascinated. Something about the way it sits in Athos’ palm makes D’Artagnan think it is Athos’ fingers that have rubbed the corners of the pendant worn and thin and that makes it even more precious.

“Athos …” he breathes as he takes it gently in his own hand, not missing the brush of their hands or that the pendant is warm from his skin. He turns it gently in his fingers and brushes his thumb over the pattern inlaid on one side. “Rosemary?”

“My home is known for it,” Athos tells him. “It grows wild in the forests and the women use it to scent their washing.”

This is more information than Athos has shared about his past in the whole time D’Artagnan has known him and internally he trembles with the trust being shown to him as well as the gesture.

“Thank you,” he says, raising his eyes to meet Athos’. “Athos, I – thank you.”

There is something in Athos’ eyes as they stare at each other that D’Artagnan can’t decipher, yet he is lost to the pull of that magnetic gaze. Eventually, Athos drags his attention away and D’Artagnan feels the rest of the world rush back in, realising he has been barely breathing and his heart is hammering in his chest.

“I must return,” Athos says and D’Artagnan nods. “Be well, D’Artagnan. Do what you need to do, but return as soon as you can. The regiment has need of you.”

“I will. Take care, Athos.”

He swings up into the saddle without another word, turns his face towards home, and urges the horse into motion.

*

D’Artagnan stands next to his horse at the border to his farm. Half his thoughts are occupied with cataloguing the damage done by Labarge – the farmhouse appears to be standing at least and he is hopeful the well is still pure the fences are gone which means the livestock is too. There is no wheat waving gently in the breeze, so that will be one year’s harvest lost. All in all, from initial impressions, it could have been worse.

The other half of his thoughts are occupied with wondering at just how little he feels about being back here. On the long, lonesome journey he’d anticipated how he might feel seeing his home again. Would he be melancholy about the quiet farmer’s life he would never now lead? Would he be relieved to have escaped what he has always suspected would be an ill-fitting mantle? In the end, he feels only sadness that his father will never see this place again.

This farm and this life could belong to another person for all he feels any emotional attachment to it. He gazes around as he leads his horse up the well-worn path to the farmhouse, and his eyes track over the familiar landmarks of his youth, recalling all their stories with a wry smile.

The ghosts of his past keep him company as he makes his slow way around the property until he reaches the farmhouse, standing quiet and empty. He sets the horse to graze and makes his way up the steps, squinting into the gloom as he enters.

He and his father had not had many possessions, so D’Artagnan is unsurprised by the sparseness of the interior. From reports of what Labarge had done, he is also not surprised to find their small collection of furniture overturned and damaged but he rights the small dining table and finds there are still two serviceable chairs of the set, along with some basic cooking utensils. His bed is torn to ruins but his father’s bed remains whole, though he kicks it gingerly searching for bugs.

“Well,” he says, standing in the middle of the room with his hands on his hips. “Best get to it, then.”

*

“Again!”

Athos prowls the length of the training yard, swinging his sword carelessly beside him. His eyes are fixed on his tired opponent, one of the recruits eager to prove himself against the regiment’s best swordsman.

The eager recruit is now a very sorry recruit, as he hovers panting at the edge of the yard, weighing up the loss of his honour if he concedes defeat and the ridiculing of his peers if he fails now. He makes a desperate lunge towards Athos, who deflects it easily and keeps prowling. There is a tense, black energy rolling off the man as there has been for weeks now, his temper growing shorter and more snappish as the days go by.

Athos suddenly darts forward and the recruit barely gets his sword up in time to meet him. He manages to defend himself against the other’s attack for a short volley before he finds himself on his back once again, sweating and panting.

His opponent steps up to him and holds his sword to his throat, dark eyes glaring down at him.

“Do you yield?”

“I yield, I yield,” the recruit gasps out. He can already hear the jeers from the rest of his company but he is finished and he knows it.

Athos turns from him in disgust, opening his arms and addressing the gathered crowd.

“Is there nobody here worth fighting?” He demands impatiently. That black edge of danger is still bleeding out around his edges and nobody steps forward.

He gives a noise of frustration and throws his sword down next to the recruit as he storms away. The recruit drops his head back to the ground and tries to regain his breath, trying not to let the Musketeer’s words get under his skin.

*

“Was that really worthy of you, Athos?” The words are quietly spoken, but Athos hears them anyway. He growls and turns in frustration to see Aramis in his doorway, leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed. “The boy looks up to you. They all do. He will wear the shame of your words for a long time.”

“One recruit’s hurt feelings are not my concern,” he mutters angrily, turning back to the basin where he is wringing out a wet cloth to wipe his face and neck.

“No,” Aramis concedes. “But that recruit may one day be a Musketeer. And when you have finished with this temper, I think you will understand why shaming a fellow Musketeer does not speak highly of you.”

Athos clenches the edge of the basin and stares down into his own broken reflection in the water.

“I know,” he says finally. “Aramis, I know. Thank you. Now please will you go? I wish to be alone.”

He feels Aramis still hovering in the doorway and turns his head slightly.

“Aramis, I will see to the recruit. I promise.”

*

Later that evening in the tavern, the recruit sits apart from his company, staring into his cup. His company had not derided him as he expected, but lifted him from the dirt of the training field and clapped him on the shoulder. He would almost have preferred their teasing as they clearly felt he had suffered enough at the hand and tongue of the man most expected to be the next Captain of the Musketeers.

He is startled from his musings by the presence of another person sliding into the seat opposite him.

It is Athos, and the recruit hastily starts to make his exit but the man puts a gentle hand to his wrist.

“Please, stay,” he says quietly. The last thing the recruit wants is to stay, but he can’t ignore the request of a superior officer, so he sinks carefully back down into his seat. He waits for Athos to speak but the man says nothing for long moments. “I have wronged you.” He says eventually, raising his eyes to meet the recruit’s. “I was cruel to you in front of your company, and I took my own feelings out on you. I apologise.”

“That’s not necessary, sir. I understand completely. I am not strong with sword fighting. You were right to teach me.” The recruit says humbly, unable to hold his gaze.

Athos holds his hand up to stop him.

“Please, Julien. I did wrong to you. Accepting my apology honours us both. Please take it.”

Drawn in by the sincerity in the other man’s gaze, Julien nods once, slowly, and Athos breaks their gaze to stare out into the crowd.

“Incidentally,” he says a few moments later. “Your sword skills are very good for someone of your experience. Your defence in particular is very strong. Concentrate more on your footwork, build up your strength to improve your strike and you will be in a very good position to make Musketeer.”

Julien stares at him, unable to fight the blush that creeps under his collar.

“Thank you, sir,” he mumbles.

Athos gives a small smile in return then stretches his legs out from under the table and slides away.

*

“You want to tell me what that was about?” Porthos asks Athos as he sits down next to him, nodding over towards the recruit who is still blushing into his wine. “Not like you to go chit chatting about the place.”

“I owed him an apology,” Athos says simply and pours himself more wine.

“For what?” Porthos prompts him but Athos says nothing more.

“Athos got a little over-excited in training today,” Aramis says for him. “Eviscerated Julien in front of everyone. Stalked off in a temper. It was all very dramatic.”

Porthos glances again at Athos.

“Not like you,” he offers.

Athos sighs.

“I know.”

Porthos and Aramis exchange a look.

“Athos … you’ve been acting off for weeks,” Porthos ventures eventually.

“Three weeks, in fact,” Aramis puts in.

Athos glares at him.

“There’s only one thing I can think of that happened three weeks ago,” Aramis continues cheerfully. “And it took my best bottle of brandy with it.”

“Aramis,” Athos says with a note of warning in his tone. “Drop it.”

“Come on, Athos. Just say it. We all miss him.”

“No.” Athos says with finality then stands up abruptly and leaves the tavern without another word.

Porthos and Aramis stare at each other.

“Well, that could have gone better.” Porthos says but Aramis grins.

“My friend, I think we need a plan.”

*

“Athos, the Captain just sent this for you,” Aramis calls across the armoury where Athos is talking to the quartermaster about shot supplies. Athos takes the offered parchment and reads it quickly.

This is what the Captain wants me to do?” He asks. “Babysit a supply wagon? It’s at least a week’s journey out there and the same back.”

Porthos appears behind Aramis at that moment.

“Marmande, is it?” He asks. “Isn’t that –”

Aramis elbows him but Athos catches the movement.

“Near Gascony,” he finishes for him. “Gentlemen, just what are you playing at?”

Aramis shrugs innocently.

“Nothing to do with us,” he says. “Captain’s orders. But … if you did decide to –”

“I won’t,” Athos snaps. “I am going to babysit this blasted supply wagon and then I am going to come straight back here. But … ” He holds his forefinger up in front of Aramis’ face first and then Porthos’. “If I find out either of you had anything to do with this, you will soon regret the day you joined the Musketeers.”

He sweeps from the armoury leaving two not-very-afraid Musketeers sniggering into each other’s shoulders.

*

D’Artagnan is returning to the farmhouse late one afternoon, sun low in the sky, when he hears the sound of approaching hooves. He has been daydreaming about Paris, wondering what adventures his fellow Musketeers have been having, and curses himself for not even having his sword with him.

What would Athos say about that? He reprimands himself. A few weeks as a farm boy and I forget every lesson he ever taught me.

However, sword play is not the only lesson Athos had imparted. If you are ever at a disadvantage, find a way to even the odds, he hears Athos say impatiently in his head. If you have no other options, hide, gather information, then act.

Casting around himself for a hiding spot, he spies a broad, likely-looking tree a few metres away, its branches stretching wide across the path. He shimmies up it in no time at all, his youth spent climbing trees and his recent experience throwing himself all over Paris both lending strength and agility to his actions.

The rider is coming on in no particular hurry, which tells D’Artagnan that whoever it is likely does not mean harm, but he feels the familiar thrill of the unknown sizzle through him anyway. He crawls out to the sturdiest branch reaching across the path and lays flat against it, hiding himself among the leaves. His breathing is calm and slow, even as his heartbeat increases in anticipation as the rider draws nearer.

Finally the horse and its rider take on distinguishable features – the man is wearing a broad-brimmed hat, cape slung over one shoulder. Though he is still a fair way off, D’Artagnan’s breath and heartbeat both quicken as he recognises the silhouette approaching in the late evening sun. What can Athos possibly be doing here?

His head spins for a sharp moment as he considers – is something wrong? Constance? But the casual gate of the horse reassures him that whatever his errand, there is no cause for alarm.

Athos grows nearer and is almost directly below him when D’Artagnan lets out a loud bird call that immediately brings Athos up short. He and the horse turn in slow circles, assessing their surroundings.

“Good afternoon, Athos,” D’Artagnan calls down from above him, and Athos finally raises his eyes to the branches above him to find D’Artagnan casually stretched out with his cheek on his hands, grinning down at him.

D’Artagnan hopes he is not imagining the light look that comes into Athos’ eyes at the sight of him, though his lips do little more than twitch into a smirk.

“Good afternoon, D’Artagnan,” he says in return. “You’ve lost all your manners already, I see.”

D’Artagnan scoffs.

“You think I learnt manners in Paris?”

“Well, you’ve stopped challenging people to a duel when you meet them, I notice,” Athos returns, raising an eyebrow. D’Artagnan laughs and drops neatly down in front of him, shaking leaves from the tree into Athos’ face in the process. A few lodge in his hat and he removes it to brush them off.

“What brings you here, then, Athos?” D’Artagnan asks, now squinting up at him in the strong afternoon light. “You’re welcome, of course, but is there something the matter?”

“Matter? No.” Athos says. He reaches into his coat pocket and retrieves a piece of parchment. “I’ve got orders to escort a supply wagon from Marmande to Paris in two days hence. I simply thought to drop in on you on my way. Keep you out of trouble.”

D’Artagnan takes the parchment from him and studies it carefully.

“But Athos … Marmande doesn’t supply Paris at all. It’s much too small and provincial.”

He raises his puzzled eyes to Athos’ confused ones.

“Who gave you these orders?”

“Treville, of course,” Athos responds, frowning. “Why?”

“This is not Treville’s hand,” D’Artagnan says, tracing his fingers over the letters. “See here? Treville would never use flourishes like this. He is a soldier and writes like one. This is his seal but I’m afraid these are not his orders. How did you say you came by this?”

Athos snatches the parchment back from him and examines it more closely, then crushes it in his fist as realisation steals over him.

“Those two interfering bastards,” he mutters to himself.

“Athos?” D’Artagnan asks.

Athos sweeps his hat from his head and makes a formal bow from atop his horse.

“My apologies, D’Artagnan. It appears I was misled. I will return to Paris now and deal with our misguided friends immediately.”

“Aramis and Porthos did this?” D’Artagnan can’t quite believe it. What would their friends have to gain from sending Athos on a fool’s errand, particularly one with such a long journey? “Why?”

“Oh, I can guess why,” Athos says tiredly, running his hand through his hair before jamming his hat back on his head. “Forgive me for interrupting your reparations.”

“Wait,” D’Artagnan bursts out, grabbing for the reins. “It’s too late for you to turn back tonight, and your horse needs to rest. Besides,” he adds slyly as Athos hesitates. “They’re not expecting you for another week or more. You could … stay. Rest.”

Athos stares at him.

“If Treville did not write these orders then he has not approved my absence from the garrison,” he says slowly. D’Artagnan shrugs.

“You were tricked. Your absence is not your fault. Surely, if Aramis and Porthos did do this, they deserve to bear the brunt of Treville’s displeasure?”

Athos stares at him again, but D’Artagnan can see he is considering the offer. He reaches out and places a hand around Athos’ ankle.

“Stay.” He commands softly, looking up into Athos’ face. Athos meets his eye and after a long moment, gives one quick nod of assent. D’Artagnan lets his hair fall forward to hide his smile, and adjusts his grip on the reins to lead them onwards towards home.

*

“Sorry about the bed,” D’Artagnan says as he leans against the wall next to where Athos is splashing water on his face from the basin. There is a good fire in the grate, D’Artagnan had graciously shared some of Aramis’ brandy with him earlier, and he is feeling pleasantly weary from his journey.

“D’Artagnan, we are Musketeers. Tough. Brave. Risking life and limb. I think we can handle sharing a bed somehow,” he returns, face muffled in a towel. D’Artagnan snorts and Athos emerges from the towel to find him staring out the window.

He makes quite the picture, hair waving slightly in the breeze and dressed only in breeches and shirt, hanging open at chest. Athos stares for a moment, shakes himself, then stares again as he notices something at D’Artagnan’s collar.

It’s his pendant, strung around D’Artagnan’s neck like it belongs there.

A slow curl of something appears in Athos’ gut at the sight and he finds he can’t tear his eyes away. He hadn’t known what had possessed him to gift the necklace to D’Artagnan like some … lover’s token. Now, seeing it hanging below his throat, he is even less sure but it’s very clear he likes it.

D’Artagnan glances away from the window a moment later and catches him staring. He doesn’t know what expression is on his face, but whatever it is causes a slight blush to creep over D’Artagnan’s cheek bones.

He clears his throat.

“You like the uh –” He gestures to his chest. D’Artagnan’s eyes widen and his hand flies guiltily to the pendant.

“I – yes.” He says.

They stand in awkward in silence for a moment, then D’Artagnan ventures, “You seem surprised. Did you not mean for me to –” and makes as though to remove it.

Before he knows what he’s doing, Athos has reached out to press D’Artagnan’s hand to the small copper oval where it lies against his chest.

“Leave it,” he says quietly, and when D’Artagnan looks up from their joined hands, their gazes lock and it is all Athos can do to keep his breathing even. For just a moment, the house could have fallen down around them and he wouldn’t have noticed.

A loud pop from the fire startles them both and Athos steps away instantly, sitting determinedly down on the bed to take off his boots.

*

The next day, D’Artagnan puts Athos to work hoeing fields.

“I thought I was meant to be resting,” he grumbles, stopping to wipe sweat from his brow.

Beside him, D’Artagnan grins.

“Strong, tough Musketeer, remember?” He teases. “The famed Athos is not such a fan of hard work, it seems.”

“Another word out of you, Musketeer, and you pull double watch duty when we return to Paris,” Athos threatens, slightly envious of the way D’Artagnan barely seems to be tiring even after hours of manual work. While Athos is confident in his body’s ability to meet any threat facing it, he is beginning to suspect city life has not been kind to his everyday endurance.

Like any other challenge, though, Athos refuses to do anything other than meet it head on, and turns his attention back to the sweet earth beneath him.

Another hour and D’Artagnan takes pity on him and leads them back to the cool of the farmhouse, where he waves Athos on as he spies one of the villagers who have begun arriving intermittently throughout the morning.

Athos ducks gratefully inside, scrubbing his hands through his damp hair trying to work some air into it.

He wanders slowly through the small lower floor of the farmhouse, examining the lack of furnishings and bare walls.

Has a woman never lived here? He wonders to himself, when his attention is caught by a table full of parchments and writing materials. He glances curiously over the documents, brushing his fingers over the bundles of papers. He picks up one in particular and raises an eyebrow as he reads.

The farm itself had been enough of a surprise. While not large, it was bigger than the few hens and a goat he had uncharitably suspected D’Artagnan of dashing off to save. But this -?

100 livre for the rebuilding of fences, he reads. 300 for the purchase of livestock. How does a humble farm boy barely even a musketeer hope to raise these funds in a hurry?

The humble farm boy bursts through the door a moment later to find Athos staring at him wordlessly, farm register held loosely in his hand. D’Artagnan stops in his tracks, questions written all over his face.

“Athos?” He asks.

Athos hands over the parchment.

“How do you afford this?” He asks simply. As the words escape his mouth, he realises they sound accusing but D’Artagnan surprises him by grinning.

“I went down the well the first day I was here,” he says, as though that explains everything, stepping forward to retrieve a rag from a bucket of water to sponge his neck down with. He grins wider at Athos’ confusion. “Father and I have stashes all over this place but most of it is down the well.”

“You hoard money on your farm?” Athos asks, watching a droplet of water make its way down his jawline.

D’Artagnan makes a face and shrugs.

“Life is what it is, Athos,” he says. “Father believed in preparing for everything. Every harvest we put away what we could spare. It’s not going to make me rich but it will help repair this place so I can hire back my staff.”

“You have staff,” Athos repeats.

D’Artagnan gives him a strange look.

“Of course. Who do you think has been visiting all morning? They’re all coming to find out when they can start again.”

“Staff,” Athos says, shaking his head. “Hoards of money down wells.”

He takes the ledger back and places it with the others on the table then steps closer to D’Artagnan, moving towards the door. A moment later he stops right in front of him, so close D’Artagnan can feel the heat of his body. The scent of a day’s work and his unique Athos-ness rise up from his skin, surrounding D’Artagnan with the sense of him.

“Just when I think I know you,” he murmurs softly, eyes darting over D’Artagnan’s features, admiration and wonder clear in his face. He claps him once on the shoulder then passes by on his way out the door.

*

They are sitting by the fire in the bedroom playing a lazy game of cards, when D’Artagnan notices that Athos is rubbing frequently at his neck and shoulders. He supresses a smile. When he had started sword fighting training with Athos, it had been unlike any other training he’d done before. Athos was a patient master but an indefatigable one with exacting standards. D’Artagnan had limped home many times from his sessions, massaging his muscles just as Athos was doing now.

“Come on,” he says eventually, moving to sit on the bed and pointing to the floor in front of him. “Sit.”

Athos turns to face him with confusion.

“Excuse me?”

“Let me sort out those muscles for you,” he says. “You won’t be any good to me tomorrow if you’re too stiff to lift a hoe,” he adds as Athos hesitates.

Athos raises a silent eyebrow but climbs stiffly to his feet, dropping soundlessly to the floor in front of D’Artagnan.

D’Artagnan reaches forward and cups his hands around the back of Athos’ neck, thumbs beginning to work purposefully into what D’Artagnan can feel are impressively tight muscles. A small noise of surprise and relief escapes Athos after a moment, and some of the tensions goes out of him.

“You’re good at this,” he comments after a few moments.

D’Artagnan is distracted by the warmth of Athos’ skin and the solid feel of him under his hands, and it takes him a moment to answer.

“My father taught me,” he says. “My mother did it for him when he came in from the field.”

“You don’t speak of her,” Athos replies, and the invitation is clear.

“She died,” he says, beginning to work down Athos’ shoulder blades. “I’m sure you’ve noticed this house is quite bare. It’s no great tale, I’m afraid. The pregnancy had been difficult, she was weak, and the baby came early.” He shrugs a little. “My father couldn’t bear to live in the house they had shared and had this one built instead.”

Athos rises to his knees and turns to look at him.

“You?”

“My brother.”

“I’m sorry,” he says, laying a hand on D’Artagnan’s thigh. D’Artagnan covers it with his own for a moment but then lets it go.

“I don’t remember her. The village raised me.” He stretches and yawns. “I would have liked a brother, though.”

“You would have been an excellent big brother,” Athos says solemnly and in a way it is a ridiculous thing to say and yet the emotion catches in D’Artagnan’s throat and he has to clear it.

*

“I still don’t understand why Aramis and Porthos would send you here,” D’Artagnan says a few nights later, lying on his back with one hand tucked behind his head, watching Athos take off his boots and jacket. He has already come to treasure these small moments of domesticity, as Athos strips off parts of his armour one by one. He seems softer, more human, more vulnerable in just his shirt and breaches, and yet the magnetic pull of him never seems to diminish. D’Artagnan’s eyes rove over the exposed patches of skin, from the back of his neck down the V of chest exposed by his shirt, and the glimpses of wrists and ankles. He realises he is fighting down the urge to take one of those wrists in his grasp, gently turn it, and slide his tongue along the veins exposed there.

He forces his gaze to the ceiling.

“It is not of your concern,” Athos answers him, as he has every other time D’Artagnan has brought up the same question, and D’Artagnan is startled to even remember he had asked a question at all. “It was a … prank, played on me. You have simply ended up as part of the game.”

“Still, though,” D’Artagnan says, as Athos finally takes his place next to him on the bed, curling away from him. “It doesn’t make sense. What do they have to gain? Their leader is absent while their captain is wounded. It doesn’t seem a recipe for a prank. What did you do them to make them want to prank you?”

“D’Artagnan,” comes the tired reply. “You are a dear friend and this is your house and those are the only reasons I have so far restrained myself but if you do not shut your mouth, you will soon find yourself sleeping by the fire.”

D’Artagnan grins and rolls over away from Athos. He is quiet for a few long moments, then –

“I bet you did something to piss them off. You did, didn’t you? What was it? Tell me.”

The bed suddenly creaks as Athos rolls over heavily and pins D’Artagnan to the mattress with an arm over his waist. He slides him across the bed without even the hint of effort, and leans in to whisper hotly in his ear, beard and moustache brushing against the sensitive skin. Goosebumps break out all over D’Artagnan’s skin and his breath catches in his throat.

“For the love of all that is holy, D’Artagnan, will you be quiet?

A wild, mad urge to laugh bubbles up inside of D’Artagnan’s chest but he pushes it down and barely manages to nod. Athos squeezes him one more time then relaxes against him, staying pressed warm and hard against his back, with his arm wrapped firmly around D’Artagnan’s middle.

D’Artagnan stays awake for a long time, almost afraid to breathe in case Athos moves away. He has never in his life felt as warm, safe, and content as he does now. His chest is full of feelings he can’t explain, swelling up inside him and all focussed on the man breathing deeply and regularly beside him.

*

It is late one afternoon after the farm hands have departed, and it is just the two of them finishing off Aramis’ brandy together on the front steps of the farmhouse.

“Thank you,” Athos says abruptly, staring out over the fields. “For suggesting I stay. It has been a long time since I … stopped. It has helped.”

He can almost feel the radiance of D’Artagnan’s smile next to him and can’t help but look.

And in looking, is entranced.  

Has he always been this beautiful? Athos asks himself, soaking in the wide mouth and full lips, warm brown eyes under expressive brows, and cocky set to his chin.

“You’re welcome,” he says simply, returning Athos’ look with an open, joyous one of his own.

Athos watches almost with surprise as his hand rises between them. He and D’Artagnan both pause to watch its progress until he lands tentative fingers to his face and brushes them gently down his temple and cheek. The smile fades slowly from D’Artagnan’s face and Athos grieves its loss but D’Artagnan holds his gaze and does not pull away.

They are pressed together all down their sides, and they are so close Athos can feel the gentle breeze of D’Artagnan’s breath on his cheek. Athos can do nothing but stare into D’Artagnan’s eyes as his fingers again brush down his face, his own breath all but suspended.

I’m going to kiss him, he thinks in some amazement as he gently guides D’Artagnan’s head forward and his lips tingle with anticipation.

In the end, the kiss is breathtakingly mutual.

D’Artagnan reaches up to press Athos’ hand more firmly against his cheek, and leans in to meet his lips halfway.

D’Artagnan is immediately addicted to the feeling of Athos’ mouth on his, warm and rich. The hint of bristles just reinforces that this is Athos he is kissing and he reaches out a hand to the back of Athos’ head to pull him closer. He exults in the way Athos’ hair feels under his hand.

Athos is kissing him slowly and purposefully, but D’Artagnan can feel the restraint in him and the intensity waiting to be unleashed. D’Artagnan shivers at the thought and instantly has to know what it is like to be on the receiving end of Athos’ passion.

He darts his tongue out a moment later, and is rewarded by a growl deep in Athos’ throat as he not only opens his mouth to D’Artagnan but sets about trying to consume him. His grasp morphs from a gentle pressure on his chin to two hands clutching hard at his jaw.

It is so much everything D’Artagnan wants that his head spins. He kisses back hard against Athos’ mouth, trying to convey the depths of his own feeling as he is swept up in the swirling mass of emotion in his chest. He wants to take Athos deeper, wants to be inside his skin in return. He has never experienced so much want before in his life.

“Athos, do you want …? What do you want?” He gasps out as Athos shifts his weight so that he is leaning over D’Artagnan, who takes their combined weight on his elbows.

“I don’t know,” Athos murmurs against his lips, voice rough with desire. He slides his mouth away from D’Artagnan’s and draws a trail of open-mouthed, sucking kisses from D’Artagnan’s ear down his neck. A hint of teeth has D’Artagnan gasping out tiny, desperate noises through his nose as he is given over completely to the feeling of having Athos’ mouth on his skin.

“We have to go inside,” he gasps, even as he arches up to bring their bodies in tighter to each other, and slides his leg up to wrap around Athos’ waist, bringing their groins together for the first time. They both groan at the sensation, Athos dropping his forehead against D’Artagnan’s collar bone and panting damply into his skin. “Athos, inside. Someone might see.”

“Yes,” Athos agrees, but his mouth finds D’Artagnan’s again anyway, his hand clutching roughly at the hip of the leg wrapped around him, and D’Artagnan’s thoughts fly away again, consumed by the hot mouth devouring his own.

Eventually, he finds the strength to slither out of Athos’ grasp, pulling himself further up the stairs and to his feet.

“Come on,” he say, grabbing Athos by the hand, and meeting his eyes. “Inside.”

Athos follows him into the farmhouse and is barely through the door before D’Artagnan pushes him against the wall, giving no time for either of them to have doubts. He presses his body to Athos’, and tries to drown his friend in the force of his passion.

His hands busy themselves with Athos’ belt, as Athos concentrates on freeing D’Artagnan’s shirt from his breeches, and loosening the laces. He slides a hand inside D’Artagnan’s shirt, over his collar, and the shirt slips free over one brown shoulder. Athos follows its movement with his mouth.

“God, Athos,” D’Artagnan grinds out, feeling the rasp of the other man’s beard over his skin. He has finally removed Athos’ belt and a moment later, finds purchase on his friend’s hardened cock. Athos moans at the feeling and his head thuds back against the wall, exposing his neck to D’Artagnan’s questing mouth.

D’Artagnan tightens his grip and gives a quick tug that has Athos cursing and the blood rushing to his cheeks.

“Oh god, please don’t stop,” he gasps out. His voice is completely wrecked, and the sound of it inflames D’Artagnan even more, knowing he has caused this uncharacteristic loss of control. “D’Artagnan-”

“I won’t stop,” he promises, leaning his body further into Athos’, pressing his own need hard into Athos’ hip. “I promise I won’t stop.”

He could come from this, he realises, his hand around Athos’ cock, the scent of the man all around him, his sounds sending D’Artagnan’s arousal spiralling higher and higher.

Athos gives another groan and reaches for D’Artagnan’s own belt, freeing him quickly. He tugs D’Artagnan forward until their groins line up and takes them both in hand. The feeling of Athos’ hand on his cock is almost more than he can bear.

“Athos, Athos,” he gasps out, burying his face in Athos’ neck as he comes. Athos tips his head back again and follows a second later with a startled, “D’Artagnan!” escaping from his lips.

A short time later, when their sweat has cooled and D’Artagnan is beginning to sincerely regret not having properly removed his breaches, he pulls away from Athos. He pauses a moment to take him in – hair wild, lips kiss-reddened, a mark standing out bright against his skin where D’Artagnan bit him, his shirt loose and hanging from one shoulder. D’Artagnan feels himself stir again at the sight.

The expression on his face is hard to read as he stares back but it at least hasn’t fallen back into his customary scowl so D’Artagnan takes that as a sign of hope.

“Come on,” he says, holding out his hand. His voice is rough and he has to clear it before he speaks again. “We need to clean up.”

Athos takes his hand wordlessly and allows himself to be led not to the wash trough but a short way into the forest on the edge of the farm where a small stream is waiting. They strip without looking at each other, and hiss as they enter the cool waters.

D’Artagnan ducks his head underwater for a long moment, listening to the trickle of the small waterfall and the blood pounding in his ears before coming up with a gasp. When he surfaces, it is to the sight of Athos, hair plastered to his head, water cascading down his features after clearly having done the same thing.

He is watching D’Artagnan, the heat in his gaze making D’Artagnan feel suddenly warm all over despite the chill from the water. He launches himself at Athos, who catches him in strong, solid arms, and allows D’Artagnan to take his face tightly in his hands to kiss the creek water away from his mouth.

They stay that way, kissing naked in the middle of the stream, until the chill from the water drives them stumbling onto the bank, where D’Artagnan lays Athos out underneath him and proceeds to take him apart.

He has no idea how he knows how to do this but no matter how difficult talking to Athos can sometimes be, it seems his body speaks the language of Athos’ body without a thought.

He pulls Athos’ arms over his head and makes it clear he is to leave them there, as he pulls back to observe the territory spread before him. Athos has a warrior’s body, strong and scarred. Stretched out like this, his eyes dark and fixed on D’Artagnan, he is utterly irresistible.

D’Artagnan is almost overwhelmed with a rush of feeling that sweeps over him and forces a lump into his throat. He has so far avoided naming this, even in his head, but the trust Athos is showing him demands his own honesty.

I’m in love with you, he thinks and closes his eyes for just a moment as he takes it all in. When he opens them, Athos is watching him with concern.

“Are you all right?” He asks, his voice deep and the sound of it sends prickles of want down his spine.

Yes,” he breathes against Athos’ neck as he finally leans down and covers his body with his own.

*

“Head over heart, D’Artagnan, how many times do I have to tell you?” Athos demands, readying his sword again.

“That’s not what you said last night,” D’Artagnan quips in return, pecking a surprised, blushing Athos quickly on the lips as the rhythm of their fight brings their faces close together for a quick moment.

“You’re cheating,” Athos observes a beat later, after D’Artagnan grabs hold of his jacket to pull their mouths together for a longer kiss that has both of them momentarily lowering their swords.

“A Musketeer must be prepared for anything,” D”Artagnan responds cheekily as he spins away and flourishes his sword. Another beat finds him flat on his back in the grass, Athos landing on hands and knees above him.

“Prepared for anything, eh,” Athos murmurs, mouth tantalisingly close to D’Artagnan’s, his hair falling across his face.

“Anything,” he agrees, then rises up to bring their mouths together and promptly forgets what they were talking about as Athos treats him to one of his slow, drugging kisses. Of all the types of kisses they have shared over the last few days, D’Artagnan thinks these might be his favourite because it feels like he truly has Athos’ full attention.

For all that they’ve explored new territory together and their level of intimacy has grown, Athos is still Athos; prickly, moody, sarcastic, and prone to fits of melancholy. He does not share his thoughts during these moments, and D’Artagnan has learnt to weather this as he weathers all things, but he treasures the moments when Athos seems to truly be with him.

Athos lets the kissing go on for some time, until he pulls slowly away and rests his forehead against D’Artagnan’s.

“Aren’t you afraid of this?” He asks huskily, drawing back to look D’Artagnan in the eye. He appears to be trembling just the slightest bit.

D’Artagnan reaches up and cups a fond hand around the back of his neck.

“Not of this, no,” he answers, kissing him again. “I’m not thrilled about the potential for hanging, I’ll be honest.”

Athos ignores the joke.

“Things will change when we get back to Paris,” he warns seriously. D’Artagnan sighs.

“I know. But Athos, in case you hadn’t heard, I’m very loyal. The king commented on it specifically. We’ll work it out, you’ll see.”

He rolls out from underneath Athos and stands, holding out his hand.

“Best of three?”

Athos stares at his hand for a moment then takes it and rises to his feet.

“Best of three,” he says with a small smile. “And no cheating this time.”

D’Artagnan just grins.