"Woo hoo!" Throwing his arms in the air with an undignified glee that hardly befitted either his age or his rank, d'Artagnan circled his horse around the courtyard as Athos finally rode in at the archway after him, a good thirty seconds behind.
"Getting slow old man," d'Artagnan grinned.
"Slow am I?" Athos declared, assuming mock offence. "I bet I could still kick your arse."
"Oh yeah? Prove it." D'Artagnan slithered to the ground and handed his horse off to a groom, turning to face Athos who had dismounted behind him.
To the entertainment of those Musketeers loitering around the garrison, the two men proceeded to face off and after a few mock feints threw themselves into a vigorous wrestling match. To the considerable hilarity of all those watching, this ended up with d'Artagnan sprawled face down in the dust being spanked by the flat of Athos' sword.
D'Artagnan accepted Athos' hand up afterwards with good grace and laughed ruefully. "I guess dinner's on me then. Will you join me tonight?"
"You're quiet this evening." D'Artagnan looked across the table at where Athos sat apparently deep in thought, although he clearly wasn't too preoccupied to have finished the plateful of food Constance had presented him with before withdrawing to leave them alone together.
"Am I?" Athos looked up, mildly apologetic. "I suppose I've been thinking. About what you said earlier."
"What did I say?"
"About me getting slower." Athos sighed, sitting back and twisting the stem of his wineglass, watching the reflection of the candlelight in the dark wine. "You're right. I'm getting too old for this."
D'Artagnan frowned. "Nonsense. What are you, fifty? You've got years left in you yet. I was only joking. Besides, look how you bested me this afternoon."
"And I think we're both perfectly aware that you let me," Athos said quietly.
D'Artagnan fidgeted. He'd hoped he hadn't made it so obvious Athos would notice. "What was I supposed to do, humiliate you in front of everyone watching?" he asked, a little defensively.
Athos smiled faintly. "Thank you."
"What are you talking about? If Constance ever found out I'd publicly embarrassed you she'd duck me in the horse trough," d'Artagnan retorted. "It was simply self-preservation, nothing more."
Athos nodded gravely, hiding his amusement and gratitude at d'Artagnan's determination to save his feelings.
"Still," he said. "The fact remains. It takes me longer to recover these days, whether it be from fighting or from drinking. I ache, in the cold weather. And my reaction times are slowing. I don't want to end up getting someone killed. Or myself, for that matter. I suppose I never really imagined getting old, but now that it seems to be creeping up on me I find I have lost my enthusiasm for dying in battle. No, I'm starting to think Porthos had the right idea. Maybe it's time to retire."
"You can't go!" d'Artagnan protested. "I need you!"
"No you don't." Athos smiled at him fondly. "You haven't needed me for years." He'd stepped down as Captain in favour of d'Artagnan at the same time Porthos had retired from the regiment, but d'Artagnan had declared he would only accept the position if Athos stayed on as his lieutenant.
"But what will you do?" d’Artagnan persisted. "You'll get bored."
"I'll think of something." Athos shrugged. "I think in the short term I'll go and visit Porthos. It's been too long since I went out there."
"I'd come with you if I could spare the time away," d'Artagnan said soberly. "How's he bearing up?"
Athos nodded slowly. "As well as you'd expect I think, in the circumstances. He's not written for a while, I'd guess he has his hands full."
"Give him my best," d'Artagnan said. "And tell him he's welcome to visit us here any time."
Two weeks later, having written to Porthos of his intention to visit and received an enthusiastic reply almost by return of post, Athos found himself riding towards the house with a feeling of anticipation mixed with guilt at having left it so long.
Having retired from the regiment, Porthos had married into a family of country gentry, and the house lay some miles distant from Paris. The trip could be done in one hard day's ride during the summer, but given the short and lowering November days that currently beset them, Athos had chosen to do it in two, breaking his journey at an inn. Another sign he was getting on, he reflected with a grim amusement. In his thirties he'd have thought nothing of doing the ride in one go, even if he'd ended up riding in the dark.
The manor was more sprawling farmhouse than château, its sombre grey stone and slate softened by creepers and roses, even at this late season. As Athos dismounted and wondered if he should ring the bell or seek out the stable, his dilemma was solved by the front door flying open and Porthos hurtling out with a bellow of welcome.
Athos found himself enveloped in a bear hug which he returned with equal fervour. Finally pulling back, Porthos gripped his arms and grinned at him.
"Athos. God but it's good to see you."
Athos gave him a crooked smile, half-taken aback by the warmth of his welcome and glad Porthos seemed well - although he didn't miss the dark shadows under his eyes, and the new threads of grey in his hair.
"It's good to see you too old friend," Athos said. "How are you?"
Porthos' expression clouded a little, but he nodded. "Hanging in there," he said, giving Athos a determined smile. As he turned and caught sight of a small figure in the doorway, his grin returned to something approaching its customary force.
"There you are! I knew you'd be lurking somewhere close by. Come and say hello to your uncle Athos."
A little girl barely higher than Athos' waist came shyly forward. She had the same dark curls as her father corkscrewing out from under a demure cotton bonnet, and looked up at Athos with a hesitant smile.
"Hello Marie." Athos squatted down so he was more on a level with her. "Will you roll your eyes at me if I say how much you've grown?"
Marie's smile grew a little braver, but she remained tongue-tied until Athos held up a finger in apparent recollection.
"Ah! I have something for you. Now, where is it?" Under Marie's speculative gaze Athos made a show of rummaging through his saddlebag until he came up with an object made from wood and felt and horsehair. "Here we go." He held it out, and Marie tentatively reached up.
"It's a horsey." Wide eyed, she examined the toy with covetous interest. "Is it really for me?"
"Yes. All for you." Athos nodded. He half expected her to run off with it, but Marie took him by surprise by overcoming her initial shyness and hurling herself at his legs and hugging him briefly and fiercely before retreating again.
"That kind of welcome seems to run in the family," Athos murmured.
Porthos cackled. "That was kind of you. Must have cost a pretty penny."
"Call it guilt," Athos smiled. "It must be at least a year since I've seen her."
"Two," said Porthos darkly, and Athos looked alarmed.
"No. Not really? Surely not?"
"Almost to the month," Porthos confirmed, and Athos winced.
"God I'm sorry. I should have come before. D'Artagnan likes to keep me busy."
"Still hanging on to your apron strings then?" Porthos grinned, then called to a figure crossing the drive behind them. "Here, John, come and take Athos' horse. And take his things up to his room can you? I've put him in the front bedroom over the library."
A lad of about thirteen ran over to lead the horse away and Porthos ushered Athos into the hallway. Inside the house smelt of woodsmoke and beeswax polish, and felt instantly welcoming.
Marie followed them in, trotting her new horsey over the available surfaces, until from somewhere upstairs came the thin rising cry of a baby. Still clutching the toy in possessive ownership she darted ahead and ran up the staircase leading to the first floor.
Porthos glanced at Athos, a look that held both pride and sadness. "She's only six, and she's already so protective of him," Porthos murmured. He followed Marie up the stairs at a more sedate pace, Athos at his heels.
In a room overlooking the kitchen garden, they found Marie rocking a carved wooden cradle and singing a lullaby in a low voice. This seemed to be having little effect on the wailing emanating from within, and Porthos bent over to lift up the bundle of lace and blanketry that was its source.
At that moment a young woman darted in at the doorway and looked briefly alarmed at finding so many people there.
"I'm sorry," she stammered, looking up at Porthos.
"It's alright." Porthos shook his head, jiggling the baby against his shoulder.
"I only left him for a minute, I swear."
"I said, it's alright," Porthos snapped, and the wet-nurse bobbed a nervous curtsey and retreated. Athos was again struck by how tired Porthos looked, and wondered how much strain he'd been under.
There was no let up from the ear-splitting screams of the baby, if anything they seemed to be gaining force, and Marie frowned up at her father reprovingly.
"You're bouncing him too much. He doesn't like it."
Porthos stared down at her in exasperation. "You used to like bouncing," he retorted, then gave Athos a pleading look. "Why can't all babies be built the same?"
Athos smiled. "Here, let me have a go."
Porthos handed his son over willingly, and Athos rocked him, crooning gently. Gradually the screams faded into whimpers and snuffles, and Athos glanced up to find he was under the watchful gaze of Marie. She gave him a grave nod of approval and left the room, apparently satisfied things wouldn't go to wrack and ruin without her supervision. He felt strangely flattered.
"You're a natural," Porthos smirked.
"D'Artagnan's seen to it I've had plenty of practice," Athos admitted.
"How many's he got now?"
"Last one turned out to be twin girls."
"Bloody hell. Poor Constance," Porthos chuckled.
"She dotes on the lot of them," Athos said with a smile. "And perhaps the twins went some way to easing the heartache of losing Claudette to the fever last winter."
Porthos nodded soberly, but as he leaned over to look at his now soundly-sleeping son he smiled again. "Isn't he gorgeous?" he couldn't help prompting.
"Adorable," Athos agreed. "You're very lucky."
"Yeah. I count my blessings," Porthos said softly, but Athos could have bitten his tongue off.
"Porthos, I'm so sorry, that was thoughtless of me."
"Nah, you're right. I am lucky. I could have lost both of them." Porthos sounded choked and Athos tactfully concentrated on the baby for a while until Porthos had mastered himself again.
"He's Francis, am I right?" Athos said, steering the conversation onto safer ground.
"Yeah. Francis Olivier du Vallon de Bracieux."
"Olivier?" Athos looked up in surprise. "You didn't tell me that."
Porthos winked at him. "You might have objected. Just don't tell Aramis, eh? No way I was going to saddle the poor little bugger with René."
"How is Aramis these days? I've not heard from him for a while."
"They finally made him abbot." Porthos grinned. "I sent him a case of brandy as a congratulations present. If he drank it all they've probably defrocked him again by now."
They laughed, albeit quietly so as not to wake the slumbering Francis.
"How's Marie coping?" Athos ventured after a while. For all the little girl's pleasure at her present and her easy bossing of her father, he'd sensed the same hidden tension in her as he could see in Porthos.
"Better than I feared," Porthos murmured. "I guess children are tougher than you think. It's just - she'll forget, you know? And then something'll happen that she wants to tell her mother, and you can see it. The second she remembers she can't. And sometimes it's just a moment but it happens over and over, and - " Porthos' voice shook, and he had to take a deep breath before he could continue.
"Sometimes I think Marie's coping better'n me," he admitted. "Doesn't have the guilt, you see."
"Porthos - "
"We knew it was risky, at her age. But God forgive me, I wanted a son." Porthos looked up at Athos, and there were tears in his eyes. "Sorry. I'm sorry, I can't - " he left the room at a run.
Athos stayed behind, settled Francis back in his cot and located the nurse to take charge of him again before going in search of Porthos. He found him standing in the garden, staring sightlessly out over the orchard. Athos walked up slowly, and stood next to him in silence.
"It wasn't your fault, you know," he said quietly, after a while. "It wasn't anyone's fault. These things happen."
Porthos gave a muffled sniff. "Aramis reckons she's with God now. That everything happens for a reason, and it's not our place to question it." Porthos turned to Athos with a bewildered anger in his eyes. "How can I believe God gives a stuff about us when He lets things like that happen? If He exists, then He clearly doesn't care."
Athos gave a light shrug. "You'll get no argument from me on that score. I lost any faith in a merciful God a long time ago," he said. "We are either damned, or abandoned. It falls on us to make this life count, either way."
Porthos managed a weak smile. "I'm sorry. This is hardly suitable conversation to inflict on a guest."
Athos gave him a reproving look. "Call me a guest once more and I'll punch you on the nose. I'm a friend, and you'll treat me no differently from any other member of your household."
Porthos' smile widened, and he gave a quiet laugh. "It's damn good to see you Athos. You'll stay for a while, won't you? You don't have to hurry back?" he asked hopefully.
"I can stay as long as you want," Athos agreed. "As a matter of fact - well, I've resigned my commission. I've retired, Porthos."
"You!" Porthos looked astonished. "I didn't think you ever would."
"D'Artagnan didn't want to let me." Athos smiled. "But I was firm about it. He doesn't need me any more, and I hardly relish a future hanging round the place as a growing burden."
"You're looking as fit as you always do," Porthos scoffed. "You're hardly ready for the knackers yard yet."
"Glad to hear it," Athos smiled.
"What will you do?"
"Not sure yet." Athos shrugged. "It's quite nice, having options."
"You could get married?" Porthos suggested mischievously.
"I'm already married," Athos drawled. "They tend to frown on you having two."
"Do you ever hear from her?" Porthos asked tentatively. Athos shook his head.
"Not for years." He sighed. "I did hear that she'd married an Englishman, of all things. Some lord or other. Changed her name again."
"Well if she can do it what's stopping you?" Porthos pointed out. "Besides, she's still officially dead, anyway."
Athos conceded the point with a smile. "The fact remains, I have no desire or intention to get married. So stop your prodding."
Porthos laughed. "I'm only teasing. Come on, I'll show you your room, I'm being a terrible host." He linked his arm with Athos', and lead him back inside.
Washed, changed and rested after his long ride, Athos joined Porthos in the dining room for a welcome and hearty supper.
"Is your room alright?" Porthos asked anxiously. "I'm still getting the hang of the domestic side of things."
"It's perfect, thank you," Athos smiled. "Besides, you're talking to a man who's used to a single cot bed in the garrison. A four-poster and goose-down quilt is like suddenly being in heaven."
Porthos laughed. "That's one thing I don't miss. Never did fit in that damn bed properly. Had a crick in me neck for years."
Once they'd eaten they retired to the library and settled by the fire in a pair of comfortably worn wingback chairs, nursing goodly measures of cognac.
Conversation initially centred on shared memories and past adventures, but somewhat inevitably worked round to the children.
"Did you never want any of your own?" Porthos ventured quietly. There'd been a time when he'd never have dared ask Athos such a personal question, but age had mellowed both of them, and the cosy circle of firelight seemed to invite confidences.
Athos took a moment to answer. "I'd be a liar if I said no," he finally admitted, staring into the flames rather than meeting Porthos' eyes. "But I accepted a long time ago it was never going to happen. Besides, I'm godfather to d'Artagnan's brood. Six children is quite enough to have responsibility for, for one lifetime."
Porthos studied him consideringly. "Would you consider making it seven?" he asked.
Athos looked up in surprise. "You mean Francis?"
"Yeah." Porthos nodded. "There was a time when we didn't think he was going to make it," he said soberly. "He was christened in rather a hurry. Never had time to think about it."
"Aramis is Marie's godfather, am I right?" Athos asked.
"Yes." Porthos smirked. "I'd ask him to be Francis' as well, except then I'd have to confess his middle name."
Athos laughed, and slowly nodded. "I'd be honoured," he said. Porthos reached over and clasped his hand in gratitude, but his intended words were overtaken by a fit of yawning.
"You're exhausted, and I'm keeping you up," Athos realised guiltily. "You should go to bed."
"I'm fine," Porthos objected, a second yawn belying his words.
"Well speaking for myself I'd welcome an early night," Athos said, determined not to keep Porthos from his bed a moment longer. "I've been riding for the best part of two days."
"Then we'll both go up," Porthos agreed gratefully. He propped a fireguard before the glowing embers while Athos turned down the lamp, and they ascended the staircase together.
Their rooms faced each other across the hallway, and they paused outside to bid each other goodnight.
"I'll see you in the morning," Porthos said. "I'll give you a tour of the estate if you like. Few changes since you were last here."
"I look forward to it." They embraced with a sleepy affection, and exchanged kisses on both cheeks before withdrawing into their rooms for the night.
Waking in a strange bed in the small hours, for a second Athos was confused about where he was. As recollection returned, Athos also became conscious of the noise that had woken him, muffled by the door but distinctly the plaintive sound of a crying baby.
Athos lay there for a few minutes, assuming someone would quickly go and see to Francis, either the wet nurse or Porthos himself. When there was no let up in the crying, Athos slipped out of bed and cautiously stuck his head out of the door. The glow of a lamp spilled from the nursery, and the creak of floorboards suggested that at least someone was in attendance.
Not wanting to interfere but also feeling he should see if he could help, Athos padded barefoot up the hallway and looked in. Porthos was pacing the room in his nightshirt, Francis held against one shoulder.
As he turned to retrace his steps down the room, Porthos caught sight of Athos in the doorway and winced. "Sorry, did he disturb you? I should have shut the door."
"It's alright. Is there anything I can do?"
Porthos shook his head wearily. "I just can't get him to settle."
"Is he hungry?" Athos came in and half-closed the door. "I'll concede I might not be much use in that scenario."
Porthos managed a smile at that. "He shouldn't be, Agathe fed him before she put him down. He's just got into the habit of waking up halfway through the night. It's like he knows someone's missing, and it breaks my heart."
"Here, let me have a go." Athos took the squalling baby from him and balanced him securely in the crook of his arm. Barely a couple of minutes later Francis was fast asleep again, and Porthos sank down onto a wooden settle and put his head in his hands.
Athos laid Francis back in the crib and tucked him in before walking over and sitting down next to Porthos.
"Are you alright?" he asked gently.
Porthos fisted his hands in his hair, tugging frustratedly at it before sitting up again with a resigned sigh. "I can't even get my own son to go to sleep, what good am I?" he asked bitterly, then rested his head against the back of the seat and turned to look at Athos with a tired smile. "Tell me your secret?"
"No secret," Athos said, reaching out to rub Porthos' shoulder. "But if I had to guess, I'd say he's picking up on your tension. You're wound tighter than a spring." He let his fingers knead at the cords of muscle beneath Porthos' nightshirt, and Porthos, who'd opened his mouth to deny it subsided again as he accepted the inescapable truth of it.
"I can't do this Athos," Porthos admitted hoarsely, slumping against Athos' shoulder. "I can't do this alone. It's too much."
Athos put an arm right round him. "You're not alone," he said softly, giving him a squeeze. "Go back to bed. Get some rest. If he cries again, I'll come and see to him."
"I can't ask you to do this," Porthos protested, but Athos shook his head firmly.
"I know you think you have to do everything yourself, but you don't. Let me help." He smiled. "That's an order."
Breakfasting alone the next morning, Athos hoped that Porthos was taking advantage of a well-deserved lie-in. This turned out not to be the case when the front door opened to admit Porthos from outside, followed in by a flurry of dead leaves. He shivered, clapping his hands together to restore circulation and coming to join Athos at the table.
"Wouldn't be surprised if it didn't snow soon." Porthos caught the look Athos was giving him, and narrowed his eyes. "What?"
"How long have you been up?"
Porthos shrugged. "It was still dark, I know that much. Estate won't run itself."
"If you collapse with exhaustion it'll have to." Athos retorted. "I thought you had an estate manager, anyway?"
"Don't you trust him?"
"Yeah, course I do." Porthos looked uncomfortable. "But some things you have to see to yourself, right?"
"Some things, yes. Everything, no."
Porthos sighed heavily. "You're right, of course. It's just - it's something I can control, you know? When it feels like everything else is out of my hands or falling apart."
Athos nodded sympathetically. He could understand the impulse, although was quietly worried Porthos was working himself into the ground. "You still need to sleep," he said gently. "Can't you let Agathe see to Francis at night?"
"She already has him all day, it doesn't seem fair."
Athos suppressed a smile. It seemed neither of them were terribly good at servants. "Is there no one else who could help?"
"She was the only one locally who was - you know. Suitable." Porthos made a vague gesture at his chest, looking embarrassed.
"Does she not have a child of her own?" Athos asked, realising for the first time that he'd never heard a second baby about the place, and that Agathe lived in.
"Didn't carry to term," Porthos mouthed, with a glance at the open doorway.
Athos sighed. "Poor girl. Still, she's young, she can try again." As soon as he'd said it he remembered what had happened to Porthos' wife and cut himself off awkwardly. "I mean to say - "
Porthos shook his head. "You don't have to censor yourself, I'm not that fragile." He gave Athos a grim smile. "I lived through it, a few unfortunate words ain't gonna hurt me." He stood up and thrust his hands into the sleeves of his coat. "You want to see the old place then? Probably not worth getting the horses out, we can walk round it in a morning."
Athos followed him into the hallway and Porthos was helping him into his coat when the sound of raised voices reached them from upstairs. There came a shriek followed by an indignant shout which both sounded like Agathe, then a high pitched tirade that was certainly Marie, followed by more shouting on both sides culminating in the rising cry of a baby.
Porthos stormed up the stairs growling under his breath, and Athos hastily ran up after him. Marie and Agathe were facing off in the hallway, both so intent on their argument that Porthos was almost upon them before they noticed him.
"What is the meaning of this row?" he demanded, and the screaming from the nursery doubled in volume. Porthos winced, and lowered his voice. "What the devil's going on here?"
Agathe had paled from flushed anger to white faced alarm at Porthos' appearance, and Athos realised she'd probably thought he was still out of the house. "She keeps creeping up on me," Agathe muttered, gesturing at Marie. "Scares the life out of me, it's unnatural."
"It's my house, I can go where I like!" Marie shouted, eyes glittering with fury at being told on. "You just work here!"
"Marie!" Porthos turned on her with a face like thunder. "You will apologise. Now."
"No." Marie held out for a full five seconds before cracking in the face of her father's rage. Athos was privately quite impressed.
"Sorry," she muttered resentfully. Agathe, in turn, gave a tight nod of acceptance. It was hardly the warmest reconciliation, but Porthos seemed to accept it as the best he was going to get and marched back towards the stairs, muttering to himself. It was only Athos who caught the look of abject misery and confused anger on Marie's face as her father walked away.
As Agathe retreated back into the nursery he held out a hand to the little girl. "Porthos is going to give me the grand tour. You want to come with us?"
Marie eyed him in astonishment, as if expecting a trap. "He won't want me there," she muttered.
"He will if you behave," Athos pointed out. "There are better ways to get his attention than making him cross with you, you know."
Marie's stare narrowed for a second, then she hesitantly took Athos' hand. "Will it really be alright?" she said in a small voice.
"Of course it will," Athos said breezily. "How can he possibly turn down two people as charming as us?"
Marie stifled a giggle and followed Athos downstairs willingly, although he felt her fingers tighten on his when they walked up to Porthos, who looked at her stonily.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"I said she could come with us," Athos said immediately. "Figured it would keep her out of trouble," he added, forestalling any further protest. Porthos glared at both of them for a second, then grunted defeat.
"Oh fine. Go and get your outdoor coat then."
Athos looked down at Marie and winked.