Somewhere around midnight, Athos finally spotted the King. He caught one of d'Artagnan's virago sleeves and fired him to inform Treville. The Captain, his enamelled cuirass the only token to costume, stood by the Queen's throne, expression set in displeasure. Even across the grand hall, Athos could see the tension in the Captain's shoulders fade. Marginally. They still had some thousand masked guests – every one a potential assassin – to manage and keep away from their king, preferably without him noticing that they'd noticed.
Treville deliberately did not look at the man in feathers and a parrot mask dancing with a shepherdess near the north wall, and d'Artagnan followed his cue. Athos could read the track of their thoughts from the set of Treville's jaw and the way d'Artagnan unconsciously palmed the hilt of the dagger hidden in his skirts: Damn the man for risking himself like this. Masques were bad enough on their own, but not telling the captains of his own guards, either Swiss or Musketeers, what his costume would be, and swapping at the last moment when Treville found out by bribing a seamstress, it would serve His Most Catholic Majesty right if someone did stab him.
Athos, however, could relax; his job done and his own mask still in place. There were a handful of Musketeers mingling so, costumed by the Queen's graces, and providing a layer of security inside the Swiss Guards, unknown to the King and largely to each other, able to move in the press without attracting attention.
Athos found that he liked the anonymity; the mask itself not only hid him, but shielded the direction of his gaze so that he could pursue, unmarked, his favourite occupation: watching Porthos. In daylight hours, he had had to satisfy himself with sidelong glances and perhaps longer looks while riding together, but here – in the Grand Ballroom as the witching hour approached – Athos could stare all he liked.
He didn't know why Treville had bothered setting Porthos among the masked guard; even with his head and hands covered, a man of his stature was difficult to disguise, and a man of his laugh was impossible. Athos had immediately marked the tall figure in the black and red robes of an ecclesiastical jurist, topped with an angular devil's mask. If nothing else, his taste in blasphemy gave him away.
Or it could have been the sway of his hips – that swagger that filled Athos with an unquenchable lust – the arrogant tilt of his head, mask or no, the expressive sweep of his hands, or any of a hundred ticks and mannerisms that Athos had long since memorised. Perhaps the costume wasn't as obvious as Athos had first thought, perhaps it was only Athos that had the ability to recognise the man in any country or any garb.
An hour, or possibly two, later found Athos loitering in a retiring room, making a pretence of fussing with his costume, and breathing in a moment of solitude. The horsehair wig made the back of his neck itch, and he longed to take it off. Just a few more hours, and he could go home and drink himself to sleep. For now, the dressing mirrors and easy atmosphere of the retiring room gave him an opportunity to glean who was under what mask. He doubted a potential assassin would unmask while relieving himself; however, what intelligence he was gathering could be of use to Treville in the morning, and it got him out of the press.
The door opened silently. Athos made no sign that he noticed it, but he regarded the entering figure from under his mask: Porthos. Of course it was Porthos. Athos made no sign that he'd noticed his entrance, but Porthos crossed the room to stand behind him.
"Roman general, eh?" he asked, and the edge of growl in his voice made Athos bite his lip to keep from sighing. Their both wore heavy costumes, Athos' with tin armour, but still he fancied he could feel the heat between them. When he didn't say anything, Porthos touched his shoulder, saying, "You could shovel Romans and Greeks out there tonight. Not Comte de Simonet, are you?"
Wordless, Athos shook his head. He had thought that Porthos had recognised him long since, that he'd come in to tease him for having a boring costume. The realisation of his anonymity sent a jolt anticipation straight to his gut. Here he had a chance to learn what his object of desire could do when not constrained by friendship, in a quiet corner with a crowd outside, when no one knew his face, and Dear God, Athos wanted to know what that might be. Curling his hands into fists, he bit down until he tasted blood. If he said a word, he was lost. Porthos would surely know his voice and would abandon his attempt to do what ever this was.
"You've been watching me." Porthos was now leaning so close that their masks almost touched, the mirror reflecting a devil at Athos' shoulder. "Every time I look round, seems like you're there."
Athos knew that he should say something; it wasn't right to lead Porthos to believe he spoke with a stranger. Guilt coiled with what he told himself was curiosity, tightening the knots in his stomach, and only the sharp pain of his teeth on his lip kept him silent as he shrugged slightly.
"Like what you see?" Porthos demanded. His hand was on Athos' hip now, right below the edge of the lorica covering his chest, where the warmth of his gloved hand radiated through Athos' tunic. He chuckled when Athos nodded, and it was the second miracle of the night that Athos didn't sink to his knees right there.
Merely liking did not even touch on Athos' feelings for what he saw. All these years of contact with Richeliue should have inured him to finding ecclesiastical robes that attractive, but then sack cloth and ashes would look good on Porthos.
"If you want to see more, meet me back here when everyone's gone." A broad hand slipped between the strips of Athos' pteruges, squeezing his ass. Then he left without a word.
Athos braced his arms against the wall and let his head fall forward, taking one gasping breath after another.
A few hours from dawn, or possibly the end of days, the ballroom had nearly emptied, and, as far as Athos knew, the king had remained unstabbed. Treville had nodded to him in passing on his way to home and presumably bed, and d'Artagnan had left not long after, skirts swirling. Until a silver-masked angel sidled up to Porthos and clasped his shoulder before departing, Athos had not worked out who Aramis was, but now he too was gone.
Largely servants remained, and Athos watched, dry mouthed as Porthos ducked into the retiring room. The door had a lock on it, Athos knew. They both wore masks and would not be disturbed. All Athos had to do to have what he'd wanted all these years was to follow.
All he had to do was lie, by omission, to a man he regarded above all others.
Athos stood, frozen in place, regarding the door, mind churning the same problem it had for the past hour: If followed and took his pleasure in secret, he would be dishonouring his friend; if he broke their implicit engagement and left him to wait in vain, he would be humiliating him. If, finally, he entered and unmasked himself, he risked both by being seen to admit the earlier lie, and to play his friend for a fool, and he risked offering all that he had left and having Porthos judge it unworthy. Worse, such an offer rejected could shatter their fellowship.
Skin still warmed with the phantom heat of Porthos' touch, Athos hailed one of the footmen. "My friend, the devil priest, is in the retiring room," Athos told him, affecting an English accent. "Please convey my regrets, and tell him that his general was called away on an urgent matter."
The young man was rubbing his eyes and clearly hoping to see the end of the night soon, but he managed to smooth the resentment out of his face after only an eye blink, and loped off to do as he was bade.
Athos departed in the opposite direction. He knew a few shortcuts that Porthos would not attribute to a courtier, and could well be back in his lodgings before Porthos realised he had left the palace.
Regret burned inside of him, but he could not think of another honourable escape. It had been an unpardonable weakness to agree to the rendezvous in the first place. He never had been able to turn down a gentle touch and an offer of warmth, but that was no excuse for deceiving his friend. He hoped that Porthos never found out the identity of his perspective lover, and that the shame would be his alone to carry.
He shed the costume before departing the palace, and emerged a homespun worker with a sack over his shoulder, one of a thousand walking the filthy streets of Paris under a dawn-tinged sky.
It turned out that the two things Athos forgotten to account for were d'Artagnan's eye for sartorial detail, and the same's susceptibility a comrade's charm. It wasn't quite the captured slipper of the Italian tale, but it brought Porthos to Athos' door all the same.
"You're an idiot," Porthos snapped as he stomped into the rooms.
The door slammed behind him, and Athos rested the tips of his fingers on his temple. He'd gotten as far as sitting up in bed, but not quite to looking for wash water. He felt entirely unprepared for whatever was about to happen. "Do you blame me?" he asked cautiously.
"Damn right I do," Porthos growled, then he did something inexplicable: he leaned down, cupped the back of Athos' head with a gloved hand, tipped his head back and kissed him.
It was an awkward angle – Athos sitting on the bed, and Porthos bent nearly double – but that was the last detail Athos' thoughts caught up to, long after the warmth of Porthos' mouth and the surprising tentativeness of the kiss. His waxed moustache poked Athos in the cheek, and Athos had forgotten to open his mouth. When he remembered, Porthos gently disengaged.
"I guess we should talk," he said, reluctantly, but didn't let go of his hold on Athos' neck.
"Did you know all along?" Athos asked. It was the first question that came to him, and he didn't quite know if he meant to refer to last night's dissimulation or his long-held affection for his friend.
Porthos shook his head. "Course not. I'd have asked you ages ago if I had."
"Oh," Athos said. It was too early in the day to turn his world upside down like that, never mind that it was well into the afternoon.
"You're an idiot," Porthos repeated, voice rough with affection, hand still warm against Athos' skin.
Athos didn't argue. Instead, he shifted to make a place for Porthos beside him on the bed.