Athos had objected. Strenuously. And at length.
The others, however, as they sat twitching and idly playing with whatever was at hand at the garrison mess table, were, to a man, feeling predatory and highly, highly amused. Somewhere up above them, under watchful eyes, Athos was, probably for the first time in months, taking an honest-to-God bath. An hour earlier Bonacieux had sidled his greasy way into the garrison, carrying bolts of cloth in soft greys, blues, dark crushed purples. A milliner had followed, and then a cordwainer, and then a glover, and by the time the perfumer hurried in Porthos had had a stitch in his side from laughing.
Aramis started pacing just after lunch, keeping his eyes fixed eagerly on the balcony above. “Hose,” he giggled gleefully, as d’Artagnan drained the cup of wine he’d been nursing all morning, and grinned back. “He’d better be wearing hose.”
“He’ll be spitting,” Porthos cackled.
The door crashed open above them, and d’Artagnan leapt up from his seat and turned, and then, just as promptly, faltered, his mouth dropping open. Porthos, as he turned, knew exactly why, because he was in about the same state.
The Comte de la Fère stood at the top of Treville’s stairs, the gaggle of anxious tradesmen behind him, observing how their handiwork fit every slope of muscle, the angles of shoulderblades and hips, the turn of the elbows and wrists. They had not disappointed, Porthos thought, as he watched Aramis’s eyes widen, taking in every detail. There was no hose; just exquisitely tailored breeches, an embroidered tunic, slender boots which would not deign to even acknowledge the existence of such a thing as mud. A silver-black sword hilt, aged in truth or in counterfeit, picked up greys and metallic thread, the flash of a rare macaw’s feather in the tilted hat.
The Comte held out a casual hand, into which someone hastily pressed a pair of kid-skin gloves, and what had until so recently been Athos started to descend the stairs towards them, delicate and straight-backed, as though the ground offended him, bringing with him the scent of sandalwood and cinnamon.
“Pardieu,” Aramis murmured, as Athos reached the bottom of the stairs. “Who knew you cleaned up so well?”
The look he got in return was nothing short of loathing – and yet not, for even d’Artagnan could see that the Comte would not deign to stoop so low as to feel anything beyond mild curiosity for a musketeer. Fingers snapped, making d’Artagnan jump, and Bonacieux hurried forward, settling a cloak of charcoal velvet over the Comte’s shoulders; behind them all, a groom was leading in a stallion which would have cost each of them a year’s pay at least, coat glossy with grooming and high spirits.
“If you speak of this to anyone, once it is over,” Athos said, calm and indeed downright pleasant, “I shall murder you all in your sleep.”
d’Artagnan, as the Comte mounted and spurred his way out of the garrison, on his way to the King’s summer residence, gulped. “I didn’t say anything,” he said quickly, looking between Porthos and Aramis, and grabbing for another tumbler of wine. “I didn’t say a thing.”
Fontainebleau in summer was always a seething nest of intrigue; the longest-serving musketeers of the regiment had always assumed that the heavy heat, and the pressing, unbearably ordered forest, lent themselves towards provoking what was, by all accounts, an unhealthy amount of sexual deviancy, boredom without remedies that did not include someone being pranked, and, this summer – which was why they were there, and why Athos was turning in a slow minuet down the length of the Louis’s sweltering ballroom with Madame de Chevreuse – a plot to kill the king and queen, whispers of which had reached Treville’s ears from the very highest circles, implicating possibly not just one, but a whole coterie of the king’s most trusted and beloved courtiers. It would be something, Porthos had thought, grimacing as he, Aramis and d’Artagnan stood guard at the doors like the trained lapdogs the court no doubt thought they were, to see the king lose control at the thought of his closest friends betraying him; but, next to the safety of the nation, they supposed it was worth it. Certainly Treville had thought it a worthy enough threat to demand a former life from Athos, to slip him, almost unnoticed – for he was, indeed, close to unrecognizable – into the King’s retinue, presented as a long-absent and well-traveled distant cousin of the royal line whose presence could be accepted without question.
Aramis was watching Athos avidly, taking in each graceful swoop of an arm, the briefest of touches of hands between him and Marie de Rohan, the point of a leg, the rustle of fabric as bodices and soft leather soles turned and twisted. There was a breeze that day, thank God, gusting hot and hard in through the open windows, and even the King and Queen had turned out to enjoy it; Louis jumped and stuttered through his dance, making the queen blush and the courtiers lower their eyes, attempting to move the more modestly so they did not outshine their sovereign by too far a distance.
In Athos’s case such an attempt failed miserably, at least in Aramis’s eyes.
They met up with him every evening to discuss their progress, during a stolen moment of the nightly feast Louis laid on for his guests, and even there, d’Artagnan sensed the gulf of education (education of all kinds) between them, the gulf of wealth, the power implied in the silver rings on the Comte’s fingers. Athos was all business in these encounters, whispering to them quickly and firmly about such-and-such a Duke, who bore a grudge for the over-taxation of his lands and who had a previously-unknown 'brother' recently arrived at court from the provinces; of a closeted Protestant who self-flagellated in his chambers each morning before putting on his silks; of a Countess whose jealousy of the Queen was so viciously put to her gaggle of friends as to be suspected of being more than idle gossip – and yet d’Artagnan was more preoccupied with his own constant astonishment, at the fact that he had not seen Athos touch a drop of wine since putting on his finery, at the straightness of his back and the authority in his voice.
During the day, he watched the Comte hunt with Louis, a falcon on his wrist, leaping off of his horse as trumpets blared to snatch the honor of being the first to hold up the bloodied trophy of a kill. He stood at the back of the banqueting hall, watching pale hands being offered bowls of rosewater in which to be cleaned before eating; once, he crept into Athos’s chambers early one morning to deliver a message and witnessed the ritual of dressing, the three manservants with heads bowed as the Comte held out limb after disinterested limb, the morning sun drenching him in light.
Three days in, the musketeers turned a corner and stopped dead, hanging back in the shadows of a nighttime corridor, at the sight of Madame de Chevreuse leading the Comte into her private apartments, and d’Artagnan swore to himself that he would never allow himself to feel such a swoop of painful jealousy again.
It came to a head, finally, as they knew it would, when the over-taxed Duke made his move. He was not alone, however, having an entire retinue of family, pages, and over-eager minor noblemen anxious to please him on his side, and so it was that the musketeers startled awake in the middle of the humid night to the sound of a pitched battle going on just outside the king’s chambers. Two Red Guards were dead, and Athos was vastly outnumbered; his sword had been torn from his grip by the falling body of the fourth man he had killed, and now he was standing in the doorway armed only with his fists, and losing, despite his best efforts.
Porthos charged in, broadsword flailing and easily finding its marks, and saw d’Artagnan grinning beside him; grinning, he knew, because finally this was familiar, finally they could see Athos in the snarl on his lips and the tangled mat of flying hair, in the drive of his elbows into the Duke’s sternum, in the blood that dripped from his hands as he was attacked, dishonorably, with daggers which he could not defend himself from. It was over quickly once the musketeers got involved, however; and the Comte, looking severely concussed, swayed on his feet, and then looked down at his ruined clothes, at the wounds on his palms and wrists.
“Mother of God,” he hissed, and stomped away from them, leaving them to clean up. “I shall have to change.”
Porthos looked at Aramis, and just laughed.
They returned to Paris alone, frustrated that they were not allowed to attend the (out of necessity) secret ceremony at which, they understood, the Comte was to be awarded the Order of Saint Michel. It must have happened very quickly, however, and they must have ridden slower than they had realized, because when they arrived back in Paris Athos was already at the garrison, back against a post and muddy, booted feet up on a bench, his old sweat-stained hat over his face as he slept, bandaged hands folded across dark blue leather. Porthos nudged him before Aramis could shoo him away, and he came awake slowly, blinking at them fuzzily through the morning heat, clearly hungover.
“You’re back, then,” Porthos grinned.
“Yes,” Athos said wryly, settling his hat back onto his head and resetting his shoulders, upright and proud. “Would that I had never been away.”
And d’Artagnan, as he studied Athos’s profile in the morning light, thought to himself – realized – that it was he who had been blind, because it was the Comte that had never left.