It was during a lunchtime meal that the precipitating comment was made. Four friends were arranged at an inn, enjoying a leisurely meal after having stayed the night in comfort. Porthos' boasts about the previous night's exploits were being readily scorned by his companions.
"I tell you, I have loved often," protested Porthos. "And well."
"Loved as a feeling or as an act?" snorted Aramis.
"You do me an injustice," said Porthos. "Truly you do."
"Love is a matter of the heart," said Athos. "It can raise a racket capable of drowning out the sound of the most rational mind."
"You think me ignorant of this?" asked Porthos, a serious look in his eye though he laughed to soften it.
"You'll forgive me," spoke up D'Artagnan. "But it seems to me that it is life your heart loves. For the women themselves, your love is too shallow and changeable to do them justice."
Porthos threw his hands above his head, "Mercy, mercy! Even the boy is against me."
Aramis noticed the fire in D'Artagnan's eyes at the word 'boy' and grew uneasy as Athos laughed.
"He may indeed be too young to know love," said Athos. "But he sees accurately."
This time D'Artagnan flinched as if struck and turned wounded eyes on Athos. The comment was glib but Athos sobered on seeing it's impact.
"D'Artagnan is no boy," said Aramis quickly. "If he was not a man when we met, the years with us have made him so."
"He will always be our youngest," grumbled Porthos. "But I accept that the beard – small, though it is – proves his place amongst us."
D'Artagnan did not seem to hear the attempted placation and instead turned his attention to Athos.
"You think I do not know love?" he asked Athos directly.
Athos sensed the importance of his answer but would not add a further insult by being untruthful.
"I have not seen you love for more than a moment," said Athos. "You are not a man for wenching such as Porthos but if you have loved, it has been rare and short."
This answer did not please D'Artagnan and his friends watched mystified as he struggled with the first response that came to mind. At length, D'Artagnan took a great breath and composed himself.
"It was you who said that love was a matter of the heart," said D'Artagnan to Athos, his temper rising despite his efforts to restrain it. "A man (or a boy) may love and love well and long without acting. You may know my acts better than I myself, Athos, but clearly my heart is too opaque for you."
At these words, D'Artagnan rose from the table and stormed up the stairs of the inn to the rooms above. Athos made as if to follow but Aramis gripped his hand.
"Be cautious, Athos," said Aramis. "Of late, something has been disturbing his peace of mind."
"Indeed, he is swift to take offense," grumbled Porthos bitterly. "One would think I had more cause to play the wounded party."
Porthos' tone diverted Aramis for a moment, a brief smile playing at the corner of his mouth as he turned to face his normally jovial friend.
"Let me be clear," said Aramis, laying his hand over Porthos'. "Your ability to love your friends was never questioned."
"I never believed it was," said Porthos, looking immensely cheered anyway.
"It now falls to me to be clear," said Athos heavily. "For I have made unkind assumptions and wronged a friend."
Aramis looked at the blond man with respect, and a little surprise, at this admission, "It surely does fall to you but I still urge caution. It is more than unkindness which drives D'Artagnan on this day."
Athos ascended the stairs, leaving Aramis and Porthos to themselves.
He went along the landing until he reached the room where D'Artagnan had spent the previous night. He knocked but received no answer to his courtesy. Athos hesitated but friendship drove him to push at the door. It was unlocked and swung open, to reveal D'Artagnan seated on the bed. The younger man was watching the doorway with an expectant air but still seemed to regard Athos' appearance as unexpected.
"I guessed it would be Aramis come to give counsel," said D'Artagnan by way of explanation.
Athos said nothing, his intentions less clear in the face of D'Artagnan's reasonableness. There was still a restless anger in his posture and D'Artagnan hastened to fill the silence.
"Sometimes," said D'Artagnan. "I think Aramis is a priest already – in his mind, if not in his garb."
"He has always said he will leave us someday," said Athos. "I dislike to think that I might lose a friend."
Seeing that the anger in D'Artagnan's posture had not relaxed, Athos opted for the bolder action of stepping forward into the room.
"I dislike to think that I might lose any friend," said Athos gently and was rewarded by a softening of D'Artagnan's expression.
"Your words were spoken in jest," admitted D'Artagnan. "I had no real cause to take offense."
"Perhaps the words were in jest," said Athos. "But I have taken liberties by assuming too much of our friendship. To prove that good friends can have private lives, we need only to return to the name of Aramis."
The younger man smiled but it faded into a look of hesitation.
"There are things I would share with you and now seems the time," said D'Artagnan. "But I have kept them close for so long, I hesitate at the disclosure."
The older man seated himself on the bed beside his friend.
"I am no priest," said Athos, earnestly. "But I would keep a friend's confidences and make amends."
D'Artagnan smiled at the offer, "You are truly a dear friend. I feel ashamed of my hesitation."
"It is no matter between friends," pressed Athos. "Come, trust me as a friend. You spoke of loving well and long without acting."
"Indeed," said D'Artagnan wryly. "You cut to the heart of the matter. I have loved for years and have not spoken of it with the object of my affection."
"What prevents you?" asked Athos. "You are not a man without merits. You are good company and I feel many a woman would welcome your attentions."
At this, D'Artagnan fell strangely silent and looked at Athos with a considering eye.
"And what of you, Athos?" asked D'Artagnan. "You do not take a mistress, in all the years we have been friends."
It was Athos' turn to hesitate, "I... you know my past, D'Artagnan. I am done with women and I am done with love. I have no more taste for it."
"But you are a man of many good qualities," objected D'Artagnan. "Not all affairs with women end in the way you have experienced it. There are those who would gratefully and faithfully receive you."
The insistence behind these words made Athos uneasy. He stood and paced twice around the room, unwilling to meet D'Artagnan's following gaze.
"No, no," said Athos, as if D'Artagnan had continued to speak. "For my part, I am done with women."
This comment alarmed the younger man and he stood up as well.
"Then be done with women," said D'Artagnan. "But not with men. I implore you not to remove yourself from the company of those that care."
"Am I not in this very inn with the best friends that I have? I do not seek to be utterly alone," objected Athos. "But there are parts of my heart that refuse to be opened to any other."
"Do not let it be so," cried D'Artagnan. "Resist it as you would the will of the Cardinal himself."
"I cannot! It is my nature," snapped Athos, his own temper rising fast.
Athos' anger seemed to convince D'Artagnan that his purpose was a lost cause. He snorted in frustration and resumed his angry posture on the bed. His gaze bored into the cracked wall in front of him as if it had done him a personal wrong. Athos made for the door but could not forget that he had been the one to approach D'Artagnan. He could not leave without a further attempt at amends even though he no longer knew what distressed the younger man.
"You are my closest companion," said Athos, watching for any shift in D'Artagnan's mood. "I have no wish to quarrel."
"I see that," said D'Artagnan, not looking at his friend. "I am resigned to the friendship you offer. I must content myself with it."
Frustration and confusion drew Athos back to stand in front of the bed. When D'Artagnan continued to ignore him, Athos reached out and grabbed the other man's chin. Half-expecting to be struck for his presumption but too angry to care, Athos forcefully raised the other man's gaze.
"I would die for you," said Athos, when his eyes were locked with D'Artagnan's. "What more can a man do for a friend? What greater service or proof of affection can be given than that?"
"I value our friendship, make no mistake," said D'Artagnan through clenched teeth. "But it is for that reason that I mourn the parts of your heart that are closed."
Athos found himself unable to speak and instead slid to the ground in front of the other man. He took D'Artagnan's head and pressed their foreheads together.
"You ask a high price," whispered Athos hoarsely. "But what more can a man offer his friend?"
"Let it trouble you no longer," sighed D'Artagnan, closing his eyes. "Drive it from your mind and forget."
"Reject your request?" said Athos. "The request of a friend? I treasure you and our friendship too greatly."
At that moment, D'Artagnan opened his eyes and Athos saw the mingled affection and disappointment directed at him. The thought that he had inspired the disappointment was unsettling and he wished he could smooth it away. Without really considering what he was doing, he tilted his head and kissed D'Artagnan.
D'Artagnan was warm and willing and Athos was overcome by sudden fear at his own actions. He broke the kiss and stumbled to his feet.
"Forgive me," he gasped.
D'Artagnan pursued him as he backed across the room, "Do not ask forgiveness for I will give none."
"I have again taken liberties with our friendship," said Athos brokenly, stopping and trying to express his regret as much with his eyes as his words.
"None that I did not invite or welcome," said D'Artagnan swiftly.
Athos frowned and gazed in puzzlement at the younger man. D'Artagnan walked carefully to the door and locked it, as if he were afraid that Athos might bolt from the room.
With the door locked, D'Artagnan turned back to Athos, "I say again that you are a man of many good qualities. Do not remove yourself from the company of those who care."
"Do I misunderstand your meaning?" frowned Athos. "The object of your affection is myself?"
"You do not misunderstand," said D'Artagnan eagerly but trying to tread gently. "And, in truth, how could I avoid affection for a man such as yourself?"
"I must deny you," said Athos. "How could I do otherwise?"
"You have not had time to consider this matter as I have," said D'Artagnan. "I will make you an offer. Give me three chances to change your mind. If you say to me three times in earnest that you do not want this, I shall stand aside. You shall go downstairs and it shall be as if these words were never spoken."
Athos hesitated. He was not disquietened by the fact that he was locked in the room or by the offer that was being made. What made him uneasy was that this was an unfamiliar side to D'Artagnan that was nevertheless consistent with all of his previous actions. Athos wondered whether his answer would be easier or harder if the offer had been made by a man less familiar.
"You may try," said Athos, finally. "But, I fear the rejection will hurt you all the more."
D'Artagnan nodded, acknowledging the importance of their friendship and the risk he was taking.
There was a moment's hesitation and then D'Artagnan left the door to approach Athos. There was an evaluating look in the younger man's eyes that recalled the start of many an armed campaign.
"We are companions in battle," said D'Artagnan, taking Athos' head in his hands and kissing him softly.
Athos made no move to resist but neither did he respond. He did not even lift his arms from his sides. When the kiss was done, Athos looked D'Artagnan directly in the eye.
"I do not want this," said Athos firmly. "It has no place on the battlefield."
D'Artagnan acknowledged the point with a sad nod of his head. He stroked Athos' hair and let it play through his fingers.
The younger man regained his confidence and took Athos' face in his hands again.
"We are friends of many years," whispered D'Artagnan. "We have been inseparable."
He leaned forward and briefly pressed his forehead to Athos' before beginning a second kiss. His grip on Athos' head pulled the other man forward, forcing Athos to put his arms on D'Artagnan's shoulders just to maintain balance. It was so chaste a kiss that Athos questioned why his heart saw fit to speed up at it; there was friendship in it. It was D'Artagnan who pulled away, looking intently to Athos for his response. It took Athos a moment to remember his voice.
"I do not want this," said Athos again. "But inseparable we shall remain."
Athos had intended to release his grip on D'Artagnan's shoulders but the other man's eyes were so sad that he gave a reassuring squeeze instead. He did not want D'Artagnan to try again. He did not know whether he could bear to be the cause of D'Artagnan's broken heart.
"We are confidantes," said D'Artagnan, a new determination in his voice though his eyes were strangely moist. "And there are no sorrows that go uncomforted."
The urge to beg D'Artagnan not to try again rose in Athos' heart but D'Artagnan was already kissing him. It was long and earnest. D'Artagnan's hands moved from Athos' face to the back of his head and neck. Athos' hands slipped from the younger man's shoulders to wrap around his back as if to shield him from the world outside.
When they parted, Athos perceived a slight trembling in the body beneath his hands but a firm gaze waited for an answer.
"I do not want this confusion," said Athos.
D'Artagnan nodded, the attempt to remain strong cutting Athos deeper than the failure to prevent the trembling. Athos paused, still clinging tight to the other man. He wondered if D'Artagnan had ever given this much of himself to a woman. Athos raised a hand and raked it through the other man's hair, trying to soothe as many imaginary hurts as real ones.
"I do not want this confusion," repeated Athos. "But sometimes confusion must be confronted. I confess that I do not understand what I want."
The young Gascon could not speak but nodded dumbly. Athos feared he was misunderstood and cupped D'Artagnan's face in his hands.
"I do, however, know the name of what I want," said Athos carefully. "And it's name is D'Artagnan."
With that, Athos gave the other man a kiss as full of promises as fear. Out in the corridor, Aramis uttered a prayer for the happiness of his friends and then set about the serious task of preventing Porthos from laughing aloud with mirth.