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A Veritable Menagerie

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Horses, thinks the Mouse, have a lot in common with God.

(He also thinks that this is probably blasphemy.)

Fortunately, Philippe the Mouse has always had a very close relationship with God, and God must be used to his sense of humour by now, because Philippe is still alive, and neither hanged nor drowned nor skewered by a particularly large sword. Praise be.

In recent days, Philippe has also been cultivating a particularly close relationship with horses. He talks to them a lot. It’s difficult not to, when he’s sleeping in the same stable. Maintaining silence would be rude as well as completely impossible, given Goliath’s penchant for nudging and almost walking over him several times a day. Unfortunately, just like God, Goliath never ever talks back.

Given that very unfriendly lack of conversation, one would have to wonder just how Etienne of Navarre, knight and captain of the guard, came to realise that a Mouse had invaded his stables, so that one morning Philippe awoke to find himself yet again being pricked by the point of an extremely sharp blade.

It’s a good thing that Navarre has cheered up immensely ever since Isabeau came back into his life and he started getting a full night’s sleep again. (Well, perhaps not a full night’s sleep, given the presence of his new wife, thinks Philippe, but he digresses.)

“Philippe.” It’s a wonder how a fairly common name can sound so much like an accusation.

Fortunately, Philippe has made an artform out of this sort of situation. “Ah!” he starts, a convoluted yet just barely possible explanation already forming in his head for why there is hay in his hair and a general scent of horse dung about his person.

But Navarre has already grabbed a handful of his grubby shirt and is dragging him out of the stall, despite his protestations, giving Goliath a friendly pat on the way.

Their first stop is a bath. Philippe is no stranger to the general concept of bathing, but in this modern, fast-paced world, who really has the time to spare? Besides, maintaining a healthy stink does wonders for discouraging soldiers from coming too close. Still, Navarre really does have a very nice house these days, and a very nice maid who fetches water that actually steams, and Philippe is almost embarrassed to find the water turning a greenish-brown around him.

Navarre stands and watches. It’s not as if they hadn’t seen enough of each other during their journey the past year, but Philippe is more offended by the implication that if he didn’t have a big, imposing man with an even bigger, more imposing sword a few feet away from him, he might just escape down another drain.

There’s also the fact that Philippe still has a necklace of scars, made paler still as the rest of his skin reddens with the heat. Philippe tries not to dwell on unpleasant memories, but Navarre’s pale eyes barely do him the decency of blinking.

“I’m not going to ask you why,” Navarre says, finally, when Philippe is pulling on one of the knight’s shirts, which is frankly too big for him, and probably too big for Goliath.

“Oh, good! Because, really…”

Navarre plants a gloved hand across his mouth. “We’ve missed you. Isabeau has been worried.” He hesitates for barely a moment. “I have been worried. So no more, understand? You’ll stay with us, and sleep in a real bed. Now, when did you last eat?”

Many things have changed in the days since sun and moon shone brightly together, and God has not set foot in Aquila for months. The fate of the bishop had discouraged Rome from sending a replacement, and certainly all potential replacements would be more than unwilling to come to this forsaken city, where a wolf and a hawk (and, some even whisper, a mouse) overthrew the powers of darkness during one fateful mass.

The common people are happy enough to commune directly with their maker in an empty church, and Father Imperius is occasionally known to hear confessions and buy the next round in inns throughout the parish. Doubtless many souls have been saved.

Navarre has returned to his previous position as captain of the guard, although in these days they are guarding the people rather than the bishop, restoring law and order to the streets. For her part, Isabeau has been the very picture of a lady, taking care of the poor, investigating the downtrodden of Aquila’s prisons, and ensuring that even Navarre smiles now and again.

For Philippe, however, his previous occupation had been one he was loathe to return to. Stealing from God had been one thing. God is merciful, and Philippe had always been careful to apologise vociferously. Stealing from Navarre… Well, even Goliath understands his reluctance there. Yet simply taking a donkey and going to the next city had seemed like no option at all, not if that meant never seeing his knight and his lady again. And the stables had been warm…

Once he’s eaten his way through two bowls of stew bigger than his head, and loaves of bread bigger than the rest of him, coupled with wine enough to make even Imperius tipsy, he… Well, he would like to think that he had strolled to bed in a dignified fashion, but all he really remembers is his head thumping against Navarre’s back with every stride, and then being tucked into a bed so warm and comfortable he sincerely hates himself for ever thinking they would turn him away…

He wakes to moonlight, and a kiss as sweet as any he’s ever imagined.

“Philippe.” Even in a practical everyday sort of world, Isabeau never fails to be as ethereally beautiful as the stars. But she might have been practicing stern looks with her husband. “We thought you must be dead. Etienne has been searching for you…”

Her fingers thread so lightly through his hair, and he’s so enraptured by her eyes that it takes a moment for him to realise that Navarre is standing there too, straight and solid as a stone pillar. Philippe has a veritable litany of excuses and apologies suitable for him, but Isabeau presses her mouth to his before he can get out more than a squeak.

“We owe you everything,” Navarre says when Philippe remembers to breathe again, but before he can tear away his gaze from those flawless eyes. However softly Navarre often speaks, there’s always hint of threat in his words, and Philippe has staked an entire illicit career on being able to judge danger wherever it might lurk. But now…

“Sir… my lady…” He props himself up, feeling very naked in a very nice bed, and wondering just who had got him this way. “It was my absolute pleasure, nay, my duty, and I…”

Hours later, he knows just how thankful he is for Isabeau’s gentle fingers on his lips. All three of them know just how difficult it can be to get him to stop talking.

Everything in his past told him it had to be a trap, for Isabeau to kiss him like that, for her hands to be all over him even more than they had when they’d danced alone in a barn one lonely night. But she murmurs something about being strangely unused to dresses and finery still, so all the fabric falls away and she slips in beside him, warmer still than feathers against his bare skin.

He’d expected cold steel on his neck at any second, so why not squeeze his eyes shut and bury himself in her beauty and godly feminine scent and die in the very best possible place? But he’d felt strong, rough fingers on his jaw instead, and reluctantly opened one eye to find Navarre looking at him, more the curious puppy than his expected executioner.

“Stop me,” Navarre had said, and he’d kissed Philippe just as he had in a thousand nighttime fantasies on the road to Aquila. Then it had just been something to stave off the cold, some gentle dream to get his cock to stir, to push away all his fears by having Navarre, who was everything a man should be, take him in his arms and…

Philippe whimpers against his lips, tugging on his hair despite himself, and Navarre falls into them both with a yelp of surprise, lsabeau giggling at the clumsiness of it all.

As the knight solemnly takes off his boots and belt and clothes, Philippe finds his hands somehow exploring Isabeau’s breasts and then his lips joining them. It still feels like a liberty, like a crime… But Navarre’s hand is on his back soon enough, pulling blankets around all three of them, and this is as good a conspiracy as he’s ever had.

Once he’d watched them embrace, lovers returned to each other like a fairytale ended in true happiness, and he had been truly happy for them. But he’d finished out the day alone at an inn, missing both Isabeau’s sweet words and Navarre’s endless capacity for stubbornness. There was no place for a Mouse in the fairytale, but here… Here he watches them kiss and is tugged into their circle of warmth. He buries his head in Navarre’s chest and knows he never wants to escape.

He’d thought the bed was big enough for a horse before, but in the morning, sandwiched between Navarre’s muscular bulk and Isabeau’s lithe beauty, Philippe is very glad he hadn’t had yet another helping of stew. He’s never been so warm in his life, never felt so much naked skin against his own, and yet it’s not stifling, not overwhelming, just… right.

Father Imperius would probably not approve. God definitely would not. Goliath, however… Goliath he can work on.

“You’ll stay,” Navarre says as the dawn light plays over hair and blankets and skin alike. How many mornings must he have woken dazed and cold like this, barely aware of who he was? But now it’s Philippe, perhaps no longer the Mouse, whose mind is scrabbling urgently for answers.

Isabeau’s smile puts all his panic to rest. “Yes,” she agrees. “You’ll stay.”

Philippe flings an arm around both of them, closes his eyes, and decides, very firmly, not to think about it at all. Not yet, anyway. Not until he’s done a good deal more kissing, and taught Isabeau how to dance, and let Navarre teach him how to fight, and watched Isabeau teach Navarre how to laugh.

He’s reasonably sure at least one of those three things will take forever.

Praise be, indeed.