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French War Camp, 21 September 1637

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“Good God!”

Porthos looks up from his sewing. “What?”

Athos turns to him, waving a letter. “Suchet’s dead.”

“Right.” His eyes slide to the side and return. “Who?”

“Captain of the Red Guard.”

“Christ, they get through ’em.”

“Quite.”

“How’d he die, then?” Porthos pulls on and twists his mailed doublet’s seams, grins hard with satisfaction.

Athos frowns into his letter. “Brawl of some kind.”

“Careless,” observes Porthos.

“He was younger than me, from memory.” Athos’s voice is distant.

Porthos looks unimpressed, sniffs, tucks Not that difficult, is it? under his tongue and starts to oil the leather of his cuirass with practised, vigorous motions.

“Family?” he asks, at last.

Athos shakes his head. “Don’t know, I’m afraid.”

“Oh well.” Outside the men chat loudly, and everywhere there’s the sound of weapons being sharpened as everyone takes advantage of a lull during fine weather. He’s no doubt shirts, stockings, and braies are being washed and hung up and all, flapping in the breeze, alongside those who choose to just sleep, hard as they can. He sniffs again, bends closer to his task. After a while, stretching his back and shoulders as he turns the thing over to attack the various metal parts that need attention he asks: “Anything else?”

“Hmm? Oh, the usual. But they’re having some kind of parade in November – announcing the new Governor and showing off the cadets at the same time.”

“Musketeer cadets?” he asks, sharply, looking up. For all he’s never – to his knowledge – met a one of them, he feels a similar level of proprietorial investment that Athos and d’Artagnan show, though less, he supposes, than Constance herself must do. The letters help in that regard.

“Mmh.” Athos’s nod is tight, preoccupied.

Something occurs to him: “Hold on, parade for what?

“Celebrating France’s prowess at war,” Athos tells him, drily.

He coughs a bark of laughter. “Yeah, that’ll go down a storm, what with people fighting over taxes and all.” Athos had read out the dispatches over the summer regarding the Périgord Uprising in a studiedly neutral tone.

“If no-one riots I’ll be mildly disappointed.” Athos smiles thinly. “Something for the pamphleteers to get their teeth into, at least.”

He grunts acknowledgement, focused on a tricky corner of his breastplate as Athos rustles papers, scratches what he assumes is the occasional note. A freshly healing scar on his hip has reached the stage where it itches like the Devil, and he’s trying to ignore both it and the soft, husky, familiar voice telling him not to scratch the tender skin.

He catches a sharp intake of breath from Athos. “What,” he says without looking up, “don’t tell me – the King’s got a new toy cannon, with gold leaf and–”

Athos clears his throat, hard. “Er. A-ah…”

He looks up. His Captain’s expression, in rigid profile, is as furious a mix of emotions as he’s ever read on him, chief being… embarrassment…?

Ah.

“That’ll be, uh, one of Constance’s special letters, yeah?”

“Mm-hm!” Athos’s gaze keeps being ripped between staring straight ahead of him and down at the letter while everything else remains perilously still. Except his chest, heaving away on an off-kilter rhythm.

“Maybe shoulda waited to open that one, then?”

Athos unfreezes to cock an eyebrow his way. That’s better.

“Could you, ah,” he clears his throat again, swallows, pushing down the pitch of his voice on the next bit: “ask d’Artagnan to step in here for a moment?”

Porthos sniffs, gets up, puts on his newly reinforced doublet, and walks slowly towards the table. “Should I, er, go for a walk?” he asks, carefully.

Athos looks like he’s wrestling something, tendons standing out in his neck, and getting increasingly red, eyes skittering anywhere but Porthos’s. “It’s, er– well, just as long as it takes me to translate this to, um–”

“D’Artagnan.”

“Yes. But not– er…”

Porthos rescues him with a sigh. “Nice day – I’ll just take a wander. Half an hour do ya?”

“More than, um… adequately, yes.”

“And I’m guessing we’ll need to negotiate–”

“Later. Um. Sometime quieter. Maybe. Er.” He stares at him for a moment. Blinks. “Is that the new pauldron, then?”

“Yeah.” He pauses, shoulder rolling reflexively, wondering how to ask.

“Suits you.”

He feels his breath loosen. “Thanks. You don’t think it’s too…” he spreads his arms, unsure how to say it.

Athos tilts his head, considering. “No, it’s just the right amount of…”

Porthos grins and smacks him on the shoulder, perhaps a little harder than he might have anticipated. “I’ll fetch the lad in.”

“Please.”

He grins again, ducking his head, moving for the entrance.

“Oh, and Porthos?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.”

“My pleasure. As it were.”

The sharp, chuffing twitch of lips and chin that generally does Athos for a laugh. Porthos can’t help but smirk back in answer, and completes his stride outside.

Athos hears his comrade’s voice, interrupting d’Artagnan’s spirited conversation. “Captain wants ya.” A masterful piece of dissembling, he finds himself thinking, complete down to the mostly neutral tone with its undercurrent of mild resentment.

“What for?”

I dunno.”

“You watch out, boyo!” sings out Bolloré’s distinctive delivery, and Athos allows himself a quick grin for the inevitable ribbing d’Artagnan’s about to receive. “That’s not a good question for a man to ask his Captain.”

“Officers ain’t that keen on questions in general,” adds Lambert.

“Yeah,” adds Porthos, as if he can’t resist, “on the whole they prefer: ‘Yes, sir!’”

A scowling, flushed d’Artagnan enters to a chorus of ribald laughs and someone (Lambert) repeating “On the whole!” increasingly loudly. He fixes Athos with a blandly sardonic gaze. “Yes, sir?” he asks quietly, stiff-jawed, with a lift of eyebrow.

Athos answers with a quirk of lips and a long look. D’Artagnan shuffles slightly, then draws his back straighter, his head up, gaze a little distant. Athos gives him a small nod, then says: “At ease, soldier,” deliberately pulling a particular drawl into his voice, letting his gaze scroll speculatively over the body in front of him.

“Hey, nice pauldron, Porthos!”

“Thanks!”

As predicted, d’Artagnan’s own gaze sharpens and lands on him properly. His head tilts almost imperceptibly. Athos nods again, the tiniest thing, holding his gaze. After a short series of rapid blinks, d’Artagnan leans in a little, voice lowered further, eyebrows rising. “Here? Now? Really?!

“Bloody hell, it’s massive, mate.”

“Yeah, ain’t the first time I’ve heard that…”

Athos feels himself smirk again, lets it happen. “I have word from Madame d’Artagnan.”

“Oh! Is she–? Everything oka–? Of course, but– Wait…” he finishes, slowing dramatically. Athos raises an eyebrow. “Um,” he licks his lips, “is this, er, I mean…”

“She has sent this letter as a means of… how shall I put this…?” He cocks his head to one side, casts his gaze high in dramatic contemplation. “Mmh, of using me as her proxy, I suppose you could say.”

“This… this isn’t official Musketeer business, is it?”

He looks down, smiling, towards the letter where his splayed fingers have made a tent. “By no means.”

Bright barks of laughter from outside, undercut by Porthos’s “Nah, go on!”

“Oh. Okay. How much trouble am I in?”

“That depends.” He makes a show of peering closer at the missive. “She bids me bid you be a Good Boy.” The smallest sound from d’Artagnan. “There are a number of creative alternatives – I haven’t explored the entirety of her plan as yet – if you prove intractable to obeying her will.” He looks back up.

“– far as I can throw you!” comes Lambert’s Saintongeais burr.

D’Artagnan swallows. He licks his lips again, and bites the lower one briefly, which doesn’t help Athos’s current requirement for equanimity.

In the slightly more heavily breathing silence of the tent, they hear Porthos’s voice, apparently drawing the others further off by means of a wager. D’Artagnan grins then, sharp and hot. Their gazes lock entirely, and Athos feels his face heat, his expression mirror d’Artagnan’s – mouth dropping open slightly, eyes hooding. In other, much better circumstances, this would be the prelude to lunging into each other, a stark impossibility here and now. His nostrils flare and d’Artagnan’s gaze drops to Athos’s mouth. He clenches his jaw, fingertips pressing harder into the table.

D’Artagnan’s eyes narrow briefly, then he closes them altogether for a long blink, visibly mastering himself, taking a deep breath which Athos reflexively echoes, letting it out deliberately through lightly pursed lips. “So,” and the tone is playful, “did you have me summoned in here purely to tease me, or is your intention to tell me at least a little of my fate?”

Athos smiles slowly, letting a lazy heat invest his expression, watches d’Artagnan’s torso jerk minutely, his left fist curl about the hilt of his sword. He flicks his eyebrows at him, and turns towards the table. “I feel I should give you at least a taste…”

Please.” And there’s a tone calculated to launch him at his lover, hands tight in that impossibly silky hair, tongue deep in that plush mouth.

The little bastard.

He clears his throat, frowns down at the table, shifting his hand. “Madame writes as follows:

“‘Dear Athos,

“‘I am very glad to hear that my gifts to you both have finally been put to good use, and only grieve that I could not directly witness the culmination after so long a wait. However, I was always taught that the best present is one that can be put to use more than once, ideally in more than one way. When you return, I intend to hold you firmly to your promise to recreate for me your bestowing d’Artagnan with his particular experience.’”

“You, er, you said that?”

“Certainly that I would try my hardest.”

“Then I think I should definitely write to her to make her the same kind offer.” Athos looks up and around at him, frown collecting, mouth opening to question. “The other way around, of course,” adds d’Artagnan, waving his left forefinger in a rapid circle.

“Hands behind your back,” reproves Athos absently, hears the gulp as he turns back down towards the letter, face blank but throat burning, blush heading ineluctably for his cheeks.

He’s trying not to feel both their mouths on him, teeth grazing at first, then digging in harder, deeper, holding him between them, thrashing, powerless, dear Christ in Heaven.

Shaking his head minutely to clear it, screwing up his eyes for a moment, he forces himself to focus on the task at hand.

“She continues:

“‘It would please me greatly if you were to act as my hand again in this matter, and as my mouthpiece.’ Where I lay emphasis is where she has underlined, you understand.”

“Already acting as her mouth, then.”

They’re both silent for a moment. Athos finds he does not quite dare look at d’Artagnan.

“Shall I continue?”

“By all means.”

He scans over the next part. “I think perhaps,” he says, slowly, “Madame does not wish all of these to be carried out immediately. Some would be impossible to enact in our current circumstances. Others merely… unwise.”

The cry that goes up outside is somewhere between a cheer and groan, with plenty of laughter mixed in.

“Athos,” he says, earnestly, “you’re killing me…!”

“And I think,” he goes on, as if d’Artagnan has not spoken, which earns him a huff of frustration, “still others are meant to further whet our appetites for our return.” He turns to his lover. “So choose,” he tells him.

“Choose?”

“Right! My turn!” roars Porthos.

“Impossible, unwise, or a spur to our homecoming. For your taster.”

“Oh.” He licks his lips, then again, more slowly, as he clearly notices the effect this has. “Is it all in… cautious language behind the cipher?”

“No, indeed,” he returns, “Madame becomes positively explicit from…” he scans and presses a finger to a line he’s vaguely surprised doesn’t scorch him, “here.”

D’Artagnan nods. “Unwise for now, then.”

“Very well.”

When Porthos, breathless, grinning, rich with camp chores other people will be doing in his stead, returns from demonstrating that he can, in fact, throw Lambert twice as far as he trusts him, it’s to two dark heads bent murmuring together over the table, Athos’s left hand between d’Artagnan’s shoulder blades as he points with the other, d’Artagnan’s fingers still clamped firmly together behind him. He shakes his head and rolls his eyes, settles back to his maintenance work until they turn and, smiling, ask him for his news.

And later again, Porthos safely ensconced in a different game much further down the hill, tent fastened firmly against importunate soldiers, d’Artagnan strains, hands now secured behind his back to a sturdy tent pole with soft, strong cord, as Athos kneels, hand and mouth working hard in Constance’s stead. Even as he bites his lip so hard against calling his pleasure to the camp that he gives himself a welt he’ll be running his tongue over for days; even as he tries not to writhe so hard that the tent rocks; even as he does his best to keep his drowning eyes fixed on Athos’s movements, his mind keeps darting to what else she might have in store, hoping he’ll be lucky enough to be able to kneel in turn tonight, held fast still by both of them.

(And because Porthos is lucky, so is he, as Athos, following his instructions to the letter, stands and dons his gloves, unhitching his lover’s wrists from the pole, but leaving him lovingly constrained as he pushes him to his knees.)

In the event, these turn out to be the last games of chance any of them will have the liberty for until the following year.