Chapter 1: Prologue
Athos de la Fere - email@example.com
[3 Aug 20--, 21:13:32]
[To: "Aramis" (firstname.lastname@example.org), "Porthos" (email@example.com)]
can't sleep. thinking too much, i suppose. new flat's still too new. where does one find the motivation to unpack?
would love some help. can provide beer maybe work will help. Treville's apparently found me a backstage job on a friend's show. nice not to have to worry about my face in lights maybe we could chat soon, I
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[5 Aug 20--, 23:09:11]
[To: Aramis, Porthos]
forgot how fucking lonely being single is. anne and i were fucking miserable at the end, but at least i wasn't alone in the flat and why the hell am i writing this it's not like you care or even liked her
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[6 Aug 20--, 13:53:22]
Do you actually enjoy living in Los Angeles? are the earthquakes actually something that happens or is it blown out of proportion?
do you make terrible jokes about the earth moving when it does oh nevermind this is actually the stupidest email ive ever written
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[7 Aug 20--, 04:11:54]
was it hard
being without aramis and i all these having to start over without us
I'm sorry we left you all alone.
I'm sorry you're still alone with me in the same city
fuck fuck fuck fuckfuckfuckfu
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[7 Aug 20--, 04:33:17]
[To: "Treville" (firstname.lastname@example.org)]
being alone in flat is terrible. is couch in prop room still available for sad useless fucks to sleep on
or will richelieu drain my blood in my sleep
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[9 Aug 20--, 02:54:38]
you're so far away and I don't know how to talk to Porthos anymore, I can't even ask for something as easy as drinks.
you were the one who taught me how to ask for things anyway and it seems I've forgotten and now i don't evne know how to send a text or apparently an email why the fuck even bother fuck fuckk
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[9 Aug 20--, 09:45:48]
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[9 Aug 20--, 23:41:01]
dear wanker please stop being a cowardly pathetic dog shit and send a fucking email to your best friends in the fucking world you fucking useless twat sincerely drunk tuesday you
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[10 Aug 20--, 03:08:12]
you're a fucking tv star and im terrified your going to become a movie star you shouldnt all right its fucking terrible and youll marry someone who wants it too much and sh'ell run you into the ground until you dont know yourself please don't i don't know how to do this without you i don't want you to becme a miserable fucking useless drunk who doesn't know how to talk to his friends i couldn't bear it just please quit before its too late and come home
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[10 Aug 20--, 04:15:58]
why can';t i talk to you anymore you snet me that text with the fuckin shakespeare bear and i cried laughing but didnt know how to ask you to come down the pub and this is fucking ridiculous i feel like im missing a limb without you but i dont know how to fix this five years is a long fuckin gtime and what if you dont like me anymore but are just too nice to say
i m sorry i was gone i wish i never had
Delete draft? [Yes] [No]
[11 Aug 20--, 14:47:21]
[To: Aramis, Porthos]
This is fucking ridiculous, isn't it? we knew everything about each other for years. they still talk about us at drama school as "the inseparables," for fuck's sake. we were closer than anyone had ever seen and now it's like we're fucking strangers
and it's all my fault.
I got married and I went to be a fucking movie star.
I didn't mean to stop talking to you, I swear to God, everything just turned into such a circus and I was a mess and I hated every second of it and got not married, and somehow you were still there for me during that, even though I'd missed so much of your lives. why did I still deserve it? why don't you hate me like i do
I don't understand any of this. I don't know why you gave me a second chance. I wish I weren't so sure I'm going to fuck it all up again. it's why I can't text. or call. or email. or do anything but the bare minimum of response so you don't think i ignore you when you reach out
because you keep reaching out and I don't understand why
nothing is easy like it should be. Porthos, you're so close that it should be so easy to see you every day.
how is it harder than getting fucking divorced to ask you for dinner? and Aramis, you're so far away, in California or New York or wherever you are right now that isn't here--it should be easy to just call or skype or something. but I can't do that either. I miss you both like hell and I don't know how to talk to you anymore. I miss you so fucking much.
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Chapter 2: Act I, scene i
"You don't have to bribe me with free food to get me to come talk to you." Athos cut a narrow look at Treville across the table. "Or lure me someplace under false pretenses."
"I invited you for lunch," Treville said, and waved a hand around at the restaurant. "Are we or are we not eating lunch?"
I am BLOWN AWAY by how kind and excited everyone was about the prologue, holy COW. I had no idea epistolary style had so many fans! This chapter is narrative, and we'll have epistolary bits and extra texts in more chapters as we go. Thank you all so much, oh my gosh.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
For the first time in four years, Richelieu didn't give Athos a scum-scraped-off-his-shoe look when Athos let himself into the theater's lobby. Instead, he stopped in the conversation he was having with Jussac, arched an eyebrow, and inclined his head to Athos.
That, more than Treville's mysterious lunch invite, gave Athos pause.
"Good afternoon, Richelieu," he said, trying to keep the wariness out of his voice. He pushed his sunglasses up just to make sure they were in fact not glaring at him--no, they weren't, they were giving him a look, that couldn't be good. "Jussac. How are you?"
The producer's calculating gaze didn't waver. "Hello, Athos. John's in his office." Jussac smirked and lifted his eyebrows, and Athos picked up his pace slightly as he walked around toward the back. Out-of-the-ordinary behavior for Richelieu usually heralded something major--and his assistant didn't smirk like that for just anything.
Treville glanced up at the rap of Athos' knuckles on his open door. "Afternoon," he said, smiling and setting his glasses on the pile of scripts on his desk. "Why do you look like you just saw a UFO?"
"Richelieu and Jussac gave me a look when I walked in." Athos slouched down in the chair opposite the desk, and did not kick his feet up like he would have two years ago. He could tell Treville noticed, and ignored the impressed look on the artistic director's face. "And not the usual lower-than-shit look."
"Armand does not think you're lower than shit," Treville said, by rote, the way he always did. "He's just--interested."
Athos cut a narrow look at Treville.
"You said we were going to have lunch," he said, sitting up straight in his chair. "You said, John."
"We are going to have lunch." Treville did kick his legs up on the desk as he slid his chair back, because it was his own desk and he could do what the fuck he liked with it. "Do you want to go to Singh's? They should have the lunch buffet up for another hour."
Athos glared at him.
Treville smiled blandly. "My treat."
- - -
"I'm not a college student anymore, John," Athos reminded him as they settled into their table in the back corner of the restaurant, plates loaded high and smelling divine. "You don't have to bribe me with free food to get me to come talk to you." He cut a narrow look at Treville across the table. "Or lure me someplace under false pretenses."
"I invited you for lunch," Treville said, and waved a hand around at the restaurant. "Are we or are we not eating lunch?"
"We're eating lunch and I feel like you're going to drop a bomb on me."
"It's not a bomb. Eat your curry and tell me about how you're doing first."
Athos did the first and took his time with the second. It was easy enough to talk to Treville. Athos had been talking to Treville since his drama school days, when Treville had still been teaching--before the old actor had bought the Garrison and retired to backstage; when Treville had still had the energy to take cocky and obnoxious young fucks under his wing and mold them into actual artists. Treville made Athos feel a decade younger, with all the awkward hesitance and self-consciousness of his drama school self. At the same time, though, it was wonderfully freeing not to have to pretend anything around Treville. Treville had pulled Athos out of his deepest and slimiest gutters. Treville already knew it all.
"It's not bad," he said finally, tearing a strip of naan in half and soaking it in chutney. "Flat still doesn't feel like home, but it never will. Last gig was a good one."
"It was a good show," Treville agreed. "Had your thumbprints all over it."
Athos shifted in his chair, pleased and embarrassed at the same time. "I was only AD. And I barely got to assist, let alone direct."
"All the same. The pacing of those letter monologues--I could tell who worked with that lad on those."
Athos had to smile, then, and inclined his head. "It's a good show, period," Athos said. "I'd--I'd like to direct it myself, some time in the future, but I'm sure London's bored of it now."
"Give it a few seasons," Treville suggested, and there was a small smile playing around the old director's lips.
Athos hadn't seen that smile in a long time. Since he was in school, actually, allowing Treville to coax him into larger and larger roles instead of the bit parts and backstage work Athos had assumed he'd always wanted. It was the I was feeling you out for something and now I've found what I wanted smile.
Athos lifted his eyebrows and set down his fork. "Yes?"
"I didn't say anything."
Treville snorted and set his own fork down, too. Then his face sobered, the laugh lines disappearing from the edges of his eyes "De Foix's dropped out of my fall schedule."
Athos stared at him. Then he closed his mouth, well aware that he was gaping like a halibut. "He's your first show."
"I'm well aware." Treville shrugged as he reached for his tea, took a sip. "His daughter's pregnant; there have been a few health scares. He needs to be in Paris with her, I can't blame the man."
Athos' chest clenched. "Oh. That's...I hope she's all right."
Treville nodded somberly, his face shadowed. Athos looked away, took a drink of his own tea, and let Treville settle himself. He was Lucie De Foix's godfather. Treville probably wished he could be in Paris, too.
Which was a shame, because Athos would probably never set foot in the country of France again, and he liked having John around.
"At any rate," Treville said, at length, and Athos dragged himself back to attention. "You've rather astutely noticed that I have a show scheduled to open my fall season, and no director or show to go with it."
Athos nodded slowly. "Yes, it seems you're..."
Interested, Richelieu had been...
"John," he said a spike of panic driving into his stomach. "I'm not a proper director, I--"
"You've AD'ed four shows, you've got a hell of a vision--"
"I didn't finish training, you put me in acting classes and I didn't--I can't--John, not a whole show, I can't carry--" He hadn't had a job as big as directing a show since before France, before his sucking black hole of a marriage and his trainwreck of a Real Movie Star Meltdown. He wasn't capable of it anymore.
"Athos, I can't just let this slot go empty, we'll lose any cushion we would have had for the rest of the year." Treville leaned across the table, his face the picture of earnest, desperate need. "I've got overhead, subscribers--these first ticket sales are everything, and I don't have the budget to pay what my next best chance is asking."
Athos understood all that, but he couldn't think past the litany of no no God no I can't it's too much no chasing circles in his head-- "John, no, I'm sorry, I really don't think I can--"
"I thought you'd jump at this chance," Treville said, looking sharp across the table at him. "All you talked about, that month you stayed, was how much you'd wanted to direct again, don't you remember?"
Athos' mouth snapped shut. A hot, embarrassed flush seeped up his neck, and he looked down at the table. "I wish you wouldn't bring that up," he said, reaching for his water glass to cover his confusion.
"I'm sorry, Athos." Treville did sound it, and he sighed, sinking his head down into his hand.
None of his friends, Athos was sure, liked reliving the first month of Athos' divorce, when he'd come home from Cannes a shell of himself and spent weeks sleeping on the prop bed in the Garrison's storage room. Slowly weaning himself from the myriad addictions he'd picked up over the years of his marriage, trying to relearn how to be his own person. His parents had given him the cold shoulder after abandoning his film career and their production company, and Athos hadn't been able to talk to his other friends for nearly two months out of shame--and John had been there instead.
And John hadn't asked anything of him, had let him haunt the Garrison with his pale face and trembling hands, until he was marginally Athos de la Fere again. John had helped him buy the flat, when he'd dragged Athos out for a walk and they'd found it empty and waiting three blocks away. John had pushed him to get in touch with the others again, to start rebuilding what he had with them. John had propped him back on his feet, recommended him for bit parts and backstage jobs...
And Athos had said that.
Anne had left him because he didn't want the spotlight the way she did. The glamour, the limousines, the wild parties and wilder lifestyle--it was something to her that it could never be to him. It had broken him down, pretending to be someone he wasn't, and all those trappings had become just so many ways to dull the sense of wrongness growing steadily inside him. And his old friends hadn't been able to stand it, so he only had her--until he didn't anymore.
It was boring, really. The most prosaic of downfalls. To the press, it was an extravagant lifestyle corrupting a young artist, losing him his marriage and his career. Such a shame, they'd said, while gleefully plastering pictures of him over the internet and front page of the gossip rags. Promising son from an illustrious film family, now look at him, such a shame...
John had picked him up. John had let him stay, had listened to Athos' disconnected ramblings, nodded as Athos swore off film and television and anything that would put his face back in the papers. John had let him haunt rehearsals and relearn the theater world firsthand, after the five years of his marriage to the glitz and pageantry of stardom.
Athos owed any semblance of a career he'd regained to John Treville and his theater.
From the sense of rightness he'd gotten to live with for the first time after so long.
"But you are right," he said quietly, looking back across the table at Treville. "It is what I said I wanted."
Treville's head came up. His blue eyes were alive with cautious hope. "You remember, then."
Athos nodded slowly. He did remember.
And he was getting back into it, wasn't he? The small gigs, the shows he'd worked on--he'd enjoyed them, naturally, but there had always been something missing, a sense of ownership he didn't have. He still felt like a passenger in his own life.
He could do this for John, and maybe this would give him the chance to remember how to run his own show.
"Do you want me to direct the same play?" he asked finally, and felt something settle in his chest.
Treville's smile spread wild and infectious, and Athos felt his own lips curve cautiously up. "No," he said, shaking his head. "No, de Foix was going to do Merchant, but I think any Shakespeare would be an acceptable replacement."
Athos nodded slowly, taking that in.
Shakespeare. Just the word lit something up in his chest that he hadn't felt burning in years.
He could do anything with Shakespeare.
And just like that, the idea fell fully-formed into his head. The show he could do.
The people he could do it with.
"I see you've come to the same conclusion I did," Treville said, that leading smile settling on his face again.
Athos gave into temptation and threw a chickpea at him. "God damn it, John."
"Don't you want to work with them again?"
And there was no argument to that.
Athos did. He missed them, desperately. Occasional lunches and friendly texts, phone calls to time zones across the ocean--rebuilding these relationships that had once been the most important to him, the ones he'd let lapse in his years away--they weren't the same as being with them, working with them.
Building something with them.
"You should call them," Treville said, and rose from the table. "I've got to get back, but this is on me. Come by when you've decided, and we'll start getting a crew together."
Athos nodded, and held out his hand. "Thank you, John."
Treville clasped it, warm and solid and real, and he beamed down at Athos. "Thank you, Athos."
Athos sat for a long time after Treville left. He sat nursing his cold tea and thinking through all the possible ways this could go wrong.
But after a while, there was only one thing he could do.
He pulled out his phone and wrote a quick text, before he could lose his nerve.
[Dinner, if you're free? Had an interesting morning w/ Treville.]
Athos stared at it, worried it was too cryptic, worried it was too pushy, worried it wouldn't be cryptic enough, then mentally slapped himself and sent it.
There. He'd reached out. That was already an improvement over hiding-in-his-flat-avoiding-calls. He wished that Aramis still lived in town--hell, even in the country, so he could get this all over with at once.
Athos reached over and downed half his glass of water. Fuck, his heart was pounding. This was a simple text message, for God's sake, not--
His phone buzzed in his hand. Athos jumped about six inches and narrowly avoided spilling ice water all down his front. One for the paparazzi, he thought viciously, the back of his neck flushing as he looked down.
[Text message: Porthos]
[always free for you, brother! my streets or yours?]
The rest of his body decided to go ahead and flush, since his neck was doing such a good job of it, and Athos did his very best not to read and reread Porthos' text like an excited teenager making a date. When he'd sent the text, he'd assumed they'd meet up somewhere near the theater, but now that Porthos had said it--
[Your streets,] he wrote back, [haven't been to the Wren in ages (?)] He didn't want to push, he knew Porthos hadn't always liked the more spotlit pubs and well-known places--but now that he'd had the thought, he desperately wanted to go, get out, get on the Tube and ride it up to Camden like he was a normal fucking person for a change.
Porthos' reply buzzed, and Athos' throat unlocked in relief at the thumbs-up emoticon. [7 too soon?] came after, and Athos typed out a quick, [perfect, see you then].
It was irrational, wasn't it, to worry that Porthos would change his mind if Athos took too long to text back--but that was the habit he'd been broken to, and it would take a little longer to change.
He jiggled his leg under the table, excited all at once, suddenly aching to move, to go and be wild and do--
He downed the rest of the tea, left a tip on the table for the server who'd been refilling his glass for the last ten minutes, and went home.
The flat was still mostly in boxes, six months after he'd moved in. He had a bed, and a table and a few chairs, and the kitchen saw use, but he didn't have shelves for his books, barely had his things arranged in the closet and the wardrobe.
He didn't mind so much. It was easy to find what he was looking for, at any rate.
He settled into the chair by the window with the small box of school effects he'd kept in storage here in London. These hadn't ever gone to France with him, dusty relics of an old life he'd assumed he'd never get back.
But now he cut through the tape and opened it up, breathing deeply and enjoying the quiet thrill he always got from the dry smell of paper and books. He was an old-fashioned boy at heart, he thought dryly, as he flipped through the sheaf of term papers and set them aside. The pictures and programs he'd kept were beneath them, and he thumbed carefully through the stack of glossy pages. They would be for another time, he decided, and set those on top of the papers, too.
Beneath them were the books, and Athos dug through until he found the paperback he was looking for.
The cover was bent, the spine cracked and the edges of the pages curled and bent from rubbing against other things in his bag. He'd carried it around for weeks when they were working on their final monologues, a backup for Porthos if he forgot his own.
Athos slid a finger through the creased pages and opened it at the first act.
He sat and read, and by the third scene, he was gone. He'd fallen into the prose, the verse, all of it--the speeches that he remembered, the pieces he'd forgotten. And for the first time, he let himself envision it staged.
How he would stage it–simpler, starker than he’d seen it done–something that would let the words and the actors shine. And as enticing as the idea was, as enchanting and rosy as it felt around the edges, it terrified him a little, too.
He wouldn't have any glitz or glamour to fall back on. If he failed, there would be nothing to hide behind. And he'd be dragging everyone down with him--if he could even manage to convince them to join him at all.
They didn't seem to trust him the way they used to, and he couldn't blame them. He couldn't talk to them the way he used to.
Athos ran his thumb along the edges of the paper, the fibers soft and ticklish on his skin. The worn spine held them in bunches, and the next crack in the binding fell open in his lap.
I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at, he read, and sighed.
Even sincerely, he could never manage that.
He drew his feet up onto the chair and started at the first act again. He had a lot of thinking to do before dinner.
The show Athos and Treville discuss at the beginning, that Athos AD'd, was Sarah Ruhl's EURYDICE, if anyone was curious. Endless thanks to Nat for the Crash Course in London Neighborhoods and Theaters. if you need me, bloge here.
Chapter 3: Act I, scene ii
Collecting the leads.
I am so thrilled by how lovely the response is to this! Sorry for a slightly belated update, I had to work--and I will be out of town at a wedding next Saturday, so it might be either an early afternoon (EST) or a later-evening post, but it'll be up!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Athos' leg wouldn't stop jiggling under the table. He let it twitch, focused on the way the motion vibrated up his stomach, settled him. He was a mess of energy. He was sitting in the back room of The Wren, the tables in the front having been a little too exposed for his taste. Only his tiny little two-seater table in the far corner wasn't in sight of the door, so he kept craning his neck, stretching to catch a glimpse of the windows, the street outside.
He kept going over his pitch in his head. The initial explanation, the things he was going to say if Porthos needed convincing (the begging he was prepared to do, if Porthos thought it wasn't a great idea)--but no, that was too much like a business deal, this was supposed to be dinner with a friend, wasn't it?
But this was professional, still--it was collaboration with friends who were colleagues. He'd called Treville, Treville had said yes, the job was set: this was going to be work.
It could also be very fun. Which would be quite the change, for Athos.
That was the thing he kept coming back to. This could change everything, he kept thinking, as he ran his finger around the ridge of the ridge of his tumbler. This would change everything.
It could be for the better, if he didn't fuck it up. And if he did--like he did so many other things--
Well, he always seemed to end up with scorched earth in his wake. He was getting used to it by now.
A scrum of people came flooding into the back of the bar, loud and chattering and fresh off a train, no doubt, and Athos resisted the urge to hunch up and hide his face. No one was going to recognize him, for heaven's sake, he--
There was Porthos.
Athos swallowed down the jolting flip of his stomach, the surge of his heart up into his throat. Every time, he forgot. The Porthos that lived in his head was his first Porthos, nineteen and skinny, with a slouch to hide his height and eyes that always dropped down.
They were twenty-eight now, and Porthos hadn't been skinny since they were twenty. He'd stopped ducking, stopped hiding himself away, and now he was broad-shouldered and looked you in the eye--and stood taller and straighter than anything in Athos' life.
Athos always forgot.
Porthos stood in the middle of the taproom, loosening the scarf he wore over his leather jacket, looking around with--
Not just looking around, Athos realized, but looking for him.
Did Porthos always look for him like that? Half-smiling, face open and eager, like he'd lost something and couldn't wait to get it back?
Athos' heart was doing that funny thing again, and he shoved it back down. He had so few friends, of course he was always excited to see one.
"Porthos," he called.
Porthos' head snapped around, and when he saw Athos--
There was no way Athos could keep his cool in the face of that smile.
And then Porthos was shouldering his way through the clusters of people, his grin wide and welcoming, and Athos stood up without really thinking, moving around the table and reaching out for Porthos' hand.
Porthos' hand clapped solid in his and tugged him close, and then Porthos' other arm landed tight around his shoulder and that was it. Athos was buried in Porthos' hold, his face pressed tight to the scratchy wool of Porthos' old scarf. (Dust, a little musk, the coconut-smoke of his hair pomade--these smells are Porthos, this means comfort and care and safety.)
Athos breathed in, and something rigid and icy around his bones melted away. He hadn't even known these shards of ice were still there--and there was no telling if they'd freeze solid again the moment he was alone--but right now, with Porthos--
(with the thought that maybe there could be more, that this wouldn't just be dinner but the start of a collaboration, a partnership, a real friendship again)
--he felt warm for the first time in a year.
He pulled back only reluctantly, when he felt Porthos' arms shift to hold his shoulders, and they drew apart and looked at each other, taking in the details that had changed since they'd seen each other last. Had it been a full month? Maybe it was even two, hell.
Porthos smiled, and Athos couldn't help but smile back, helpless and broad. Porthos' hair was a little longer--he'd clipped it short two shows ago for something military-inspired, Athos couldn't remember now. But he liked Porthos' curls better--they fit his spirit more than a flat, uniform buzz.
"I'm liking this whole mountain-man thing you got going on, brother," Porthos said, his smile turning playful, and Athos very abruptly remembered that he hadn't shaved in--
Oh, hell, he couldn't even remember.
"Paps," he said, because it was probably the original reason he'd stopped trying to tame his facial hair. They'd certainly been everywhere the first few months after his divorce.
Porthos growled. "Evil fucks."
"They are that," Athos agreed as they sat down, their knees bumping together under the tiny two-top.
"Still," Porthos said, his grin flashing again, "you're making it look good. How's everything, then?"
Athos wasn't sure how to start talking, in the face of such a simple compliment. He'd been a recluse for months now; he didn't quite remember how to string words together for casual talk like this.
Luckily, he didn't always need words, with Porthos. A dry glance, an arched eyebrow, a spread of the hands: their shared history had a far broader lexicon than something as basic as the alphabet.
They caught up over their first pints, and were well into their second when their plates of steak and chips came from the kitchen. Porthos had been running the gamut of secondary roles and double-cast minor characters in London theater, and Athos had been skulking backstage in nearly every place Porthos hadn't been.
"It's not that I don't like steady work," Porthos said around a mouthful of steak. "Just getting fantastically fucking dull never getting more than four scenes in a show."
"You've been paying your dues," Athos said neutrally, nervous excitement coiling in his stomach. Not that he was glad to find Porthos discontented with his current acting slate, but it certainly was going to make convincing him easier.
Porthos snorted indelicately. "Been slogging through shit, is what I've been doing, but it keeps the heat turned on."
Athos had to smile. "You're suffering for your art."
Porthos flipped him two fingers, but he was grinning ruefully. "It'd be easier if I didn't want to stick to the stage so bad, you know?"
Athos nodded. He missed it himself. Film had been a mistake for him, and if he could serve as a cautionary tale for Porthos, so much the better.
The tightness around Porthos' eyes told Athos that Porthos, too, was thinking of Athos' disastrous downslide when he left the theater. But then it cleared, and Porthos shrugged, his mood lightening. "But I've made my own bed, so I've got no choice but lyin' in it now. Tiny as it is," he added wryly, and Athos had to laugh. "Certain people keep reminding me that if I'd gone to TV, I'd probably have an actual flat and not just a tiny room in a house share."
"I may have good news, then," Athos said, his heart skipping a beat even as he smiled.
Porthos laughed and snagged a chip off Athos' plate. "All right. So what's the big deal?"
Athos forced down the curl of warmth rising in his chest--honestly, who got emotional about someone stealing a chip?--and leaned back in his seat. "De Foix had to drop out of Treville's fall schedule."
Porthos looked stricken, his smile fading. "Oh, that's--does he have anyone to take the spot? Shit, when were they supposed to go into rehearsal?"
"Three weeks." Athos suppressed his own, very Treville-like smile--Porthos cared. Good sign.
Then Porthos' brow creased, and Athos could practically see him putting two and two together. "So. What did he want from you, then?"
Athos took a deep breath. "He asked if I'd want to direct instead."
Porthos stared. For a second, he didn't say anything, didn't even blink, and Athos felt his heart slowly collapsing in on itself--but then, wonder of wonders, Porthos' smile broke across his face again. "Seriously? That's great!"
Athos felt his cheeks flood with heat, probably he was blushing, too, but--yes, he was allowed to, he was pleased about this. "I'm--excited, yes."
Porthos reached across the table, fist held out, and Athos gave it an obligatory bump with his own. "You should be excited, that's a dream come true. What can you--is it any show you want?"
"So long as it's Shakespeare."
"Oh, no, what a harsh restriction," Porthos laughed, his grin fierce. "Athos, really, congratulations, mate. Do you know what you wanna do yet?"
He hadn't guessed. Athos found it incredible, but that was Porthos for you--selfless and caring, happy for his friends without ever thinking about what he could get out of it.
God, Athos had missed him.
"Yes, actually." Athos reached into his bag hanging on his chair, and pulled out the battered paperback of the play.
He set it on the table, and Porthos glanced down at it.
Then he froze, and stared. His hand slid slowly across the table to touch the cover, his thumb tapping on the illustration.
He looked up at Athos, straight up into his eyes, and Athos looked steadily back.
"Don't fuck with me on this," Porthos said. His voice was very low, but his eyes were very bright.
"I would never."
Porthos looked back down at the play, his fingers curling tentatively around it. "Athos..."
"I want to--" Athos swallowed, his throat unexpectedly tight with memory. "I want to give this to you, if I can."
"You know how I feel about this." Porthos blinked rapidly, taking the play in his hand, now, holding it like he could believe it would be his.
Athos nodded slowly. "Yes, I do."
Porthos' final monologue in school had been Othello. Porthos had written his biggest paper in their stage history class on Othello. Porthos had been planning how he'd play Othello since the first day he stepped on a stage. All these bit roles, small shows, grunt work--biding his time, working his way up, yes, but he deserved more. Porthos was amazing. He deserved to have a lead, a spotlight of his own.
With all that Athos owed him, this was the only way he could think of to even begin to pay him back.
Athos looked back up and saw Porthos' eyes on him, cutting through him and pinning him to the spot. That was the intensity he'd always loved when they acted together, the way Porthos could turn in an instant from so soft and playful to sharp, calculating, fierce.
"Yes," Athos said, meeting him with the same steel. "Treville said Othello would be perfect, and I want you."
Porthos looked unblinking at him for a long, long moment.
Then he half-lunged across the table to grab Athos in an even tighter embrace.
Athos' ribs banged against the edge of the table, but he didn't care. He held onto Porthos as tightly as Porthos was holding him, clinging tight and heedless of the plates of food or the pint glasses.
They didn't have to say it; they were both thinking it.
This would be the first time they'd done anything together in more than half a decade.
"I missed this," Porthos said, his breath brushing Athos' hair against his neck.
Athos blinked, his own eyes stinging suddenly. "You have no idea," was all he could say, and he felt Porthos' cheek tighten in what Athos knew was a grin.
They let go and settled back in, Athos uncomfortably conscious of the rest of the bar. No one was looking, not that he could see, but people didn't really do that, did they? Just--hug over the table like that, two friends, it was--
It was how they were, he reminded himself, forcibly restraining his own plunging thoughts. He liked this, he'd always liked how tactile his friends were, how everything was hugs and affectionate touches and shoulder bumps. He'd missed that over the years. This was his chance to enjoy it again, and fuck the paparazzi.
"What?" Porthos asked, and Athos jerked back down to earth.
"What?" he echoed, heat flooding dull in his cheeks.
Porthos was smiling, though, just grinning at him, and Athos relaxed. "You," Porthos said. "You looked like you were ready to get in a fight. With yourself."
Athos snorted. "Well, glad I'm an open book, I'm sure it'll make this directing gig that much easier."
"Oh, yeah, best when your actors know exactly what you're thinking at all times," Porthos chuckled, taking a swig of his beer. "Speaking of. We got a cast?"
"We have inherited a few of de Foix's actors," Athos told him. He'd had enough time on the phone with Treville to get the gist of it. "The ones who didn't mind being passed off to me."
Porthos laughed. "Because you're so terrible to deal with."
"I'm an unknown quantity," Athos said as he swiped a chip through steak drippings. It was easy to be self-deprecating right now. The actual self-doubt probably wouldn't start until later. "But I know a few of them, and they're apparently willing to give me a shot for a job."
Porthos nodded, taking all that in. Then he asked the question Athos had been waiting for. "Got an Iago in mind?"
Athos forced himself to breathe, not to blush or give away the idea. "Well, I thought we could do standard auditions..."
Porthos nodded, taking it in, though his face didn't light up, his brows didn't unknit.
Athos watched his face carefully as he added, "Or, I could see if the person I have in mind can spare a few months of his shooting break to tromp around on a stage with some old friends."
Porthos' head came up again, only this time his grin was wide, almost reverent. "You are full of fucking genius ideas today."
"I haven't asked him yet," Athos said hurriedly, his heart jumping somewhere near his throat, "I don't know if--"
"No time like the fucking present," Porthos said, and dug his phone out of his pocket.
Athos bit back a groan, even as his somewhat embarrassed pleasure made his neck heat. This was what it was like to be close to his friends again, to have spontaneous excitement just be part of the day. "Right now?"
"Right now," Porthos confirmed.
Athos watched, both horribly nervous and horribly excited, as Porthos lifted the phone to his ear. "He might be busy."
"It's the middle of the afternoon there and he's on a shooting break," Porthos laughed, "he's probably--Aramis! I said you wouldn't be busy."
Athos felt his stomach do somersaults as Porthos laughed, grinning at whatever Aramis was saying. "Of course you are," he said, and Porthos' whole face changed when he was talking to Aramis. Athos remembered that. (Athos missed that.) "Look, I'm sat here with Athos, he's got something to ask you--yeah, here--"
And then Porthos was slapping the phone into Athos' hand, and Athos was holding it to his ear on autopilot, and there was Aramis' laughter echoing, Aramis' delighted voice saying, "Athos?"
"Yes, hello, Aramis," he said, unable to hold back his own smile. "I'd wanted to text, I promise."
"This is more fun." Aramis laughed again, so clear over the sound of the bar. There weren't any other sounds in the world. "I was just reading a script, only it's shit and I hate it, so nevermind that and thank you for distracting me."
Athos' heart thudded once, hard and fast. That boded well. "Are you looking for something to do, then?"
"Yes, God, I've still got months left on this break and I'm already climbing the walls."
Porthos was grinning across the table at him, and Athos couldn't help grinning back--this was good, this was maybe going to really happen-- "How do you feel, then," he said, drawing it out, "about coming home to do some real acting?"
Aramis' fire was instantaneous. "This is real acting, I'll have you know, you pretentious fuc-- Wait. You're just being an ass, aren't you."
"Yes, of course." Athos couldn't remember the last time he'd actually teased someone. It felt good, and Porthos was looking so proud across the table. "De Foix dropped out of Treville's fall schedule, and Treville gave the slot to me."
"You're directing?" Aramis yelped, sounding delighted. "Athos! That's--wait, and you're at dinner with Porthos?"
"Yes," Athos drawled, cutting an amused glance at Porthos. "I did want to talk to him first."
"Of course," Aramis said slowly, and he was putting it together, too, just the way that Porthos had-- Then Aramis drew in his breath sharply, and Athos knew he'd got there. "Othello. Like he's always wanted."
"Why are you calling me?"
Athos smiled at Porthos, and Porthos grinned back. "Who else could be opposite him?"
Aramis' breath hissed again, and then there was an excited string of shouted expletives, a crash that sounded exactly like a phone being dropped, a muffled sound of more swearing and static and then Aramis was back, breathless-- "You are perfect, I can't wait to see you both, I need to call my agent, I'm on the next flight home."
And then the line clicked, and Athos passed it back to Porthos with a grin. "That went more or less as expected."
"Swearing, shouting, dropped the phone?"
"He never changes."
It came easier, then--the camaraderie, the warm friendship that Athos remembered so vividly (so painfully). Athos sketched out his ideas, growing more confident the more Porthos smiled, and by the time the noise of the pub drove them out Athos was drawing sets in the air in front of him as they walked down the pavement, marking out the simple balcony he wanted "because we'll need it for the first scene, but I think I want to add some nontextual moments, you know, silent pantomime--you never really get to see Othello and Desdemona as a couple and I want--" and Porthos was asking him questions, probing the ideas, throwing in his own opinion--
They'd walked twenty feet past the stairs to the Tube station before Athos realized they'd missed it. They were both too caught up.
"Oh, damn," he said, as he drew up short and looked back at the station. "That's me, sorry."
Porthos looked back, too, and blew out his breath in the chilly night. It wasn't quite cold enough to see, yet, but Athos remembered the clouds of fog that his breath and Porthos' and Aramis' all together would raise up as they walked together, all talking and all at once about whatever they were on about that day--
"Right," Porthos said. His voice was quieter than it had been all night, and Athos looked around to see Porthos frowning at the station sign like it had punched his mother.
Athos' stomach dropped. "Porthos?" he asked, and Porthos blinked, looked down at him.
Porthos opened his mouth, then closed it, and chewed on the inside of his bottom lip for a second. "I don't--" he began, then changed his mind halfway through and started again. "We're celebrating, yeah? New show, working together again?"
It was Athos' turn to blink. "Yes?"
"Come back to mine," Porthos said in a rush, his hands shoved in his pockets and his shoulders hunched up but his eyes bright and hopeful, and why did he look like the hesitant one? Why did he seem nervous, out of the pair of them? "Have another drink or two, talk a bit more about the show...?"
Porthos didn't want Athos to go home? Why in God's name would he think Athos would say no I've got to go back to my terrible lonely mess of a flat instead of being in Porthos' vortex of life? He couldn't quite believe--
"You're not sick of me yet?" Athos said without thinking. Porthos stared at him, and Athos' mouth snapped shut, his whole face flooding hot in mortification when he realized he'd said that out loud, dear God, becoming a recluse was just destroying his filters--
Porthos' hand landed on his shoulder and jolted Athos out of his self-recriminating silence. He looked swiftly up into Porthos' face, and only found a soft, honest grin looking back.
"I haven't really seen you in months," Porthos reminded him, almost gently. "I'm not gonna be sick of you for ages yet, mate."
Athos didn't crumple into Porthos' arms, or burst into tears, or anything like that. He just nodded, managed a smile, and let Porthos steer them down toward the crossing.
But he knew for sure, right then and there, that he would do everything in his power to make this the best show of Porthos' life.
Which was somehow how he found himself sprawled out drunk on Porthos' couch three hours later, cradling a bottle of pinot noir to his chest and monologuing.
"Yet herein will I imitate the sun," he declaimed into Porthos' cushions, "who doth permit the base contagious clouds--"
"Stop spilling wine on my sofa," Porthos yelled from the kitchen.
"--to smother up--I'm not spilling anything--smother up--"
"Smother up, c'mon," Porthos laughed as he came around the side of the sofa, two bottles of water in hand, and Athos dutifully picked up his head so Porthos could sit down.
"Smother up his beauty from the world," Athos said, and dropped his head onto Porthos' thigh the moment it was on the sofa. "I don't remember the next line."
After a slightly startled pause, Porthos laughed, lower and a little different from the way he'd been laughing before. "It'll come to you, I bet."
Athos pressed his cheek into Porthos' thigh. "No, I think it's gone for good. The couplet's there, the rest 's not."
Porthos' hand settled on Athos' shoulder. "Well, it's been a while."
Athos nodded, a pang of melancholy settling over his warm, alcohol-fuzzed haze. "Yes," he said.
His phone started to buzz in his shirt pocket then, and Athos swatted an ineffectual hand at the pocket. "Damn it."
"I've got it," Porthos rumbled (it really was a rumble, down here, with Athos' head tucked up against his belly). He slipped two warm (impossibly warm) fingers into Athos pocket and came up with his phone. "It's Aramis."
Athos buried his face in Porthos' leg. "He's changed his mind."
Porthos elbowed him gently. "No, he fucking well hasn't. Hey, Aramis, it's me."
"Porthos?" They hadn't turned on any music or anything, so Athos could hear Aramis loud and clear. "Did I call the wrong number again?"
"Nah, we carried on from the pub. He's stretched out doing Hal on my sofa."
Aramis' laugh sang out, and Athos let it bubble up happy and warm in his chest, mixing with the alcohol heat to set him alight like a candle.
"You should see this," Porthos said, and his hand stroked absently over Athos' shoulder. "Fuckin' miracle."
It took Athos a moment to track the words, warm and hazy as he was, but when that processed he blinked. Miracle? What was?
"Hang on, then, let me--"
"Oh, yeah, brilliant, here."
A moment's pause, where Athos was about to ask what's a miracle, now, and then Porthos derailed him with, "Here, tell him you haven't changed your mind."
And then he was holding Athos' phone down in front of his face, and it was video instead of a phone call, and Aramis was smiling on the screen.
Some back part of Athos' mind took note of this--Aramis, face, first time seeing it in years--because the television didn't count, not really. And Athos didn't always like the way his show made Aramis up for TV. They always made him look sharper, more cutting and clever. But Aramis had his soft edges, too, and those were the ones Athos missed. Aramis was kind, sweeter--gentle, like this.
Athos hadn't seen him like this in so long.
"Hi," Athos said, too drunk and sleepy to go through any of the usual paroxysms of nerves. "Don't listen to him, I didn't really think that."
Aramis looked dressed for bed; he had an old gray LAMDA shirt on and the curls at his temples looked wet. The quality was only a little grainy--good enough for Athos to see Aramis' smile fade to wide dark eyes, his lips parting in surprise for a moment, before his smile came back a little softer. "Hi," he said, his voice a little lower than it had been, when he was talking to Porthos. "I haven't changed my mind. I've got a flight to Heathrow tomorrow night."
"Good," Porthos said firmly, loud enough for the microphone to hear, and Aramis laughed, his smile sparking bright again.
"I'm glad," Athos said, feeling heavy and light at once, and he nestled down a little further into the sofa, settled his head on Porthos' leg so he wasn't pinching his ear. Touch. Contact. He could have this again.
Aramis' smile spread wider, fonder, and this wasn't a TV smile. This was one Athos hadn't seen in five years. "So cozy," he teased. "Getting started without me?"
"Porthos isn't sick of me yet," Athos informed him. "I intend to take advantage for as long as I can."
Porthos scoffed and cuffed his head gently. Athos ducked his head with a smile, Porthos' denim-clad leg so warm beneath him, and Porthos' hand came to rest on his shoulder again.
"We'll never be sick of you, duckling," Aramis said. "Never were and never will be." His eyes were very soft. Athos liked it, but it made the little candle-flame of his body hotter, and he very much didn't want to be distracted by that now.
"See, I told him that," Porthos said, and Aramis laughed, his eyes flicking hopefully up to where Porthos' face was just off-screen.
Athos reached out and tilted the bottom of the phone up, so Porthos' face was included, and he watched Aramis' smile dawn brighter and wider when he could see them both.
"I wish I were there," Aramis said, then immediately looked a little chastened, like he hadn't meant to say that. Which was silly, because of course he did. This was wonderful. Athos wanted him here, too. Aramis, so painfully familiar but so far away, and Athos missed him, why was Aramis flying out tomorrow and not today, right away?
"I don't think you got the first flight you could," Athos said pointedly, and Aramis' smile went so wide, helplessly so. "I expect a little more commitment in my actors, Mister Herblay."
"Yes, sir," Aramis said, just beaming at him. "I'll be the most committed, I swear." Athos nodded imperiously, barely holding the face for a moment before he cracked and had to smile, and watched Aramis smile back. It was just so good to see him alight, alive--for real, not filmed or scripted but real, happy, for them.
"You don't look this real on TV," Athos told him, and he brushed his fingers over the screen of his phone. "You should make them try harder."
Aramis' eyebrows climbed up to his hair. "You watch the show?"
Warning bells flashed in that far, dim part of his mind, but Athos was too drunk to pay them much heed. "Of course I do," he said, nestling his cheek in Porthos' leg. His eyes were heavy, and Porthos' hand on his shoulder made him feel so settled and safe. "I watch everything you do. How else am I supposed to see you?"
Porthos' hand tightened on his shoulder, and Aramis blew out his breath, making static on the speaker. "I see what you mean, Porthos," Aramis said, which didn't make any sense, but that was all right.
"Yeah," Porthos said, and he shifted so Athos' head was well-cushioned, so Athos was held comfortable and close. "What time you getting in?"
"It's a late flight out of JFK, I should get in at half ten. Adele's coming to see her family, she hasn't gotten to meet her new niece yet--she screamed the roof down when I said I was going, got us both tickets in ten minutes--"
"Look at you, big fancy TV star, can't fly home without his personal assistant--"
"See, I know you're trying to mock me, but it's actually true, I can't tie my shoes without her..."
Athos drifted to the sound of their voices, his head full of Porthos and Aramis and set designs and Shakespeare. He hadn't felt this light in so long--and he knew the feeling would only last about as long as the wine was in his stomach, but there was nothing wrong with savoring it while it lasted.
"Is he really sleeping in your lap?"
"Think so. God, Aramis, I can't believe...all at once, just--here."
"I know. God, Porthos, I know."
"I'm so glad you're coming home, too."
Porthos' voice, deep and bass and echoing through the parts of him pressed against Athos, floated through his head, mixing with the words he'd read earlier. And Aramis, in counterpoint, melodious in a different way.
I have but an hour of love, of worldly matters and direction, to spend with thee, Athos thought fuzzily, Porthos' voice echoing the line in his head.
Maybe it wouldn't last. But it would be good while it did.
We must obey the time, he thought, and slept.
The monologue Athos is stumbling through on Porthos' couch is Prince Hal's "I know you all" speech from Henry IV, part 1 (my personal favorite play, and I would shit bricks if Tom played Hal at any point).
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him...
Hal is of course more calculating, but I still felt Hal would resonate rather deeply with Athos, with all the personal angst and family issues. The monologue of Othello's he thinks of just at the end is Othello's speech to Desdemona before they leave for Cyprus (*cough*).
as always, find me here.
Chapter 4: Act II, scene i
Several texts, a gossip rag, and a read-through. Also hugging.
I am literally euphoric about how sweet you all have been about this 'verse. Thank you so much!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
[Treville informs me you need a stage manager.]
[...yes. I just watched him send that text. Well?]
[Could be persuaded. What's in it for me?]
[an eight week run, Armand Richelieu producing, and many chances to see Aramis Herblay with his kit off.]
[will also throw in car + driver courtesy of family stable.]
[These terms are acceptable. Do we have a cast?]
[Treville and I are holed up in his office cajoling various people. Should have full cast minus Aramis by dinner.]
[When does the wayward rogue grace us with his chiseled features?]
[10:30 tomorrow, LHR. please never refer to him as such again.]
[V. good. Send cast info along and I will coordinate for readthrough at noon tomorrow. Feed your tomcat once you've collected him and don't be late.]
[you are magic.]
Off the Clock! Aramis Herblay Flies Casual at Heathrow Airport
Nothing like a holiday at home! Red Herring hero Aramis Herblay looks ready for vacation, spotted disembarking at Heathrow in relaxed jeans and a plain gray hoodie. (The star's famed washboard abs were nowhere in sight--perhaps he's taking a break from his camera-ready physique, too?) The London native was all smiles passing through the airport, waving to fans but not stopping for autographs or pictures. In fact, the handsome Herblay's assistant hustled him into an unmarked black limousine waiting for him outside. Wonder where he was in a hurry to get--and who with? We hope to see him out and about soon!
"Look at all those fucking paps, holy shit," Porthos laughed, his face up against the glass like a kid at Christmas. "Is he really that fucking famous now?"
"I think they're trying to see who we are," Athos said, immeasurably grateful for the tinted windows. He didn't often take out the family cars--or the family drivers, for that matter--but for special occasions, it was worth it.
Porthos laughed and flashed his grin over one shoulder at Athos. "We should do this just for the hell of it sometime. Go out in a limo to Tesco's and just stay parked outside, watch the paparazzi turn up and shit themselves trying to see who we are."
Athos couldn't help but laugh, and that only made Porthos smile wider.
The activity kicked up outside the car again, and Porthos wriggled back around, craning his neck to see.
"Is it him?" Athos asked. He could taste his pulse in his throat, nerves suddenly churning in his gut. Phone calls and drunk videos were one thing, but he hadn't seen Aramis in person in so long. What if everything was different? What if they couldn't be like they used to?
"I can't fucking see, I don't--" Porthos broke off sharply, staring, then let out a whoop of delight and scrambled for the door handle. "Yeah, yeah, it's him, back up--"
Athos flattened himself against the opposite seats, staying out of any possible line of sight, and Porthos shoved the door open. The noise kicked up a hundredfold, yells and shouted questions and a few excited shrieking voices, all dulled by the snap of dozens of cameras--
And then a dark-haired torpedo barreled in and swept Athos up in a familiar embrace. "Athos, oh my God, look at you!"
He had to grin as Aramis drew back, and they held each other at arm's length for a moment. "Aramis, making an entrance as always."
Aramis beamed at him, and for a moment literally the entire rest of the car was dimmed. Aramis' smile was sunlight. It always had been. "Oh, but you knew that. Athos, God, I--your beard, oh my God!"
Athos blushed and twitched his head away as Aramis started touching it, literally stroking his face and pulling at the strands of of his beard. "Aramis--"
"And your hair is so long, I can't believe it--" Aramis' gaze skated over his face as his hands did the same, and Athos nearly started to reach up to pull his hands away--
But any protest he wanted to make died on his lips, when he saw how full Aramis' eyes were.
And it hit Athos right then, that this was--but it couldn't be--could it really?
Five whole years since they'd been on the same continent?
Since they'd touched each other?
Athos' hands, frozen in midair, settled carefully on Aramis' shoulders.
Tactile. Aramis was always touch and hold and hug. Athos had enjoyed that, once upon a time.
And Aramis' face lit up again, and he settled his hands on Athos' jaw, stroking his thumbs over the rough strands of Athos' beard. It gave Athos the chance to look at Aramis, too--really look, see how he was doing. If there was one thing Athos had learned being a jet-setting European film star, it was that Los Angeles could chew you up and spit you out.
Aramis did look tired. He had circles under his eyes from the plane, crow's feet beginning to start in the corners of his eyes, and Athos saw a few pure silver strands in the coal black of his beard. But he was tanner, leaner and more muscular, and his eyes were bright and clear.
"You look amazing," Aramis said, just as Athos was thinking it about him. "This shaggy thing, I love it, it really works for you."
"I was telling him that," Porthos said, and Athos jolted, looking over at him in chagrin. He'd forgotten all about Porthos.
But Porthos was grinning at them, glancing over as he helped--oh, shit, Athos had just completely forgotten--
"Hello, don't mind me, go on," Adele said with a wave of her hand, as she settled in beside Porthos with her and Aramis' carry-on bags. "If you're going to kiss him, Aramis, just get on with it."
Athos' face burst into flames, but all Aramis did was laugh and--yes, that was a smacking kiss pressed to his temple, Aramis' beard scratching his cheek and making him burn worse.
Still, it felt good.
"Am I gonna get a hug, too?" Porthos asked Aramis, his eyes wide and innocent.
Aramis cackled and launched himself across to the other seat into Porthos' arms. The two of them hugged like they always did, back-slapping, squeezing, laughing, and Athos tried, like he always did, not to be envious of how easily they touched, laughed--smiled and held each other.
"Oh, I missed you so much," Aramis sighed, drawing back to beam at Porthos. "Look at you, God, you look so good."
"So do you," Porthos laughed, and it was still so jarring to Athos, that the two of them could give and take compliments so easily.
"I had to at least try, these pictures of me are going to be all over the internet in about ten minutes." Aramis ducked his head, grinning a little awkwardly, and Porthos cuffed him with a smile.
"Stop pretending to be embarrassed that you're famous."
"I am embarrassed, it's a mess," Aramis laughed, as Porthos pulled him down into the seat beside him and hooked him close with an arm around his neck. "And I don't even have it as bad as a lot of my co-stars, the worst they say about me is that I look 'scruffy.'"
"You do look scruffy," Athos said, as he settled into the seat on Aramis' other side. He twisted to rap his knuckles on the divider to the front seat, and the car's engine rumbled from idling to life.
"Lovely digs, Athos," Adele said admiringly, and ran one hand over the leather seat. "Family car?"
"They've started speaking to me again now that I'm taking a job worthy of my station." Athos rolled his eyes. "I'm sure I'll have to direct or produce some disgusting Oscar-bait next year to pay them back for it, but I'll jump off that cliff when I come to it."
Adele and Aramis laughed, while Porthos snorted in irritation. "They ever gonna stop assuming you're at their beck and call?"
"I am at their beck and call, Porthos. That's what 'family business' means."
Aramis tugged him closer with an arm around his shoulders, and Athos went with only the barest hint of a struggle. "I do have to thank your parents, though," Aramis sighed. "They got me such a wonderful agent."
"They can be very generous when they see a good investment," Athos agreed. He shared an amused smile with Porthos as Aramis preened slightly.
It wasn't an exaggeration. Aramis was a phenomenal screen actor, and Athos' parents ran a production company. They'd snatch him up for their stable once he'd built up his credits some, Athos was sure.
"Is there anything you'd like to do right now?" Athos asked Aramis, trying to distract himself from increasingly bitter thoughts. "You have about an hour of vacation before the table read at noon."
"Your SM moves fast," Adele said, the deep satisfaction of a fellow organized person in her voice.
"It's Ninon," Athos said, which explained everything, and Aramis and Porthos both made sounds of understanding.
Adele's was one closer to triumph, and she leaned over and slugged Aramis in the arm. "How lovely, you're going to have someone else riding your arse for a change."
Aramis' eyes went comically huge, his mouth dropping in an exaggerated pout. "My darling, you're not going to abandon me to these brutes' tender mercies?"
"Too right I am," Adele said, sinking back into her seat with relish. "You're the one who gave up his vacation. I did no such thing. And you're going to have a devil of a time with Armand," she added, and grinned wickedly at him. "He holds grudges, you know."
Aramis groaned. "I know."
Porthos grinned at him. "He's still mad you stole his assistant."
"He acts like Adele didn't have any choice in the matter," Aramis sniffed. "I was going to Los Angeles, and she wanted to go, too."
"I wanted," Adele said archly, "to be a film production assistant. I choose to stay with you because RH films in Hawai'i."
"I"m a vehicle for beaches and celebrity," Aramis said to Athos and Porthos, shaking his head. "There's no loyalty whatsoever."
But he and Adele shared a grin, and Athos knew it was all talk. They flirted and bickered and acted up how rotten they were to each other, but Athos knew they had a rock-solid friendship under that.
He envied it, a little. They were out on their own together in America, and while it was bitter to see a different sort of partnership succeed where his own (screen partnership, life partnership) hadn't, he wasn't so selfish that he wasn't glad they had each other.
"She got to meet Heidi Klum last week," Aramis stage-whispered to Athos. "She was picking up a suit and ran into her at the designer's."
"Yes, you're starting to make more interesting connections," Adele drawled, as she held out her hand and made a show of examining her cuticles. "I suppose I won't drop you for Heidi just yet."
"Now, Iman..." Porthos said, stroking his beard, and the car shook with laughter.
Athos sat in the middle and soaked it up--even as his heart started pumping rabbit-fast beneath his ribs. Aramis really was getting famous. His career was lighting up, he was meeting people, getting bigger offers on his breaks from his show--and that was filming a fourth season in the spring. He didn't know if it was going to happen, but even the thought of losing Aramis to the same glittering hell Athos had lost himself in was chilling.
But Aramis didn't hate it the way Athos had. Aramis was thriving.
What the hell was Athos doing, dragging him away from all that? For his own selfish reasons?
"Where are we going, anyway?" Aramis asked, twisting around to look out the tinted windows.
"Serge's," Athos said, and only felt a little guilt at his selfish delight in Aramis' wide-eyed joy.
"Thought you'd like a little nostalgia for your homecoming," Porthos said, his smile brighter than ever at Aramis' obvious pleasure.
"I haven't had proper chips in five years, what do you think?" Aramis laughed, and Athos' face burned again as Aramis pulled him close and pressed another beard-rough kiss to his temple.
Porthos caught Athos' eye and grinned, and Athos tried not to let any of his anxious, selfish joy show on his face when he smiled back.
He felt like a thief, but being held again was so intoxicatingly good that he couldn't summon too much guilt.
"Right on time," Ninon said as the three of them piled out of the limo onto the pavement. She was standing outside the theater waiting, rolled script tucked under one of her crossed arms. "Is unshaven and reeking of grease really the first impression you want to make on your cast?"
"They already know me," Athos said, and accepted her brief hug and kiss on the cheek. "You're looking well."
"Thank you, I am," she said without a trace of embarrassment, and leaned in for Porthos and Aramis' cheek-kisses as well. Athos met their eyes and smiled, already feeling a little more relaxed.
Everything about Ninon was confidence and grace (and glamour), from her long, sleek ponytail of curls to the bright turquoise toenail polish peeping out of her pumps. She'd always been like that, since Athos had known her. They met at LAMDA, when she (three years older and far worldlier and wiser at all stages of the game) had stage managed student productions. She'd been one of the few people to stay in touch with Athos during--and after--his marriage, largely because Ninon was just as stubborn as he was.
It was easy to talk to Ninon, for some reason: less baggage, less bullshit.
"I'm glad we're working together," Ninon said to him, just as the thought crossed his own mind. He smiled at her and nodded, and she hooked her arm in his. "Shall we?"
"I'm already enjoying this," Aramis said gaily to Porthos as the four of them started inside.
Athos and Treville's day of phone calls had borne fruit, gathering a full tech crew and actors for small roles, and the theater space was indeed occupied when they walked into the black box.
That thing that had lit up in his chest at lunch with Treville--the little spark, the fire he barely remembered after five years without it--caught fire again, an ember of excitement rekindling, as he saw--a full cast, his cast, standing and sitting and talking and milling around on stage. Familiar faces and not; people he hadn't seen in years and people he hadn't seen in his life: all here to make something with him.
"Stop it," he heard Porthos mutter behind him.
"What?" Aramis said back in an undertone, far too innocent to actually be so.
"She's married now."
"I know that," Aramis hissed, "I was just looking."
Oh, fuck. Athos had forgotten.
Though how he'd forgotten Aramis' massive, longstanding, embarrassingly gushy schoolboy crush on Anne Mauricia--now Bourbon--he didn't know.
Fantastic. It was barely noon on the first day, and Athos was already making enormous, glaring oversights that could potentially turn everything into the biggest shit show imaginable.
This was why he sent drunken emails to himself like dear wanker stop being a useless twat. He clearly forgot, otherwise.
With that adding to his already not-inconsiderable worries, Athos nearly vibrated off the ground when Treville's voice boomed out in the (perfectly acoustic, good) space. "Athos, good, you're here."
Everyone turned, then, conversation dying, and Athos took a deep breath.
This was it.
"Good to see you all together again," Treville said as they met him in the aisle. He looked like he meant it, smiling like a pleased parent, for all that he'd called them Disasters One through Three in school.
"Good to be seen," Porthos laughed, and Athos didn't have to look (though he did, because the sight was immeasurably comforting) to know Porthos had his arm around Aramis' shoulders again. It was as though Porthos was afraid Aramis would snap back to America like a rubber band if he let go for too long.
Athos couldn't blame him, really. He had to keep looking at them both, to be sure this was really happening, himself.
Treville nodded. "Our stray's finally home, I see," he said wryly, but his smile took away any cut the words might have, and he drew Aramis in for a short embrace. "Welcome home, son."
"Hi, Captain," Aramis said, and grinned wicked sharp as Treville rolled his eyes. "You knew I'd have to bring it back."
"No," Treville said, jabbing a finger at him. "I ban that name from my theater."
"Children will play, John, I told you," Richelieu's detached voice said from somewhere to their left. Athos barely held in his startled twitch, ignoring Treville's clear amusement when he cricked his neck looking around for the producer.
Richelieu sat in the row of seats just behind them, his attention seemingly on the tablet and clipboard in his lap--but really, Athos knew, on the spectacle before him.
And on Athos.
His skin was not crawling, per se, but his neck definitely prickled as he gave Richelieu a nod and turned back to the cast.
All of whom, of course, were now looking interestedly at him.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, he swore inside his head, then pulled up a smile and strode forward. "Hello, everyone. Shall we start with introductions?"
It helped that he, personally, already knew most everyone. It gave him time to sit and collect himself while everyone got to know each other.
It had been years since he'd worked with Louis Bourbon and Anne--long enough that they hadn't been married--but he was glad to have them. Anne would be a regal Desdemona, and Louis was good-natured and harmless-seeming enough that his Roderigo wouldn't be too slimy. Aramis played off the both of them well, and Porthos and Anne had always gotten along.
Not for the first time, Athos hoped all these scattered recollections of how people interacted would serve them decently well. It would have to do in lieu of chemistry auditions--they just didn't have the time.
Constance he was glad to see again--embarrassed, as always, that he'd let the two of them slip so far out of touch--and while she was giving him the going to corner you later and dig out everything look, she was sitting with her shoulder pressed up against Porthos' and her smile bright, and he knew he'd made a good decision calling her. She'd be the perfect Emilia to Anne's Desdemona.
His Cassio, now, Athos had never met. He was one of Treville's pet projects, fresh out of drama school and apparently talented. D'Artagnan was practically vibrating with energy where he sat, looking eagerly between Porthos and Aramis and Athos like he was expecting them to do a trick. That one seemed likely to be a handful. Athos made a mental note to obnoxiously blame Treville at every possible opportunity.
They'd gone round the circle of actors by the time Athos wrapped up that train of thought, and when he looked up, he saw that the attention had all refocused on him. He was going to have to get used to that.
"Well," he began, because it seemed like this was his cue, "now you've all met each other, I suppose you'd like to meet me."
His voice failed, there, because what was there to say? What even was he, these days?
Without even thinking, Athos flicked his eyes to his friends. Porthos' steady gaze grounded him, and Aramis gave him a reassuring smile from Porthos' other side.
Athos took a deep breath. "For those of you who know me, you know I've been out of the game for a while. I'm not looking to make a re-entrance with something flashy and extravagant. This play is about trust, emotion at its most raw. I want this show to be the same. We don't need an enormous set, or lavish costumes. We just need the acting."
That seemed to strike a chord. Anne was nodding, Constance smiling, and Aramis and Porthos shared a quick, private smile. Across the rows of seats, Treville nodded in approval, and Richelieu was watching over the top of his tablet.
Heartened, Athos let himself go on, sketching out the core of his vision for them. Police instead of the Italian army; modern without hitting you over the head with it. Sparse sets, simple sound design, stark lighting. He hated overproduced Shakespeare. He'd rather go too small than too big.
They seemed to be with him, eating it all up without arguments, and Treville was giving him the subtle smile of yes, good, proceed. Athos felt better--steadier, more ready to do this--but he still didn't feel like he could really relax until Ninon had passed around the scripts, and they were into the table read.
He didn't have to talk, then. He could just sit and watch and take the shape of things.
Aramis was in his element. He lay sprawled out with his leg cocked up on the seat in front of him, and his easy energy leading from the first scene set the perfect tone Athos had hoped for. Beside Aramis, Porthos was flipping ahead for his first scene, a faint line between his eyes. His knee was jumping up and down, nervous energy shaking through the row of seats so even Athos could feel it--
And without even looking up from his script, Aramis slid his hand over the arm of his seat and lay a gentle palm on Porthos' wrist.
Porthos' shoulders eased down, his leg stopped shaking, and Aramis' fingers curled and settled on his forearm. Porthos closed his eyes and breathed, a faint smile settling on his lips--
And then Athos was the tense one, because Porthos' little smile cut straight through him and settled sharp and hot in his chest.
He'd successfully avoided thinking about the night he'd spent at Porthos' until now.
He'd woken tucked in Porthos' cushions, his head gently settled on the nicest one, with a blanket over him and a glass of water on the table opposite him. Direct in his line of sight was Porthos' bedroom door, cracked open enough for Athos to see rumpled navy sheets--and open enough that Porthos would have been able to keep an eye on him all night, in case he'd needed anything.
The smell of toast and the sizzle of a pan had woken him. God, toast and fucking eggs? Porthos had let Athos fall asleep in his lap, tucked him in, and then gotten up to make him breakfast--
And before he could even think about bolting in sheer embarrassed terror, Porthos had called from the kitchen-- "I just saw your head come up, come here and get this toast before it fucking burns--"
And thank God, because then he'd been up and helping and hadn't had to think about Porthos putting him to sleep and getting up to cook for him.
Even when Porthos had turned that gentle, soft little smile (the one he wore now, for Aramis' touch) on Athos, the two of them standing in the kitchen eating hot eggs off slightly burnt toast--he still hadn't let himself think about it. He'd just smiled, and let Porthos make him laugh, and helped Porthos wash up before dashing home to make himself presentable for Treville by noon. Actually thinking about Porthos taking him home and letting him stay and making him so welcome was not an option.
Because something about feeling so...cared for shook him, deep in his chest.
He wasn't worthy of Porthos' care yet. Or Aramis' kind caresses--or either of their gentle, open smiles.
He'd abandoned them for five years. He needed to keep that firmly in front of himself. He was the one who owed them. He was doing this for them.
If he could even do this at all.
Ninon's foot nudged his, and Athos dropped back into the table read with a jolt--Porthos was speaking.
"I fetch my life and being from men of royal siege, and my demerits may speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune as this that I have reach'd--"
And Athos' focus crystallized into Porthos' speech. The way Porthos was holding his head, the squared set of his shoulders but the ease of his back: good, perfect if he'd just be a little looser, and Athos made a note to tell him you're a fighter, remember, ready to move, you shouldn't be so tense. They'd have to do movement exercises, all of them--Aramis looked like he wanted to lead from his head, and Athos wanted to be sure he'd thought that out before committing to it--
He had a full page of notes before they'd hit the third scene, ideas overflowing and needing a place to spill and crash: exercises to try, movement and character and working in couples, in pairs or trios and scene groups--voice work for Aramis and d'Artagnan, maybe Anne, too--was he going to want fights? Real ones? Talk to Charon--Flea was going to butcher him for wanting the moving spotlights he was aching for, but there wasn't any other way to light Aramis with all his energy...
The read went on, and Athos sat silent and scribbled madly in his notebook, listening and glancing up and surprising himself with how easily he slid back into the stream of it.
A fish who'd been thrashing on land, dropped back into the river and finding it can breathe again. And not just breathe, but swim.
He didn't look up enough to notice, but if he had, he would have seen how they all were watching him. Treville, with a satisfied smile, exchanging I told you so glances with Richelieu. Anne and Louis, sharing pleased looks, legs pressed together under their seats; d'Artagnan, watching Athos so avidly he nearly missed a cue; Constance looking curiously between him, and Aramis, and Porthos.
And Aramis and Porthos themselves, who only looked up when they were done with a scene--but looked unerringly, each time, to Athos, as if to reassure themselves he was still there.
It was probably for the best he didn't notice that. It only would have flustered him.
I'm out of town this weekend, so may not be able to respond to things very quickly, but if you need me, you know where to find me!
Chapter 5: Act II, scene ii
A not-a-shovel talk, an irksome meeting, and snacks.
Y'all are so unbelievably lovely, thank you so much.
"I didn't sign up for a manual moving spot, posh boy," Flea said as she skimmed Athos' lighting ideas. "You'd better pay me extra for this."
Athos gave her a look over the paper. "If you can think of a better way to light Aramis' soliloquies--"
She waved a hand at him to shut up. "No, no, it'll look phenomenal, I just demand more money when I actually have to be moving things about and not just changing cues."
Athos cut her a mock bow. "Your wish is my command."
She barked a laugh as she walked back out along the stage, squinting up at the lighting grid. "Yeah, I think we'll be able to sort something for the balcony, too, there's a--oh, for God's sake, will you both fucking shut it?"
The roaring laughter that had played under the last ten minutes of conversation ceased, and Porthos and Charon looked up guiltily from the pile of test costumes downstage. Porthos had a police hat hanging askew on his head, and he quickly whipped it off and tossed it back down. "Yes, Philippa."
Flea rolled her eyes at the sound of her full name and jabbed a finger at Charon. "You get over here and look at these set designs. And you--" Her frosty glare turned on Porthos. "Don't you have some lines to be learning? For, I don't know, an entire show?"
Porthos and Charon shared sheepish grins, and Porthos elbowed his old friend. "You heard the lady."
Charon laughed as he headed upstage to Flea and Athos, and Porthos flashed Athos a wink and headed up the aisle to the stage door. He'd had breakfast with them before their tech meeting and walked them to the theater--and even though he had about fifty other things to do, Athos was reluctant to see Porthos go.
"Where are you off to?" he called after him.
"Meeting Aramis," Porthos called back, and waved. "Be nice to my brother and sister," he added as the stage door swung shut behind him.
They'd known each other from primary school, the three of them, and while Flea and Charon had gone to technical school and Porthos had gone to be an actor, they'd stayed close. Flea was a master of lighting and sound, and Charon built incredible sets. (They collaborated, with a great deal of bickering, on costumes.) Athos had practical experience in theater tech, but very little in actual design, so he was counting on them to shape his rather rough ideas into something golden.
"I like this," Charon said, taking Athos' initial sketch of the balcony and walking backward downstage, squinting at the back wall of the black box. "The levels, I mean. Tall space, good for us to use that."
"It's not very deep, though," Flea said critically, crossing her arms.
Charon shrugged. "I can work with that. You just light it so upstage is in shadow, and no one'll know it doesn't go all the way back."
"Because my job is covering your inadequacies, of course," Flea shot back, and Athos held up his hands before that could start a fresh round of ribbing between them.
"I trust you both to work out something impeccable," he said, handing over the rest of his sketches. "I will stay as much out of your way as humanly possible."
"He's gettin' it already," Charon said to Flea with a grin as she took the papers.
"Yes, good baby director," Flea said absently, flipping through them. "Would you like a cookie and a pat on the head?"
Athos couldn't help but smile. He'd always liked her. "You're much nicer to Porthos."
Her grin flashed up at him. "Well, Porthos is much nicer than you."
"We all know that's true." He watched the two of them look through the designs for a moment, and then he just had to say it. "Thank you both for this."
Flea and Charon looked up from his drawings with identical bemused expressions, and Athos' stomach lurched with nerves. "I mean--signing on for the show. I know you have other theaters who could pay you more, or more important directors to work with--"
"You do realize why you're important to us," Flea interrupted. The shock of her spiky hair in the lights backlit her face like a halo, and all at once Athos regretted he didn't have a show that needed an avenging angel.
"Not to be mercenary," Charon drawled, looking back to his paper, "but you're fucking famous. This is gonna be a big deal, if you haven't realized yet."
"There are already paps at the stage door," Flea said, turning away and pacing downstage, squinting up at the lighting grid. "We'll have real reporters here soon enough. There was plenty of incentive besides the obvious."
It made his stomach twist, the matter-of-fact way they said it. Cameras, attention, publicity--but at least, he reassured himself, he would be harassed and hounded for something he loved, and not a project he despised. But-- "The obvious?"
Flea shot him a pitying look, but it was Charon who spoke.
"Porthos only gets his first headliner once," Charon said. When Athos looked over at him, he saw Charon's arms were crossed over his chest. He gave Athos a very Porthos-like look, in the half-lit stage--only Porthos' eyes usually weren't as hard as Charon's were right now. "You're the one giving him that chance, and we're glad--but we're not gonna hand him over to someone who doesn't know what the fuck he's doing with just a pat on the ass and a kiss on the cheek."
Athos' throat tightened. Of course.
"Not that we don't trust you," Flea said. "Because he trusts you, and we trust him. But."
"You've let him down before," Charon finished. His gaze wasn't unfriendly, but there wasn't any room for Athos' fuckups there.
Athos had known, deep down, that he wasn't going to get to just swan back in and have everyone welcome him with universally open arms.
Especially the people who loved someone whom his absence would have hurt the most.
"I know I have," Athos said. It was all he could say.
"You have no idea," Flea said softly, "how glad he is that you're working again." Athos couldn't read the look on her face, couldn't even try to probe apart the way the three of them cared for each other.
Charon snorted. "And not for his own sake." He shook his head. "He's too good for that."
Athos swallowed. "I know."
It was almost a relief, to have someone holding him accountable for the human collateral damage he'd incurred in his personal wreck. He wondered, on some level, if he'd wanted Flea and Charon for tech hoping for just this. His self-loathing, masochistic side was certainly wriggling delightedly in the muck of his soul right now.
Charon blew out his breath. "I don't wanna make this a shovel talk, 'cause it ain't. But, figured you needed to know." He shrugged. "Don't thank us like this is a personal favor. Because, much as we like you, glad to see you back, all that rubbish--this ain't about you. We're here for him."
Athos nodded. He could only stand there and wag his head like a child getting a scolding. After a few moments of choking down the lump in his throat, he found his voice. "We can all agree on that."
Charon's gaze sharpened, then--after a considering moment--softened. "Yeah."
"You do owe him," Flea said, as casually as if they were still talking about the lights. Athos was fairly sure that casualness masked an easy certainty to cause him bodily harm if he ruined this for Porthos.
"Good," she said briskly. "Glad we all know that." She dropped her eyes back to the lighting sketch, then cocked her head back up. "Besides, it's not like I'd let anyone else try to light him in his first big debut. God knows they'd fuck it up."
Charon laughed, and Athos could breathe, smile again. There was still one thing he needed to say, though.
"You both know," he began--and then his voice broke, and he was so mortified he almost couldn't finish. "You know," he got out at last, "that he means a lot to me, too."
Flea's smile was tolerantly fond. "That's the only reason this wasn't a shovel talk," she said. Then her arm swung up to point firmly at the door. "Now get out."
"We'll have designs for you next week," Charon called after him--when he'd finished laughing, of course.
Athos had almost gotten all the way up the aisle before Flea called, "Oh, and Athos?"
He stopped and looked back, but she was still studying the lighting grid, not even looking at him as she spoke. "And since there's no one to do this for Aramis, this goes for him, too."
Athos opened his mouth. Then he closed it. There was nothing he could say to that. "Thank you," he said at last, after his heart had churned a storm in his chest, and left.
The hall just outside the black box was empty, and Athos couldn't help but lean against the closed stage door and breathe for a moment.
For other people.
He wasn't all that sure he'd missed it.
But Flea's last words poked at his thoughts as he straightened and headed down the hall. Was there really no one to take him to task on Aramis' behalf?
Had he really hurt Aramis as badly as he had Porthos, when he'd gone away?
Athos and Porthos had meant to stay in the theater together, so of course it had stung when Athos left with Anne. But Aramis... Aramis was successful, glamorous, and living his dream--Athos had been all too happy to assume that was all Aramis needed, when it assuaged his guilt for leaving his friends behind. His stomach churned now to think that maybe Aramis really hadn't been all right with it, despite every appearance of being so.
If only Athos had the time now to worry about it.
He had no idea how all-consuming directing a full production was--and he didn't have any practice at juggling all the demands on his time, or how to delegate them yet. He'd had the tech meeting first thing, and--he checked his watch--needed to be in Treville's office approximately right this very second to start discussing promotion and art design with Richelieu.
He picked up his pace. He didn't want to look like a tardy rube in his first real meeting with Richelieu.
Treville's door was cracked open, as always, and Athos could hear two deep voices in quiet conversation as he drew closer. They broke off as his steps sounded on the floor, and Athos gave his customary knock on the open door to announce himself.
"Come in, Athos," Treville said, and Athos nodded to him and Richelieu as he entered.
Treville sat behind his own desk as usual--no feet on the desk this time, just a spread of papers and poster mockups. Treville's chair was angled toward the window, where Richelieu sat. The producer had his own materials spread over the small window table, and he collapsed them all into a single pile with a sweep of his hand as Athos sat down.
"Productive meeting?" Treville asked, breaking Athos and Richelieu's rather tense study of each other.
"Yes," Athos said, switching his gaze to Treville with some relief. "I've no doubt that the technical aspects are going to be exceptional."
"Delightful," Richelieu murmured, and Athos bit his tongue.
Richelieu was an unfortunate side effect of Treville's owning his own theater. At least, that was the way Athos saw it. Treville and Richelieu had had an...adversarial relationship, at best, when Treville had taught and Richelieu scouted talent. But once Treville was having to fill seasons of his own, there wasn't anyone better to promote them than Richelieu.
Aramis saw it as Treville having made a deal with the devil. Athos wouldn't go that far--but Richelieu had been one of Anne's mentors. Athos knew firsthand that for all that he was cold and ruthless, Richelieu was very good at what he did: cast shows, promote shows, and make people stars.
Athos had no idea how Treville put up with him for every single show, but their punchy relationship of yore seemed to have settled into a cool detente. And Athos was determined not to embarrass Treville, so he would be fine with Richelieu, too.
And to do that, he'd have to pointedly ignore what Richelieu just said.
"So," Athos said to Treville. "Shall we just--"
Treville's face flashed forbidding for a moment, cutting Athos off mid-sentence--then his expression smoothed, and he smiled blandly. "We're actually waiting on one more person," he said, his voice as benign and expressionless as his face, and Athos blinked at him.
"I see," he said, hoping his tone would convey his confusion to Treville while masking it from Richelieu.
"I've brought in a former member of my production team," Richelieu said. The producer's face gave nothing away, as usual, but Athos detected a faint hint of (malicious) glitter in his eyes. "He has some experience in promoting shows with a crossover audience."
Crossover, Athos was sure he meant, because Aramis was a television star. Not because of Athos' dead career. Crossover was good. They wanted to plumb that market. But he didn't like that glitter.
"Is he arriving soon?" Athos tried to keep his irritation out of his voice and off his face. "I've got a lot to do today, I'm afraid."
"Of course," Richelieu agreed, and for the first time Athos saw a real glimpse of irritation flash across the producer's face. "I believe he had a breakfast meeting run late."
Treville was chewing his tongue, and, oh, Athos did not like this--
If neither Treville nor Richelieu seemed pleased about this person, who the hell could he be?"
"So sorry I'm late," an unctuous voice cut in then, and Athos turned in his seat.
He'd never seen the man before in his life, but he knew him instantly. Anne had described her least favorite of Richelieu's former students as a "grease-haired, slicked-back, filthy blonde snake in leather" so precisely that Athos knew, without a doubt, who it had to be.
"George Rochefort, Athos de la Fere," Treville said briskly, and as Athos held out his hand, he was treated to a very specific kind of sneer from Rochefort.
It was the kind of sneer you only gave someone when you knew they'd been with the person you'd been chasing after for years.
It was oddly comforting to receive. He'd known already that Anne had never slept with the man, but it gave Athos a warm feeling just the same to know that Rochefort was still bitter about it. He'd only known the man for a few seconds, and already he was delighting in any irritation he could cause him.
"Charmed," Athos heard himself say, in his best bored-aristocrat voice. He hadn't even meant to put the air on, but--sometimes it was a reflex.
Rochefort's sneer grew even more pronounced. "So this is the famous Athos de la Fere," he drawled. Athos barely held in the incredulous arch of his own eyebrow as Rochefort quite unsubtly looked him up and down.
Athos' bitter aristocratic snap responded before he could stop himself. "And I'm sure there's only one George Rochefort." Rochefort's smile turned cutting, and Athos sat back down before the exchange could get any more edged. "Shall we?"
The next half hour was far from the most excruciating of his life. It was, however, a kind of tension that Athos had thought he'd left behind with the dissolution of his marriage: all sniping and backbiting and insincere smiles, while (at least on his part) privately wishing to be as far away as possible. Richelieu was cold, but Rochefort was insufferable, and Athos and Treville had taken to making long eye contact over the desk before too long.
He was saved by his phone's sudden hornet-buzz against his thigh. Athos tried not to jump up too eagerly from his chair--ignoring Treville's icy leave me now and I will destroy everything you love glare, every man for himself--and ducked out into the hall. "Sorry, excuse me--yes, this is Athos."
"Mate." It was Porthos. Athos was abruptly warm down to the tips of his fingers. "You sound all posh, what's going on?"
"Just a production meeting," Athos said, conscious of the men who could still hear him in the office.
Porthos snorted. "Delightful." It was so much better when he said it. "Did Flea and Charon give you any grief?"
Athos' mind had been so focused on programs--advertising--art design that he'd completely forgotten he'd had a tech meeting earlier. Then it all crashed back into his head--along with Flea and Charon's warning.
His chest lurched like he'd missed a step, and it was an effort not to change his voice. "Just the usual. Death threats, shaming, et cetera."
Porthos' laugh gentled his nerves, and Athos could breathe out the tension in his chest. "You gonna be done with the pricks soon?"
Save me, Athos wanted to say and didn't. "With all luck."
"Hmm." Porthos' hum had an edge of mischief, and Athos regretted having unleashed both Porthos and Aramis on an unsuspecting city together. "Can't you tell them you have an actor emergency? There's a spot on Constance's couch we really need you to be filling right now."
The pang of longing in Athos' chest was a physical ache. His heart soared--even as his stomach jolted with nerves. Yet more lapsed connections he needed to revive. "Give me--" He glanced back into the office, gauged the size of Richelieu's stack of papers still to go through. "Forty minutes?"
There was a scratch of static on the speaker, and then Aramis' breathless voice sent a shiver down his spine. "Athos! Come eat lunch with us."
"After my meeting," Athos promised, his pulse thumping in his throat. "Forty minutes."
Aramis heaved a dramatic sigh. "Atho-o-os."
"Leave him alone," Porthos said, close again. "What are you, two? Athos, just meet us at Constance's when you can?"
"Yes," Athos said. He hoped it was enough to convey the way his chest felt lighter, eagerness bubbling up so much he could barely contain it.
The next thirty minutes were, if possible, even more excruciating--because this time he knew what was waiting on the other side of it.
Constance met him at the door. "God, your hair's gotten ridiculous," she said, and threw her arms around him.
"I said that," Porthos said from behind her. He grinned at Athos over her shoulder, and Athos could only smile helplessly back, waving at him. Constance wasn't letting go any time soon. "Let him breathe, love."
"Overrated, breathing," Constance grumbled, her face shoved somewhere into the side of his head.
Athos smiled and reached up to gently disengage her hands from around his neck. "It's good to see you too." It was. It was good to be held, to be surrounded by people who cared about him again.
It was odd, of course, that people cared about him at all, but he was worn-down enough from the morning's tension that he'd take it.
"I'm giving you a pass for being so far out of touch," Constance said as she drew back. "Just this once, so don't expect it next time."
Athos opened his mouth to say how very generous--but then he saw the look on Porthos' face. The tightening in his brow, the way his eyes flickered down--and Flea and Charon's warnings still echoed loud in his head--and Athos knew the answer he needed to give.
"Don't worry," he said, motioning for Constance to lead the way inside. "There won't be a next time."
He only caught Porthos' shy smile out of the corner of his eye, but it was enough to warm Athos from the base of his chest out.
"I just thought it'd be nice to get to know everyone again," Constance said happily as she led them into her house. It was perfectly Constance--quintessentially English, with a small garden and flower boxes in the windows--and Athos wondered how well she'd been doing in the last few years. "God knows we've all got stories to tell each other--"
"Yes, and you were just telling us about dumping the pond scum," Aramis chimed in as they entered the sitting room. He twisted around, grinning over the back of the couch at them. "Hello there. Come and sit."
Athos could only smile and do so, drawn helplessly to Aramis' side like a compass to a lodestone. Porthos settled on his side, and Athos couldn't remember ever being so comfortably boxed in.
They weren't alone in Constance's house, he knew right away--d'Artagnan sat in the window seat opposite, grinning a little awkwardly and trying not to stare, and Fleur and Theresa had paused their rattling around in the kitchen to wave as he walked in. But he wasn't nervous. Not with Aramis and Porthos beside him.
"Since we haven't really got into the swing of things yet," Constance said, coming from the kitchen with a dewy bottle of chardonnay and a fresh glass, "I figure the mighty director can slum it with the cast for a night, before all the boundaries need to go up and such."
"How considerate," Athos said, taking his glass with some relief. It was early, but he could use a drink after the morning he'd had. Plus, the table lay spread with cheeses, grapes and bread, some meats, and Athos knew he wouldn't even come close to tipsy with all this at hand.
"Pond scum," Aramis said, like he was reminding Constance of something as she poured the drinks. "Dumping him. Please continue."
She waved a hand at him. "There's nothing to say, really--it just wasn't going anywhere, and now that I'm working again, it was just so easy to see how little he brought into my life, so--"
"So she threw him out the garden gate," d'Artagnan said. The flash of a grin peeked out from behind his piece of bread slathered with jam. At Athos' inquisitive eyebrow, he flushed and elaborated, "I rent the room upstairs. Saw the whole thing from my window. Literally had him by the collar and flung him into the cabbages."
Constance sniffed primly, and she smoothed her skirt with a very steady hand as she straightened. "He was being extremely rude."
"Marry me," Porthos said through a mouthful of ham.
Constance swatted at him and headed back toward the kitchen, but she was smiling, Athos could see.
"You live upstairs?" Aramis was saying, and he leaned in toward d'Artagnan with interest. "I thought you were still in school."
"I just graduated," d'Artagnan said, his flush deepening on his neck, his jaw twitching out pugnaciously. "Treville knows--" He winced, then corrected himself-- "Ah, knew my dad, he's kept an eye on me. He knew Constance had a place and introduced us."
Knows, knew. Athos knew that kind of self-correction--still had to practice it often, if he were honest with himself.
"Your dad?" Porthos prompted him, his voice a little softer. "Was he a theater man?"
D'Artagnan's smile shaded hesitant--for the first time, Athos reflected, in the two days that he'd known him. "Yeah," he said, and Athos caught the rasp of his voice. "He was a director, mostly youth theater and things. Nothing fancy."
Athos' throat closed, the sudden burn of tears surprising him more than anything. He felt more than saw Porthos and Aramis shift on either side of him. D'Artagnan was perceptive--Athos liked him more already--and the kid's brow furrowed, his dark eyes flickering between the three of them.
Porthos' leg pressed against Athos', and Athos still couldn't breathe or speak (of all the places and people to trigger this kind of emotional storm), so he just nodded a little, knowing they both would see it, and Aramis cleared his throat.
"Athos' younger brother taught youth theater," Aramis said for him. His fingertips fluttered over Athos' wrist like a butterfly kiss.
D'Artagnan blinked, nodded, and some of the boy's sudden wariness faded. He'd picked up on the past tense, too, Athos was sure, from the way d'Artagnan's dark eyes settled on Athos then.
"Two years ago," Athos said, in response to the silent eye contact. All bereaved people knew what that look meant.
D'Artagnan's lips twitched humorlessly up. "Me, too."
Athos raised his glass to him, and d'Artagnan smiled for real that time.
Porthos shifted on the sofa, casually to anyone watching--but Athos felt him press closer, support without boxing in. Athos leaned into it, letting out the breath he was holding, and sank back into Porthos' warmth, Aramis' touch.
He did such a good job of not thinking about Thomas usually. Of course it would be another eager, fresh-faced and recently grieving kid who'd make him think about it.
"Is this your first professional gig, then?" Aramis said to d'Artagnan, rescuing the four of them from the melancholy silence that had descended. "If you just graduated?"
"Yeah," d'Artagnan said, looking as relieved as Athos felt. "Yeah, I--I'm really lucky Treville thought of me--and grateful, of course," he added, turning those wide, earnest eyes on Athos.
Athos held up a hand, forestalling anything more the kid might want to say. "Please. Treville said you had talent, and really, I was the desperate one."
"Oh, thank you," Constance drawled as she reappeared, Fleur and Theresa at her heels. The younger women settled onto the other couch, and Constance drew up her legs on the squishy armchair opposite d'Artagnan's. "You just needed your two boys to be in cahoots with, and the rest of us don't matter. I see."
"Something like that," Athos joked with her, smiling despite himself.
"I do like cahoots, though," Aramis laughed, and leaned affectionately against him. "And we do cahoots so well."
"That you do," Constance said, grinning fondly at them. "Especially now you've got it all saved up. How long as it been for you three?" She'd met them just after graduation; of course she wouldn't know their school shows.
It was embarrassing how quickly the answer jumped to Athos' mind. He took an extra half-second to answer, because he didn't want to seem like that person hoarding good memories like shiny pennies-- "Much Ado About Nothing. Fall of senior year."
Aramis smiled fondly as he leaned back in his chair. "Ah, yes."
"Good days," Porthos laughed, reaching over him to grab a piece of cheese.
"Aramis was Benedick," Athos went on. "Porthos was Don Pedro, and I was Claudio. Although Aramis was forever needing help to learn his lines, so more often than not I was Beatrice, too."
Theresa let out a very undignified snort, nearly spraying herself with bits of crisps. Athos was expecting it for the Beatrice comment, but when their younger friend had cleared her throat, she giggled, "Claudio, seriously?"
"Athos was a good deal more fresh-faced back then," Aramis said sagely. He leaned over toward d'Artagnan and stage-whispered in his ear, "No mountain man beard."
Athos threw a grape at him, and Aramis laughed, catching it and popping it in his mouth. "I bet we still remember some of it," he went on, looking eagerly between Athos and Porthos. "It was the best time."
Completely unbidden, the lines rose to Athos' lips. They weren't even his--not Claudio's, not the role he'd actually played--but he'd done them enough, helping Aramis to rehearse, that-- "I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick," he said to Aramis. "Nobody marks you."
Aramis' jaw dropped in pure delight. Athos felt his neck heat, threatening to blush in the face of it, and Aramis leaned in to him, looking enchanted. "What, my dear Lady Disdain," he said, so happy, so surprised and proud, "are you yet living?"
"Thou wilt be like a lover presently," Porthos cut them off with a line of his own, "and will tire the hearer with a book of words. Don't get them fucking started, they'll do dialogues for ages."
"It was such a good show, though," d'Artagnan said, almost wistful-sounding.
A pause landed and stretched, and they all slowly turned to him. D'Artagnan stared--then turned bright scarlet. "I hadn't meant to say that."
"Did you see it?" Aramis asked incredulously. "That was years ago."
"I told you," d'Artagnan said, still blushing furiously, "that my dad would--he'd go by the school, he'd take me to shows, I just--remember that one."
Porthos shook his head, laughing. "Christ, were you a baby."
"I was fifteen!"
Aramis slid forward in his seat, his face alight with mischief. "Was it everything you'd ever hoped theater would be? Did it change your life?"
"Maybe," d'Artagnan muttered, reaching for his wine glass and taking a drink.
"What, really?" Athos asked, cutting off Aramis' teasing. He was genuinely interested, and the boy wouldn't be so embarrassed if it hadn't actually meant something to him.
D'Artagnan was still scarlet, but that fighter's set to his jaw was back. "Yes, really. I wouldn't say so if I didn't--look, I'd never seen a show like that, it was just so real and you all seemed like you were having so much--I hadn't had a lot of interest in theater until then, but after I saw a good show, a real one, it just seemed...more fun."
"Oh, my God," Aramis said into the silence this produced. "We're your muses. I may faint."
The laugh that went around then was too warm to sting like teasing, and slowly d'Artagnan relaxed. Athos couldn't stop staring at the boy--he really had loved their show that much?
Athos had never met someone who'd--directly or indirectly--admitted that Athos was his inspiration for acting. Which, essentially, was what a very embarrassed d'Artagnan had just said.
"I'm glad you get to work with us, then," Athos said, and d'Artagnan's wide dark eyes snapped up to his. Athos smiled at him, hoping d'Artagnan didn't think it was patronizing--but it was what Athos would have wanted to hear, in a similar circumstance. When d'Artagnan's eager smile unfolded, a heartbeat later, Athos felt the relief of having guessed it right.
"You remember the costumes on that show?" Porthos said, nudging Athos with his elbow. "That suit jacket you had."
"Yes," Athos said, jerked back into the moment. "Two inches short in the sleeves, and I had to sew on all those buttons myself."
"It made you look so young," Aramis laughed, his eyes dancing with affection. "God, remember the fight, when I challenged you to a duel--they had Porthos get between us," he said to the others who hadn't been there, gesturing, "and we did that slapstick hold-from-the-forehead, punch-swinging thing--"
"I actually hit you one night," Athos said to Aramis, grinning as he remembered.
"You hit me every night," Porthos reminded him.
Athos lay a hand on his arm in apology. "I promise all your fight choreography will leave you untouched this time."
It was hard to worry about fucking up royally like this--when he was reminiscing about the best show he ever did, surrounded by friends and people who thought well of him. The constant I'm going to be shit at this and destroy everything refrain quieted when Aramis sat beside him, eagerly throwing out favorite memories of silly rehearsals and golden scenes, and Porthos was all laughs and smiles on his other side. No one's going to think you're worth anything seemed fairly irrational with d'Artagnan hanging on their every word, smiling and nodding with each recollection, and Constance cutting in with her perfect jokes to skewer them.
That warm candle flame was burning bright--brighter, even, now that they were all together, when he looked between Aramis' face bright with laughter, and Porthos' warm dark eyes alive with pleasure.
This could, actually, work.
This was working. It was working well, and already Athos could see the outlines of something great underneath all of this.
It was going to be a very good show, if they just let it happen.
And then he'd have to be famous again.
It settled in his stomach, like he'd swallowed ice, a chill in the hollowest parts of him. They were all so talented, his actors. They deserved better than a director who was afraid to succeed with them.
But that little flame of excitement, of passion--that had to count for something, didn't it? He loved this. He did. That was what made this different, what made it better than the film career disaster. He hadn't loved that, just followed blindly in Anne's wake and decided his passion for her made up for how much he hated what he was doing.
Porthos' leg pressed warm and solid against him, jarring him out of the cold reverie he'd fallen into--just as Aramis' arm landed on the back of the couch, behind his neck.
That was different, too.
They were here.
Athos took a deep breath and a long drink of his wine, and tried to remember how it felt to enjoy himself. He was going to need to be practiced at that again.
Chapter 6: Act III, scene i
Difficulties always start after the first good review.
This chapter is heinously late! I beg your forgiveness. I was exhausted, and then, wa-hey, I strained something in my chest and was in SO MUCH PAIN all weekend long. Thank you all for your patience and amazing feedback! I will try, TRY to answer comments soon!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A Return to Form: Inside the Rehearsals of Shakespeare's Othello at The Garrison
by Marguerite Sands
Athos de la Fere is tired of having his picture taken.
"I'd much rather you take pictures of the cast," he tells our photographer when we arrive to watch rehearsals of Othello at The Garrison. "They're the ones putting in the real work here. I'm just spinning the wheels."
It's an odd turn of phrase for a director--and one from such a storied family, no less. London-based family studio La Fere Productions regularly produces Oscar-winning films, sends a delegation to Cannes each year, and generally takes pride in being one of the most consistently high-quality production houses in European cinema.
It made sense, then, for eldest son Olivier to go to drama school, drop his stodgy first name for the much-catchier middle name, and start tearing up the silver screen. But de la Fere doesn't like to talk about his film career, either.
"It wasn't for me," he says with characteristic bluntness. "If it weren't glaringly obvious."
While the lifestyle certainly wasn't--a much-publicized drug problem, followed by an even-more publicized divorce from fellow actor Anne de Breuil--the actual films de la Fere made in his five years in cinema are a different story. His first, The Collection, was a Palme d'Or winner, while the rest of the six films he appeared in were similarly honored: three BAFTA and Golden Globe nominees, and a Screen Actors Guild award as part of the ensemble for Cyclones, produced by his family's studio.
"I don't dislike acting," de la Fere admits, when reminded of his critical successes. "The culture's another story. Celebrity and all its trappings are disastrous for actual art."
Does he think film isn't art, then?
"Of course not," he says instantly--and then the first hint of mischief comes across his face since we entered. "Now, television," he says, and his stage training becomes immediately apparent as he pitches his voice to carry, "is not art."
The shout from the stage comes instantly. "I will murder you in your sleep!" his Iago, Aramis Herblay (television star and longtime friend of de la Fere's) yells in our direction, and de la Fere smiles, for the first time in the hour we've been talking.
In that moment, it's easy to see how this sober, quiet man has gained such incredible loyalty among his cast and associates.
When the scheduled director for the The Garrison Theater's first show of the fall had a family emergency, "I only had one choice," John Treville, artistic director and owner, tells us. "I needed someone who put the art above everything flashy, who had a vision for that without needing their hand held."
"If you'll pardon the reference, the play's the thing," Herblay laughs, when we speak to the cast about de la Fere's style. "Theater is spectacle, of course, but spectacle doesn't always have to mean glitz and pageantry."
"We're here to captivate you," Porthos Duvallon, the production's Othello, agrees. He and Herblay are a matched set, their friendship--since their time at the London Academy for Musical and Dramatic Arts, with de la Fere--evident in their easy closeness (not to mention the way they finish each other's sentences). "And that's what Athos is pushing us to do, just with our words and bodies."
"We don't need more than that," Herblay finishes--though the handsome actor winks as he adds, "Though, of course, there will be costumes. We're not here to captivate anyone in that way."
A pity for fans of London theater, because even beside Herblay's much-televised Adonis figure, Duvallon cuts an impressive presence on the stage. Barely two weeks into rehearsal, the pair have already established a fascinating contrast in their characters: Herblay's Iago is fittingly contained in company, bursting out in explosive monologue when he's alone, while Duvallon's Othello is expansive and outgoing in ensemble scenes, yet seems to lose six inches from his height when alone with either Iago or Desdemona (played by a statuesque Anne Bourbon).
One senses Duvallon is drawing on his own experiences for his portrayal of the titular role. The actor, 28, grew up orphaned on a London council estate, and though he's worked steadily in London theater for the last five years, de la Fere's production is the first lead role he's netted. "You have to have a backbone in public," Duvallon says. "Trying to just do your thing and fight the type-casting, the stereotypes. Family's there so you don't have to pretend. And for me--for Othello, Iago's his family, Desdemona is. It wasn't a difficult decision, to have those be the moments when he doesn't have to be strong."
"Which makes the tragedy, of course," Herblay says. (It would be remiss not to mention that his arm has crept around Duvallon's back as we discuss their characters.)
"Most directors choose to highlight jealousy as the chief emotion of this play," de la Fere says. "Which is a fine choice, it's in the text. I think it's difficult, though, when you're trying to play to a negative emotion constantly. Which is why I'm choosing to focus on trust, instead." He's quiet for a moment, then adds, in an echo of Herblay's words, "It's sadder that way, I find."
If things shape up in the promising way they seem set to, there won't be a dry eye in the house for the climax of de la Fere's Othello. Though the cast are playful and boisterous with each other in rehearsal, full of energy (a special mention should go to newcomer Charles d'Artagnan's exuberant Cassio), when de la Fere calls them to order, it's all business.
It's hard to believe they've only been rehearsing for two weeks. It's even harder to believe this is truly de la Fere's first turn backstage as a director. Though the long-standing relationships between most of the cast surely help, it's hard to imagine any director but the sharp-eyed de la Fere coaxing this kind of focus from a group so inclined to play rather than work.
"It's not work when it's so creatively fulfilling," veteran London actress Constance Rose, the Emilia to Herblay's Iago, says. "At least it doesn't feel like it. It's good to work with an actor as your director--actors know what actors want."
OTHELLO continues on page E4.
"I can't believe she was so glowing," Athos said as he folded the paper and tossed it on the coffee table. He stretched backward, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes.
"This may come as a shock, Athos," Aramis said, reaching across him for the paper, "but you are, occasionally, praiseworthy."
Athos swatted at him. They were on Porthos' couch, after Aramis had practically begged the both of them for a night in together (the phrase I won't be here long had figured prominently). Athos had been so busy with planning the tech, coordinating schedules with Ninon, and discussing choices with Treville, that he'd barely had an evening to spare for them. Now, sinking into the excruciating softness of Porthos' couch, he was starting to feel the bone-deep exhaustion creep upon him.
"Who even got them to come, anyway?" Porthos called from the kitchen behind them. He was stirring a large pot of pasta on the stove. "It's not like most shows get articles about rehearsal."
"Rochefort," Athos said. "This is what he does."
If Aramis had been a cat, his ears would have flattened along his head at the name. "I really don't like him, Athos."
"I don't, either, but ticket pre-sales have gone through the roof since this went to press today." Ninon had been texting in ecstatic glee all day. They'd already half sold through the first weekend, and it was a month away. Athos rubbed wearily at his eyes. "He's a prick, but he's connected like I can't believe. Better connected than me, even."
"He's a creep," Aramis said, flat dislike dulling his eyes. "The way he watches rehearsal--"
Rochefort often came to watch rehearsal on the pretext of sharing pictures and quotes for a better media presence. Athos agreed with it in theory--but not in the way Rochefort did it. He would lurk backstage, stand uncomfortably close to Anne, and he usually left Porthos, the titular character, out entirely. Athos didn't have any grounds to protest to Richelieu on, though, since the theater's social media accounts had exploded from the near-daily pictures. Ticket sales, for Richelieu, trumped all, and Rochefort was delivering ticket sales in spades.
"You can murder him once you've learned your lines," Athos told him, unable to contain the quirk of his eyebrow.
Aramis rolled his eyes so hard it must have hurt. "I've almost got them."
"I wanted you to have them two days ago."
"I haven't had to have a full play's worth of lines in my head for five years, cut me a little slack."
Athos hadn't had many opportunities to joke over the past week and a half. Now, relaxing a little for the first time in a few days... He looked over at Aramis and tilted his head. "Porthos knows his lines."
"This fellow's of exceeding honesty," Porthos called mockingly from the kitchen, "and knows all qualities, with a learned spirit--"
Aramis vaulted over the back of the couch and launched himself into the kitchen, yelling "Lechery, by this hand!"
Porthos laughed, and Athos heard the clatter of a spoon being thrown. "Not even the same act!"
Athos rested his head on the back of the couch and smiled. He'd never imagined that the sounds of Aramis and Porthos rough-housing in the kitchen would be soothing--
But then, he hadn't ever missed them for so long, in all the time he'd known them.
Still, he thought drowsily, a lassitude creeping over him as he lay there, he'd always liked the way they played with each other. They were so fun, so easy together.
Their smiles were always so nice.
"I will douse you for every cue you don't know--"
"Put the faucet down, you maniac, you'll soak the pasta--"
"I'll soak your fucking pasta if you leave me hanging in rehearsal again tomorrow--"
"Gentlemen," Athos called with as much dignity as he could muster. "Aramis, come here and I will run lines with you. Porthos, please do not douse the pasta when you've worked so hard on it."
All he heard from the kitchen were snickers for a long moment. Then Aramis called back, "Yes, dad."
"Go learn your lines," Porthos laughed. "I will bring the food, Aramis, go on."
Athos could hear Porthos' smile in his voice. A few weeks ago, he wouldn't have been able to see that smile so clearly in his head--but now he could. Their faces were clear as day to him again, etched on the inside of his brain.
"Come on, Aramis," he called, and rubbed a hand over his eyes.
A moment later, the couch dipped, and Aramis flopped over the arm to land next to him. "What say'st thou, noble heart?"
Athos rolled his eyes, but he couldn't stop the happy bubble of affection that floated up in him, and he picked the script up off the table. "What will I do, thinkest thou?"
Aramis twisted over and dropped his head into Athos' lap. Athos jolted in surprise, and Aramis grinned up at him. "Why, go to bed and sleep."
Athos arched an eyebrow down at him and flicked a glance to the script. "I will incontinently drown myself."
Porthos snorted, coming around the kitchen counter with two steaming bowls of pasta, and Aramis twisted his head to beam at him. "If thou dost, I will never love thee after. Why, thou silly gentleman!"
Athos nodded gratefully to Porthos as Porthos set Aramis' bowl on the table. "It is silliness to live when to live is torment," he read, going through Louis' lines with dispassion.
"O villainous!" Aramis laughed, grinning at the flat monotone Athos read in. "I have looked upon the world for four times seven years," he said with a wink--that was eerily accurate--"and since I could distinguish betwixt a benefit and an injury, I never found man that knew how to love himself."
Athos snorted, nudging Aramis' head off his leg. "Eat your pasta."
"I still had a line."
"Tell me after you eat."
Aramis very grudgingly sat up to eat, and Athos was self-aware enough to realize that he missed the weight of Aramis' body in his lap when it was gone.
Porthos, sitting down opposite, arched an eyebrow at Athos when he caught his eye--no doubt in response to whatever vague look of alarm broke over Athos' features at the realization--and Athos shrugged slightly, shook his head.
Porthos gave him a curious look for a moment still, but shrugged and let it go. "You know we're only teasing," he said to Aramis, his smile accompanied by a wink that made Athos' heart jump in his chest. "You're doing really well for having been off the stage for so long."
Aramis flushed in pleasure. "Thank you. I feel a bit at loose ends sometimes, so--thank you." It was the first time Athos had seen Aramis seem flustered under scrutiny since he'd been back. They were all still re-learning the smallest parts of their dynamic--and, yes, Athos remembered how sometimes Aramis could get so sweetly awkward whenever one of them complimented him.
Athos understood the feeling. He leaned in against Aramis' shoulder, a gentle press of support, and Aramis turned that flushed, surprised look on him.
"It's coming along beautifully," Athos said to him, and was rewarded with an almost shy smile. It was easy to say, because it was true, but it didn't make it any easier to endure Aramis'--and Porthos', too--smile of delight at the praise.
For all that it was kind, gentle, friendly, it was still almost more than Athos could bear--more than he felt he deserved. It felt so familiar, all of this: coming back together, building each other up, teasing and joking and having every moment be something comfortable and safe and playful. The trust was all still there.
"It is," Aramis agreed, smiling warm at him in relief. "It's going to be a good show."
"I really love this," Porthos said--and there was something low about his voice, like he was telling them a secret--one he was almost ashamed of. "I mean...well, I guess I can say it to you, if anyone..."
"It's good to be the lead," Aramis filled in. Porthos looked up sharply at him--then smiled, almost shyly, and ducked his head. Aramis grinned knowingly at him.
"It is, a bit," Porthos admitted.
"You carry it well," Athos told him, and Porthos gave him a grateful look.
Far too many actors morphed into the worst versions of themselves when they were finally handed a lead after years of bit parts. Athos had known Porthos wouldn't be like that, but he was still pleasantly surprised at just how well Porthos had truly settled into it. He was unfailingly professional with everyone--d'Artagnan's faint but evident awe had clearly grown into outright hero worship--and Porthos' sheer bloody-minded commitment had dragged the entire production along behind him. Porthos treated every rehearsal like it was opening night, and everyone followed his lead.
For Athos, still having days where he needed to find his feet, it was more than just reassuring to have his lead be such a role model to the cast. It actively made his job so much easier. On days he was rehearsing with Porthos, everyone fell in line--and on the rare days Porthos wasn't called, Aramis was nearly on his level of enthusiastic commitment.
Days with Porthos and Aramis were Athos' shameful favorites. On some level, he knew he shouldn't play favorites with his cast. But he didn't think anyone would blame him for enjoying what time he had with his best friends.
It was like picking up the best parts of his past, and leaving behind the worst.
"I'm glad it's you," he said. They both looked up, an identical question on their faces, and Athos remembered they hadn't been on that train of thought with him. "That is--that my first lead actors are you two. I don't know how I'd handle anyone else."
Porthos grinned at him. "Ahh, just give us another two weeks and we'll be demanding all sorts of diva shit."
"Like now," Aramis said, and nudged Athos in the ribs. "You're in my light."
Athos hit him with the rolled-up script. It was that, or something far more disgustingly demonstrative.
[dammit. did not want to be the public figure of this production.]
[Too late, sunshine.]
[fight choreo rehearsal is when?]
[1500. can push back but will also delay song rehearsal @ 1800.]
[needs must. rochefort has scheduled presser.]
[good God above. need me?]
[no, please get actual work one instead of watching me fumble horribly.]
[if parents call, distract]
[will require pay raise.]
"How fucking dare he."
"I'll speak to Armand."
"How fucking dare he."
Athos stormed into the men's lavatory and slammed the door behind him. This didn't stop Treville from following him, but it made his point clear all the same.
Athos braced himself on the sink with one hand, and cranked the cold tap with the other. It gushed out chill and clear, and Athos cupped a handful and started to scrub viciously at his face. He didn't dare look at himself in the mirror. He knew his eyes would be puffy and bloodshot, his cheeks blotched pale and red in ugly patches. You should never cry in public, Anne had told him. Your face is a mess, darling--
His eyes stung again, and he pressed the cold heels of his hands against his brows until it went away.
"I know Richelieu wouldn't have allowed that question on the list," Treville said. He leaned against the second sink, and Athos didn't dare look at him, either.
"Then his lapdog did."
"I'll make sure he's spoken to."
Athos shut off the water. "Do. I'm not here to have my personal life be a spectacle."
"Especially not when that spectacle is about my dead brother."
Now that you're back in England--
"I'm sorry, Athos."
--the advocacy group your brother Tom--
"I haven't even seen his grave," Athos said.
He hadn't meant to. It just fell out of his mouth into the echoes of ceramic.
"I didn't know that," Treville said quietly.
Athos sighed and rubbed at his beard. "I didn't want you to." He didn't want anyone to. He didn't think Porthos and Aramis knew, either.
It had all been weighing on him, lately. They were picking up where they'd left off--but he felt like he'd skipped something crucial. He still didn't feel like he'd earned getting to just jump back into his friendship with them. And things like this were why. He was just--missing things. Things that any ordinary, healthy person should have done the moment they got off the plane in Heathrow.
Things that he was now so embarrassed he hadn't done already, he didn't know how to try and do now.
There were several things he felt that way about, now.
"I haven't even been able to see a rock in a park." Athos' jaw twitched, and he clenched it shut. "Why would I go and meet all the people he'd worked with, all the children who knew him, when I couldn't even come to the funeral, hadn't even--"
He was very aware of the sound of his voice, suddenly, and closed his mouth.
It had all crashed on him, when the reporter held up his hand and asked--what would have been a fine and decent question for any sane or well-adjusted person who'd dealt with his grief instead of hiding it away, only since Athos wasn't that person he'd just suddenly had his eyes well up and become completely unable to speak more than a word at a time--
"Fucking vultures," Treville sighed. Athos nodded silently.
And it wasn't as if the tabloids didn't already know everything that had happened. On location, a fucking mountain in New Zealand--assistant director on the sat phone the whole time, nothing else getting through--and Athos hadn't even known his little brother was dead until they'd walked back into the hotel in Christchurch and the PA had rushed up and steered him away from the magazine racks.
His parents rushed the funeral through, no one stopping to ask but would Athos blame himself for the rest of his life if he misses this?--so it was all over by the time Juliet had finished breaking it to him, so gently, far more gently than he deserved.
And then he'd never forgiven Anne for telling him to take the part, for not coming to New Zealand with him in the first place, for not flying out to be with him even then--for just sitting on the phone in silence while he sobbed like a child--so his marriage had fractured and dissolved the same time as his family did, though they stayed the walking dead for another two years--
Yes, the tabloids already knew all about it. Why would they still have to ask him about it now?
"Rochefort told them to ask," Athos said, announcing the realization to the mirror as it sank into his head.
Treville looked sharply at them. "I don't think--"
"There's no other reason they would. They already know I haven't done, they follow me everywhere." Athos felt peculiarly calm, though he could sense rage simmering beneath the coolness there. "Rochefort wanted my reaction, not the answer."
It would undoubtedly make the Internet rounds--stone-faced director cracks at the mention of brother's death--and ticket sales would jump even higher.
All at the expense of Athos' mental health, of course.
"If he comes near me again," Athos said, his voice very low and very calm, "I will not be responsible, John."
Treville nodded slowly. "I'll see it done."
"Good." Athos dropped his hands from the sink and stalked to the door.
The stage was already full when Athos finally made his way in--the whole main cast waiting for him, and God, how had he never realized how many of them had fights in this play, why were they all here to stare at him in this fucking mess of a state?
Aramis and Porthos looked up when his footsteps sounded (too loud) in the aisle, and Porthos hopped up to meet him at once. They'd been sitting closer to the door than the others, of course, were they waiting for him?
"Hey," Porthos said with a smile--a smile that faded, almost instantly, when he saw the lingering redness around Athos' eyes. "All right?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Athos said, because he really didn't want to break down weeping in front of all the cast.
He regretted how terse it must have sounded, when Porthos' eyes flashed hurt for a moment, but then the fight choreographer was in earshot and it was time to rehearse, not to talk.
It was easiest just to run down the list of fights with the choreographer, and let the actors know what order they were going to be needed--d'Artagnan and Louis first, so they could go, and then Aramis and Constance, Aramis and Porthos, Porthos and Anne--
But of course there was a hitch in that, because almost as soon as he'd finished running down the order, Porthos raised his hand like a schoolboy not wanting to interrupt.
"It's fine," Athos said to him, relieved that he could summon up even a small smile for him.
Porthos lowered his hand with a faint smile, but that faded quickly, too. "Me and Aramis...don't have any fights," Porthos said, his brow creasing slightly. "At least, none I know."
"I'd like some grapples in one scene," Athos said, looking down at his binder for where he'd flagged it. "In three-three, when you don't believe him, and when you're asking for proof."
Porthos blinked. "Oh."
"I like it," Aramis said, looking over at Porthos with a smile. "It'll certainly add some levels."
Porthos was frowning, though. "I didn't...think we'd get physical in there."
"Can we try it?" Athos knew the minute it came out of his mouth that he'd sounded short, but he was too stressed to debate this right now. They didn't have the choreographer as available as the rest of the actors. "If it doesn't work in rehearsal, we can drop it, but I'd like to just get the motions in, for right now."
Porthos' frown only deepened, though, and Aramis quickly stepped between them. "Here, let's talk about it while they get started," he said to Porthos, putting a hand on his arm and steering him away through the rows of seats.
Athos barely had time to be grateful before he had to pay attention to d'Artagnan and Louis. D'Artagnan's kinetic energy and Louis' on-stage hyperactivity were just too much put together.
He didn't have much extra thought to spare for Aramis and Porthos while Louis and d'Artagnan were bouncing around on the stage. It was supposed to just be a simple knife struggle, but Louis wanted more flourishes, d'Artagnan wanted to get more return stabs in, no matter how many times Athos tried to explain it's murder in the dark, d'Artagnan, you barely even see him. But, finally, everyone was satisfied and Athos let Ninon dismiss them, while he trudged to the chair where he'd left his water and downed half of it in one.
Hushed, harsh whispers hit his ears as he swallowed, and Athos lowered the bottle, looking around.
"Iago and Emilia," Ninon called from next to the stage, and the whispering broke off abruptly.
A moment later, Aramis strode briskly up to the stage from the far rows of darkened seats, his face pale and his jaw set, and Athos followed his pace back to where Porthos sat, half in shadows.
Athos couldn't see his face very well, but he didn't think--with the way Aramis looked right then--that it was a smile.
Aramis was pale--very contained, but he smiled as jovially as always when he walked onstage and shook the choreographer's hand, kissed Constance on the cheek. They only had one small moment to choreograph--just a minor murder--and as charged a scene as it was, they were both smiling and being eminently professional.
Maybe Aramis had changed in the past few years. Maybe his face was always this tight behind his smile when he was trying to focus.
Or maybe Athos was just trying to make himself feel better. What had Aramis and Porthos argued about?
It was quick, the exchange between Aramis and Constance--a rush, a grab of her wrist, and then a dagger thrust with Aramis' upstage hand. Constance turned beautifully toward him at the yank on her wrist, almost like a dancer's spin that ended with them face to face, chest to chest-- "Really make that thrust clear, Aramis," Athos reminded him, "a big shoulder an arm movement, so everyone knows what you've just done."
"Yes," Anne called from the front row with a smile, "there won't be a close-up or a Foley artist to make that squishing sound."
Aramis laughed, his smile warming to genuine as he grinned over at her. He'd started to enjoy the ribbing about his screen career. "I think I can handle it," he called back--and Athos kicked himself.
Because, yes, that was Aramis' genuine smile, not the one he'd walked down the aisle with or the one he'd had rehearsing, and it was very obvious now that he'd been faking. Well, acting--until Anne made him laugh, made him smile for real.
"A nice, simple murder," Constance laughed, hooking her arm into Aramis' and leaning on him. He rested his head on hers, her red curls hiding his face for a moment, and his shoulders sagged.
Athos' heart ached.
And then Aramis straightened, smile bright (fake) again, and looked to Athos. "What do you think?"
The motions had looked good. With rehearsal, Aramis and Constance would perfect it.
So why, then, was Athos seized with the sudden need to just have them do it again, and again, pretending it was wrong--
--So they could put off the next fight.
Because Aramis' shoulders were tightening more and more the more Athos hesitated, but Athos didn't have another options.
"Perfect," he said, and felt Aramis' split-second flash of betrayal like a punch to the gut.
"Excellent," Ninon's crisp voice cut into their tiny universe, and this was the only time in all the years Athos had known her that Ninon seemed completely oblivious. "Constance, that's you for your fights, then--Porthos, are you ready?"
"Yeah," Porthos' low rumble came, and Athos turned just in time to see Porthos unwind himself from the shadows at the back of the theater.
It was like--film.
That was all Athos could think, as Porthos walked down the center aisle.
The shadows, the way Porthos moved with an actor's training and grace--it was a stalk, more than a walk. The half-up house lights and the half-down stage lights meant Porthos moved in and out of light and shadow, and then he was there, present, larger than life.
If there had been a camera, it would have gone up--from his planted feet to his solemn, set face--and Athos' stomach dropped more the higher his eyes went.
"Let's get it down," Porthos said, his voice just as crisp as if it had been a line to read.
It was the most professional fight choreography Athos had ever seen--quiet questions to the choreographer, actors moving quickly and seriously through the motions.
He would be happy if it weren't Aramis and Porthos moving like robots, barely speaking to each other, hands cold and impersonal on each other's arms or shoulders. It was all wrong. They weren't laughing, weren't smiling, weren't even looking each other in the eye. Porthos was set and serious, none of his humor or warmth lighting them up, and Aramis wasn't joking, teasing, goading--
Athos knew he'd missed something crucial. Critical.
But he didn't have any way to ask. Not in front of everyone, not with the two of them clearly so uncomfortable. God, why now, this wasn't the time, they were falling behind and Athos needed this to stay on track, to stay focused, what was wrong?
He thought, for a few moments, it would be easy enough to catch them both and ask afterward--
And then the choreographer said, "Well, I think we're set here," and Aramis fled. There was no other word for it. He was gone before Athos opened his mouth. He grabbed his messenger bag off a chair, mumbled some sort of apology and goodbye, and walked briskly up the aisle and out of the theater.
Porthos watched him go, with barely a flicker of change in his expression.
Then he turned to Athos and asked, "So, bed scene, then?"
And there wasn't really anything Athos could do but nod, because he had to be here--he couldn't chase after Aramis right now, and it ached but it was impossible, and let them get to work on blocking Desdemona's death.
Thank God for Anne Bourbon. She was calm, warm, completely focused on the job, and Porthos revived under her smile and gentle touch. The two of them had built quite the rapport--not the bantering, playful (Athos refused to call it flirtatious) friendship she'd developed with Aramis (that Aramis had developed with half the cast, but who was counting), but the perfect relationship Athos wanted his romantic leads to have. Real affection and friendship, comfortable enough for them to kiss and hold each other onstage--but with enough of a boundary that everything was professional, without a chance of getting messy.
Porthos came back to himself a little as they blocked it out--careful of Anne's comfort, asking questions of the choreographer and of Athos--but he went right back to cold and serious as they went through the actual motions. Athos couldn't understand it. They all knew this was a physical show. Death, violence--it was all there, in the characters, as plain as could be.
They'd spent a week in table work talking about it. How each character saw violence. What was violence to them--an actual strike, or a breaking of trust... It was a violent play.
Why was it a problem now?
The scene was finished, the movement of the grab, the drag and struggle, the smothering all blocked out, and at last the choreographer pronounced them ready to rehearse without him. It seemed like it had been no time at all to him--he'd have to rely on Ninon's notes to fill himself in, a-bloody-gain, but at least it was done.
"Very good," Athos said, setting aside his notes and rubbing at his face. He checked the time on his phone--fuck, still behind, the music director had probably been waiting in the green room for ages. "Fantastic. Ninon, can you go and call the music director in--Constance and Anne, you two get yourselves comfortable, we'll have to go right into the song rehearsal."
Time, time, there just wasn't enough time, he wasn't used to this many people needing his time and energy. He was still reeling from the press conference, from Porthos and--
Aramis, fuck, Aramis hadn't been all right, and now Porthos was--
Athos sat up very straight in his seat and looked around the stage.
Porthos had gone.
No goodbye, no handshakes, none of the ways he'd been ending rehearsals, doing his best to project confidence and care for everyone.
Sing willow, willow, willow.
He barely spoke during the song rehearsal. The music director was the same one he'd known in school, Treville had asked her for the favor--she was older now, her bun full silver instead of streaked with blonde, but she still kept time with a hand on her knee, and he let her lead Anne and Constance through the duet he wanted.
The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree
Sing all a green willow...
They'd just--vanished. Both of them. They'd argued, and they'd hurt each other, and they'd fled, and Athos didn't know what to do.
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee
Sing willow, willow, willow...
He looked up, startled from his thoughts. "Yes?"
Ninon was turned around in her seat to look at him, her eyes sharp and her head tilted slightly. On stage, Constance and Anne sat holding hands, looking up at him with bright eyes--they all were looking at him strangely.
"How was that?" Ninon asked slowly, blinking at him as if to say, Are you with us?
Athos took a deep breath. "Yes," he said slowly, going over the soft soundtrack that had echoed under his melancholy. "Yes, I like the harmony. We'll try that in rehearsal, then, and we'll have another one just for the song next week. Thank you all for your time today."
The words came as if by rote, but it seemed to be appropriate. Everyone nodded, as if what he'd just pulled out of his ass was the Word, and started to disperse.
He had to do something. He had to make this right, he had to figure out what had gone wrong and fix it.
A hand touched his shoulder, and he looked up at Ninon's face. She frowned down at him, her brow creased with concern. "You're miles away."
"Yes." He stood, sighing, and picked up his bag. The ladies had gone; it was the two of them, and Ninon's hand rubbed soothingly over his shoulder.
"You should go home," she told him, gentler by far that she usually was. "It was a rough day for you."
He nodded. "Certainly not what I was expecting."
She smiled, wry and sympathetic, and Athos couldn't think of anyone else he'd rather have by his side right now. "Let's go, then," she said, and nudged him toward the stage. "Get the stage lights, and I'll get the house."
Athos nodded again and headed for the back wall. He felt curiously mechanical, suddenly--his worries were too deep, sucking away all the spare thoughts in his head. All that was left were instructions, tasks, to-do lists. Turn off the lights. Go home. Sit on your sofa and think about nothing.
Ninon propped open the door, letting the late afternoon light flood down the aisle from the hallway, and turned down the house lights. Athos turned off the grid, and then the wing lights, and--
And all that was left was the ghost light, warm and steady, on its single post next to the dressing room.
It was bad luck to darken a stage completely. Best to leave a single light, always, to keep away the ghosts that had walked there before.
All the spirits that had been created by the energy, the emotion, the words.
Athos swallowed down the lump in his throat, and his hand hovered above the switch for a moment. His thumb traced over the plastic, and for a second he ached, he ached, he ached for a ghost, for just a moment.
Ninon's voice was gentle, but undeniable, and Athos shook himself.
He turned away and strode up the aisle, his shadow stretching long before him with the ghost light at his back.
He needed to fix this.
I completely made up a last name for Marguerite, sorry if there's a canon one that I somehow missed. And Constance uses her middle name professionally as her last name. Her last name is a WELL-GUARDED SECRET.
Chapter 7: Act III, scene ii
Drama between dramatists.
Somehow I have managed to get out a chapter on approximately the scheduled I'd intended! Thank you all for lovely support.
[3 Sept 20--, 21:03:43]
Is everything all right?
I it seemed Did anything
Delete draft? [Yes] [No]
[3 Sept 20--, 21:05:22]
Did something happen at rehearsal today? I
Delete draft? [Yes] [No]
[3 Sept 20--, 23:10:37]
what do I do if my lead actors suddenly had meltdowns at rehearsal, how do I fix th
Delete draft? [Yes] [No]
[5 Sept 20--, 12:34:55]
please be advised that for some reason Aramis and Porthos are no longer speaking. any insights you have on why or how to fix are most appreciated. in the meantime, let’s start giving notes by email so we don’t have to hold anyone at rehearsal.
[5 Sept 20--, 18:21:00]
if you have ever witnessed a more tense or uncomfortable rehearsal than that, please let me know so I don’t feel like the worst failure ever to cross a stage.
will it in any way inconvenience you if i jump in the thames
Delete draft? [Yes] [No]
[6 Sept 20--, 02:04:43]
they aren’t speaking and aramis was on the edge of tears tonight and porthos nearly shouted at d’artagnan, what do I DO, what the hell do i
Delete draft? [Yes] [No]
[6 Sept 20--, 10:33:28]
yes, overslept, sorry, will be there in short order
[6 Sept 20--, 23:51:11]
[To: Aramis, Porthos]
look, whatever happened, can we please talk about it? because i need you both to start speaking to each other again, we can’t go on like this--it’s a SHOW, it needs all of us, and oh for fuck’s sake what the fuck am I doing I can’t bully you both into this that’s despicable and you need your space i can’t do this fuck FUCK
Delete draft? [Yes] [No]
[7 Sept 20--, 01:14:31]
[To: Aramis, Porthos]
i’m sorry if i did anything, whatever it is, i’m sorry, can we please go back to the way things w
Delete draft? [Yes] [No]
“Excuse me, Athos.”
Athos jumped in his seat, looking wildly up at the door of the green room. He’d taken to hiding--resting--in there between rehearsals, unable to bear the silence of the stage now that Porthos and Aramis wouldn’t linger there with him. It had been an excruciating several days, to say the least.
Anne Bourbon stood in the half-open doorway, her long blonde hair falling on either side of her face. She looked much younger than usual with it loose like that, so much more her character (a detached part of Athos’ mind made a note to tell Flea, for the final scenes). “Do you have a moment?”
Athos blinked at her, still caught up in the image of Desdemona instead of Anne--then mercifully his good sense reasserted itself, and he set his stack of production drafts aside. “Do you need something?”
Anne nodded and stepped into the room, closing the door carefully behind her. She didn’t have rehearsal until later that day--he wondered if she’d come early just to catch him. A sickly unease began to pool behind his breastbone.
“Sit down, please,” he said, mannered upbringing asserting itself as his brain went into automatic, and he gestured to the couch opposite him. “How can I help?”
Anne sat down very deliberately, taking her time as she did with all things. She crossed her legs, settled her purse beside her, and folded her hands on her knees--then looked up and fixed him with a look of steel. “We need to do something about Porthos and Aramis.”
Athos’ heart seized somewhere behind his throat.
The past three days of rehearsals had been a bad dream. The rhythm was gone. The easy camaraderie was tense and fractured, because everyone was walking on eggshells around Porthos and Aramis--who were in nearly every scene.
“Yes,” he said, because there wasn’t anything else to say. “I know.”
It was all wrong, completely at sixes and sevens. Porthos was short and snappish with the rest of the cast, clearly irritated when everyone else wasn’t on his commitment level, and while--miracle of miracles--Aramis actually knew his lines, his lines were all that he would say. He’d barely said a word that wasn’t part of the script, especially not to Athos or Porthos.
Porthos had a permanent frown; Aramis had a permanent red rim around his eyes. Athos had a permanent hollow ache in his chest that never went away now.
“Has either of them said anything to you?” Athos asked her. It felt wrong for a moment, talking about them behind their backs--but Anne was in this production, too, and Athos didn’t have a single idea of how to fix this.
Anne spread her hands slightly, her smooth brow furrowed in thought. “Not directly. You know them. But--the way they’ve both changed, in rehearsal…” She trailed off, her teeth chewing on her bottom lip, and Athos’ dread sank heavier in his chest.
“Anne, they haven’t--” He couldn’t even finish the sentence. He didn’t want to think it. He hadn’t seen anything, but--sometimes he missed things, sometimes he wasn’t looking, and sometimes in theater emotions could run high, fights could be--
“No, they’ve both been as professional as can be,” she hurried to assure him, and Athos could breathe a little easier. “It was only. Well. Yesterday, when we stepped through the fifth act. Porthos and I were together the whole time. He was shaking.”
Athos stared at her. “Shaking.”
She nodded. “And Aramis… Well, we both know he’s not himself.” Her lips quirked up a hint. “I thought friendly flirtation was his default mode, but he hasn’t looked me in the eye in three days. Even Louis noticed.”
“Louis.” Athos couldn’t do anything more than repeat her words right now, it seemed.
Anne smiled at him. “He said this morning that he was almost offended on my behalf. His wife is eminently deserving of being flirted with when she so chooses.” The dynamics of this marriage were becoming clearer the more time Athos spent with them. But that was just enough to make him smile, and not to lift the worried sadness heavy in the room.
Anne was very placid and unreadable, when she chose to be. It was one of the reasons Athos had been delighted to cast her. She could make herself a complete mask, until all that shone out was the character she played.
This was not one of those moments. The Anne Bourbon sitting opposite him was young and tired, and hadn’t put on makeup yet today, and was worried about her castmates.
Porthos had been shaking. Aramis wasn’t even looking at her.
“Have they hinted at all,” Athos asked slowly, thinking it through, “at what they argued about on fight day?”
Anne shook her head, but the crease in her brows was deeper. “Porthos hasn’t said a word about Aramis. And Aramis hasn’t said a word at all. He’s just been--”
“Obsessively learning lines,” Athos finished for her.
A sharp knock came on the door, and Athos and Anne both jerked around.
“Athos? Are you hiding in there?” It was Constance. “I need to talk to you.”
“Come in,” he called, after a glance to Anne, and Constance breezed in, kicking the door shut behind her.
She stopped when she saw them both sitting there--and then smiled wryly and dropped onto the couch beside Anne. “I think we’re here for the same thing. We need to fix your boys, sir director.”
“Has Aramis said anything to you?” Athos asked her, cutting around all the small talk and not caring how it looked. If it looked desperate. He was desperate.
“Just asked me to run lines, over and over.” Constance sighed, rubbing a hand over her brow as she took a sip of the coffee in her hand. “He’s certainly being the model of a stage actor, all meek and obedient and on-book, but it’s so unlike him that I almost hate it.”
Athos sighed and pressed the heel of his hand to his brow. He was getting a headache. “I know.”
His head came up off his hand, and he frowned at Constance. “Say that again.”
“All of it.”
She and Anne blinked at him, and shared a sidelong glance. “He’s being the model of a stage actor and I hate it?”
The model of a stage actor.
Not that Porthos would have ever really believed different, but they’d been arguing and Porthos knew how to cut too deep when he--
Arguing. They’d been arguing, but they hadn’t started that way, they’d gone back to talk about the--
Porthos was shaking the whole time.
“Oh, fuck,” Athos said, burying his face in his hands.
Constance sounded tentative, hopeful. “Idea?”
“Yes.” Athos lifted his head, his eyes fixed on the nothing in the space between them. Fuck. It couldn’t have--but it had to have been. He couldn’t see anything else it could have been.
“We’ll leave you to it,” Anne said softly, and she took Constance’s arm. “Come on, darling, let’s practice our song.”
“Thank you both,” Athos said, on automatic again, and they both said--something, he didn’t hear it--as they left.
He’d been so fucking self-absorbed. He’d been so worried about time, and about getting everything done, and about his own stupid grief that he didn’t have time for right now--
They’d dropped right into a dangerous spot, and he’d been too worked up in his own fucking self to do his job as a director and keep them safe from it, to walk them through it and hold their hands and actually listen to his actors.
He’d been too caught up in trying to be the director that he’d forgotten to direct.
He needed to call Ninon. They needed to rearrange the schedule again.
Athos spent the whole afternoon holed up in Treville’s office. Treville was meeting investors with Richelieu all day, so Athos spent the time in silence, undisturbed.
He went through his script and both his and Ninon’s notes, and marked off every place where there had been a problem that he hadn’t seen. A discomfort, an issue with a direction that he’d been too harried or rushed to see.
He was sick and ashamed down the to pit of his stomach. He’d thought it was going so well, and he’d had no idea, really, how much of a failure he’d been.
He’d never been responsible for the actual well-being of actors before. He was just the ideas person, or the particular coach for a scene, an act, a series of monologues. As an actor, he’d known it was something directors were supposed to do--he hadn’t properly experienced it since Treville, back in school, but he knew, intellectually, it was the responsibility.
And as it usually did when he thought about the past, about people who’d had the responsibility to care for one another and failed, his thoughts hovered over Anne--not his lead actress, but his ex-wife. Neither of them had ever been able to look out for each other. She was too focused on her career, he was too focused on oblivion so he could forget his career, and they’d had no idea how to be there for each other when the difficult parts came. Passion and excitement, but no security or stability. It was predictable, really, when the collapse happened. How could it not? They’d never had solid ground to build on.
The thought of that happening with Aramis and Porthos left him cold everywhere, a hollow center with ice frozen over it.
They were his solid ground.
So he needed to step up, to find all the places he should have supported them and try to build what they needed before it was too late. And maybe it already was too late--a cartoon of a man frantically laying tracks before an off-rails train--but maybe it wasn’t.
The text came precisely when he expected it to, and he glanced up for the message from Ninon: [This is your fifteen-minute call for rehearsal.]
He texted back the standard actor response, [thank you, fifteen] with a curl of humor, and set his notebook down.
He closed his eyes and breathed for the next fifteen minutes, and tried to remember every time he’d felt supported. Cared for.
It was sad, really, that there were so few of them--but so many of them were Aramis and Porthos.
He could do this. He owed them this.
He could fix this.
When he walked into the theater, he found the core cast assembled, as he’d asked Ninon to do. As was their wont before rehearsal started, they’d spread out across the audience rows, singly or in groups--with two painful poles at opposite ends: Aramis and Porthos sitting alone, house right and house left.
“Good evening, everyone,” he said, closing the door behind him. All eyes turned to him as he came down the aisle, and Athos tried to keep the centered calm he’d drawn into himself in the office. “Thank you all for handling a schedule change at such short notice.”
“It was no trouble,” Louis said for everyone, flicking curious glances around at the rest of the cast.
"We're going to do an exercise today," Athos announced, and dropped his notes on his usual chair beside Ninon. "Everyone sit down on the stage, if you please."
His actors exchanged looks, and no one moved. Athos walked down to the edge of center stage, taking his time, and sat cross-legged on the floor. After a moment of staring at him, they all followed suit.
Athos watched them sit in a loose circle, letting everyone settle. Once they had, he felt safe enough to turn his eyes to Porthos and Aramis.
Aramis looked uncertain; Porthos, stony-faced, and they both sat with their arms crossed--in very different ways. Porthos was blocking out the world, and Aramis was holding himself in.
The space between them made Athos ache to see.
"Today," he said, and looked around at his cast, "I want you to tell me how you're not like your character."
The silence fell heavy in the quiet of the theater.
“Sorry?” d’Artagnan asked finally.
Athos looked right at him, not at Aramis or Porthos or anyone else, though he could sense the tension that had settled over the pair of them. “I realized today that we left out a crucial part of our table work,” he said. “We did all the exercises to understand our characters--to figure out who they are as people, where they come from, how they feel when certain things happen. It’s fairly regular to find commonalities between oneself, as an actor, and a character, to draw on emotional moments.”
He took a deep breath. “But. It’s also important to keep yourself separate from your character. Possibly even more important, especially in a show as emotional and difficult as this one.” He flashed a glance to Anne and Constance, sitting side by side, and the two of them were nodding in approval.
Constance actually winked at him, and, heartened, Athos went on. “I don’t think I did enough work on this with you all, and I’m sorry. We’re in a much deeper, more emotional place right now, and I need to make sure everyone’s protected. So today, we’re going to go over all the ways these characters are not us.”
The air seemed to have thawed slightly by the time he finished speaking, and for the first time since they sat down, Athos dared to look at Aramis and Porthos.
Aramis’ eyes had gone wide and wet, and his tight curl around his own body had eased. The weight in Athos’ chest lifted a little at the sight.
Porthos, though, still sat cold and heavy on the floor, hunched and staring at the stage, and Athos tried to stay steady, tried to stay calm and easy.
“Would anyone,” he asked, all his training bent on keeping his voice even, “like to start?”
“I can,” Anne said, her strong voice rising across the silence of the group, and Athos turned to her in relief. He motioned for her to keep going, and Anne smiled at him. “I’m not as impetuous as Desdemona, I think. Nor as trusting. She’s rather sheltered, quite ready to think the best of everyone, where I’m--” She hid a smile. “A little more cynical.”
Athos’ chest unknotted itself, as everyone smiled at Anne’s answer. “And how does that change how you play her?” he prompted, and Anne huffed a thoughtful breath.
“It’s nice to be able to play the naïf,” Anne said, smiling sidelong at her husband. “But since I know where she’s making her mistakes, it’s easier to separate myself from her in those moments.”
Athos could have kissed her. “That’s perfect,” he said, looking her straight in the eye, and Anne gave him a tiny nod, her smile quirking up a little more. “Anyone else?”
“I’m not as bitter as Emilia can be,” Constance chimed in. She wound a lock of her long red curls around her finger as she spoke. “And not, as Anne said, as trusting. I’d never do something like take that handkerchief without getting a proper straight answer as to why it was needed. I need real reasons to do things.”
“You do,” Athos agreed. He’d been having to explain his choices in lighting and staging to her since they’d begun rehearsals.
Constance grinned at him. “It makes it a little frustrating to play her, sometimes, because I can see where the awful things hinge on her--but I can push that frustration into her relationship with Iago.” She stuck out her tongue at Aramis, who actually laughed, and the whole stage seemed to brighten a little.
Encouraged, they went on. Louis wasn’t as trusting as Roderigo either, and far less obsessive. D’Artagnan was--to all their amusement--more of a hothead than Cassio, and wouldn’t have been led around by the nose so easily.
When d’Artagnan finished, an expectant silence fell. Everyone looked back and forth between Porthos and Aramis, clearly sensing a significant moment, but Athos only had eyes on Aramis. Porthos hadn’t said a word, still staring determinedly at the floor, but Aramis had been looking around, smiling and nodding, and Athos knew if one of them was going to crack, it would be Aramis.
Finally, Aramis met Athos’ eyes, and Athos nodded at him, encouraging him without words.
Aramis swallowed, smoothing his hands over the thighs of his jeans. “Well, I’m not a murderer,” he said, a trace of his humor back, and everyone laughed. Aramis smiled a little brighter and ducked his head, smiling at the stage. “I worry sometimes that I’m manipulative, like him,” he added, quieter. “But--I’d never ruin a friend, or so many lives, like that.”
He looked up--not at Athos, but Porthos. Porthos’ throat moved as he swallowed, but his eyes were still set on the stage.
Aramis sighed, and he pushed his hand through his hair. “I’d never betray a confidence. I don’t believe in lying to people’s faces, or behind their backs. I think, deep down, I’m not capable of destroying a marriage or a life like that.”
He glanced up at Athos, then, and Athos hoped his own eyes weren’t wet, too. “But I haven’t been considering all that, I don’t think.”
“That’s good to know,” Athos said, because anything else would have been patronizing or far too emotional, and he wished he could add that’s it, I’m glad, I’m proud of you without it coming out entirely wrong.
Aramis smiled at him, a tiny little thing, and he already looked braver, a little more sure of himself. Athos nodded at him, smiling because he couldn’t help it, and Aramis seemed to settle into his skin.
Then his brow dipped again, and he looked over to Porthos.
Athos’ gaze followed his, and it broke his heart to still see Porthos sitting there, staring at the stage floor.
“Porthos?” he prompted quietly, when the silence had grown too long. “It’s your turn.”
Porthos shook his head minutely, such a small motion in such a big man. “I can’t think of anything.”
“Nothing at all?” Aramis said, a little catch in his voice.
Porthos shook his head again, and the emotions chasing each other across his face raced back and forth too fast for Athos to name. “I can’t,” he said again, and this time Athos could hear the heaviness in his voice, “think of any way we aren’t the same.”
Athos slowly let out the breath he’d been holding. As much as he’d guessed that this was where Porthos’ difficulties were starting to lie...seeing it laid bare like this was painful.
He’d hoped, when he’d cast him, that Porthos would see enough of himself in Othello to make this easy. But Athos hadn’t realized it would be so much--too much.
Porthos still wouldn’t look up, but his voice started to come out, low and unsteady. “I grew up rough. I know I can hurt people the way he does, because I have. I make the same stupid choices when I’m in love.”
“You’d never kill anyone.”
Porthos looked up at him, and Athos gazed right back. “You never would, Porthos,” he repeated.
“You’ve only ever hurt anyone to protect yourself,” Aramis said softly, and they both looked at him. Aramis looked like he wanted to curl in on himself again, but he didn’t--he looked steady at Porthos, and lifted his chin slightly. “You’ve told me all those stories. Growing up hard and fighting for every scrap you have isn’t the same as--hitting someone you love, treating them like an object, taking a life.”
Porthos shook his head silently, but he didn’t look like he believed it. “I hurt you.”
Aramis did duck his head at that, but he just shrugged, and looked back up a moment later. “You said something in anger because I was pushing you someplace you didn’t want to go. I only took it seriously because I’d been telling myself the same thing for weeks.”
“I stabbed you right in the spot I knew was weakest,” Porthos argued, and there was something awful in his eyes as he looked at Aramis. “How is that not despicable?”
“It’s not despicable if you apologize.” Aramis gave him a tired smile. “And it’s not unfixable. I’m not dead or gone, Porthos, I’m right here.”
“That’s the difference,” Athos said, and they both looked at him. “You never go too far, Porthos. You commit yourself wholeheartedly, but not--blindly, damn the consequences, no turning back.”
Porthos looked back and forth between Athos and Aramis, and it was starting to get to him, Athos could see--a faint hope rising behind the haze of self-loathing.
“You’re a wonderful mentor,” d’Artagnan chimed in softly, and everyone looked to him. Athos had nearly forgotten the rest of the cast was there, but d’Artagnan was smiling tentatively at Porthos, and maybe this was perfect, maybe this was just what they needed. “You treat me like a real person, not someone to just be commanded or serve you. Not like Othello and Cassio.”
“We’re people to you, not symbols or figures,” Constance said, motioning between her and Anne.
Anne nodded, looking over to Porthos. “We have our own thoughts and choices, and you respect them.”
“You don’t ever make us feel like adjuncts,” Louis added. “You make this a team.”
“You are, by far,” Ninon said from the seats behind them, “the most thoughtful actor I have ever worked with.”
Porthos looked around at all of them. His face had softened, his eyes rather wide, and finally his gaze landed, almost hesitantly, back on Athos--like he needed someone to confirm it, that it wasn’t a dream. Athos nodded, and Porthos seemed to fold in on himself--but it was a collapse of relief, not despair.
“I just understand him so well,” Porthos said, and he rubbed at his face, scrubbing the heels of his hands over his eyes.
“That’s because you’re one of the kindest and most empathetic people I know,” Athos told him. “And because you’ve been in many of the places he has been. But you make far sounder choices, and the people around you are far more trustworthy.”
Porthos let out a tiny chuckle, and he glanced up at Athos with a hint of his usual, lopsided smile. “Yeah, that’s true, innit.”
“I certainly hope we are,” Aramis said, and Porthos’ smile turned to a grin as it shifted over to Aramis.
Aramis grinned back at him, still tentative but full of affection, and everything in Athos’ world shifted and righted itself as the two of them smiled at each other.
“I feel like we should hug,” Louis said brightly.
It utterly fractured the moment, but it made everyone laugh, and what could Athos do but stand up and be pulled along into it, squashed between Louis and Aramis and grinning at Porthos opposite him.
“Thank you all,” Athos said, looking around at them. “I promise I’ll do better.”
“Thank you,” d’Artagnan said, and Athos flushed at all the smiles and thanks that echoed him.
“Right,” he said, embarrassed, and dropped his arms. “If you’d all like to take about fifteen minutes, I’ve scheduled the rest of the cast to meet us then, and we’ll do a cue-to-cue step-through of the whole show to set entrance and exit locations.”
“Thank you, fifteen,” they chorused, and most of them drifted away immediately--going to get bags, grabbing phones and heading outside, Ninon following after a significant look back.
Which left Athos, Porthos, and Aramis standing on stage alone.
It was a peculiarly bashful moment. They all looked at each other, no one quite sure who should move first--
Then Porthos sighed and grinned at Athos. He laughed softly, and Athos' heart thumped painfully in his chest at the sound. "I was getting too deep, wasn't I?"
"I was--worrying," Athos admitted. "I--this is my job, isn't it? To keep you safe like this?"
And then Porthos turned to him, and Athos found himself caught up in the warmth of Porthos' arms, the solidness of him.
"Thanks for looking out for me," Porthos whispered.
Athos hugged him back--clung, not a little, and nodded. "Always."
Porthos looked over at Aramis, then, and held out an arm. “Well, come on, then.”
Aramis’ smile broke sweet and bright over his face, and he was in their arms so fast Athos could barely see the motion.
“Would either of you,” Athos said, his voice slightly muffled by Aramis’ hair, “like to tell me what actually happened?”
“I tried to bring him around on the idea of the grapple in that scene,” Aramis said, his voice half-swallowed by Porthos’ shoulder.
“And I didn’t want to, because--well, I thought it meant I was being violent, and now I’ve gotten past that,” Porthos laughed, his chin resting on Athos’ head. “But I got--really angry and said some awful rude bullshit about how Aramis didn’t know anything about stage acting anymore, and, mate, I’m so sorry--”
“It’s all right.” Aramis held on to them even tighter. “It’s all right, Porthos.”
“It’s not really, though,” Porthos sighed, and drew back slightly so he could look Aramis in the eye. “I’m really, truly sorry, Aramis, I was being short-sighted and mean and I think you’ve been doing brilliant work here.”
Aramis flushed a brilliant red, but he didn’t look away this time. He just stared at Porthos, so long and so intently that Athos almost felt he had to look away. “Thank you,” he said finally, and leaned in for another hug.
Porthos held him tight, one arm still around Athos, and Athos sighed out a relieved breath, keeping one hand firm on Aramis’ shoulder, and the other hooked around Porthos’ back.
“I’m so sorry I let you both down,” Athos said. He needed to apologize just to the two of them, with the three of them alone. “I asked you both to do this, to get involved, and I didn’t have the faintest idea of how to take care of you properly.”
“You know now, though,” Porthos said, and when he looked at Athos there was such a fierce emotion on his face. “You know and you’re pulling us through.”
The next words out of Athos’ mouth were supposed to be Thank you.
What actually came out was, “I wanted to do this for you,” in such a low and helpless voice that he nearly choked on it. Porthos’ eyes went dark and deep, and Athos swallowed, added hurriedly, “I mean, the show, the role--I wanted this for you, for--” He looked at Aramis, still holding tight to them both. “For both of you, I wanted to bring us together again. I felt like I’d let you down so much, going away. I don’t want to do that again.”
Aramis’ eyes were shiny and wet again, and he nodded, his jaw clenched and working silently.
Porthos didn’t say another word, either. He just pulled them both close against his chest, holding on so tight and so desperate, and Athos closed his eyes, pressed his face to Porthos’ shoulder and felt Aramis’ hair tickle his neck.
“We should--go out,” Aramis said softly. His voice sounded ragged, from the muffled way Athos could hear it. “All three of us. I think--I think we need to get out.”
Athos nodded, his face close enough to both of them that they could feel it.
“I’d like that,” Porthos said, so soft Athos barely heard him.
A loud knock echoed through the house, then, and Athos lifted his head. As he did so, the stage door opened a crack, sunset light spilling gold across the aisle, and Ninon’s voice called, “Five minute warning.”
Athos very nearly laughed. “Thank you, five,” he called, and Porthos laughed beside him.
“Oh, right,” Aramis half-laughed, sounding a little wobbly. “We still have rehearsal.”
“Just a cue-to-cue,” Athos promised him. He couldn’t blame Aramis; he felt a little giddy himself. A lot had happened in the past few minutes--and he’d scheduled something simple and unemotional afterward, in the hopes that it would, but--
He hadn’t quite anticipated how much he’d want not to be here anymore once they’d finished. He wanted to be curled up in Porthos’ apartment again, or have them filing the horrible empty space of his apartment with their life and warmth.
He just wanted to be alone with Porthos and Aramis.
Before he had time to deal with that thought, to consider it properly and put it in the place where it belonged, the stage door burst open and Ninon came stalking down the aisle. “Athos.”
He took a step away from Porthos and Aramis to meet her, and the sudden loss of warmth, touch, comfort was an almost-painful shock to the system. “Yes?”
“Rochefort’s here,” she said, cutting right to the chase. “The whole cast is going to be assembled. Richelieu sent him to take pictures.”
Aramis’ growl of irritation sounded loud in the echoing, empty stage. “Tell him to stick his camera--”
”Aramis.” As much as Athos agreed with him--as much as his own frustrated rage had seethed up at the sound of the man’s name--the stage door was still open.
Ninon crossed her arms over her chest, her frown like a seam in her brow, and she looked at Athos. “Which evil is lesser?” Rochefort, or the media loss, he knew she meant.
As horrible as it had been to experience, the publicity stunt of Rochefort’s rigging the presser questions had been--Athos gritted his teeth even at the thought--a clear success in delivering ticket sales. The clip of Athos immediately choking up when the reporter asked him about Thomas had indeed gone slightly viral in the circles of people who cared about that sort of thing. In a strange sort of way, it had been the least terrible thing about the week; the sympathy and well-wishes of a legion of impassioned adolescents were oddly encouraging. Ninon had wrested the theater’s social media accounts from Rochefort to--erm--tweet Athos’ thanks, and (he was not giving Rochefort the credit for this) their media attention had doubled.
“He can watch and take pictures only,” Athos decided, after inwardly kicking himself half a dozen times. “If he takes my picture, or speaks to me at all, he’s barred and damn whatever Richelieu says.”
Ninon smirked at him. “He’s not going to be happy when I tell him that,” she said, looking thrilled at the thought, and headed back up the aisle.
It was just as well that the mood had been broken; Athos needed to compose himself, as did Aramis and Porthos, and they were ready to face the rest of the cast when Ninon opened the doors a moment later.
Almost instantly, Athos could tell there was a problem. D’Artagnan and Constance came in first, with Constance holding d’Artagnan’s arm and talking very quickly and quietly. D’Artagnan kept looking over his shoulder, and both of them looked very irritated--and Athos looked through the rest of the cast, flooding in, for what had d’Artagnan’s attention.
Anne came sweeping through the doors a moment later, her head held high and her implacable actress’ mask firmly in place, and she strode straight down the aisle to where Aramis and Porthos stood talking quietly on stage. “I’m so glad you two have worked things out,” she said, her voice pitched enough to carry, and took Aramis’ arm like they’d been talking for hours. “I wanted to say, about that moment in Act Two…”
Aramis and Porthos gave her a strange look, but Athos saw what they didn’t. Rochefort came into the theater a bare moment later, camera in hand and clearly seeking, and Anne curved her body into Aramis’ so she was slightly concealed by him.
Aramis caught Athos’ eye over her head, clearly perplexed, and Athos jerked his head toward Rochefort at the top of the audience. Aramis looked, saw, and his face went flat like an angry cat’s again. He gently steered Anne between him and Porthos, so the two of them were flanking her, and went along gaily with the fake conversation she’d just started. Porthos caught on, too, a moment later, and Athos watched carefully over them as they talked, behaving perfectly casually while purposefully monopolizing Anne’s attention.
Louis appeared a moment later, drying his hands on his jeans, and Anne hurriedly flagged her husband down. Aramis made as if to take a half-step back when Louis drew near, but Anne’s hand on his wrist kept him still--and Louis even smiled at him, a private and encouraging thing, as he joined the three of them.
“What,” Athos asked Ninon out of the corner of his mouth, feeling her presence appear at his back, “happened in the hallway?”
Ninon made an indelicate sound. “Rochefort made a move to talk to her when Louis was in the bathroom. The greaseball likes to stalk Anne in his spare time.”
Athos turned to look at her. ”What.”
“Well, not really. But they’ve known each other since school, and he’s always been unduly preoccupied with her.” Ninon’s eyes were narrowed with dislike as she stared at Rochefort at the back of the auditorium.
“Why,” Athos demanded as quietly as he could, “is he here when he makes her uncomfortable? Does Treville know? Is Richelieu allowing this?”
“I doubt either of them have a clue. He’s never too strong around them, and you know she doesn’t like to make a scene.”
Athos was absolutely disgusted. No amount of good press was worth this. Had all this been happening behind his back, while he was too busy being hectic and self-absorbed?
“Watch him,” he ordered her quietly. “First hint toward her, he’s out.”
Ninon grinned viciously at him. “Pleasure.”
The slime did look angry, as he sat in the back waiting for them to get started. Athos watched him glaring at Anne’s protective enclave of cast with no small amount of satisfaction.
“Let’s get started,” Athos announced, letting that satisfied glow put a bounce in his step, and he strode down the aisle to sit in the front seats with Ninon.
Rehearsal started off swimmingly. Everyone was clearly pleased with the restoration of harmony among the main cast, and since the actors were only speaking cue lines for another actor’s entrance or exit, the actual play itself felt funny, for once. Professional actors standing up saying, ”Farewell, for I must leave you; blah blah blah, et cetera, so on and so forth, farewell” would never not be funny, in any life or universe.
Aramis kept giving his lines in silly voices, clearly trying to make Anne laugh when they were onstage together, and as much as Athos appreciated his buoying her spirits, it was incredibly distracting when it had Porthos doubled over, too. “Can we please,” he called, during a particularly troublesome spot in act two, and Aramis grinned unashamedly down at him when he saw Athos was fighting a smile, too.
“Just attempting a bit of levity, sir,” he said, beaming at Athos, and Athos rolled his eyes.
“On your own time, Aramis,” he said, and Anne stifled another giggle at the exaggeratedly wounded look on Aramis face. “Othello, your cue.”
“Gimme the line again, I was laughing,” Porthos said, grinning at Aramis, which set Anne off again.
“How charming,” Rochefort’s unctuous voice drawled behind him. “This will be perfect for the website.”
Athos stiffened in his chair, glad the words hadn’t carried to the actors on the stage. “I’m sure,” he said, well aware how cold he sounded and not caring in the slightest.
“I hope you’re not upset with me,” Rochefort said then, and Athos turned to glare at him. Rochefort was smiling down at him with the fakest sympathy Athos had ever seen. “For that question Lewis asked you at the press conference.”
“I don’t even think about it,” Athos said, more or less truthfully, and enjoyed the sour expression that twisted Rochefort’s mouth as Athos turned back to the stage.
Rochefort was silent, then, as they went through the rest of the acts--licking his wounds, Athos assumed. He circled around the edges of the stage--unmarked, since it was a plain black box--but since he wasn’t directly in the way, Athos let it be. They were nearly done.
Until Constance’s truncation of ”Help, help ho, help!” was interrupted by a yelp from Anne on the prop bed. Everyone looked sharply over to see her sitting up, looking sharply at Rochefort, lingering by the back curtain. She had a hand pressed to the scoop neck of her t-shirt.
Athos realized dimly he was on his feet. He hadn’t intended to be--he just saw that, and then he was.
“I’d rather you didn’t take pictures down my shirt, George,” Anne snapped, her usually pale skin flushing dark, and Louis moved out of the wings to her side.
“I was testing the lens, it didn’t take,” Rochefort said, as oily as ever, but Athos could see the tightness at the corner of his eyes. “I’m so sorry, Anne, I didn’t realize it was pointed at you--”
“Leave,” Athos said.
He only realized how loudly he’d said it when he heard the echo, and everyone turned to look at him. Athos sometimes forgot he’d been classically trained to be heard, though his training tended to assert itself at inappropriate times. This was not one of them, though.
Rochefort lifted his chin, camera held protectively to his chest. “I’m here for the production team,” he reminded Athos.
“I don’t care.” Athos’ hands were twitching at his sides, itching to bury themselves in Rochefort’s throat. “You’re leaving, and Ninon will take your camera and post the best shots.”
Rochefort bristled--then his slippery state of being reasserted itself, and a smug smile fought its way across his face. “I think Richelieu--”
“Will understand not wanting to disturb the actors,” Athos said, as coldly as he’d ever done anything. “Good afternoon, Mister Rochefort.”
Rochefort’s fingers were claws around the camera, and he shot an appealing glance to Anne. “Anne, you know I--”
“Don’t speak to her,” Aramis cut in, as loudly as Athos had. He’d moved, while the two of them were squaring off, to stand closer to Anne.
“You,” Rochefort said, fixing on him with a poisonous look, “do not have any say in the matter.”
Athos had never seen Aramis look so ready to commit violence. “Athos. Said. Leave.”
Rochefort looked like he was about to appeal to Anne again, but she wasn’t looking at him. She said something to Louis, touching his wrist, and--after glancing to make sure there were other threatening people to take his place--Louis straightened and headed for the side stage door, pulling his phone from his pocket. As Louis left, Aramis moved between Rochefort at Anne.
“We said,” Aramis repeated, his voice low and dangerous, “to drop the camera and leave her alone.”
“You aren’t in charge here,” Rochefort said to him. There was a very ugly look on his face as he looked between Aramis and Anne.
“He’s more in charge than you,” Porthos said. He stood behind the bed where Anne still sat: a solid six feet and four inches of fuck off.
“And he’s right,” Anne said finally, turning to look at Rochefort. “I’d like you to leave, please.”
Rochefort’s head whipped around to her, and for a moment he could only gape at her.
“You heard her,” Aramis said, colder than Athos had ever heard him.
A very tense storm seemed to be brewing, and it was all bearing down on Rochefort. He and Aramis stared each other down for a very long moment--until, with a snarl under his breath, Rochefort left. He stormed down the aisle, barely pausing to shove the camera into Athos’ hands as he shouldered past.
Athos passed it to Ninon without looking. “Leave it for Richelieu,” he said so only she could hear. “Let him see what his special help has been doing with his time.”
“Good plan,” Ninon murmured, dropping the camera into her bag. But Athos was already moving, hurrying down the aisle onto the stage to kneel beside the bed.
“I’m so sorry,” he said to Anne as he knelt beside her. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.”
“It’s not something I care for people to know,” Anne said, holding herself as straight as ever. She was a little clammy-looking, though, and Constance sat down on the bed beside her. Anne took her hand, squeezing it gratefully, and she looked up at Aramis. “I appreciate it.”
“Of course.” Aramis smiled at her, his face open and warm again, and Anne let out a heavy breath, looking around at all the cast.
“I think that’s enough for today,” Athos said, sitting back on his heels. “Are you--”
“Louis is calling a car right now,” Anne said, reassuring him with a look. “I’ll leave with him.”
“We’ll walk you both to your car,” Aramis said firmly, and Porthos nodded his agreement.
“And that man will never be in this stage again,” Athos promised her--promised all of them. He was through doing things just because it was expected of the director. His actors’ well-being was a higher priority than any publicity or ticket boost.
“Thank you,” Anne said quietly, and Constance squeezed her hand again.
It was not the most perfectly settled end to the day. But as the three of them saw everyone off from the curb--watching to make sure no vindictive assistant producer was waiting to swoop in and be extremely untoward--Athos couldn’t believe he’d started the morning hiding in despair.
He felt like he stood ten feet taller with Porthos and Aramis on either side of him.
“You stood up for her,” Porthos teased Aramis, glancing around Athos.
“Of course I did,” Aramis said, as they watched the taillights of Anne and Louis’ car disappear. “An old infatuation has nothing to do with it. We’re friends now, and he’s scum.”
“Thank you for taking that madness head-on,” Athos said, looking over at him with a smile.
Aramis grinned sideways at him. “Thank you for letting me.”
Porthos clapped Athos on the shoulder. “And thanks for barring the fucker.”
“I was begging for a reason to.” Athos blew out his breath into the cooling air, and could just barely see it start to be visible. “I’m hungry,” he realized aloud. He hadn’t eaten a thing all day.
“Let’s go out,” Aramis said, his voice soft--almost vulnerable, again. “I’ve missed you both.”
“Yeah,” Porthos agreed.
“Yes.” Athos sighed, and smiled up at the dimming sky. “Let’s go eat.”
Chapter 8: Act III, scene iii
Dinner at Serge's.
I feel like I say this a lot, but y'all are literally the wind beneath my wings. Much love. <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I cannot believe you still ride this,” Athos said, staring down at Aramis’ motorcycle in disbelief. Of all the things he’d expected to find when Aramis said I parked behind the theater, this old bike had not been one of them.
Aramis grinned up at him. “I’ve been feeling sad,” he said, and he unhooked his helmet from where it hung on the handlebars of his sleek chrome motorcycle. “Allow me my indulgences.”
Athos shook his head in amusement. “I should have known you’d never get rid of it.”
Aramis laughed and patted the bike fondly. “Lissette and I have hard far too many good times, Athos, you know that.”
As soon as they’d decided on going to dinner, Athos had made to call for the car he’d borrowed from his family--only for Aramis to say he couldn’t leave his ride at the theater. Athos had not, for some reason, expected his old bike from school--nicknamed Lissette, for reasons about which Aramis had never been particularly forthcoming.
“Still in great shape, wow,” Porthos said in admiration, walking around the bike. Athos couldn’t believe it was here. He still couldn’t believe they were all speaking again, and now this nostalgia was far too much to handle.
Lissette was so familiar Athos’ eyes had momentarily welled up. He was still feeling a little fragile from earlier in the day, and this was almost too much for him to take. Aramis had ridden this bike everywhere in their last year of drama school. As now, he was very much the “cool” one of the three of them; he’d always loved how very attractive it was to very interested girls and boys.
Athos still remembered the one time he’d ridden behind Aramis--no extra helmet, just the wind against him and his arms around Aramis’ chest. Even the memory raised chills down his back.
Athos shook his head fondly as Aramis climbed onto the bike. “And I thought the motorcycle jacket was for show.”
Aramis beamed unrepentantly at him. “I’m a star now, apparently. I have to be some kind of reckless.”
“Of course you fuckin’ do,” Porthos said, running his hand over the curve of the wheel hub.
Aramis laughed again as he fished out his keys. “I’ll meet you at Serge’s?”
Athos had to smile. “As always.”
Aramis beamed at them, and Athos and Porthos stepped back as Aramis settled his helmet on his head. Then he kicked down on the bike, Lissette’s engine roaring to life in that bass tone that had always meant trouble, and Aramis pulled away down the alley.
“He is such a fucking cock,” Porthos said, even as he draped an affectionate arm around Athos’ shoulders.
“We knew that,” Athos reminded him.
“Yeah, we did.”
Their own trip to the restaurant was uneventful, if you didn’t count how utterly relieved they both clearly were to be on speaking terms again. They sat quietly in the back of the car, talking about nothing in particular--set design, costumes, Louis’ character tics--and Athos tried not to feel childishly glad about the press of Porthos’ leg against his.
He felt like a dragon, hoarding precious gems. Only his gems were his friends’ smiles, their moments of closeness. He really had, Athos thought ruefully, been starved for affection for too long.
“You’re awful quiet,” Porthos said, and Athos glanced over from the window to him.
Porthos nudged him. “What’re you thinkin’ about?”
Athos blew out his breath. “I’m--pleased that things went so well today.”
Porthos arched an eyebrow, and then repeated Athos’ words back to him in the most posh accent he could possibly muster. “I’m pleased things went so well today--do you actually listen to yourself when you talk?”
Athos half-laughed, looking away. “I try not to. Fine, what would you like me to say?”
Porthos grinned at him. “Maybe that you’re as happy as we are everything’s all fixed.”
Athos flushed. There wasn’t much he could say to that. “I do have a stoic reputation to maintain,” he said at last, when his blush had dimmed to manageable levels.
Porthos’ grin widened, carrying the warmth from Athos’ cheeks all the way into the pit of his chest, and Athos looked out the window again, feeling his own stupid grin rise in response. “I’ll try to stop sabotaging that stoic reputation,” Porthos laughed. “See, made you smile, just now, can’t do that.”
“Don’t stop,” Athos muttered, too embarrassed and pleased to prevaricate at all. “I’ve missed it.”
Porthos was surprisingly silent at that, and Athos looked back curiously. Porthos’ eyes had widened slightly, and he looked a little lost for words. Athos frowned at him. “Porthos?”
Porthos shook his head minutely, and a small smile stole across his lips again. “I’ve missed it, too,” he said at last, and they just smiled at each other for a long, foolish moment.
Aramis was waiting with a table when they walked into Serge’s, and he grinned when they settled down. “Why are you both so smiley?”
“Stupid, soppy reasons,” Porthos said, looking fondly back at Athos.
Aramis’ smile curled softer, and he tilted his head. “Oh?”
Athos felt his neck heat again, but he could at least look Aramis in the face now that Porthos had shaken some of his embarrassment free. “I’m glad we’re all speaking again.” Porthos scoffed, clearly preparing another impression, and Athos added, “And am having a hard time being suitably demonstrative about it for Porthos’ taste. I’m--very glad.”
Aramis laughed, and he seemed almost shy, as he glanced away to motion to the bar for their drinks. “I am, too. It’s been...difficult.” He half-chuckled, shaking his head. “I’ve been driving poor Adele out of her mind. She’s the only other person I have still in town, and I think she was ready to murder me if I dragged her out for company one more time.”
Porthos laughed ruefully. “Yeah, Flea and Charon had a few choice comments, let me tell you.”
Aramis looked wary, suddenly. “About me?”
Porthos frowned at him. “No, about me being a stubborn idiot. Why would they say anything about you?”
Aramis bit his lip. “Well, it was my fault.” Porthos’ patently uncomprehending expression made him flush, then, and Aramis added, “If I hadn’t been pushing the fight so strongly--”
“The whole thing was my idea,” Athos said over him, because he may not know exactly how to handle the strange combination of warmth and longing churning in his chest right now, but he did know that it wasn’t Aramis’ fault in the slightest. “I hadn’t noticed you weren’t in the best places to handle it, and I wasn’t paying enough attention to know how I needed to be supporting you.”
“We all fucked up,” Porthos said bluntly. He leaned back in his chair, swirling his own drink slowly in his hand. “Look, it’s simple as that, right? We all fucked up, and now we’ve tried to fix it. If we keep trying to apologize, it’s never gonna die.”
Athos and Aramis shared a shamefaced grin. “He always knows best,” Aramis said, his own cheeks flushing a little as he looked at Athos.
“Yes,” Athos agreed. His throat felt tight, suddenly, and he was grateful for both the distraction and the drink when their pints came.
“If I know best, then,” Porthos said, when they’d settled their drinks, “I say let’s talk. We’ve missed time, and I want to make it up.” He looked at Athos, brows furrowed. “What happened at that sodding press conference?”
Athos rested his head in hand, rubbing at one eye with his fingertips. The very topic made him exhausted. “It’s embarrassing.”
“We’ll never make fun of you, duckling,” Aramis said with a grin, and Athos rolled his eyes at him.
“Rochefort let a reporter ask a question about Thomas,” Athos told them, a little gratified at the way their faces immediately dropped in anger. “I wasn’t expecting it at all. I choked up completely, I cried in front of the entirety of London media. It was mortifying.”
“That fucking bastard,” Porthos growled, and Athos had forgotten how Porthos could instantly turn into a protective bear when given the slightest provocation.
Aramis, too. “How dare he.” Aramis’ cheeks had flushed, his fists rigid on the table. “Of all the publicity stunts--”
“Nobody has the fucking right,” Porthos said, Aramis’ anger fueling his own. “How the fuck would they feel if their own family--” He broke off abruptly, looking a little shame-faced.
Athos smiled humorlessly at him. “You can say it. I don’t mind. If their own family had so completely destroyed their oldest son’s chance at ever forgiving himself for leaving home?”
Aramis reached across the table for him, all the anger melting off his face. “Oh, Athos, it wasn’t--”
“I know it wasn’t.” Athos sighed. He turned his palm up on the table so Aramis’ hand could rest warm and real, alive, in his. “It happened too fast. The car accident was horrible, my family were too distraught to let it drag out, and they buried him so quickly I couldn’t even get on a plane. It’s no one’s fault, but I still...wasn’t here.” He still went cold thinking about it, all these years later--as cold as he’d been in that hotel in New Zealand, crying on the phone to Anne. “It’s wonderful tabloid fodder. I’m not surprised they keep bringing it up.”
“That doesn’t make it fucking right,” Porthos grumbled, but his eyes were sympathetic as he looked at Athos. “I’m--fuck, mate, I’m so sorry.”
Athos managed a faint smile at him. “For which thing in particular?”
“For your loss,” Aramis said softly, and Porthos nodded in agreement. “It was years ago, but I don’t think I ever really told you how sorry I was.”
“Tom was something,” Porthos agreed.
Athos opened his mouth, then closed it. His throat burned with tears, and he nodded silently until he could speak again. “He was.”
“I tried to go to the funeral,” Porthos added, so quietly Athos barely heard him. “Already over by the time I learned what day it was.”
“They didn’t want anyone there.” Athos felt so tired, just thinking about it. “They didn’t want a scene. They didn’t know they’d cause one just by hiding like that.”
Aramis shook his head slowly. “Your family’s never been the best at feelings, duckling.”
Athos had to laugh. “They haven’t, no.” He rubbed at his brows with the fingers of his left hand. “They were actually upset when Anne and I split, but more because I was quitting film than because they cared about my well-being. They got me into rehab more out of shame than to help.”
Aramis squeezed his hand again, and Athos held on gratefully. “But it’s not all bad. They’re pleased I’m working again. Especially with you,” he added, smiling at Aramis, who looked happily surprised. “Though I think it’s because they expect you to seduce me back to film.”
Porthos choked on the drink he had in his mouth, nearly spraying beer across the table. Athos and Aramis both jolted back in surprise, watching Porthos cough, red-faced.
“Phrasing,” he wheezed out finally, and Aramis turned magenta.
“I am not going to be--Athos--”
“It was a poor choice of words,” Athos managed to say around the smile threatening to overtake his face. “My apologies.”
“Stop laughing,” Aramis hissed at Porthos, who was still hacking lager out of his lungs, but Porthos was all too clearly grinning like mad, and Aramis punched him in the shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” Athos said again, doing his very best not to laugh at Aramis’ obvious discomfort. “If anyone asks, I’ll tell them you can’t wait to be rid of us, Aramis.”
Aramis looked up instantly. “Oh, no, not that,” he said, reaching impulsively back across the table for Athos’ hand. “Athos, no, I don’t want it to end.”
Athos couldn’t hold back his smile at that, and Porthos laughed in satisfaction. “Oh, no?”
Aramis shook his head, his dark brown eyes so warm with feeling that they thawed what ice was left on the edges of Athos’ insides. “It’s been--a bad few days,” he said then, softer, looking back and forth between the two of them.
Porthos blew out his breath. “Yeah,” he agreed.
“I don’t have anyone else here but you two,” Aramis admitted. “I’ve just been--God, so miserable.” He laughed, his brows drawn tight and his eyes downcast. “Just a bad cliche, moping around my flat watching telly.”
Porthos smiled fondly at him, his dark eyes soft. “Me too,” he said. “What’d you think of EastEnders yesterday?” That startled a laugh out of Aramis, who looked up at him with bright, surprised eyes, and Porthos grinned at him. “You’re so fuckin’ dramatic, Aramis.”
Aramis grinned back, softer, almost shy. “We knew that already.”
Athos couldn’t help his own smile then, hearing his own words echoed back to him. “We still seem,” he said, that little candle-warmth sparking to life in his chest, “to know each other all too well.”
Aramis turned that shy little smile on him. “You think?”
“I know so,” Porthos said, his deep voice a soft rumble that Athos could feel in his chest. “These past few days, what I missed more than anything was having you both finish my sentences. You realize we’ve been doing that?”
Athos and Aramis shared a startled--guilty--glance. “I hadn’t,” Athos admitted, but as he thought back, he realized almost instantly it was true.
“And having someone right at my side, every day,” Porthos went on.
His voice was nearly too soft, too gentle, for Athos to bear. It touched on all the places in him that were still raw-edged and painful from the last few days, from the whiplash of having them and nearly losing them.
And then Porthos said what was echoing in Athos’ head, then, like he’d reached into Athos’ thoughts and pulled out the words-- “It’s pretty fucking lonely without you both, sometimes.”
Aramis laughed, a little thickly, and Athos had to say what was bursting out of his chest. “I still can’t believe you’re both here doing this,” he admitted, and the warmth in Porthos’ eyes at that made his whole body feel alight. “It’s a privilege.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Porthos said--gently, fondly. “It’s fucking fun, it’s everything we’ve always wanted to do, so please don’t act like we’re doing you a huge favor.”
“You are, though,” Athos said, looking between the two of them. “Putting up with my learning curve, and always giving your all.”
“You’re going to make me cry,” Aramis interrupted him, and Athos broke off with a helpless smile at him. Aramis sighed, his eyes dark and soft on the two of them. His mouth twisted slightly, as if he were in pain. “Los Angeles is such a long way away,” he said. “I’d forgotten how much fun it is working with you both.”
Athos would never know exactly why he said what he said next. Maybe it was the way he’d felt so certain of their rejection when he woke up this morning, making him need to know Aramis--and to some extent, Porthos--still wanted to be here-- “Just working with us?”
Aramis stared at him. He could feel Porthos’ eyes on him, too, and all Athos could think was why did I--
“No,” Aramis said, and the look in his eyes made everything in Athos just--stop. “No, not just working with you.”
Athos felt another flush of heat creeping up his neck, but he couldn’t duck his head or look away from Aramis.
Had his eyes always been as dark as this?
“I’ve missed you both, too,” Athos said, because he couldn’t not. “I’ve missed--everything.”
And then the words broke forth like he’d been trying to stop them from doing ever since Porthos and Aramis had come back into his life-- “I wish I’d never gone away-- I woke up one morning and realized I hated everything about what I was doing, but most of all that we hadn’t spoken in months, and I just couldn’t imagine how to anymore--”
Porthos’ hand landed on his wrist again, and Athos gulped air, his throat locking on anything else. He looked up at Porthos and saw his friend’s eyes just as dark and deep as Aramis’ had been. “It’s always, ever,” Porthos said, “gonna be as easy as ‘hello,’ mate.”
Athos nodded helplessly, feeling heat prickling in his eyes and not quite knowing why.
They’d been so honest with him, earlier. They deserved the same in return.
“I felt like I’d driven you away,” Athos confessed.
“What?” Aramis sounded utterly horrified, and when Athos looked at him, Aramis had gone two shades paler. “Athos, how could you think that?”
He pushed the shaggy mess of his hair back from his face, feeling sick at heart that he’d even mentioned it. “It was a long time ago, I don’t--”
”Athos.” Aramis looked genuinely pained, and they deserved his honesty, they deserved it, he could say this.
“Being with Anne,” he said finally, staring down at his hands. “I know she never got on with you two, and I didn’t care as much as I should have--”
“You loved her,” Porthos said, and there was an almost bitter twist to his lips when Athos glanced over at him. “We may not have liked her, but we knew she mattered to you.”
“We could have tried harder,” Aramis said. There was definitely a bitterness in his face and voice.
Athos tried to smile at him. “I know you never could stand her.”
Aramis let out a humorless bark of laughter. “I’m sorry.”
Athos sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face again. “You both knew she was wrong for me, and I made you watch anyway. So--” His voice failed, and he had to swallow, breathe through it before he could get the next words out. “When I finally surfaced from--from that sham of a life with her, I thought I deserved you two...moving on without me.”
The silence that met those words was profound, and Athos dared to look back up.
Porthos had his chin resting in one hand, his eyes dark and far away, and Aramis--
Aramis was staring at him, his mouth hanging open. "You thought we..."
His voice trailed off, and Athos was treated to the sight of Aramis speechless. He hated it. It didn't seem natural. Aramis looked wounded, lost for words in the face of Athos' pain, and Athos wished he could take it back, wished he'd never said a thing.
"He doesn't understand, Aramis," Porthos said then, cutting into the stretching silence between the two of them. Porthos' face was gentle, softer than Athos would have expected it to be--maybe that was pity on his face, maybe it was just sad understanding. Athos didn't know which. "No one else ever made him think of himself like that, why would he assume on his own?"
Athos had no idea what Porthos meant, but clearly Aramis did. Aramis' brows drew together, his horror fading in the face of a grim kind of understanding--
And then he laughed. He laughed, his eyes lightening just a shade, and he shook his head, dropping his head in his hands.
"Oh, Athos," he sighed. "Athos, I was jealous."
The word dropped into Athos' churning stomach like an anchor hitting bottom--a splash of surprise, like a physical jolt, and then it sank, dropping him down, grounding them to something jagged and heavy settled deep in his chest. "Jealous?"
Aramis laughed again, shaking his head and looking up with something so painfully tender on his face. "Yes."
"Of--" Of me, Athos was about to say, because everybody was in love with Anne, everyone had wanted Anne and Athos had known it--but no, that couldn't be it. Not with Aramis' face looking like this at him.
Not with Porthos looking steadily between them, not with how Porthos had--
No one else ever made him think of himself like that.
Athos had never felt wanted, no. He would not ever make the jump to that for himself.
"Of," he tried again, and his voice only wavered, did not break, "of her?"
"Of her." Aramis eyes were full. "She got so much of you that had only ever been us, and then--then you were gone, then no one could have you but her, and--" He sighed, pushing his hands through his wild hair. "And, God, I’m so sorry, I feel like such an ass saying it, but--I hated her so much for it."
Athos stared at him. This was--this was not expected, this was too different, but his body seemed to have seen this coming, because his heart wasn’t racing. It was only rising, an insistent throb behind his breastbone, inching up into his throat, and--had Athos known this all along?
His body was starting to burn again, that little flame of heat he’d only ever been able to associate with the two of them, with the three of them being so inescapably right together.
“I shouldn’t have,” Aramis admitted, the heaviness and loathing in his voice nearly too much for Athos to bear. “But it was easier to just--be far away, be distant, instead of having to see all that.”
He looked over at Porthos, his eyes too bright. “So I left you, too.”
“I knew why you did it,” Porthos said roughly. His eyes were full when Athos looked to him, but he was only looking at Aramis.
Something passed between the two of them that Athos couldn’t read, then, and Aramis’ face crumpled. “Porthos, I’m sorry.”
“I forgave you for it a long time ago.” Porthos sighed and looked down at the table. “It didn’t make it easier, but I couldn’t blame you.”
Athos stared from Porthos to Aramis, and he was missing something crucial. Something that the two of them knew that he didn’t.
Miracle, he remembered suddenly. Porthos had called it that, when Athos had fallen asleep drunk in his apartment, the day he’d asked them to be in the show, the day he’d seen Aramis’ face for the first time in five years--
“What am I missing?” he asked. They both looked at him, and Athos’ heart was pulsing in his throat again. “What is it?”
Aramis laughed. It was almost despairing, the sound of it, and he dropped his head into his hands, pressing his palms to his eyes. “Athos.”
“We missed you every day,” Porthos said, that odd, heavy note in his voice back. The one that Athos had picked up on, that night in his apartment. “Every time we’d talk, you weren’t there, and it was--too fuckin’ much, after a while, just to feel you missing all the time.”
“Why?” Athos could barely speak around the thud of his heart in his throat, the heavy heat that had spread all the way down to his fingertips.
“Because we care about you, you idiot,” Porthos said, and there was something almost tender in his exasperation. “Why do you think?”
“I think--” Athos swallowed it down, because there wasn’t an end to that sentence that made sense in his head. He didn’t know what to think.
“Has it been difficult, then,” he said finally, his head churning as much as his stomach, as much as the emotion boiling over in his chest, “doing this? This show? I haven’t--I haven’t been paying enough attention, to both of you, to how you feel--”
Aramis lifted his head. His eyes were ringed with red again, the faintest hint of shine around the edges. “Difficult,” he said, his voice jagged, “is a relative term.”
Porthos reached across the table for him this time, but Aramis pulled his hand away before Porthos could touch it. “Difficult,” Aramis echoed again, looking back and forth between them both. “Difficult being back, remembering how much I love this? Not at all.”
He laughed, brokenly, burying his face in his hands. “As opposed to--knowing I can’t stay, that I have to go back to being a million miles away from the two people I love more than anything else in the world?”
Athos’ heart stopped in his throat. Porthos went very still beside him.
Aramis laughed again. Long, low, cracking, and he covered his eyes with his hands. “It’s been the most fun I’ve ever had and the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, all at once.”
He looked up at them again, one hand holding up his head, and now Athos could see it, now he was looking for it--the emotion naked in Aramis’ eyes, the pain there.
“Aramis.” Athos didn’t know what to say.
Porthos let out a harsh breath, and he sat back in his chair, staring at Aramis.
Aramis looked between the two of them, and something fragile seemed to crack behind his eyes. “I always knew,” he said, very simply, “that I was a good actor.”
And then he pushed his chair back and fled.
Athos and Porthos only had to meet each other’s eyes before they were up and running after him.
“Aramis, don’t,” Porthos called after him, but Aramis barely slowed until he was out the door--until they were out on the pavement, and it had gone full dark as they’d talked inside, and London was alive and alight around them even as Athos paid it absolutely no attention.
Aramis was at his bike, fumbling with his keys and helmet, and that was how they caught him up, as Porthos tried to take his arm. “Don’t--don’t just go, stay, come on, we gotta talk about this--”
“I don’t really know what else to say right now,” Aramis said, out of breath, and he straightened and shook Porthos off.
“There’s always something,” Athos heard himself say, and he didn’t know what to do, he just didn’t want Aramis to go. “We--we both want you to stay, we need--tonight was going to be for all of us, to be together.”
"I think I've made enough of a mess of tonight," Aramis half-laughed, looking anywhere but at the two of them. He stared out across the carpark, watching cars whizz past on the street, and with the desperation on his face, his profile so stark and sharp in the night... Athos couldn't stop staring, and the ever-calculating part of his brain wouldn't stop noticing how the lighting was--the streetlamp, the color, it just--
They'd have to light his monologues like this. They'd have to give him these angles and shadows, that made him look so very beautiful.
"You haven't," Athos heard himself saying, and his chest felt like it was going to crack under the weight of how much he needed Aramis to stay. "Aramis, please, I'm not upset."
"It's just a lot to take in," Porthos said, and he sounded as desperate as Athos felt, as Aramis' eyes looked. "Aramis, don't run away, not right now--"
"I really think," Aramis said over him, as his hands stumbled on the straps of his helmet, "I should just--get out of the way, let you two talk--"
"You're not in the way," Athos said, and that sounded impatient, didn't it, Aramis drove him crazy in every way--but he wasn't angry, he just needed Aramis to wait, to see--
Aramis looked up at him, then, and Athos' stomach lurched with the naked despair in Aramis' eyes. "Aren't I?"
Porthos' breath hissed, and Athos' breath stopped.
How could he think that? How could he ever think that he wasn't part of them, wasn't everything--
But silence was the wrong answer, and whatever horror showed on Athos' face must have meant exactly the wrong thing, because Aramis' face crumpled, and it was such an awful sight that Athos couldn't think of words, couldn't come up with anything to say except the faint "no" that managed to come out--
Porthos was faster, Porthos jogged after him, stood next to the bike as the engine coughed itself awake, grabbed Aramis' shoulder as he jammed his helmet on his head. Athos couldn't hear him, but he saw Aramis shake Porthos off, shake his head, and Porthos' face was twisted up with worry, fear, need--
Aramis kicked down on the bike and the engine's growl became a roar. Porthos jerked back, Aramis shook his head again and pulled away from the curb, and Athos ran forward--too late--to stand beside Porthos, to hear him call uselessly after Aramis.
They stood there, London alive and thriving around them, and the two of them stood still at the center of it, as Aramis left.
He never properly saw it, but the car had to have been black, so highly polished it reflected the street around it, light slipping off its paint like a ghost. Athos heard its engine first, then saw the motion in the corner of his eye as he stared after Aramis, as the car peeled around the corner--
As Porthos' hand closed tight around his wrist--
As the car connected with Aramis' bike.
It all happened too slowly for Athos to comprehend, and too fast for him to do anything, all in pieces that he couldn't put together.
He saw it like a film. In shots, in frames and sounds.
A crunch of metal, the car speeding out of sight with one perfect mirror side punched in, and Aramis' bike swerved--
(a molten stretch of rubber on the sidewalk in a shriek of tires)
And then the front wheel hit the curb, and
(his own heartbeat squeezing out all other sounds)
the bike flipped.
And Aramis flew.
For a split second his figure hung in the air--
(silent echo screaming screaming screaming)
And then Aramis fell, and there was no air at all, nothing to breathe or break the fall between space and concrete--
--and nothing in the world except a limp figure on the pavement.
(A breath. Then silence.)
Until Porthos disappeared from his side, with a cry like Athos had never heard before, and threw the world back into motion.
This bring us to the end of act 3, where directors usually choose to break a Shakespeare show for a modern 2-act production. Watch for an intermission update this coming Wednesday, before next Saturday's chapter!
Chapter 9: Intermission
A brief interlude.
I love you all and I'm sorry about the cliffhanger. <3 See you Saturday!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Aramis Herblay - email@example.com
[1 May 20--, 08:04:06]
[To: Porthos, Athos]
Good morning, my loves. It’s gorgeous in Santa Monica this morning--a proper May Day. I think I told you once that I can see just a fraction of the Pacific from my balcony, and it’s lovely today. Bit choppy. I’m trying to teach Adele to surf, did I tell you? She’s not having any of this standing business, but she likes to paddle out and sit in the middle of the ocean. Who wouldn’t? It’s so warm here. California’s been marvelous for her.
I think you’d both love it here. You, Porthos, especially--there’s so much culture, the whole place teeming with life. Athos, I’m sure you’d hate it at first, but I’ll take you to all my favorite little restaurants and quiet places, the best theaters, and you’d fall in love, too. Or we could forget all about the city, move up north, and buy a vineyard. I harbor secret hopes.
As always, I miss you.
Delete draft? [Yes] [No]
[15 May 20--, 20:37:22]
The unit director said the most absurd thing today. We’re filming a block where my character’s ex has come back into the picture, and I wasn’t giving the emotion he wanted, so he said-- “You can’t miss a person you haven’t seen in years.” I think he was trying to make a point about how people change, about how the person you miss isn’t the same person anymore after that long, or something, but he’s wrong. I haven’t seen you in five years and no matter how much you might have changed, I know I’ll still miss you like a piece of me that’s fallen off.
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[3 June 20--, 03:55:19]
hello porthos darling, i’m drunk and can’t stop thinking about when we talked on saturday--has your voice always been that deep? have you been practicing
just to torment me? im in bed now and it’s absolute hell. i wish we’d talked longer, i’m sorry i had to go. we’re “on location” even though it’s only napa and it was a night shoot. cecelia said to say hello to you next time we talked--she can always tell when i’ve been talking to you, but i think that’s only because i’m usually rushing back off to set and then she and i have a romance scene where we’re all pressed together and i’m still half hard from you. it was a little awkward the first time, but she knows now and i think she’s rooting for us. sometimes i wonder if even i’m rooting for us. it’s very romantic, this one-sided pining, but i feel like i’d ruin everything if i ever told you. im not even letting myself type your name in the little “to” box tonight. im far too drunk and it might send accidentally and then where would i be? anyway i love you. i miss you. i hope you call again soon.
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[20 June 20--, 13:28:03]
I saw Anne at a studio party last night. Your Anne, that is--though I suppose she isn’t anymore, is she? She looked sad for a moment when I said I hadn’t spoken to you, either. But she’s doing fine, she’s filming here, so I’m sure she’ll get over it. I think she knows why I could never look her in the eye, now. She said I should call you. There was something in her eyes I didn’t like when she said that, like she was expecting me to just--fly across an ocean and go ravish you. Honestly. You’d think she of all people would know that you’re straight, straight, straight.
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[22 June 20--, 01:43:29]
i am drunk AGAIN at a party only anne de breuil is here and we are talking even though she is athos’ ex wife and should be our mortal enemy but porthos, porthos, she told me athos misses me the way i miss him, only he cant do because i miss him because i’m in love with him and i know he isn’t in love with me, and im upset that she did that and don’t know what that means and don’t know what to do now
i am not going to have sex with anne in case you were worrying, she has left and is leaving LA tomorrow. she is a very selfish person and i cant forgive her for not taking perfect care of our perfect athos but she is just a person and not a horrible evil witch the way ive always thought. it has been too many revelations tonight. i need to sleep it off. i wish you were here. i hate sleeping alone. if i look pathetic enough adele might cuddle me a bit before bed but it is a forlorn hope, porthos, she knows me too well by now
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[22 June 20--, 11:42:57]
You’re probably never going to find out about it or even care, but I need to apologize anyway for being drunk and talking to your ex-wife. She didn’t tell me anything but I feel terrible anyway, like I was invading your privacy even standing near her. Do you really miss us like we miss you? I should just ask you instead of giving any consideration at all to second and third-hand information. I should pick up the phone and call you but I’m so scared, Athos. I don’t know what I’d do if you didn’t.
Miss me, that is.
God, I should just call you. I’m sorry I’m such a coward. I’m sorry I’m so far away. I hate this.
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[4 July 20--, 18:34:18]
[To: Athos, Porthos]
America is very strange place, my loves. Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m here. Adele is grilling burgers with half the cast of the show on the roof of our building, there’s a lovely garden up there, and I’m sitting in the flat (oh, excuse me, apartment) waiting for the paparazzi two buildings over to go away. I feel like even the S*n would give some people a little privacy on their own flat-roof-garden-thing. It’s a national holiday, for fuck’s sake, don’t they have families?
But then again, neither do I, I suppose. Except you.
Wishing you were here--
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[18 July 20--, 21:45:01]
[To: Athos, Porthos]
There is a new guest star and he is utter fucking shit, I’m still on set but I just needed to vent to my phone or to someone who’s not all calf-eyed at him (Adele), he’s unprofessional and he’s overblown and he’s famous so he’ll give the ratings a kick when it airs but I don’t care he’s repulsive and why can’t I be working with YOU, fuck, I miss working with you so much
Delete draft? [Yes] [No]
[13 August 20--, 14:52:17]
[To: Athos, Porthos]
you called YOU CALLED I’d spent a whole month trying to break myself of this inane fucking childish habit of writing sad soppy letters that I never send but now I HAVE TO WRITE THIS because I’m going to explode and tell it all to you if I don’t and I really don’t think I should do that
but YOU WANT ME BACK, you want me there, I can’t believe it but you asked so I’m coming, I’ll cross the ocean for you, I’ll cross thousands and thousands of them for you, I’ve wanted this more than anything for so so so long I can’t breathe I’m so happy I’m
I’M GOING HOME, I’M GOING TO SEE YOU, I can’t wait, I miss you both so terribly much and you both sounded so much the same, Athos I can’t believe I’ve heard your voice again my darling you sound just like you always have in my heart--Porthos, we’ll be LEADS, we’ll be opposite each other, I don’t know how I’m going to stop myself from kissing you every time we’re on stage together but I don’t care I’M COMING HOME and we’ll all be together again
Delete draft? [Yes] [No]
[15 August 20--, 09:32:48]
[To: Athos, Porthos]
still somewhere over the Atlantic but I’m starting to panic about how I’m going to control myself when I see you again. I can’t wait. I cannot wait, I’m driving Adele mad with all my twitching and babbling but I’m going to see you again and if I don’t kiss you both when I see you it’ll be a miracle, honestly, it will--
I just have to say it here instead: I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you both so much more than I ever thought it would be possible to love anything in this world
I love you I love you I love you, I’ll see you soon--!
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I made myself cry a little writing this?
Chapter 10: Act IV, scene i
Several conversations, mostly at the hospital.
Happy Halloween! The response to the intermission legit FLOORED me, oh, my gosh. You all are the sweetest, kindest, and most generous readers imaginable, and I am so grateful and humbled by your taking the time for me.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Gruesome Scene in Hammersmith: Aramis Herblay Fights for His Life after a Near-Fatal Hit-and-Run
Police are investigating after London’s native heartthrob, Aramis Herblay, was thrown from his bike after being hit by a mystery car last night. Though the star was immediately rushed to A&E, sources close to the situation say that he’s in critical condition and has suffered severe injuries. Herblay had been out drinking with longtime friends Athos de la Fere and Porthos Duvallon, with whom the actor is in rehearsals for Othello at the Garrison Theater. The show, scheduled to open in late October, was set to be Herblay’s first turn on the stage since his time in drama school. Whether or not he’ll be in shape to continue now remains to be seen.
We’ve obtained the exclusive audio of the 999 call made at the scene by Athos de la Fere.
OPERATOR: ...Go ahead, what’s the address?
DE LA FERE: Fucking--I don’t--Serge’s, where--Hammersmith, King Street and fucking--Cambridge Grove, now, my friend’s bike flipped, he’s not-- Porthos, no, don’t touch him, just--not his head, don’t move him--
OPERATOR: A motorcycle accident?
DE LA FERE: A car hit his bike. It didn’t stop, it--he flipped, and went flying, and the bike landed--he landed and he’s not-- Porthos, don’t, you have to keep him still--
OPERATOR: There’s an ambulance on its way, sir. Can you stay calm for me? I need to ask you some questions.
DE LA FERE: Okay. [breathes] Okay.
OPERATOR: Was your friend wearing a helmet?
DE LA FERE: Yes. It’s cracked.
OPERATOR. It’s cracked. All right. Can you see any blood?
DE LA FERE: Yes. God, yes. His left leg’s--completely wrong, I think there’s bone.
OPERATOR: And his head?
DE LA FERE: I can’t see.
OPERATOR: Is he responding at all?
DE LA FERE: No. [breathing] No, he’s not.
OPERATOR: All right. It’s all right, help’s coming. Are you by yourself with him?
DE LA FERE: No, it’s the three of us. It’s always the three of us.
OPERATOR: Can your other friend tell any better?
DE LA FERE: He’s--he can’t see, either, he’s not-- Porthos, hold his hand, just hold his hand.
OPERATOR: That’s a good idea, yes. You’re doing very well.
DE LA FERE: Thank you?
OPERATOR: Can you tell me your name?
DE LA FERE: Athos.
OPERATOR: Athos. All right. Can you tell me your friend’s name, the one who’s been hurt, for the paramedics?
DE LA FERE: Aramis. Aramis Herblay.
OPERATOR: Aramis…? [inaudible] ...All right, Athos, you’re doing very well. Can you tell if the bleeding’s stopping?
DE LA FERE: There’s so fucking much, I can’t tell. [breathing] God. Fuck. Please.
OPERATOR: The ambulance is on its way, I promise.
DE LA FERE: I can’t even tell if he’s breathing.
OPERATOR: It’s better not to move him at this point, the paramedics will be there soon.
DE LA FERE: Please. [other voice, indistinct] What? Oh. Oh, God. Oh, my God, Aramis.
DE LA FERE: He--he squeezed my hand. He’s holding our hands. [sobs] Aramis. Aramis, please.
OPERATOR: Do you see the ambulance?
DE LA FERE: I--yes. Yes. Aramis, it’s all right. It’s-- [sobs] It’s going to be all right, love.
Porthos wouldn’t stop pacing.
Athos sat between Constance and Ninon, his head in his hands, and listened to the rhythm of Porthos’ footsteps on the floor. It was something for him to hold on to, something that let him know time was passing.
a million miles away from the two people I love more than anything else in the world
Athos rubbed at his eyes until the burn of tears faded into a dull ache.
He couldn’t stop the last three hours flashing back through his head, out of sync and out of joint. Aramis hitting the ground. Aramis’ eyes full of tears as he stood up from the table. The way Porthos had screamed--the ambulance--
Aramis’ hand, squeezing Athos’ so tightly his fingers went numb.
They’d taken his helmet off once they stabilized his neck, told him not to talk--so Athos and Porthos had just seen Aramis’ huge eyes, utterly black against his pale skin, locked on the two of them as the ambulance crew swarmed around him.
Only half the words the paramedics had used made sense to him. Trauma was clear. Concussion he understood. Comminuted fracture he hadn’t needed explained to him, because he’d seen the fragments of bone in the mess of Aramis’ leg himself. Everything else had just become so many meaningless sounds, and Athos couldn’t shake the feeling of Aramis’ hand in his own, the terrified look in his eyes.
the most fun I’ve ever had and the worst thing that’s ever happened to me
Adele let out another hiccuping sob on Ninon’s other side, and Ninon’s hand left Athos’ shoulder to move to hers. Athos pressed his hands to his eyes so hard it hurt. After the 999 call, calling Adele had been the worst three minutes of his life. He’d barely been coherent enough to explain to her what had happened, but the paramedics had asked about who could make medical decisions for Aramis, and--
“He’s so stupid,” she sobbed, her voice muffled. “A fucking mortorbike, honestly, we’re not twenty any more--”
“I know, darling,” Ninon said. She sounded like she had a cold. “I know.”
Ninon had been holding Adele since the moment the redhead had come weeping through the doors. Athos would have found it sweet if he hadn’t been aching so desperately for someone to hold him, too. But Constance was holding on to d’Artagnan like a life preserver, and Porthos wouldn’t stop pacing.
He’d been talking to Aramis non-stop while Athos was on the phone with 999. Athos had tried not to listen, but it had been impossible not to. Aramis, no, come on, Aramis, give me something--please, please, I just need you to squeeze my hand, if you can hear me, please, you’ve gotta be okay, you’ve gotta be, we’re not done yet--
He’d never heard Porthos sound so afraid, so near to tears. He’d never heard any human make a sound like the way Porthos had screamed for Aramis when he fell.
He never should have dragged them into this. He never should have made Aramis come all the way from his life in America. He never should have let Porthos get so deep into this without anyone to keep him safe, the way Porthos cared about the rest of them.
“Athos, look at me.”
Porthos had stopped pacing, Athos realized dimly. The sound keeping time now was a low, keening sob.
“Athos, look up, come on.”
Oh. That was Porthos talking.
He himself, Athos realized dimly, was the one crying, a long low moan as he rocked back and forth in his seat.
He lifted his head to see Porthos kneeling in front of his chair, looking up at Athos with red-rimmed eyes and a trembling jaw.
Porthos reached tentatively up to him, and everything holding Athos up collapsed. He pitched forward, and Porthos caught him, and then the two of them were kneeling on the floor and holding on to each other like the world depended on it.
Athos didn’t know about everything else, but his own world certainly did.
Porthos was solid, and warm, and trembling in the same ways Athos was. It made it easier to hold on to him, to know that he was just as afraid and broken as Athos felt. Athos could bury his face in Porthos’ neck, and try to breathe, and let every single sense fill up with Porthos, because Porthos was thinking about Aramis, too, and maybe they could do this together.
“Don’t cry,” Porthos whispered to him. “Don’t cry, please.”
Athos hadn’t even realized he’d started crying, how the hell was he supposed to make it stop? But he swallowed, hard, tried to quiet the terrified part of himself deep in his chest, screaming and hammering on his ribs trying to break out--
“There, that’s it,” Porthos said, his own voice cracking, and Athos let out a despairing laugh.
Porthos maneuvered them both to their feet, one arm tight around Athos’ chest, and Athos let Porthos move him. He felt numb all over.
“Let’s take a walk, c’mon,” Porthos said, and all Athos could do was follow.
They walked with their arms around each other, Porthos’ arm around Athos’ shoulders, Athos’ arm around his waist, and Porthos must have paid a little more attention than Athos had when they came in, because he seemed to know where he was going.
They ended up outside, on a little patio for smokers, probably, only it was empty except for stubbed-out cigarette butts on the pavement, and it was cold enough that Athos could keep clinging to Porthos under pretense of warmth. Porthos kept his arm tight around Athos as they sat down on the bench, and Athos realized, vaguely, that Porthos was clinging, too.
“I needed to get out of that room,” Porthos said, and his voice was thick. “Sorry. Thought you might, too.”
Athos nodded numbly. All the fear and despair was choking. He was terrified enough, already felt enough like he’d failed miserably by dragging them all into this vortex of pain and despair that followed him like a black dog--
He did not need to be in a room full of frightened, weeping people right now. He just wanted Porthos and Ar--
He choked, seized on that thought before it could follow all the way through, because Aramis wasn’t here. Fuck. He and Porthos felt all wrong, off-balance without Aramis bright and wild between them.
He could barely think of one without the other--not because they weren’t brilliantly, beautifully, magnificently their own people, but because they’d always seemed to complement each other, and him, in ways Athos couldn’t even describe. They were the red and yellow to his blue; pathos and ethos to his logos; id and ego to his superego. Singly, they were all good, fine, even, but. All together, they made up something greater.
Even in the worst of the years when he’d been estranged from them, there had been a comfort in knowing that the both of them were still in the world, just being.
Athos could not imagine a world where one of them simply--wasn’t.
He was crying again, he realized dimly. At least he wasn’t making a hideous sound.
the two people I love more than anything else in the world
Athos swallowed down the fresh wave of tears that came flooding up at the thought. Yes, he agreed silently. Something like that.
“Fuck,” Porthos whispered, and slumped forward in his seat. He pulled his arms back to himself, hiding his face in his hands, and Athos could only hold him closer, lean in and wrap himself along Porthos’ back and try to hold him together.
Porthos let out a ragged sound, his shoulders trembling, and Athos held on even tighter. “I’m gonna kill him,” Porthos ground out. “If he lives through this, I’m gonna kill him for running out like that.”
Athos’ heart gave up. It simply quivered and broke, to lie cold and dead in his chest.
“He was afraid,” Athos said, as much on automatic as anything else.
Porthos shook his head, his shoulders hitching in a sob. “He should know by now we’d never hurt him.”
Athos thought back to all the ways he’d been focusing just on Porthos, worrying aloud more for Porthos than for Aramis during rehearsal--how he and Porthos had come into the restaurant tonight with a private joke on their lips. How it must have looked to Aramis, aching for them both, for them to seem not to need him?
“I think it’s been all too easy for him,” Athos said slowly, “to convince himself we don’t want him.”
Porthos rubbed hard at his face, tears gleaming wet on his fingertips. “He’s an idiot, and he has been for years.”
Athos nearly laughed. But there was something in Porthos’ voice--that same weight there had been when Athos had fallen asleep in his lap, when Aramis had confessed how jealous he’d been of Anne. And for the first time, Athos realized what that heavy ache in Porthos’ voice could mean.
“Did you know?” he asked, and felt Porthos stiffen under his arms.
Porthos lifted his head just a fraction, his tear-glazed face staring down at the ground (like he’d stared at the stage floor, when Athos had pressed him for something he hadn’t wanted to admit)-- “I knew he loved you,” Porthos said, and Athos’ fractured heart throbbed painfully in his chest. “I’ve known that for years. But I never knew he ever--”
At that, Porthos’ voice failed him, and he pressed his hands to his eyes again.
Aramis, Athos knew, was not the only person who’d convinced himself he wasn’t wanted.
“Porthos,” he said, helpless, and held on even tighter.
One of Porthos’ hands came up to hold Athos’ arms where they crossed over his chest. Porthos’ breathing was still too ragged for him to speak, but he squeezed Athos’ wrist, and Athos pressed his face to the back of Porthos’ neck.
Porthos let out a despairing, half-sobbed laugh, and held onto Athos’ arms as tightly as Athos held onto him. “I never thought I’d ever get you to hold me like this.”
Athos’ own body shuddered in a sob, and he clung to Porthos. “I never knew you’d want it.” He drew a deep breath, trying to master himself. “I’ve never known a lot of things, it seems.”
And Porthos’ hand closed convulsively on his--just for a moment, but hard enough to send a bolt of lightning from Athos’ hand to his heart.
Athos moved without thinking about it. Tugged Porthos up by his shoulders, caught his face in his hands and turned him to stare into his eyes, his own heart breaking breaking so very broken in his chest--to see Porthos’ dull, tear-filled eyes, red with crying and helpless with affection--
“Porthos,” he said, his chest a strange and painful mix of fear and tenderness and something else he didn’t dare try to think about or name.
Porthos shrugged, his half-cocked smile just another stab to Athos’ chest. “It was always sort of sweet you had no fuckin’ clue,” he said, his broken voice breaking Athos to bits. “But I guess none of us ever had any self-esteem to fucking speak of--I mean, who’d ever want us, right.”
Athos had no control over the next thing out of his mouth. “I thought you just didn’t date,” he said helplessly.
Porthos’ brows lifted at the centers, and he actually laughed, properly this time. “Bent as a hair pin, actually,” he laughed, just as hysterically helpless as Athos. “I thought if I told you, you’d know right away how I--how we--”
Athos shook his head, tears starting in his eyes for no reason, and he was burning, he was sinking, he was drowning in too much, too much--but he could fall forward and hold Porthos close, and feel Porthos’ arms come up around him and hold him just as tightly.
“Missed you so much,” Porthos said, so quietly. “For the real reasons and for the selfish ones.”
Athos sobbed. He held on and just cried, because he’d missed them so much, too, and he’d just let them all be miserable and ache for each other instead of having the courage to come home like he should have.
He couldn’t change that. He didn’t know if he could fix it. He didn’t even know if he’d have a chance now--if Aramis was going to be all right.
He’d never known this was something he could have--
And that was the thought that jerked him up short, that made his breath catch in his chest and made him go still in Porthos’ hold.
Did he want to have this?
“Look, I’m not gonna push anything on you,” Porthos said, still so quiet, his voice still so heavy--interpreting Athos’ silence correctly in topic, if not quite in tone. “I just--suppose it’s better for you to know how things stand, after what Aramis--” His voice faltered and he went quiet, and Athos drew back to look at Porthos’ face.
Porthos was looking at him with those teary, red eyes, his cheeks shining wet in the lights from the hospital and the streetlamps.
Athos wanted to dry his face and see him smile again. Wanted to do everything he possibly could to make Porthos never cry again. Never wanted to have to just imagine this face again--wanted to see it every single day.
“I don’t know what I want,” Athos said, confession pouring out of the broken places in his chest. “I forgot how to feel things a long time ago. But you--you and Aramis--I don’t even know the words for it, Porthos, but I’ll never, ever leave you again. I’ll do anything.”
Porthos looked at him--just looked, for a moment. Then something warm lit up in his eyes, and he smiled at Athos, a small and trembling little curve that Athos wanted to keep forever. “Well, I’m not gonna ask for anything drastic,” Porthos said, his voice warm for the first time in three hours, and Athos smiled back, because he couldn’t not.
Porthos’ hand reached up and settled at the back of Athos’ neck--just holding him, steady and warm, and Athos’ own hands were on Porthos’ shoulders, and they were so close, it was easy just to lean in and let their heads rest together.
Porthos drew a shaky breath, let it out steadier than before, and Athos closed his eyes and breathed in Porthos’ warmth. Their noses brushed--and it tickled, and Athos nearly laughed. He was so warm. He was warm all over.
A discreet throat-clearing sounded behind them, and Athos and Porthos jolted apart so fast it made Athos’ head spin. He twisted in his seat to look back, and Treville stood in the hospital door, hands shoved in his coat pocket and politely blank expression on his face.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said, voice as blank as his face (which somehow made Athos flush hotter than he would if Treville had been giving them a fucking knowing look or something, honestly).
“When did you get here?” Porthos asked, sounding almost out of breath, and Athos was not going to think about Porthos and breathlessness right now.
Treville did smile at that. “I came with Armand and the Bourbons. They’re in the waiting room--I came to tell you two Aramis is out of surgery.”
Porthos’ hand closed painfully tight on Athos’, and Athos squeezed back until his hand went numb.
Treville smiled faintly at them. “Surgeon said it went well,” he reassured them. “They’re waiting for him to wake up, and then they’ll be able to see how bad his head’s hurt.”
“What about the rest of him?” Porthos asked, sounding ragged again.
Treville motioned for them to come back inside, and Athos and Porthos stood a little unsteadily, following him in. Porthos’ hand slid into Athos as they walked, and Athos gripped it gratefully. He felt like he could stand better if he held on to Porthos.
“The rest of him is apparently going to heal,” Treville told them, and Athos could see Treville’s relief in his profile. “They pieced his lower leg back together, and by some miracle, he’s bruised all to hell but didn’t have any internal bleeding.”
“Jesus,” Porthos whispered fervently, and Athos squeezed his hand. “So it’s just his fool head we’re worrying about, then?”
Treville smiled sidelong at him. “Seems to be.”
“Thank fucking God. It’s harder than hell, I’m sure he’ll be fine.” Porthos’ anxious nerves showed in the half-chuckle he let out, but the look he gave Athos was nearly hopeful. Athos smiled tentatively back, and Porthos’ fingers tightened on his.
The mood in the waiting room had lifted noticeably when they walked back in. Adele was sitting up, drying her eyes as she talked quietly to Anne Bourbon, with Ninon’s hand rubbing a steady circle on her back. Louis sat beside her, talking in low tones to Richelieu, who glanced up as they entered.
As Athos and Porthos somewhat shakily found seats, Athos felt like he was seeing the whole group with a sharpness he never had before. It was like every motion was suddenly magnified, each gesture rich with significance that he simply hadn’t seen.
Constance and d’Artagnan’s legs were pressed together where their chairs touched. They didn’t look at each other, but their bodies curved into each other’s space unconsciously, and Athos wondered how long he’d missed that. Ninon was looking at Adele with a peculiar softness in her eyes, the hand on Adele’s back incredibly gentle, and when she caught Athos’ gaze, she twitched her jaw out slightly, as if to dare him to say something. Athos smiled faintly and looked away.
Anne and Louis held hands, Louis’ thumb sweeping over Anne’s knuckles every few seconds, and though they weren’t speaking to each other, or even facing each other, it was clear they were in each other’s focus.
And Treville and Richelieu stood side by side--and though they weren’t touching or speaking, they suddenly reminded Athos of Louis and Anne. There was an ease to the way they stood in each other’s space, an ease that bespoke a familiarity Athos hadn’t noticed before.
Good God. Had he been this completely clueless the whole time?
“Aramis and I had a bet on,” Porthos said--breathed, more in his ear. “How long it was gonna take you to realize they’re together.”
Athos dug his elbow into Porthos’ ribs, since they were so conveniently close to him. “For fuck’s sake,” he hissed.
Porthos snickered--honest-to-God snickered, and Athos would have been more indignant if Porthos laughing right now didn’t feel so very critical. “You are so fucking straight, Athos, Christ.”
Later, Athos would blame what he said next on the exhaustion, on all the night’s stresses and emotions dropping his guard. In the moment, he really had no excuse for the way an irritable “Am not,” just slipped out of his mouth.
Porthos jerked upright beside him.
“What was that?” Porthos demanded, sounding breathless again, and Athos opened his mouth to say God only knew what when the door opened and a tall woman in a white coat walked in.
Every conversation in the room dropped silent in an instant, and Adele looked up, anxiety all over her face. “Yes?”
The doctor smiled. “He’s awake. He’s asking for you.”
Adele’s smile lit up brilliant, and Athos just--didn’t process much of the next few moments. Adele left with the doctor, a delighted babble went up from the rest of the room, and only then did his shock wear off, and as one he and Porthos collapsed into each other in a boneless slump of relief.
Alive, alive, alive.
Porthos buried his face in Athos’ shoulder, and Athos held him. Porthos’ tears soaked hot into the neck of his shirt--stayed warm, with the heat of Porthos’ skin against them, and Athos rested his cheek against Porthos’ head.
The sounds of the room faded to a dull hum in his ears, and Athos closed his eyes and listened to Porthos breathe.
It felt like it had been an hour before Porthos took a deep breath and lifted his head, and Athos reluctantly brought his focus back to the rest of the world--to realize the doctor was back, and saying their names.
“Mister de la Fere? Mister Duvallon?” When Athos managed to fix his eyes on her, she smiled reassuringly at him. “Miss Bessette asked if I’d come get you both.”
Porthos scrambled to his feet, Athos following half a step later, like a sleepwalker, and it felt like a dream, as they followed the doctor through the door, down the hall. Had they really been sitting for hours, everything strung out into agonized seconds full of terror?
Adele was waiting in the hallway for them, and--she was smiling, her reddened eyes creased at the corners with laugh lines, and when she saw them, she beamed, hurrying closer. “He’s going to be all right,” was the first thing out of her mouth. Athos had to hold Porthos’ shoulder to stay steady in the dizzying rush of relief--so much so that he nearly missed the next thing out of her mouth. “But he doesn’t remember what happened.”
Porthos’ arm held him up, didn’t let him waver as Porthos asked, “Not--the accident?”
She shook her head, biting her lip. “He remembers he was out with you two, but not where, or what happened--he wanted to see you both, they normally wouldn’t let two people in at once but he’s charmed them already…”
Athos slipped all too easily back into his head as Porthos and Adele talked quickly, quietly. Aramis didn’t remember?
Didn’t remember getting hurt--
And didn’t remember dinner, he realized with a cold rush in the pit of his stomach. If he didn’t remember where they were, or what happened.
Porthos tugged on his arm, then, and Athos jolted back into his body.
“C’mon, mate,” Porthos said, something almost careful in his voice. “Aramis wants to see us.”
Right. Aramis. Aramis was awake. Aramis was alive.
That was all that mattered, right now.
Adele headed back down the hall with the doctor, and Athos let Porthos steer him down the hall. The door was slightly open, waiting for them, and Athos had the briefest moment of I can’t do this, I can’t face him, is he even going to recognize us? before he heard the thin, strained call.
And then every other thought fled his mind, and he and Porthos stumbled over each other in their haste to close the last few feet to the door.
The bed took up nearly half the room--wide and stacked with pillows, hooked up to half a dozen machines beeping and hissing and stuttering in the corner. An enormous contraption took up the majority of the bed, keeping a leg swathed fully in bandages elevated slightly above the other.
Attached to that leg was a ghostly pale vision of Aramis, dark eyes standing shockingly out in his face under the tousled mess of his hair. A purple bruise stained half of his forehead, disappearing into his hair over his left temple, but both his eyes were open wide, fixed on them. He pushed himself up on his elbows as they entered, a helpless smile dawning over his face. “Hey,” he said, his shaking voice as eager as Athos had ever heard it.
And then time skipped, because Athos and Porthos were suddenly beside his bed, Athos at the foot and Porthos perching at the head by the pillows. Moving as one, Porthos eased Aramis back down into the pillows while Athos reached out for his hand.
“Easy, easy,” Porthos was saying, stroking Aramis’ hair back on the uninjured side of his face. “We’re here, don’t hurt yourself, we’re here.”
“I know.” Aramis’ voice wasn’t as strong as usual, and up close, Athos could see that his eyes were having trouble focusing on them.
But then he smiled, wide and sweet and trusting, and Athos’ world righted and steadied itself. As long as Aramis was alive, everything else was just so much window dressing.
“How do you feel?” Porthos asked. His hand moved almost absently, back and forth, over Aramis’ temple, and Aramis’ eyes fluttered as he turned into the touch.
“Sore,” he said, and one corner of his mouth tugged up in a wry smile. “Apparently contact with a moving vehicle does that. And I’m a little queasy, and the room’s all wobbly.”
“Concussions do that,” Porthos said, flattening his hand on Aramis’ temple for a moment. “Head hurt?”
Aramis’ eyelashes dipped again, and he looked up at Porthos with those dark, guileless eyes. “Not now that you’re doing that.”
Porthos smiled, and went back to stroking his temple. “Then I’ll keep doing that,” he said softly, and the two of them were so painfully tender together that it made Athos’ eyes sting. “Anything else hurt?”
Aramis shook his head, looking like he was drifting on Porthos’ touch. “My blood’s probably half morphine right now,” he said, looking up at Porthos with a slightly loopy smile. “But the doctor said--I don’t remember. Ribs cracked, less than five. Can’t walk for--something months. Adele was here, she’ll know.”
Words didn’t seem inclined to come at the moment, so Athos just held Aramis’ hand between both of his and brushed his thumb back and forth over the pulse point at Aramis’ wrist. He wanted to feel his heartbeat. The image of him limp on the pavement--in the air was still much too vivid behind Athos’ eyelids.
Aramis turned that sweet little smile on him, then, and Athos couldn’t help but smile back as it flooded warm all through him. “It’s good to see you smile,” he said, and Aramis’ smile went even wider.
Seeing Aramis now, Athos knew he must have blind before. The way Aramis just looked at the two of them--the way his eyes sought them out, the way his smile changed when it was for Athos or Porthos. It made something in Athos ache, even as seeing Aramis just alive to smile at them made him warm.
“Adele said it was a traffic thing,” Aramis said then, and something in the way his face clouded made Athos want to lock the door and barricade the whole world away. Nothing should put that look on Aramis’ face--fear and anxiety and terrible uncertainty, all together. “I don’t remember.”
“You were driving away from Serge’s, and a car hit you,” Porthos said. He didn’t stop moving his hand over Aramis’ brow for a moment. “Your bike flipped.”
Aramis nodded, even as the crease in his forehead deepened. “Were we at Serge’s?”
“Yes,” Athos prompted him gently. “Do you remember any of that?’
Aramis shook his head, and his eyes on Athos were almost plaintive. “I remember we made up. I remember leaving Treville’s. I don’t--I don’t remember what we did after that.”
“We went to Serge’s and we talked some more.” Porthos’ voice was admirably steady, still so unbelievably gentle.
Aramis bit his lip, and--yes, that was fear, so much fear on his face. “I feel like I did something stupid,” he said, his voice so quiet Athos could barely hear it.
Athos surprised himself, then.
He squeezed Aramis’ hand, held it warm and tight in both of his, and Aramis looked up sharply, his eyes huge and soft again. “No, you didn’t,” Athos said, the words coming so easily, for once.
Aramis swallowed, and his eyelashes dipped twice again before he spoke. “What did I do?”
“Nothing wrong.” Athos squeezed Aramis’ hand again, because it felt like a better idea than lunging forward and hugging Aramis so tight he’d probably re-break all his barely-mended parts.
It felt--manipulative, somehow, to tell Aramis what he’d said, with him like this. You told us you loved us, when Aramis couldn’t remember what the doctor had said to him five minutes ago, was swimming in pain medication and hazy with concussion? There would be time when he was well, when he could hold a conversation without looking a decade younger or like he was about to fall asleep at any moment.
“Nothing wrong?” Aramis echoed, the tension in his face easing slightly.
Athos nodded. “Nothing wrong. You thought you’d upset us and you left, but everything’s all right,” he said, as gentle as he could. “Don’t panic yourself trying to remember right now. We’re not leaving you alone, we’re going to be right here.”
There was a lump in his throat, and he had to swallow it before he added, his voice a little unsteady for the first time, “And you mean the whole world to the both of us, do you know that?”
Aramis nodded slowly, his fear fading to a trusting little smile. He’d eased the moment Athos said we’re not leaving you, and he looked up at Porthos with that same sweet smile. “Yeah?”
Porthos’ eyes were full, and he gazed steadily at Athos a moment more, his own smile small and proud, before he looked down at Aramis. “Yeah. I’m so glad you’re all right.”
Aramis closed his eyes, smile still settled in place, and he relaxed into his pillows. “That’s good, then,” he said, sounding sleepy.
“D’you want to rest?” Porthos asked, his thumb slipping back and forth, over and over, at the edge of Aramis’ hair. “Should we go get Adele, or leave you be?” Aramis’ eyes blinked open again, and he looked so distressed that Porthos instantly soothed him. “Or we’ll stay right here, it’s fine, Aramis.”
“Stay,” Aramis said, his eyes falling shut once more, and he twined his fingers through Athos’ until their hands were laced together. “Everything’s better when you’re here.”
Athos looked helplessly up at Porthos, because how was he supposed to handle that, only to find Porthos looking just as helplessly back at him. Porthos nearly laughed, shaking his head and giving Athos this look of near-despair, and Athos shook his head and looked back down at Aramis.
“I’m so sorry I scared you,” Aramis said softly, his head nearly resting in Porthos’ hand.
“It’s not your fault.” Porthos stroked his hair back again, and Athos couldn’t bear to look at the raw emotion in Porthos’ eyes for more than a few moments. “It’s not your fault, Aramis. You’re all right.”
Aramis opened his eyes again, fixing sad, cloudy eyes on Athos, and squeezed his hand. “I’m sorry I’ve ruined the show,” he said.
Athos blinked. “What?”
“The play,” Aramis said, taking his turn to blink and look at Athos like he was mad. “I mean--I can’t walk, I doubt I can remember lines with a concussion, I can’t do it anymore.” He bit his lip, looking so sorrowful, and rested his head against Porthos’ leg. “I’m so sorry, Athos.”
Athos stared at him.
He genuinely had no clue what Aramis was talking about. What play?
Then Porthos’ sharp hiss of breath kicked his head back into gear, and Athos remembered: oh, yes, play. The reason Aramis was even here, the reason Athos had his friends back in his life for the first time in years.
Ance again, Athos’ own reaction surprised himself.
A show, a play, or Aramis sweet and safe and alive?
“Oh, Aramis, I don’t care,” he said, shifting forward on the mattress so he could be just that little bit closer. “The show can go hang, I don’t care--”
“I care,” Aramis protested, and Porthos had to ease him back down when he tried to sit up again. “You’ve worked so hard, and--and Porthos, and everyone-- Athos, you have to care, you have to--”
Athos shushed him, putting a gentle hand on his collarbone as he squeezed their joined fingers, and Aramis quieted, though he still looked up at Athos with those huge eyes pleading. “Aramis, I haven’t had a single thought for the play since you were hit by that car, honestly. You meant so much more.”
Aramis flushed, sending another wave of sparks skittering up in Athos’ chest, but the intense look on his face didn’t change. “You can’t just drop it,” Aramis said, the fervor in his face setting Athos’ heart spinning. “Athos, please, it has to keep going.”
“I promise,” Athos said, rubbing soothingly at his shoulder. “I promise we’ll think of something, Aramis, but right now, please just rest.”
“You promise?” Aramis stared up at him, hands tight on Athos’, and Athos reached up to stroke over his hair once, too.
Aramis melted back down again, looking exhausted, and Porthos gently arranged him in pillows and blankets without a word. “All right, then,” Aramis said, burrowing into his bedclothes, and he squeezed Athos’ fingers again. “If you promise.”
“We do,” Porthos said, flashing a smile at Athos, and he rested his hand over Aramis’ heart for a moment. “You gonna sleep now?”
“Yes,” Aramis said, already mumbling slightly. “Stay?”
“‘Course we will,” Porthos said, so infinitely gentle as he pulled his hand back from Aramis’ face, to rest it carefully on his shoulder. “Do me a favor and keep breathing, yeah?”
Aramis nodded, more asleep by the second, and he shifted gingerly until his head rested against Porthos’ leg. “I promise,” he echoed, and then his breath sighed out in a soft exhale, and he was asleep.
Athos and Porthos sat in silence for a long moment, each holding him in their own way, and watched him sleep. It didn’t feel strange, to Athos’ mild surprise--Aramis had asked them to stay, so they were staying. And after everything that had happened today, the more Athos could see with his own eyes that Aramis was alive and breathing, the better.
It felt like a long time before Porthos stirred slightly. Aramis, deep asleep now, just settled more onto the pillow when Porthos’ leg moved, and Porthos sighed. “You were smooth with that,” he said, his voice no louder than it had to be.
Athos swallowed. The lump in his throat had come back as he watched Aramis sleep, choking him with affection and relief. “It felt wrong to tell him now, like this,” Athos said, just as quiet. “It seems as though we could tell him absolutely anything right now and he’d believe us. If he doesn’t remember, I’d rather tell him when he’s in full command of his reasoning.”
Porthos nodded slowly, his eyes still on Aramis’ face. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I don’t--like hiding from him, but it feels like it’d be takin’ advantage right now, you know?” Porthos shook his head. “He looks just like he did when we were bloody teenagers. All smiles and doe eyes.”
Athos nodded. Aramis’ vulnerability was doing things to him. It made him want to surround and protect, the same way Porthos crying earlier had done. Athos just wanted the whole world to fall away and leave them alone, and for nothing to hurt either of them again, ever. “It’s really quite extraordinary,” he said, as evenly as he could.
Porthos didn’t answer, and when Athos looked up at him, Porthos was giving him a look Athos couldn’t interpret. “What?” Athos asked, and Porthos’ lopsided smile widened.
“What was it,” Porthos began slowly, “that you said before we came in here?”
Athos gave him a look. “Do you seriously expect me to remember every asinine thing I said in that waiting room?”
“It was when I said,” Porthos said, that smile very persistent, “that you were so cluelessly straight.”
Athos opened his mouth.
Then he closed it.
Aramis was right. The room was all wobbly.
“Ahh, nevermind, I’m sorry,” Porthos said, sounding contrite and embarrassed and awkward all at once. “I don’t wanna--tease you about it, or push, I just--y’know, forget it--”
“No,” Athos said, then, and it was easier to stare down at Aramis’ sleeping face and not have to look Porthos in the eye for this. “No, it’s fine. I said ‘am not,’ like a petulant little child, because I am exhausted and have completely lost all appropriate filters.” He drew a deep breath, let it out gently so as not to wake Aramis. “It was correct. I think about it as little as possible, because it’s generally not accepted in elder sons of very old families, and--” He stumbled here, of all places, but pressed on. “And I only ever told Anne, because one’s inner and un-acted-upon bisexuality seemed like the sort of thing to tell one’s wife, and that so far has been the end of it.”
Porthos stayed silent, and Athos counted time by the beat of Aramis’ heart monitor.
When it hit a hundred, Athos closed his eyes, his stomach sinking to somewhere around his shoes. “Please say something.”
“I’m trying,” Porthos said finally, a curious tightness in his voice, “not to be stupidly, irrationally fucking jealous that you told your wife and not your best mates, because of fucking course that’s fine and acceptable and I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
Athos nearly laughed, the relief choking him the same way his affection had before. “It’s fine.”
“Did you think we wouldn’t--”
“No, of course not.” Athos closed his eyes and breathed. “You didn’t think any differently of Aramis, I knew you wouldn’t of me. But--it just. Wasn’t done, for people like me.”
Aramis had been out in drama school as bi, and it had never been a problem to anyone--Athos didn’t know, really, why he hadn’t done the same. His family, no doubt, and the certain sense of pointlessness to the matter. He’d never known how to act on any affections or impulses he had regardless of the gender of the person he’d been attracted to, so it had all seemed moot, really. And then he’d been with Anne, and--
He didn’t want to think about when it had still been good with her, not now, with Porthos like this and Aramis between them asleep. Suffice it to say, then, that he’d told Anne and let her do with the knowledge what she wanted, and that had been the sum of the matter--
Until Porthos and Aramis were here, and telling him they loved him, and he found buried deep inside himself the desire to wrap himself around them both and hold on for dear life, to keep the world and all its pain away from them, to stay close and closer because his life felt brighter, richer, more full of laughter and more steady in purpose, when he had the two of them on either side of him.
Athos kept his eyes shut and breathed, breathed, breathed.
It was different than what he’d felt for Anne, there was no doubt.
But. Perhaps not--entirely what it had been.
“Athos, it's--it's still just like I said before, I don’t want to put any expectations on you,” Porthos said, and Athos still couldn’t bear to look at him. Porthos sounded very--contained. Flat, almost, in that Athos could tell he was keeping emotions carefully from his voice. “Y’know, I--knowing this, doesn’t make it any different, and what--what I said earlier, about how me and Aramis have--well--” He sucked in a frustrated breath and muttered something under his breath. “Look, what I mean is, you don’t have to think you have to do a damn thing for us, okay, just because we’re all suddenly on the same page about liking men--”
“I know that,” Athos said, and he opened his eyes to look up at Porthos.
Porthos had that exasperated look of fondness all over his face again, tempered with something deeper, something that made Athos prod carefully at the tender place in his own chest to see how it would react--
And he felt himself flush, and he had to look away.
“I honestly don’t know,” Athos said, and he rubbed his thumb over Aramis’ knuckles, Aramis’ hand relaxed and easy in his. “It’s been quite a day.”
“Yeah, it has.” Porthos sighed, and he sounded so tired. Athos understood. Athos felt the same.
“For now,” Athos said quietly, and dared a single glance up, just to see the soft, curious look flash across Porthos’ face, “all I can say is that--I know that I don’t want to be anywhere but right here, with the both of you.”
When he felt brave enough to look again, he saw that Porthos was gazing steadily at him, a soft light in his deep brown eyes. It filled Athos up with warmth again, his safe haven, and Porthos smiled that one-sided little grin at him.
“Sounds good to me,” Porthos said, and Athos could breathe easy, for the first time all night.
He didn’t know what he was going to do, about Porthos and Aramis, or about the play. He didn’t even want to think about the play, about the nightmare that was going to unfold trying to find someone, anyone, to take Aramis’ role. But none of that was important right now.
In this little room, all linked together, nothing could touch them, and Athos held onto that for just a little longer.
Chapter 11: Act IV, scene ii
In which several choices are made.
HELLO WE ARE BACK. Sorry for last weekend's absence; my mother was sick, which needed my attention, and then I experienced a brief period of existential angst which made writing something sweet and loving very difficult! But we're in action again, and in the home stretch. Thank you all so much for your support and undyingly sweet comments.
Treville had to physically drag Athos and Porthos from the hospital at four in the morning. They did not need to watch Aramis sleep any longer, he needed to be moved to a more permanent recovery room, yes for God’s sake of course Adele would let them know if something changed, and had they ever heard of something called a shower, or possibly a razor?
“You,” Athos said, at this point more exhausted than not and completely unable to control the things coming out of his mouth, “are not one to chide us for appropriateness. You are fraternizing with the enemy.”
Treville snorted as he waved down the town car with La Fere flags, waiting for them in the hospital drive. “Go to bed, Athos.”
“No. My bed is terrible and lonely.”
“Go to Porthos’, then.”
“I’m not taking any of your suggestions on beds.”
“He’s very betrayed,” Porthos stage-whispered to Treville. Porthos was a great deal more coherent than Athos, because Porthos had caught an hour’s sleep on Aramis’ pillow, his head slumped against Aramis’ and their curls tangling together, while Athos had been physically incapable of looking away, falling asleep, or doing anything more than just watching the two of them breathe in sync and nuzzle close to each other in sleep.
“For God’s sake.” Treville pulled open the car door and nudged Athos not-particularly-carefully inside. “Go. Get some rest. I’ll see you when you’re more agreeable.”
“He’s terrible,” Athos said to Porthos, not caring if Treville heard. “Terrible captain.”
“Yeah, I know,” Porthos said, sliding in after him. He said something to Treville that Athos was too tired to pick up or care about, and Treville laughed and closed the door behind him.
The car was dark and silent and Athos was starting to doze before he’d even realized it. Then there was warm, firm shoulder against his, under his head, and Porthos was saying his name. “What?” Athos mumbled.
“Do you want to go back to your flat?”
“Fuck my flat,” Athos said, pressing his face into Porthos’ neck.
Porthos laughed softly. “Okay,” he said, and his arm slipped around Athos’ shoulders.
Athos closed his eyes, and the trip was a haze of warmth and flashing lights, until Porthos was half-lifting him out of the car, and Athos very begrudgingly made his own legs operate again.
He leaned heavily on Porthos as they walked up the path to Porthos’ door, head loathe to move from the comfortable shoulder it had spent the car ride resting on. Porthos chuckled softly, his arm slipping to Athos’ waist as he fished his keys out of his pocket. “You’re still a cuddly bastard when you’re tired, I see.”
“I fell asleep in your lap a few weeks ago,” Athos mumbled, too tired to care. “You already knew this.”
“Yeah, I did.” Porthos pulled the door open and tugged Athos inside. “Come on, duckling, let’s go.”
“Why do you call me that?” Athos asked, lifting his head as Porthos steered him down the hall. “You and Aramis.”
Porthos laughed, his voice a little rough. “What, duckling?”
“Yes.” Athos obediently sat on the edge of Porthos’ bed when Porthos pushed gently at his shoulder. It had been ages since they’d had to do this, but old habits… Athos’ muscles remembered the routine, and he lifted his arms so Porthos could pull off his jumper.
Porthos sighed, and when Athos’ head emerged from the depths of soft-knit blue wool, he saw Porthos kneeling in front of him with a complicated smile. “We call you duckling,” Porthos said at last, and he rose from his knees to drop Athos’ jumper on the side table, “because you hold on tight and follow wherever your mama leads.”
Athos blinked owlishly at him. “Are you and Aramis my mothers in this metaphor?”
Porthos blinked. Then his smile dawned, his first smile remotely close to delight this evening, and he stood. He pushed a hand through Athos’ tousled hair. “You do need a keeper,” he laughed, and Athos swayed forward until he could rest his head against Porthos’ side.
Porthos’ breath huffed out softly, and his hand gentled, settling heavy and warm on the back of Athos’ neck. Athos pressed his forehead into the soft dip of Porthos’ waist, and his eyes drifted shut. Porthos’ fingers felt so good against the tense cords of his neck.
“I think I do,” Athos said, his voice sounding like came from a long way away.
He could feel Porthos’ breath moving in and out of his chest--felt it push out, then flow softly in again, gentle and slow.
“Athos,” Porthos half-laughed. The other half was a sigh, it seemed, and Athos lifted his head to look up at Porthos’ face.
Porthos had only turned on the hall light, so half his face was in shadow. Athos blinked steadily up at him, and he wondered absently if he should be holding onto Porthos right now. It felt like it would be appropriate.
“Let’s get your shoes off, then,” Porthos said, his voice hoarse, and he turned to walk toward his bathroom. “I think I’ve got a spare toothbrush somewhere.”
Athos held the half-shaded image of Porthos’ face in his mind as he reached down and half-kicked, half tugged his shoes off. He only let it fade when the real thing came back to him, with a towel and fresh toothbrush. “Thank you.”
Porthos only smiled. He didn’t say anything until he was helping Athos into his own bed--blue sheets clean and soft and smelling of Porthos--when he said softly, “I’ll be on the sofa if you need me, all right?”
Athos had started to drift the minute his back touched the bed, but that was enough to jerk him back upright. “You’re not sleeping here, too?”
Porthos’ hand skated over Athos’ where it gripped the edge of the duvet--just once, like he couldn’t help himself. “You can have the bed, I know you’re not used to sharing anymore.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t want to.” Athos was strung-out on emotion and exhaustion, and he was just too tired to lie or try and pretend like lying beside Porthos for a whole night wasn’t the nicest thing he could imagine right now. “I don’t want to kick you out of your own bed.”
It was light enough for Athos to see Porthos’ smile didn’t meet his eyes. “I don’t mind, Athos.”
“I do.” Athos rubbed at his own face, trying to find the words. “I would have gone home,” he said finally, “if I wanted to be alone all night, Porthos.”
Porthos stared at him.
Athos bit his lip, and managed at last to get out, “If I didn’t want to be with you.”
That did it.
Porthos sank down onto the edge of the bed, his eyes still locked on Athos’. “Really,” he said, his voice so wonderfully full again.
Porthos’ mouth twitched up at the corner. “I sleep on the left, then.”
Athos rolled over without protest, shifting to the appropriate side of the mattress, and Porthos slid in under the duvet, under the sheet, on the other side. Athos closed his eyes as he felt Porthos’ body settle, and as Porthos’ warmth filled the empty places under the covers, Athos drifted off.
He really should have expected it when they woke clinging to each other.
Or, rather, when he woke with the feeling of Porthos’ breath against his neck, Porthos’ arm locked tight around Athos’ chest, and Athos’ own arms clutching Porthos’ forearm to him like it was a life preserver.
He’d never been the little spoon before, Athos’ sleepy brain reflected. It was nice.
It was a marvel how comfortable this felt. He had Porthos here, Porthos holding him, Porthos relaxed and easy and so very close, how had he gone without this for so many years? His heart was slow and steady in his chest--no racing, no fear or anxiety. This was right.
Something seemed to unknot in the pit of Athos’ stomach, lying in bed with Porthos like this. The closeness, the pure relief of it--it undid him. Unkinked something that had been tied up and hiding away, and let it spill out into the rest of his chest.
Athos breathed in, breathed out, and felt himself smiling.
Porthos snuffled quietly against Athos’ neck, and a chill stole down Athos’ spine at the feeling of lips brushing the fine hairs at his nape. A chill, followed slowly by a cascade of hot, melting warmth that pooled in his abdomen.
Porthos hummed out softly, and his arm tightened on Athos’ chest. Athos’ heart purred at the sensation of being caught closer, its pace quickening slightly, and, oh, why was it doing that? This was calm, this was nice.
Porthos’ face shifted in Athos’ hair, and Athos felt him breathe in, breathe out, and smile, too.
“Athos,” Porthos sighed, clearly still mostly asleep. He shifted closer, nosing gently at the hollow behind Athos’ ear, and it felt so good, and it was Porthos, and Athos knew he was safe, was held, could feel Porthos’ sleepy smile against his skin and feel the warmth of it pulsing through him with each beat of his heart.
Porthos’ fingertips flexed against his chest, and Athos’ breath caught like Porthos had reached in and grabbed it. He felt suspended, all at once, in the spaces between each of Porthos’ touches, breaths, sounds, waiting for Porthos to pick a new part of him to light up and bring back from quiet atrophy.
Porthos hummed again, a low rumble against top of Athos’ spine, and he nuzzled against Athos’ hair. Sleepy, happy, not a little possessive, and Athos shivered cold-to-hot again. He barely dared to breathe, still hazily not-quite-waking himself. He just wanted the next thing Porthos would give him.
And then Porthos’ hand moved slowly back and forth over his chest, stroking him, soothing him, and Athos nearly cried with relief. He’d been aching for touch for so long, no one had held him close and given him something this tender and gentle in so long--
And then it stopped, all at once, and Athos couldn’t hold back the low moan of desperation that pushed out of him.
Porthos sounded different, and why had he stopped, and--
Oh. He was awake.
Oh. Athos was, too.
And he was flushed all over, burning hot and chilled with the sheen of sweat that covered him head to toe, and oh, oh God, he was hard. He was so hard, he needed it so badly, and oh, fuck fuck fuck Porthos, he was only this desperate and wanting because it was Porthos--
It wouldn’t have happened for anyone else. He was smart enough not to try and fool himself on this. It wasn’t just wanting to be touched, or being starved for it after so many years going completely without. It was all those things, yes, but it wouldn’t have happened at all if it hadn’t been Porthos.
“Porthos,” he said, and didn’t recognize his own voice.
Porthos’ breath completely stopped against his back.
A moment later, Athos felt more than heard him say, so choked and whispered it was barely audible, “Sorry.”
Athos took a breath, and then another. He could feel Porthos’ arm had gone stiff and frozen around him, and belatedly realized it was only his own hands on Porthos’ arm that had stopped Porthos from pulling away. Athos tightened his grip and swallowed. “It’s all right.”
Porthos’ breath huffed out shaky. “Is it?”
He sounded so afraid, small and quiet like Athos had never heard him before.
Athos sat up and turned in Porthos’ hold--sliding his hand along Porthos’ arm to keep the contact between them, because he couldn’t let Porthos think it was rejection--
Porthos rolled back slightly as Athos twisted, and then Porthos was lying on his back and Athos was sitting, half-leaning over him, and they were staring at each other. Porthos. Porthos.
His eyes were wide, like he still couldn’t believe what had just happened, but over his look of shock was this horrible look of certain dread. He couldn’t imagine this ending, Athos realized, in any other way than Athos rejecting him. So Porthos was looking at Athos as if he were trying to save him up, to memorize his face before Athos punched him or told him off or ran, because he didn’t know that Athos could never--
It’s all right, Athos had said, and Porthos had asked-- Is it?
“Yes,” Athos said, his hand squeezing tight on Porthos’ shoulder. “Yes, it’s all right.”
Porthos stared up at him, his face still so open and afraid and lost, and Athos swallowed hard.
There was suddenly only one thing he wanted to do. But he needed to ask first, he knew that much.
Athos took a breath to calm his racing heart and said, “Can I kiss you?”
Porthos’ dark eyes bloomed even wider in his face, and the fear faded from his face--it was all wonder, vulnerability, that same lost look (like he was waiting for Athos to find him). His mouth hung open slightly in shock, and he just stared at Athos for a long moment.
But then he nodded, slow and small, and Athos leaned down and kissed Porthos.
He kissed Porthos because he needed to know how it felt, because he needed Porthos to know--that this wasn’t wrong, that Athos wasn’t upset, that this was all exploding inside of him in new universes of what if and maybe and have I wanted this all along?
Porthos’ lips were dry and soft, parted slightly, and he caught his breath--and his whole body felt like it floated up off the bed to touch Athos’, where Athos braced himself over Porthos with one hand on the pillow and his other still holding Porthos’ shoulder--and he returned the tentative pressure of Athos’ lips with a desperate press of his own, and then they were kissing, soft and gentle and Athos couldn’t believe he had all of Porthos’ strength and kindness and caring held trembling beneath him.
He was desperately afraid--he felt exhilarated yet anxious, powerful and unworthy of being so, but above all careful, tender and full of wonder and terrified that Porthos had given this to him, because what if he got it wrong, what if he wasn’t good enough to give Porthos everything he deserved?
But Porthos had trusted him enough to trust him with this. And Athos couldn’t remember Porthos ever putting his trust wrongly before.
The thought made his own breath catch, and suddenly all Athos could do was press a little closer and kiss him a little harder, because if Porthos trusted him, still, after all that had happened and all that Athos had missed and done wrong, then that was everything--
Everything. This, he knew all at once, this connection--was everything.
The realization shook in his core like earth tremors, and it was all too much, suddenly. Athos eased back, realizing dizzily how far down he’d gone, how much of him was pressing over Porthos. Porthos made a soft sound, chased his lips--then seemed to come back to himself, and sank back into the bed, his eyes blinking slowly open.
“I think--” Athos’ voice cracked, and he licked his lips, had to swallow before trying again. “I think that’s--as far as I should go right now,” he got out at last, his voice rough and foreign to his own ears again.
Porthos nodded slowly, looking dazed and soft and--kissable, God, this was terrible, Athos would never be able to look at him again without thinking of the way his lips had moved, or the sharp prick of his stubble on Athos’ chin.
“Take your time,” Porthos said finally, sounding as stunned as Athos felt.
Athos nodded, and Porthos swallowed, glancing around like he was getting his bearings. “We should--get up,” he said at last, his voice approximating normal. “We’ve gotta-- We. Aramis.”
Aramis. Yes. Hospital.
“Yes,” Athos agreed, still looking down at Porthos.
Porthos’ (kiss-swollen, oh no) lips curved in his first smile of the morning. “You’re gonna have to get off me.”
Oh. He was still caging Porthos in with one arm on the pillow, holding--stroking--his shoulder-- “Sorry, sorry,” he said, practically flinging himself backward, and Porthos caught his wrist before he flailed himself off the bed.
“You’re such an idiot,” Porthos laughed, and climbed out of bed.
Athos sat there, flushed and a little embarrassed but inexplicably happy--until his own t-shirt hit him in the face. He sputtered and clawed it off, moment broken, and looked over to see Porthos disappearing into the kitchen.
“We should get going,” Porthos called. “We’ve got another idiot needs lookin’ after.”
“Yes,” Athos agreed.
Then he went and took a very, very cold shower.
There were eggs and toast waiting for him when he came out, clean and in control of himself, and Porthos gave him a hopeful smile over the kitchen counter. “All right?”
Athos nodded, managed to smile back around the thumping of his heart. “Yes,” he said, and took his plate. He’d spent longer in the shower than he’d meant to, trying to figure out what to say (replaying the kiss, the whole scene in bed)-- I think I do, very much feel for you--both of you--but I don’t want to rush into it, just on adrenaline, because nothing’s ever felt as right as this and I can’t ruin it--
“So I’m thinking,” Porthos said suddenly, and Athos looked up from his plate to see Porthos leaning hipshot against the stove, arms crossed over his still-bare chest and a tiny smile playing around his lips. Athos’ heart beat once, hard, at the sight, and Porthos smiled, almost shy. “Why don’t you say whatever you spent that shower deciding you needed to, and then I’ll say what I spent the last ten minutes rehearsing?”
Athos’ smile was a huge and helpless thing, he could feel it bubble up from deep in his chest, and Porthos’ smile widened at it. “We really do,” Athos said, “know each other far too well.”
Porthos nodded, grinning at him. “I’d say it takes the surprise out of things, but I certainly wasn’t expecting any of what just happened in bed.”
Athos’ whole body seemed to flush at Porthos’ actually bringing it up. “Yes. I. Ah. Did not premeditate that, if it weren’t already obvious.”
Porthos laughed, and thank God they were just standing in a kitchen on opposite sides of a countertop, it made this feel like it could be just another day. “I, uh, didn’t either. Just so you know. I mean--” He broke off, grimacing slightly. “Honestly, I sort of worried I was gonna do something stupid like try to hold your hand in my sleep, but I definitely didn’t think I’d do anything like that.”
Athos blinked. “Is that why you were so reluctant to get in bed last night?”
“Fucking yes, do you have any idea--” Porthos broke off again, his cheeks flushing darker, and it was possibly one of the most adorable things Athos had ever seen a six-foot-plus human do.
“What?” Athos prompted. It was truly fascinating, the way the blush seeped all the way down Porthos’ neck, onto his bare chest.
Porthos glowered at him. “You,” he said at last, “are very cute when you sleep.” It was Athos’ turn to blush furiously, and Porthos’ grin flashed briefly in triumph. “But I’m sorry for--spooning you against your will.”
It took Athos’ voice a moment to return from where it had fled deep into his chest. “It was not,” Athos managed to say with a modicum of dignity, “against my will. If you couldn’t tell from my--slightly extreme grip on your arm.”
Porthos’ smile spread slow across his face again, and Athos tried not to grin like a fool, and they both looked away then, needing to get their bearings.
“Which all goes to say,” Athos said finally, when he’d recovered his dignity, “that I spent that very cold shower rehearsing a way to tell you that I…” He had to drop his gaze, had to look down at his plate because he didn’t know how to say this and watch Porthos smile at the same time. “I very much do want whatever this is, developing between--between all three of us.”
He still couldn’t look up, nerves starting to take over, and his heart thudded uncomfortably in his chest as he finished, “I simply don’t want to rush into it and risk our friendship.”
He heard Porthos shift against the counter, and closed his eyes. He hoped it wasn’t a slump, or a head-hanging, or--
Porthos’ hands touched soft on his cheeks, and Athos caught his breath as he felt Porthos’ lips press soft to his forehead. “You absolute fool,” Porthos said, his deep voice rough. “Do you really think I’d be upset about that?”
Athos looked up at last, and Porthos was leaning over the counter, elbows resting on the edge so he could hold Athos’ face steady. “I’m--not good at this,” Athos confessed, his face heating under Porthos’ hands as he stared into his eyes.
“You’re doing just fine from where I’m standing,” Porthos said. His dark eyes were deep and warm, and Athos wanted to kiss him again.
Oh, God, taking this slow was going to be the hardest thing in the world.
“I really wanna kiss you,” Porthos mused aloud, and Athos’ whole body flushed hot again. He couldn’t stop his involuntary lean forward, and Porthos’ eyes went hot for a moment--but then Porthos grinned at him and leaned back. “But I think we just said we were gonna try and go easy on this.”
“Yes,” Athos agreed, ignoring how desperately out-of-breath he sounded.
Porthos’ smile only widened. “Cold shower, you said?”
“Oh, God,” Athos groaned, and dropped his face into his hands.
Porthos laughed aloud, and Athos tried not think about how much all of him thrilled at that sound. “Shit,” Porthos chuckled, and when Athos glanced up at him, Porthos was rubbing at his forehead, too. “Well, that goes pretty well with what I was gonna say, which was that I’ll go with whatever you decide, I don’t wanna push you into anything, and I hope you’ll give it a shot.” He grinned up at Athos, and Athos smiled helplessly back. “So I think we’re good.”
Athos nodded, his nerves finally starting to settle--only then he remembered what else he knew he’d needed to ask, and he cleared his throat. “Are we--going to tell Aramis about any of this?”
Porthos’ face shadowed. “I--dunno, really. If he doesn’t remember he told us about how he feels, the two of us starting any of this might seem…”
“A betrayal,” Athos said, his heart sinking in his chest. Porthos’ unhappy gaze met his, and Athos nodded briefly. “He’s so convinced that we don’t want him around, it seems.”
Porthos’ face hardened. “No one’s ever made him feel like he should stay.”
Athos sighed and pushed his eggs around on his plate. “So we let him know exactly how much we need him,” he vowed quietly.
Porthos was looking at him, his smile soft and almost proud, when Athos met his eyes again. “You gotta stop saying shit like that,” Porthos said, and pushed off from the counter. “I’m not supposed to kiss you again, remember?”
He flashed Athos a wink over his shoulder and headed down the hall to his bathroom. From the muffled curse Athos heard a few minutes later, he supposed Porthos’ was a rather cold shower, as well.
They’d managed to get a grip on themselves by the time they reappeared at the hospital. Porthos’ arm kept finding its way around Athos’ shoulders, and Athos found himself far more inclined to lean into Porthos’ body space than he had in days previous, but on the whole they weren’t as dangerously close to falling into each other as they’d been in Porthos’ flat. Thank God for small favors, Athos thought.
The hospital staff in the lobby did a very good job of not staring when Athos asked for Aramis’ new room. There were quite a few people sneaking surreptitious looks, but Athos was too used to that to really let it bother him. He’d had his face plastered over too many surfaces to feel self-righteous about wanting to be left alone.
Porthos, on the other hand, seemed a little uncomfortable. “Are they all looking at you?” he asked out of the corner of his mouth, half-turning so the desk staff couldn’t see his face.
“Probably.” Athos shrugged. “There will undoubtedly be a bit in the tabloids by the afternoon-- ‘Athos weeps at Aramis’ bedside in yesterday’s clothes,’ something like that.”
Porthos crossed his arms over his chest, his nose wrinkling. “Seriously?”
“Check the Daily Mail in half an hour. I can almost guarantee.” The desk staff handed him a card with the number on it, and Athos’ polite upbringing asserted itself enough to smile them through the doors.
As soon as they were through to the ward, though, any polite pretense dropped away. Both he and Porthos were hurrying now, their eagerness to reach Aramis eroding any sense of propriety.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Porthos said as they turned the corner to his hall. “Right? I mean, if he was all right yesterday--but, head injuries and all that--”
Athos nodded, chewing on his lip as he followed Porthos. Rationality was all well and good, but only really seeing Aramis would calm them both.
This ward was brighter, airier than last night’s had been (more private, as well, and Athos noticed security unobtrusively guarding the exits). Athos was glad Aramis wouldn’t just be trapped in a fluorescent hell--but still, he was so high-energy, always, he’d hate being confined to bed.
And sure enough, as they approached the last door on the hall, he could hear Adele’s voice raised in argument. “...broken ribs and a cracked skull, and have you looked at the cast on your leg?”
“But I have to--”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Aramis,” Porthos said, pushing the door open, “you are not going anywhere.”
Aramis and Adele both looked around, and both of their faces lit up with relief. “Hi!” Aramis exclaimed, and he looked so happy and hopeful that Athos couldn’t help but go to him.
“Thank God,” Adele said briskly, rising from her chair by the bed. “I need to eat lunch, he’s been clinging like a barnacle.” Despite her apparent irritation, she was still holding Aramis’ hand, and Athos didn’t miss the tight squeeze they shared before he let go. “Will you be all right?”
“Go home and get some sleep,” Porthos said fondly, catching her in a one-armed embrace. “We’ll take this next shift.”
Adele bit her lip and looked at Athos and Aramis. “Do you mind?”
Athos smiled up at her as he settled on the edge of the bed. “Not at all.” Aramis’ hand stole into his where it rested on the bedspread, and Athos gave him a reassuring squeeze.
“Go ahead,” Aramis told Adele, smiling up at her. “I’m sorry for being difficult.”
Adele heaved a huge sigh. “I suppose I’m used to it by now.” Aramis laughed, and Adele leaned over the bed to kiss his hair. “I’ll see you later.”
Porthos walked her to the door, clearly wanting a word, and Athos let them both go and turned fully to Aramis. He looked less hazy than he had the night before, though all the bruises on his face and shoulders had darkened, deepened to a vicious purple-red.
“I know,” Aramis said, and Athos’ eyes snapped back to his. Aramis smiled a little ruefully. “I look awful, don’t I?”
Athos reached up with his free hand and brushed Aramis’ fringe over his forehead. “You always look awful,” he said, his voice dry as a desert. “Do you ever brush your hair?”
It startled a laugh out of Aramis, who ducked his head and smiled. “Casually messy is very hip in America.”
“You are professionally messy.” Athos squeezed his hand, then added more gently, “Aramis, you know we don’t care how your face looks, we only care about the rest of you.”
“I care, Athos.” But Aramis seemed cheered, and he shifted a little closer to Athos on the bed. “Thank you for coming.”
That Aramis would think he had to thank them hit Athos like a blow under the heart. “We didn’t want to leave, Aramis,” he said, covering Aramis’ hand with both of his. “And we wouldn’t have if Treville weren’t such a fucking bull when he gets going.”
Aramis laughed, and yes, God, even just this much was brightening him so much already. It made Athos’ chest hurt. “Really?” Aramis asked, his eyes cautiously alight.
Athos ran his thumb over Aramis’ knuckles, feeling the bones clench helplessly. “We went over this yesterday,” he mock-sighed, “but since you can’t remember, I’ll tell you again. The last few days, when we weren’t really talking--Porthos and I missed you like another arm, Aramis. We don’t ever want you gone.”
Aramis’ eyes were huge and vulnerable again, like they’d been last night, and Athos just held onto his hands. “Do you remember what we said last night? We’re not leaving you. You mean the world to us.”
Aramis’ cheeks turned pink, and he ducked his head. He nodded, flashing Athos a helpless kind of look, and Athos squeezed his hands again.
“Hey, there,” Porthos’ voice came from behind them, and Athos and Aramis both looked up to see him come around the bed. Aramis beamed up at him, and Porthos sat on Aramis’ other side. “Adele gave me the rundown,” Porthos said, settling with a sigh. “Never heard of a leg in that many pieces.”
Aramis grimaced. “I’m sorry you had to hear all that.”
“I asked, you lunatic.” Porthos patted Aramis’ hip (the uninjured one) with a gentle hand. “You are one phenomenally lucky bastard, you know that?”
Aramis shrugged, falling back into his pillows. “That’s what they tell me. I was turned in just the right way, already at just the right speed, for my leg to take the worst of it and not the rest of me.”
His brow scrunched up in thought, and Athos and Porthos shared a careful look. Neither of them was quite ready with an answer, if Aramis asked why he’d been tearing out of the parking lot at speed--but it passed, and Aramis shrugged, looking up with a faint smile. “It’s the concussion I’m more upset about, honestly. I spent so long learning all those lines, and now I’ve barely got a handful of them.”
“Don’t worry about that right now,” Athos said, stroking the back of Aramis’ hand with his fingers. “Honestly. Do you know when you can go home?”
Aramis shrugged. “They want to keep me for a few days to make sure the leg’s setting properly. I--” He flushed awkwardly. “I’m having trouble remembering everything they tell me, honestly, that’s why Adele’s been here. But there’s a lot of pins and immobilizing things, and they want it to heal in a bit before I get a wheelchair and go home and start banging it all around again.”
“Home.” Porthos frowned at him. “Aramis, you live in a third floor cupboard, how are you gonna get around?”
Aramis frowned right back. “No, I don’t, it’s a--” Then he closed his mouth sharply, his face turning pinker, and he looked out the window to cover his confusion. “Never mind. I was thinking of New York, for some reason.” Athos patted his hand, not sure of how else he could comfort right now, and Aramis flashed him a thin smile. “I really hate this.”
Porthos’ sympathetic half-smile was so sweet, it made Athos’ chest hurt. “I bet you do.”
He reached for Aramis’ other hand and laced their fingers together, and Aramis looked up at him, his bruises and pallor making him look so young. “Porthos?”
“You,” Porthos told him, in a tone that was simultaneously gentle and implacable, “are gonna come and stay with me as long as you need to, okay?”
Color flooded up into Aramis’ face, and his mouth fell open slightly. “Porthos,” he said weakly, “I couldn’t--”
“I’m the only one of us who lives on the ground floor,” Porthos reminded him. “I don’t have stairs. I’ve got a big enough place for a chair to get around, we’ll fit a bench in the shower or something, and the rest we can figure out.”
Aramis opened his mouth, then closed it, his flush bright like a fever in his cheeks and eyes, and he looked helplessly between them. As if Athos would try to talk Porthos out of something he’d set his mind to.
Athos half-shrugged, as kindly as he could. “I think it’s a wonderful idea, actually,” he said. Aramis, safe in Porthos’ apartment, where there could always be at least one of them to make sure he was all right, cared for, loved?
Aramis flashed him the minutest glare and then looked back at Porthos. “Porthos, I can’t do that to you.”
“You’re not gonna be a burden on me, or whatever ridiculous thing you’re thinking.” Porthos’ dark eyes were steady and serious on Aramis--and Athos thought he could see that same flash of warmth, of care he’d had looking at Athos over the counter this morning. “Remember when you got flu our second year of school?”
“That was different, I wasn’t--”
“You couldn’t move out of bed and we had to carry you back and forth to the toilet,” Porthos said loudly, talking over him. “And this time there probably won’t be buckets of sick involved, so honestly it sounds even easier.”
“That was four days,” Aramis argued, “this could be--weeks, Porthos, they don’t want me to fly until it’s a little more stable, and I couldn’t make you have to--have to do everything for me for that long--”
“Then let me put it this way.” Porthos’ voice dropped like a rock in the room, and Aramis broke off, blinking at his sudden tone change. Porthos’ eyes had gone even darker, and there was a definite shine to them, in the sunlight through the window. “I can’t stop seeing,” Porthos said, very low and very intent, “you flying through the air and landing in a bloody heap on the pavement. Every time I close my eyes. All right? So having you right where I can see you, every time I think of that, is not gonna be a burden, Aramis. It’ll be a fucking blessing.”
Aramis closed his mouth, his eyes wet and bright, as well, and Porthos half-smiled at him. “Plus, I bet I’m the only one big enough to pick you up,” he added, and Aramis couldn’t hold back a little laugh at that.
“Oh, Porthos,” he said, his voice watery. “I’m all right.”
“Then let us help you,” Athos said softly, and felt both of their gazes turn to him. He smiled at Aramis, and squeezed his hand again. “I did my share of buckets of sick, remember?”
Aramis groaned and tipped his head back into the pillows. “Will you both please stop reminding me of that utterly pitiful week?”
“Shan’t,” Athos said, his smile widening. “Not until you agree to stay at Porthos’.”
“This feels so much bigger than the flu,” Aramis said, gnawing on his lip as he looked uncertainly between them. “Are you sure?”
“We carried you to the toilet, Aramis,” Athos reminded him. “And had to do nearly all of it for you, if you’ll recall.”
“I block it out as much as possible.” But Aramis was smiling, and Athos felt heartened.
Porthos grinned at them. “There were a few sponge baths, too. So I’m not sure what else is gonna have to happen we haven’t already done.”
Aramis shook his head, then groaned aloud and fell back. “Fine. I give up. But I’m not taking your bed, Porthos.”
“Wrong. You are. But I accept your surrender.”
Aramis gave Athos a tragic look. “And you’re on his side.”
“I just want you looked after,” Athos told him, and felt a curl of warmth at the shy, pleased look that crept across Aramis’ face.
“Yeah,” Porthos said gruffly, and reached up to fluff Aramis’ pillow. “We’ll get you well. That’s all that matters.”
“I won’t be bothering you for another few days, anyway,” Aramis said, obediently sitting up for Porthos to adjust his pillows. “Like I said, they’re keeping me stuck here for the time being.”
“They,” Athos reminded him, “surgically reconstructed your leg and made sure you didn’t slip into a coma. They may know what they’re talking about.”
Aramis groaned again, louder, and closed his eyes. “I know. I do.”
“It’s hard,” Porthos said, sympathetic.
Aramis looked up at him in despair. “It’s more than that. I’m so--so frustrated, I came all this way so I could spend this time with you and do this show and now--”
Oh, the show. Athos kept forgetting it. He was so deep in his head worrying about the way the three of them were fitting--the play just couldn’t compete. But yes, fuck, of course the show was important--for Porthos, for Treville, for the whole rest of the cast.
“You are still gonna spend all kinds of time with us, mate,” Porthos assured him, his gentling tone soothing Aramis back down into his pillows. “Show’s a show. It doesn’t matter that much.”
“It does,” Aramis protested, though his voice was soft. “It does, Porthos.”
Porthos tried for his usual half-smile--but this time, Athos could tell that it didn’t reach his eyes. “There’ll always be another show,” Porthos said softly, and in an instant Athos knew Porthos was trying to reassure himself as well as Aramis.
Athos’ stomach sank like lead. He hadn’t--well, he had, he just hadn’t wanted to think about what would happen now that Aramis couldn’t act.
“Are you sure?” Aramis said, his heart in his eyes as he looked up at Porthos.
“Yes,” a new voice said from the doorway, and they all started in surprise (guiltily dropping hands) to see Treville in the doorway. He smiled faintly at them. “I’m sure, at least.”
“John, I’m sorry,” Aramis said, and Athos had never heard him sound so horribly contrite.
Treville’s face performed a complicated series of expressions, starting with frustration, hitting exasperation next, working through a few Athos couldn’t name, and ending up at something more fond than what had come before it. “It’s all right, Aramis,” he said, gentler by far than Athos had ever heard him, and Treville walked around to drop into the chair by the bed.
“Is it?” Athos asked, watching Treville somewhat warily.
Treville sighed and rubbed at his eyes with one hand, as the other tugged his scarf free from his neck. “It will be. If we have to refund tickets, it’s not the end of the world.”
“I’m so sorry,” Aramis whispered.
Treville flashed him a tired smile. “All I want you to apologize for is not checking your mirrors, Aramis. Comparatively, I don’t give a damn about the show.”
Aramis bit his lip and looked away, and Porthos reached over to grip his shoulder.
Treville looked at Athos, then, and the two of them shared a long look.
“I don’t want to say it’s over if you still want to make it work,” Treville said at last.
Athos sighed. It was his turn to rub the exhausted tension out of his brow with one hand. “I’ve been turning it over it my head, John,” he said. “In the car, this morning.” At least part of that cold shower had been panicking about the show, before panicking about Porthos had overridden everything else. “I just...don’t know how it’s going to be possible.”
“I would try,” Aramis said, his voice still in that awful vulnerable place it was last night, and Athos reached over for his hand again without thinking.
“I don’t want you to hurt yourself worse,” Athos said, as kindly and without censure as he could make it. “You can act in a wheelchair, we could feed you your lines, but--you were hit by a car, Aramis.”
“Don’t wreck yourself again on our sakes,” Porthos echoed, and his and Athos’ eyes met.
This was killing Porthos. Athos could see it plain on his face. But Porthos would cut out his tongue before asking Aramis to push through.
“Seems like we need an understudy,” Treville said, his eyes steady on Athos still.
Athos snorted. “Yes, because I’m sure we can find one of those at the eleventh hour.” An understudy? Throwing someone else into the cast now? When they’d all bonded and merged so seamlessly, to try and add someone completely new? It would be a disaster. It would wreck the balance of the whole thing--especially such a large role.
“I don’t see how it’d work,” Porthos said, grimacing. “We’d need somebody who’s been here the whole time.” His shoulders were hunched even at the thought, and Athos felt a hot rush of protective affection flood up in his chest.
“I’m not going to make Porthos or anyone else try to find chemistry with a total stranger three weeks to curtain,” Athos said with certainty. That much, at least, he knew down to his bones.
Somehow, Treville smiled. “I wouldn’t want you to.”
Athos and Porthos glanced sideways at each other. This did not seem to be a smiling matter. “Captain,” Porthos said finally, “if you’ve got an idea, can you just spit it out? It’s been a long fucking night.”
Treville barked a humorless chuckle. “Sorry. I didn’t want to seem pushy for once. But I think we do have an actor we can bring in. Who’s been along for the whole ride, as it were.”
Athos frowned at him. No, they didn’t. Unless Treville meant himself, but--no, Treville was done acting. Ninon didn’t act. Neither Flea nor Charon, close as they were to the show, were particularly inclined toward acting, especially such a large role--
“Oh, my God,” Aramis said, sitting as close to bolt upright as he could. “John.”
“Aramis, easy,” Porthos huffed, pushing him back down, but Aramis was staring at Treville with a manic look of delight and wouldn’t go easily.
“Perfect, Captain,” Aramis said, grinning viciously. “Yes, absolutely.”
“Will you both cut it out?” Porthos said, looking between Aramis and Treville. “What is this fucking idea?”
Aramis clutched Porthos’ hand, smile wide and a little hysterical with relief. “Porthos, he can do it.”
“Who can?” Athos snapped, his patience stretched to the limit.
Treville took a deep breath and folded his hands in his lap. “Which person in this room,” he said, looking at Athos, “has two BAFTA nominations and a Screen Actors Guild award?”
Athos opened his mouth to say, no one, John, what in God’s name are you--
They meant him.
“Oh, fuck,” Porthos said, dawning comprehension flooding hope into his voice. “Athos…”
Athos realized his mouth was open. He tried to close it, couldn’t, and looked away.
It was a good idea. It was probably the only way to save the show.
So why did he feel like running? Running, screaming, throwing up every bit of the lovely breakfast Porthos had cooked him? And then running even more?
He would have to destroy the shell he’d spent months building so carefully around himself.
He’d have to give his cast to someone else--he couldn’t handle a lead role and fully direct, all at once, he’d need help, he’d have to abandon them all to someone new anyway and would that be easier? Less disruptive than needing a new actor? It would be, he already knew the answer, but--he didn’t want it. He didn’t want it to be true, but--
The frightened child in him just wanted to yell no no no I won’t I can’t and end it all right here. Destroy this show he’d spent months building with his cast and crew, take all their effort and just grind it into the dust because Athos was afraid.
His heart was thumping so hard in his chest it was making him nauseous. Athos tried to swallow it down, tried to breathe, could barely do either.
He couldn’t look at Porthos. He couldn’t see the hope in Porthos’ eyes and kill it with his own terror.
Because that was what he was, all over and all at once. He was terrified.
He hated the person he was when he was acting. The person he had been. The person he’d have to be to play this backstabbing, hateful, lying manipulator, to have Porthos’ career riding on Athos’ own ability to be the absolute worst human he could be--
He’d been quiet for too long.
He needed to say something before Porthos’ hope died completely.
“I didn’t want to be in the spotlight again,” he said finally, his own voice weak and small because he had to offer some kind of explanation, he had to tell them in the only way he could how afraid he was of this--
But when it came out, it was so pathetic and tiny and insignificant compared to what ending the show would do to everyone else.
He was such a coward.
Aramis’ heart monitor was the only sound in the room for a long moment.
“Would this be a better farewell,” Treville said quietly, “than a film you hated? Something you care about?”
Athos closed his eyes.
John was right. And Porthos and Aramis were being very quiet. God, this was selfish of him, wasn’t it? Being so afraid of his own shadow that he’d ruin this for them.
Of course they wouldn’t ask. Neither of them were as ungodly selfish as he was. Neither of them would forgive themselves for pressuring him into this, but Athos could feel Porthos’ trembling excitement from here, could sense Aramis’ eagerness.
Aramis would support him. Aramis would help in every way he could, would teach Athos all the little things he’d learned about his character, would help him stay afloat in this mire of hate he was about to jump into.
Porthos would be the best scene partner he could ask for--and he trusted Athos, he wouldn’t have to build something this intimate with someone completely new. And Athos could be even with him, finally, for everything Porthos had done to help him through this.
And Treville needed this show to succeed. After everything he’d done for Athos, Athos could finally do something for him.
He could finally repay them all for their faith in him.
It would probably destroy Athos completely, this final act, but it was a small price, at that.
One last show.
“I’ll need an assistant director,” Athos said, his voice thin and cracking, as he opened his eyes and looked up at Treville.
Treville’s relief was a physical thing, heavy in the air, and Athos could practically taste it--along with Porthos’ rush of breath, the way Aramis literally shivered with excitement beside him. “I can assist,” Treville offered. “Or Aramis can, he took the same classes you did.”
“I’d love to,” Aramis burst out, his hand finding Athos’ and squeezing hard.
Athos squeezed back, and finally let himself look at Aramis and Porthos.
Aramis’ face was alight, bruises insignificant beside the glowing joy in his eyes. He was still involved, he could still help this succeed--that was all Aramis wanted.
Porthos looked giddy, like Athos had never seen him before. He was beaming so hugely at Athos, he looked so excited and relieved and grateful, and he just smiled at Athos like there weren’t any words. He looked so happy.
Athos wanted to throw up again, but he smiled back all the same.
“I’ll leave you three alone, then,” Treville said, a smile playing around his lips. “I’ll tell Armand to draw up that press release.”
“Yes,” Athos agreed, dizzy with how quickly this was all happening. No backing out now. He’d have to call Ninon, he’d have to do a quick fitting so Flea could alter Aramis’ costumes, they’d have to rework some of the moving spotlights because Athos just wasn’t as tall--
The door clicked shut, and Porthos exploded in excitement. “Athos, fuck, thank you, I can’t believe--I’m so--this is brilliant, this is gonna be amazing, I can’t even imagine we could save it like this, thank you so much--”
“I’m going to need a lot of help,” Athos said, unable to do anything but smile, caught in the wave of Porthos’ excitement. His own fears could recede, a little, in the face of it.
“Of course,” Porthos gushed, his smile huge. “Everything, anything--this is gonna be great, Athos, you and me, just wait--”
“Let him breathe, Porthos,” Aramis said with a laugh, and Porthos flushed and ducked his head.
“Sorry. Sorry, I’m--fuck, I’m just so relieved--”
“Don’t apologize,” Athos found himself saying--and best of all, meaning it. He didn’t want Porthos to feel any shame or guilt for wanting this so badly--of course he did, who wouldn’t, especially someone who’d been slogging his way through as much mediocre shit as Porthos had been for the last five years. For this one project, finally perfect--no, Porthos shouldn’t have to apologize at all for wanting to keep it.
Porthos smiled helplessly at him, just looking so relieved and so happy, and Athos couldn’t look at him without wanting to kiss him again.
So he looked at Aramis instead, and found Aramis looking at him with a half-smile that was far more knowing than Athos had expected it to be. “I know,” Aramis said, his hand covering Athos’ again. “It’s a little terrifying.”
“It is,” Athos admitted, because it was easier than trying to lie at this point. He hoped Aramis and Porthos would understand a few of the ways in which it was, without him having to say.
“We’ve got your back,” Porthos promised, and he leaned over and reached out, until his hand clasped over both of theirs, and Athos could feel both of their heartbeats pulsing with his own. They were so warm.
“My script was in my bag on the bike,” Aramis told him, squeezing Athos’ hand slightly. “I think they have it at the nurse’s station, they said something about disinfecting it before I could have it back.”
Porthos waggled his eyebrows at him. “Don’t do that for everyone, do they?”
“Oh, stop it,” Aramis said--but it was almost absent, and his eyes were far away suddenly.
Then he said quietly, “But Treville was wrong.”
Athos and Porthos shared a look. “About what?” Athos asked.
Aramis’ brow creased. “Thinking about the bike, it just--reminded me. Treville told me all I had to apologize for was not checking my mirrors.”
Porthos and Athos glanced at each other again. This felt--heavy. Significant.
“I did, though,” Aramis said, almost to himself.
“Did what?” Athos prompted him.
Aramis looked like he was seeing something a hundred miles away, something only he could see. “I did check my mirrors,” he said softly.
Porthos and Athos both froze. “Aramis?” Porthos asked, very carefully.
“I know I did.” Aramis chewed his lip, his eyes very far away. “I did check my mirrors. I remember looking.”
Athos’ eyes flashed to Porthos, and Porthos’ looked slightly wild around the edges. “You remember?” Athos asked Aramis, dragging his gaze from Aramis’ face.
Aramis stared into the middle distance between them. “It was just me, I was in my lane,” he said slowly. “And then the light was in my mirror, and…” He trailed off, frowning, and Athos realized he was holding his breath.
He swallowed, hard, and said gently, “Aramis?”
Aramis didn’t answer, not at first. His eyes were distant like Athos had never seen them before. His hand clenched tight on top of Athos’, just for a moment, and then he eased.
He sighed and shook his head, lifting his face to them. “No, it’s gone.”
Athos didn’t know what to say. And on a glance, he could tell that Porthos didn’t, either. Neither of them had an answer at the ready for what had happened, if Aramis started to remember the whole of dinner.
“It’ll come back,” Porthos said finally, squeezing Aramis’ hand on top of Athos. “Give it time.”
Aramis smiled up at him, his face softening and his eyes warm. “Yeah,” he said, sounding almost like his old self. Then he shook himself, looking to the door. “Um--script, then?”
“Yes,” Athos said with a sigh, and got to his feet. “I’d better get started.”
Chapter 12: Act V, scene i
The rehearsal process. A breakthrough.
The comments and interest in this story are truly what is keeping me going right now. Thank you all so much.
Athos jerked awake to the feeling of fingers in his hair. “Hnh?”
“Sorry,” Aramis whispered, and the gentle touch eased carefully back.
Athos blinked, his flight response easing at Aramis’ voice. “No, ‘s fine,” he mumbled. “Porthos?”
“He’s making breakfast. I didn’t mean to wake you, I’m sorry.”
“‘S fine,” Athos yawned again, and let his head settle back down into the blanket. Soft. Porthos’ blankets always were.
His eyes snapped open, and he sat bolt upright. “Oh, God, sorry, I hadn’t meant to fall asleep.”
Aramis laughed softly. “It’s all right.”
Athos pushed a hand through his hair, feeling it flat and rumpled by turns, and blinked around at the room, trying to orient himself. Daylight. Aramis. Imprint of Athos’ face in the sheets by his hip, charming.
Porthos’ bedroom. Porthos’ flat.
Athos had fallen asleep in the chair beside Aramis’ bed--Aramis had been dozing, Athos and Porthos were talking, and Athos had just set his head down for a moment, he’d thought. Of course, that was what had happened yesterday.
And the day before. How many days did this make, of accidentally spending the night faceplanted into Aramis’ sheets? Three? Four?
“It’s Saturday,” Porthos’ voice said behind him, and Athos turned gratefully to take the cup of coffee Porthos held out. “In answer to that bewildered look under all that hair. You need a shave.”
Athos held his coffee cup under his nose and breathed deeply. “So do you.”
“Yeah, but it’s cute on me.” Porthos tugged at the curling strands of his beard as he sank down into his usual position next to Aramis’ pillows, at the head of the bed. “You already had the big mountain beard, now you’re getting into cult-leader status.”
Aramis looked longingly at Porthos’ coffee cup. “I don’t suppose there’s more of that?”
“Not on your medicine.”
“I hate you.”
Porthos leaned over to press an obnoxiously smacking kiss to the unbruised side of Aramis’ forehead, and Aramis turned pink and settled down against Porthos’ side without another argument. Porthos was getting very good at settling Aramis like that, with the judicious application of forehead- or hair-kisses, or a one-armed hug.
Athos watched them, smiling, and took a drink of his coffee. He’d let Aramis have a sip when Porthos went to the bathroom, just like yesterday.
The routine had come organically from Athos and Porthos’ complete and utter inability to leave Aramis’ side. When they weren’t spending increasingly long hours at the theater, they were all here in Porthos’ flat, helping Aramis negotiate a long list of do’s and don’t’s--and for Athos, an even longer list of his own. Do work on lines and scenes with Porthos, renegotiating certain beats with Athos’ energy instead of Aramis’. Don’t hint to Aramis about what happened at dinner before the accident. Do practice fight choreography with Aramis watching, so he can fix the motions. Don’t kiss Porthos. Or Aramis.
For the love of God, don’t kiss them.
The immediate and pressing need had faded, in the face of Athos’ overwhelming and ruthlessly internalized fear of the show. He didn’t want to plaster himself up against Porthos and kiss him senseless, mostly because he didn’t feel worthy of it anymore, but the urge to just climb into one of their laps and seek comfort grew stronger every day. And when Aramis looked up at him with that bright, beaming smile, soft-eyed and trusting--or when Porthos looked at Athos, warm and fond, a private smile on his lips when Athos hit a beat particularly well--
It made him want to burrow into them and never let go.
He didn’t want to leave the flat, more days than not. The theater wasn’t the safe haven it had been anymore. He just wanted to be here, with the two of them.
He was so very fucked.
Porthos got up, ruffled Aramis’ hair with a smile, and went to shower. The minute the bathroom door closed behind him, Athos wordlessly passed his coffee mug to Aramis. Aramis grabbed eagerly at it, taking a long, greedy drink, and held it in his mouth for a long moment until he swallowed it. He let out such an obscenely satisfied sigh that Athos felt his ears heat (must Aramis make everything so sexual?), and passed the coffee mug back with a wink.
Athos rolled his eyes and took another drink. “America has destroyed you.”
Aramis grinned unrepentantly at him. “And you’re a terrible nurse.”
“Aren’t you lucky.”
Aramis laughed, leaning back into the pillows. “What’s today’s schedule? Ninon forgot to text me.”
Athos forced himself to swallow his mouthful of coffee and not cough or choke on it. It all felt like acid in his stomach now. “Monologues.”
“Ooh, delightful.” Aramis sat up with a grin. “How are you feeling on them?”
Awful. “I’m getting the rhythm.”
“You’re doing really well,” Aramis said, looking up at Athos with so much affection in his eyes.
I’m barely keeping a hold on myself. “Thank you.” Athos managed to smile at him. “Thank you for all your help.”
It was gratifying to see Aramis preen a little under the attention. It had been a rough week; he needed it. “You’re doing wonderfully without any help,” Aramis told him, reaching for Athos’ hand and squeezing it. Athos slipped his hand into Aramis’ without thinking twice. The three of them had grown incredibly tactile since the accident. Athos was choosing not to think too deeply about exactly why.
Instead he just smiled and held onto Aramis’ hand. “I hope so,” he said, and swallowed down the cold dread heavy in his chest.
I am not what I am, Iago whispered silkily inside of him, and Athos felt his smile falter.
Aramis’ dark eyes flashed sympathetic. “I was nervous, too,” he said, “first time after so long.” Athos just nodded, because it was better to let Aramis assume it was stage fright than for Athos to be honest.
It was too much, to be constantly saying one thing when thinking or doing another. To be in the spotlight now when he’d tried his damndest to avoid it. To be one of the leads, to have cameras flashing outside the theater every day, looking for him instead of the cast who’d been pushing themselves so hard. To be stealing the attention from Porthos--to be edging Aramis out of a role he’d crafted so magnificently--
Athos had stopped looking at himself in the mirror. No wonder his beard was getting out of control.
“You’re going to do fine,” Aramis said, and Athos tried to focus on the warmth of Aramis’ hands in his. “You will, Athos.”
Athos was saved from having to answer by the distraction Porthos’ reappearance. “Shower’s free,” Porthos announced, emerging from the bathroom with jeans slung low on his hips and his towel around his bare shoulders. “Athos, if you wanna go, and then we can haul Aramis…”
He trailed off, stopping in the doorway and frowning at Aramis and Athos. “What?”
It took Athos a minute to realize he’d been staring at the drop of water tracing its way down the line of Porthos’ pecs. He snapped his mouth shut (dear God he’d been gaping like a landed trout) and looked quickly away--anywhere away--
And saw Aramis staring at Porthos, wide-eyed and close-mouthed, with a dull flush in his cheeks and a look like he’d been hit with a brick.
And Athos couldn’t bear looking at that, so he had to look back at Porthos--who seemed to have realized that they were both stunned speechless by him with his shirt off. And wet, Athos’ brain helpfully supplied, and he resisted the urge to punch himself in the temple.
Porthos grinned, quicksilver and brilliant, and then turned to his closet and pulled out a t-shirt. “Lads. I was saying.” Porthos was blushing, Athos realized dimly; he could see it on the back of his neck. God.
God, say something, idiot-- “Yes,” Athos said, getting to his feet. The movement of the bed jarred Aramis out of his stupor, and he flushed a deeper red immediately, ducking his head and rummaging in the blankets for his phone. Porthos had fumbled his own shirt, Athos saw, and was picking it up with a helpless, embarrassed pride in his smile, and it was just--far too much, far too early.
Athos didn’t run, exactly, into the bathroom, but it was a definite flight response. He closed the door, leaned heavily against it, and let his forehead fall on the wood paneling with a thunk.
Another very cold shower, then.
This was getting out of hand.
He went over his monologues in the shower, trying to just be sure he could get through them. He already, much to his own chagrin, knew all the words--weeks of coaching Aramis through them, of watching the scenes over and over with the script in his hand to make notes--yes, he already had his lines down solid. He could say the words in his sleep. It was saying them to Porthos that was the hard part.
Athos closed his eyes and turned his face up into the spray. It ran cool over his brows, the high-pressure thrum of the drops massaging away the headache he could already feel starting.
He knew he was letting Aramis and Porthos down. He wasn’t half as good at this as Aramis had been, and he could barely look Porthos in the eye during rehearsals. All of them--Aramis and Porthos, Treville, Ninon and all the rest--they chalked it up to nerves, he knew, and they were all being so kind about it. Giving him all the gentle moral support he wasn’t asking for, but that they were assuming he needed to get over his stage fright.
He wished it were stage fright. It would have been easier. As would have been never taking this job and spending the rest of his life in the depths of Treville’s prop room like a particularly mad hermit--but, he thought with a sigh as he turned off the water, it was too late for that.
It was easy to stop worrying about the show when he and Porthos were helping Aramis with his own morning routine. Aramis persisted in using his crutches to get to the bathroom, as huge and unwieldy as they and his cast were together, but the doctors had insisted he get some exercise, and dragging around a ton of plaster seemed to work well enough. Once inside, though, it was easiest for him to just let Porthos or Athos hold his weight while he brushed his teeth--and then for them both to help him sit in the chair they’d rigged into the shower, and manage his half-bath (leg carefully wrapped in a bin bag, as per former-footballer-d’Artagnan’s advice) with as much awkwardness as they’d ever done anything in their lives.
It wasn’t just the sexual tension, Athos reflected as he carefully ran a damp flannel over Aramis’ shoulders and back and all the places he couldn’t reach with his ribs still tender. Though that was part of it--Athos and Porthos studiously keeping their eyes above the waist, Aramis keeping his eyes fastened down and hiding his blush in the steam of the shower--naturally.
It was the way words seemed to fail them all when they were this close: when there were so many things that they were all determined not to say, that none of them could think of anything safe. It was always a relief when they could get out of the bathroom and actually speak again.
Of course, that didn’t preclude their saying horrible things in the kitchen, either, as Athos learned this morning.
“So I’m thinking,” Porthos said, full of relieved energy as he scooped eggs onto Athos and Aramis’ plates in the kitchen, “if we’ve got time today after monologues, we could do the last scene before intermission. You think you’ll be up for it?”
Athos swallowed down the lead weight that was the toast in his mouth. “Three-three?”
“Yeah, what do you think?” Porthos seemed so lively just imagining it, light on the balls of his feet coming around the counter. “Y’know, we’ve only gotten to run it once so far--” Because I’ve been avoiding it, Athos thought hysterically-- “--and I’d love it if we could give it a real go--Aramis, if you don’t think you’ll be too sore to stay--”
“I was there all day yesterday and my ribs were fine,” Aramis said with a smile as he took his plate from Porthos. They’d rearranged Porthos’ kitchen so Aramis could eat with them, dragging in a lower table and chairs from the sitting room, and Athos could tell without even needing to talk about it that Porthos was probably going to keep it like this forever. Even after Aramis moved back to Los Angeles and life went back to normal.
The thought made his stomach twist harder than the fear of the show, and Athos took a drink of milky tea to calm the acid churning into his throat. “Of course we can do that,” he said, his voice cool and calm. Now that he was acting again, it was far easier for him to slip behind a placid facade than it had been a week ago. Treville would either be proud or furious that Athos had learned those old lessons too well.
He was still the director, after all. He still had to give his actors what they needed--to give of himself so they could have this. Athos would rather be drained dry himself than have them suffer.
So he went to the theater with Aramis and Porthos--took his bag and pretended he was fine, called the family car (a different one, now, wheelchair-accessible) they’d actually offered on hearing of Aramis’ accident, and trooped on down to pretend he was fine some more. It was fine, it was easy, to sit in his usual chair in the audience and run over scenes and monologues that he wasn’t in. It felt normal, almost, like the past few weeks had been. Only Aramis was beside him now, as well as Ninon on his other side, and it was so much harder to focus with Aramis warm and breathing beside him.
Athos just wanted to touch him, to hold his hand and feel his pulse. But that would have been telling.
The rest of the cast was excellent. They’d worked so hard. Athos had nearly broken down, their first rehearsal after the accident--he’d been so ragged, so worn thin in exhaustion, and he’d expected that rehearsal to run an extra few hours, just to make up for the two days gone.
But the rest of his cast, as they told him gently when he’d sat down so heavily on the stage floor, had come in anyway on those two days off, and worked on all their scenes together.
Because we love this, too, Constance had said, and Athos had needed to look away, gather his script and notes, so they wouldn’t see the tears shining in his eyes.
They all worked seamlessly together, and had accepted Athos-the-actor into their fold unreservedly. Under their graciousness, Athos’ performance had blossomed. Today, as he abandoned his director’s chair to do his scenes and speeches with them, it was clearer than ever. He’d found a surprisingly good rhythm with Louis, a delightfully cruel back-and-forth with Constance, and Anne’s regal chill played beautifully with Athos’ own standoffish nature.
All of it terrified him.
Despite Athos’ attempts to preserve most of Aramis’ performance choices, the role was inescapably becoming his own. Athos was seeing more and more of his own style in Ninon and Aramis’ notes, night after night. He played off the others differently, he emphasized different words. More than anything, he took longer pauses than Aramis--he still hit the same movement beats, because they’d already rigged the lights, but with his different pace he was more a stalking panther than the caged lion Aramis had been.
It seemed so much more deliberate with Athos. Aramis had had the fire of passion, as if he were spinning out these plans as they came to him, brilliant and vicious and deadly. Athos’ habitual calm lent his speeches a more studied air, no matter how much he tried to change his beats. It made it appear, night after night, that Athos had been planning this for ages, that he was only just now letting it come to fruition, sharing a private joke with the audience. It was far more cold. Far more cruel.
He was scaring himself with how easily the role of “manipulative sociopath” came to him.
He dreaded the moment at the end of each rehearsal when he thanked the rest of the cast and sent them home. It meant he was alone with this creature spewing hate from the pit of his chest. He could thank everyone with a smile on his face and never let on that he was screaming on the inside.
He was perfect for this, Athos thought bitterly, as he said goodnight to Anne and Constance after their last scene together. He should have had himself be Iago from the start.
Had he been wanting this the whole time? Had he been only waiting for Aramis to have to quit, to drop out, so Athos could really be the star of this production?
Had he just been using them all, all along, to set his own star on the rise again?
“Athos, I can’t hear you,” Ninon’s voice cut in.
Athos looked up. “What?”
He was standing onstage alone, running through his first villainous soliloquy on autopilot. The rest of the cast had gone, their parts done; only Ninon, Porthos, and Aramis remained, sitting silently in the audience to watch him.
“I can’t hear you,” Ninon repeated. “You’re moving your mouth, but you’re barely saying anything.”
Athos opened his mouth again, then closed it when he realized nothing was going to come out.
Aramis and Porthos were watching him, faces half in shadow where they sat in the audience. The house lights weren’t on. He couldn’t read them from here.
“Do you want to start over?” Ninon asked, almost cautiously, and Athos heard himself say No far louder or sharper than he’d intended.
He swallowed, tried to calm the sudden lurch of his heart back and forth in his throat. “No, I--I’d prefer to just keep going, I don’t want to have to do it again.” Calm. There was no calm. He didn’t have any calm to find, and he stared down at the ground.
He couldn’t do this.
"Give us the space, please," Aramis said, quiet but firm, and Athos looked up.
Ninon and Aramis were looking at each other. Ninon's face was hard and set, and Aramis' smooth and unreadable. Porthos sat quietly between them, rubbing his beard with one hand and resting the other on the arm of Aramis’ chair.
They must have come to some kind of accord, because after a moment's staring, Ninon nodded and got up.
Athos stood and watched her go. His lone place on stage felt miles away from the audience--from the door she passed through as she glanced over her shoulder. Then it shut, and he, Porthos, and Aramis were alone.
Aramis tugged his leg back into the footrests of his chair, then wheeled himself down the aisle to the stage. He took his time, and Athos sat still, watching. When he reached the edge of downstage, he stopped, the front wheels of his chair barely inside the circle of light that held Athos contained within it.
"Tell me," Aramis said, "all the ways that you are not like your character."
Athos stared at him.
Then his legs wobbled, and he had to stumble to the chair just upstage and collapse into it. He sat there, shaking, trying to make some sense of the way the earth had just shifted under his feet.
“Can you think of any?” Porthos asked. He sounded so gentle. Athos didn’t deserve it.
“No,” he got out. His voice sounded so unlike his own--rough and cracked, pathetic and weak.
Aramis sighed heavily. “You think,” he said, “that you’ve been fooling us this whole time?”
Athos pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. “I’d hoped.”
“We’re a bit cleverer than that,” Porthos said. “This has been hell on you.”
Athos laughed, a raw-sounding, scratch-edged huff of air. “Hell.”
“What we can’t tell,” Aramis said, and why did he still sound so careful and gentle, why wouldn’t he just give up on Athos? “Is what, exactly, is making it hell. If it’s because you think you’ve been puppet-mastering us all along--”
“Or if you just can’t stand being the center of all this attention,” Porthos finished.
Athos bit back another agonizing laugh. It burned at his throat, like he was trying to breathe glass. They could come so close, but just not understand all of it. “Or?” he managed to say, and heard Porthos’ breath blow out in a sigh of his own.
“Athos, you couldn’t be Iago if you tried,” Porthos said. Aramis actually laughed, a faint and fond sound of warmth that touched just the ends of Athos’ frozen parts with sunlight. “I’m serious,” Porthos said, and Athos could hear the smile in his voice now. “Athos, you’re the most straightforward person I’ve ever met. You say something and you mean it. You don’t manipulate people. I don’t think you’d even know how.”
Athos’ brain immediately crowded with a hundred arguments and fights to put up. He lied every day. He lied in every gentle thing he didn’t say to them, in every soft touch he didn’t give, every warm look he wouldn’t let show on his face.
God, he loved them both so much.
The thought was a solid blow beneath his ribcage, and Athos obeyed the urge to sink his head into his hands.
This show, he thought dizzily. This show had ripped him apart and shown all the parts of himself he’d tried to hide and keep hidden for so long.
They both deserved so much better, and yet they were here with him. For some reason.
He could try and keep it together, for them.
“We can do the scene, Porthos, if you want,” he said, his own voice distant to his ears.
Porthos sounded skeptical--Athos didn’t have to look up to see the lift in his eyebrow, he could hear it in his voice. “Athos, mate, really--”
“I want to,” Athos said. He looked up finally, to see Porthos and Aramis both giving him the Athos isn’t taking care of himself look.
“We’re not done talking about how you are not Iago,” Aramis said, frowning at him. “Athos--”
“I’m not,” he said. It sounded like faint protest, but his voice was strong for the first time all day. “You’re right. It’s just difficult to be on stage again, after so long.”
Porthos looked at him with narrowed eyes. “You lying?”
“No.” Yes. “I just--need to get something done properly today, Porthos, please.”
They sat like that, points of a triangle, looking at each other, and finally Porthos unwound himself from his chair and started down the aisle. “Yeah, all right.”
“Will you read Desdemona?” Athos asked Aramis, who was still glowering at him from his chair on the edge of the stage.
Aramis pursed his lips, giving Aramis a slit-eyed look. “Fine,” he said, lifting a warning finger. “But we’re going home after this, Athos, we need to talk.”
“I know,” Athos said, pushing a hand through his hair. “I know, Aramis.”
Porthos came into the circle of light, then, and Aramis rolled just a little back. It was only Athos and Porthos on the stage, then, and Athos stood up, moving to meet him at their entrance. “Hah,” he began, the words coming on automatic, “I like that not.”
Porthos drew himself up, and he was in character faster than Athos could blink--holding himself differently, walking differently, even the muscles in his face set differently. “What dost thou say?” he asked, looking at Athos with such concern, such trust that Athos’ head spun.
Oh, no. No, no. Not now, God, he didn’t need this right now.
He pushed on, pushing it back, trying not to feed the closeness between these characters with his own feelings. “Nothing, my lord: or if--I know not what.”
Porthos, so ready to be gentle in this role but so beaten down with suspicion-- “Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?”
Athos felt dizzy. “Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it,” and oh, he was lying, lying, even to make Porthos look like he was in pain was too much-- “That he would steal away so guilty-like, seeing you coming.”
And Porthos spoke again, and Aramis’ voice filtered down, substituting for Anne’s absence, and of course Porthos gave it his all even without the figure of a wife standing there. His eyes went softer, he smiled, he held up his hand the way he held Anne’s hand, and Athos’ chest physically hurt when Porthos smiled after her imaginary exit and kissed his fingertips. “Perdition catch my soul, but I do love thee!” he said, beaming after her, and Athos could have cried, that he had to take that look from his face.
“My noble lord,” he interjected softly, hearing the diffidence, the beats he’d chosen, all settled in his voice, like he was watching it from outside his body.
Porthos didn’t turn back yet, still looking after Desdemona, and if Athos could have kept him like this, looking so happy and in love, he would have done it forever. “What dost thou say, Iago?”
And then Athos had to break it. He had to start sowing his poison, planting his seeds, making Porthos feel this echo of pain even as he knew it’s just lines, just a show, it’s not real--
Until Porthos burst out Think, my lord! in that little speech Athos had worked so hard with him on, and Athos realized fully how very, very fucked he was.
Because he couldn’t do this.
He couldn’t hold all these feelings churning in his chest and not break apart. He couldn’t hide how much he fucking loved Porthos, loved Aramis and all they had together, while he had to play so cold and calculating. He couldn’t hide this and have to spit out so much emotion on the stage night after night. He couldn’t.
Just going through this was agony, through all these little lines in this theater, this place that was too small to hold them and too big with possibility--were it not that I have bad dreams--no, wrong play, he was losing the thread.
Porthos was still going, beautiful in his moment and his pushing, and Athos didn't know how to stop this without hurting him, without wrecking everything Porthos had tried to build. Porthos was more important than Athos, Porthos deserved this, Athos couldn't hurt him.
He'd already hurt Aramis, he couldn't--not both of them--he just had to push through.
He could push through.
He could, because Porthos was--
Porthos was--he was--oh no, not this line, it was fine and innocent but not today, not right now, Athos couldn't--
"--As if thou then hadst shut up in thy brain some horrible conceit," and oh, oh no, Athos couldn't do this, couldn't push through this scene because he knew what came next--
"If thou dost love me," Porthos said, and Athos' brain short-circuited and went blank, "show me thy thought."
Athos forgot how to breathe air and speak words. He could only breathe the words chasing around in his head and speak nothing at all--
if thou dost love me
show me thy thought
shut up in thy brain some horrible conceit
if thou dost love me
some horrible conceit
I am not what I am
Athos jerked away and bolted across the stage. He made it halfway upstage right before his legs gave out and he crashed to the floor.
Aramis' startled cry broke the wall between them, and all Athos could do was shake, clutch at the floor and shake, because it had gone too far. Too far, too far, it had all gone too far--
"Athos," and it was Porthos, kneeling beside him.
Athos cringed away, curling into himself more and wanting to rip up the boards and disappear beneath, crawlspaces and trapdoors and dark hiding places for his sick little mind.
"Athos," and Porthos was too gentle, the sound of Aramis' wheels on the stage coming too close, and Athos gulped in air, couldn't stop himself. "We don't have to--we can stop, it's okay."
Athos shook his head wildly, his fingernails carving dips into the floor. They couldn't stop. They couldn't stop here. It had gone too far. Porthos deserved this. After everything he'd--after Aramis had--no, Porthos deserved this, Aramis had worked too hard, Athos owed them this much, Athos couldn't stop now.
He just hadn't known it would end up like this, would end up breaking him open with how much he felt--
--how much it hurt, even to pretend to do this to him--
It was his cue.
The line bubbled up in his chest and Athos couldn't stop himself.
"My lord, you know I love you," he rasped.
Porthos stilled beside him.
Aramis' wheelchair squeaked on the floor in sudden stop.
Athos wanted to sob. He knelt on the stage floor, shaking and staring unseeing at the floor.
He'd said it, in what little way he could.
Porthos had to understand. He had to know why Athos couldn't do this--couldn't say it except in these words, except in making truth out of the lies he wove like cloth around himself.
Porthos' hand curled over his shoulder, and Athos' breath locked in his chest.
If they were playing this game of lines, lines and lies and lines, Porthos would say--
"I think thou dost." Porthos’ breath was soft on his neck, and the words were, too--soft, a whisper, never the way he'd played it before so maybe it was true--
There was nothing Athos could do, then, except sob. With release of tension, with fear, with sheer exhaustion from his body's emotions wringing him limp and broken.
The shift of Aramis' wheels on the floor made him cringe again. Aramis. What was he doing to Aramis, saying this, doing this, when Aramis had--when they'd hurt him so badly because Aramis had--
And Aramis spoke, gentle and steady--and not what Athos expected, not at all. "Lady Beatrice," Aramis said softly, and Athos felt Porthos' sharp draw of breath, "have you wept all this while?"
This certainly has been much ado about nothing, Athos thought hysterically, and remembered being years younger, centuries younger, running lines with Aramis in a stage just like this one, being his Beatrice while Porthos coached them both.
Athos nearly laughed, his heart breaking. "Yea, and I will weep a while longer," he choked, reaching up and finding his face wet.
When they'd done this, so many years ago--it had been fun, a lark, it had been--
--maybe the first time he'd ever admitted--
"I will not desire that," Porthos said, and the hand on Athos' shoulder lifted, to brush his cheek. Athos shuddered as Porthos wiped his tears away.
Aramis' faint exhale could mean one of any thousand things, and Athos still couldn't open his eyes, couldn't look up to see their faces.
"Oh, Athos," Aramis breathed.
"I can't do this," Athos said, unable to keep it in anymore. "I can't hurt you like this, even if it's just a play, even if it's pretend--I don't want to hurt you, either of you, any more, I don't want to be this person, I don't."
Porthos’ arms came around him, solid and real, and Athos let himself be drawn into Porthos’ embrace--let Porthos tuck Athos’ head against his chest, let himself shake and be held still. “Athos. You haven’t hurt us.”
“I have,” Athos ground out. “How can you say that, of course I--”
“Any hurt you’ve done to me isn’t real, love,” Porthos said, his arms pulling even tighter around Athos. “It’s a play. It’s all make-believe.”
Athos shook his head. “I didn’t protect you.”
“You made a mistake,” Porthos sighed. “And you pulled me out of it, you fixed it, that’s what matters to me.”
“And you didn’t hurt me,” Aramis said, still so gentle and kind.
Athos laughed, the hysteria finally breaking through. “How can you possibly say, Aramis--”
“You brought me back home,” Aramis cut him off. “You’ve taken such wonderful care of me, I--I feel like I’m dreaming sometimes, Athos.”
Aramis’ voice literally throbbed with sincerity, but it was all wrong, Athos couldn’t accept it, didn’t deserve it. He could barely breathe. “I drove you--”
“I drove myself out of that restaurant.”
Porthos went still around him.
Oh, of course, Aramis.
Athos laughed again, humorless and cracking. It echoed hollow in the lighting grid. “How long have you remembered?”
“Since that first morning in the hospital,” Aramis said quietly. “When Treville said to check my mirrors. I didn’t say because--I suppose I wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened. But these past few days…”
He trailed off, sighing, and Athos felt Porthos shift--looking back at him, maybe.
“It has been a dream,” Porthos said.
Aramis laughed softly. “Yes. I’ve been an enormous fool, really. I was so ready to be thrown aside that I couldn’t see how tightly you both were holding on to me.”
Porthos’ voice was warmer--cautious, maybe, but warm. “Yeah?”
Athos could hear Aramis’ smile in his voice. “Yeah.”
This wasn’t what Athos had expected to happen. Or hear. Or--feel.
I am not what I am, he thought, and lifted his head.
Porthos beamed at him, and reached up to cup Athos’ cheek in one hand. “Welcome back.”
“I didn’t go anywhere.” Athos closed his eyes and turned his face into Porthos’ palm. “I’m right here.”
“I know you are.” Porthos stroked his hair back, and Athos couldn’t remember the last time anyone--beside Porthos--had touched him this gently, with this much care.
“Oh,” Aramis said, barely a breath, and Athos suddenly realized how this would look, to--
“Just come over here,” Porthos laughed, cutting off Athos’ horrified train of thought. “You absolute idiot, we’ve been waiting for you the whole time.”
“Oh, well,” Aramis drawled, his smile brighter than the lights above them, and then he was wheeling himself closer, and Porthos was hauling Athos up a little more onto his knees so Aramis could hold them both, and then-- And then all three of them were holding each other, Athos leaning on Aramis’ lap, Aramis curving forward to hug them close, and Porthos tall on his knees to hold them all upright.
“You remember all of it, Aramis?” Porthos asked, sounding suspiciously hoarse.
“Everything,” Aramis said. His lips were tucked against the nape of Athos’ neck, and Athos sighed as he felt them brush his skin. “The restaurant. How you both tried to stop me. The--” His voice caught, and he cleared his throat. “The car, the way you both held my hands after.”
“I wish you didn’t remember that,” Athos said. His eyes burned with tears, even thinking of Aramis lying broken and bleeding like that, and feeling, remembering it all.
“I don’t ever want to forget the way you both talked to me,” Aramis said simply. “I’ll take the pain any day.”
“I’m crying already,” Porthos said roughly. “Stop talking.”
Arams laughed again, a little hoarse himself, and kissed Athos’ neck. “I’m sorry. I love you.”
Porthos caught his breath again, letting it out in a ragged, relieved sigh, and Athos felt him hold them both even tighter.
Athos breathed in Aramis all around him, the sense of Porthos beside him, and--he could finally believe it. They were here, after all.
It was so simple, really.
“I love you, too,” Athos echoed. He felt Aramis tremble beside him, felt Porthos exhale another shaky half-sobbed breath, and Athos took a deep, steadying breath. “I do. I love you.”
Porthos sniffed against his shoulder. “I love you both more than anything on this fucking earth, and can we please stop because I’m seriously gonna start weeping.”
Athos had to smile. He rested his forehead on Aramis’ shoulder and took Porthos’ weight all along his back, and he felt them both breathing.
That was good. That was right.
“Just to be clear,” Porthos said, once he’d gotten a little more control over his voice, “while I do love you both like brothers and family and everything else, what I actually meant there was also in the ‘let’s kiss for years and get married and have babies’ kind of way--”
Aramis choked out a strangled sound against Athos’ neck. “Porthos.”
“What? No babies?”
“We are having a moment, you utter--”
“How is my marriage proposal not adding to the moment?”
Athos coughed a laugh, and felt Aramis’ tremble of delight all against him. “Give a man some warning, Porthos.”
Porthos’ smile was a tangible thing, in the air all around them. “Can’t, too happy.”
Athos lifted his head to find Aramis beaming helplessly down at him and Porthos. Aramis’ brown curls fell over half his forehead and his eyes were so bright and joyful, and it was so easy for Athos just to stretch up on his knees and bring their lips together.
Aramis caught his breath, frozen for the barest of seconds before throwing one arm around Athos’ shoulders and dragging him up even closer, returning Athos’ kiss with a hunger and a passion that made Athos sway a little in his arms. Athos could hear Porthos’ breathless chuckle behind him, and when Aramis finally let Athos go, Porthos ducked in for his own kiss from Aramis. Athos watched, firebright heat spreading through his chest as they kissed bare inches from his face, as Porthos cupped Aramis’ jaw in his hands and Aramis’ eyelashes lay long and heavy on his cheeks, and God, how had he never tried to make this happen before?
He reached up to hold onto Aramis, too, hooking his arm around Porthos’ waist, and rested his head on Porthos’ shoulder until they’d kissed their fill.
Aramis was blushing when Porthos finally released him, a heavy flush that warmed his cheeks and weighed his gaze down, and he looked so adorably flustered that Athos had to lean in and rest his forehead against Aramis’ temple. Aramis exhaled a trembling sigh and pressed into him, and Porthos’ low, “Yeah,” rumbled in satisfaction through all of them.
“You two didn’t kiss,” Aramis murmured, sounding a little hazy.
Porthos laughed again. “Actually.”
“There may have been an incident the morning after your accident,” Athos admitted, knowing Aramis would feel his own awkward flush.
“Athos wants to date us,” Porthos confided to Aramis in a stage whisper. “He wanted to take it slow until you had your memory back, but I think we’re well past that now.”
“Porthos,” Athos said, burying his face in Aramis’ hair.
“He kissed me,” Porthos went on, blithely ignoring Athos’ embarrassment.
“After he spooned me in his sleep,” Athos interrupted, because this was not all his fault--
And Aramis threw back his head and laughed.
He laughed and lit up the stage with his happiness, perfect and gorgeous and alive, and this time Athos could look up at him and realize the fire in his chest was a beautiful mix of love and joy and everything that made them all work together, and he felt Porthos’ hand slip into his and squeeze.
Athos squeezed back, as tightly as he could.
Aramis looked down at them both, still beaming, and he tilted his head when he saw them looking up at him. “What?”
Athos and Porthos shared a look--a small glance that contained the multitudes of worry and relief and care they’d been carrying since that awful day--and Athos looked up at Aramis with a faint smile. “We,” he said softly, “are so very glad you’re alive, Aramis.”
Aramis blinked, looking caught off-guard and hopelessly taken aback. “Were you really that worried?”
“It was the worst ten seconds of my life,” Athos said. It was surprising, really, how easily his chest cracked open and let the words pour out. “I thought I’d lost you, and that the last thing I’d done was make you think I didn’t love you.”
Aramis’ mouth fell open, and he stared down at him with huge eyes. “Oh, Athos,” he said helplessly, and surged down off his chair into their arms.
They landed in a heap on the stage, three bodies, several limbs, and one cast, and Porthos laughed as he pushed himself upright. “Aramis, for God’s sake, don’t hurt yourself.”
“I love you, I don’t care,” Aramis said, kissing every bit of Athos’ face he could reach as he sprawled over Athos’ body.
“I do,” Athos said, unable to hold his smile in, as he smiled up at Aramis. “We’ve worked hard to keep you together after that accident, you know.”
“I know.” Aramis bit his lip and pushed himself up slightly--he’d braced his forearms on the stage, on either side of Athos’ head, and he looked hesitant, suddenly.
“What?” Porthos asked, reaching out to tuck Aramis’ hair behind his ear.
Aramis chewed on his lip for a moment, a deep line etched between his brows. “I don’t want to really ruin the moment.”
“Aramis.” Athos arched an eyebrow up at him.
Aramis rolled his eyes. “Oh, fine. I--” He hesitated a minute more, then plunged ahead. “The more I remember, the more I’m not sure it was a car accident. I think it was a car...deliberate.”
Athos stared at him, and he felt Porthos’ tension shimmer down his body beside them. “Aramis?”
“I did check my mirrors.” Aramis’ whole body was settled on top of Athos’, head to toe, but there wasn’t anything remotely sexual about this moment. All Athos wanted to do was hold, defend, protect. Aramis looked so uncertain--a little afraid. “I was--distraught, yes, but I remember. I remember being relieved there weren’t any cars coming so I could just get out.”
“It was a very dark car,” Athos pointed out gently, because the thought of anyone trying to hit Aramis was just--fucking awful--
“Its lights were very bright,” Aramis said wryly. “It was clear, Athos, the car was in the other lane. And then--I remember a flash in my mirror, and then my whole left side was pain and I was in the air.”
Porthos shuddered, and Athos went cold all over to hear Aramis say it so frankly. Aramis instantly looked contrite, reaching down to him, but before his hand could connect--
A loud knock on the side stage door jolted through all three of them. “Athos?” Ninon called through the door. “Are you still rehearsing?”
Athos froze underneath Aramis, who blinked like a deer in a floodlight. Porthos’ hand closed on Athos’ shoulder, tense and surprised.
“No,” Athos called back, because it was the only word that came into his head.
Ninon, however, took that as invitation to open the door. For the rest of his life, Athos would never be as embarrassed as he was in that moment, when Ninon blinked down at the three of them in a pile, with Athos pinned completely beneath Aramis and Porthos stretched out beside them.
“Not quite done yet, though,” Aramis said, because Aramis was always the quickest on the draw, and Porthos hastily stifled a slightly hysterical chuckle.
Ninon rolled her eyes. “You still don’t pay me enough for this,” she said to Athos, who was too busy wishing that the stage floor would open and swallow him up to think of an answer.
“You handle difficult situations with aplomb and grace, Ninon,” Aramis said grandly--still making absolutely no move to shift off Athos’ body.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Ninon scoffed, and turned on her heel to go--
--And suddenly Athos remembered something.
And several things fell into place.
“Ninon,” he said, pushing himself up on his elbows.
She glanced back. “Yes?”
“Do you still have Rochefort’s camera?”
Porthos and Aramis both looked sharply at him. Ninon blinked, turning back to him. “Yes,” she said slowly. “With the accident, I forgot completely. It’s in the green room.”
Athos set his jaw. “We need to talk to Richelieu.”
They were a slightly motley group, making their way down to Richelieu’s office a short while later--Athos and Aramis were both rather rumpled, Porthos wouldn’t stop touching Aramis’ shoulder as Aramis wheeled himself down the hall in his chair, and Ninon followed closely on Athos’ heels with her face set in hard, suspicious lines.
Richelieu glanced up as Athos knocked on his door. The lean-faced producer blinked to see them all standing there--the most surprise Athos had ever seen on his face--and he set his glasses aside and motioned them in. “To what do I owe the visit?”
Ninon produced Rochefort’s camera from her bag and set it on the counter. “We confiscated this from George Rochefort the day of Aramis’ accident,” she said, her voice frostier than Athos had heard it. “He was taking pictures down Anne’s shirt.”
Richelieu’s eyes narrowed. “I see,” he said, and he flicked the camera on. He thumbed through the last two pictures, barely glancing at them, then grimaced and set the camera aside. “I see,” he echoed.
“Also, I think he caused Aramis’ accident,” Athos said.
The temperature dropped four degrees in the room as the words left his lips, and every eye in the room turned to him. Athos could feel it prickling on his skin.
“That’s very serious to say,” Richelieu said, his wintry eyes locked on Athos.
“And I’m very serious,” Athos said.
Richelieu rolled the camera strap between his fingers. “Do you have proof?”
“I can,” Athos said, purposefully avoiding Aramis and Porthos’ eyes. “In the meantime I want him off this production. Completely.”
Richelieu’s spider-like hand settled on the camera. “This would be sufficient grounds for that. You don’t need any unfounded accusations of attempted murder, Athos.”
“All the same.”
Richelieu considered Athos for a long moment. Then he spread his hands slightly and nodded.
Athos nodded curtly, not sure of what else to say.
“We’ll leave you to it, then,” Ninon said, saving them all, and herded the three men out of Richelieu’s office.
“Do you want to tell us what that was all about?” Porthos asked, after they’d said goodnight to Ninon and were waiting for Athos’ family car to drive them back to Porthos’.
“A hunch,” Athos said, one hand tracing absently over Aramis’ shoulder. “I need to, ah, call in an old favor to be sure.”
Athos swallowed, his thumb tracking over the inside of his fourth finger. “Past history.”
Aramis’ voice was throaty. “Athos.” When Athos looked down at him, he saw Aramis gazing back up with those dark, luminous eyes. “You don’t have to do this for my sake.”
Athos felt the smile come to him unbidden, and he brushed his fingertips along Aramis’ jawline. “Yes, I do,” he said.
Aramis’ eyes went wider, darker, and he smiled helplessly up in return. “I don’t know what to do with this side of you,” he said, and reached for Porthos’ hand like he needed a rope to cling to.
Porthos took Aramis’ hand in one of his own, and wrapped his other arm around Aramis’ shoulders. “It’s something,” Porthos agreed, smiling at Athos.
Athos was saved from having to come up with a response to that (dear God, both of them looking at him like that) by the car’s arrival and the subsequent process of getting the three of them inside and fixed down.
“Really, Athos,” Aramis said softly, in the black quiet of the van’s interior. “I don’t--you don’t have to--I’m fine, I don’t need this.”
Athos blew out his breath, tipping his head back against the seat. “I might.”
The idea of having this hanging over them, a black van constantly dogging their steps--no.
Athos had lived with enough of those following him around.
He smiled at Aramis, and felt Porthos’ hand settle on his knee--warm, reassuring.
Athos closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and pulled out his phone.
[sorry to come out of the blue. I promise it’s important. Can you help me with something?]
[Well. This is a surprise.]
[What is it?]
[have you seen the tabloids lately? the accident?]
[Of course. Is he all right?]
[yes, thank you.]
[only I have a suspicion.]
[do you remember what kind of car George Rochefort drives?]
[That repulsive murderous weasel.]
[can you tell Richelieu?]
[I can. Can you do something for me in return?]
[I can try.]
[Put Sonnet 29 at the top of the show.]
[I’m sure you’ve been going back and forth on it.]
[At least one production in this world deserves to have that.]
[I can do that.]
[thank you, Anne.]
Chapter 13: Act V, scene ii
Previews. A show. A review.
MERRY CHRISTMAS, HERE IS THE LAST CHAPTER + epilogue. Thank you all for your patience while I slogged through these last few exhausting weeks of holiday retail. Here's a lovely long finale (some smut at last!) and epilogue for you all. Thank you so, so much for everything you've done for this story, and for me. You are the best readers in the world.
[We’ve sold out completely for the press preview today!]
[Do not spiral into anxiety. It’s a good thing.]
[am not spiraling.]
[don’t you have notes to be emailing people]
[They’re in your inbox already. Call is at 5.]
[I KNOW, Ninon.]
[How can you be so high-strung with two gorgeous boyfriends there to distract you?]
[I am not even dignifying that with a response.]
[we haven’t even decided if we’re going to use ‘boyfriends’ dear god woman]
[Go have an orgasm or three and come to call relaxed.]
[Don’t worry, I’ve got all the necessary balls in the air. You just worry about yours.]
[I regret hiring you more and more each day.]
[I love you too.]
“Should we run our lines again?” Athos asked Porthos, almost absently. “I feel like we could still get faster on three-three.”
“I think we’re good,” Porthos chuckled. He lounged on the bed beside Aramis, and Athos assumed the two of them were sharing looks behind his back.
Athos sighed and set his script down. “I know. I’m sure.” He paced decisively to the far end of the room, thinking he’d go wash his face or something--but no, wait, was it yours or your own in that line--? He turned and rushed back to the table, thumbing through his script until he found your own, and set it back down. Right. Face. Bathroom. Or should he call Charon and make sure the braces for the balcony had gotten painted?
“Would you just calm down?” Porthos laughed, sitting up on the edge of the bed. “Athos, it’s gonna be fantastic.”
“I know it is.” Athos paced the length of the bedroom again. “Flea did find that pearl trim for Anne’s nightgown, didn’t she? I forgot to text her yesterday, I should probably check in.”
“She did,” Aramis said patiently, and moved Athos’ phone out of reach on the nightstand. He was stretched out on Porthos’ bed, one of Porthos’ hands heavy on his uninjured ankle, and he smiled up at Athos with a knowing sort of look. “Are you going to sit down at all for the next two hours before call?”
“I’m fine,” Athos said, eyeing the window table where he’d left his script. “We’re going to have an audience in three hours, is all, and I’m starting to think we really need to--”
Whatever else he was about to say whooshed from his chest with all his breath as Porthos grabbed him around the waist and tossed him unceremoniously on the bed next to Aramis--who, with surprising alacrity for a man with a cast running from toes to thigh, rolled over and pinned Athos by his shoulders.
Athos stared up at Aramis with his mouth open, breathless for three very different reasons, and Aramis smirked at him. “We have instructions to distract you.”
“Oh?” Athos managed to get out, before Aramis swooped down and captured his lips in a kiss.
Athos gasped into Aramis’ mouth, his head spinning and Aramis’ heat flooding into him from all the places they were touching. Porthos chuckled, low and satisfied, and Athos felt the bed dip--and dip, and dip, and he opened his eyes and tore his mouth from Aramis’ to see Porthos on all fours over him, grinning wickedly down at them kissing.
“Oh,” Athos said again, reduced to monosyllables as all the blood in his body fled south.
“Mmm,” Aramis purred, pressing his face into Athos’ neck and nuzzling, and Athos gasped and arched up again. He still wasn’t used to this. It had been a week, and--Aramis kissing him like this, Porthos being so fierce and warm--Athos didn’t think he was ever going to be used to this. They’d been slowly growing bolder in the ways they touched each other, kissed each other--everyone assumed they were already fucking each other’s brains out on a daily basis, but honestly that first night they’d just all collapsed in bed and held each other until everyone stopped shaking and fell asleep--and Athos was nearly a writhing, incoherent mass just from this closeness.
They hadn’t had sex, as such, yet. (Aramis adamantly insisted the time he’d nearly come in the shower purely from the two of them being close and holding him up did not count, and though Athos and Porthos both defined sex as “shared induced orgasms,” they had agreed to let him have that.) There had been a great deal of kissing, even more cuddling and holding, and they’d all shared Porthos’ bed since they’d admitted their feelings. And while all of them had a tendency to wake up literally hard and panting for each other, there was always someplace to be, something to do that their senses of responsibility for the show wouldn’t let them set aside for the sake of getting off.
But right now, they had two hours before call, before this first preview, before everything irrevocably swung into the final phase of this time together--
And Athos was already shaking with want, clutching at Aramis’ arm and gasping as Aramis bit at his neck and staring up at Porthos over him with nothing in his head but I need you, I need you, I need you.
“Fuck, you’re shaking,” Aramis ground out, his hand flexing on Athos’ shoulder, and his teeth closed hot on Athos’ earlobe. “Athos, we can slow down--”
And a strangled cry of distress ripped itself free from Athos’ chest, his whole body pushing up into Aramis’ touch without his conscious direction, and suddenly he was begging, hearing his own voice just babbling no please please God I need you so much please--and he was flushed and mortified but too desperate to take it back, and then--
Oh, thank God, thank God, Aramis was pressing closer and Porthos had settled his weight, fucking hell his whole body on top of Athos, and Athos clutched at them both and held on for dear life. Aramis stroked his hair and kissed his cheek, and Porthos pinned him safe and close beneath him, and Athos let out a shuddering groan of relief.
They’d been dancing on the edge for so long, and all the rest of him was wound so tightly, he just--he needed to fall, he couldn’t handle trying to stay upright any more. He couldn’t even summon up enough feeling to hate his body for betraying him like this, for crying out like that.
They were so close now.
“Oh, darling, I know,” Aramis was saying, stroking his face and hair and kissing every bit of Athos’ face. “I know, I know, I feel the same way, I want you so badly.”
“We didn’t want to rush,” Porthos chuckled wryly, and he was holding himself up on one elbow even as he cupped Athos’ cheek in his hand, and he felt so good on top of Athos like this, Athos could barely stand it. “Guess we’ve been going too slow, huh?”
“No,” Athos got out, his voice a foreign thing to his ears. “No, I just--today, it’s all--it’s too much, I need, I’m sorry, I don’t want to stop--”
“Don’t say sorry for this,” Porthos growled, and he settled even heavier over Athos, his weight a promise. “Don’t apologize for wanting something we both wanna give you.”
“Porthos,” Aramis breathed out, and Porthos’ eyes flashed hot to him. Aramis was staring at him, mouth open slightly, and with a low sound Porthos arched over to kiss him.
Athos stared as the two of them kissed hard, hungry, hot bare inches from his face, and this was--this was stunning, this was art. Poetry. Aramis pushed and Porthos gave ground, only to surge back and push harder when it got too much for him just to take.
Aramis gasped into Porthos’ mouth, color flushing scarlet in his cheeks, and Porthos growled again, shifting his weight to his other side so he could press closer--and his hips rolled against Athos’, dipped down harder to balance himself as he moved.
Athos’ stomach lurched with searing want and he had to fall back and gasp because that, that was Porthos’ cock pressing against his own through their jeans, hard and hot and impossibly good against him--
And Porthos choked out a whine against Aramis’ lips, breaking the kiss to duck his head and gasp as his hips stuttered down onto Athos’ again, like it had caught him by surprise. “Oh, my God,” he said breathlessly, his chest heaving. “Shit, I wasn’t expecting--”
Aramis moaned and surged forward to kiss Athos again, and Athos twisted to reach him better, to let Aramis take everything he wanted, and Porthos let out another high gasp as Athos pushed against him in turn. “Fuck,” Porthos whispered, almost plaintive, and he pushed his head down into Athos’ neck, gasping hot against his skin.
Aramis whimpered into the breath he shared with Athos, hooking his mobile leg over Athos’ and dragging himself closer, and Athos clutched at him even tighter when he felt Aramis’ hips pushing raggedly against his side.
“Oh, fuck,” Aramis got out, and oh, Athos could feel him, too, because all Aramis could wear over his cast were loose, drapey, clinging yoga pants and that was not a barrier against hard insistent aching cock and all Athos could do with that knowledge was moan and shake and let them both rut against his body because this was--
“Fuck, fuck,” Porthos gasped and reared upright, braced on his hands and knees again, and he was obviously, obscenely hard in his jeans as he held himself over Athos. “We--God, I feel like we’re bloody nineteen again--”
“I wish we’d done this at nineteen,” Aramis moaned into Athos’ temple, fingers twisting knots into Athos’ t-shirt. “I’ve wanted this since we were nineteen.”
Athos twisted his fingers into Aramis’ hair and held on tight, cradling Aramis to him as closely as he could, because what else was he supposed to do with that, with all this emotion clawing his chest to pieces and putting something tender and new back in its place?
“I’ve wanted you both since the day I met you,” Porthos breathed, one of his hands reaching out shaky to brush Athos’ hair back from his sweating face. “I can’t believe--finally, God, finally.”
Athos sobbed and reached out blindly for them both, because he loved and he wanted and-- “I’m so sorry,” he choked out, twisting his body desperately to touch one, both, as much of them as he could, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I wish I’d realized, I wish I’d been brave enough then to--”
“You’re so brave,” Aramis said fiercely, pushing close and kissing Athos hard, a bruising smack of lips. “There’s nothing braver than starting again, Athos, nothing.”
Porthos dropped down onto his elbows again, kissing Athos’ cheek, jaw, temple, brow-- “Don’t apologize,” he breathed against Athos’ skin, his voice cracking. “You didn’t do anything wrong, we just--we all got it backward, but it doesn’t matter, we’re all here now.”
Athos nodded helplessly, swallowing down the tightness in his throat, and tried to just feel the way both of them were breathing against him.
They were all here.
Somehow. Years, continents, car crashes...they were all here, together, again.
“We are,” he said finally, reaching up to hook Porthos closer, and he brushed their lips together--an echo of their first kiss, sweet and lingering. Porthos huffed out a soft groan, settling heavier onto Athos again, like he just couldn’t help it, and Athos sighed to have Porthos’ weight on him again. He turned his head then, seeking Aramis, and Aramis pressed close and kissed him, long and slow and just as sweet.
Athos’ racing heart had calmed, his need less frantic but no less urgent, and he took another moment just to breathe in the two of them, close, wanting. Then he sighed, tipping his head back into the pillow and rolling his body along Porthos’, and Porthos let out a startled moan when the motion brought their hips together again.
Athos dragged in a breath and looked between Porthos and Aramis. “Clothes off?” he managed to ask.
Porthos instantly arched up and ripped his t-shirt off over his head, one fluid motion of muscular arms and flexing abdominals, and Aramis made a sound like he’d been punched. “Porthos. Porthos.”
Porthos grinned down at him. “Yeah.”
Then he shifted, pounced, kissed Aramis and tugged up on the hem of his t-shirt, and Athos rolled over to help. Between the two of them, they divested an abruptly-boneless Aramis of his shirt in moments, and Porthos kissed Aramis deep and greedy while Athos worked Aramis’ loose trousers over the bulk of his cast.
“Take the fucking pants off, too,” Aramis moaned, breaking away from Porthos just long enough to gasp it out, and Athos swallowed hard and tugged Aramis’ slim, snug black briefs down, as well. Aramis let out a guttural sound of need against Porthos’ mouth as Athos had to ease the fabric over his cock--and then Athos was staring, because he was eye level with Aramis’ flushed and hard and leaking cock, and all those other naked times had not been appropriate times but this most definitely was an appropriate time to be staring. And wanting. And realizing that this was Aramis and Athos had never done any of this before but this was Aramis and Porthos and they’d forgive him if he fucked it up, but--even so, at least he knew the theory enough to--
Aramis jackknifed off the bed with a cry as Athos kissed the base of his cock. Porthos caught him, held him steady with a murmured word of caution, and looked down to see what Athos had done. When he saw--and when Athos did it again, lips lingering along the hard line of Aramis’ arousal, Aramis quivered and Porthos swore. “Athos--”
“I want everything,” Athos said, his own voice hazy to his ears, and he looked up Aramis’ body at the two of them. His face felt far too open, he knew he was looking up at them with all of the want and need and love in his body writ bare on his face. “I’ve never--I want everything,” he said again, because that was all he could say, with both of them staring back at him like he was something miraculous.
And Porthos and Aramis shared a speaking look--they always did, they were always so good at that--then reached down for him and dragged him back up to them.
“Come on,” Porthos said, low and urgent, his hands around Athos’ waist as Aramis grabbed and pulled at Athos’ shoulders, twisting him and shifting him, “on top of Aramis, come on--yeah, just like that, just--stay there, okay?”
Athos could only pant and nod as the two of them settled him between Aramis’ legs, his back to Aramis’ chest and his head resting on Aramis’ shoulder. Aramis kissed and nipped at Athos’ neck and jaw, trembling hands skating under his t-shirt to stroke his chest as Porthos started stripping Athos with a single-minded intensity.
“Do you have any fucking idea,” Porthos said, shaking his head in disbelief as he unbuttoned Athos’ jeans, yanked the zipper down, tugged them off his hips and down his legs, “how long--how many different ways and fucking times I’ve thought about--”
“You,” Aramis said, teeth tugging at Athos’ earlobe again. “Here. Saying just that.”
Athos groaned as Porthos pulled down his shorts, too--barely bothering with clawing them all the way off his legs, so quickly was he leaning up to pull Athos’ t-shirt off, too--and then Athos was stripped between the two of them, kicking his pants the rest of the way off and gasping as Aramis’ fingernails scratched over his chest, as Porthos leaned down to kiss him.
Athos could only make the most undignified sounds into Porthos’ mouth as he trembled between the two of them--Aramis wouldn’t stop touching him, and Aramis’ cock was hard and dripping against his back, and Porthos was growling into their kiss as Athos’ own fingers dug into the broad expanse of Porthos’ back.
“Our gorgeous, untouchable Athos,” Aramis said, stroking both palms down Athos’ sides and gripping at his hips. “Do you have any idea how much we want you?” He kissed Athos’ neck again, and then he held Athos tight and rocked his cock up against the small of Athos’ back. Athos shuddered violently, aching with how much he wanted, and he made another gasping, half-groaned sound against Porthos’ lips. Porthos gave it right back, his teeth digging into Athos’ bottom lip for a blazing moment--and then he pulled back, staring down at the both of them from all fours above them.
Aramis hummed delightedly in Athos’ ear. “Porthos, you have a look on your face.”
Porthos’ grin spread wicked and slow. “What look’s that, love?”
Athos could feel Aramis’ delighted shiver at that, and Aramis’ hips flexed up against him again. “Like you want to devour us both whole.”
“Now what, d’you think, would make me look like that?” Porthos drawled, his eyes sparkling. “Not having both of you laid out naked and hard underneath me, surely.”
And Athos had to laugh at that, and watched Porthos’ face turn even brighter and softer, felt Aramis hum again and kiss his neck. It felt so good. It felt so good to be here in bed with them, all of them wanting each other so much, everything so weighty and heavy and full of meaning--and then for them to be teasing, and laughing, and still so much themselves.
“What?” Porthos asked, grinning down at him. “I know I’m funny, but you had a look, too.”
Athos opened his mouth, then closed it. There was no response but painful honesty to that. “I’m still so surprised to have things feel good,” he said, and shivered when Porthos’ eyes went too wide, too hurt. “No, I didn’t mean--”
Porthos cut him off with another kiss, fervent and desperate, and Athos closed his eyes and surrendered to it. When Porthos broke away, eyes bright, Athos could only stare up at him, and Porthos stroked a thumb over his bottom lip. “I want you to always feel good,” Porthos said, low like a promise. “You’re never gonna forget how that feels, Athos.”
“We’ll take care of you,” Aramis whispered, holding onto him so tightly. “We’ll be so good together.”
“I thought I--” Athos’ voice cracked, and he closed his eyes, let himself tremble a little. “I thought I was supposed to be looking after the two of you. I’m here to take care of you.”
Aramis huffed out a gentle laugh against his neck, and his sweet, soft lips pressed lightly to the nape of Athos’ neck. “You still can. It goes both ways, love.”
Athos shivered again. “Does it?” And he was embarrassed almost as soon as he said it, because he hadn’t meant to--it sounded too open, too broken and needy and confused--but it had the desired effect.
Porthos kissed him fiercely again, Aramis held him even tighter, and Athos kissed Porthos back as hard as he could, dug his fingers into Aramis’ arms and held on for dear life.
“We will take care of you,” Aramis said. There was no room for doubt, for disagreement, for Athos’ own insecurities, in the soft heat of Aramis’ voice. “You look after us, the way you’ve done so well, and we’ll look after you, and each other. That’s how this works. And if you don’t believe us, we’re going to teach you.”
Athos just let himself shake--Aramis’ breath on his neck sent tremors down his spine, and Porthos was holding him so close and steady and safe, pressing tiny kisses along his jaw, his neck and shoulders. “I want that,” he admitted, when he could speak again. “I want you to teach me. I want you to--” His voice broke when Porthos’ hand skimmed lightly over the line of his cock, when Porthos’ weight settled more on him, but he had to get it out--
“I want you to take care of me,” he gasped into the air between them, and Aramis’ hand joined Porthos’ on him.
“We want that, too,” Aramis whispered, and kissed his hair.
And then their hands started to move on him, and Athos was lost.
He forgot everything but the way they were touching him, the way Aramis was panting on his neck and Porthos was looking down at him with burning eyes. He forgot to feel wrong, or to want to hide; he forgot that he didn’t think he deserved this. They felt so good, and they were both here telling him they wanted him--telling him they wanted to take him in their hands and gently put his crooked bits back in order.
Dignity, shame, pride--he was a sobbing, gasping thing between them, craving them and crying out their names, and nothing mattered but that.
He hadn’t been touched in so long, and these were the only two people who could.
Aramis hitched a shuddering gasp behind him and Athos felt a flood of heat--and Porthos was grinding his clothed hips against Athos’ leg and cursing a breathless mix of their names--and--
Athos whited out on the knowledge that he’d made them lose themselves.
When he came back to himself, Aramis was still shivering underneath him, whispering love in his ear and stroking Athos’ chest with his clean hand, and Porthos had settled on top of him, his forehead pressed to Athos’ shoulder as he caught his breath.
Athos sighed and dropped his head back against Aramis’ shoulder, turning his head for a kiss like a blind kitten. Aramis hummed happily and kissed him, soft and sweet, and Athos brought still-numb arms up to wrap around Porthos and hold him close.
“Are you back with us?” Aramis murmured when the kiss broke, tracing his nose along the length of Athos’. “You went pretty far away there.”
“I did,” Athos said, his voice still feeling distant. “It’s been a long time.”
“Oh, love.” Aramis brushed another kiss to his lips, eyes melting-warm, and Athos smiled at him.
“A long fucking time,” Porthos sighed against Athos’ shoulder. “And I was here hoping I wasn’t gonna embarrass myself by coming in my bloody pants, and yet--”
Aramis laughed delightedly, pushing his clean hand through Porthos’ curls. “You were magnificent.”
“Yes,” Athos agreed. He felt his smile spreading uncontrollably wide, spilling out with the endorphin high of orgasm, and he closed his eyes and pressed his face into Porthos’ shoulder. “Very.”
Porthos laughed a little self-consciously. “If it worked for you, I’m not complaining.”
“Worked, he says, Athos,” Aramis huffed, stretching luxuriously beneath them. “Like the sight of him half-naked over us is just something we could take or leave.”
Porthos ducked his head, a flush pinking his cheeks as his grin turned awkward, and Athos and Aramis shared a look.
Athos sat up, reaching for Porthos, and Porthos looked up at him, automatically reaching out despite his own discomfort--
Because that was Porthos, that was what he did, and Athos wasn’t going to let him. Not right now.
Athos leaned in and kissed Porthos’ lips. Then his temple. The puzzled dip between his brows. He brushed featherlight kisses over every bit of his face, until he felt Porthos’ lips curling in a steadier smile, smaller but more sure of himself, and Aramis hummed happily behind him. Aramis’ hand traced gently over Athos’ back--no intent, just happy in the connection, and Athos sighed as he traced his lips over Porthos’ cheekbone.
“Is this you making a point, then?” Porthos murmured, catching Athos’ lips for a moment before Athos shifted to kiss over the other side of his face.
“Yes,” Athos said, letting his forehead rest against Porthos’ temple, his lips against the strong line of his jaw.
“Every inch of you is perfect, Porthos,” Aramis said, his hand settling gentle and possessive on Athos’ hip. “Come down here so I can kiss it, too.”
Porthos scoffed, but he was smiling in obvious pleasure as he and Athos settled back down on the bed with Aramis. “Every inch?”
“Mmm-hmm,” Aramis hummed, leaning over to kiss him as well. “Every one.”
Porthos’ gaze was a physical thing on the two of them--the weight of it, the intent and happiness there. “You sure? ‘Cause my left elbow’s a bit wrinkly these days.”
Athos reached over Aramis for the offending elbow and managed to kiss it before Porthos pulled it back with a laugh. Porthos grinned at him, his eyes so big and his smile so helpless, and Athos didn’t feel like he had to look away, for once.
Aramis blew out a happy, drowsy-sounding sigh and starfished out in the bed as best he could--one arm going around Porthos’ shoulders, the other Athos’, and his mobile leg hooking over Porthos’ ankle. “This is wonderful,” Aramis sighed, his smile wide and blissful. “Perfect.”
Athos propped his head up on his hand so he could look down at him, and Aramis beamed up in return. Athos couldn’t help smiling back. “Yes?”
“Yes,” Aramis said. His eyes were so soft, so full of emotion, that it made Athos’ chest ache. It couldn’t be real, the way Aramis was looking at him--but it was, and he was, and Athos couldn’t remember being this happy in so long. “Utterly perfect. Can we stay here forever?”
Porthos snorted, even as he leaned down to nuzzle at the sweaty curls at Aramis’ temple. “Speak for yourself, you’re not covered in drying come.”
“Oh,” Athos said, suddenly aware of the way both his and Aramis’ release was starting to tighten on his skin. “Yes, there is--a lot of that, yes.”
Aramis burst out laughing, his smile impossibly bright, and Porthos cupped Aramis’ head to his shoulder, so Aramis could snicker out his glee against Porthos’ skin. “Athos,” Porthos said, his expression a curious mix of grin and frown, “this isn’t the first time you’ve ever had another cock in the mix, is it?”
Athos did not know why he was blushing now of all times, but yes, he was, and yes, Porthos and Aramis were both looking at him like he was growing another head. “I did tell you at the hospital that I’d never acted upon my bisexuality.”
Porthos flipped back into the pillow with a groan, and Aramis courteously reached up and covered his face for him, since his hands were still full of Aramis. “That is not that part of that whole night I remember, Athos, I’m sorry--”
“Does it make a difference?”
“No,” Porthos huffed, shaking Aramis’ hand off his face, and oh, he was the one blushing, “but I would have--I dunno, tried to do something nicer than just manhandle you and not even get my own kit off--”
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Athos protested, sitting up. “It was--Porthos, did you not notice how I literally lost all control of my higher functions, or--”
“See, after the kind of fuck I want to give you,” Porthos cut him off, catching Athos in a glittering smile, “you wouldn’t be able to string together a sentence that long for hours.”
Athos opened his mouth.
“Stop getting me hard,” Aramis said, almost conversationally, “we still have to shower before rehearsal and I’ll want to go again.”
Porthos grinned down at him. “I could go again.”
“Oh, my God,” Athos said, falling back into the pillows and covering his face. “We’re never going to stop.”
“Are you complaining?” Aramis purred. He reached over and traced a fingertip down the center line of Athos’ body, letting it drag in the whorls of his chest hair, the dip of his abdominal muscles, his belly button--
Athos’ cock twitched with interest, his refractory period apparently as wildly absent as his self-control, and Athos gave up.
“One more round,” he sighed, dropping his hands and glancing at the clock. “And then we should shower.”
“We could combine the two,” Porthos rumbled. He nuzzled at Aramis’ neck and rolled over, his broad body curving over Aramis’ and pinning him down. “Mmm?”
“Not with that cast,” Athos said severely, even as he crawled closer.
Aramis beamed up at him, reaching out and folding one arm around Athos’ neck. “Is this you taking care of me?”
“Yes,” Athos growled, and ducked down to kiss him again.
It was a miracle they were only five minutes late to call.
[Good preview. Heard much praise in the foyer after.]
[ah good. Anything notable?]
[Not from the journos.]
[Though I did mean to ask you when you made the character choice of staring at Porthos like a lovesick starlet whenever he gets going on a monologue and you’re on stage.]
[unfortunately that choice was made for me.]
[will endeavor to hold it back for opening night.]
[am possibly more embarrassed than I have ever been in my life.]
[Just don’t swoon onstage and we’ll all make it through.]
“All right, Cypriots and Venetians,” Ninon announced as she stuck her head into the makeup room. “We are now at twenty minutes until go on this most lovely of opening nights.”
“Thank you, twenty,” Athos chorused back with the rest of the actors. He glanced up from the mirrors and waved a hand to catch her eye. “How’s capacity?”
Ninon grinned at him. “John has asked me to inform you we have completely sold out the house, so don’t bollocks it up.”
Porthos whooped beside him and hooked an arm around Athos’ shoulder, dragging him in for a smacking kiss on the hair. “That’s what I like to hear!”
“Someone’s cheerful,” Constance called teasingly from down the mirrors.
“We’ve got a great show going, of course I bloody am,” Porthos called back, and he flashed Athos an excited grin in the mirror.
All Athos could do was grin back. It was easier than letting the nerves get to him, and even though he was fairly close to that--
He stifled a yelp as Porthos’ hand slapped down briskly on his ass, jolting forward into the makeup table and setting the whole thing rattling. Porthos collapsed in laughter beside him as Athos stared at his own reflection, beet-red and tongue-tied and somehow inexplicably pleased.
“I can die happy now I’ve seen that,” Aramis said from his other side, sighing out in satisfaction, and Athos flipped him two fingers in the mirror, even as he badly hid another grin.
Aramis beamed and reached up for his makeup. He, too, was putting on the layers of stage makeup, though his was just a cover for when he’d be under the spotlight, not as full as the rest of theirs. “I’m so glad we’re all here,” he said then, his eyes flashing warm over Porthos and Athos’ reflections. “We’ve managed to get all the way to a performance together after all.”
Porthos’ grin turned absolutely soppy as he looked over at Aramis. “Yeah. Yeah, we did.”
“If this gets any more cloying, I’m going to vomit,” d’Artagnan called from down the row.
Flea’s voice roared out from behind the changing screens. “Not in your costume!”
Anne’s loud, unbridled laugh came from behind the screens as well, and that sent everyone off into snickers.
“Focus up, people,” Athos said, forcing a bit of brusqueness into his tone. It did nothing, since he knew everyone could still hear his smile, but the snickers turned back into the low murmur of tongue-twisters and lines. They’d warmed up as a cast before they’d started to get into costume, but there could never be too many speech exercises.
Athos met Aramis’ eyes in the mirror again, and Aramis lifted his eyebrows in question.
Athos smiled, nodding slightly, and Aramis beamed at him.
“Good,” Porthos said, sounding satisfied, and they all went back to their makeup.
Athos felt--calm. Surprisingly so. He wasn’t anxious, or frustrated, or feeling like he didn’t deserve it anymore. They’d all worked at this. They’d come together, they’d fought through unimaginable difficulties, they’d made it work. He’d just been part of the team.
“You’re going to be great,” Porthos said quietly.
Athos allowed himself a moment to reach out--to wrap his fingers around Porthos’ free hand and squeeze. “You’re going to be amazing.”
Porthos took a deep breath, his smile a smaller thing: shy, private--hopeful. “Yeah, I think so.”
“I know so,” Aramis said, his gaze warm in the mirror. He set down his makeup sponge and pivoted his chair, then pushed himself over between the two of them. He reached up and laid his fingers on top of theirs, then squeezed gently. “I suppose it’s showtime for me. I’ll go out there and start my bit.”
Athos turned to him, reaching out his other hand for Aramis’ shoulder. Aramis smiled up at him, and Porthos let out an unmistakably happy sigh beside him.
Before he could think too hard about it (or talk himself out of it), Athos leaned down and pressed a brief kiss to Aramis’ lips. Short, chaste, but long enough to taste Aramis’ pleased gasp, to know that everyone in the dressing room would see--and to not care.
“I love you,” he murmured when they broke apart. “Thank you for this.”
Aramis’ smile was soft, his eyes even softer, and he stretched up to kiss Athos one more time. “I love you. Both of you. I’ll see you at intermission.”
Porthos ducked down for a kiss of his own, and Athos let himself settle at the sight. They looked so good together. They looked happy.
He kept that in the forefront of his mind as they finished makeup, costumes, dressing. They were good together. They were happy. This show succeeding wasn’t his primary concern anymore--and wasn’t that truly a sign of how different this was, that his love for them could come before the professional obligation?
All he’d thought of since school--all he’d been allowed to think of--was his career. With them back in his life, he could actually live again.
“Thinking deep thoughts?” Porthos asked quietly, as they stood together backstage in the last moments before places were called. Both ready, they’d left the makeup room and stood peering out from behind the drapes of the wings. The crowd was settling, all the seats filled, and Athos could see Treville sitting in the back row with Richelieu, the two of them talking quietly with their heads together.
Athos’ heart was starting to pick up with the familiar adrenaline of pre-show excitement, but for the first time since starting this whole production--he felt ready.
Athos looked back over his shoulder at Porthos and smiled. “Nothing deep,” he said, and let the curtain fall closed. “Just what’s here in front of me.”
Porthos’ slow grin lit the little candle in Athos’ chest, and this time he didn’t push it down or run from it. He stepped forward, wrapped his arms around Porthos’ waist, and closed his eyes as Porthos leaned down to kiss him.
Yes. He was ready.
“Places!” they heard Ninon announce from the makeup room, and Athos tasted Porthos’ happy sigh as they pulled apart. Porthos’ eyes were bright, his whole body trembling with excitement, and Athos cupped his cheek, rested their foreheads together for a moment.
“Remember to take your time,” he said, one last director’s thought coming to the forefront. “No need to rush. This is your stage. You own it. They’ll wait for you.”
Porthos nodded, his hands coming up to squeeze gently at Athos’ shoulders. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
Athos smiled at him. “Yes, you will.”
“Second call, places,” Ninon’s voice came warningly, and Porthos broke away, hurrying to the back stairs up to the gallery they’d built.
He glanced back just once, eyes wide and wild and afire with all his nerves and joy, and Athos nodded, hoping everything he felt echoed just as strongly in his face.
And then he took a deep breath and stepped up to his mark in the wings.
The house lights went down. The audience’s noise swung up sharply then dropped just as quickly--
And a single spot went up on the stage, and Aramis rolled out into it.
“Good evening, everyone,” he said, and Athos could hear his smile in his voice. “I’m Aramis Herblay, the assistant director, and it’s my pleasure to welcome you to The Garrison Theater, and to tonight’s performance of Othello.”
As Aramis ran smoothly through the introduction, safety warning, and intermission times, Athos took another moment to be grateful he’d decided to give Aramis the director’s speech--and that Aramis had agreed so readily. Athos had been warming up, getting in character, for an hour now; to have to drop that to be Athos again would have just been too much. Aramis, however, with all his charm and easy grace--and his delight to be on stage after all--made even Athos feel welcomed and calm.
“...And without further ado,” Aramis said at last, and Athos straightened, tugging his jacket hem down. This was it. “We present Othello.”
The stage lights went dark completely, and Aramis’ spotlight slowly filtered to a softer amber. In the darkness, Athos stepped forward, and he felt more than heard Porthos and Anne take their places on the gallery.
The faint spotlights came up blue, on Athos standing down on the stage, and as he looked up, on Porthos and Anne in the gallery, sitting, embracing, holding each other.
And when Aramis spoke, this time, it was in an actor’s smooth tones, setting the scene. “When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,” he began, looking out into the audience, “I all alone beweep my outcast state, and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, and look upon myself, and curse my fate--”
And he turned, moving to Athos, and Athos felt his light grow brighter--and just like that he was Iago, gazing up at Othello and Desdemona, while the sonnet fit so eerily well. And Aramis sounded so sad--pitying, perfectly--as he continued, “Wishing me like to one more rich in hope--featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd, desiring this man's art and that man's scope, with what I most enjoy contented least…”
He shook his head and turned away, his chair gliding silently away as he paused, and looked up at the gallery above. “Yet, in these thoughts myself almost despising--”
And the light came up stronger on Othello and Desdemona, as they turned to each other, as Othello pushed Desdemona’s hair back from her face and they beamed at each other, the moment to be tender and in love that they deserved.
And Aramis’ narration was gentle, so happy and wistful and just the tone Athos had hoped he’d set.
Haply, I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
He let the words hang and die, and then Aramis shook his head and rolled away across the empty stage. Athos didn’t watch him go--held his position, frozen in the tableau, as Aramis’ light faded with his exit, as the light on Othello and Desdemona faded to black, and Iago was the only one left, his spotlight gradually brightening to show the entire, now-empty stage and gallery--
And then Louis burst out onto stage, Roderigo in full voice-- “Tush! Never tell me--"
And Iago turned to him, and then there was no going back.
Athos would never remember the entirety of that first act, no matter how hard the reporters pressed him for it after. He only remembered the flurry of entrances and speeches and exits--director’s eye calculating quietly in the back the whole time, pleased to find everyone at the top of their game, on their marks and better than ever. The adrenaline rush of being on stage again, performing again, building something out of nothing but words, with people he respected and having a live audience sit there, hushed in awe, carried him through on pure sensation.
The moment when he truly realized how electric this creation was came in the final moments of the first act. It was his and Porthos’ scene--my Lord, you know I love you, so much easier this time, no longer fraught with contradictions and compromises but ripe with promise--and it was Othello’s last line--
And Porthos, tall and blazing and utterly beautiful in fury, turned to Athos and met his eyes, fully for the first time. “Now art thou my lieutenant,” he declared, and held out his hand,
And everything in the world seemed to condense into this moment--this promise of taking Porthos’ hand and shaping all their futures, new, together.
Athos reached out and clasped Porthos’ hand in his own, and it was so easy, so perfect, to say the line. "I am your own for ever."
They stared into each other's eyes, and as the lights faded, the theater broke into applause.
Good God, were those cheers?
Porthos' hand tightened and pulled on his, dragging him toward backstage, and Athos stumbled after him in the dark, grateful for the empty stage and suddenly giddy with delight. One act down, they'd done it, everyone was applauding, dear God, the lights hadn't come back up yet but they were just clapping and clapping like they couldn't stop--
The house lights came up behind him and illuminated Porthos' face looking back, as they reached hidden safety behind the back wall. His eyes were alight, his grin wide and white and stunning and he was so happy, he looked so proud of himself.
Athos' chest clenched and seized with unbearable emotion, and that was it.
The decision was made for him.
He squeezed Porthos' hand and pulled him the other way, away from the dressing room and the near wing where the rest of the cast would be congregating. He could hear Ninon call, "Intermission, everyone, that's fifteen minutes to places," and the reply of "Thank you, fifteen" from everyone else--even he and Porthos, under their breath--
But what was more important were the swaths of black curtains stored along the back wall, lit only by the single bulb of the ghost light, and the way Porthos' breath whooshed from his chest as Athos tugged him into them.
"Athos--?" he got out, his voice breathless and vibrating with exhilaration--before Athos grabbed him and pulled and then they were kissing, Athos holding tight to Porthos' costume jacket and Porthos' hands cupping warm and solid at the base of Athos' skull and holding him close, so close, too close to breathe or do anything but kiss him like the theater was going to collapse around them at any moment.
"You're amazing," Athos managed to say between kisses, between Porthos crushing him against the wall and pinning Athos there with his whole body. "You're--amazing, Porthos, you're--everything, everything--"
"Fuck," Porthos groaned into his mouth, and his body pressed greedily against Athos, all his weight grounding Athos to the wall, and Athos threw back his head and gasped at the pressure, at the heat of him--and then he stifled a cry as Porthos' teeth sank into the base of his neck, just--just below the collar, he'd have the mark there hidden through the whole second act, no one would know but them and--
His whole body lit up with electricity, and Athos bit back another groan of longing. Porthos laughed, laughed in a rasp of air and lifted his head to hiss, "Aramis, here."
There was a moment of silence, and then Aramis' low "Oh, my God" sent another shiver down Athos' spine.
And then Aramis' head peeked through the break in the curtains, and his jaw dropped, and he wheeled himself through in a second, until he was hidden beside them and reaching up to tangle his fingers in Athos'-- "Perfect, it was perfect, you two are stunning together and it's going to be amazing, God, look at you both--"
Porthos crashed his mouth back to Athos' with a desperate sound, and Athos clutched helplessly at Aramis' hand as he and Porthos kissed. Aramis laughed, longing and low, and then Athos felt teeth on the inside of his wrist, Aramis' lips and tongue and teeth laving over his skin and fingers.
"I said I'd go and find you--I figured you were talking," Aramis laughed against the trembling skin of Athos' wrist.
"Nope," Porthos said, his laugh rumbling against Athos' chest. "No, Athos--"
"I needed him," Athos said, the words spilling out, and both Aramis and Porthos let out low sounds at that.
Porthos moaned, pressed against him even tighter, there wasn't any space or air between them, and--and Athos could feel him.
Hot, hard, shaking with excitement and adrenaline and--that was it, Athos was gone, he needed to touch, needed to hold and kiss and make happy--
"Athos," Porthos choked when Athos' hand dug into his ass, when Athos' thigh came between both of his, and he bucked-- "Not--in my fucking costume, Flea will--"
"Never know," Athos rasped, and dropped to his knees on the stage floor.
Porthos trapped his groan behind his own skin as he bit down on his forearm, and Aramis leaned in to kiss and nuzzle and gasp against Athos' neck as Athos fought open the belt of Porthos' pants, the zipper--
Some part of himself took vague note that the director and accidental understudy of a production should probably not be sucking off his lead actor backstage during intermission--especially not while his impromptu assistant director whispered filthy encouragement in his ear.
Porthos' ragged groan sounded muffled, and Athos looked up, his mouth finally stopped with the heavy-slick-perfect weight of Porthos' cock on his tongue. Porthos leaned above him, braced on the brick of the wall with his left hand, and he'd bitten down on his right arm, staring down at Athos while his chest heaved and his legs shook.
They probably only had ten minutes now, would have to reappear for at least five of them--and Athos took that as a challenge. He hadn't felt this kind of need in so long, and it was Porthos--and he gave himself over to it. He pressed his tongue against the underside of Porthos' cock, drew back to lick hard at the dip beneath the head, then closed his lips and sucked, hard--then did it all again, over and over, dangerously high on the way Porthos was shuddering and gasping over him, the way Aramis' breath was hot and hard on his neck.
"You're incredible," Aramis whispered in his ear, and Athos shuddered all over, full-body and aching for it. He needed the two of them to see. He needed them to know how much he wanted to do--everything for them.
They made him feel so strong.
"Oh, fuck," Porthos choked out above him, and his hips jerked toward Athos, just once. Athos moved with it, his whole body on fire, and he'd never felt so empty and so full all at once--strong enough to take it, but weak enough just to need more--
"You will need your voice in fifteen minutes, my love," Aramis said in his ear, and bit down on Athos' earlobe. "No deep-throating."
Athos groaned in protest, even as he knew Aramis was right, and Porthos bit off a pained sound above him. So he pulled back, then, using his hand to make up for what his mouth couldn’t take, and Porthos’ long groan rattled through Athos’ entire body.
“How do you even--” Porthos shuddered all over, losing his thread--then shook his head and gasped out, “How are you so good at this, Athos--?”
Athos shivered and looked up through his eyelashes, through the sweaty fringe of his hair, and tried to send with his eyes practiced, practiced for years, practiced with toys, didn’t let myself think of you but wanted to, fuck, wanted to--
“Oh, sweet fucking God, you practiced,” Aramis moaned against his neck, pressing his face into Athos’ skin and groaning, and Athos closed his eyes and shuddered for how well they knew him, how well they could read him--
Porthos shoved his own wrist in his mouth, his eyes screwing up, and he looked so overwhelmed, so tense, so close--
Athos tightened his hand and whined in his throat and sucked, and Porthos came on a strangled sob.
Athos flooded hot from his face down to his core, flushing in need and want and pride. He’d done this. He had. For Porthos.
“Oh, fuck,” Porthos whispered, over and over against the back of his hand, slumped and panting against the wall. “Athos. Oh, fuck.”
Athos rested his forehead against Porthos’ stomach, catching his breath, shivering with each brush of Aramis’ fingers twisting and tangling in the curls at the nape of his neck.
Finally, he had some semblance of control back, and he made his trembling fingers tuck Porthos back into his clothes. He smoothed Porthos’ trousers, fixed the line of his shirt, and finally looked up at them.
Aramis was flushed and beaming, gazing at Athos with burning eyes and a reverent grin. Athos smiled back, pressing into Aramis’ touch, and then looked up at Porthos. “Porthos?”
Porthos stared down at him, his chest still heaving--
And then he dropped to his knees, too, fluid and graceful and powerful, and Athos barely had time to gasp before Porthos was cupping Athos’ jaw in his hands and crashing their mouths together.
Aramis groaned low, his fingers tightening in Athos’ hair, and held between them Athos felt his entire body go warm and hazy. Porthos kissed him so fiercely, hard and claiming but so unbelievably tender, and Aramis held Athos like he was precious, like he was something that deserved to be touched with care--
And between the two of them, Athos could believe it.
When Porthos finally let him go, Athos could only lean into him and breathe.
Porthos pressed his cheek to Athos’ hair, panting hard and rough against his neck, and Athos’ could feel Porthos’ body still alive with exhilaration beside him--no languid post-orgasm haze, still full of adrenaline and excitement. “God,” he breathed. “God, Athos.”
Aramis nipped softly at the shell of his ear, and Athos shuddered. He was half-hard in his pants, his body shivering for Porthos and Aramis’ touch, but--not now. It was enough that he’d done this for Porthos, that he could be this way for the two of them.
“When we get home,” Aramis murmured, nuzzling against his cheek, “we are going to have a very good time. But right now, you should go put in an appearance in the dressing room, hmm?”
Athos sucked in a deep breath and nodded. “Yes,” he agreed, grateful his voice was, in fact, intact.
Porthos chuckled beside him. “I’ve never had a quickie during intermission before,” he said, his grin broad as he helped Athos stand up. “Never would have guessed it’d be you.”
Athos leaned in and pressed a short, fierce kiss to that smile. “I never expected any part of this,” he said, love and happiness mixing in his chest and making him honest. “But I’m grateful every day.”
Their smiles at that were well worth the cast’s suggestive looks when they finally made it to the dressing room. Athos, somehow, still managed to give a decently dignified and directorial pep talk while being extremely aware of Aramis and Porthos sitting close and holding hands behind him.
Every part of him still felt electrified--whether from the sex or the excitement of the show, he couldn’t say. Whichever it was, he hoped it lasted. He hadn’t felt this present, this much like an actor in his own life, in--years.
“Two minutes,” Ninon announced, ducking her head into the makeup room, and Athos and the others chorused back thank you, two as usual.
“Anything else, mate?” Porthos asked, looking up at Athos with a smile. Aramis rested his head on Porthos’ shoulder, his smile just as bright and ready, and Athos couldn’t help but smile back.
“Yes,” he said, and looked around at his cast. “Thank you. For everything.”
“Any time,” d’Artagnan said, grinning back.
It probably would have gotten disgustingly emotional after that, but luckily, as always, his stage manager was looking out for him.
“Places!” Ninon yelled through the door, and the dressing room erupted into motion.
Athos took a moment to watch it happen--this room, this play, these people.
Then he had to go, too. He had a show to do.
OTHELLO ENDS ITS RUN WITH A PHOTO FINISH
by Samara Alaman
Porthos Duvallon has never expected anyone to wait at a stage door for him, but by the final week of Othello at The Garrison Theater, it’s old hat for the young actor.
“I try to spend as long out there with them as I can,” Duvallon says of his legions of new fans. “They’re gonna carry me through this next phase, you know, and I’m grateful.”
It must be a quite a change, going from unknown to London theater’s newest hot commodity in the span of eight weeks, but Duvallon handles it with grace. Since receiving rave reviews at a sold-out opening night, Othello has been the only show to see this season--thanks largely to Duvallon’s agonizingly empathetic performance as the titular character.
Duvallon says he’s just grateful the press has been focused on the actual show. “We had a rough time getting off the ground,” he says diplomatically. “But we turned it around in the end.”
It’s an understatement characteristic of the almost aggressively humble Duvallon. Most people wouldn’t refer to a near-fatal car accident involving a lead actor--and the subsequent arrest and conviction of the show’s assistant producer for vehicular assault (for details on sentencing, scheduled for Tuesday, see ROCHEFORT, page E7)--as simply a “rough time.” But it seems even the actor in question is determined to downplay the incident.
“I’m alive and the show’s a hit,” Aramis Herblay says, cheerful as ever, when asked about his accident. “Athos even found a way to keep me on the stage, so I can’t complain, really. It’s been a dream.” After suffering multiple broken bones, including a shattered lower leg and three cracked ribs, the production’s intended Iago now introduces the show from his wheelchair, with a melancholy reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29. It’s just one of many shockingly good choices made by director (and replacement Iago) Athos de la Fere.
The near-reverent tones in which Herblay refers to de la Fere are par for the course with the cast. Well-known in film circles for his difficult nature, de la Fere inspires a loyalty that may seem startling to anyone only familiar with his work or his tabloid escapades. And it’s not just his childhood friends (Herblay and Duvallon attended drama school with him) who seem determined to praise him.
“He’s been a monumental help,” the Garrison’s owner and artistic director, John Treville, says simply, referring to de la Fere’s last-minute fill-in for a dropped slot in his season. “I’ll never be able to pay him back for this.”
“He’s been an incredible mentor,” Charles d’Artagnan, the show’s Michael Cassio and youngest cast member, gushes when asked about him. “He’s been so generous, he’s rolled with everything we’ve thrown at him. It’s amazing.”
“By the far the most considerate director I’ve ever worked with,” stage manager Ninon de Larroque cuts in over d’Artagnan’s shoulder. “And actor, especially under pressure.”
“He’s all right,” Duvallon says with a broad grin.
De la Fere seems as surprised by the praise as some of the theater industry has been. “I’m grateful, of course,” he says when informed of his cast and crew’s comments. “But it’s not about me. It’s truly everyone’s hard work.”
It’s true. Othello is solidly an ensemble piece in de la Fere’s hands--and though de la Fere’s Iago forms a crucial, cold-eyed backbone of that ensemble, de la Fere clearly engineered the production to focus on Othello. The staging, featuring a sparse stage with an overhanging balcony, allows for many moments where de la Fere can show bonding between the characters despite not having them in the scene proper. Notably, a tender moment between Othello and Desdemona (played beautifully and tragically by veteran actress Anne Bourbon) opens the show with the added sonnet--a moment featuring in many of Othello’s five-star reviews.
“It’s a show about relationships,” de la Fere says, as if it’s obvious. “The relationships are the whole point. That’s why it’s a tragedy. If we didn’t have any sense that these people cared deeply about each other, we wouldn’t mourn with them when it ends.”
Duvallon, for his part, hopes that their performances will impact the way the play is performed in the future. “I think we’ve done something great for the show here. I hope more productions think about doing it like we’ve done--like it matters, you know, how much they all loved each other.”
Surely, their more personally-focused show has been a part of the production’s great success. Othello’s audiences have been far younger than is traditional for the theater, according to demographics released by the show’s production team. Whether that can be attributed to Herblay’s draw as a television star or by the show’s sordid rehearsal saga, who can say, but it certainly seems like the show’s thoughtful approach (and relentless social media outreach) is resonating with a new generation of theater artists and aficionados. Multiple London theaters have reportedly reached out to de la Fere to direct shows in their upcoming seasons; Duvallon, as well, is linked to a new theater seemingly every day. Herblay, of course, is still contracted for multiple seasons on his American TV hit, Red Herring, but has openly said in interviews he’s open to returning home for more theater with his collaborators.
When asked outright about their upcoming plans, however, both de la Fere and Duvallon are mum. “I’m still thinking about it,” de la Fere says diplomatically, while Duvallon just grins and lays a finger on his lips.
And as for the rumors of a romantic link between the two, as any audience member can attest upon witnessing their scorching chemistry (or the increasingly intimate photos of the two out in London with Herblay)? De la Fere declines to answer, saying it’s hardly appropriate to comment on a relationship with one of his cast members.
Duvallon simply laughs. “I’ve never been famous enough to have my private life in the gossip rags,” he says. “It’s fun to keep you lot guessing.”
It seems this group of actors are determined to keep us in the dark. Whatever it is, though, we eagerly await their next chapter.
Athos closed his eyes and tilted his face into the sun. The rhythm of the waves on the private beach below was surprisingly relaxing--he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been at a hotel and enjoyed it. “You were right,” he said to Aramis, nestling his head a little further against Aramis’ chest. “Santa Monica is quite nice.”
“Yes, it is,” Aramis said, smug in his pleasure, and he wrapped his arm tighter around Athos. Athos normally wouldn’t use another human as a pillow on a lounge chair--or share one, for that matter, even on a well-secluded balcony as they were, but it was Aramis. Aramis, who not only invited it, but delighted in it.
In the chair beside theirs, Porthos sighed in frustration, and Athos reached over without looking to take his hand. Porthos’ breath this time was a little looser, and he spoke more calmly into the phone. “Isn’t there a later audition I could do or something, Philippe?”
“He’s so stubborn,” Aramis sighed.
“Yes,” Athos murmured, and squeezed Porthos’ hand. “Just go, love.”
“I don’t wanna,” Porthos hissed at him. “I--no, not you, Philippe. Look, can I do a video thing?”
“It is Broadway, Porthos,” Aramis said, scandalized. “They want to fly you out, will you just let them?”
“Look, just--hang on, Philippe--I don’t wanna leave,” Porthos insisted, and Athos opened his eyes to see Porthos holding the phone to his chest, twisting in his chair to look at Aramis. “We only just got here, and--we all need a bloody vacation, I don’t wanna just swan off to New York because--”
“Because a Broadway show is interested in having you as its lead?” Aramis waved an impatient hand. “Are you even listening to yourself?”
“You’d only be staying for our sakes,” Athos said patiently. “And we both want you to go. It’s just an audition, you’ll be back in a day.”
Porthos blinked at him.
“The agency will pay for it,” Athos reminded him, just as patient. “You are a La Fere actor now, Porthos, this is what all of our absurd money is for.
Porthos shook his head slowly, a grin coming over his face. “It’s gonna take me a long time to get used to that,” he admitted.
“It takes some doing, yes,” Aramis agreed, stretching out his mobile leg and nudging Porthos’ arm. “Tell Philippe you’ll go.”
Porthos shook his head, rolling his eyes, and brought the phone back to his ear. “All right, I’ll go. Have ‘em schedule it and then let me know and I’ll pick a good flight. ...Yeah. Oh? Yeah, I’ll tell him. Thanks, mate, talk soon.” Porthos tossed his phone onto the side table and stretched out with a groan. “Sorry I’ll have to go.”
“Oh, no,” Athos deadpanned. “You’ll be gone for a whole day. How ever shall Aramis and I survive the pining. The longing. The miser--”
Porthos swung his legs over and jumped unceremoniously onto their chaise, pinning Athos to Aramis’ chest and kissing him silent. Athos went limp embarrassingly quickly, melting into Porthos’ kiss as Aramis laughed beneath him.
“I am trying,” Porthos said when he finally pulled away, “to be an attentive boyfriend.”
“You’re very attentive,” Aramis assured him. “Believe me.”
“We’re just being attentive to your career instead.” Athos smirked up at him, even as he ran a hand down Porthos’ back to palm over the round curve of his ass.
Porthos arched into him with a growl. “That’s not my career.”
“Oh, is it not?” Athos set his face in a picture of innocence. “Is this?”
He slid his hand around Porthos’ hip to the front of his shorts, only for Porthos to catch his hand with a laugh before Athos could reach his target. “You’re a menace,” Porthos said, drawing Athos’ fingertips up to kiss them. “I gotta get my computer and book a flight, be right back.”
Aramis chuckled quietly in Athos’ ear as Porthos hauled himself up and headed back into the suite. “We’re becoming a terrible influence on you,” he said, sounding quite pleased about it, and pressed a kiss to the back of Athos’ neck.
Athos smiled, closing his eyes. “I think I’ve needed some terrible influences.”
Coming back to the States with Aramis had been the best decision he’d made since taking the show with Treville. He and Porthos had needed the break, after the constant on of the show, and it was still warm and pleasant in California even in November. Aramis was already working again; the show had completely rewritten the first shooting block to accommodate his broken leg, and Athos and Porthos spent most of their time on the set with him and Adele, too used to helping him get around to stop now. Still, a long weekend was sometimes necessary, and this brief escape to Santa Monica was so dreamlike it almost didn’t feel real.
“Oh, Philippe wanted me to tell you,” Porthos said, sticking his head back out onto the balcony. “He’s got a gig for you in New York, too.”
Athos groaned, rolling over and burying his face in Aramis’ chest. “No. No stage, no film, no nothing.”
Porthos snorted. “I think you’re gonna like it.”
“New York public broadcasting wants to do an animated run of Shakespeare adaptations. For kids.” He could hear Porthos’ smile. “It’s voiceover work.”
Athos’ head came cautiously up. “Voiceover.”
Aramis threw back his head and laughed. “Welcome to television, my love.”
“Oh, shut up,” Athos grumbled, stretching up to kiss him.
Porthos’ laugh disappeared away into the depths of the hotel, and Athos felt Aramis smiling into their kiss.
When they finally broke apart, Aramis was still smiling, his eyes warm, and Athos propped his chin up on one hand. “What?”
Aramis reached up and brushed Athos’ hair back behind his ears. “Planning the next stage,” Aramis said softly. “It’s--nice. All together.”
Athos gazed down at him, then looked up into the suite to see Porthos leaning against the breakfast bar, frowning down at his laptop.
It was so--normal.
This was his life, now, he realized. Waking up with these men, planning his work with these men. Holding them and celebrating with them and making wonderful things with them.
“Yes,” he said. “It is nice.” And he leaned back down for another kiss.
[28 Nov 20--, 22:33:17]
[To: Athos, Aramis]
[FWD: Check-in details for your upcoming flight]
hey loves--audition went well? I think?? they took me out for dinner afterward SO. we’ll see, eh? a few drama students recognized me at the restaurant and I signed a napkin for them. so bloody weird but so bloody brilliant.
forwarding the flight info for tomorrow AM. I expect a fancy fucking limo at the airport. it’s tradition now!
miss you. can’t wait to be back.
Send message? [Yes] [No]
I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks; and ever thanks. - ayli, 3.3.