The equilibrium of society depends at any given moment upon a tacit agreement that the whole truth shall not be openly proclaimed. —George Brandes
The truth shall make you free. —John 8:32
It is not cold, and it is not hot, but his temperature will not settle. He shivers and sweats and there is a rock lodged under the bone of his hip that gouges him a little bit more every time he breathes. It is tremendously irritating. Two days since the ambush, since he and his handful of men were set upon in the forest and then it was just him and one other and go, he'd said go, go for reinforcements and I will buy you time, I will hold them off. And he had done, but the Spanish reinforcements were closer than the Musketeers had been, and they are looking for him even now, and here he is, cut in a dozen places, his blood soaking through his clothes and into the forest floor, and all he can think about is that fucking rock. It will be part of him soon, ashes to ashes and dust to rock, and the leaves he's pulled over top of himself to hide, and the dirt in his mouth, and her name. There is shouting to the east. He closes his eyes.
She's stopped by scouts in the forest, some four days east of Paris, and she holds up the embroidered handkerchief that's supposed to grant her passage. "I'm looking for the Musketeers," she tells the one who appears to be in charge, a dirty, stick-thin man with a long, pinched face. "I've a message for their captain, to be delivered in person."
"Main camp's two days that way," he says in a bored drawl, and jerks his head to the north.
She arches an eyebrow. "I'm not looking for the army."
A long look and a sharp nod and, "Right, then, on your way." He jerks his head again, southeast this time.
She follows the direction of his glance. "We must be near the border."
He ignores her. "Keep to the left, and I reckon they'll find you."
They do, in the waning daylight, and she is largely grateful she won't be forced to make camp herself. She's equipped for it, but entirely uninterested. She brandishes the handkerchief at another scout, this one as burly as the last one had been thin, and he takes the reins of her horse and leads her into the trees without saying a word. His companion fades into the forest, and the first noise she hears from her remaining escort is a bird call, one that is echoed from the south, and he leads her in that direction for an hour before he stops and repeats the process. Their progress is slow and winding, and by the time they cross the river that marks the border with Lorraine, the sun has long since set and she can only assume he's navigating by what little moonlight is filtering through the trees.
They come upon the Musketeer camp suddenly, a handful of too-quiet tents concealed on the side of a hill. Her guide helps her dismount and points. "Hay on the ration cart," he says, "and water down the hill."
She can't see much in the darkness, but she can tell they are alone. "The captain?"
He looks to the trees behind her. "Captain ain't here."
She knows better than to ask where he's gone, but: "When do you expect him back?"
He shrugs, spits, scratches at his stomach. "Late, most like. Or early. Or not at all." He points again. "That one's his."
She frowns at the tent he's indicated. "The small one?"
The man grins. "Likes his drink, our captain does," he says, as if that explains everything, and then he turns and leaves her to it.
She lights a torch from the dying embers of the only fire and then takes her time, seeing to her horse and then to herself, stripping down to her chemise to wash a week of hard travel from her skin. By the time she's finished, it's the small hours of the morning and the men have not yet returned and further delay is pointless. She turns to the tent in question. It's smaller than the others, true, but she can see that's because it's made for two men, not for five, and once inside it becomes clear the captain does not share. Exhausted, she drops her bags and looks around. His trunk is locked but she opens it anyway, helping herself to several swallows of his wine before curling up on his pallet. Even after all this time, his scent on the coarse woolen blankets is a visceral thing, a bone-deep memory that takes her breath away, and she falls asleep without giving more than the usual amount of thought to her husband's likely reaction to finding her in his bed after he'd made it quite clear -- yet again -- that he did not want to see her.
She comes awake instantly, her heart pounding along with the thud of hooves and the shouting of soldiers. She has a pistol trained on the entrance of the tent before she realises it, and she leaves it there well past the point of prudence. It's Athos and she knows it, and she should put the weapons away, she should leave, she should put her clothes back on, she should drink the rest of the wine, she should never have come, she should never have left. But she tucks his blanket round her shoulders, puts her forearm on her knee and her heart in her throat, and waits.
It seems hours later when Athos finally ducks inside, the last of the men to turn in, and he doesn't so much as blink. He's carrying a candle and so he must see her, but he says nothing, and does not meet her eyes, and if she were someone else entirely she might have cleared her throat or said his name or tried to force him to acknowledge her presence. Instead, she watches in silence and flickering shadow as he undresses, swaying with drink and exhaustion and -- it becomes clear when the shirt comes off -- loss of blood. It leaks from a dozen small wounds and several which are not so small, smears his torso and mats the hair on his chest, and when he turns she can see an angry red gash on his back from where he was recently run through. It's at least a week old, well sewn shut and healing fine, but suddenly all she can feel is rage like a black-powder burn. She launches herself at his body, ignited.
"You miserable-- drunken-- wretched-- loathsome--" she snarls, and keeps going, punctuating the stream of invective with her fists, raining blows against his chest as he somehow withstands the barrage. It is like hitting a statue. She can't bear it. His hair has grown long, and she wraps it round her fists and pulls tight, forces his head down to make him look at her. "You'll die by my hand or not at all."
"I'll swear to that if you will," he chokes out, his eyes finally focusing on her, and then he promptly collapses at her feet.
She is reasonably sure it was only her imagination that put her name on his lips before he passed out, but nevertheless, she goes to work: She wrestles him out of the remainder of his clothes and into the travesty of a bed, where she cleans him off and dresses his wounds as best she can. Two require stitches. She is no nursemaid and the process is not gentle, and so he wakes occasionally, gasping, his eyes wide and unseeing, his hand bruising whatever part of her body he can reach as he fights to stay silent. Each time, their eyes meet and he stills slowly, relaxing with a pained sigh, and then he's gone again.
She's nearly finished, about to change the dressing on an older wound near his hip -- a musket ball, damn him -- when his hand closes on her wrist. He shakes his head, groggy but firm, and so she sets the basin aside and fidgets with the cloth in an effort not to look at him. Her heart has not yet settled, but then again, she's not sure it ever has, not when it comes to him. They're still so long she thinks he has fallen asleep again, but then he reaches for the candle and for her, his hands tangling in her hair, the hem of her chemise. In the darkness, his mouth finds hers.
The next time she comes awake, it is to find her husband surrounding her, his breath deep and damp against the back of her neck, his sleeping body a dead weight atop her own. It has been a long time since she woke in the company of anyone, him least of all, and she is nearly swept away by the nostalgia of it, by comfort and discomfort at once. He is hot and hairy and smells terrible, and she wants him to never move. She keeps her eyes closed whilst this latest madness subsides, her breath matched to his as she feigns sleep, waiting and worrying and wondering what he might do when he finally attains consciousness. Last night he'd been drunk, he'd been exhausted, he'd been wounded -- he'd been anything but conscious -- and this morning, well--
"Captain." A voice from outside, loud but lacking urgency, pulls her from her reverie.
"A few moments," he calls, no hint of sleep in his voice, and her eyes snap open. His breathing hadn't changed; his muscles hadn't tensed. He's got much better at this since last they shared a bed.
"I did not think you were awake."
Behind her, he moves, and she cannot help but follow, rolling to her back to find him propped above her on one elbow. His face is as impassive as ever, but his body is eloquent: Their legs remain tangled and she can feel him, stiff against her hip, can see the jump of his heartbeat at his throat, and there is a bare tremble in his fingers as he traces the curve of her jaw. "Neither did I."
She closes her eyes against it, not sure why the simple truth stated plainly by this man has more power to move her than all the flowery protestations she's heard from others over the years.
"What?" he asks, eventually.
She shakes her head and bites her lip and cannot look at him. "How many moments is a few?" She twists her hips, her bare thigh sliding slick between his own.
He says nothing, and when she finally prises her eyes open, it's clear he knows her question for the evasion it is. She lifts a hand to his face. "Please," she says. "Not now."
"What then?" he asks. "Why are you here?"
A perfectly reasonable question, and yet it stings. She sighs. As statements go, failing to meet her at the crossroads had not carried the same finality as having her hanged, but even so: It was hardly ambiguous. She'd thought herself over it, but her voice is bitter when she says, "Straight to the point. I suppose you must be anxious to be rid of me."
The movement of his hips is too lacking in subtlety to be anything but a deliberate mirroring of her own attempt a few moments before. "How could you tell?"
"Oh, please," she says with a roll of her eyes and a shove at his chest. He goes easily enough, for all the good it does them in such cramped quarters, but even one scant inch between them seems a relief. "It's morning and there's a warm body in your bed. You'd be at attention for anyone."
"Ah, there it is," he says around a yawn, stretching an arm behind his head and sprawling fully on his back. "Now I am sure I'm awake."
Again she follows him, settling carefully against his body with her head pillowed at the join of his shoulder. "What happened?" Her fingers play at the edge of a slash across his ribs, the stitches she'd given him last night.
"A series of ambushes. I and three of my men were to ambush a courier, but we were ambushed instead by a larger force. Two Musketeers were killed and the third I sent back here for reinforcements." He pauses, swallows. "It took them some time to arrive."
It's easy enough for her to hear what he isn't saying, to see him alone in the forest buying time with his blood, surrounded by a growing pile of bodies, his blade singing even as they tried to take him down with a thousand tiny cuts. She wonders if he ran, if he hid, if he thought of her as he thought he lay dying. She keeps her voice light. "Well, now you've sworn a sacred oath about your death, so no more of that."
He makes a contented sound that could be assent, and tightens his arm around her. His eyes drift shut. She thinks he's fallen back asleep -- it has only been a few hours, and there's no telling how long he'd gone without sleep before that -- but no. "So why again are you here?"
"I bring a message."
"Yes, I assumed you weren't here for my smiling countenance." He twists his mouth into an unamused mockery of a smile, and she can't decide if she'd rather kiss him or slap him.
Instead, she digs her fingers into a bruise and waits for his grimace. It doesn't come. "And if I were?" She presses harder.
"Here for my smiling countenance?" He lifts his head to look at her, and the false smile on his lips is replaced by the genuine article, for all it is apparent only in the crinkle and shine of his eyes. "Then I'd call you a liar," he says, and bites down softly on her lower lip.
She tries to resist. She tells herself: We are in a sad and stinking tent in the middle of a war, two dozen Musketeers only yards away, likely listening to our every breath and taking themselves in hand. The bedroll is uncomfortable, the ground sodden, the blankets rough, my husband injured and exhausted. But her brain catches and snags on my husband and she sighs into his mouth, opening for him the way she always has, the way she knows she always will.
The heat between them builds quickly, and soon enough he's stretched beneath her as she rides him. "Easy," he says against her skin, though there is nothing easy about the grip he has on her waist, nothing gentle about the throb between her legs, nothing soft about the way he arches so as to press more deeply inside her. "I am a wounded man."
"You should have thought of that before you seduced me," she says, and pins his hands above his head, and kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him.
"Captain." The voice again, this time with more urgency, and Athos' groan is more frustration than desire. He frees his hands and settles them on her thighs to still the roll of her hips.
"All right," he snaps, his annoyance palpable. "All right, I'm coming."
"Not yet." Her words come out with a wicked smile and a clench of her muscles, and then she arches and twists, finding the angle she knows undoes him. He grips her legs and plants his heels, and then it's three hard thrusts and done, his body quaking as he curls up into her, gasping. She rolls away when he subsides, leaving her own pleasure for later, and he sits up on the edge of the pallet to catch his breath.
"I thought you didn't wish me dead." His chest still heaves, and he rakes his hands through his hair and begins fumbling for his linens.
"I never said that." She smiles at him as he shoots her an arch look over his shoulder. "I said only that you'd die by my hand. Or my favours, as the case may be." She spreads her legs with a smirk on her face and a challenge in her eyes.
"Mmm." He pulls his shirt over his head and falls to his back, ducking under her bent leg to press an open-mouthed kiss between her legs. "And yet I live," he says. She can feel his smile as he scrapes his beard against her thighs, and then he licks into her again, and a third time, and then he leaves her shaking on the brink.
"Not for long," she mutters, frustrated. She considers reaching between her legs and finishing herself, but she knows how that would end: He'd stop her, and then she'd add anger to her frustration. "You are a poor excuse for a husband."
He says nothing, but she feels a change in the quality of his silence, and then his fingertips brush the scar on her neck. Her eyes flutter open -- it had been a thoughtless expression, not intended to reopen that particular wound -- but he is already dressing and by the time she thinks of something she might say, the time in which she might say it has gone.
The best she can do is his name, when he's finally dressed and near to leaving. He stops and tilts his head to listen but does not turn, which makes it easier for her to say, "It was for your countenance." He does look at her then, over his shoulder, his eyes ablaze. "Smiling or otherwise."