Twilight was casting its grey and glittery spell on the sleepy town of Meaux. The castle ramparts stood silhouetted against a pastel sunset, the glowing light lending a sophorific atmosphere to the villagers’ evening activities.
D’Artagnan glanced out the window of the empty tavern he and Athos were currently seated in. The night’s dim softness did nothing to dispel the pent-up anticipation tingling in his fingertips, which drummed a restless pattern against the leather of his pants. He was both fighting nerves and reveling in the effervescence of them as he looked at the large and grimy man across from him.
"This is very simple, Durac."
D’Artagnan was not good at controlled intimidation; he could feel his own rapid pulse, and hoped he looked more threatening than he felt. Athos, beside him, was not even looking at Durac; he was focused on the country road outside the window. D’Artagnan was not fooled by this air of indifference; his mentor was no doubt aware of every word.
"We have you cornered: there is nothing left for you to do but hand over the diamond."
Durac pursed his lips and moved in his seat, comfortable.
"I don't care that you've caught me. I'm not handing it over."
D'Artagnan stretched his hands out in front of him casually, catching the slightest hint of a smile from Athos, grounding him. D’Artagnan sighed dramatically.
“You’re going to make us take it from you by force, aren’t you?”
The man to Durac’s right looked unsure at this statement, but Durac himself only sniggered.
"Your friend doesn't talk much, does he? He is rude."
An amused flick of Athos' blue eyes in d’Artagnan’s direction, and the younger man felt a shot of gratefulness for the lighthearted humour; it was steeling his frayed assurance. Athos turned his head and raised his eyebrows at Durac in mock surprise.
"I have been told I am quite charismatic."
D'Artagnan nodded in faux seriousness at Durac and his men.
"It's true. He is."
He turned and gestured at Athos' face.
"It's those eyes. Try to resist them. You can't."
“King’s Musketeers, making jokes, chasing down trinkets.” He leaned back.
“And for what? For spoiled, useless, royalty.”
D’Artagnan shot up from the table at the same time that Athos rose casually and slowly, looking thoughtful.
“You want to take better care, monsieur, as that could be considered treason.”
“I don’t care. You lowly Musketeers are in the Cardinal’s country now. I am well protected.”
Athos looked down at the table with nonchalance.
He glanced over at d’Artagnan and raised his shoulders in a refined shrug.
“This man thinks he needs protection.”
D’Artagnan smiled, playing along. He tilted his head.
“From us? But surely, we are only lowly King’s Musketeers.”
Athos drew his sword.
“We will not ask again. Give us the diamond.”
Durac scowled, standing as well. Without warning, his companion had pushed aside the table in front of him. The rest of their men stood up, and six bodies began to press towards Athos and d’Artagnan, who held up a hand.
Athos took a slow and deliberate sip of wine.
D’Artagnan made a show of adjusting the new pauldron on his shoulder, taking care the etched fleur-de-lis was showing clearly.
“Just so you’re clear. When we win-“
Durac and his men chuckled.
“When we win,” d’Artagnan continued, and Athos put his glass back down, lifting his chin and giving a short, smug nod to d’Artagnan.
“I want you to remember how it feels to lose to a Musketeer.”
“Such confidence! You’re awfully cocky, aren’t you?”
Without warning, Durac lunged, and there was a glint of metal as his sword flashed in an arc through the air towards Athos, who halted it effortlessly with his own, the blue eyes pure ice.
“You will soon find out why.”
And it was on, six against two, the thrill of the fight surging in d’Artagnan’s veins.
He was aware of Athos beside him, the other man’s strength measured out in careful, rapid movements. Athos fought with such steadiness it gave d’Artagnan the perfect wall to bounce his own technique back from, Athos so close he bumped d’Artagnan’s shoulder as they circled, back to back, moving in a seamless dance of teamwork.
D'Artagnan had fought alongside Athos enough to know that they complemented each other perfectly.
Athos’ style was calculated and ruthless; he took no prisoners, and the flash of his blade was so fast against Durac’s that it was a blur. To fight Athos was to fight a master. There was always a warning in his blue eyes, the only giveaway that he was efficiently dealing out death. The victims at the end of his sword could have counted themselves lucky to have witnessed such perfection, if they were not otherwise so engaged in survival. Athos was leonine power; he was finesse and deadly control. He moved with his upper body; the first man went down with a quiet, studious thrust of Athos’ right hand, the Musketeer's pale eyes gleaming for a moment with victory before he turned again, his blade withdrawn from the belly of one opponent and buried in the next with casual effortlessness.
Four against two.
Durac gasped as stumbled backwards with desperate footing, fast realizing what he was up against.
“You are too quick!”
Athos stepped forward, gaining ground and forcing Durac towards d’Artagnan. The Gascon whirled behind and around Athos, the two Musketeers trading places seamlessly. D’Artagnan grinned as his own sword blocked Durac’s easily.
“My apologies! Would you have us kill you more slowly, Durac?”
This remark earned him a quick, cool smirk from Athos that d’Artagnan caught from the side of his vision.
Durac began to fight him, and cried out,
“Your friend may be legendary, but you are nothing but an unexperienced youth!”
No such luck; if Athos was collected elegance, then d’Artagnan was lethal energy let loose. His blocks and parries changed and morphed quickly and joyfully, his natural talent playing with a flair for improvisation. He loved the honesty of sword fighting and it showed; he was too unpredictable to beat and he knew it. Athos had drilled technique into him and it mixed beautifully with pure style. He twisted to the side and swiveled back again, the sword in his right hand finding its fatal mark in one man's side and the sword in his left catching Durac on the arm.
Three against two.
Durac and his remaining men were minutes into the horrible realization that they were fighting an unbeatable team.
One of the men had avoided the fight, and was attempting an escape with the diamond; Athos looked up and saw the man throwing aside a chair in his haste.
Athos shifted his stance, buying himself the seconds needed to grab his knife from his belt and throw it faultlessly into the fleeing man’s chest. In the next moment, he had turned again, nothing but steps in the dance, burying his sword in his opponent’s chest.
Two against two.
Athos, short a weapon, had only to turn partially to his left and reach out a hand, catching the sword handle of the spare one d’Artagnan had wordlessly thrown him.
Another slice forward as d’Artagnan’s faultless arm found its victim, another body fell to the ground.
Durac was alone. Athos pressed the tip of the glinting metal blade against Durac’s skin. The fight was over.
It was like coming to; d’Artagnan held his sword out for a moment longer, then relaxed his arms, his heart slamming in his chest. He looked up, beaming at Athos as he felt a drop of sweat fall from his nose to his upper lip. He licked his lips: victory tasted like salt, apparently.
Athos was breathing hard, the bare skin showing at his open collar glistening. He spared a quick glace at d’Artagnan, answering d’Artagnan’s joyful smile with his own, amused one. The light eyes flicked back down to Durac, and a drop of blood appeared at Durac’s throat as he swallowed, screwing up his face in misery.
“Please don’t kill me! Please!”
“Kill you? We only wanted the diamond, Durac.”
D’Artagnan had strolled over and picked up the velvet pouch off of the floor.
“Which we now have.”
He held it up.
“We warned you: you wouldn’t want us to take them from you by force.”
Athos pressed his sword in only slightly, leaning forward.
“Let your survival be a message to the Cardinal.”
He drew away, stepping back calmly, and Durac scrambled to his feet, running out the door.
D’Artagnan moved forward, taking a deep breath and releasing it.
He clenched his hand into a fist, only now aware that he was a bit shaky. Athos gave him a shrewd look, then turned and walked back to the table with his glass of wine, taking a sip.
“You did well. You kept your cool with Durac, there, at the beginning.”
“I was practically vibrating.”
“I know, and you maintained composure.” He walked back to d’Artagnan.
“And it is always a pleasure to stand by your side in a sword fight.”
D’Artagnan felt tears burning at the corners of his eyes; praise from Athos was not given freely. He raised his head, pride flooding to his cheeks, and laughed, indicating the velvet pouch that they had come for.
“That was quite a way to spend an evening.”
Athos gave him a rare smile, gripping the younger man’s shoulder.
“That, my friend, was fun.”