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L'avènement des mousquetaires

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*

Athos shops like he does everything else – relentlessly, and with an entirely bewildering mix of efficiency and cost-unconscious waste. There are four types of chorizo to choose between to put in the risotto; both yellow and sweet onions and a frankly alarming number of shallots; and there is nothing but pained chagrin on Athos’s face when Aramis, finally fed up, plucks the nearest white out of a nearby rack, insists that it is Quite Good Enough, and ushers him out into the living room.

He pours Porthos a glass, once Athos is safely ensconced in his sulk; sticks his hands in the pockets of Porthos’s battered, lovingly-spattered apron, and squeezes whatever’s in reach.

“Frying pan,” Porthos says, absently fond, and hip-checks him over to the stovetop. The smell of the garlic and olive oil, once the burner warms up, is the only thing that reminds Aramis that yes, he is capable of waiting the requisite ten minutes until he gets his kiss.

*

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*

The vast majority of the crew are still drunk and dead asleep when Aramis finds d’Artagnan stretched face-down over a barrel, his shirt up and covering his head, and Porthos kneeling behind him with his needles and ink at the ready.

“The King?” Aramis chuckles, throwing up a glance at where Athos is watching from the quarterdeck, sleepy and far too amused.

“Nah,” Porthos grins, and sticks in his first blade; d’Artagnan, under his grubby linen, jumps and squawks. “Hold still, y’brat. You’re not worthy of Neptune yet. He’ll get his tortoise, though.”

And it’s no less than he deserves, Aramis thinks, as he settles his weight onto one hip next to Athos and yawns at the sight of d’Artagnan’s squirms. This is just the morning after; only the final part of the ceremony of crossing the equator and joining King Neptune’s Court, their newest crewmember being celebrated and cheerfully battered on the occasion of their first voyage south over that mystical line.

He preferred to think of Athos, in truth: of the sight of him dropping down onto the deck with his face painted blue in the darkness, the yank of the hair and the fierce, opened-mouth mark of a kiss as the crew jeered and clapped; the tilt of his head as he sat on his kingly throne of crates and barrels as d’Artagnan was chased round the deck. But now, as morning dawns and they drift carelessly in a patch of slack water, he is content to accept his captain back, that familiar warmth at his side, and watch the skill in Porthos’s blunt, careful fingers.

“There,” Porthos hoots, slapping at d’Artagnan’s back and planing it briefly over the reddened, but perfect little black-inked turtle on his left shoulderblade. “Welcome to the southern seas, boy. C’mon, get out of your nest.”

“Don’t want to,” d’Artagnan complains from under the tent of his shirt.

“Child,” Athos says casually, and instantly, d’Artagnan’s chagrined head pops up, like a chick just out of its egg.

“You shaved. My head,” he hisses.

“No, that was Aramis,” Athos says, and, looking away, bursts into quiet giggles.

In the distance Aramis vaguely hears d’Artagnan start to put up a fuss about Constance and my hair and do you know how long it took to grow well do you, but right then, he doesn’t give a damn.

*

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*

It's when the corner of Athos’s mouth starts to twitch that Porthos knows they’d succeeded. It doesn't mean he’ll be happy about it, of course, but the goal had been to evince some sort of reaction at all, and frankly he had started to despair when Aramis blatantly tweaking his pom-pom-ed nipples across the room had had no effect whatsoever.

“So,” Athos says, like he’s forcing it out through gravel, and next to him Aramis quickly schools his features into something approaching innocence. “Which ones are they?”

“Oh, we had a huge long argument about that,” d’Artagnan says, around a very crumbly mouthful of tart. “I think the tops are Dancer, Prancer, and Vixen ‘cause those’d suit you best.”

A muscle at the corner of Athos’s eye spasms violently as Aramis continues cheerfully on in the same vein. “And I think those two are Comet and Cupid because, well, come on.”

“Porthos.”

“Yeah, mate?”

“Turn the camera off on your phone,” Athos says, deadly quiet, “or I swear to god it will be thrown into your soup.”

Porthos doesn’t even bother to figure out how Athos knew he had his phone out with his back turned and the mobile’s sound turned off. He just does what he’s told, and, as Constance appears to help an ever-so-slightly wriggling Athos push his head through the collar, savors the moment.

*

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*

1975

He’s sitting by the garden pond on the rudimentary, home-made bench of logs and planks, his feet in the early December frost, when the Aston Martin pulls up. He knows Athos has seen him, and that he has been recognized; but of course it takes Athos rather longer than he remembers to get out of the car, to straighten the twisted leg and then, finally, having locked the driver and passenger side doors, indicate, with a tilt of his head, to the low side-door that leads into the kitchen.

“You’d better come in, then,” he says, calm and assured, and Treville gets up to follow.

He’s surprised to find that the limp and cane don’t bother him, much. He’d expected an onslaught of guilt fresher, more painful than what he’s experienced in the past two weeks of remembrance. But it’s other things which bother him more: the fact that Athos’s hair covers the back of his collar and brushes his cheeks, that hanging off the drying rack in the pantry he can see a pair of those ludicrous flared trousers his nephews – and nieces – are wearing. It makes him feel unbearably old, like Oxford really is a place inhabited by the Careless Youth the news warns him about, and like he now is the crotchety fart he’d hoped never to become.

“So, you’ve retired,” Athos says as he stirs them two mugs of tea; it is a statement, not a question, and Treville doesn’t have to ask how he knows. He’d made it patently obvious with his previous absence that he would only ever see any of them again when that part of his life was over. “I hope the Minister promised you a quiet life.”

“I demanded it,” Treville responds, accepting his cup with a nod and ensconcing himself slowly into one of the solid, probably hand-made kitchen chairs. “He could hardly say no. Where are the others?”

Athos’s smile tells him many things: that the man sitting carefully across from him is not the man he knew in London in ’63, that he knows Treville has kept tabs on all of them for years and that his question is absurd, and that it means something that he will answer it anyway. “Porthos is porter at Pembroke. Teaches the boys a thing or two about rugby on weekends. Aramis has decided to give it all up and commune with nature.”

He pauses, probably for effect. “Well, he tried. He drove himself mad with boredom within a week.”

Treville laughs, like he’s supposed to; he knows, of course, because he made it one of his last official acts as C to look up what he was getting himself into, here, that Aramis tutors in languages and sets up shop in a little office on Leckford Road. “And you?”

“Students are awful. College is worse,” Athos says, but there’s no malice in it. “Still.”

There is a whole world bound up in that word: still alive, still sane, still alone, still frightened of discovery, still convinced of safety, still taken care of, still capable of either happiness or despair.

Treville sits quietly; sips his tea; and thinks that yes: he is ready for this stillness, now.

*

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*

There are days when being alone in the house is merely an extra burden: the pressures of knowing how much needs to be done by the time anyone returns, the piles of laundry or dishes or darning heralding nothing but drudgery. It is worst in the extreme months, she finds – shut up in the stifling heat of August, or shivering any time she ventures away from the fireplaces in winter, her hands alternately are limp or clutch at her needles, and she longs for the presence of the laundry- or kitchen-maid, occasional companions whose presences are nonetheless essential to the rhythm of her days.

There are afternoons, though, in the late spring or mid-autumn, when breezes find their way indoors and even the absence of energetic, persuasively distracting d’Artagnan is a pleasure: when she can sit at a window with her sewing and knitting in her lap and think that this is her home, her home. In these moments, at least, the part of her that was married at seventeen is at peace.

*

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The frippery of ceremony has never been to Athos’s taste, despite his vague appreciation of its aesthetic. He is a soldier, and not one who follows this path for the sake of glory or recognition; he would, he knows, despite his position, be quite happy with the simplicity of a canvas tent before the luxury of a hôtel that he is due.

He is not best pleased, therefore, when the King requests his Musketeers to be in full dress uniform for his guard detail as he and the Queen attend church for Christmas mass. Beyond his personal encumbrance – the cheaply-jeweled ceremonial sword, gilt spurs, and freshly-laundered cloak, so striking but always heavy and slow to move with him – he finds the decoration their mounts must bear ridiculous. Roger, however, apparently thinks not, for the tossing of his head as they proceed quietly through the dark, grey-snowed streets well before the sun rises, catches every possible glint of light in the golden thread of the fleur-de-lis in his heraldic covering, the pieces of thinly-veiled silver in his bridle and stirrups gleaming.

Poseur,” Athos mutters, wrestling somewhat with the embroidered reins as the street opens up into the square at Notre Dame and the small, eager crowd of subjects who have braved the crowd comes into view, lit candles in their shivering hands; Roger picks up speed and breaks into a trot, his ears pricking forward, and then, before Athos can subdue his excitement, he charges.

Athos finds himself thinking, later, of the potential merits of the display he had so long reviled: the assassin waiting hidden in the crowd, after all, could not have failed to be frightened at the sight of a trained war-horse descending upon him, flashing like the morning sun itself had come to avenge itself upon him. He will, perhaps, afford a little more respect in future to the fleur-de-lis; a little more lenience for the intended power of precious stones; and, of course, a renewed respect for the power of a pair of hooves, chastened as he is by the idea that he could ever have doubted them.

*

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To be ill at any time could be considered a nuisance – to be ill in the winter, on the other hand, Athos was convinced, was a very particular type of purgatory. As a boy his father’s traditionalist doctors had diagnosed his cool skin as a symptom of a humoric melancholia; it trapped cold and kept it, leaving him motionless and miserable. To have collapsed in the garrison of this year’s particular city-wide, feverish complaint was bad enough; to do it in Treville’s presence, and to have been forced to take advantage of his captain’s own quarters to recuperate, had been worse.

They could have at least left him a drink, he thought sourly, as the rudimentary timepiece Treville’s spartan dresser told him it was past two o’clock in the morning; it would, at least, have taken the edge off the drafts of freezing air forcing their way through the casement.

It was half-past three when the door to Treville’s door opened, with a click sharp enough that Athos heard it in the next room and knew that it wasn’t made by any key. To fling off the blankets was easy enough, despite his aching head; to deal with the consequences, not so much. It was a shock to put his bare feet to the floor, and his hands were too numb, too tired, to pull anything around his shoulders. He was grateful, however, for the one concession he had managed to wring from his friends: his sword was easy to find, even in the dark, and fitted the calluses on his palm as easily as ever despite his unexpected days of leisure.

The thief, as it turned out, was more than a match for one unarmored, unsteady man, even for an unarmored and unsteady Musketeer. The first blow, of an elbow straight backwards into his mouth as he passed through the open doorway, was quickly followed by his head slamming back into the doorjamb. Physicality, however, was not the only requirement to be a successful troublemaker, and the sharp tug of his swordhilt told Athos everything he needed to know as his vision swam: that whoever it was had, mistakenly expecting Athos to be unarmed and in his eagerness to cause harm, managed to hurl himself directly onto Athos’s blade.

The scream, despite its immediate intensification of Athos’s headache, proved to be immensely helpful. Even d’Artagnan – who slept like an entire cemetery of the dead – could hardly have failed to hear it, and it was he who rushed in first from the courtyard below, disheveled and gaping, with Porthos close on his heels.

“Bloody hell,” Porthos growled. “Well done, mate.”

Athos rolled onto his hands and knees, wiped at his eyes to clear away the sparks, spat blood, and glared. “Wine,” he rasped.

“Yeah,” Porthos said, a grin breaking across his face as he grabbed the dead miscreant’s collar. “Yeah.”

*

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*

d'Artagnan, who spent most of his young life not knowing what it was to see the temperature drop below freezing and probably thinks Christmas wreaths should probably be made out of sprigs of heather, turns insufferable around the start of December. He finds the baubles, trees and tinsel the club have put up all around the stadium and training grounds offensive; he rolls his eyes every time one of the boys has the temerity to put on a carol or two in their pre-game playlist in the dressing room, and when he looks hard at the fixture list and realizes that they’re playing on Christmas Day, the rest of them get an earful for more than a week about how his tante will fucking kill him if he’s not at the dinner table on time for her roast lamb and what is the matter with England, anyway?

The best of all, though, is the night of the club holiday party, when Athos, Porthos, and Aramis show up at his flat in west London just after dark and ask him why he hasn’t got his coat on yet. He’s suspicious from the start, and when he realize that they’ve been walking for too long for them to be expecting to step to the curb and hail a cab, he starts interrogating them in earnest.

“‘S simple,” Porthos grins. “We’re walkin’ to the bash.”

“Walking.”

“Yep,” Aramis says, and, licking his thumb, reaches sideways to wipe a nonexistent smudge off of d’Artagnan’s cheek. “The paps’ll be there. Shape yourself up, kid.”

d’Artagnan sends a plaintive glance in Athos’s direction, clearly jealous of the midfielder’s snugly-buttoned coat and perfectly-folded scarf. All he gets in response is Athos’s lips carefully pursed and blowing out a perfect jet of steam out into the frigid air.

The pictures in the tabloids the next morning are… distinctive, to say the least.

*

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*

“Well,” Aramis sighed, “this couldn’t get much worse.”

The removal of his beloved musket had been bad enough – now, though, after several hours of captivity, there were the added nuisances of being freezing cold, of the manacles around his feet really starting to chafe in a completely unfriendly manner, and, of course, across the room, Athos lying face-down and unmoving in Porthos’s lap, with one of Porthos’s big, bare hands pushed into his hair to stem the wound at the back of his head.

Well, all of that, and the fact that the only one who was available to help, this far out into the countryside, was d’Artagnan. Aramis loved the boy, God help him, but the struggle he had prayed over for the past three hours was no closer to being resolved: the question of whether he wanted the boy to be close by, waiting for a sneaky chance, or whether he hoped he was haring his way well back to Paris, both to get reinforcements and to keep himself safe.

“Nah,” Porthos rumbled, then, his free hand – also manacled, and Aramis didn’t even want to think what that augured for the moment when he was freed from them – resting on the small of Athos’s back. “S’all good.”

“Good.”

“Mm,” Porthos said, and as per usual, there was that slight, mocking remonstrance in his tone, reminding Aramis that he was an idiot – though for the life of him, in that moment, he couldn’t figure out why. “This – ” Porthos continued, and tapped a thumb across Athos’s pale forehead, “this is exactly what we needed.”

Aramis ended up being reminded of a lot of things that evening: that Porthos was always right, which was one of those truths which only needed the little niggle at the back of his head to take effect; and that boys, especially boys who loved their friends, were the most dangerous of men, to the tune of five dead bandits and eyes fit for the angel Gabriel. More than enough reasons, he decided, to take heart for the next time.

*

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*

Treville has been in this position before in his life, far too many times for comfort: flat on his face, elbows flexed and ready to push himself upwards as soon as the dust clears, already listening for clues as to where his enemies are hidden. He has done this in trampled fields; on muddy plains; on churned-up beaches; on marble forecourts in palaces and great halls; on these same filthy, straw-strewn streets of Paris.

He knows this protection, too: the tent of Porthos’s arms spread wide, head ducked low and tucked into Treville’s shoulder. Five years ago the muscles holding him down were less carefully developed, the eyes less nimble in seeking out safety – there is armor plate in Porthos’s fine doublet, now, making bullets skip and blades skitter, a far cry from the careworn, painstakingly-maintained common cloth of the boy from the Court.

The sensations of looming, promised peace and methodical vengeance, however, remain.

*

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Aramis is in Brussels for the winter holidays, visiting friends and, according to Athos, ‘fucking his way through everyone with a pulse.’ Porthos only worries about it for a moment – until he realizes that Athos thinks it’s a terrible, wonderful joke that Aramis is happily imploding for the sake of trying – and clearly failing – to make Athos jealous. At any rate, Porthos has mostly given up on trying to understand how the fuck the two of them work; he’s far safer, he’s realized, and more useful, when he’s well and truly out of the loop.

So Aramis vanishes off their radar around the fifteenth; on the eighteenth, La Guarnigione starts their festive promotions of one’s weight in food for a sum any street-corner hobo could scrape up – or at least, that’s what it feels like to Porthos, who loves the holidays but doesn’t appreciate needing to come into work at four am every day instead of his usual seven – and Athos holes up in his studio, insisting that no, he’s not painting Aramis, because the damn fool gets enough of his talent and time as it is, and he’s on a well-deserved break from dimples and designer stubble.

On the twentieth, Constance and d’Artagnan drop by to get drunk before they leave the City and head upstate to be hosted by some art world bigwig in his Robber Baron-era mansion. It’s good to see them so happy, though too tired; Athos draws them absentmindedly on his napkin, and later, Porthos saves it from the laundry basket.

On the morning of the twenty-first, Porthos shuffles, yawning, out of the subway at 3:56 to find snowflakes drifting vaguely through the air, and Athos, bundled up in what looks like five very mis-matched coats (but no gloves), standing outside the restaurant with two fresh coffees in his hands and flecks of errant paint in his beard.

“I believe I’m supposed to say ‘Happy Christmas’ or something,” Athos says, teeth chattering slightly, as he puts the cardboard cup in Porthos’s hand and then turns away to fiddle with something on the edge of the front window. It lights up, then, suddenly, and Porthos stands and gapes at the snow dotting the ground of Starry Night.

“I hope you like it,” Athos says, visibly not even bothering to fidget; it’s too cold for such anxieties. “The paint’s supposed to last for two weeks – oomph.”

Porthos remembers to be glad, later, that he’d had the energy to shower that morning before subjecting Athos to a prolonged, thirty-second bear hug which consisted mostly of him jamming Athos’s head into his armpit. For the moment, though, he’s just going to stand there, and grin, and be ecstatic at how lucky he is.

*

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The first embossed boxes of fruit start to be brought in from the new orangerie at the end of November, as the nights turn suddenly cold and Anne begins to sleep with blushing bedmates, chosen from among her ladies, for warmth. For the first week, they are not yet ripe, a tinge of green remaining in their skins; their flesh is tart and sour. By December, however, they are brought to her table by the nervous gardeners ripe and pungent, droplets of orange juice and vapor scenting the air at the ingress of her nails. There are lemons, too, and limes – a riot of color which she is not surprised to see her servants linger around, as though their presence reminds them of summer.

She makes up her little bags of gifts to those whose silence she is particularly grateful for in the middle of the month; the ceremony is simple, as she arranges for Captain Treville and a few of his trusted men to escort into her reception chamber the men and women she has chosen to receive these miracles, these products of warmth and light in the depth of winter. They come in brushing dust from their clothes, the detritus of the King’s overzealous building and rebuilding projects in various wings, nooks, and crannies of the Louvre: artisans, minor aristocrats, soldiers, high aristocrats who have fallen and have bowed and scraped enough for their forgiveness, at least for this year.

She gives away the little baskets and pouches with not a little regret: it is something of a sacrifice, even for one such as herself, to give away such riches. But to these supplicants, she knows, these are a richer gift than anything wrought in gold: and she can spare them, for the loyalty and duty she demands.

*

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The King sleeps for three hours after the royal party returns from the Christmas mass. These are useful hours, occasionally even the most productive Richelieu will have all year: with the King and Queen abed, the soldiers and guards yawning and content to rest, and the majority of the palace’s servants given a rare morning off before the festivities of the season continue, he is rarely left so undisturbed.

There will be a luncheon, of course, and today it is a sunny one, the windows of the Louvre filled with chilly light. The Cardinal’s desk is cluttered, unbearably so, but the act of putting them in order occupies him pleasantly for a further hour or so. He builds up his own fire; he lights his own candles, thick and sturdy, lasting hours, so that he will not be groping for them later, in the dark. His door remains closed, left untouched by messengers, emissaries, or problems.

At two o’clock on the dot, Treville lets himself in unannounced, to drink one of the two glasses of wine Richelieu has prepared and left on a side-table. He has long since realized that, if he is to indulge in any sort of ceremony as another year draws to a close, it will be simply this. His constitution will not bear anything more; it is already too much, the sight of thick, blunt fingers, so unsuited to court, wrapped – carefully, he knows – around his finest engraved glass. He appreciates it for the self-knowledge: that Treville, too, holds himself aloof from his men and whatever carousing they enjoy, and that these few thimblefuls of dry, light liquor mean more to him, in a way, than anything they might have planned for him.

At three, the king knocks (a mocking gesture) and enters in all his gaiety, a child once more. “My dear Cardinal! Will you not join us?”

The hope in his voice is more touching than anything that could have followed after: and so Richelieu feels no guilt in gently declining and watching the King disconsolately retreat, playing the part he has always played. He will sit, and watch the sun sink, perhaps, or write to a contact in Venice, or watch the fire die down – he will, in essence, simply sit, and be.

*

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He finds them dangling from his doorjamb, on the inside; they are hanging from a long piece of fine twine, low enough that the petals brush his forehead as he opens the door and tries to step in. He doubts she went any further than this into the apartment – she didn’t need to, to make him not sleep and no longer feel safe in a place he was only just starting to call home. He just stands there, like the ape she no doubt sometimes thinks he is, and stares, and he wakes up the next morning to find he’s slept on a park bench.

By lunchtime that work day, Aramis has sent enough glances in Porthos’s direction for Athos to know that one of them will have swept his place for clues by the time the evening is out. They find him at ten, in a bar and halfway to blackout, with the little bunch of forget-me-knots quickly being crushed in Porthos’s clenched fist.

“Got a spare room at mine,” Aramis says, in the few seconds they have before d’Artagnan shows up and does his usual thing of Being Too Loud – he’s there outside the bar already, peering anxiously through the window and brushing snowflakes off of his shoulders. “Come back with me.”

Athos is thinking of mistletoe as he nods, too tired to do anything else. Aramis’s sheets smell of lavender – for the moment, that difference will have to do.

*

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*

She has seen many different Christmases, over her years in the Cardinal’s service.

She has seen devils and St. Nicholas dance in Amsterdam, and Krampus fly in Bonn; in Stockholm, St. Lucia looms over her with her crown of candles, dripping molten sin. In Athens, children greedily devour cakes in the street, searching for coins which they hope, by some accident, will be of equal or greater value than what they paid for these sad handfuls of collapsed pastry. In Spain, men, women, and children all stand at their windows and sing, holding their shoes, full of what gifts they have, hopefully to the sky as the somber procession of priests crawls by below them.

Later, in January, she is in Venice, once, and watches the flotilla of boats bringing the witch Befana to the place where she is to be feted, and disgraced. On some corners, there is celebration; on others, she screams and cries at little groups of assembled women, lamenting her accidental absence at the manger of the Christ-Child. She is a mangy little creature, the Befana of 1627 – chosen from a slum, no doubt, and got through her performance by the prodding of sticks and the ply of wine.

Anne watches from behind her mask – watches, laments, and then thinks that yes, perhaps a little bit of her suffering was worth it, for the chance to see all of this, and know that she has triumphed.

*

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Alice is told of her only in fits and snatches, through Porthos: that one of his friends had known someone, someone wonderful, who knew more of the world than anyone he had ever met and knew how to enjoy it, and make use of it, better than any man at court.

She does not expect, when she finally wheedles the address out of Porthos – in the snatched moments where they guiltily still see each other, too comfortable with their mutual rejection to be willing to lose each other – to see that her first, tentative letter has been answered in a hand which, if her eyes are not deceiving her, is decidedly feminine. But strong, she knows, and rich in experience, and defiance.

She travels southwest for the first time in early December, clutching at the doorway of her carriage, her fingers turning to ice as she rests her chin on the lip of the chilled windowsash and just watches everything pass by: the fields hold no dullness, nor the towns any redundancies, on this inaugural, promising journey. Her coachmen travel all night, slowly, so that she may sleep scrunched into a corner and not lose time, and by the time they arrive at the little village on the outskirts of Blois, with the famous, angelic castle reaching up into the sky on the horizon, the sun is rising and the former Comtesse’s palms have been well-warmed by the fire at the inn, enveloping Alice’s with heat and providing a perfect complement to that brilliant, proud smile.

The local blacksmith’s wife has not yet finished helping put Ninon’s house – attached to the schoolroom, exactly as she had described it in her letters – so to keep Alice awake and to show her the beauty of the countryside, they walk along the bank of a local creek, shoes shuffling in the snow and hands clasped to keep from slipping.

“Are you happy here?” Alice says, eventually working up the nerve to wonder whether, if her money runs out or if she marries again, whether she could settle for what she was before – or rather, where she was.

“Ninon de Larroque is not,” she answers, drawing Alice close. “But Madame de Montesquieu, schoolmistress of Chailles, most certainly is.”

So perhaps, then, Alice realizes, she will simply be a different Mme. Clerbeaux; and in that moment, that prospect does not sound so bad, after all.

*

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*

Their office is probably the only one in the world where the prospect of every year’s round of Secret Santa is nothing much to worry about. It’s easy, actually, too easy – though of course, it wasn’t always. It took about five years to draw up the list of items which would accumulate on the break-room table, their givers only determinable by the relative strength of the wrapping job. (Athos and Constance’s crisp corners would pass inspection by a drill-sergeant, though she favors reds over blues; d’Artagnan tries, but the results are always lopsided; Aramis and Porthos lie somewhere in-between, but Aramis’s are recognizable by the curlicued ribbons.)

Treville gets a hard-to-find and only vaguely distinctive cologne, his one luxury which manages to both seem ridiculous in principle and essential to his presence once its existence has been made known. The bottle of something expensive and delicious (they have to bloody start a pool for it) is for Athos; the pair of good boots, chosen so they would last rather than look good – though that’s always a bonus – are for Porthos; the hair ornament in the shape of knitting needles, sharp and shining, is for Constance; and so it goes on.

It’s comforting, in fact, to know not only that the shopping has been made easy, but that there is no need to thank anyone, either. The effort is communal; the enjoyment, even more so, at the potluck, when all is revealed as expected and gleefully paraded. They go home with the certainty of knowing, and that it is endless – and that is more than enough.

*

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18. 

December 1939 

They’ve received orders to the effect that they will report to the Ministry on Boxing Day; Christmas Eve has come, suddenly, and nearly gone, and they’ve been holed up in Porthos’s London flat since the twentieth, subsisting on mugs of coffee and tea absent-mindedly brewed with magic as they huddle over the wireless in the parlor. They’ve tried, God knows they’ve ­tried to understand what’s happening and what they’re going to see, but nothing’s fucking happening and Porthos has started smoking to deal with the strain of not-knowing.

“They’ll tell us,” Aramis says at one point, tossing his wand irritably from palm to palm. “The Ministry’ll know. They’ll send us to Finland, or something, and we’ll sort it,” he adds, because Finland is the one thing they have heard about, and every once in a while he’s seen Porthos stride with purpose towards the doorway as though he’ll Apparate straight there, only to stop, like an old Duncan yo-yo at the end of its string. Snow, he thinks, and Russians to fight, would be so far preferable to the fug of London smog they can see out of Porthos’s single small window that his skin itches with the want of them.

This is the BBC Overseas Service, the wireless intones, and Porthos sits, carefully, leaning in close with that look on his face that says that if he has to hear about one more Russian advance, he’ll start practicing the Kedavra well before the Ministry instructors get ahold of them. Aramis lifts up his paper, shakes the leaves straight, and, with bated breath, waits.

 *


Sketch by JakartaInn. Click for full-size.

*

 19.

December 1940 

The Yule Ball at the Ministry is on the 28th; very early in the morning on the 29th, they are all back at Bedford Square and in their respective nests, a tangle of Aramis and Porthos on one side of the room and Athos, sprawled, half-asleep in Constance’s lap. She’s watched them for hours, drowsing and then dozing, vaguely twirling her long-empty wine glass in one hand, as they divested themselves of the badges of their service: ties, collars, medals quietly earned and not understood by the Muggles they work with, unaware of their support. Over there, a pair of toppled leather shoes – there, a little pile of braces in different muted colors – there, a silk scarf and sheepskin jacket with maps carefully sewn into its lining, a perfect protection against cold at altitude – there, a sailor’s cap and an army-issue pistol. Constance’s own shoes are by the door, neatly straight and tall on their heels, no less a marker of what she is and what she is expected to be.

At four in the morning, the fireplace blazes into being with light and color, and an ancient, tired-looking head (Constance knows, on the contrary, that Serge, working in the War Office, is barely over forty, and that it is the war that has done this to him) pops through the flames. “Scramble, chaps,” he intones, and Athos rolls sideways off of Cosntance’s knees without a sound while in the corner, Aramis wakes up only long enough to check that it is not his branch of the forces being called up, and Porthos looks on, silently, until Athos shrugs on his calm and vanishes.

On the night of the 29th there is an attack on London, and smoke pours from the dome of St. Paul’s. She does not see any of them for more than a week.

 *


Sketch by JakartaInn. Click for full-size.

*

 20.

December 1941

Charles spends much of his week at home with his family poring over a nearly thirty-year-old book his father had used in the schoolroom in Tarbes, in a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to learn English. It is an American book: dog-eared and flimsy, it tells him about Susan and John, and what they do during their day, and about how John is in the Boy Scouts and writes letters to his father, Pete, who is fighting in Belgium for freedom and home.

News travels slowly this far south, which used to feel like a comfort but now just makes him want and need to Apparate into the middle of Nazi-occupied Bordeaux every morning to collect the early editions of the papers (even the propaganda is eagerly and easily devoured), and to keep a fire constantly stoked in every grate in the leaning, stolid farmhouse in case he is needed. He curses Treville, sometimes, for being a miserable excuse for a fighting Gascon, when days and days go by and there is stubbornly nothing for him to do, the War Minister having kept his promise to force d’Artagnan and his friends to take a full month of leave.

His mother knits, quietly singing Christmas ditties and hymns. His father potters around the farm doing odd winter jobs, the borders of his fields protected by hedges that will repel anything but the strongest magical attacks as well as curious Muggle eyes, taking an occasional swig from a flask of fine Armagnac kept in his deep pockets. In the evening – every evening – they take a bottle of something into the garden, father and son, and trade it back and forth until they are drunk enough to roar invective at Petain into the brilliant sky.

By the time his leave is up, he no longer wants to return home.

 *


Sketch by JakartaInn. Click for full-size.

*

 21.

December 1942 

He’s still in his American uniform when he Apparates into Grand Central Station, and has to hide in the nearest corner he can find to briefly remove the bloodstains and soot-burns from his skin and clothes before he turns out, neatly pressed and upright, into the crowds. A five-year-old boy, tripping over his shoelaces, salutes him as he emerges out onto the street; the glances and quickening or slowing of feet are more frequent.

It’s starting to snow as he walks north: it is a longer trip than he expected, but he finds that he feels it is necessary, suddenly, to maintain that rhythm of putting his feet one in front of the other, as both obliteration of the fact that he has spent days not being able to move from his coral-blasted foxhole, and as preparation for what he wants to do.

The French consulate at Fifth and 76th is flying the flag of its Swiss caretakers, and most of the building is dark to save on power and money. The cars parked on the street outside look like they have not been driven for some time: the recent switch to gasoline rationing, having taken everyone in the richest nation on earth by surprise, has bitten surprisingly deep and quick in the imagination.

She is there, instantly recognizable: standing silhouetted in one of the ground-floor windows, pacing back and forth as she talks into, and gesticulates at, the phone receiver in her hand. She hasn’t changed a bit from her days entertaining the Nazis and the Resistance in her Parisian salon – at least, he thinks as much until she slams down the phone on her apparently useless contact, and, a minute later, steps outside for a cigarette, wrapped up in a fur that was probably a gift from one of her many admirers and will probably also be sold as soon as possible to benefit the cause. She lights her slender cigarillo, stands huddled over it, and it’s then that he sees the lines of exhaustion around her eyes, and the slump of her shoulders when she thinks she’s alone.

Ninon looks up, briefly, and scans the pavement beyond the wrought-iron gate. “Qui est la?” she calls.

Athos bows briefly, so his face is hidden by his uniform cap; turns on his heel, and walks away. He is expected back on Guadalcanal, and he has what he has come for – there is no reason, at least not one he can justify, to stay.

 *

Chapter Text

*


Sketch by JakartaInn. Click for full-size. 

*

December  1943

Once they bring him home from Ortona Aramis is unconscious until after New Year’s, when they start dialing back on the Sleeping Draughts at Mungo’s. He would have preferred a Muggle hospital, in truth, since his injuries were caused by things very much not magical; but in retrospect, he’s thankful for the dreamlessness that the potion provides, rather than the uncertainty of morphine.

When he wakes, it is nearly dark – it strikes him as ridiculous, momentarily, that they put him in a room with a gorgeous art-deco window in it when there was no-one to look out – and Porthos is asleep by the doorway, his wand dangling from one hand as though he expects to still need to provide protection. On Aramis’s other side, Athos is sitting still and carefully, one leg crossed over the other and turning pages of a newspaper with nary a rustle. He knows Aramis is awake, though, because after a moment he peers over the creased edges and the corners of his eyes contract.

“You missed the Reds crossing over into Poland.”

“Oh,” Aramis croaks, and just like that, Porthos shoots upright, snorting and coughing, stumbling sideways for a lurching moment before he rights himself and charges over to grab Aramis’s hand.

“You’ll be fine,” Athos says, since Porthos is apparently wordless, and folds his paper so he can put it aside. “The nurses weren’t sure what they stuck you with, but the rest of it was easy enough to deal with.”

“No dreams?” he adds, and Aramis can hear just how careful he is being to keep his voice level and low.

“None,” he answers, clearer this time, and next to him, Porthos lets out a sob and his forehead falls forward onto their intertwined fingers. Aramis, as his eyes fall closed again, threads the fingers of his other hand into Porthos’s hair, squeezes, and listens to Athos sigh; he himself is incapable, in this moment, of speech.

*


Sketch by JakartaInn. Click for full-size. 

*

December 1944

Athos is promoted (in terms of his Muggle rank) in late November, and is given the dubious honor of having permission to Apparate in and out of Europe at will. What this means, mostly, is that he gets to travel instantaneously from one hell-field to another as he ferries himself between Bastogne, as it is surrounded, and Guam. Porthos and Aramis remain in the apparently-doomed French town with the 101st, missing the warmth but not the flamethrowers, waiting both for him and the inevitable final assault as their supplies of ammunition dwindle, and are then totally cut off by the 22nd. It’s dark, that night, and Porthos sits at the edge of his foxhole as Aramis and Roe make their rounds, just waiting, and knowing that he won’t be able to sleep by normal nor magical means until they’re back.

On the 23rd, the skies clear and he’s never been so glad to see a hulking metal beast of an American plane before as they finally get their air cover and much-needed bombardment of the German positions; on the 24th, they counterattack, and Porthos finally snatches half an hour of rest as they are rotated backwards and forwards from the main line.

On the 26th, he’s entirely forgotten that the day before had been Christmas, until the soft pop of an apparition announces Athos’s presence, and Porthos turns to find him holding out a coconut like it’s something precious, a strange, sad look on his face.

“Bloody hell,” Porthos rasps, and dashes something which might be tears out of his frozen eyes. “Is that for me?”

“Porthos,” Athos says quietly, and Porthos’s hand wavers in the air where he’d reached out. “I wanted you to hear it from me, instead of in Stars and Stripes – ”

“What?” Porthos says, but something about the unapologetic shame in Athos’s expression makes him stop there.

“Forty marines have been arrested on Guam,” Athos says, still in that small, furious voice. “They’ve been shooting each other for months. They didn’t – the white marines didn’t want the black marines fraternizing with the local women.”

If he had any breath in his lungs left, it would have been long gone, but he doesn’t. “How many?”

“One white, three black. The NAACP is trying, but – ”

Porthos sits down and puts his head between his knees. His trousers are freezing against his temples, crusted with ice and mortar-dust. Above him, he hears Athos pause, above the roaring in his ears, before he kneels down, puts the coconut aside, and waits.

“Breathe, Porthos,” Athos murmurs eventually, and Jesus, it’s a good try, it really is, but all Porthos can think is:

I can’t.

*


Sketch by JakartaInn. Click for full-size. 

*

December 1945

They get the news that the Home Guard is to be disbanded on New Year’s Eve very early on Christmas morning; d’Artagnan isn’t sure when it was actually announced, but he doesn’t much care. He’s only got six more hours of quiet in the cottage until he’s due back in London, and he intends to waste them on being completely and happily oblivious.

Aramis and Porthos join him out in the cozy sitting room at seven, still too ingrained in their alarmed routines, their only acknowledgment of the specialness of the day the fact that they put sugar in their tea rather than going without. It’s the last of their ration for the week, but it feels like it’s worth it.

“From y’dad?” Porthos asks sleepily as he catches sight of the small side of beef wrapped up in the kitchen, and d’Artagnan nods. Next to him, the fire flares briefly, and Constance’s beautiful face, lit in yellows and reds, appears in its center. Across the room, Aramis puts down his mug briefly so he can tie the black ribbon around his arm, as he has done since the 14th of June, and says a silent Hail Mary.

“Darling,” Constance says, and, fittingly and far more appropriately than the rest of them, she sounds ebullient, even joyful. “The judge found in my favor.”

“He could hardly fail to,” Aramis says, turning around with a smile.

“And without a single Charm,” Constance continues, flushed and triumphant. “Oh, and you’d better be home soon. I need you to get something out of the top cupboard, since I can’t reach anymore.”

“You can get it down with magic,” d’Artagnan replies, sounding needled but grinning hard.

“Lazy,” she tuts, and promptly vanishes.

There’s a creak from above, then, and Porthos and Aramis sit down, carefully, and d’Artagnan, who had been about to get up, shifts and stays where he is. Athos appears at the foot of the stairs a few minutes later, slow cracks and groans in the old wooden floorboards marking his progress across each room and step. He’s still too thin, though they’re working on that; he’s still too pale, but in the middle of an English winter there’s nothing to be done about that at all. Mostly, though, they just wait to see what will come out of his mouth first, as that’s the best way to decide what sort of day it’s going to be.

“Hello,” Athos says, gentle and startled, as though the world is very new, and d’Artagnan looks up, letting out his breath, to look at the long, white fingers clutching the doorframe, the mixture of Aramis and Porthos’s clothes and a big army jacket. “Happy Christmas.”

There’s a slight rise at the end of that final word, as though Athos doesn’t know or understand whether he’s meant to say it or not, or what it even means; Porthos rises, then, wraps his arms around him, and just holds tight.

A good day, d’Artagnan decides. This will be a good day.

*

Chapter Text

*


Sketch by JakartaInn. Click for full-size.

*

The regiment is kept in reserve for most of the Siege of Alès; the king needs protecting while he oversees the surrender of the town, bouncing up and down on the tips of his toes as he stares wide-eyed through the telescope Richelieu, teeth gritted, holds for him. The king is close to a complete surrender of the Huguenots and of the Duke of Rohan, and knows it – the Musketeers are there not to fight, but to decorate his triumph, and they know this too.

The town is left in ruins, of course, and the royal party moves on to the supposedly more important act of treaty-making at a local chateau, leaving Athos, Porthos, and Aramis to march through the deserted streets with their fellows, watching the last of the citizens straggle out into the countryside until an ostensible peace returns. It is mid-June, and heat hangs heavy over the mud-trodden fields; when darkness falls, though, it is still chilly, and they find a somewhat blasphemous shelter in a corner of the half fallen-down town church. Porthos and Athos sit; Aramis, however, paces, as he has done for most of the day, looking worriedly at the dirtied tapestries, such as they are, and the empty spots in the dust where the communion cups had sat before they were looted. It is a Saturday evening, they all know: there will be no service in the morning, no priests left to say mass, not even a Huguenot who could momentarily recall the old words.

Eventually Aramis sleeps, fingers tangled in his rosary rather than the triggers of his pistols, and Porthos keeps watch. As the sky lightens into a dull grey, Athos wakes, puts a hand on Porthos’s shoulder, and motions them both outside.

It’s easier than one would expect to climb as far as the roof, with the walls in such a state of disrepair that they provide ample hand- and foot-folds; the tower presents a little more of a challenge, but nothing to dissuade men of their experience. As they reach the top Porthos sees that the bell has been cracked, the unfortunate recipient of a cannonball or skipping bullet – it is large enough, still, and solid enough, that it will ring true, and so it proves. It takes both of them, balanced on opposite corners, and several solid pushes back and forth before it begins to peal, but peal it does, and ring it does, still, its clear tone bouncing off of the shattered and burnt roofs, over the ruined countryside beyond, and, Porthos fancifully thinks, beyond the horizon.

Aramis is waiting for them, staring upwards and dumbstruck, when they descend. “I can’t think whose saint’s day it is,” he says, eventually, twisting his hat between his hands. “To thank them for comrades such as these.”

*

FIN

*