“I don’t think this is a very good plan,” d’Artagnan noted, nervously eyeing the tall ship anchored at some distance from the pier upon which the four of them were standing.
“What could possibly go wrong?” Aramis answered, smiling wickedly at d’Artagnan.
d’Artagnan would remind Aramis of his disastrous declaration later.
After they’d snuck onto the dispatch ship to reclaim damning evidence of their king’s continued idiocy.
After the ship had spread sail a full day early and gotten underway before they could effect an exit.
After Porthos had surprised them with his grace when ordered by a harried bosun to trim the aft topsail.
After Aramis had flirted a glimpse of the navigator’s log out of a blushing and stammering midshipman.
After they’d been overtaken by a corsair.
After Athos had led the charge against the boarding corsair’s crew.
After d’Artagnan had been captured and held hostage by the pirate captain.
After the Musketeers had burst into the captain’s cabin, guns and swords at the ready, intent upon rescue, and then frozen in an astonished tableau at the unexpected sight that awaited them: d’Artagnan, bare ass flushed bright pink, bent over a sea trunk, face hidden in the blonde curls of a wig that had been forced onto his head, silky pink stockings puddled at his ankles, surprised pirate captain, still holding aloft a cat o’ nine made of broad leather tails.
After shock had given way to necessity and the three had rescued their young friend from the fiendish clutches of the pirate captain.
After Athos had pushed the wig into d’Artagnan’s hands, hot eyes sweeping over him, murmuring, “Keep it,” even as Aramis retrieved a discarded woman’s frock and thrust it at d’Artagnan, the lad’s own clothes having mysteriously vanished.
After they’d been discovered for stowaways and returned to Paris, secret letters hidden in d’Artagnan’s meagre décolletage.
After they’d delivered the letters to an amused Treville and retired to a private room in the barracks, ostensibly to allow d’Artagnan to dress in more appropriate attire.
Then, as he’d faced the three, all of whom had avid expressions on their faces, did d’Artagnan remind Aramis of his misplaced confidence in their ridiculous plan.
“I think it worked out quite well,” Athos observed mildly, closing the distance between them.
“Quite,” Aramis added, moving in.
“Yeah,” Porthos concurred, bolting the door before he too advanced.
“Oh,” said d’Artagnan, a little breathlessly. “I see.”
In fact, he didn’t, quite. But he soon would.
“d’Artagnan,” Porthos inquired, a little out of breath, “you haven’t fallen afoul of any gypsies lately, have you?”
d’Artagnan may have answered in the negative had it not been for the fact that he was a little busy hacking away at the iridescent tentacle glistening in the spray from the sea as it dragged him inexorably into the water.
Grasping at the starfish- and barnacle-encrusted pier with one hand, d’Artagnan gripped his poniard with his other hand and thrust it into the water, hoping to strike the fell beast in some meatier part.
Blood boiled up into the churned water around him, and he made the mistake of hoping the worst was over, until he felt the sucking pressure of a second tentacle reaching into the back of his breeches.
Yelping, d’Artagnan turned panicked eyes to Porthos, who was trying to avoid his own frisky tentacle. “Help!” he cried, voice scaling the octaves as the tentacle made headway toward a very private place.
“Unhand that young man!” Aramis cried, brandishing his musket and leaping into the fray.
Behind him, safely above the tide line, Athos took his time loading his pistol, smirk on his face suggesting that he was enjoying the sight of d’Artagnan being sodomized by a giant sea monster far more than was perhaps healthy.
As Aramis’ first shot went wide of the writhing mass of animal and he stepped out of the crashing waves to reload, Athos aimed his pistol.
“That’s not going to be accurate enough,” Aramis predicted just before the shot rang out.
At the same moment, d’Artagnan lost his grip on the pier and with a despairing wail was dragged under the waves.
Porthos cursed, flailing around him with his sword, and Aramis turned disbelieving eyes upon their leader, who seemed unaffected by the loss of their young friend.
“And to think you number yourself among the nobility,” Aramis chided, taking stock of the situation. He could no longer tell precisely where the creature was, and he feared hitting d’Artagnan if he fired at random.
Athos sauntered to the edge of the water line, took careful aim with his second pistol, and fired a shot into the deep water beside the pier.
The tide turned red, and Aramis and Porthos each froze as a body rose to the surface of the water, turning ponderously in the pulse of the surf until it was clear that Athos had struck and killed the monster itself.
Of d’Artagnan there was no sign.
They waited an eon, breath held, until even Athos’ smug expression turned dark.
Then a second body floated to the surface, and Porthos cried out, “d’Artagnan!” and pulled the boy from the sea, laying him gently on the sand well clear of the rising tide.
Athos knelt and turned d’Artagnan’s limp body on its side while Aramis pounded him between his shoulder blades. For breathless moments, it appeared that d’Artagnan had succumbed to his ordeal, and then he gasped, spewing water and bile onto the sand beside his head, and sucked in a breath before choking and gagging some more.
Eventually, red-faced, torn breeches around his knees, d’Artagnan sat up, aided by Athos’ strong hand on his back, lips next to his ear when he whispered, “If you’d wanted to be buggered so badly, all you had to do was ask.”
“‘Go to Le Havre,’ he says. ‘You’ll have a lovely time,’ he says,” d’Artagnan muttered under his breath as he took tottering, unsure steps along the waterfront, his shoes pinching his toes and making him mince in a way that drove his smallclothes into the crack of his arse.
Of course, no one could tell that, given the way the voluminous skirt hid that part of his anatomy.
Scratching at his hair where it was forced flat beneath the stifling wig and condemning every whale in the ocean to a slow and awful death for contributing their bones to the torture device putting dents in his ribcage, d’Artagnan avoided a drunken sailor reaching for his “breast” and promptly knocked into a second drunken sailor who grabbed his arse, making the smallclothes situation infinitely worse.
“Hey!” he shouted, remembering only after the fact that he should try a higher register. “Hey,” he tried again. “That’s no way to treat a lady.”
A snort from the shadows of a nearby warehouse suggested that at least one person knew d’Artagnan was no lady.
Of course, that could be because he smelled of sickly-sweet, cheap perfume, in which the frock he’d stolen had apparently been doused. There was little chance that any true lady wore that sort of perfume. Or a dress with quite so little…dress.
Yanking at his décolletage, to try to disguise his lack of…filling, d’Artagnan ducked his head and tried to watch where he was walking at the same time.
“Don’t make eye contact,” he murmured like a prayer, until at last the raucous noise from a pub drifted down on the fish-stinking air, and he stumbled inside with a sigh of relief.
That relief quickly soured to a kind of stunned horror when he looked up long enough to realize that he was the only “woman” in the place and that the place was filled wall to wall with rough-looking sailors already several sheets to the wind.
“I’ll just be…” he began, backing toward the door and into the broad chest of a giant, who wrapped a hand around his waist and said, “Why don’t you stay for a drink, ma’amselle,” leering into d’Artagnan’s face and squeezing his arse at the same time.
“No, no,” d’Artagnan demurred. “I must be going…m-my father is expecting me at home.”
“What kind of father would leave such a tender morsel as yourself wandering about the docks at night, I wonder?” The familiar—impossible—voice robbed d’Artagnan of any rejoinder, and he turned gratefully to find Athos lounging with his feet up on a nearby table, bottle of wine and full tankard close at hand.
“The kind who sent me on a mission alone,” d’Artagnan answered, still in character. Indeed, for all he’d understood, he was to be the only one on this particular covert operation. The others had told him that he was being tested. He thought, dismally, that he must have failed, though he had gotten away with the papers he’d been sent to retrieve.
“Well, your father certainly sounds like he has confidence in your charms to see you through,” Athos eyes glittered in the smoky light of the tavern. “Why don’t you let me buy you a drink, Miss—”
“Constance,” d’Artagnan answered, so flustered that he forgot that he should have offered a surname.
Athos’ smile widened wolfishly. “Miss Constance…have a seat,” and with a graceful motion he rose and held a chair out for d’Artagnan.
How long Athos would have forced d’Artagnan to carry on the charade, he wasn’t sure. He was saved from indefinite misery by a broad, warm hand squeezing his bare shoulder through the thin lawn shawl he’d also pilfered from some unfortunate whore.
He looked up into Porthos’ broad, smiling face. At the big man’s shoulder, Aramis, too, was grinning down at d’Artagnan.
Aramis leaned past Porthos’ hand to put his lips against d’Artagnan’s ear. “This is coming to be something of a habit for you, young d’Artagnan. Are you trying to tell us something?”
“Shut up!” he hissed, glaring at the two of them, who’d broken out into actual chortles.
“Why don’t we see the young miss home?” Athos said, dipping his chin toward a group of sailors at the bar who looked like they were about to challenge the Musketeers for the “lady’s” affections.
“Yes, why don’t we?” Aramis said, voice making suggestions that traced a shiver down d’Artagnan’s back.
Porthos’ grin skirted suggestion, wandering full into proposition territory before Athos rose and offered d’Artagnan his arm, tossing coins on the table for the wine.
Back out in the coolness of the evening, d’Artagnan attempted to take a deep breath but was hampered by the confining corset.
“I can’t wait to get this thing off,” he growled, forgetting for a moment to whom he was speaking.
“Oh, neither can we,” Athos answered, beating Aramis to the punch.
“How did you end up in ladies’ clothes again, d’Artagnan?” Aramis asked instead.
“It’s a long story,” d’Artagnan said, trying to suppress with his tone the inevitable questions to come.
“We,” Athos said, emphasizing the pronoun, “have all night…”
Even through the whalebone, d’Artagnan thought he could feel the weight and heat of Athos’ proprietary hand at the small of his back.
Then it slipped south, and d’Artagnan cried, “Hey!”
Laughter echoed out over the harbor at Le Havre.
d’Artagnan was never taking Athos’ travel advice again.
d’Artagnan was so content where he was, despite the dusty coverlet and stale smell of the room, that he almost didn’t mind the constant screaming of seagulls or the irregular knelling of bells atop the sea-buoys.
Athos hadn’t woken yet, and d’Artagnan was taking advantage of the rare opportunity to watch his unguarded face; without the constant weight of memory pulling at the corners of his mouth, he looked younger, and d’Artagnan had to resist the urge to lean over and kiss him awake. The whole point—well, one of the points—Aramis had had in securing this disused garret above a warehouse office was to allow Athos to get some rest.
The other point…
d’Artagnan felt his cheeks heating at the memory of the night before. On the floor in one corner was the corset that Porthos had stripped from him with impatient fingers. One edge of the faded green dress he’d stolen peeped out from beneath the bed. He had no idea where the infernal shoes had gone, nor did he intend to look for them. He rather hoped they’d gone out the window at some point in the evening’s festivities.
The book Athos had mysteriously produced from beneath his doublet and which had turned out to be some very filthy poetry in Greek (which he’d lovingly translated against d’Artagnan’s naked skin) was sitting on the floor beside the bed some distance away, looking out of place with its worn leather binding and the embossed exotic letters in fading gold leaf.
He felt immensely pleased with himself and with the world, even if parts of him were still a little tender from the night before.
d’Artagnan should have known that nothing this good could last, particularly not with the sea just beyond the high window over their cozy bed.
Almost before he registered the pounding of approaching boot-soles, the door was flung open to admit Porthos, who pushed it closed and laid his back against it.
“We have to get out of this room!” he cried.
At the first noise, Athos had risen bolt upright, and even as d’Artagnan disentangled himself from the bedclothes, Athos was sliding into his boots. d’Artagnan hadn’t even seen him put his pants on! With a longing look, d’Artagnan realized he had no pants of his own, but he’d be damned if he was climbing back into the horrid corset.
He gave up his smallclothes as a lost cause when he got a good look at them in the full light of morning and settled for shrugging into the shift he’d also liberated from the whore’s laundry line, deciding that would have to do.
“The window!” Porthos called, pointing to the only other means of egress from the garret.
“It’s too high. We won’t survive the fall,” Athos answered calmly, despite the angry voices they could now hear from the warehouse below and the sound of boots racing up the stairs.
“There’s a crate full of fruit to break our fall,” Porthos answered. “Help me move this!” He indicated the bed frame, which the three of them lugged easily enough against the door.
“It won’t hold for long,” Porthos warned.
“Right. d’Artagnan, up you go,” said Athos, gripping his hands into a step to help boost d’Artagnan up. “If we get separated, meet at the tavern.”
“But what about you?” d’Artagnan asked, registering his concern even as he moved to do as he was told.
“Porthos will go next and pull me up,” Athos decided.
d’Artagnan stepped into the cup of Athos’ strong hands and felt his stomach drop as Athos surged upward, pushing him toward the wooden window frame, where d’Artagnan scrabbled frantically to push the window open.
There was no latch—it was too high for even the sneakiest housebreaker—but years of exposure to the salt winds had swollen the wood in the frame, and it wouldn’t give.
“Watch your eyes,” he said, even as he made a fist and punched through the lower panes, registering the pain of the cuts on his knuckles only as a dim secondary concern. He wrenched the leading wide, feeling glass pierce his palm in several places, and hissed through his teeth.
He felt his balance waver and realized that Athos was tiring. “I’ve almost got it!” he called, working on the highest set of panes. The aperture was wide enough for his slender figure, but it wouldn’t admit Porthos without a fight.
“Be careful,” he called down to his friends below. “There’s still some glass in the frame.” Then he boosted himself up until he had the lower frame against his belly, and looked down.
He wished he hadn’t; it was an awfully long way down. But Porthos had been right. Two and a half stories below was a gigantic wooden crate full of pale yellow, round fruits, each the size of a child’s head. Not relishing striking that load head-first, d’Artagnan pulled himself up until he was crouching in the window. There was just room for him from shoulder to shoulder.
“Hurry up!” Porthos called, and d’Artagnan abandoned his fear in favor of leaping free of the window and falling, feet first, into the crate of fruit.
The fruit took the brunt of his fall and exploded like a pink and yellow bomb. His feet slipped from beneath him and he was momentarily submerged in sticky, stinging fruit pulp. When he rose up, he was covered head to toe in fruit pulp, rind caught in his hair, juice saturating his scanty shift, making it transparent. Even as he scrambled to climb out of the crate, he noted the sharp, bitter taste of the fruit and momentarily wondered if it were poisonous.
The wicked juice seemed to find every nick and cut so that soon his hands and forearms felt like they were on fire. He had bigger worries, however, for people were pointing at him, and shouts from around the far side of the warehouse suggested that his means of escape had been discovered.
Forgetting his pain in a surge of self-preservation, d’Artagnan made for the tavern where the Musketeers had found him the night before, hoping that Aramis might already be there and praying that Porthos and Athos would escape without harm.
Shivering in the brisk morning air, mostly naked except for the juice-soaked shift, d’Artagnan endured many highly offensive suggestions about what he might do with certain parts of his anatomy, but he arrived at the tavern with his virtue, if not his pride, intact.
He was disappointed to discover that he was the first to arrive, but he found a dark, smoky corner near the embers of last night’s fire, refused a pint until his friends arrived—since he didn’t have a single coin to his name—and settled in for what might be a long wait.
Years later, after a score of bloody campaigns and bloodier palace politics, after a hundred brawls and a thousand nights of brotherhood, of wine-wet kisses and hot caresses, of every story they had ever made together, the Musketeers would still, now and then, come back to the day when d’Artagnan of Gascony leapt out of a window into a crate of unidentified fruit and became a legend on the docks of Le Havre.
As it turned out, neither Porthos nor Athos had to resort to recreating d’Artagnan’s ridiculous leap because the angry men at the door indicated a willingness to parley, and it turned out to all be a terrible misunderstanding.
Aramis, who’d been off getting breakfast for the four of them, hadn’t even been aware of a problem.
And poor d’Artagnan, bitter fruit working its stinging way into some very private places, cursed the day he’d ever set eyes on the sea.