“Am I forgetting anyone important?”
Constance looked up from her computer screen to find Aramis watching her with the kind of sincere expression that rarely meant good things for her. “What?” she asked.
“I said, am I forgetting anyone important?”
For a moment, Constance just stared at Aramis. Then she sighed and addressed him seriously. “Aramis, when I stop working and look at you with this face after asking what you’re talking about, it’s because I’ve been tuning you out from the beginning. I have no idea what this is about.”
“Wow,” Aramis said. “My whole world just changed.”
She smiled. “Merry Christmas.”
“Not for a few more days,” he returned blithely. “And that brings us right back to the subject at hand. Do I have everyone who matters on this list?” He brandished a yellow writing pad at Constance. She took it reluctantly, and perused the list.
Ninon from Legal
Alice from HR
Constance considered. “I take it that by your logic Richelieu and the boys on the red team don’t matter?”
Aramis shook his head gravely. “Only the ones Treville got in the Divorce matter.”
Once, the business they all worked for had been run by two men who were partners- as in business partners. It remained a matter of heated debate among their employees whether they had been partners in other senses too, and it was probably the rumor that they had been a couple which had prompted most everyone to nickname their giant falling out ‘the Divorce’. Treville and Richelieu were both still in charge, but they chose and worked jobs separately, and everyone had long ago been forced to pick a side. There was the red team and the blue team, and never the twain did meet.
Constance huffed. “Then you have everyone.”
Pleased, Aramis ducked away. It was then that Constance started to get worried.
“What is this about?”
Aramis produced a hat. “Secret Santa,” he announced. “Pick a name.”
“Pick a name and I’ll go away?”
“Pick a name and I’ll go away for the rest of the day?”
Constance thought about that one. If she held out, he might promise the rest of the week- but there was no doubt in her mind that he wouldn’t be able to maintain it. He would know that, and most likely conclude that it was better to break sooner rather than later. His honor might carry him through a promised day, however.
She took a scrap of paper without looking at it, stowed it in her desk drawer, and went back to work in blessed silence.
* * *
Constance’s hard won peace did not last.
By the time she took her afternoon break, very little work was actually getting done anywhere in the building. That was usually the way of it, Christmas week; Treville was rarely there and it took a lot for Athos to work up the energy actually tell anyone to get back to work- this was his idea of the Christmas spirit. So Constance leaned against the break room doorway, drinking her coffee and eating her granola bar, and surveyed the mayhem with annoyance but little surprise.
Aramis was, of course, to blame for it all: the garish silver tinsel festooning the desks, the little plastic Christmas tree all hung with blue ornaments in one corner of the room, the mistletoe pinned in all the most awkward places… he had enlisted the help of Porthos, naturally, and d’Artagnan- more commonly known as the intern- who blushed fiercely every time he caught her eye. A few months ago he’d asked her out, and after much debating of propriety, she’d said yes. He was actually a wonderful boyfriend, exuberant and sweet- but lately she’d known that he had something he wanted to say to her, but was shying away from actually saying it.
She hoped he wasn’t going to propose or anything.
Constance picked her way back to her desk through a minefield of Christmas lights and was extra careful of any mistletoe- Aramis had been keeping his promise to leave her alone, but such a promise would outlast him catching her under mistletoe when hell froze over.
She set her coffee at her elbow and was about to get back to work when d’Artagnan got caught in the same tangle of Christmas lights she’d just so neatly avoided. Her boy was a catastrophe- a precious, gorgeous catastrophe. Laughing unapologetically, Aramis and Porthos moved to help. She couldn’t but notice how d’Artagnan’s eyes sought her out- to see if she’d seen him attacked by an inanimate object, most likely, to check if she was worried, or laughing at him, or anything else. Constance gave him a smile, hoping he’d just say whatever he’d been thinking about so hard already. For all she knew, he was actually thinking about breaking up with her.
The sound of a throat being cleared jarred Constance from her thoughts and she looked around. “Oh- hello, Athos.”
“Constance,” he returned, eyes crinkling in his version of a smile.
Athos always struck her as sort of… ghostly during the holidays. Very possibly he had bad memories associated with the season, but more than that the time of year was poorly suited to his temperament. He drifted in and out of the building- and their lives- saying and doing as little as possible.
He leaned against the side of her desk, half sitting on it. “How are you?”
“Fine,” she said, mechanically.
His eyes laughed again, this time with a kind of wry sympathy.
“This isn’t my favorite time of year,” she admitted.
That got actually movement from his mouth. Athos reached out a hand- something he’d been doing for years- and she took it. She knew from long experience what an unrelentingly sad bastard he could be, but he was also very serene, very calming. When he held her hand and her eyes and told her that everything was going to be all right, every part of her believed it- at least until he walked off again. That was how it had always been. “I know the feeling,” he said, passing a thumb over the back of her hand. “But there’s nothing… more specific?”
“There might be,” she admitted, thinking of d’Artagnan. “But I don’t really want to talk about it. I don’t really want to think about it.”
Athos nodded in a way that said, ‘I know the feeling,’ again so he didn’t have to. He glanced toward the middle of the room. “Well.” He squeezed her hand lightly. “I’d better rescue the intern.” Constance followed his gaze and found that Aramis and Porthos’ efforts had left d’Artagnan even more tangled than he had begun.
“He has a name, you know,” she sniffed.
“Oh? What is it?” Something behind Athos’ eyes made the joke fall flat. Of course he knew that d’Artagnan had a name; he spent more time with d’Artagnan than plenty of people he’d known for years, going out of his way to mentor the boy. Constance would be jealous if she didn’t think the two of them- perfect opposites as they were- were good for each other.
Constance smiled, patted Athos’ hand, and released him.
Athos slipped away and- waving Aramis and Porthos off- set about freeing d’Artagnan, who looked close to swooning by the time Athos got him free. Athos’ arm went around d’Artagnan’s waist seemingly reflexively, filling Constance with unwanted nostalgia- and a flash of jealousy that was, shamefully, directed more at her own boyfriend than at the man who briefly cradled him like something precious.
He stood d’Artagnan up, and there was a moment when the two of them struck her like a puppy and a wolf- d’Artagnan all hapless adoration, Athos strong and stern and endlessly, unfathomably sad- before d’Artagnan cleared his throat sharply and scrambled away. She looked away, bizarrely choked up, and cast about for something to distract herself with.
Constance slid open her drawer, glanced at the slip of paper she’d gotten from Aramis, and tossed it back inside in disgust. “Damn it, Aramis,” she breathed.
To one side of the office, putting a star at the top of his tree, Aramis grinned for no apparent reason- as if he knew his name was being cursed if not from what quarter.
Athos was scribbled on the paper.
* * *
The job Treville had given her as a secretary had been the first- and ultimately the only- one that Constance had been able to get after years as a housewife. She had been a disaster on her first few days of work, but in hindsight Constance knew that she shouldn’t have expected any different. She’d spent so long as Jacques Bonacieux’s wife, her every day exactly the same, and suddenly everything was new: her house, her duties, even her name.
In what had at the time seemed to be her crowning achievement, Constance ran into a man who turned out to be Treville’s second in command while carrying a cup of coffee.
For a second, she’d stared dumbly at him. What made it somehow better and worse at the same time was that he just stared back at her, not like he’d never seen her before- which would have been to be expected, because he hadn’t ever seen her before- but like he’d never seen another human being and was trying to acquaint himself with the general appearance of one.
“Oh, God,” Constance finally managed. “I’m so sorry.”
“No,” he said, his words coming almost on top of hers. “I’m sorry.” She hadn’t noticed that his arm had gone around her waist until he steadied her and stepped back. “It’s my fault; I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
Constance swallowed and noticed that the scarf wound around his neck was practically soaking with coffee. In way, she was lucky she’d taken so long getting it back to the office; it was lukewarm rather than hot. She dabbed at it helplessly.
“It’s all right,” he said firmly. He caught her hand. “This… wasn’t my color anyway.”
For the first time, Constance took more of him in than stormy and yet vaguely confused eyes. She saw a rumpled, poorly put together suit, messy hair and a growth of beard suspended in the no-man’s-land between a real beard and five o’clock shadow. He looked like he’d dressed himself half asleep. He looked- frankly- like he’d been going through life half asleep but had seen something in her that woke him up enough that he wanted to help her. That would later become her strongest memory of Athos de la Fere- at the time, though, that touch of kindness was enough to start the minor breakdown that had been brewing in her for some time. “It’s my first week and I’m doing everything wrong,” she wailed.
He gripped her hand hard and she clung to him like a lifeline. “That happens,” he said. “Trust me, I know. Look at me.” She looked at him. “You’re going to be fine.”
Though she had been divorced for only a few months, it had been a lot longer than that since she had looked on her husband with affection and vice versa. Constance had a thought in that moment that she was slow to identify- she thought this man’s eyes, so steady and assured in that sea of disheveled bleariness, were gorgeous. They had the most singular quicksilver quality- here green, here blue, here grey- and they crinkled with a warmth that seemed to seep into her bones.
He squeezed her hand a final time, and when she nodded to him he left it at that.
That was a Friday. On Saturday, Constance went shopping and found a scarf on a sale rack that would perfectly suit the man’s eyes and bought it. On Sunday, she reminded herself that this was not the right time to start something when she wasn’t even sure what that something would be. And then on Monday she pointed the man out to Alice from HR and started to hear stories about Athos, who was usually hung-over, sometimes drunk, and almost never completely there. His mood could supposedly turn on a dime. Only two of his coworkers- Aramis and Porthos- managed to get anything like friendliness out of him, and it was generally understood that they had done so chiefly by annoying him until he let them in.
Constance rarely saw that Athos, because on Monday he came into work in a brand new pressed suit. He talked to everyone personally and paid attention to what all of them said. That was the Athos that Constance knew. He had bad days, sometimes, where he seemed to check out altogether- but frankly so did she. When people marked a change in him, Constance didn’t know what to say but that she wouldn’t know. She certainly didn’t let herself suspect that she might be the cause, except in the middle of the night, sometimes, when she wondered if running into her that day might have meant as much to him as it had to her.
That scarf, still in its bag, sat in the back of her closet untouched.
* * *
D’Artagnan came to Constance’s desk a little before the end of the day, clasping his hands as he did when he was had something important to say and was trying to keep from fidgeting. He’d done the same thing when he asked her out that first time.
“What is it?” she asked, smiling and trying to calm the butterflies in her stomach. She started straightening her desk for something to do with her hands, and then she collected her purse and coat.
“I’ve been wanting to- well, to-”
“To ask if you wanted to come home with me. For Christmas Eve.”
Constance stared at him. From the earnest way d’Artagnan held her eyes, he was serious about this- but she couldn’t help but think he’d come to her intending to say something altogether different, and course corrected at the last moment. She dismissed the thought and focused on what he had actually said to her. “I’m sorry,” she managed at last. “I’m working that day.”
He looked about to protest for a moment, then he deflated a little, sighed, and smiled. “Okay,” he said. “It’s fine.”
Probably he knew as well as Constance did that Treville- or more likely Athos, who was the one who actually managed such things- would give her the day if she asked for it. She sometimes thought that people only really manned the phones on Christmas Eve and Day because both of the men in charge knew that some of their employees were sufficiently unfortunate in their personal lives that they wanted to work through the holidays. D’Artagnan knew she could go- but was accepting her excuse because that was the kind of person he was.
She smiled at him and they walked together toward the door. “Mistletoe,” she observed when they reached it. Do you forgive me? she tried to ask her eyes.
D’Artagnan smiled again, more genuinely this time, and kissed her.
They separated when a wolf-whistle split the air. It had come from Aramis, of course. Porthos, beside him, was grinning. Athos, beside him, was pointedly looking everywhere else. Constance felt herself flush, but no brighter than d’Artagnan did beside her.
Constance took him home.
* * *
In the morning on the day before Christmas, she made d’Artagnan a thermos of hot chocolate and saw him off.
After that, Constance went upstairs and took a shower, as if she could wash away the painful wish that she had just said yes to d’Artagnan’s offer and was currently driving home to see his family with him. She reminded herself of why she’d said no- because she did have work to do, and anyway spending Christmas with the family was a big move for two people who had only been dating for a few months. A voice in her head protested that it was more likely her attachment to her own self-imposed isolation that had made her say no, even when she’d already made the leap and started dating d’Artagnan in the first place. The voice sounded horribly like Athos.
Constance reminded the Athos-voice that he had no business talking about self-imposed isolation, and did what she always did when her life just didn’t seem right.
She went to work.
* * *
Constance knew her coworkers, and wasn’t surprised to see a few of them in the office. She saw Athos in his office and brought him coffee. He thanked her, fingers brushing hers, and held her eyes with the saddest look. There were people who, when lonely, took pleasure in the thought that other people were lonely too- misery loves company, as they say. Athos wasn’t like that; he always wanted people to have what he didn’t.
She stayed late, not sure if she was trying to outlast Athos, or just be in the building with him for as long as possible, and as it started to grow dark the others began to head home one by one.
She slipped back into Athos’ office. “Is there anything I can do for you?” she asked.
“You should go home,” he said, a little absently, from his desk. Then he appeared to look at her properly for the first time, and when he did he watched her carefully, brow wrinkling. “You don’t want to, do you?”
She shrugged unhappily. “There’s nothing for me at home, really. I’m…” she sighed. “Do you ever-” Constance cut herself off before she drifted into dangerous territory.
He cocked his head to one side. “What?”
“It’s just… you’re the only person I know who’s… well… divorced. Like me.”
“Not technically. Aramis is divorced.”
Constance paused. “I didn’t know that.”
“As I understand it, the two of them married very young and in only a few years reached the mutual conclusion that they’d done so for the wrong reason. They’ve remained friends.” Athos’ eyes crinkled. “Not a circumstance which bears a great deal of resemblance to your own, I suspect.”
“No,” she agreed, and sighed. “It’s just… this time of year I miss my husband. And, I mean, I’m really, really glad I left him- but I’ve never felt quite right at Christmas.”
Athos regarded her silently for a long time. “Where’s d’Artagnan?” he asked at last.
“He went home.”
Athos looked down at his desk. “Right. I remember now.”
“He asked me to come with him, but- well, that seemed big, you know? Too big. ‘Course, I’m regretting it now. I’ve been making a lot of less than stellar choices lately, as evidenced by the fact that I just almost asked you about your marriage.”
“Have a seat, Constance,” Athos sighed, gesturing at the couch against one wall.
Athos produced a bottle from his desk drawer and two glasses and he set about filling them, talking as he did so. “Anne liked things to be a certain way, and she was good at making those things seem like my idea. I remember her vision of Christmas so well. The parties, the decorations, the baked goods… Those that met me fresh from the divorce- Aramis in particular- have a lot of unflattering names for my wife, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about her. It’s difficult for those who were not in those moments with you to understand what it was really like. If it was all bad, it would be easier to be bitter. And it would be easier, in hindsight, to see the pattern of… meanness before it became all there was. But it’s never all bad.” He crossed to Constance and handed her a glass. “So. You’ll get no judgment from me.”
She drank, and coughed a little. Doubtless it was very expensive, but she didn’t drink a lot of hard liquor. Athos drank it like water, sitting beside her.
Though she considered Athos as much a friend as a coworker, Constance realized that she had spent very little time with him. He was quiet company, present but not talkative. She liked it, but at the same time she wished he’d talk to her. His words about his wife before- that was the first time he had told her anything about himself.
“It occurs to me that I don’t know a great deal about you,” Athos remarked.
Constance stared at him. She was stunned, half that he’d been thinking more or less the same thing she had, and half that he was curious about her at all. She tried to bury it: “We could play truth, dare or shots.” She closed her mouth hard. It was mostly a joke; even so, she couldn’t believe that it had actually come out of her mouth.
Athos’ brow quirked. “I’m not sure this is a beverage well suited to drinking games for college students.”
“Right. I shouldn’t have-”
He rested a finger over her hand where she had her glass in a death grip. “That’s not a no.”
She swallowed. “Okay.” There was a silence as he withdrew his hand. Constance felt where he’d touched her like a brand, and despite having made the suggestion in the first place she found herself disinclined to start.
Seeming to take pity on her, Athos said, “Truth or dare, I believe it goes.”
“Truth,” she said, and took another sip of her drink as she did so. There seemed to be no reason not to.
He seemed at a loss for what to say next, and said, “What’s your favorite color?”
“Purple, I think. Truth or dare?”
“Does it bother you? Being asked about your past?”
Athos shifted slightly, sitting back. He looked thoughtful. “Sometimes. Not so much when you do it. Truth or dare?”
“Dare,” she said after a moment’s consideration.
“Go out and see if there’s anyone still here.”
She huffed. “I’m sure there isn’t.”
Athos gestured with his glass in that way of his that made her think he’d been a lord in another life. “Indulge me.”
Constance indulged him, watching him drain his glass and refill it out of the corner of her eye. Outside, it was dark and everyone else had indeed gone home. She returned and reported as much to him.
“You really should join them,” Athos said.
Constance sat back down and- on a whim- took off her shoes and folded her legs up. “You don’t mind?” she asked, belatedly.
Athos shook his head silently. Then, “I believe it’s your turn.”
“Truth or dare?”
“Why don’t you mind?”
“If you put your feet on my couch, or if you ask me about my past?”
His brow quirked as he considered, and apparently dismissed, asking if that was fully within the rules. He patted the leather. “It’s seen worse.”
“You sleep here sometimes. I’ve seen you.”
Athos inclined his head. “Where your head is.”
“Don’t move.” He paused, looked away from her. “Please.”
She sat back against the pillow, and something flared in his eyes. “Are you going to sleep here tonight?”
“Possibly.” Again she saw a strange light in them. He rested his forehead against his glass. “I’ve forgotten where we were in this… game.”
“You were going to tell me why you don’t mind me asking about your past,” Constance said. “But you don’t have to. It’s not like you owe me at this point.”
He shook his head, once, and drained his glass again. “Truth or dare?” he asked, refilling it.
“Why do you? Ask?”
He nodded, slow. “Even Aramis has given up by now, and he’s… Aramis.”
“I’m curious. I… I like you.”
Athos looked away from her, sharply.
Constance swallowed. “Truth or dare?”
“Would you tell me? If I asked too much?”
“Ah,” Athos murmured thoughtfully. “I don’t know.” He held her eyes as if to see if she would accept the answer. How could she not? Eventually he said, “Truth or dare.”
“Why did you never look for another job?”
That tripped Constance up. She didn’t actually know the answer, and she found she didn’t want to think about it. She drained her glass, put it on the table a little forcefully, and as Athos started to refill her glass said, “Truth or dare?”
“Truth.” He handed her back her glass.
“Do you think I’m pretty?” It was only after she’d said it that Constance realized she was now on the reckless side of tipsy.
Setting the bottle back down, Athos eyed her as if to check that she looked as he remembered her looking. “Yes.”
She waited for more. More was not forthcoming.
“Truth or dare?” he asked, as if he’d said nothing even remotely inflammatory.
“Truth,” she huffed.
“Did you really wonder if I did?”
He blinked at her, slowly, like he wasn’t sure what to make of her, or what she had just told him. He could be so arrogant, so assured, when it came to business practices that she sometimes forgot how little he thought of himself in everything else.
“Truth or dare,” she said, as gently as she could.
Athos said, “Truth,” like he was already tired of the questions that response brought. It made her wonder why he kept at it.
“Have you ever wanted to kiss me?”
Athos eyed her very deliberately, as if he was beginning to feel the alcohol he’d consumed and didn’t intend to let it affect his performance. He lifted his glass and downed its contents. With Athos, in this moment, that was tantamount to a ‘yes.’ Athos sat back as if he wanted to take a moment to enjoy his drink and finally sighed out, “Truth or dare?”
“What are you really doing here?”
“I thought I could hide from how silly I’ve been, staying here, acting like nothing’s changed when everything has, and I know it would be for the better if I’d just let things with d'Artagnan be whatever they're going to be, but for some reason I just… I can’t.” He looked frighteningly sympathetic. “Should’ve known you’d never let me forget.”
“Forgive me,” he murmured, in that way of his that made it sound like an apology and then some.
She huffed again, annoyed by how he effected her. “Truth or dare?”
Constance blinked, briefly caught off guard, by the unexpected answer. She had never been very good at the dare part of this game. She should have remembered that before she suggested it. She found her mind was still caught on what he’d said- and not said- earlier. “Kiss me.”
He gave her that very deliberate look again and she so completely expected him to take another drink that when he instead leaned over her she almost flinched away. He cradled her chin with gentle fingers and waited until she stilled. He waited for an almost unbearable amount of time and then he leaned in, so slowly, and kissed her. It was just a light brush of his lips at first, then he went deeper as she moaned softly and made fists of his shirtfront. God, she had thought so much about his mouth, and now she could feel it. He withdrew slowly, and as he did he pressed smaller kisses to her lips and stayed close, forehead resting over hers. “Truth or dare?”
“Truth,” she managed at last.
“Do you love d’Artagnan?”
She had been hoping he would ask something else and was briefly thrown. She considered the question. “I don’t know. I mean, he’s like no one I’ve ever met before. But I don’t know who he thinks he is, coming in here like an overgrown puppy and changing everything for everyone. I had plans before he showed up.” Athos laughed wryly, just a puff of breath fanning over her face. “Truth or dare?”
“Did you have plans?” She ran a finger down the side of his face.
“No.” He turned his head, kissing the inside of her wrist, and drew away, lying wearily back on the couch. “I never have plans.”
“Truly. I try to do what’s best for the business, of course, but… in my personal life? All of the hopes I had for myself turned out so wrong. So… I stopped. Truth or dare?”
“Tell d’Artagnan how you feel. Whatever you feel. I think he worries he’s going to lose you.”
“It has to be something I can do from this room!”
“You could text him, or something similarly tasteless, from this room- but I’ll let that pass.” He took a drink. “You should, though. He would make you happy if you really let him. I just want you to be happy.”
Something about his tone, combined with the alcohol, made her maudlin. She took the drink she was half sure she owed him. “I like this,” she said of the liquor. It had been growing on her. “Tasted better in your mouth.” She licked her lips, sure there were still traces of him there. “Kiss me again.”
He kissed her forehead. “I’m calling you a cab.” His breath was heavy on her face. “This is no way to spend Christmas Eve. There must be someone who loves you better, if not more.”
She clung to his shirt. “Do you? Love me?” He was silent. “It’s your turn,” she whined.
“Yes,” he breathed, like a dam breaking. “I looked up from a fog and there you were.”
“Need a pen.” Constance wanted to write this down, perhaps on herself, to make sure she didn’t forget that he’d said he loved her in the morning. “Loved you for ages.”
He pressed his face into her hair. “I will take you home and you will sleep, and in the morning you will at least think about what I said.”
* * *
Constance woke up the next morning on top of her bed covers with a blanket wrapped around her and two Aspirin and a bottle of water on her bedside table. Despite her worries, she remembered most of the previous night and- once her headache had abated somewhat- she did as Athos had asked and thought about what he said. She concluded that he was right about d’Artagnan.
When she and d’Artagnan started dating, she hadn’t thought it was lying as such not to mention that she had feelings for Athos. She’d had them for so long and considered them so fruitless that she had not thought there was any point in doing so.
But things had changed.
Constance did housework to calm herself down, and when she felt better- or as better as she thought she would- she Skyped d’Artagnan. “How’s home?” she asked him.
“All right.” His face scrunched up adorably. She could tell he was own his childhood bed, lying propped up on his elbows. “It’s… different without my father. It’s been a couple of years since he passed, but I guess I still haven’t gotten my head around it. I should’ve stayed there with you.”
“Trust me, I did not have the most exciting of nights.”
“So this isn’t a ‘come back to the city immediately, d’Artagnan, we cannot do without you’ call?”
“It’s a ‘Merry Christmas’ call.” And also… there’s something I wanted to tell you. And now that I’m here I feel really shitty saying it on Skype.”
D’Artagnan’s face shuttered. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“No,” she said, firmly. “But I can’t be sure it won’t come to that. This is… big.”
“Okay,” d’Artagnan said. He shifted his positioned, sitting his legs folded and his shoulders back. “Go for it.”
He was just so damn brave, Constance realized. She owed it to him to be that brave too. “I like you a lot, d’Artagnan. And I think… I think I maybe even love you.”
Though he didn’t smile, d’Artagnan seemed to start glowing from the inside.
“But there’s something I didn’t tell you. I owe it to you to tell you.”
“Okay,” he said again. “What?”
“I love someone else, too. He’s completely different than you. And what I feel is completely different. But I am in love with him. You believe that, right? You believe it’s possible to love two people at same time? To love them differently, but just as much?”
“Yeah, I do,” d’Artagnan replied after a moment. He was staring at her with such wide eyes.
“You okay so far?”
“I am, I just…” D’Artagnan looked down. “You know when I asked you to come home with me for Christmas?”
She nodded, then said, “Yes,” when she realized he wasn't looking at her.
“I did want you to come, but I’d actually been working myself up to tell you something else.”
“I sensed that.”
“I’d been trying to tell you that… I have feelings for someone else too. I mean, I decided that it didn’t matter, because nothing was going to come of it and if I liked you both then I could just pick you and- and the other thing just go away. But it didn’t go away. And it was like even though I’d never cheat on you I was. In my head- you know?”
Constance froze, not sure what to feel for a moment. Her brain picked that time to throw an image of Athos untangling d’Artagnan from Christmas lights behind her eyes, and she snarled a little ‘not helpful’ at it as her gut twisted remembering the curve of Athos’ mouth and how it felt against hers. Then she wondered if it wasn’t helpful after all and, in her mind’s eye, looked again at how d’Artagnan looked at Athos like he’d hung the sun in the sky or something before he jumped away as if he’d done something horrible. “D’Artagnan, if I’m wrong about this we can just… pretend I never asked- but is there any chance it’s Athos?”
He stared at her for a long time, then looked away again. “Yes,” he said at last. He laughed, breathlessly and unhappily. “Not the best idea I ever had, right?”
“Me too,” Constance said, quickly, before she lost her nerve.
“You-” he stared at her. “Really?”
“Yeah.” There was something somehow… awed about d’Artagnan’s expression, and it made her smile. “Come back, d’Artagnan,” she said. “We’ll figure this out, okay?”
“Okay,” he repeated.
* * *
Constance spent the rest of the morning considering how likely- or not likely at all- it was that Athos liked both of them as well. At first she doubted it, given how Athos was pushing her at d’Artagnan, but then she remembered that this was Athos and it probably didn’t mean all that much at all.
D’Artagnan’s family didn’t live too far away, and he was home by lunch. Constance had a sandwich and more hot chocolate prepared when he got there.
He kissed her cheek and inspected the offerings. “I’m beginning to think of this as your guilt drink,” he said.
“I do have one more thing to tell you.”
Taking his sandwich with him to the table, d’Artagnan sat.
Constance seated herself beside him and explained, haltingly. “Last night- Athos and I- we… kissed. A bit. Is the other thing. And he- he talked a lot about you and seemed pretty invested in us staying together, so it’s not like he was trying to make a move. There was drinking involved.”
“Okay,” d’Artagnan said. “That’s okay.”
“Is it?” His expression was certainly… complicated, but he lifted his sandwich stared to eat all the same.
“Well,” he said at last, “I’m a little jealous.”
“Both of you, I think,” d’Artagnan replied, chewing. “So you really don’t think it cheapens what we have- what we are- that I have feelings for him too?”
“I don’t. And you don’t?”
D’Artagnan shook his head. “You don’t know what he does to me.”
“I think I have idea,” Constance said, thinking about all the looks she’d seen d’Artagnan shoot Athos’ way. “I’d kind of like to see more.”
“Yeah.” D’Artagnan reminded Constance of herself in some ways. Like her, he’d appeared out of nowhere and brought out a side of Athos that no one seemed to have ever seen before. Athos told that boy things, things he’d never told any of them. She would find them sitting alone together sometimes, just talking, and wonder if d’Artagnan knew how special he was, to see that side of Athos. She reached out and took d’Artagnan’s hand. “So I was wondering- if I told you I thought there might be chance- that the two of us might have a shot with him, and maybe we should try, what would you say?”
D’Artagnan stared at her like he’d never seen anyone like her before. “Yes,” he managed at last. “I’d say yes.”
* * *
What they needed now, Constance thought, was a way in. While she was washing dishes after lunch, a thought struck her. “D’Artagnan!” she called.
”Who did you get in the Secret Santa?”
“Ninon from Legal.” D’Artagnan cursed quietly. “I completely forgot about that.”
Constance thought about Ninon, a woman she wouldn’t call a friend but certainly had been friendly with in her time. “Okay,” she said, taking a breath. “This could work. My slip is in my purse. You take it and pretend it’s yours.”
D’Artagnan rooted around in her purse a bit and retrieved the slip at last. He squinted. It was a little worn from her touching it entirely too many times, Constance knew, but she was sure it was still legible.
“Are you sure?” d’Artagnan asked, suddenly shy.
“Yes,” Constance said firmly. “I even know what you’re giving him.”
* * *
Constance found a last minute gift for Ninon- a pretty ballerina ornament that suited was she knew of Ninon’s tastes. After shopping, she stopped by the offices to lend her services setting up the party. Ninon was there, of course, directing everyone else like a queen.
“Constance,” she beamed, holding out her hands. “How are you, my dear?”
“I’m good,” Constance said, hoping if she took enough deep breaths the butterflies that had taken up residence in her stomach ever since she’d made her proposition to d’Artagnan would go away. “Really good.”
“And your young man?”
Ninon eyed Constance curiously. She’d obviously picked up on Constance’s nervousness and was wondering what it meant. “You’re both coming tonight?”
“That’s good. Between ourselves, I’m a little worried about the whole thing. I know that Aramis started a Secret Santa.”
“Between ourselves, you don’t need to worry too much.”
Ninon caught Constance’s look and gave her a little smile. “Come along,” she said, still holding Constance’s hand. “You can help me fix the Christmas tree.” She tugged Constance towards the tree in question. Constance noticed that the blue ornaments on the tree had been joined by handmade ones covered in vaguely childish dirty pictures. Ninon was talking them down and replacing them with more delicate, classier ones.
Constance assisted in silence for a time, then, hesitantly, asked the question which had been on her mind since the morning and which had brought here there in the first place. “Um. Ninon. There’s- there’s something I wanted to ask you.” Well, that was going well. “If you don’t mind. About. Um. About you and Athos.”
Ninon rested her hand on Constance’s arm. “There hasn’t been a ‘me and Athos’ in a long time, honey,” she said. “And we weren’t exactly together for very long.”
“I know that. I guess what I was wondering was… why?”
“Turns out ‘we have the same ex’ is an awkward basis for a relationship. Also, it’s a cliché, but we really were- are- better as friends.”
“I dated the former Mrs. Athos. Yes.”
Ninon laughed merrily at Constance’s shocked expression. “Well, I didn’t know who she was at the time.”
“Wow. I’ve always thought if I met her I would just… know, somehow, you know?”
“She’s not the devil or anything,” Ninon said. “You wouldn’t ‘just know’, trust me. And I’m willing to bet you have. Met her. Anyway, you asking about me and Athos?”
“Was it… okay? The break-up?”
“Yeah, it was okay. It was the most okay break-up I think I’ve ever had.” Ninon cocked her head to one side. “Worried about talking the workplace romance plunge?”
“Something like that.”
Ninon patted her arm and turned her attention back to the tree. “You’ll be all right, my dear.”
* * *
Constance was learning new things about d’Artagnan already. He took forever to get ready- a fact which probably shouldn’t have surprised her as much as he did. She sat on his couch not knowing what to do with herself for what felt like forever.
But when he finally came out- fiddling with his cuffs all the while- she got it.
“Wow,” she breathed. “You look great.” She resisted the urge to trace the line of his shoulders in that perfect black jacket until she remembered that there was no reason to.
“You too,” he said, with enough earnestness that it didn’t seem at all perfunctory.
She blushed. “Thank you.”
He offered his arm. “Are we ready?”
“As ready as we’ll ever be,” she replied, taking it. “You haven’t seen Athos in a real suit yet, right?”
“Well, gird yourself- because it’s going to lay you out.”
* * *
The party was beautiful. Ninon’s changes to Aramis’ decorations had made everything more tasteful than garish, and it was probably also due to her influence that the Secret Santa gifts were arrayed on a table where people could pick up theirs without the production of having to open them in a circle or the like, which was what Aramis had probably wanted. She and d’Artagnan had arrived firmly in the middle- not among the last to arrive, not among the first, and they were able to make their way through the little knots of people talking without drawing too much attention.
The Secret Santa table was their first stop.
D’Artagnan appeared amused by the tie printed in little Christmas elves that Serge had gotten for him. Constance rolled her eyes at the candy bikini Aramis had gotten for her, and vowed to tell him off about it at her next opportunity, but didn't write the possibility of it getting some use off entirely.
She left her gift for Ninon and d’Artagnan’s gift for Athos on the table with a final sigh and then tugged d’Artagnan out into the main room.
They mingled for a while before something caught d’Artagnan’s eye. “You were right,” he said, a little breathlessly.
She followed his gaze. Athos was lingering by the gift table, and it was difficult for Constance to tell if he was coming or going. And yes, Athos looked as gorgeous as she remembered. Given what she said to d’Artagnan and the fact that she’d seen it before, she hadn’t expected the want to lance through her like it did- followed immediately by outright terror. She dragged d’Artagnan into a corner. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
He blinked. “It was your idea.”
She felt herself flushing again and looked firmly at the ground. “I know. But do you think we should… maybe… wait? I mean, things between us are still relatively new and now might not be the time to… complicate them.”
D’Artagnan regarded her carefully. “If it was just the two of us,” he said, slowly, “would you be happy? No, wait- I don’t mean happy. I mean totally satisfied. Or would you feel like there was some kind of empty space there? Like you were waiting for something?”
That d’Artagnan was right just made Constance blush harder. She protested anyway. “Look, no offense, but I’ve waited for him for longer than I’ve known you. I can wait some more.”
“Yeah, but you’re already backing down. You’re already thinking it might be too big, too much, too soon. But I think that it’s always going to seem that way. Constance, it’s always going to be scary. It’s not usual, it’s not a situation either of us were taught how to approach. And when we’re together, it’s great. But it’s not everything it could be, because there’s a part of both of us that belongs to him. I wanna see that part of you. I want you to see that part of me. Now, today I’m willing to push this, but tomorrow I might not be. Tomorrow I might back down. One of us is probably always gonna say ‘we’re not ready yet, maybe later.’ And while we’re waiting, endlessly, for both of us to think it’s the right time, we’re going to start to resent each other. I don’t want that.”
Constance gripped d’Artagnan’s lapel, realizing how right he was. She let out a breath. “I don’t want that either,” she told him. She patted his chest. “Fetch me a drink and then I’ll take the plunge, all right?”
He beamed at her, and left for the drinks table.
While d’Artagnan did her bidding, Constance decided to work the room a little, remind herself that she was a fearsome woman and that there was no reason to be afraid to ask a man she’d adored for years to make her currant couple into a triad.
She was wondering if she should brave Aramis and Porthos right off, or if she should work up to it with someone safe, like Alice, when a voice from behind her turned her around.
She turned and there he was- Athos. For a second, all she could do was stare at him stupidly- at his mouth, in particular. She had kissed him now. She was had every intention of making it so that she could kiss him regularly. It changed things. From the flash of discomfort and hurt she saw in Athos’ eyes before they went impassive, he’d noticed that she was looking at him differently and that that was exactly what he'd been afraid of.
It made her want to tell him basically anything to get him to stop looking at her like that, up to and including insisting that she’d done exactly like he said.
And it was true. Ish.
But just as her quick search of her brain for something intelligent to say turned up nothing, something over her shoulder caught Athos’ attention. Wondering just what it was that Athos looked at like it simultaneously tore him up and put him back together, Constance turned and followed his gaze. And there was d’Artagnan, a champagne glass in either hand, looking for her. So maybe he was into d’Artagnan. Maybe a lot.
Constance waited to feel jealous or territorial of one or both of them. D’Artagnan, who was sort of her boyfriend after all and who she probably should think no one but her was allowed to look at like that. Athos, who had made something to the effect of a drunken confession of love to her the other night and who she probably should think wasn’t allowed to look at anyone but her like that. Instead she felt all warm and excited and definitely a little bit vindicated that yes, this might work. D’Artagnan was totally right: she wanted to see the parts of him that Athos brought out, and the parts of Athos that he brought out. She wanted to make this happen.
Which it wouldn’t, if she never managed to say anything. D’Artagnan finally caught her eye and walked over. She hooked her arm around him, hoping to pick up some of his confidence by osmosis.
Athos looked at them, and his mouth twisted. "You two look good together," he remarked. He raised his own champagne flute and drained it.
D’Artagnan smiled tightly. “Look, Athos, can I talk to you for a second?” He pointed toward the hallway, which appeared to be empty.
Athos nodded and headed that way. Over his shoulder, d’Artagnan made a ‘follow us’ gesture at Constance. She just stood there for a second, trying and failing to organize her thoughts. Then she drained her own glass like Athos had and followed them.
She paused before entering the hallway, lingering where she could see Athos and d’Artagnan talking. She wanted some idea of what she’d be walking into before she did so.
“She adores you,” Athos was saying.
“Yeah,” d’Artagnan replied, smiling a sweet private smile that warmed Constance down to her toes. “I think she does.”
“And you love her.”
“Yeah. I do. Which you've known pretty much since I got here, and told me constantly to get the hell off my ass and do something about it." D'Artagnan tilted his head to one side. "Funny how you don’t seem too happy.”
“I am. I’m happy for you. I just wanted- I don’t know what I wanted.”
“Well, I can’t help you figure it out unless you talk to me. You know you can always talk to me.” So d’Artagnan did at least have some idea of how special he was, that Athos confided in him- he was playing on it now.
“Not about this,” Athos said, shaking his head.
Athos’ eyes flashed, and for a second Constance thought he might shake d’Artagnan or worse- but then he stepped forward and kissed him instead. He must have gone in expecting d’Artagnan to stiffen or even push him away, because when d’Artagnan melted against him they both stumbled a little, d’Artagnan’s back slamming into the wall. Athos caught himself, resting a hand on the wall next to d’Artagnan’s head. D’Artagnan groaned and held on to Athos, kissing him back hard.
Constance suspected her face was probably redder than Santa’s suit, but if anyone had been looking- and it didn’t seem like anyone was- she doubted it would be at her, not with this display going on. If Constance had ever seen anything hotter, she didn’t remember it.
Just as abruptly, Athos broke away, falling to back to rest against the wall next to d’Artagnan. “You can tell Constance I had plans too. No. Don’t tell her that. Don’t tell her anything. I care so much for her. I guess I always hoped that I’d look in the mirror one day and see a man who deserved her. And then I did. But not in the mirror. In you. And I don’t really know when I began to care for you too. It… crept up on me, I suppose.” He spread his hands and laughed softly, sadly. “For a long time after my divorce, I didn’t think I’d ever want anyone again. When I finally did, I did it wrong.”
“You didn’t do it wrong,” d’Artagnan said. “Or if you did, you’re not the only one.”
“I don’t understand,” Athos returned at last.
“You’d better sit down,” Constance said, hardly recognizing her own voice. She pointed to the couch against the unoccupied wall. D’Artagnan had obviously known that she was there- he looked to her gratefully- but Athos turned pale and seemed to sit only to obey her rather than because he wanted to do anything but run like his life depended on it.
D’Artagnan sat next to Athos, fingertips trailing over his knee. “I have feelings for you too,” he said.
Athos looked at Constance, wildly apologetic, like despite there having been two parties involved he was more than willing to take the blame for this apparent loss of her boyfriend’s affections.
“I’m glad I’m not the only one,” d’Artagnan added.
“Constance,” Athos whispered as she sat down at his other side.
“As to how I feel… Athos,” she sighed. “You may have been drinking last night, but I know you and I know you didn’t drink enough to forget the effect you had- have- on me.”
Now Athos was looking at d’Artagnan like he’d give anything not to have caused this.
“It’s okay,” she said. “We both like you. And since it looks like by some miracle you like us too, we were really hoping there might be a way for us to work this out.”
“You mean the three of us,” Athos said.
Athos reached into his pocket and withdrew the scarf Constance had picked out. So he had opened it after all. He ran his fingers over it with an odd reverence. “You bought this,” he said, looking Constance over with a frightening intensity.
She nodded. “The day after I met you, actually. Crazy, right?”
“No,” he whispered. He leaned toward her, touching her face hesitantly, like he still wasn’t sure he was allowed to do this. His eyes flickered between her and d’Artagnan. When both of them nodded, he closed the remaining distance between them and kissed her softly. He drew back, smiling sadly. “I guess I always hoped you knew how important to me running into you that day was.”
“I didn’t,” she admitted. “I do now. And I guess I always hoped you knew how important to me running into you that day was.”
“I do now,” he murmured.
She kissed him, nipping at his lower lip. He made a soft noise and braced himself on the couch. He liked her to be a little rough, then. When she drew back, she saw d’Artagnan’s hand on the back of Athos’ neck. With just a little prompting, Athos turned and kissed d’Artagnan too. Constance sat up to get a better look. If she’d thought watching them kiss before was gorgeous, this was even better. Athos had been desperate before, d’Artagnan just trying to keep up. They were both easier now, gentler, and Athos kissed d’Artagnan so thoroughly it was as if he wanted to map out every inch of his mouth.
“You like that?” Athos asked her when they parted, sounding both uncertain and pleased, awed and amused.
“Uh-huh,” she said, reaching out a hand.
Athos took it, watching her with eyes as ardent as she had ever seen on a man.
“Let us take you home,” d’Artagnan said.
“Yes,” Athos whispered, squeezing her fingers. “Yes.”
“Merry Christmas,” Constance said, mostly to herself, as d’Artagnan and Athos made for the door. Maybe it was going to be good one after all.