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Everything You Can Think Of Is True

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Part One.

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."

Chapter Text

"Liar." When he comes back, he is decidedly not smiling.

"What now?" She sits up, groggy, but one look at his face is enough to wake her fully. "I'm afraid you'll have to be more specific."

"You said you brought a message," he says, after some time spent staring at her, his body a chiseled, wary thing, still as stone.

This, she thinks, staring at his clenched jaw and stiff shoulders, is not going to go well. She should have told him earlier. She knew that. She'd meant to do so. But then he'd kissed her, and anything else she meant to do had been forgotten in the moment. A weakness, a mistake, and now they'll both be made to pay.

She sits up. "Your communications here are compromised."

His eyes go distant while he considers that, but he says nothing, only waits for her to continue.

"You cannot trust any dispatches that arrive, nor trust any you send to arrive at their intended location. The couriers themselves are also suspect. The messenger who just came..." It is obvious one did. "You shouldn't trust him."

At that, he looks almost amused. An eyebrow lifts. "And why not?"

"Treville--"

"Treville." His lip curls. "Treville is dead."

"What? No." She stands, the blanket forgotten. "He was--"

"He was assassinated!" he shouts, his sudden ferocity taking her by surprise. He throws a crumpled piece of paper at her, and it hits her in the face. "By a woman. A dark-haired murderess who bears your description. She stole his handkerchiefs." The contents of her saddlebags hit the ground as he dumps them both and snatches the squares of fabric from the pile with a noise of contempt.

She retrieves the letter from where it has fallen and tries to ignore his dramatics. Surely he can't be doing this to her. Not again. "This carries no seal," she says. "And makes no sense-- why would-- and it's not in cipher. You cannot believe--"

"Aramis brought it."

Her heart sinks. "Oh." Apparently this is exactly what he is doing to her.

"Oh." He sounds like he's swallowed acid and is spitting it out his mouth.

She can't bear to look at him, so she scans the letter again and tries to think. There is something wrong out there, Treville had said to her, his chain of office still golden-new and gleaming. Find out what it is, and fucking fix it. She'd wanted to say no, what problem is this of mine, and he'd answered her question with one of his own: How many horses did you wear out to get to Paris so quickly? You thought he was dead. Go, and make sure he isn't.

She'd taken a fresh horse from the palace stables and gone that day.

And so: There are problems with the communications in the area, some network in Lorraine controlling and manipulating the flow of information. And now this. If someone had killed Treville and sent that message, there is a spy in Paris working with someone here, probably some disgruntled Musketeer on the other side of the canvas, listening to everything they say. Someone is trying to discredit her.

She looks up to say so, and nearly flinches. This is no stunned and heartbroken young man, reeling with confusion and blinded by grief. This is the captain of the King's Musketeers, and he would like to kill her. If he were another man, she'd be dead already. She is struck with a sudden appreciation for his blasted code of honour.

She opens her mouth to say -- what, she doesn't know -- but she isn't given the chance. "Don't bother. If you expect me to take your word over that of my--" He bites off the sentence, but it's too late.

Well, she thinks in the direction of whomever is trying to discredit her, mission accomplished. "The word of your wife over that of your brother? No, believe me, that is the very last thing I would expect you to do." There is a growing, crushing pressure in her chest. She is disgusted. "And the cipher?"

"My man read it while we were--"

She arches an eyebrow when he finds himself unable to finish the sentence. "Yes?" she asks. "Tell me, husband. Are you really going to arrest me, your seed still wet between my thighs?"

In answer, he reaches for one of the handkerchiefs, and the second he takes his eyes from her, she lunges forward. She grabs his hair with one hand and pulls the main-gauche from his back, sets the knife against the stubbled skin of his neck. She yanks viciously on his hair but there's no need; he goes to his knees and gives her his throat with no resistance.

"Do it," he says, a low and savage satisfaction in his voice. "Tell me about your new life in England, away from all of this. Tell me I will never see you again. Tell me you love me and slit my throat."

"Damn you," she snarls, and tosses the knife aside. He grabs for it but she moves first, sliding to her own knees and tangling her other hand in his hair. His arms come around her but she tightens her grip and holds on, puts her mouth to his ear, speaks as quietly as she can. "Whatever else I am, I am not stupid. I would not kill Treville and come straight here. How many dispatches from Paris have arrived too late to be of use? How many of your men have you lost to ambushes because the Spanish are always one step ahead? Someone has framed me."

Then it's his turn to move, and she finds herself face-down in the mud, his knee in her back, his hand wrapped around her crossed wrists. They breathe together, locked in this mockery of an embrace, and eventually his grip loosens. "All right," he says finally, his voice a quiet grind in her ear. "And?"

"And," she spits, "Christ, and now we play this out. Do whatever you were going to do anyway, and throw me to the wolves. If the spy is here, I'll draw him out."

"Fine." He shifts his weight away, but doesn't let her up. She can tell by his tone that any trust he has in her is grudging, conditional, against his better judgement. Whatever relief she might have felt that he'd agreed -- that he is listening -- is quickly overtaken by rage at the realisation of how little it will take to turn him against her again, how hard she must work for such crumbs. She slams her head sideways, into his nose, and he rolls away from her with a grunt of pain.

"Captain?" There is a commotion outside the tent, and she pushes herself to her knees, groping for the main-gauche she'd dropped.

He gets there first and kicks it away, calling out, "Handled." He stares at her, blood streaming from his nose, and levels his pistol at her head. "Get dressed."

"Athos--"

"Stop talking."

She sighs and starts gathering up her clothing. When she's mostly dressed, she sits down on his pallet and reaches beneath it, searching for the dagger she'd stashed there in the night. She holds it up so he can see, her eyebrows raised in silent question, but he only watches her, wary, as she straps it to her thigh. When that's done, his eyes flick towards her own pistol, on the ground near her bags, but she shakes her head and spreads her arms. No place to hide it. His jaw clenches, and she stands up.

Athos holsters his gun and retrieves his main-gauche. He steps forward, shaking off a glove and sliding his bare hand up the back of her head to tangle lightly in her hair. He drops his forehead to her temple. His breathing is ragged. His other hand is low on her stomach, and she can feel its heat through his glove, and through her own many layers of clothing. "Ready?"

No, she thinks, and breathes with him for several more seconds. She turns her head and brushes her lips over his once, twice, a warm press of skin neither of them can resist. That's all it takes and then he is kissing her back, his open mouth slanting across hers, and before she is able to think much about it, she sinks her teeth into his lip until she tastes blood. "Do it," she says, when he jerks away with another grunt of pain.

His hand tightens in her hair and he drags her out of the tent. "Get her out of my sight," he barks, and then he's gone and she is alone and on her knees, surrounded by Musketeers.

It is immediately apparent that it wasn't enough. These men are tired, and not just from a long night and little sleep; theirs is the sort of exhaustion that clouds their eyes and dulls their senses, borne of a drawn-out campaign in a foreign forest which is not going well, a grim and gruelling war of attrition they all know they are losing. Treville had told her the situation was bad, and now that she can see the men for herself, she realises that Treville didn't know the half of it.

Those who come forward to take her do so with resigned and wary looks -- good God, what now? -- but they don't hate her because Athos does not hate her, and if this mad scheme is to work, whomever is trying to discredit her needs to believe the job is well and truly done. She and Athos need to be at each other's throats, loudly, publicly, unequivocally, though she knows the chances of him losing control in front of his men are slim. Still, she has to try, so she waits for two men to take her arms and haul her to her feet, and then she starts shouting.

"Athos!" She surges forward, nearly wrenching her arms from their sockets as she jerks them away from her guards. "Captain!" The guards move in again, more of them this time, but she fights them off like a rabid animal, spitting curses as she tries to get closer to the tent. "Coward!" she shouts, and as expected, that's the one which gets the real reaction from his men. Four of them are on her now and more are moving in, not believing she would dare speak to their captain this way. She does so and more: "You were a coward then and you're a coward still, hiding in a bottle whilst your underlings do your dirty work. I did not kill Treville but if he thought you fit to lead anyone anywhere but into Hell, then he deserved whatever he got and--"

One of the Musketeers hits her, the back of his hand a sharp shock of pain on the left side of her face. "Quiet. That's our captain you're talking about."

"Yes, a fine specimen he is, and if any of you were men, you would not--"

He moves to hit her again, but his arm is caught before it makes contact. "Enough," Athos says.

"But Captain, the things she said--"

"I heard them," Athos says, and she is surprised the other Musketeer does not freeze to death then and there. "Enough," he says again, and the men surrounding her fall back slightly. There are more of them, now, perhaps a dozen Musketeers with their hands on their swords, ready to tear her to pieces. Athos need only blink and she'd be dead, but he has turned to stone.

She spits blood at his feet and smiles. "I am sorry to disturb your drinking, my lord."

His eyes follow the spittle, and when they eventually rise again to meet hers, she almost falters at the anger she sees. But he only says, "As you are the cause of my drinking, my lady, you could hardly disturb it."

She rolls her eyes. "Yes, I drive you to drink, you were perfectly sober before my arrival. What will I be next, I wonder, a thief in the night? A snake in the grass?"

"If a snake bit you, madame, it would be the snake we would bury."

"And if a snake bit you..." She pushes herself slowly to her feet, her hands out where his attack dogs can see them. "You do seem to have blood on your lip. I suppose we shall see who is buried."

He slowly drags his gloved thumb across his swollen mouth, his eyes never leaving hers, his face impassive in the shadow of that ridiculous hat. "Well?" he finally asks. "You were saying?"

"I was saying that if Treville thought this"--she looks him up and down--"was a good idea, then it's better for everyone that he's dead, but I had nothing to do with it."

A hit, she can see that, but whatever his reaction, he tamps it down. "I am unconvinced."

"Well, that's no surprise, is it? Thomas is dead, Treville is dead, and God knows how many others out here, dead, all because you're a coward and a fool--"

"And you." He steps forward, eyes bulging, a bear successfully baited. "You are a liar, a cheat, a thief, a murderess, a --"

She doesn't know if whore is to be the next word out of his mouth, but she slaps him before she can find out. His head turns and his hand splays, keeping his men in check, and when he looks at her again it's like looking at a corpse.

She lifts her chin. "That will be all." It has to be; neither of them will survive much more of this. "I can see this is pointless. I hope for both our sakes this truly is the last time I gaze upon anything of yours."

He inclines his head and gestures at the men behind her, one of whom steps forward to take her arm. It is a different man, this time, and he touches her gently but lets go the instant she shrugs him off. "I won't be manhandled," she snaps. "Just tell me where we are going." She steps forward, and the small crowd parts in front of her, anger plain on every face. Her guard hurries to catch up. "Well?"

"To the ration cart, ma-- my-- m-- Madame Le Capitaine."

She swivels her head to look at him. He can't be a day over sixteen. His pale face is flushed red under patchy yellow fuzz, and his eyes are huge. He looks, in short, about to piss himself. If this is who they're recruiting into the King's Musketeers these days, the king is not long for this world.

"Madame Le Capitaine," she mutters. "He's taken even my name." He did not, however, take her knife.

"If she is mistreated," Athos calls, cold steel in his voice, and the boy beside her stops and turns. "I shall hear of it. She must be returned to Paris alive."

"Yes, Captain," he says, his brash voice confident, but she can see the way he pales under that bluster.

The ration cart is by the stream and near the horses, down the hill and out of sight of the tents, and once there, she and the boy are in relative privacy. She climbs to the front seat of the cart and he secures her wrists and ankles, and although he is young, he can certainly tie a knot. He climbs up next to her and eyes her warily.

"What's your name?" She wants to know, but it seems he's been taking lessons in silence from his captain. "Come on, we have to pass the time somehow. He gave you no orders not to speak to me."

More staring.

"It's only a name. Give me a false one if you like, but I have to call you something."

He thinks about that, and finally nods. "Antoine Marais."

"Well, Antoine Marais." She stares into the soft churn of the water. At least it's a pleasant day. "You have a decision to make."

"What?"

She does not look at him. Her voice sounds distant to her own ears. "You understand what is about to happen here? Your current captain has publicly accused me of murdering your former captain, he's made it quite clear he does not care one whit for my safety, and--"

"He gave you a guard," he protests. "He said you had to go back to Paris."

Alive, yes, as if that doesn't cover a multitude of sins. She does face him, then, gives him a slow and narrow-eyed look he cannot match. He stares at his feet. "Are you the youngest member of the regiment?" He nods. "The newest recruit?" Another nod, increasingly miserable. "Are you even commissioned yet?" Not precisely, no. "As I said. I am accused. I am hated. He does not care one whit for my safety. In fact, he practically dared someone to come after me. Several someones may take him up on that, at which point you must decide on which side of this farce you stand."

A dubious look. "I stand with the captain." He sounds neither convinced, nor convincing.

"And where, exactly, do you imagine he stands? If he wanted me protected he would not have assigned you. But don't worry, he will not fault you for abandoning me, for failing, or even for doing it yourself. Who knows, it might even win you some esteem with the others. I saw the way they look at you."

He turns to her with a confused frown. "Doing it my... what, you think I'll beat you? Rape you?" He shakes his head furiously. "I wouldn't."

"But you'd stand aside whilst someone else does. Very noble."

His jaw tightens. "No."

"Then it was nice to make your acquaintance, Antoine Marais." She looks over her shoulder and into the cart. "Is there wine? We may as well toast to the end."

He stares at her a few moments longer, and then surprises her by actually climbing down and returning with a bottle of Anjou. He uncorks it, and then seems to remember she's a bound prisoner. He nods at her wrists. "Your word."

She raises an eyebrow. "You'd accept my word?"

"You're married to the captain."

"Yes," she says, for whatever that's worth. She is trying not to think of her husband, of an empty crossroads at dusk, of how quickly he'd turned against her, how eager he is to think the worst. Such thoughts do little for that crushing pressure in her chest. "A happy pair we make."

He shrugs. "Only Aramis is a better shot than me. You can run, but you won't get far."

"I could gut you first."

"With what?" His grin is faint, but cocky for all that. "You could try."

"Ah, you are young. All right, you have my word. I will not try to flee."

He cuts her hands free and passes her the bottle. The wine is sour and gritty and she drinks deep.

Chapter Text

"By the tits of Mother Mary. What are you doing here?"

She blinks her eyes open sometime in the afternoon to see Porthos, leading his horse from the opposite direction of camp. Smiling, she sits up, rolling her shoulders to ease the ache in her back from sitting in the cart for so long. "It is good to see you."

He eyes her, sceptical, and tethers his horse with the others before coming back to look her up and down. "You're drunk and tied to the ration cart."

Neither, actually, not any more, though she sees no reason for him to know that. "So I am. Where's Antoine?"

"Who? What? I'm getting Athos."

"No!" The sharpness in her voice stops him, and when he turns, she leans in close and affects a whisper. "I'm afraid the captain and I are not on speaking terms just now."

"Yeah." He leans in and matches her false whisper, her conspiratorial air. "I can see that. What happened?"

She sits back with a huff. "Oh, he thinks I killed Treville."

Porthos rears back, a storm of emotions on his face as his hand settles on the hilt of his sword. She recognises it: It was Treville's, once.

"I didn't," she says quickly. "Treville was the only one of you I ever had any use for. He was quite alive when I left him."

It takes him several moments, but he blows out his breath and crosses his arms over his massive chest. "Why would you murder him and then come here?"

"Strangely enough, I asked him that exact question."

"And what'd he say?"

"You know him. Very little." She spreads her hands. "But things are as you see."

He snorts. "If he really thought you did it, he wouldn't've left you alone out here to poison the food and drink his good wine."

"Don't be ridiculous," she says, though it's much too late for that. She kicks at the empty bottle. "This is not the good wine. He would never give his precious wine to the likes of me. This is from Antoine. Speaking of whom." She twists in the seat and looks around. He's nowhere to be seen. "Antoine!"

The boy comes crashing out of the woods seconds later, doublet open, chest heaving, pistol drawn. He scrambles down the hill and puts himself between her and Porthos, and then goes red to the roots of his dirty blond hair. Porthos stares at the both of them in such utter bewilderment that she almost laughs.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I cannot allow you to come any closer." Antoine's voice is not steady, but his weapon is, and she has to give him credit: He stands his ground in the face of Porthos' stony stare and two steps more.

Still. "Oh, put that thing away. Porthos has not come for me." She's sure enough of that, in any case.

Antoine does, and Porthos looks down at him, unimpressed. "Taking orders from her now, eh?"

"My orders are to protect her," Antoine says, stiffly formal.

The frown digs itself deep into the cracks and crevices of Porthos' face as he looks between her and the boy. "What from?"

"Exactly," she says. "So now you see why I thought I may as well drink."

In truth, she hopes that she will not need protection, that the spy will simply come to her 'rescue' at some point after dark, and thus reveal himself. In reality, however, she expects to be attacked. Perhaps the spy will come to her aid in an attempt to gain her trust and turn her to his side -- that is how she would do it, if she had seen two people fighting the way she and Athos had been fighting. Perhaps the spy will consider her a threat and try to kill her. Perhaps a few drunken Musketeers will try to take Athos up on his offer and it will have nothing whatsoever to do with the spy. Perhaps the night will be entirely uneventful. There is no way to know.

She bends her mouth into a blatantly false smile. "If -- if -- Treville is indeed dead I had nothing to do with it, and if you want explanations, you must find them elsewhere. When you see my lord husband, please tell him I hope he rots in Hell. A musket ball to the gut, perhaps. He can drown in his own shit and innards for all I care." She twists round to the cart. "And more wine, if you please."

Porthos watches this performance, and then looks at Antoine, still awkward between them. "Go see to my horse, would you? I need to speak with..." He tries to decide on a name. She lifts her eyebrows. She waits. "...her."

Antoine looks toward the horse in question. "But." He looks at her. He looks at Porthos. "But the captain." He looks at her.

Porthos takes a step forward. "Marais--"

"Go," she says. "You will still be able to see me, no one will tell the captain, and I'm sure Porthos here is more than capable of guarding a woman."

Porthos snorts, and after a few more seconds' hesitation, Antoine trudges down the hill. They watch him go, casting glances back at them over his shoulder. Porthos waves at him and then digs through the cart for another bottle of wine. He must pour half of it down his throat before he hands it over. "Right," he says. "Now really, what the Hell is going on?"

She lifts an eyebrow. "You mean to say you don't know?"

"I just got here."

"Well, I can tell you you'd best not be seen making friends with me."

He crosses his arms, unimpressed. "Ain't what I'm doing."

"Of course not. Were you with Aramis when he got that message?"

"What message?"

"I suppose that answers that."

He scratches his cheek, thinking. "Oh. I was with him two days ago, I think it was. We met up and he'd got a message that morning but it wasn't supposed to be him that got it."

"Who was supposed to get it?"

"De Cormier. He takes dispatches back and forth to the border, but he wasn't there this time, something happened to his horse. So Aramis got the message instead, met up with me, and then rode hard for camp with the letter. I still had some things to take care of." At no point during their adventures, together or separate, had they met anyone suspicious, been robbed or otherwise assaulted, drank themselves into a stupor, or engaged in any tavern brawls.

"So," she says, staring at the wine as she swirls it in the bottle. "Two days. A mishap with the regular courier. A false dispatch." She rubs at her forehead. She doesn't have enough information to make sense of this. "What did the message say that first day?" Perhaps she can rule out tampering.

Porthos gives her a blank look.

"Don't tell me. You didn't even try to read it?"

"Wasn't addressed to us."

She rolls her eyes so hard it makes her head swim. "And Heaven fucking forfend," she says under her breath. "Then you'd best leave things to me."

"Have it your way." He turns to go, and Antoine takes it as his sign to come jogging back to the cart. Porthos stops, and looks again between them. "Should I... come back?" He eyes Antoine dubiously. "Marais here's good with that pistol but in a real fight..." The sentence trails off, but there is no doubt as to its ending.

She closes her eyes and grinds her teeth. She cannot believe she is doing this. "No." When she opens her eyes, it is to find Porthos standing rather nearer than he had been when she closed them.

"You don't have to do this." His voice is low. "Must be another way."

"Such as?" Off the top of her head, she can think of at least two other ways to root out a spy in the camp, both of which would take weeks and would and likely leave Athos and the rest of them slaughtered in the forest, left to rot in shallow graves.

Porthos' shoulders slump. She is moved in spite of herself, and tries to think of some concession. "Perhaps you can persuade Aramis to come." She casts a significant look over his shoulder, up the hill to a small outcropping in the trees which overlooks their current position. Porthos follows her glance, catches her meaning. "After nightfall, I should think, when most have gone to bed. We'll have torches lit, will we not, Antoine? A fire, perhaps. Something to keep the wolves at bay."

"Of course, Madame Le Capitaine."

The moniker makes Porthos blink, and then makes him laugh. It's a nice sound, and her own lips curve into a small smile. "Christ, all right. I'll tell Athos to rot, I'll tell Aramis to cover you. Nothing for d'Artagnan?"

"He can rot, too. But..." She holds up the bottle of wine and swings it back and forth. It's nearly empty, and Porthos finishes it off and exchanges it for a full one before he walks away, shaking his head. Antoine clambers back up to the cart.

"My husband has little to recommend him," she says, bumping his shoulder with her own as they stare at Porthos' broad back disappearing into the trees. "But he does have excellent taste in friends."

"Les inséparables." Antoine is not quite able to mask the awe in his voice.

"C'est ça," she agrees, and hands him the bottle. For the first time, he drinks. "What are you all doing out here, anyway? The king is in Paris. The main army is to the northwest. And here you are, a bunch of Musketeers in the forests of Lorraine. I wonder why." That isn't precisely true: Treville had told her they're meant to be harrying the Spanish supply lines that run from Genoa through Lorraine and up to Luxembourg, and from there to the border of the Spanish Netherlands, where the bulk of the fighting is taking place. The war is not going particularly well for France, and it would be a help if they could cut off their enemy's supplies. But Lorraine is not cooperating and so here are the Musketeers, a small and secret force, and the mission has not been what anyone would call a success.

Antoine's eyes slide sideways, and she takes the bottle back. She waits. He shrugs. "I'm too low a rank to know. I just do what the captain says. He says ride, I ride."

"Mmm, yes, I have that same problem. I do hope it gets you into less trouble than it gets me." Antoine gapes at her, startled eyes so wide she has to laugh. "Come now, you're a soldier, surely you've heard worse than that."

He shifts in his seat, uncomfortable. "Well, yes, but the captain is-- well. He's the captain."

"That he is, but tell me: What do his Musketeers say about him?"

Antoine looks torn. He wants to say it, she can tell, but he's not had nearly enough wine.

"Too cup-shot for a cockstand?" she guesses.

He nods, his grin sheepish. "And that he'd rather dip his tackle in a bottle of wine than a woman."

She leans in closer. "And that he is overfond of the company of his fellow Musketeers." That one she'd heard in Paris from the Red Guard, who always have been overly interested in her husband's private affairs, and who gossip like courtiers and old women. "Les inséperables."

Antoine goes the reddest she's seen him yet today. His mouth works like a fish.

"Some soldier you are." She comes to his rescue with a laugh. "But all right, we'll discuss something else."

"It's just gossip," he says, and it's clear he regrets indulging. "You won't turn me against him."

She sighs, and slumps in the seat. "Forgive me, Antoine, I am a bitter woman facing God-knows-what at the hands of God-knows-who for a crime I did not commit, and there is little else to pass the time. I am not trying to turn you against anyone." She holds out the bottle as a peace offering, and he takes it. "So. He says ride, and you ride. What else does he tell you to do, out here in a forest which does not belong to your king? Change the names if you like, but it's hours yet till dark and you must have a story or two worth telling."

That he does, and although he tries to disguise the details, he is not practiced at this, and does not do a very good job. The situation is bad. Disrupting supply lines had seemed simple enough, but they are surprised constantly: by ambushes; by the number of troops protecting the convoys; by the position and strength of enemy forces. Six months ago, there were forty-five Musketeers sent to the forest, and more have come besides, and they have been dying by the dozen. Fewer than twenty remain.

She can guess the rest: Athos blames himself.

What had she said to him this morning? Something about his men dying because he's a fool and a coward, unfit to lead anyone anywhere but into Hell. No wonder it had worked; he believes her. Ironic, that. She sighs. She drinks. She always had known what to say.

Antoine rests his elbows on his knees and stares at the cart between his feet, head down and hands limp. "I think the captain's killed more of the enemy than the rest of us put together. He's possessed, they say, you should hear the way the men talk, like he's some kind of demon, I don't know. But he is the only reason any of us are still alive, even if he-- well." He shakes his head. "When he's not killing people, he's drinking. And it's not just him. We are always low on food but there's never any shortage of wine."

She lifts her own bottle. "C'est la guerre."

*

"You should go," she tells Antoine. "I don't think they'll kill a fellow Musketeer, but they might. Either way, it won't be pleasant."

"For the last time, I will not abandon my duty, and anyway, you're wrong. We are Musketeers. No one is coming to attack you." But he checks his pistol one more time, and he keeps it close at hand.

She shuffles closer to the fire he's built, dragging a log behind her. One of her ankles is tied to it, but they have more or less abandoned the pretence that she is restrained. The night is not chilly but she wants the fire, its light and its heat, wants the spare blanket close around her shoulders. It smells of wet horse rather than her husband, and she has a sudden, vicious twist of wishing they were together, and anywhere else. They could be in England, somewhere on that miserable and rainy island, soaked to the skin and eating tasteless food, and she would be perfectly content. "If only I had your faith in men."

He sits down across from her, his young face blurry through the smoke. "You'll see," he says, his voice full of confidence, and then he crumples to the ground as he is clubbed in the head with the butt-end of a pistol.

"And here I was growing fond of him." Her voice is flat as she stares at Antoine's prone form. "Is he dead?"

"Nah," this new man says, materialising from the darkness and sitting on the stump recently vacated by Antoine. He is vaguely familiar, though she cannot place him in her memory of the morning's dramatics. "Just talks too much."

A second man appears at his side, and her heart jumps in her chest. A spy would have come alone. An attack, then. The second man crouches next to Antoine and begins to tie him up. Hands, feet, weapons tossed aside, scarf shoved in his mouth.

"And you two, I suppose you're not here for talking? Going to rape the captain's wife?" She's been waiting for this, but that does not make it easier. She feels sick, and she feels somewhere else, and she refuses to give these bastards the satisfaction of her fear. Her lip curls. She fists her hand in her skirts, reaching for the opening that will let her grab the dagger on her thigh.

"Can't rape a whore," the first one slurs, clearly drunk, and if he expects that to get a reaction from her beyond the rolling of her eyes, he is disappointed. No imagination, these Musketeers, although this one has some anxiety: He casts an uneasy glance in the direction of the tents. "Someone needs to teach you a lesson. Thought the captain made that pretty clear."

"Funny, I thought he made it clear he didn't want me touched. He tends to reserve that right for himself." Her mouth twists. Her accent devolves. Her hand slides slowly into the folds of her skirts. "Unless he's too much in his cups by now, sent you to do it for him. Not that you're much better, but that would be like him." She jerks her chin towards Antoine. "He told me what they say about him, what was it? Oh, now I remember. Something about his cock and a bottle of claret and the loving company of his fellow inséparables."

"Shut up." He stands, any previous unease forgotten.

"Oh, such a noble Musketeer." She looks up through her eyelashes. She almost has the dagger. "Defending your captain against a boy and a woman, alone in the dark. You mean to show me what it is to be a man? You really think you know?" She looks pointedly at the front of his trousers, a sneer on her face. "I doubt that. That's one thing I can say for your captain, he only ever rises to half-mast but even then--"

He's on her, then, fetid breath and sweaty hands and it's too soon, she'd goaded him too well, she hadn't yet got the dagger and now he's knocked her hand away. She twists and tries to scramble back but she's still tied to that log and he gives her the back of his hand, knocks her head to the ground. Her vision swims. Her chest heaves. They grunt and grapple, locked in this embrace, and otherwise they make no sound.

Next to her, the fire hisses and pops and she wonders, can I reach the embers, can I throw them in his face, shove them so far down his throat he chokes on their ashes. That would be worth the burn. Nearby, the crunch of boots on leaves, and she knows that if the second man puts his hands on her before she has hands on her dagger, then Aramis is her only hope, and she doesn't even know if he's there. She twists again and drives her knee into something soft, and there is a grunt of pain that could have come from anyone. Hands are at her skirt, and the man is much heavier than he looks but he has to let up a bit to open his trousers, and there is the dagger, cool in her hand, and there are his guts, spilling hot from his sack of skin as she splits him from stem to stern.

The second man's face appears above her, a hovering, twisted shape which flickers in the firelight. It doesn't look like a man at all. Her dagger is lost somewhere and she shoves at the body atop her, manages to get her hand on a pistol. She yanks, but it won't come free of the holster and she doesn't know if it's primed but again she yanks, her panic growing, and just as it snaps free, a shot rings out in the darkness. The man falls to the ground. Aramis, she thinks, the breath going out of her, he did come, but no: There's a third man now, and two bodies, and a smoking gun, and she is suffocating under this corpse. There is blood in her mouth.

"Let me help you," the live man whispers, on his knees, shoving the body away from her.

She stares blankly in his direction and tries to move away, but her foot is caught. She sits up slowly and retrieves her dagger to begin sawing through the rope round her ankle. Her hands shake.

"Milady," he says, more insistent. There is shouting coming from the camp. Thrashing through the trees. "Please, are you all right? Let me help you."

"Help me what?" The dagger slips from her hands, and he grabs it.

"Be revenged."

"Revenge." She wants him to go, but knows he won't. What little she can see of his face in this light -- it bores her. This bores her. Where is her husband? He would have heard the shot. She tries to focus. "Revenge against whom? These two are dead."

"Athos threw you to the wolves. We all saw, we all heard what he called you. Your own husband." He cuts her free and rubs gently at her ankle, soothing the rope burn she hadn't realised was there. "You must hate him."

"You have no idea." At least her voice is steady. She tries again to focus. "But why would you help me? This is hardly your affair. Husbands may do as they please, and you have sworn an oath."

The voices are closer now, shouting and running, Musketeers charging towards the sound of a fight. Fools, everyone in this wood. "I would not serve the likes of him," he spits out, vehement. "He is a drunk, unfit to lead, exactly like you said. Musketeers are supposed to be honourable. He is... he is something else." He finds the blanket she lost in the struggle, and settles it back around her shoulders.

"That's true enough." She tilts her head. "You'd help me get revenge for honour alone?"

"I would."

But his hands have lingered on her shoulders and his eyes on the bared skin of her chest, and she knows a liar when she's speaking to one. "Then I shall be in your debt, sir. What should we--"

"Leave it to me." He stands up just as the first handful of Musketeers come crashing from out the trees.

Chapter Text

"Let me make certain of the facts." Athos is half-dressed, shirtsleeves and a sword, his hair a mess, and she wants nothing more than to throw herself at him, though what she might do if she lays hands on him is anyone's guess. He is leaning against a tree with one knee cocked and his arms crossed, almost entirely in shadow. His eyes are nearly closed and his patience nearly gone and he is, she suspects, quite drunk, though it is frankly impossible to tell. He could be drunk and playing sober. He could be sober playing drunk. He could have veins that run with claret. It would take more than any of that to surprise her now.

As for her, she is on her knees, her hands tied behind her back. Her... rescuer? captor? conspirator? --new friend stands to her left with his hat in his hand. Porthos and Aramis are here, too, in the shadows behind Athos, one on either side, their expressions so thunderously appalled that she does not dare look at them. The best she can do is hope they hold their tongues.

"You seduced Antoine Marais, a boy of sixteen."

She addresses a question to the heavens. "Has everyone here taken leave of their senses?" Perhaps it's something in the water. She's believed a great many things of Athos over the years, but even she cannot believe that he credits one word of the story her new friend has made up. Then again, for all she knows, Athos believes she climbed into his bed after murdering Treville.

He continues the dry recitation as if she hadn't spoken. "You used your advantage to take his weapon and render him unconscious. You tied him up and made to run. You were readying your horse when you were happened upon by Benoit and Laurent--"

"Who?"

"--one of whom you stabbed and the other of whom you shot in order to make good your escape. You were then apprehended by de Cormier, and here we all are."

"Yes," she says, glancing at de Cormier, whose name she recognises; he's the one usually charged with taking dispatches to and from the border. She does not imagine that's a coincidence. "A touching reunion, to be sure, but the barest examination of the facts--"

"We have examined the facts. We have moved on."

"Of course we have. To what?"

A sigh. "Well, in the space of one day, you have been accused of assassinating the Minister for War, killing two of the King's Musketeers and assaulting a third. What do we do to traitors, break them on the wheel?"

"You think you can break me?" Her low laughter mocks them both. "Oh, my husband, I should like to see you try." He couldn't even shoot her. True, his cruelty can take her breath away, but she fears the look on his face as he turns from her forever, not the possibility he will lash her to something and beat her to death.

"And anyway," she points out, rather reasonably, "men you break. Women you burn. If you cut me loose, monsieur, I should be happy to gather up some kindling."

His breath hisses through his teeth, and she doesn't need light to see the set of his jaw. Before he can say anything, though, de Cormier steps forward with a polite cough. "If I may, Captain. I've an idea."

Athos doesn't move, but she can feel his attention swing slowly from her and over to the other Musketeer. It is, she imagines, like being sized up by a wolf: Maybe you'll bore him. Maybe he'll make a meal of your bones. De Cormier doesn't know enough to flinch.

"The main army is only a few days' ride, and they're equipped to deal with prisoners. I will escort her there, and meet you on the road to Chardogne. She will be safe with them, and when we are recalled to Paris you can have her sent for and brought to trial."

"Alone on the road with my wife. You're not worried she will poison you? Stab you with a hairpin? Garrotte you with that medal of St George you wear round your neck?"

"I am not worried about that, sir, no."

"Oh, I see. You think she likes you. I recall she liked me, once." He sounds almost wistful.

"Once," she snaps, irritated. "That was a long time ago. Now I am right here."

His attention swings back.

"For the last time," she says, "I did not kill Treville. I did not seduce that boy. I did kill your Musketeers, but they had it coming, just as your brother did. You set a child to guard me. You told your men what you thought. You bear the responsibility for their deaths. So send me away, I beg you, because I would not face your idea of justice again."

The silence is long, and loud, and not broken until he says, "Very well, you leave at dawn. And now"--this to their audience--"I would speak with my wife."

The shapes that are Aramis and Porthos fade into the trees, and there are whispers of movement as they herd away the unseen onlookers. Next to her, de Cormier is still.

"Alone."

But when de Cormier moves, it is only to put his body in front of hers. "Forgive me, Captain, but is that a good idea?"

"Not at all," Athos says, and then nothing, and then to her, "You have acquired another protector, I see. He has known you how long, an hour? And already so eager to die. I am impressed."

"Die?" de Cormier asks. He does not, she thinks, sound as worried as he should. "You can barely stand."

She leans around him to look at Athos, who has pushed away from the tree and sways as if he's on a ship. "Don't," she tells de Cormier under her breath. "If he kills you, someone less agreeable will have to be found to escort me."

But de Cormier is considering it. "The best swordsman in France, they say, but look at him."

"His looks are deceiving," she says. "I would know."

It doesn't matter; de Cormier has already decided he likes his chances. His hand hovers near his sword.

She tries one last time. "Draw and it's treason."

"Unless I waive my rank," Athos says, and she rolls her eyes, and de Cormier draws. The fight lasts perhaps ten seconds, a flurry of blows she cannot follow, and then Athos gets bored. There is a crash of steel as he blocks an incoming blow, and then he twists inside the other man's guard and backhands him. De Cormier's head snaps to the side and Athos presses the advantage, bringing his knee up into de Cormier's groin and the pommel of his sword down onto his head. De Cormier crumples like a marionette with its strings cut. Athos isn't even short of breath.

"Well," she says. "I did warn him."

"Tell me what really happened."

She does, as briefly as she can, and Athos kicks de Cormier to his back and stands over him, sword still steady in his hand. "Should I kill him?" It is clear that he would like her to say yes, though she cannot imagine him going through with it.

Despite that, she would like to give him what he wants, would like to say yes and be done with all of this, but she says no. "I believe he is the traitor but I'm not certain." They shouldn't even be having this conversation, not really, not here in the open. She can feel the eyes on them, watching from the dark. She lowers her voice. "And I will need to go with him if I'm to find out who he's working for."

"Not the Spanish?" He has yet to even glance in her direction.

"A reasonable guess, but only that. The duc de Lorraine is a possibility. The Empire. Some anti-Louis faction in Paris, you know how nobles can be."

His teeth clench. He nods.

"Now you believe me?" She can't help asking, though she isn't sure she wants to hear his answer.

"About Treville, I don't know. About tonight, yes." He pauses. "Aramis was covering you. Your accounts match."

"Ah." Of course. Another test. "It's him you believe."

He sighs. "And Marais?"

She slowly turns her head, but he is still looking at de Cormier. "Are you seriously asking me if I seduced that child? What, you failed to finish the job this morning and I'll accept any man with working tackle as a replacement?"

A sideways flick of his eyes. "I assigned him for a reason. I assumed you would..." He puts his little finger in the air and twirls it around with a lazy circle of his wrist. "...get him to tell you everything he knows. I am asking if it was useful, or if I endangered him unduly. I find it best for my sanity if I do not dwell on your methods."

"My methods?" She fairly shouts it. "Look at me, damn you, see them for yourself."

He looks to the sky instead, breathes as if he's trying to inhale all the air in the heavens, and it is with obvious reluctance that he finally turns to her, blank-faced, his sword resting over his shoulder. "Are you all right?"

She has to think about that. She cannot imagine how she looks, and how she feels is more difficult still. Her dress is beginning to stiffen with blood and viscera. Her head hurts. Her jaw aches. Her knees are scraped raw, and they ache from kneeling. There is a bruise blooming on her hip. There are leaves in her hair. She has had too much wine and not enough food, and she cannot get the stench of that man's breath from her nostrils, or the feel of his hands from her skin. She is abruptly, blindingly furious. "I wish you could touch me," she says, and she watches his face crumple.

He circles behind her and slices the ropes that bind her wrist with two quick flicks of his sword. The tip of it prods at her back, and she glances over her shoulder. "What now? Going to march me to my death?"

"To my tent." He sounds raw, about to come apart. He sounds the way she feels. "You cannot wear that."

"Then fetch me something else. I cannot go to your tent."

He makes a frustrated sound in the back of his throat and comes back round to face her. "Stand, at least. I would not have you on your knees."

"Have you forgotten we are likely being watched, or have you lost your nerve?" Even if the spy is de Cormier, he might have a partner, or sympathetic friends, and word has a way of getting around. So she stays where she is, her voice dripping with disdain. "Tell me, is it more difficult to see me like this than it was to watch me dance at the end of a rope? Or-- oh, wait, you lost your nerve then, too."

Another frustrated growl tears out of his throat and he hits the ground, his knees inches from hers and his hands fisted in the blanket round her shoulders, his sword forgotten. When he hauls her close, it is all she can do not to lean into him. Behind her back, she grabs hold of her own raw wrists. He looks about to cry. "I-- I--"

"If you dare--" She starts, but has to start again. "If you dare to seek comfort from me right now, you will be the second man I kill tonight."

"No," he says, "but I can't--" and she can't, either, and it's suddenly too much. They collapse into one another, shaking, but his arms are gentle when he wraps them around her. She inhales the sharp salt tang at his neck and shivers, and when he starts to murmur nonsense into her hair, she can do nothing but fall.

She has no idea how long they stay that way, clutching one another on their knees in the damp, but the moment is broken by shouting, by someone tearing through the trees. She shoves Athos away as hard as she's able, and they both topple to the ground like the fools they are.

"Athos!" A figure emerges into the small clearing, followed by several more, and she manages to draw herself upright and pull the blanket close. Athos stands as well, picking up his sword and looking none too steady on his feet, although she now knows him to be sober, or near enough.

D'Artagnan staggers up to them, panting. "It's Tarenne. He's dead. We found his body."

Aramis and Porthos are at his heels, followed by another half-dozen men whose names she doesn't know, and they all skid to a halt like dogs after a rabbit gone down a hole. They stare at her, waiting. She stares back and lifts her chin. Given that she is wearing another man's innards, it is not as effective a gesture as it might have been, and so she aims her voice at haughty. "Tarenne, you said? I don't know who that is."

They all turn to look at Athos, who speaks slowly. "He made you acquainted with the back of his hand this morning."

"Then forgive me if my tears are not immediately forthcoming." Everyone is looking at her again, as if they are at a tennis match. Love-all. "Wait, what is this? You think I had something to do with it?" Athos has cobbled his disinterest back together, and she tells him, "I was tied to the ration cart all day, and of late I've been with you."

Aramis moves to whisper into Athos' ear and Athos, listening, never takes his eyes from her. "Poison," he says, when Aramis moves away. "Slow-acting," and the implication is clear.

The onlookers turn to her, but she is taken aback. "Poison. And you think it, what, just seeps from my skin when I am abused?" She waves a hand in Athos' direction. "You seem alive enough."

Athos scrubs at his eyes with the heels of his hands as if to grind them out of his face. "All right. Rigal and Jeannin, the dead. Aramis, the unconscious. Metoyer, the patrols. You." He looks to her, and he may as well have drawn his sword. "With me."

"No."

And then the sword is drawn, cold steel against her neck, and she wonders: How far is he willing to go? Part of her wants to push him. Two years ago he'd wrapped a hand around her throat and shot his dearest friend, and ten minutes ago he'd wept into her hair and said forgive me. Which is the performance? He puts more pressure on the blade and she remembers the scar across her neck. It is, she thinks, something like an answer.

Without a word she turns and walks away, the lot of them behind her, and Athos sheathes his sword. Nearer the camp, the men without assignments are awake and milling about, staring balefully in her direction, drifting closer, menacing. It is Porthos who moves to stand beside her as she leads their grim procession to the captain's tent. He's moved it, she sees; it now sits apart from the others and assuming no one is hanging from the trees above, they will have some modicum of privacy.

"Of the last four men you left her with," d'Artagnan whispers, for all the good it does him. "Two are out cold and two are dead. What if she kills you in your sleep?"

"Then she will have disappeared by daybreak, you will become captain, and everyone will be better off."

She turns her head. "It is a source of constant amazement that your shirt is made of linen and not of horse hair."

His answer is immediate. "I did try it for a while, but Aramis insisted on following my example and I could not bear his constant complaining. Gripe, gripe, gripe, all the time."

Their eyes meet. Their mouths quirk into identical barely-there smiles. Porthos and d'Artagnan look at the both of them like they've lost their minds completely. Perhaps they have.

*

Inside the tent, he lights a candle and then there is nothing. They don't speak, they don't look at one another, they don't move.

It is the stink which breaks her, long minutes later, the death soaked into her dress overpowering the stench of tallow. "I thought you were going to find me something else to wear." She starts fumbling with her bodice, but it's difficult: The laces are stiff with dried blood and her hands are numb, unsteady. She tugs at another knot and then he's there, his body warm as he wraps his arms around her, his fingers gentle as he bats her hands away and sets to the task himself.

He'd done this when they'd been married, dressed her and undressed her. He had made a fine lady's maid, if not a particularly efficient one. His hands had always wandered. His mouth had always been on her. Some mornings it had taken three tries for them to finish, and it was worse on days they'd sent his valet away and she'd tried her hand at dressing him.

Tonight, his mouth stays pressed into a thin line, and his hands don't wander, and she doubts she would recognise them if they did. They are the hard and callused hands of a soldier, not the softer hands of her husband, and he cuts the bodice off her with a knife. Her skirts follow, her chemise, her everything, and he bundles the lot of it up and disappears without a word, leaving her naked and alone.

Outside, there is movement: the crunch of boots, the indistinct murmur of voices, someone settling in to guard the entrance of the tent.

"Me," Porthos says, when she asks. A creak of leather, a jangle of weapons. "Here all night."

"Guarding the captain?"

"That, too. Everything all right?"

"Yes."

Even through the canvas, she can tell he doesn't believe her, but he says, "Right, then. Shout if you need something."

A bath, she thinks. A bed. Something to eat. Clothes, but she has them. Somewhere. She is certain of it. If she could just get to her bags, or even the pallet, Athos' ratty blanket. But he returns before she manages to move, and she says, "I hope you threw it all atop the fire."

He is carrying bread, and water, and cloth, and some sort of ointment, and he silently sits her atop his trunk. He feeds her. He scrubs the dirt from her skin. He rubs the ointment into her wounds. He rinses the blood from out her hair. He is a far better nursemaid than she is; she winces only once.

"Careful," she says to his bent head. He is washing her feet. She is letting him. "I shall start to think you love me."

She's accused him of it often enough but God knows he will never admit it, and he certainly does not do so now. Instead, he stands, and his weapons hit the ground with a clatter. He strips off his shirt. "Wear this," he says, and throws himself to the pallet, on top of the blankets, still in his boots and trousers. "And come to bed."

"I have my own clothes," she tells him, but she pulls his shirt on anyway. It's warm from his body and it smells of his skin but it's not enough, and the pallet is too small for her to lie anywhere but half on top of him, and he is her husband, after all, and surely no one would begrudge her this. She settles carefully against him, and his arms come round her body and drag her into slumber.

*

She wakes up wanting him, which is nothing new, but this time he is right there, his leather-clad thigh warm between her legs, and she is rubbing against him before she's fully aware of it.

It's not long before his thigh is slick with her desire, and she tightens her legs and arches, changing the angle and the pressure. Her nipples draw tight, aching for his touch, and she presses so close to him she fears he'll wake up. She reaches between her legs and thinks of it, imagines him waking to this, imagines him rolling her beneath him and burying himself in her body. She imagines his hands, on her and inside her, making her tremble. She imagines taking him in her mouth and waking him that way. She imagines him stretched beneath her and gasping as she rides him, as she uses him for her own pleasure again and again with no thought for his own. He'd always been amenable; no doubt he would be still.

But she does not have to wake him: The imagining is enough. She thinks of his mouth, of the texture of the scar on his lip, of the movement of his tongue between her legs, of the rasp of his beard on her thighs, and her body gives one more insistent throb before she breaks apart, release washing over her.

She melts back into him and waits for her breathing to settle, but his fingers curl into her ribcage and she realises he's moving. His own breath has quickened and his hips ride restlessly into the air, and when she lifts her head, she sees that he is still asleep. A dream, then, and where she didn't have to wake him before, now she does not want to. She doesn't want to speak to him, not when their only options are half-truths and venom, every cutting thought they've ever had spilling off their tongues for the benefit of spies. Much of what she'd said to him she had not meant, but he doesn't think the same way, and she doesn't know what's real. But here, in the silence and the darkness, their bodies know the truth. Their lust, at least, has always been honest.

He comes awake as he spends, shuddering and cursing under his breath. She doesn't move, simply breathes against his chest and plays at sleep, though he is stiff beneath her and it's clear he is in some distress; he'd probably like to wake her, move, clean himself. He does not. He gives up with another curse and a kiss to her hair, and when he pulls her close against him, they both drift back to sleep.

*

As dawn breaks, she drapes her body over his and whispers in his ear, "Did you dream?" and then watches, astonished, as he flushes with embarrassment.

He throws an arm over his eyes. "Poor excuse for a man indeed," slips from the corner of his mouth.

Unaccountably, she is charmed. She presses closer, worries his earlobe with her teeth and tongue. "Was it of me, at least?"

One bleary, irritated eye is revealed as he lifts his arm just enough. "Who else?"

He sounds wretched. He has never excelled at mornings, her husband, and she kisses him slowly, until he relaxes, until he brings his arms around her, until they are but one body, and then she has to let him go.

This morning, she doesn't require his services as a lady's maid -- the spare skirt and bodice in her bags are uncomplicated and her nerves are back in working order -- but he wants to do it, and so she lets him. She keeps his shirt.

His hands are more inclined to wander than they had been the night before, but the two of them are no longer children, and they don't have time for this. Athos spreads out the handkerchiefs he'd taken and she points at the ones she wants; he adds one of his own and tucks them under her shirt, against her skin. He kneels and straps the dagger to her leg, his forehead resting against her bare thigh. He kisses the insides of her wrists and ties them behind her back. He kisses her mouth and gags her with his scarf. It tastes of his sweat and she glares at him, and he gives her a wry half-smile and leans in close. "Or no one will believe you did not abuse me all night," he whispers, his teeth scraping the shell of her ear, two fingers dancing on her bottom lip. She turns her head. Next time I see you, she thinks, letting him see it in her eyes, that is exactly what I will do. His own eyes darken, and he looks away.

By the time he leads her outside, he has arranged his face into its customary cold mask. De Cormier is already there, hat in hand, shoulders square. He is staring at nothing in particular. He looks chastened, and before Athos can say anything, de Cormier is spewing formal apologies and babbling about his commission and his king.

"Enough," Athos says, sounding bored with the entire exercise. He makes a brushing gesture with his hand, as if to sweep her out of his life. "Take her and go." His back is turned before he finishes the sentence.

***

The tavern is small, just two trestle tables, and the wooden beams all seem about to collapse. There is a dusty traveller at one table and a drunk snoring in the corner near the hearth, a dog curled at his feet. De Cormier kicks the man's boot when he walks by, but the drunk only grunts and curls into himself.

"Just checking it wasn't the captain," he says with a smirk, and it's the first thing he's said to her. She does not ask him, how's your head?

She sits as de Cormier calls for food, and then they stare at one another in silence. She doesn't know who he thinks she is. He's heard her spewing bile at Athos. He's seen her kill a man. She hardly needs to play at simpering helplessness, but she has no idea who to be, and so for the moment, she is only herself.

She says, "You mentioned revenge."

Chapter Text

The trade of information between them is slow, conducted piecemeal and in non sequiturs each time they stop to change horses. She's riding pillion. They stop often.

She gets more than she gives, but she has to give some, and so she gives him a glimpse of the scar on her neck. It is an absent-minded gesture, her hand twisting near her throat any time her husband's name is mentioned. Like as not, she doesn't know she's doing it.

She gets: A brother in the Red Guard, killed in a duel with a Musketeer after a tavern brawl, something about dicing, a sister-in-law dead of heartbreak.

"Heartbreak." Her hand twists, and twists again. Surely if that were fatal, she would not be sitting here.

"Well, and childbirth," he admits. "But who's to raise that boy?"

*

An idle musing over rancid soup and stale bread: Can demons be killed?

"I don't know." She tilts her head back and stares at the ceiling, gives him a good view of the scar. "I burned down a house with him in it. Tried to stab him. Poisoned him, let's see, three times. Endeavoured to have him shot at least twice. Turned his friends against him. Ambushed him." Her head comes back down and she gives him a small smile. "But you know how that last turns out, do you not?"

He blinks at her, surprised. "But surely you could have done it when you first arrived."

"Probably." That night, Athos had been drunk and hurt and pliant, under the impression he was dreaming. She could have strangled him with his scarf, perhaps. Stabbed him with any number of daggers. Shot him with his own pistol. He would have let her. He would have put the gun in her hand.

"Well, then?"

"I missed him." Her gaze drops to the red wine in her goblet. "And I thought-- I always think, this time, this time will be different." Her hand hovers over her heart and then clenches into a fist before she manages to put it in her lap. "We loved each other once."

"And you see how your love was rewarded." He sounds bitter on her behalf, as if he is the one who's been wronged, but again it strikes her: He should not attempt to make his living on the stage. "The very nerve of him, to accuse you of murder and have you arrested. On what basis?"

"None." She lifts her goblet. "Plus ça change." She gives him a weak smile. Tremulous, even.

She gets back a sullen, "Neither are my own ambushes ever successful."

A bitter breath, another drink. "Tell me about it," she says, and he does.

*

Sometime during the second day, she tires of the game. "It has been a long time since I was able to share my troubles with another, monsieur, but I assume you did not rescue me so we could drink in every squalid tavern in Lorraine. Where is the army?"

"Milady, I'm not taking you to the army."

It has been at least an hour since he told her something she didn't already know. She tries to look surprised. "What then?"

He scratches the back of his head. "I was rather hoping to induce you to take a message back to Paris insisting on new, more competent leadership for the Musketeers."

"A message to whom, Treville?"

He says, "No, he's dead," and one of her eyebrows goes up. He says, "To Father Joseph," and there goes the other.

"L'Éminence grise," she says softly, and de Cormier inhales sharply and looks around the room, as if speaking those words might summon the man himself. She'd known he was back, of course. Treville had told her, and even if he hadn't, news like that is difficult to keep quiet. Father Joseph had been one of Richelieu's most feared lieutenants, but he'd disappeared back to his order when Richelieu had died. When war was declared, Louis sent for him, and the friar had returned to resume work. People willing to say his name remain few and far between. "What does he have to do with this?"

He gives her a pitying look, sorry she has not yet figured it out. "Treville is dead, but even so, he would never give the captaincy to someone else. L'Éminence is the obvious choice if one wants new leadership installed."

"Meaning you."

Of course, he says, insisting the men would support him, but all she can see is Athos, bringing two dozen angry men to heel with the spread of his hand. She remembers Antoine saying, he's the only reason any of us are still alive.

"I am not sure I understand," she says. De Cormier wants to take over the regiment, so he's sold them out in order to make Athos look incompetent: fine. Lacking in imagination, perhaps, but fine. The real question is why the Spanish would leave anyone left alive for him to command.

De Cormier looks horrified. No, he says, I would never, king and country, Spanish dogs, et cetera. But a sly look crosses his face, and he leans over the table, lowers his voice. "We're in Lorraine, on the Baron de Guyot's land, so I thought he might be interested in foreign trespassers." Of course. "Athos has France's best soldiers and he cannot so much as mount a proper defence against a local militia. Replacing him is the only solution."

"Ah," she says, because she can think of nothing else to say in the face of such stupidity. Even with de Cormier's help, no local militia has been taking down the Musketeers. The idea is ludicrous. No, it's the Spanish, with the full blessing of the duc de Lorraine, and that would be blindingly obvious even if she had not spent the better part of a day teasing stories out of Antoine. Which she had.

De Cormier says, sincerely enough, "I would never endanger my fellow Musketeers."

She gives him a flat look. "You sell them out to a local landowner and they end up dead and what is that, a fucking coincidence?"

She gets a frown for the profanity, and he says, "Come now, if I were working for the Spanish, we would all have been dead long ago."

If not for Athos.

She thinks: This man is an idiot, and she gives him a knife in the back.

***

The road to Chardogne, de Cormier had said to Athos, and so that is where she waits. She doesn't imagine it will take long; Athos must have known de Cormier wasn't taking her to the army, or he never would have let her leave. There is a likely spot just off the road, a bit of high ground, lovely and lush, and there she sets de Cormier's horse to graze and sits herself on his cloak to wait. Whoever comes, she hopes it will be someone who won't shoot her on sight. Even odds of that, really, so she keeps a pistol near.

"Antoine!" Her smile is genuine as the boy reins in his horse and hops down. "I'm glad to see you well."

"Madame le Capitaine!" His answering smile is quickly replaced by caution, but she takes it as a good sign that it was there at all. "I-- what are you doing here?" He's come for supplies, and ostensibly to meet de Cormier on his way back, though he hadn't thought to see him for several more days.

"Athos didn't tell you?"

"He said-- wait." He pulls his hat low and clears his throat, throws back his shoulders, cocks out a hip. When he resumes speaking, she recognises her husband's raspy drawl. "If you see my lady wife, tell her--." He breaks off with an exasperated grunt, turns, stalks away. The impression is uncanny.

"You should consider acting, when the war is over. Tell me what?"

"That was it." He turns with a shrug and comes back. "He never said what. Where's de Cormier?"

Well, why not. "Dead."

He ages ten years as she watches, his face settling into a wary mask that might be a continuation of his Athos impression. "They say you're a murderess."

"Is that what they say?" But of course she knows it is.

"That you killed Treville, Benoit, Laurent, Tarenne. Now de Cormier is dead."

She meets his eyes. "And what do you think?"

Behind him, his horse tosses its head, sniffing at the wind. "I think you tricked me." He crosses his arms, and a few of the years fall of his face again. "I think I said things I shouldn't. Gave you information. But you did not seduce me. They said you did and I said you didn't and they said I just didn't want to admit a woman got the better of me and I said, well, I said, if any other woman--"

"Antoine."

"All right." He tears the hat off his head and squashes it in his hands, frustrated, irritated, uncertain. She waits. He says, "Your word."

"You have it," though she does not bother to ascertain what exactly it is she's swearing to. "But here, this should be more acceptable." She holds out the handkerchief Athos had given her before sending her off again. His, to bring her back to him.

Antoine doesn't even glance at it. "Are you still a prisoner? Should I tie you up? Are you planning to wait here while I go back? I cannot leave you here alone on the road."

She does not point out that she has been here for some time already, a woman alone with a bruise on her face and a gun in her hand. "There is a tavern in Chardogne. Tell Athos to come alone in the morning, and set a guard outside."

"What if he says no?"

"Convince him."

***

Porthos and Aramis are first through the door when it bangs open, guns drawn and stances wary. They fan out through the small tavern in a practiced formation, done a thousand times before. Athos is next, head high and hat low, and then d'Artagnan, who stands at the threshold with his arms crossed, glaring at her.

"I said to come alone," she says to Athos.

"Yes, and I ignored you."

Porthos takes the stairs two at a time, and she can hear him up there, stamp stamp stamp through the rooms. "Where is everyone?" he shouts down over the railing.

She keeps her eyes on her husband. "I thought it was time we spoke frankly."

"That wasn't an answer," d'Artagnan says.

"I paid for privacy. And wine, and bread, and soup. We have an hour left, perhaps two."

Aramis emerges from the cellar, a broad grin on his face. "One hour is hardly enough time for a proper reunion." He pays no attention to Athos' quelling look. "The place is empty. I saw no bear traps or poison darts, no bombs or powder stores. Unless Porthos found something, it's probably safe."

"Nope," Porthos says, thumping down the stairs. "All good."

She rolls her eyes. "Will you taste the soup for him, too?"

D'Artagnan pushes off the door. "I will."

Athos stops him with a hand on his arm.

"More for me, then." She spoons broth into a bowl and sits down with a piece of bread. "Delicious."

They all watch her eat. They're hungry, she knows; they must be. She'd had a good, long look at the meagre supplies in the ration cart, and Athos is not the only one who looks haggard. She puts on a show of really relishing the meal, and after she smacks her lips for the second or third time, mmmmm, Athos jerks his head for the others to leave. There are some protests from d'Artagnan but he's shut down quickly and they go, Aramis off to try charming locals out of supplies and the other two guarding the doors of the tavern to make sure they remain undisturbed. De Cormier might be dead, but they are still in Lorraine, still on Guyot's land, and she's under no illusions that paying for privacy will buy her any, not without some insurance of her own.

Athos crosses the room in a thud of boots and jangle of weaponry, and leans his shoulder against a beam by the table. He pulls down his hat. He crosses his arms. He glowers. Or, she assumes he glowers: It is difficult to tell, given the hat.

She says, "You really should have some soup. You're skin and bones."

His look is withering and his sigh exasperated, but he shoves away from the beam and drops to the bench opposite her, sliding her bowl to the side with a sweep of his arm. "Talk," he says, but instead she hands him the two blood-spattered pieces of paper she'd pulled from the lining of de Cormier's jacket.

The first is a report written for the baron's man, a thorough description of the current state of the Musketeers: their strength, position, status, plans for the next fortnight, notes about dispatches and intelligence they had recieved. Athos makes it perhaps one-quarter of the way through before he looks up. "You said there was wine." Under the drawl is a faint note of despair, and she nods him toward the back of the room. He returns with two bottles and two glasses. He pours, drinks, and pours again, remembering to pour for her the second time around.

The rest of the report contains information about her, an innocent woman fleeing persecution and hoping for protection, but instead abused and mistreated by her husband the captain, who accused her of murder and tossed her on her ear. Always one to seize at opportunities which present themselves, de Cormier had plied two men with drink and goaded them into attacking her, and then he'd undertaken a rescue in order to gain her trust and cooperation. He'd also taken the opportunity to rid himself of a third man, Tarenne, who had recently become mistrustful and started asking inconvenient questions. If suspicion for that murder happened to fall on her, well, it only made her rescue more advantageous.

Athos' face hardens as he reads. She could set a chisel to the furrow of his brow, and one tap would shatter him completely.

"Tarenne had come to me," he says, more to himself than to her. "I knew something was wrong."

He shakes his head and moves to the second document without looking up. That one is the letter de Cormier wrote for her to take to Father Joseph, beseeching him to have Athos replaced as captain of the Musketeers, enumerating his list of failures in damning detail. Missing from the letter, of course, is de Cormier's own part in those failures.

"You killed his brother in a duel," she says, before he's said anything. "He wanted you disgraced and removed as captain, so he was selling information to the baron de Guyot, who was presumably passing it to the Spanish." She rips a chunk of bread off the loaf and holds it out to him. "I've not verified that last part."

He pivots to lean against the wall, one booted foot on the bench, his arm propped against his bent knee. "And Treville?" He eyes the bread as if it's fresh from the oven and will burn his fingers, but eventually he strips his gloves off and takes it. He stares at her as he chews. "Assassinated, as I recall, by a woman of your description."

"Coincidence."

"Coincidence," he repeats, his tone and expression both carrying flat disbelief.

It does seem unlikely, she grants, but she finds it equally unlikely that no one in Paris knew of the Musketeers' mission to disrupt the Spanish supply lines. There are plenty of people in that nest of vipers who will benefit if the Musketeers continue to fail. "A set-up, then. You must have noticed your first command is a shambles. You are a walking corpse and more than half your men are in the ground."

"Yes, thank you." He lifts his wineglass in an ironical salute. "What does any of that have to do with Treville?"

"The Spanish have free rein here, and I'm sure they are appreciative of anything keeping you"--she waves a hand at him--"thus."

Athos sucks at his teeth, irritated. "Someone in Paris wants the Spanish supply lines to remain intact, and so what, they killed Treville and framed you for it in order to discredit you... just in case? They knew you came to help and wanted me to doubt you? Why not just kill you?"

"What makes you think they didn't try?" It had not been a particularly easy trip to the border.

His eyelid twitches. A minute reaction, but telling: he dislikes it when people-not-him try to kill her. It isn't much, but she'll take it. She lifts her eyebrows and waits for his next objection. He looks at the papers she'd given him. "Those could be forgeries."

"To what purpose?"

He drains his wineglass and sets it on the table, exhaustion starting to fray the edges of his expression and creep into his voice. "I'm sure I have no idea."

"Athos." Patience is not, typically, one of her virtues. "This disastrous mission is-- someone has been doing this to you. You just said you knew something was wrong. I can tell you have your hairshirt on again, but you're hardly incompetent."

"That is not what you said earlier."

"Oh, for God's sake," she cries, exasperated, "why is it you only believe the most blatantly false things I say to you? The fact that so much happened as soon as I arrived should convince you. I surprised de Cormier into making mistakes, and now the entire plot has come undone."

He stares at her in faint disbelief. "Four more of my men are dead, and probably Treville, and that's your defence? 'Now I'm here and everything has gone to shit, and so it cannot possibly be my fault.' Really?"

"It was shit already," she snaps, "and you know it."

He puts a hand over his face with a heavy sigh. "All right." His fingers splay, and he peers at her through the gap in one-eyed trepidation. "I assume you have a plan."

She doesn't, really. She'd been given a job and she had done it. She'd thought to rub de Cormier's report in Athos' face, and then perhaps rub something else in his face. From there, she could return to Paris, collect the rest of her fee. She could try again to go to England, or perhaps Italy, where the weather is better.

Or-- well. Or she could stay in Paris. The new Minister for War might want her help discovering what happened to Treville, why she was blamed. Treville might be alive and need her help undoing whatever damage de Cormier's scheme had wrought. And then there's Father Joseph: If he has taken over Richelieu's duties and his network, it seems safe to assume that he is also working to take Richelieu's influence over the king, and she has no idea what l'Éminence thinks of the Musketeers. Had Richelieu's dislike and distrust reached his protégé? Either way, Father Joseph will know her. Either way, he will have something for her if she asks.

She wonders what Athos would say to that, if she presented it as her plan: return to Paris, run interference, wait for you. No doubt it would be something non-committal and irritating, if he deigned to say anything at all. He may have welcomed her to his bed readily enough, but it's not as if bed had ever been their problem.

She pulls his hand from his face and holds it in her own. Her heart thumps erratically. "I will return to Paris in the morning," she says, watching the pads of her fingers skim over the rough calluses of his palm. "From there I can investigate Treville's death, speak to l'Éminence, send word. Now that de Cormier is no longer manipulating your dispatches and passing their contents along, it should be safe enough."

There is a brief hesitation as they both watch her fingertips move over the lines and whorls of his palm, but then he nods. His hand twitches in hers. "Very well."

"And before that, I thought we could stay the night here," she says.

He looks up, innocence and wariness and lust all somehow mixed together. "We?"

She meets his eyes and bends her head, pressing a kiss to the very centre of his palm, where the skin is still smooth. "We."

His eyebrows have come together in a slight frown, and he brushes his thumb over her lower lip. "Don't speak to me as if you're--" He stops talking and inhales, shaky, as she sucks his thumb into her mouth, her teeth scraping against the skin.

"Trying to seduce you?" She pulls away and sits up. "All right. But that is precisely what I'm doing. I already took a room. It has a bed. I would like to get you in it." It has been a long time. She glances at the stairs. "I could just drag you up there, I suppose."

He ducks his chin to his shoulder, almost shy, and pulls his empty wineglass closer as if he'd like to hide behind it.

"I won't--" She breaks off with a sigh. She has no intention of making a fool of herself again. "I know you don't want to be with me, and I am not asking for--"

He looks up, so obviously startled that she stops talking. His brow creases in confusion. "What?"

It is her turn for confusion, though anger may yet win the day. She can feel it there, champing at the bit. "I told you I wanted to be together. I told you--"

"You told me you wanted to be free of this life. Done with lying, with killing. You have done plenty of both these past few days."

Her head snaps up. "I said I was done killing without conscience, without reason. But I will protect what's mine."

"And de Cormier? We found the body. I know it was you."

For a minute, for several minutes, she doesn't understand. And then she does. She speaks slowly, deliberately, pushing the words at him as if to etch them into his bones. "I said, I will protect what's mine. Did you think I spoke only of my virtue? De Cormier would have got you killed, husband."

There is a hitch of his breath, a twitch of his shoulders. His eyes are wide, pale blue in this light. His mouth parts slightly, but only silence comes out.

"A right, you may recall, I reserved for myself. And so yes, I-- you--." She breaks off and goes backwards, tries to re-start the conversation. She only need get through this once. "You did not come."

The expressions roll over his face too quickly for her to follow, but he masters them all and pours himself more wine, and then he stares stone-faced into the glass. She drinks her own, frustrated, and into the fraught silence she hears herself say, "It was never about England. It could have been London or New France or Pinon. It could have been the Rue de Temple. Even if we had remained in Paris and you with the Musketeers, it would have been a new life." Together, she cannot say. But you did not come, she's said once, and will not say again.

Across from her, Athos is still staring into his wine, looking for all the world as if he has not heard her. She is considering throwing her glass at his head when he asks, too casually, "And now? Is that still what you want?"

She snorts and looks around, wondering how much more clearly she must spell this out for him. "If there is some other reason for me to be in this doghole, I should love to hear it."

"Your reasoning has always been opaque to me."

"Well, then." She stands and comes to his side of the table. "Allow me to clarify." She snatches his glass away and shoves his leg off the bench. His foot slams to the floor, and he sits up, bemused, lets himself be jostled around as she hikes up her skirts and throws her own leg over bench. He steadies her, a warm hand on her waist, and then she's there, her body against him, her open mouth moving over his as she kisses him, her aching hope and broken heart layered over the banked passion that requires only the smallest spark from him before it ignites and takes them both. She pulls away before it does, breath and body shaking, and rests her brow against his. "It is still what I want," she tells him, another brush of her lips. "But I go back to Paris in the morning and you are stuck here for the foreseeable future and I only thought..."

She trails off and sits back, somehow manages to take her hands off his chest and spread them wide. "We have tonight, we may as well enjoy it, and--"

His rapid blink is all the warning she gets before he strikes, bending her back over the table with his body, his mouth roaming desperately over her lips, her face, the bare swell of her breasts. He kisses as he always has -- with a single-minded focus that drives all else from her awareness -- and it takes her by surprise every time, no matter if it's been seconds since their last kiss, minutes, years. "Athos." This had not been her intent; she'd only meant to tease him with the promise of a night together, not take him over the table of this dirty tavern in the middle of the day. But then his beard rasps against her neck, his lips at her jaw, the hollow of her throat, and all she says is, "You did hear me mention the bed?" It seems a waste to bruise her back on this table when there's a perfectly serviceable mattress so near, but she winds her fingers through his hair and cannot bring herself to push him away.

He presses closer, his hand under her skirt, sliding up her thigh. "Too far."

He finds her wet and ready for him and she tries to breathe, feeling crazed and delirious with the speed of this, her need for him an undertow there's no use in resisting. Gasping, frustrated, wanting, she tugs at his belt, but his straps and buckles are numerous and impossible now, nothing she's used to, and she growls under her breath. "You do it," she says, grabbing his hand from where he's shoved her bodice down and is thumbing her nipple. She moves her own hand lower, cupping him through his trousers, and he drops his head to her shoulder with a groan, his hips moving against her hand. She bites at his neck to remind him what he's about, and then he's moving again, working quickly to free himself and kick the bench out of the way, propping her up on the table.

The table, unfortunately, is not truly a table, so much as it is a plank of wood on top of a barrel, and there is a terrific crash as it hits the floor. Athos freezes like a rabbit hearing hounds in cry, but then he smiles: a broad smile, bashful, rare, and true, and she leans in to kiss his curving lips. He urges her up, gets her legs around his waist, gets her back to the rough wooden wall and presses inside her, the familiar stretch of him an ache and a relief together.

She clutches his shoulders and arches, changing the angle so his every thrust sends a shock through her body, but they don't get very far before there is another crash. This one sounds very much like the door slamming open. Athos stills, and she blinks her eyes open to see d'Artagnan, standing with his sword drawn and his mouth open. Their eyes meet. She gives him an eyebrow and a slow, slow smile. He looks at the ceiling and swallows. "Um," he says, clearing his throat.

Athos beats his head against the wall over her shoulder once, twice, thrice.

"The crash," d'Artagnan says, pained. He squeezes his eyes shut tight. "I-- it sounded like a fight."

"And so you thought to prevent a little death? Whose, I wonder."

Athos' shoulders shake. She clenches around him, bears down, feels him tremble and growl as he fights for control. He will make her pay for that, she knows, and so she does it again. His teeth sink deep into her shoulder. She sighs into the sting of it, fighting to keep her eyes open.

"Well," d'Artagnan says. "You can't-- it really-- I'll just go."

She winks at him. He makes a face and an obscene gesture, and when the door closes behind him, she bursts out laughing.

Chapter Text

She spends the day resupplying for her return to Paris and refusing to acknowledge her emotions. When night falls, she finds herself back in that tavern, low-lit and loud, its dusty interior crammed with travellers and locals both. Every one of them is a half-seas over and trying to cheat someone at cards. Athos is to meet her when his own business is done, but she doesn't see him, and so she drags a stool over to the wall near where he'd pinned her that morning and calls for a bottle of wine.

The emotions she'd been ignoring all day threaten to spill over as she waits, a confused churn of nervous anticipation and giddiness that has her off-balance, feeling foolish. She recognises it -- it's how she felt on their wedding night -- but she doesn't understand it, had thought herself incapable. She and Athos have spent countless nights together since that one, some of them recent, and it's not the promise of a bed that makes this one feel different. No, this is a different sort of promise altogether: Her job here is done and her husband is coming, and though she has no idea what the future holds, for the first time in years she has some real hope he might be a part of it.

Or she does until someone else sits down on the stool next to hers, and something hard prods her ribcage. Oh Christ, she almost says, what now? But she doesn't move, only sends a sideways glance to the man beside her. It doesn't help. He's just a man, his face in shadow, hands hidden by his riding cloak but obviously holding a gun.

"Milady de Winter," he says, and kills what little hope she'd had of this being a robbery.

"You seem happy to see me," she says. "I'm afraid I don't return the sentiment."

"You've got something of mine."

"I doubt that," she says, but he must mean de Cormier's report. She rolls her head to the side to look at him, this contact of de Cormier's who's been trading in secrets. There isn't much to see. He's slightly built, with a hat jammed low over his heavily moustachioed face. He's wearing rough homespun, ill-fitting and spattered with mud. "You're no baron." And now she sees him, she doubts he works for one. "And you're not Spanish."

One side of his mouth curves up under the dark moustache but he doesn't look at her; his eyes remain on the room, restlessly moving over the other occupants. "Austrian."

Well. That's not good. Her already-low estimation of de Cormier's intelligence drops another several notches. "So who do you work for?"

"Whoever pays me."

And that's even worse. He must have contacts in Paris, for him to know who she is. And he must have informants in the area, for him to know what she's done. So she says it quickly, before sense gets the better of her: "What if I paid you?"

A huff of breath through his nose. "Can't afford me."

"I didn't mean money."

His gaze flicks in her direction, flat black and cold, a frank assessment. "No."

It's her turn to huff. "Didn't mean that, either. Your friend, you must know he was not reliable. That missing item of yours was written by a madman with a grudge."

"And you're a madwoman with a grudge."

"I at least am competent."

"Offering to take his place?"

"I do have a grudge."

The gun at her ribs disappears, and he turns to face her, dark eyes narrowed. "Can you?"

She feels like she's on a spooked horse, hanging on for dear life as it runs from something she can't see and stableboys shout about the barn doors. She needs time to think, but she doesn't have it. "Take his place?" Talk Athos into taking her back into the field with him, and then betray him. Write the sort of reports de Cormier had been writing, and hand them to this Austrian. "I'm to return to Paris in the morning."

"Won't make it."

"No need for threats," she says. "I only meant that it's a change in plan. If I'm to stay, he'll need a reason." Athos, she means. Neither she nor the Austrian have said his name yet, and she doesn't see any need to start now.

"Not my problem."

"It is if I'm to work for you."

He tugs thoughtfully at his moustache, reptilian eyes fixed on her. "What do you need?"

A good question. She stares into her wine as if it holds the answer. "Treville. I was framed, and my husband is suspicious. I'm to investigate in Paris, but if my name is cleared..." She trails off, spreads her hands. "I'll be free to stay."

"Done," he says, like it's that easy. "What else?"

"I'll handle the rest. But why not simply kill him?"

"Could ask you the same thing."

"I'm confident our answers would be different."

"Hard man to kill," he says.

"Mmm. I suppose that is what I was going to say."

His lips twist; it is almost a smile. "Would need real troops. Supply convoys and some protection are one thing, but the duc can't let real troops in."

So he works for the duc, then, or the Spanish, or someone in Paris, or some confederacy of people out to-- what? Keep the Spanish supply lines open? If that's his objective, there's no shortage of people who might have hired him. This is getting her nowhere.

Looking around, she sees that the room is louder and more crammed with people than the last time she'd checked, and none of them are paying attention to her. Nor are any of them Athos. "Assuming he agrees, how does this work?" She can hardly leave once a fortnight to report in. De Cormier ran messages to the border and so had an excuse, but she'll need some other cover. "And what does it pay?"

"Fifteen livres a week," he says, which will make it one of her better-paying jobs. She endeavours to keep the surprise from her face. "But I'm not convinced."

"Of what?"

"Your motivation."

She looks over. He is stroking his moustache. In fact, he has barely stopped stroking his moustache, and she almost wants to touch it herself, to see what's so compelling about it. "You know my name." She keeps her voice even. "So you must know what I am. You have threatened me. You have offered to pay me. And there's the matter of that grudge." She produces de Cormier's report and hands it to him. He skims the part about the Musketeers -- all of which is moot now that they know they've been betrayed -- and then slows considerably when he gets to the part about her arrival and her ill-treatment at the hands of the captain.

"I won't kill him," she says, matter-of-fact. "I don't want him to die, you see, I want him to suffer. I want him to watch the men in his care dying one by one as he drinks himself to death." Her smile, she knows, is unpleasant. "So if you want him dead, I can't help you. I killed de Cormier for trying and if you try it, I'll do the same to you. But if you want him out of Lorraine, or"--another pause to think--"sadly ineffective, I can do that. In the meantime, I need to eat."

He looks up with a slow lizard blink.

"Will that motivation suffice?"

Now he is twisting the moustache at the tips, one side then the other. "Yeah." He hands back the report. "Make a copy, I'll be back in the morning to work out the rest. Don't try to go anywhere."

"Wouldn't dream of it. What do I call you?"

"Whatever you want."

"I can think of a few things. You might want to pick something before I do."

"Schmidt."

"All right, Herr Schmidt--" But he's up and gone before she can say anything else. Her head hits the wall with a thud.

***

It's late when she finally goes up to her room to make the copy of de Cormier's report, most of the patrons having left or passed out. She had tried to enjoy her evening despite the turn it had taken, but Athos had never arrived and she had tired of waiting for him. She had hoped to be done with that forever, but evidently she is not, and so she'd called for a second bottle of wine. No fights broke out, and she kept most of what she'd earned thrashing a group of Italians at quinze.

Once upstairs, irritated and tired, she almost misses it: light spilling from beneath her door, the door in question no longer completely closed. There are benign possibilities -- the proprietor has made a mistake and let her room to someone else, or Athos arrived and came straight upstairs -- but given the way her evening has gone, some caution is in order. She presses her ear to the door. Nothing. She exchanges the candle she's carrying for her pistol and then shoulders the door open, weapon at the ready.

From her bed, Athos stares at her, eyes heavy, his entire being blurry with drink. He'd managed to get the jacket off, and one boot, and he is propped against the headboard flipping a dagger in one hand. Round and round it goes, hypnotic, steady despite his condition, and she cannot pull her eyes away from it until he says, "I thought you could kill me."

"Happily." She slams the door behind her. The room is a disaster, strewn with discarded clothing and his weapons, and for some reason he has dumped the contents of all their bags on the floor. She picks her way to the bed, counting up the empty wine bottles as she goes. Three, four, a fifth not yet empty, still in his hand. He pauses in his dagger-flipping to drink. "You are blind drunk."

He nods. Or rather, his head lolls up and down. "But not enough," he mumbles. "It's never enough and I don't know why." He gives a sudden lurch towards her, his eyes snapping open wide. "Why? Can you at least tell me that?"

Christ. Where are his idiot friends? Why is she the one dealing with this? This is not how she had wanted the night to go. She has a sudden and fervent desire to be just as drunk as he is, but she sets her pistol down with a sigh and goes to lock the door. By the time she returns, he's sagged against the headboard and is running the pad of his thumb absently over the dagger, the wine bottle cradled at his side. When she perches on the edge of the bed and takes it from him, he doesn't protest, but when she reaches to brush the hair from his brow, his hand clamps round her wrist like a manacle.

"Please." He rubs his face against her open palm and then presses the hilt of the dagger into it. Christ, she thinks again. Any second, he is going to start crying. "Please. Just do it. I swore it would be by your hand and it was my last word, I must keep it, you must let me keep it, you must kill me or I will -- I will have to do it myself and I'm not strong enough, I never have been, there's not enough wine--"

"What? Do it yourself?" In a sudden panic, she grabs his hair with her free hand and forces his head up. "Athos, look at me! Why would you say-- what happened?"

The dagger slips to the floor and he brings both his hands to cradle her face. He sits forward and presses his forehead against her own, and for a moment all she can see are his eyes, bloodshot and bruised. His hands slide and twist and ruin her hair and then he's close enough to kiss, his head tilting this way and that, their noses brushing together, and there is a moment of foreboding before he whispers into her mouth, "I heard you."

She is breathless for a split-second, weightless and terrified as she realises what he must have heard, and then they're both moving, grappling for leverage on the bed as he tries to push her away and she fights him. He truly is blind drunk, though, and she kneels up over him and pins him with her body, manages to get a real grip on his hair, keeps his head pressed hard to hers. "No," she whispers. "No."

His hands close over her wrists and squeeze until her bones shift in his grasp, but she refuses to relinquish his hair. "Please." He pulls her down, presses his face against hers. It is wet with tears, and his voice has cracked open. "Please, just do it before anyone else dies. I cannot keep doing this. I-- I know you want me to suffer but I have, I have, Anne, I swear it, I have suffered, I--"

"Hush," she says through the bile in her throat, "hush, it's all right," and then her eyes are closed and her mouth is fit to his to stop him talking. She can't bear to listen to this. His gasp sucks the air from her lungs, and then he is kissing her back, desolate and devastating.

Please, he keeps saying, please, as she manoeuvres him out of his clothes, gets him to lie down, stretches out on top of him, please. "All right," she says, her thumbs still brushing tears from his face. "All right, it's all right, I have you. I'll do it in the morning. Sleep."

He thrashes beneath her -- no, please do it now, you swore it, please -- but he settles when she kisses him again and whispers promises into his hair, and she keeps kissing him until he is asleep.

*

Making a copy of de Cormier's report is slow going. She's a reasonably competent forger but not a fast one, and it requires intense concentration, difficult to manage in the best of circumstances. Here, Athos' soft snoring is distracting her, his body in her bed, his broken voice still ringing in her ears begging her to slit his throat.

When she is finally finished, she stands above him and stares in growing agitation, unable to look away. His slightly open mouth, his mess of hair spilling over the pillow, the splash of freckles across his shoulders, the vulnerable dip and join of his collarbone, the swirl of hair on his chest, the elegant turn of his wrist: She aches for every inch of him.

All right, she thinks. All right, and strips down to her shirt -- his shirt -- and crawls into bed with her husband and his knife. He sighs in his sleep, inching into her arms as she wraps herself around his body from behind, and then she sets the dagger against his throat and her lips against his ear. "Athos. Wake up."

Twice more she has to say his name before he wakes, and this time, she can feel it when he does, the way his breathing changes and his body stiffens as he claws his way to consciousness. She can feel it when he notices the steel, too, the way he stops moving, stops breathing, just lies in her arms and waits.

"I thought you might like to be awake when I killed you," she says, and drags the knife across his throat, the barest hint of pressure. "I thought I might like to look into your eyes the way you couldn't look into mine."

He rolls to his back so she can do just that, heedless of the blade. His eyes are blazing under his half-closed eyelids, and she's certain he's still drunk, but all she hears is his sharp indrawn breath and the beating of her own heart as she kneels above him and drags the flat of the dagger down his chest.

"Is this what you want?"

He doesn't say anything, but she doesn't expect him to -- doesn't want him to, not really, has no desire to hear him begging any more this night. Instead, he pushes the air from his chest and deliberately relaxes beneath her, hands unclenching from where they're twisted through the sheets. He keeps his eyes on hers as he bares his throat. Blood and breath, hers for the taking. It's answer enough.

She is careful, at first. Careful to avoid the cuts and scrapes he already has, careful not to press hard enough to break skin, careful to follow the blade with her mouth, soothing any possible hurt. His body has been remade since last she truly knew him, by the Musketeers and by the bottle, and she takes the time to learn the ragged, sinewed shape of him, to taste and touch and feel.

But it isn't what he wants, and he only grows more restless, the sounds from his throat more frustrated, the grip he has less controlled, until finally he catches her hand in both of his and holds tight. "Do it," he says, straining, arching beneath her until the blade finally pierces his skin. He twists, opening up a cut in his chest, the slow-blooming drops of blood dark red on his skin. Against her hip, she notices, he has grown hard.

She rises on her knees and shifts until she can feel him at her entrance, and she drags the knife down as she takes him inside her body. They both cry out softly, and beneath her his muscles tremble as he tips his head back in offering.

There is nothing she can do. She moves. She cuts. She gives him what he wants, looks for unmarred skin and mars it, slices into the furred plane of his chest, the pale skin of his belly, the corded muscles of his arms and his thighs. She presses her fists into his bruises, drags her nails through sweat and blood, bites marks into any part of him she can fit her mouth to, rides him till he's near release and stops, and waits, and starts again.

He's sobbing by the end, incoherent pleas spilling from his bitten lips as the tears spill from his unseeing eyes. He's beautiful like this, his iron control shattered, his body given over to her hands to be broken and remade. But he's long since forgotten who he is and she's in danger of doing the same, of losing herself to the same dark current that's taken him. She's delirious, half-mad, having him and aching for him anyway, and finally she can't watch it anymore, can't do it anymore, can't lose more control than she already has. "Enough," she says, and knows it never will be. The knife clatters to the floor. Immediately he surges up and then she is the one on offer, his hands hard on her neck and her hip, forcing her face-down to the bed. He's all instinct and sensation, behind her and inside her and around her, and he batters her body with his own until he is the only thing she knows.

Athos shakes long after she has stopped doing so, long after the candle has burned down and she's moved to light another. When he is able, he turns on his side and draws his knees to his chest with something like a groan, something like a whimper. She props herself against the bolster and tries to lay a hand on his shoulder, but he flinches away. "The things I let you -- want you to do to me," he says, sounding every bit as lost as he had when he'd been begging her to kill him. "It's unnatural. I don't know how to stop."

To stop is the last thing she wants from him, and she tries again to put a hand on his shoulder. This time he lets her. He makes that same noise when she pulls at him, that same half-whimper of despair, and then he curls around her instead of around himself, an arm and a leg thrown over her own, head pillowed on her thigh. He is shaking again, and she pulls the blanket over him, tucks a strand of sweat-soaked hair behind his ear.

There's no need to ask how he's feeling: She knows. She is perfectly familiar with the abject humiliation of desire, of need, the way your base wants will rise against you in defiance of your better nature and the insistence of your mind. The things you will do when your blood is up, the things you will say, the things you will beg and bow and scrape for in the darkness, all of them in the light of day unthinkable.

It is exactly how she feels about him. Athos, who has left her repeatedly, who has killed her more than once, who never loved her the way she loved him, who turned away when she needed him most, who always thinks the worst of her and who will never stop tallying up her crimes and holding them against her. And still she crawls back to him, time and time again, helpless to do anything else. She has hated him and longed to spread for him anyway, hated herself for all of it, done everything possible to make it stop -- but it never has, and so now she is simply resigned to it. He's part of her, sunk into the bone and beating through her heart, and there is nothing she can do.

"Oh, we are a pair," she murmurs after a while, when he seems to have returned to himself. Her fingers still move gently through his hair. "We are bound by more than marriage, you and I. The particulars hardly matter." She reaches down and smears a finger through a drop of blood on his chest. "I think no less of you for this."

His huff of air is hot against her thigh. "You could hardly think less of me at all."

Her hand returns to his hair. "I most certainly could," she tells him. "Things can always get worse."

"Can they?" One bleary eye looks up at her. "Even you must admit this is rather bad."

She brushes a thumb over his cheekbone with a slight smile, but she's no longer sure what they're discussing. The knife, his talk of killing himself, his drunkenness, his catastrophic mission? "We're both alive, and I'm not going anywhere," she says, and he curls closer. "Stop being disgusted with yourself, husband, and attend to my needs."

Another huff, this one suspiciously directed at the curls still glistening between her thighs. "Again?"

Her eyes drop to his mouth, and she drags her thumb across his bottom lip as she bites down on her own. "You are not the only one who wants."

He murmurs something which is both complaint and consent, and when he eventually gets round to parting her legs and settling his mouth between them, he takes her to the edge and keeps her there, makes her tell him exactly what it is she wants, every depraved desire she's ever had, every time she's woken in the night, hot with shame and wet with need. He makes her say it all, and then he makes her beg, and she never does manage to deny him.

Chapter Text

She is back downstairs shortly after dawn, sitting with Schmidt and inhaling a bowl of broth. The tavern is doing a brisk business, though the overall mood is subdued. As for her own mood, it's horrid. She'd barely slept, and the more she thinks about Athos, the angrier she gets. Schmidt is watching her eat, amused by her irritation, and she hands over the copy of de Cormier's report with a glare.

"Where's your husband this morning?"

She groans. "Sleeping it off." She'd woken him but he'd been in an odd mood, not wanting her to go but refusing to talk, until finally she'd lost patience and simply left. He may have gone back to sleep, but it's more likely there is an argument waiting for her, and she is more than ready.

"Enjoy your reunion?" There is something in the way he strokes his moustache that is knowing, but it's impossible to say what it is he knows. Does he know Athos overheard some of their conversation, or only that he is upstairs? Does he know what happened in that room?

She groans again. "Some of it. It was..." She casts about for the right word. "Unanticipated." She dips her bread into her broth. "When he's in a more fit state, I'll have to tell him something. He expects me to leave for Paris."

"Said I'd take care of it."

"Not that." Once Schmidt had agreed to clear her of Treville's murder, she had stopped worrying about it. He will or he won't, and she'll deal with it either way. "I can hardly tell him I want to stay here so I can spy on him."

He tugs the moustache. It does seem a bit unkempt this morning. Perhaps he needs a trim. "Guess you'll have to convince him you're desperately in love."

She rolls her eyes. At least 'desperate' is the appropriate descriptor, not that it matters. Love will not be enough for Athos. She knows that now. "I'll figure something out." She hadn't meant to say anything at all, not really, but she's tired and frustrated, her defences gone. Given how little she knows about Schmidt and what information he possesses, lying to him is risky, and so she has cleaved close to the truth, twisting it to appear differently in different lights. It is far more difficult than lying. "Talk to me about logistics."

*

When she returns to the room, Athos has managed to put on his trousers and shove his head into a bucket. He kneels there on the floor for so long she begins to get concerned that perhaps he really has gone and drowned himself, and then he throws his entire body back and shakes like a dog come in from the rain. Water sprays everywhere.

"Feeling better?" she asks, flicking a few drops from her cheek and wondering if it's true what they say about bloodletting, that it releases the foul humours.

But when he grunts in response, his humour sounds plenty foul. He casts a wary glance in her direction and then at himself. His chest is a red cross-hatch of her handiwork, of wounds old and new, covered in cuts and welts and bruises and an absolute mess of blood. She knows she's no butcher, but you would be hard-pressed to tell. The blood had smeared and mixed with sweat and then dried, and now his hair drips into the mess and wets it again. His thrashing about re-opened a few of the deeper cuts, and others had dried stuck to the sheets and torn open when he'd got out of bed.

"You truly are terrible at mornings," she says.

Another grunt. "Whereas at nights I am exceptional." His gesture manages to encompass the wrecked room, the space between them, and his aching head.

"Mmm. What do you remember?"

This time the sound is more like a groan. "Enough." He tilts his dripping head and wrings some of the water from his hair. "How bad?"

She puts her hands behind her, her fingertips digging into the rough wood of the door. "Why is it," she asks, voice mild, "that you believe everything I say as long as I don't say it to you?"

He freezes, slanting a look at her from under the curtain of his hair. Blood-tinged water streams down his torso.

"Nothing to say for yourself?"

"No." He straightens with a sigh and swipes at his face with the back of his wrist. "You're right."

It's so unexpected an admission that it leaves her speechless, but it's not as if it helps: You're right, I don't trust you. Not really. Oh, his body he'll commend into her hands readily enough, but not because he trusts her not to hurt him.

He slumps against the far wall, and the whole of the room between them suddenly feels like the whole of France. "Anne--"

"No. I was waiting for you," she says, and he closes his eyes, his shoulders sagging. "And I came up here to this, and you, five bottles in and begging for death."

He doesn't move. He doesn't say anything. He doesn't look at her. He stands there like a man taking a beating he's not sure he deserves: determined to endure it, but his mind elsewhere. She's almost tempted to give it to him; she's sure she could bring him around. Instead she grips her wrists behind her back and bites the inside of her cheek, waiting.

The back of his head hits the wall and he curses under his breath. "Let's just go," he mutters, straightening and reaching for his shirt. "I'm sure you have some story to tell me about why you won't be going to Paris."

"Don't be absurd," she snaps. "Have you seen yourself? Sit."

For a moment, she thinks he won't do it, but then he balls his shirt up and throws it to the corner, glaring after it as if the linen is responsible for his woes. He drops to the stool and rolls his shoulders before splaying forward over the dressing table, his head buried beneath his arms. The ointment he'd used on her the other night had done its job well, and she digs through their scattered belongings for the rest of it and goes to fetch a basin. Is this how it will be from now on, she wonders, the two of them taking turns tending to wounds they have inflicted?

"I should have done this last night," she says, eyeing his back. It's no better than his front. She can hardly remember doing it. "I don't know what we were thinking."

His arms do nothing to muffle the wry self-deprecation in his voice. "We weren't."

"No. We never are."

She is barely thinking now, in fact, her body tight and thrumming despite the circumstances, the task at hand, her anger -- or because of it. Anticipation sings through her veins the instant she touches him. Christ, he's warm, and it must hurt, but he sighs and leans into her touch. She has only just begun and finds herself on the verge of abandoning this and dragging him back to bed when they are disturbed by boots pounding up the stairs and to the door. It flies open as she is still reaching for her pistol, and Aramis and d'Artagnan burst in, guns at the ready. "Athos! Athos, are you-- oh."

They stagger to a halt and she immediately turns to Athos, who hasn't moved. In fact, he's gone completely rigid, is so still he nearly trembles with it, and there is a faint flush on the nape of his neck. It doesn't take her long: Inséparables they may be, but she cannot think of many men who'd gladly admit to getting so suicidally drunk they'd begged their wives to carve them up in bed. She moves between him and his friends before they manage a look at him, her hand sliding to his neck. There is nothing she can do about the obvious wreckage they'd made of the room, however.

"Not again," d'Artagnan says to the ceiling. "Can't you two do anything like normal people?"

"Can't you knock?" she snarls at him.

"He'll learn one of these days," Aramis says, as if he hadn't been first through the door. He crosses the room to throw open the casement. "I said you would want more time before we came to your rescue," he says to Athos. "We--"

He turns and abruptly bites off his sentence. She stayed between Athos and d'Artagnan, and from the other side of the room, Aramis can see Athos' bloody back. His eyes flick to the ruined bed, to the knife on the floor, to her. "What happened?" he asks, but she can see by the tightness around his eyes that he has reached the answer on his own.

Under her hands, Athos stiffens further, and she feels a faint tremor ripple through his body. She wants to cover him and chase his friends from the room, but that would only raise more questions than it would answer. No, the fastest way out of this conversation is through it.

"Did you happen to notice the brambles that surround this building?" Her voice is bland, but she starts her thumb rubbing in slow circles at the base of Athos' skull, as much reassurance as she is able to offer.

Aramis and d'Artagnan exchange dubious looks.

"And have you happened to notice the empty wine bottles strewn about this room? He obliterated himself with drink and then staggered outside to cast up his accounts. He found himself outside a window, through which he overheard me speaking to an acquaintance, whom he somehow confused with the brambles, at which point he decided they were his mortal enemy and challenged them to a duel. As you can see, the brambles received their satisfaction." Athos plays his part, and grumbles in protest. She pats him. "Though I'm sure he got in a few good hits."

The story might be believable if not for the knife on the floor, dried blood on its blade. Aramis looks at it pointedly, and she glares a warning at him. "See for yourself if you must."

Athos, who had started to relax, goes rigid again, but all she can do is leave her hands where they are, moving imperceptibly through his hair. Aramis takes a few steps forward to study Athos' back. She knows it looks worse than it is, and after a few seconds she can see that Aramis knows it too. He looks at her. "He'll live." Even so, he crouches, one hand gentle on Athos' knee. "All right, my friend?" His voice is soft with concern but devoid of judgment or censure.

Athos grunts, twitches, and does not look up.

"Good, good. I'm sure those brambles will think twice before insulting another man's parentage." Aramis' voice is light, and although he's still frowning at her as he stands up, he plants himself firmly between Athos and d'Artagnan. If d'Artagnan sees Athos, then only an explanation from Athos will suffice, and she doubts Athos is capable of speech. It will not go well.

She lifts an eyebrow. "Yes?" she asks. "You have ten seconds."

Five go by, six, seven, and then the two of them break the silence at the same time. "Can we speak here?" Aramis asks as d'Artagnan blurts out, "A message came."

She ignores d'Artagnan -- the message is likely from Schmidt, and she can guess at its contents -- and speaks to Aramis. "Yes," she says, but catches his eye and shakes her head no. "What is it?" She'd watched Schmidt ride out of town, but he hadn't stayed at the tavern last night, either, and yet this morning he'd known that Athos was with her. The only safe assumption is that they are still being watched.

Aramis runs a hand through his hair. "Nothing, actually. We just came to check on that one."

"He's fine. Where is Porthos?"

"Keeping an eye on things downstairs."

"All right, go stop the inevitable brawl before it starts. We'll finish here and be down shortly, and then we can discuss our next move. I've no wish to have that conversation more than once." In truth, she expects it to be more of a battle than a conversation. Perhaps a siege. Tell me a story about why you won't be going to Paris, Athos had said, already doubting.

Aramis moves to the door but d'Artagnan stays where he is, unwilling to take her orders. "Our next move? Athos?"

"Yes." Athos does not lift his head, and she smiles serenely in the face of d'Artagnan's scowl. They go, and she is trying to close the broken door behind them when Aramis spins on his heel. He tugs her out the room too fast for her to resist, and then crowds her against the wall.

They glare at one another in silence, both waiting, but he gives in first with a sigh and starts digging through one of his pouches. He pulls out a small jar, grabs her wrist, and smacks the jar into her open hand. It's the rest of his salve. He does something with his eyebrows she's sure is supposed to mean something.

"He's fine," she tells him.

"He's not," Aramis insists. "He's not." He splays a hand near his temple. "And he won't survive another bloodletting."

"Nor will I," she mutters, and Aramis just shakes his head.

"Aramis?" At the top of the stairs, d'Artagnan is frowning at them over his shoulder.

"Yes, coming," he calls, lifting his open palms and backing away. The look on his face is somewhere between a worry and a warning.

Inside the room, Athos hasn't moved. "What was that?" His voice is mild, but the tension has returned to his shoulders.

"Nothing. More salve."

He looks up, one eyebrow arched. She lifts the jar so he can see. His shoulders relax.

"And," she says, "Aramis is concerned about your poor choice of bedmates."

He sniffs in ironical surprise. "His own choices being always so well considered."

She grins and crosses the room, stepping between his legs and adjusting her skirts so she can perch lightly on one of his thighs. Aramis and d'Artgagnan seem to have taken most of the tension with them when they left, and there is a quiet fondness in Athos' eyes when he looks up at her. "Thank you," he says.

She lifts an eyebrow and tucks an errant curl behind his ear. "You mean you may yet come to appreciate my talent for making up stories on the spot?" The wry smile hovers at the edges of his mouth, but he says nothing, only settles his hands on her hips to draw her closer. She reaches for him, presses a finger to the corner of his bitten lips, the thin bruised skin under his eyes. He looks startlingly vulnerable like this, and her heart clenches, and she feels suddenly small, afraid, helpless and lost in the vast thing between them. "You know I'm not leaving you," she blurts out, unable to help herself. "You were right about Paris. I'm not going."

"I know." He closes his eyes, rubs his bristly cheek into her hand like a cat. "We'll discuss it."

"And-- I know what you heard last night, but I am trying to protect you."

Silence. His eyes open, wide and gunmetal grey in the morning light. He doesn't look away as he catches her hand and presses an open-mouthed kiss to her palm, enough promise in the hot strokes of his tongue to make her shiver. Her breathing grows ragged. She is in very real danger of hiking up her skirts and climbing on top of him, and it is with a monumental effort that she pulls away to finish cleaning up his back.

When she tells him to, he turns to face the other direction and leans against the table, propped on his elbows. His legs, stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankle, seem to go on for miles. She looks him up and down, pulse slamming between her thighs. "You look like a tomcat's been rutting in the rosebushes and got caught in the rain," she says, and he gives her a slow grin from behind his hair like that's exactly what he is.

"Rutting with whom, I wonder." He lifts a hand, beckons her with a lazy curl of his fingers. "Show me your claws."

"Absolutely not," she says, stepping away. If she touches him now, she won't stop. "We need to get out of here, and you've seen plenty of my claws."

He doesn't even have the decency to look disappointed. He shrugs, shifts against the table, winces, makes her point for her. "Your loss," he says, and his mouth curls in response to the flat look she sends his way. "Our loss," he amends.

"So you believe me, then, about what you heard?" She is feeling light enough to ask the question, but he doesn't answer and the tension comes back as if it had never lifted. Her lust shrivels and dies in an instant. A mistake, asking was a mistake, and she wishes she had never said anything, that he will continue to hold his tongue. She is not that lucky.

"It doesn't matter," he says, and her stomach flops in her belly.

It is several seconds before she trusts herself to speak. "It does to me."

A sigh. "And to me, but." He sits up, his elbows on his knees. "If I trust you and am wrong, my men die. If I don't trust you and send you away, my men die. Unless I misunderstand your Austrian." He pauses, waiting for her to set him right, but he is right already. "If I do trust you and am right, we have a chance. If I don't trust you and take precautions, we have a chance." He sighs. "So as I said, it doesn't matter. Stay, and do as you will."

She shoves at his shoulder to make him sit back again, and she drags the cloth over one of the deeper cuts on his chest, pressing harder than she needs to. "Does it never occur to you to lie?"

"You lie enough for both of us," he snaps, but as soon as it leaves his mouth, he deflates. His chin sinks to his chest. He reaches for her hand, and his lips brush her knuckles in apology. "I am trying."

She snatches her hand back and says nothing, and refuses to look at his face. Neither of them speaks again until she's finished cleaning him up. "I've hurt you," he says.

"Oh, shut up." She sighs. "If we don't hurry, your friends will think I've murdered you and come charging back up here. We already owe the innkeeper extra money for the ruined sheets and the broken door." She looks around. "And extra for the maid, I should think."

"About that," he says, clearing his throat, and she rolls her eyes. She, at least, can afford it.

She packs their bags while he finishes dressing, but before they can leave he grabs her shoulder and presses her to the wall. She is about to ask but his mouth covers hers, the kiss deep and aching with regret. "I am trying," he says, insistent, his forehead to hers. "Truly."

She swallows, her hand sliding over his where it cups her cheek. "Try harder, my love."

***

A rickety barn, too warm and buzzing with flies, the smell of manure in her nostrils.

The message which found them is from Treville himself. He urges caution, says he sent them someone and then was abducted, held unharmed, set free. The seal looks genuine, the handwriting correct, the cipher current. It clears her name -- even Athos has to believe someone about something, sometime -- but the only explanation for it is that Schmidt has friends in Paris capable of abducting the Minister for War.

This is not a local matter, then, not simply some baron who wants the Musketeers off his land, and not even the duc de Lorraine himself trying to get rid of them. It is much larger than that, but as for who Schmidt's friends are and what are their goals -- Louis overthrown, a treaty with Spain, the Musketeers disbanded, the Duke of Savoy crowned Pope -- who knows. There is no telling, really, but there is a way to find out. All she has to do is work for Schmidt until she learns his aims.

Were they in Paris, it would be very simple. In Paris, there is nothing complicated about a double agent, about trading irrelevant or misleading information for trust. It happens all the time.

But they are not in Paris, and here, passing bad information will get her killed. Passing good information will get Athos killed. And the rest of them, true enough, but the rest of them she can live without.

No, they say, all of them, absolutely not. It's too dangerous. And work for Schmidt, please, you won't be mending his shirts, you'll be informing on the Musketeers. No.

But it's too late. The deal has been done. She has already agreed, and if she tries to renege and go to Paris now, she will never get there.

D'Artagnan, his dagger sinking into the bale of hay, into the wall, into anything he can throw it at which isn't her. Athos, silent, seething. Aramis and Porthos, shouting her down as she tries to explain: There's a way. There are several ways. They can mitigate the risk, they can layer on the lies, and they can all get out of this alive. Probably.

But no one seems interested. Just don't go back to Schmidt, they say, as if he won't track her down. No, they say, we can protect you, and her bitter laughter fills the barn. They can barely protect themselves out here, and she has little faith in their good intentions.

And then finally Athos, exploding: I will not send two dozen men to their deaths because I am overfond of your grasping cunt.

It is as if the barn catches on fire. There is a sort of echoing whoosh in her ears, and she's too hot, and there is no air. The others disappear as if by magic; she and Athos are alone.

I will not, he'd said, but of course he won't. That's not a crime men die for, after all, being overfond of cunts, but the women certainly pay the price. It's why he killed her the first time, she says, when the realisation strikes. It wasn't about Thomas. It wasn't about duty. It wasn't about honour. He had loved her to distraction, and he is not a man who tolerates distractions. She spits in his face.

Athos curses viciously and turns, slams his fist into the wall. He is standing right in front of her, and yet she cannot see him.

Anne, he says, Anne, and from his pleading tone, she expects him to fall to his knees. He does not.

"You compromise me, Anne."

Chapter Text

There is only one inn in Fournier, a shabby building off the square, but it will do. She stables her horse, takes a room, and goes in search of bread. There's no way for her to take back enough for all the men -- certainly not without rousing suspicion -- but she can see her husband eats.

She doesn't get far.

"Happy to see me this time, I think," says Schmidt, looking at her from the window of a black carriage, recently painted. She recognises his voice before she does his face, which is now more bearded than moustachioed and so has a very different shape. His eyes give him away, though, a flat and flinty stare identifiable despite the poor lighting of their first encounters.

"Something like that." At Schmidt's gesture, she climbs into the carriage, which is oddly conspicuous. She would have thought Schmidt would prefer to be unobtrusive. "Curious, perhaps." She's been in town for one hour, and here he is. She'd known his network was extensive, but suddenly it seems every inhabitant of Lorraine is on his payroll. Perhaps there's no need to be unobtrusive.

He pulls the curtains and raps his knuckles on the ceiling. The carriage rattles into motion. "Have something for me?"

"If you have something for me."

He tosses her a small purse heavy with coin and watches as she counts it out. It's nearly double what he owes her, and she raises an eyebrow in question. "De Cormier's from last time," he says with a shrug, and then holds out a hand. She puts a folded piece of paper into it, and waits as he opens it. "Too bad." He dangles it by one corner. It's blank. She'd planned to write the report in her room, but he'd found her first. "Wasn't our agreement."

"It isn't safe for me to write them. We share a tent. I'm watched more closely than de Cormier was. Take me somewhere with a table and I can do it now, or I can simply tell you whatever it is you'd like to know."

Settling back against the cushion, he studies her for a long time, arms over his chest. She does not look away. "Fine." He is obviously annoyed. "Things to do, first, then we'll talk."

She nods and turns to signal the driver to stop, but she is the one who is stopped. She looks pointedly at Schmidt's hand where it is clamped round her upper arm, but he doesn't let her go. He squeezes, and leaves his hand there just long enough to make his point. "Not letting you out of my sight till I get what I paid for."

"All right," she says, giving in with ill grace and sitting back. He takes his hand off her, but continues to stare. "What?"

"How're things with your husband?"

"That is your first question? Why, Herr Schmidt, I didn't know you cared."

"Hired you to spy on him, didn't I? Not much use if things are bad."

"We fought," she says, certain he already knows. They had still been in Chardogne, they'd been strangers to the village, they'd been shouting fit to bring down the heavens, let alone that shoddy barn. There is no way the scene had not been remarked upon. "And then we reconciled."

Athos hadn't apologised, not in so many words, but she had refused to let him martyr himself and sleep outside his own tent like a whipped dog. And once he was inside, well, their arguments never lasted long when they were skin-to-skin. This one had lasted a bit longer, considering, but it had not survived his friends.

Please, Aramis had muttered out one side of his mouth, riding beside her on the third day of silence and seething. Please stop sparing the rod, would you, he's making us all miserable. She'd turned, one eyebrow arched, and she'd stared him down until he'd lifted his hands in surrender. We'll see, she'd said. And later, to Athos, her thumb pressed into the notch at the bared base of his spine, her fingers teasing lower, Aramis says I should punish you. He'd buried his head under the blanket with a groan, please never speak to Aramis again, but his cock had started to fill as she'd reached for the oil. She hadn't let him come for days, and it was longer still before she'd let him anywhere near her grasping cunt, but that had been the end of the argument.

She turns to Schmidt. "It's only that we have been apart more than we have been together. It's not anything that concerns our arrangement." Her smile is thin-lipped, bitter. "I suspect it's rather easier for him to talk to me about the Musketeers than about anything else."

But the truth is they hadn't even tried to talk about anything else. They'd not spent time together in years, not really, and those years were steeped in hate and heartbreak that had changed them both. Things improved, yes, but only because they started skipping the harsh words and falling into one another instead.

She barely remembers it. What she remembers is Athos, too exhausted to stand but still rigid inside her, stretched lean and long over her body, his head thrown back, the tendons in his neck standing out in sharp relief. God, how did I survive without this, he'd wondered, and all she could do was tilt her hips and pull him deeper in where he belonged, I don't know, but let's never do it again. No, he'd sighed, we won't, we won't.

"Don't worry," she tells Schmidt, "my information is good."

There is a spark in the depths of those flat eyes when he says, "Hope so," and it's enough that she's the one who's worried.

*

It turns out she was right to be worried: Schmidt knows everything already.

His errands seem to consist of going into every building in the town and emerging thirty seconds later; it's dark before he's finished. Eventually they end up in some one-room cottage in the countryside, occupied but its residents conveniently elsewhere. She writes, and talks, and listens, and tries to keep the dismay from her face. He knows how many dispatches arrived and what they said, which she had expected, but he also knows what Athos and his men are planning to do about those dispatches, knows where their new camp is and where it will be the fortnight next, knows where and when they are patrolling, knows they have a new cipher, knows what information they have about the Spanish in the area.

It means there is another informer amongst the Musketeers, or that they are being watched more closely than they had imagined. Neither possibility is particularly welcome, but anything they know now is more than they knew yesterday, and they'd suspected this might happen. They'd taken precautions. When she returns--

But then he says, "Not going back," and the bottom drops from her stomach.

She tilts her head in question and tries to keep the surprise from her face, the worry, the-- yes, fine, the fear. "Oh?"

He is using a small dagger to scrape the dirt from underneath his fingernails, and he finishes with his left hand before he looks up. His voice is as carefully blank as his eyes. "Doesn't trust you. Sent his men to the main army."

"What? No." That hadn't been the plan. The plan had been to wait, to let her meet with Schmidt the once and then return, reassess. Athos hadn't made the plan -- he'd left it to her and the others, you compromise me, Anne -- but he'd agreed to it, he'd kissed her at daybreak, come back alive, he'd said, you've promises to keep. "He wouldn't."

"Got word this morning." Schmidt holds up the piece of paper on which she'd written a few notes, and rips it in half. "None of this is true. He sent you here to die."

She shakes her head. Her husband may be unspeakably cruel on occasion, but she's never known him to be actively treacherous. Not like this. What would he gain? A distraction, perhaps, a bit of extra time, but if that's what he'd wanted, he could have said so. "I don't believe you."

That smooth, dark stare. It reflects nothing. "So he loves you more than France? More than duty?"

"I--." She stares at him, unseeing. You compromise me, Anne. Her hand is at her neck, rubbing at the ridges of her scar, and she finds she has nothing to say, and no breath with which to say it. She feels nothing. Of course he doesn't love her more than duty. He never did. But knowing that, she never would have tried to make him choose. She doesn't understand why he thought he had to. She asks for wine. Schmidt pours. She drinks. He pours again. She tastes nothing. "Get on with it, then." She closes her eyes and sits back against the wall.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." She doesn't think she can seduce Schmidt, and she doesn't want to, but even if she did: Then what? Hunt Athos down and take her revenge? She'd wasted years of her life on that and it had brought her nothing but bile. He may deserve whatever she can mete out, but he manages to torture himself more than she ever could, and she-- she always had deserved something else. "Just don't hang me. I am tired of being hanged."

She has tired of most things, really. It had been the truth when she'd said to Athos that she'd tired of this life and of who she had become, and only the thought of him had pulled her back. She'd thought it might be different this time, thought he needed her, and so she'd come, and then she thought -- well, it hardly matters now. She'll die dirty in this country cottage, and he will drink himself to death, and it will be exactly what they both deserve.

Schmidt fills her cup of wine again.

"A final kindness?" she asks, bitter, but she cannot summon even a false smile. This time, she does not drink. Kindness from Schmidt is the last thing she wants.

"Surprised you're not angry."

The odd note in his voice takes some time to register, but register it does, and she manages to prise open her eyes.

He tips his chair back on two legs. "I was gonna betray someone betrayed me first, I'd be angry, not..." He flicks his hand in her direction.

"Heartbroken?" She sniffs. What can she say? But he clearly wants her to say something. For some reason, he is giving her a chance. She drains her cup of wine and by the time she's finished, she has crashed back into herself. She pours again and tries to find the words, but she doesn't know Schmidt well enough to play him. All she has is honesty. "Shock, I suppose. These games we play are one thing, but I would never have killed him, nor sent him to his death. I thought I could expect the same from him." She shrugs. "But anger has never abandoned me in my time of need, which is more than I can say for my husband. It will come."

"If you live long enough." The threat is both unmistakable and difficult to take seriously.

"You won't kill me, not now you've opened negotiations. What do you want?"

Under the moustache, his thin lips stretch into something near a smile. "Ever been to Nancy?"

As he explains on the way back into Fournier, the capital city of Lorraine is in need of someone to run the post, and Schmidt has someone in mind. She stares at him in some mix of confusion and disbelief and starts ticking off the problems, starting with the fact that she has no idea how to run a post office and no desire to learn. On top of that, it's an inherited position, or at least an appointed one, and even if she could claim her errant husband's title, there is no way--

"Taken care of," he says, as the carriage pulls up to the inn. He leans across her to shove the door open.

"You're going to let me go?" It might be time to reassess his sanity.

He shrugs. "More to do. Be back tomorrow." He pauses. "Do what you want, unless it's run. When d'you meet him?"

She considers ignoring the question, but what does it matter now? "Thursday."

Another shrug. "Go, if you don't believe me," and she believes him more for that. "He won't be there." He pauses and gives her a look that is, for once, more reminiscent of a human being than a reptile. "Listen. Can't let you go back to Paris for a while. Six months, maybe more. Should probably kill you, but don't want to."

She blinks at him, not sure she understands. "Why? You don't know me."

He starts to shrug one more time but seems to reconsider, and sprawls back against the cushions. He's looking more human by the second. It's unnerving. "Remind me of someone, good at your job, use for you later, take your pick. Mostly seems a waste. You like killing people you don't know?"

She feels her eyebrow climb. "Scruples?" She pauses, thinks a while. "No," she says, having thought about it, "I can't imagine anything less likely."

He acknowledges the absurdity with a twist of his mouth. "Didn't say I won't, but sometimes there's a better option."

She looks at him. "And your better option is a post office in some provincial capital."

"Not exactly." The grin transforms his face. "Think of it as... trading in intelligence."

*

She sleeps like the dead and in the morning, she has a splitting headache, a mouth that tastes of burnt cotton, and the sense that something is horribly wrong. It takes a while to remember what it is: Athos. Athos, again. Athos, always.

***

The first time Athos had sentenced her to die, two of the servants had manhandled her down to the dry cellar and locked her in, and it had not occurred to her to protest. For two endless days she sat on a thin straw pallet, and she had known with a bone-deep certainty that he would come for her. His temper would settle, his hurt would dull, he would remember the time she'd said, I don't like the way your brother looks at me. He would miss her. He would come. It was never in question.

She waited. To pass the time, she practised what she might say to him: A thief, yes. Sacred vessels taken from a convent, deplorable, yes. Agreed, yes, yes to everything, yes. But surely she'd been given a second chance, with him, the best of her possible selves revealed and clarified by the power of their love. She knew he felt it too, and it was inconceivable that he'd forsake it.

And so she waited, her heart soaring with every sound she heard, crashing every time it wasn't him. She tried to eat, but found she was choking on her hope, her throat thick and aching with it, and by the time anyone truly came for her, it was Remi. He was to take her into Pinon, because Athos no longer wanted her under his roof. His roof, he'd said, as if he'd never given her anything at all, as if they'd never shared a home. She'd swallowed what remained of her hope.

She thought she had, at any rate. But just as she'd waited for him in the cellar, she'd waited for him under the hanging tree, and she'd waited for him some nights in Paris, and she'd waited for him at the crossroads, living and dying with the step of every horse that passed by, knowing that same lift and crash of her heart, that same weight at the back of her throat. And because she is a fool, she waits for him now, near a bridge a few leagues from Fournier, unwilling to believe he won't come.

Because it has occurred to her: If Schmidt wanted Athos to abandon the Musketeers' mission, then all he needed to do was tell her it was already done. If she believed Athos had betrayed her, there would be no reason for her to make the rendezvous, and when she missed it, Athos would assume the worst. He would believe she truly had sold him out to Schmidt, and the only way for him to save his men would be to get them out of Lorraine. The mission, abandoned. The Spanish supply lines, safe.

Schmidt does not lock her up or threaten her. He does not put her under guard. He lets her ride alone to the rendezvous point at the appointed hour. He stands by the stables to watch her go. His face says, you poor fool. His mouth says, see you soon, postmistress.

It is easy enough to find out which of them is lying. All she has to do is wait.

Athos doesn't come.

Chapter Text

Part II.
No great country was ever saved by good men, because good men will not go to the lengths that may be necessary. —Horace Walpole

But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you consume one another. —Galatians 5:15

***

He can't breathe. There is no air and no memory and no struggle, and it's appropriate, he thinks, for it to end this way, sight and sound and sense all fading with him into the void, just a dull pressure somewhere deep behind his eyes. He knows he need only accept it, breathe through it -- but he can't breathe at all and then the pressure collapses into pain and brutal, agonising cold. It slams through his body with a suddenness that makes him gasp, a tortured intake that feels like he's sucking broken glass directly to his lungs and then there's a hand, he feels a hand at his neck and he tries to throw it off -- and there, there's the struggle, but it's pointless, the hand gives no ground. But finally there is air, and then more water, hot and then cold and hot again, shredding his throat as he coughs it up, and whoever's got him by the scruff of the neck moves in for another round.

"Enough!" He roars, shoving himself backwards. It is, he suspects, the first truly coherent thought he's had in quite some time, and it is followed quickly by cursing as his stomach heaves and pain lances through his head and he trips over his own feet and hits the ground, his knees cracking hard against the stone. Mother of God, it hurts.

Porthos catches him before he falls any further, steady, hey, that's it, a hand under his arm and one on his chest, and Athos experiences a split-second of crushing relief, thank fucking Christ, before he remembers Porthos shouldn't be here. Then he remembers he has no idea where here even is.

He groans as Porthos pulls him to his feet and in for a quick hug, a bracing arm around his back. Athos leans in and lets himself accept what little comfort's there, dropping his head to Porthos' shoulder.

"Why aren't you with the army?" He barely recognises the rasp of his own voice. It hurts to speak.

"It's good to see you, too, my friend," Aramis says, stepping from out behind Porthos with a grin. He catches the back of Athos' neck and presses a kiss to his temple, and then hands him a dry rag. Wincing, Athos bends his head and pulls it carefully through his dripping hair.

"We're not really cut out for the infantry," d'Artagnan says from somewhere behind him, and Athos closes his eyes. He feels d'Artagnan's hand settle on his shoulder, and he covers it with his own, squeezing once.

"And?" He dries his face and looks around, suppressing a shiver at the cold bite of the air. They are in a kitchen, but not one he recognises. It's clearly in use, though not at the moment: The open hearth is in need of stoking, but herbs and game birds hang above. The table has been shoved to the side to make room for the two barrels of water, the contents of which have splashed over the floor and soak the flagstone. Light streaks in through the frost-covered window, but it hurts his eyes, and he turns his face away. "What is it you want?"

He hadn't thought to see them again, but now they're here he can't regret it. He doesn't know what happened in Lorraine -- a message from Anne to change the rendezvous, an ambush when they got there, reports of her riding east with another man -- but he'd ordered all the Musketeers out of the duchy and to the front with the regular army. He hadn't known what else to do, hadn't come up with a better plan to save them.

They'd gone and he'd returned to Paris on his own, his first real command ending in catastrophe, the mission a failure, the Spanish supply lines intact, two-thirds of his men in the ground. Once there, he'd gone straight to the Louvre to see for himself that Treville was alive, that at least one thing Anne had said was true -- it was, and it had not helped him to know it -- and then he'd resigned his commission, crawled into a bottle, and pulled the cork in behind. It is his last clear memory.

He isn't certain how long ago that was, and ignorance, they say, is bliss.

He makes his way to the table and drops heavily to one of the benches, ignoring the conversation the three of them are having with their eyebrows. "Gentlemen," he says with a sigh, when the silence has stretched beyond his patience. "I realise the task of breaking unpleasant news has tended to fall to me, but this time, you have me at a disadvantage."

It's Aramis who finally steps forward and straddles the bench next to him. "Brandy," he says, sliding over a glass as if it's a peace offering. "Well baptised."

The news must be dire indeed if they're plying him with even a weak drink at a time such as this, but the three of them are alive enough, and the only other thing he can think of is -- "Anne," he says, voice tinged with panic he wishes he could retract, but Aramis shakes his head no, no one's heard from her.

Athos looks down and wraps his hands around the glass of brandy, sipping carefully, and at some point, Aramis' clothing registers. "Who are you supposed to be?" He looks up, frowning, first at Aramis and then at Porthos and d'Artagnan. The three of them are in matching servants' livery: simple, well-made outfits of black and gold.

Aramis smiles so broadly it constitutes a warning, and Athos closes his eyes in time to hear him say, "Your valet, my lord."

"My valet." He sniffs. "Valets do not wear livery."

"Glad to hear it." Aramis' smile stays firmly in place. "I'm not really the livery sort."

"Should've heard him grousing about it on the way here," Porthos says.

Athos pushes his hair from his face in order to glare more effectively, but a few strands catch on the gold signet ring he has evidently taken to wearing on the little finger of his left hand. The arms are not familiar -- a chevron between three fleurs-de-lis -- and he stares blankly before deciding it's facing the wrong way. He takes it off and flips it so as to point the arms towards his wrist, and then he turns it inward like the married man he is. The titled married man he is, apparently: liveried servants and a chevalière, your valet, my lord. "Explain."

Aramis puts his hands over his heart in a gesture which might be considered apologetic if not for the gleam in his eye. "You got into some trouble in Paris, you see, and whilst a common soldier might have been executed for such indiscretions--"

"What indiscretions?" It's true he cannot describe his memory as reliable, but surely if he'd done something to warrant execution, he would have some inkling.

Aramis' wave is dismissive. "Oh, just a duel, Father Joseph was going to come up with some suitable victim."

"'Come up with'? Then I did not--"

"No." Relief washes over him as Aramis continues. "Regardless, His Majesty the King is very fond of you and did not wish to see you separated from your head."

"Big heart, the king has." Porthos nods.

Athos pinches the bridge of his nose, desperately wishing for full-strength brandy and a straight answer. "As punishment for a fabricated crime I did not commit, he saddled me with you three and a title. I don't know that 'heart' is the word I would choose."

"You haven't even heard the best part." D'Artagnan sounds faintly offended, and Athos looks at him. His clothes are the simplest of the lot.

"And you are what, my boot boy?"

"Your groom."

Athos raises an eyebrow.

"Um. My lord?"

Athos rolls his eyes back in the direction of Aramis, whose smile has shifted away from mischief and into something gentler. "As I was saying, a soldier might have been executed, but for an illustrious person such as yourself, monsieur le comte de Brassard, exile is far more fitting."

From that, he picks out 'exile' and 'comte.' This is the best part? He stares at Aramis in hopes he will start speaking sense at some point.

"And it just so happens that the duc d'Orléans has also been recently exiled."

"Well." D'Artagnan cuts in to issue a correction. "He ran, but they're saying he was exiled."

"Up and disappeared from Amiens in the middle of the night," Porthos says. "Didn't take his baggage, nothing. Probably plotting against the king."

Athos swallows more of the drink. "No one schemes like Gaston," he says, unsurprised. The king's younger brother, the duc d'Orléans, had been next in line for the throne until the birth of the dauphin. He'd spent his life up to that point agitating, conspiring, rabble-rousing, and generally making a nuisance of himself. Everyone had hoped the birth of Louis' son would put an end to Gaston's intrigues, but evidently, it had not.

He looks at Aramis over the top of his glass. "Is it the usual intriguing, or does he suspect he has a better claim than the dauphin?"

Aramis opens his mouth. Closes his mouth. Looks at the ceiling. "I assumed the usual intriguing until this moment. I think... yes, I still do. The usual intriguing."

He sighs. "And his co-conspirators?"

"Don't know that, either." Porthos shrugs. "Or where things stand." A stack of letters had been found, attempts to rally support and raise funds, but there was nothing concrete. The letters had been unaddressed and Orléans had fled before he could be questioned.

"This is all quite the coincidence," Athos says. "I take it we are in exile already?" All three of them nod with varying degrees of apprehension, and Athos sighs again. It's hardly the first time he'd drunk himself so insensible that he'd woken up elsewhere, but he'd not expected these three to be behind it. Then again, he doesn't imagine they had much choice, not if the king and Father Joseph are involved. He never would have agreed to this sober.

"So the king's brother is plotting against him, and I'm to play the role of the comte de Brassard and keep an eye on him. Yes?" More nods from the house. The story being given out will raise no questions: a drink, a duel, a death. He rubs at his throbbing temple.

"There wasn't someone more suitable?" Someone, perhaps, who had not needed to be dragged from a wine-soaked gutter, or someone who had displayed any talent whatsoever for subterfuge.

But the look the three of them exchange speaks of long nights spent sleepless at the garrison, waiting anxiously for word about him, his whereabouts, his well-being. Guilt squirms through his stomach. D'Artagnan says, "Treville wanted you," and he does not even try to make it believable.

"I see." Athos lets it go. "And where, exactly, are we?"

"L'hôtel de Brassard, of course," Aramis says. "Your townhouse. Many of your things are already here."

"I am glad to hear it. What things?" He doesn't have any things. "Where are we?"

"Very choice location," Porthos says, with an enthusiastic nod. "Very close to the palace."

Athos does not grind his teeth, but only because he's certain it would exacerbate his aching head. "Whose. Palace."

"The duc's, naturally," Aramis says with a smile that does not come anywhere near his eyes. "Oh, you meant where are we." He visibly steels himself for an explosion. "We're in Nancy."

Back in Lorraine, then. Athos stands without a word and drains his brandy-scented water, one last drink before he dries himself out and starts again. He walks out of the room. Behind him, Aramis' voice is overbright. "That went well."

*

The shaking starts that night.

He does not sleep. He doesn't even try -- he takes one look inside the bedchamber, takes in the large oaken bed curtained in a particular shade of blue and lurches back out again, unwilling to face it. He knows how the next fortnight is going to go, and his demons need no help from drapers and dyers.

Instead he curls around himself on the hard settee in the adjacent cabinet and sweats through his clothes until Aramis and d'Artagnan wrestle him out of them. He tries to get away from them, their too-gentle hands with their too many fingers which don't feel like fingers at all so much as they are fleas all over him, crawling, jumping, biting. He scratches. He scratches. He tries to stop, when his fingernails have broken and bloodied, when he can feel eyes on him, watching from the shadows, mocking and heavy with disapproval. He tries to stop, but cannot.

Time passes without so much as a by-your-leave from him, or he thinks it does; either way, he has nothing to show for it. He has only his brothers, and although some pathetic part of him is glad for their presence, he wishes fervently for silence. They speak constantly, at all hours, their voices reaching his ears no matter where they are, no matter how he shouts or what he buries his head beneath. They speak to each other; to the staff they have hired; to visitors come to call on the newly arrived comte; to men who come and go with clothing and plate and tapestries and furniture and art from his estate in Brassard; and finally, to his wife.

He never sees any of these visitors, and he especially does not see Anne, but the air is thick with her scent and the eyes he feels on him in the dark can belong to no one else. He recognises the way his skin tightens under her gaze; the way his breathing changes as her eyes narrow; the way his body jerks to attention like a dog brought to heel when all she's done is tilt her head. The shadows move when she does, a flash of colour in the tail of his eye he is never quite fast enough to catch, and any time he manages to move it is with the full expectation that he'll turn round and there she will be.

She's not. It isn't real. It's the barrel fever and he knows it, and he's weak with it, and when he finally falls asleep he wakes up screaming. Or-- he'd tried to scream, just as now he tries to apologise to d'Artagnan, who had woken him up half-panicked and says no, there was no screaming, only a hollow choking rasp as Athos writhed on the floor, eyes wide and mouth open, spine bowed.

He tries again to apologise. Sorry, he says, sorry, I am sorry, and he's on his knees at Anne's feet, begging her forgiveness, begging her to come back to him, hoping she'll say yes and some good will come from this Hell after all, from the way it loosens his tongue, shreds his self-control, lets him say those things he knows need saying but which he has never mustered the courage to voice. He doesn't know what he's done this time, he had thought them reconciled, but perhaps she hadn't understood what he tried to tell her. He tries again, again, and the hand in his hair is gentle, but it's not-- it's not that she was never gentle, but there's something wrong, and he looks up to see Porthos staring down at him with such sympathy that Athos tackles him to the ground starts throwing punches.

His first blow connects because Porthos is surprised, but then Porthos handles him easily, has him face-down on the boards whilst he shouts for Aramis. His stomach cramps and twists and sends nausea rolling through him, the price he pays for moving like that, and Aramis says, "oh, knock him out already, he needs to rest. We all do."

There is a reason he usually does this alone.

Chapter Text

Time drags. Christmastide approaches. By Gaudete Sunday, Athos has survived another bout of bottleache and is semi-functional, and he is pleased to note that in Nancy, as in Paris -- as in everywhere he's ever heard of -- drunken members of the nobility are not expected to rise before noon. In fact, the days being as short as they are, he's barely expected to rise before sundown, and in that respect, he finds he is well-suited for his current mission. In all other respects, his selection leaves something to be desired.

The court of Lorraine is young, the duc not yet 30 and his wife abandoned in Paris whilst Charles remains in Nancy racing horses and hosting tournaments and going hunting and bedding any woman who will have him. Most of them will: He is the duc, after all, a tall man, fit, with an open face prone to smiling, who surrounds himself with sport and pleasure. He and Gaston are well-suited in temperament, being close in age and inclination, fond of dancing and drinking and playing cards until all hours of the night. Orléans' entourage, a group of wastrels he took up with when his first wife died, have been trickling through the city gates in their finery and feathered hats, adding glitter and glamour to the city's Advent festivities and bolstering the air of joyful expectation. This entourage is referred to as his Council of Good-for-Nothings, and Athos has tired of them before he learns their names.

For all that Nancy is the traditional home to French malcontents and exiles, and the comte de Brassard is ostensibly both, Athos does not fit all that comfortably into court life. Oh, they all seem to like him well enough, though he doesn't understand it. He does not adopt some other personality. He is neither welcoming nor ingratiating. He refuses most of the invitations which come his way. But when he does appear, or issue invites of his own, they take his money and drink his wine and it isn't long before they begin to seek out his advice on all manner of odd problems -- my best gelding has cataracts, my lord, what should I do? The red doublet or the grey? French silk or Italian? If I want a love letter taken to the Marquise, how should I send it? The postmaster is a postmistress, you know, and you can never be sure what a woman will do, but speaking of the postmistress, don't you think my lady is exquisite? All the skin has peeled from my left foot, have you any recommendations? Parry and riposte: one tempo or two? This poem I wrote, monsieur, what think you, is it too much about my lady's bosoms?

Nothing ever shows on his face, and he never beats his head against the table, but Athos cannot for the life of him figure out why anyone wants his opinion on any of it. All the same, he answers whatever questions he is asked, but until he is better established, he cannot start asking questions of his own. The only useful thing he learns is that he can drink the lot of them under the table, and so he does: often, and ruthlessly, and when they are stumbling or sick or sleeping, he searches whatever he can.

He is looking for treaties and letters which speak of rebellion and the hiring of mercenaries and the movement of troops, but if they exist, they are locked away. The closest he comes to anything of value is a small stack of love letters in Orléans' bedchamber, all from a Lady M, but Athos doesn't know who that is and does not particularly care. He takes them anyway, but no one can make sense of them, and then they are lost in the shuffle of papers on his desk. Apparently, when Louis gave him the comté he actually gave him the damn comté, and there is plenty of correspondence involved in its administration. Aramis handles it; Athos retains his policy of never reading his mail.

Other people's mail, however, he spends a great deal of time trying to read. Gossip and petty intrigue he finds in spades, but conspiracy he does not. He pictures Anne with her hairpin and tries his hand at lock-picking, but he never gets the hang of it, and he never finds anything, and no one ever tells him anything, and Christmas gives way to Epiphany, and Candlemas approaches and here they remain, Aramis fussing with Athos' hair whilst Porthos and d'Artagnan do the real work of attempting to make friends in low places and bribe members of the palace staff for useful information.

"If you'd just let me curl it, then--"

"No." His hair curls plenty on its own.

"Rumour has it that the Lady de Marcin has been exhibiting an interest in you," Aramis says, and Athos wonders if Aramis has taken leave of his senses. Then he remembers that no, Aramis simply relishes making him miserable. "And I'm told her previous paramours have all had rather luxuriant curls."

"Lady de Marcin." Athos rubs at his face. "Which one is she?"

"She is the sister to the former duchesse's former surintendante," Aramis tells him, "and she would be an extremely good person with whom to get better acquainted. I know you hate this, but think how much more quickly it would be over if you would exhibit any interest whatsoever in the goings-on around you."

He considers this advice. "And the duchesse is who, again?" Aramis twists his hair quite a bit harder than necessary, and Athos hides his smile behind his hand. "I will not be seducing the Lady de Marcin," he says. "That is more your method than mine, and she only evinces interest in anyone as part of an elaborate game." She seduces men and lures them into some further impropriety, at which point her husband turns up and is outraged, monsieur, outraged, and he really ought to demand satisfaction for this but as everyone knows, he's an excellent swordsman, and he would be equally satisfied with a monetary donation and yes, obviously it's all very scandalous but no one shall ever speak of it again.

Aramis takes a step back and looks at him, hand on his hip. "How do you know all that?"

"It was spoken of again."

"What else do you know?"

"Nothing."

"Hmmm," Aramis says, and prods him to stand up. Athos does so, one arm and then the other lifting so Aramis can slide on today's jacket. He no longer feels attached to his limbs. He no longer feels attached to anything, for that matter, and Christ, but he misses the Musketeers. His time as their captain may have been a disaster, but life as a soldier had provided him with a clear purpose, an endless list of tasks on which to concentrate. There were always weapons to maintain, quarters to clean, drills to run, horses to care for, uniforms to mend -- and there were always people who cared if those tasks were done, and done well.

Here, there is no list. Nothing seems to matter. He knows where he's going but not how to get there, and he finds himself adrift despite his mission and the anchor of his brothers. There is nothing he understands.

Or perhaps there is one thing. I will not send two dozen men to their deaths because I'm overfond of your grasping cunt. He wants to punch himself every time he thinks about it, but he never has figured out how to manage that effectively. No wonder Anne had left him.

He hadn't wanted to discuss it, and so they hadn't -- not the argument, not the knife, not his drunken suicidal ravings. They'd simply come together in the darkness, his confession and contrition breathed into her skin until finally she had touched him, she'd absolved him, and he had been remade. But that's another thing he's never figured out: how to want the things he should.

Right now he wants a drink. Because it bothers him, that Anne had done it all again, destroyed his life anew. She'd warned him, once, no peace until we're dead, but still he prods and worries at the wound like a loose tooth. His house he understands, and her years bent on revenge, but this -- betraying him again, sending them into an ambush -- even after what he'd said to her, he does not understand. She'd claimed to want a life with him and he had believed her, and he may be a thrice-damned fool, but some part of him believes her even now. He can't otherwise explain that mad coupling against the tavern wall, the way she'd smiled at him in the mornings when she still was half-asleep, those hazy, sex-drenched weeks in the field.

And then that Austrian had shown up and everything had gone to Hell. "Did you find out anything about the Austrian?" he asks.

Aramis, who had apparently been talking, stops doing so. He frowns, steps away. "What Austrian?"

"Schmidt. She said he called himself Schmidt." Not that he imagines that's his real name.

"Are you still-- Athos. It's been months."

Yes, several of which I don't remember. He rubs at his forehead. "De Cormier had written to Father Joseph, and I thought-- if Schmidt was controlling the dispatches... perhaps l'Éminence might know something. You spoke to him in Paris." There must be some connection they're missing.

"Yes." Aramis presses his lips together. "But not about Schmidt. I suppose we could write to him, but I'm not entirely sure he can be trusted." A pause. "He did work for the cardinal."

"As did my wife."

After a few moments, Aramis steps forward again, starts on the buttons. "I don't know what that means," he says. "Are we for your wife this week, or against her?"

He would like to be irritated by the question, but the truth is, he has no idea. Neither. Both. The Cardinal was the First Minister of France; Athos may not have approved of his methods, but working for him was not treason. Usually. Except for that time he tried to assassinate the queen, after which point Aramis had committed treason, too. He shakes his head. "Christ, I don't know. Never mind. What were you saying?"

"Hm? Oh, only that d'Artagnan says the guards don't like that new alchemist. Dufort, I think his name is."

"Oh, him." Athos sniffs. "He won't last long. He exaggerates his talents so as to command a higher price, but he recently ran afoul of the marchese d'Abati, a favourite of the duc who's been trying to secure a position in Queen Anne's household so she can leave Nancy and her debt-ridden husband, but she fell pregnant after a regrettable incident with--"

"All right, stop." Aramis shoves at Athos' shoulders until he drops to his dressing stool. He watches, face schooled into impassivity, as Aramis drags a hand through his hair and begins to pace, clearly frustrated. "Every day, we-- every day we ask you what you've learned, you shrug your shoulders and say nothing, you know nothing, you've learned nothing, you want to go home."

"Yes." Athos stares at him, but no more information seems forthcoming. "And?"

"And." Aramis throws up his hands. "And you know everything!"

"Hardly." Athos tugs at the cuffs of his shirt, trying to get the proper amount of lace to show at his wrists without messing up his sleeves. "The bedroom adventures of the marchese have nothing to do with Monsieur's scheming."

Aramis looks at the ceiling. "Right. Why don't you try telling me what you know about the duc."

Athos thinks about it. He knows Gaston is opposite to his brother in nearly every way: fair where Louis is dark, active where he is artistic, credulous where he is suspicious, lighthearted where he is serious, generous where he is jealous. He is better than Louis at most things -- hunting, dancing, flirting, and if Athos ever sees his wife again, he'll be sure to ask about the fucking.

But even compared to Louis, Gaston is weak-minded, easily led, and in Athos' presence he has displayed no political ambition. Suggest to him he should be king and he agrees, but if the suggestion isn't made, he is happy to lounge about the courts of Europe with his Council of Good-for-Nothings. Each time one of his plots has come unraveled, he'd proved himself a coward or a puppet, and Athos can only assume this time will be no different. It will not be enough to learn what Gaston is up to or who is helping him; he needs to learn who is pulling the strings. As of this moment, he has no idea.

"He can't sleep under the same roof as a woman without compromising her," Athos finally says, adjusting his cuffs once more. "And he does not like to be kept waiting."

Aramis sighs and lets him go.

***

The duc de Lorraine's chamberlain is the vicomte de Suchet, a serious man with a serious moustache, probably in his late 40s, and he fancies himself in love for the first time. In fact, he will not shut up about it, all the ways in which he would serve his lady love if only she would let him, if only she would tell him how he might be of use, if only she would command him. She is not indifferent, he says, I know it, she's said so, she's written me the most eloquent letters, I should show you, my lord, never in all of history have such beguilements been expressed with such artistry of hand.

Athos shuts his eyes and presses his cup of wine to the middle of his forehead, hoping to soothe his sudden headache. Somehow this is taken as encouragement, and the vicomte continues, lurching between extremes of sorrow and rapture as he speaks of her milk-white skin and her grass-green eyes and the games she plays with his affection, the liberties she promises him but in actuality never allows, the times she says yes and yes and yes again and then finally no, the hints of what she permits other men, all of which she would preserve for him and him alone if only he would-- what, he does not know, she will not say, she keeps him guessing. What is it she wants?

Christ in Heaven. I'd imagine, Athos drawls, that she's getting it.

Suchet sucks in his breath, alarmed. From whom, he wonders, but of course that is the game: to keep him looking at every man at court and half the women, wondering, is it you? Or perhaps you? It's maddening, truly. And the years she spent in Paris, you know, her bedroom tricks, they are fast becoming legendary-- except that no one has touched her, she says, and so how would anyone know?

From what seems a great distance, Athos feels himself go cold. Pale skin, Suchet had said. Green eyes. Paris. Bedroom tricks. Your grasping--.

"Perhaps I should throw my hat into the ring," he says, which would be a risk if anyone were likely to believe he would do it. The court thinks him most of a eunuch, at the very least a drunk, exiled from Paris after killing his wife's lover and locking said wife away in a convent. Rumour has it she'd taken a lover because monsieur le comte de Brassard was lacking in both interest and ability, and Athos has done nothing to discourage that view -- beyond making sure anyone expressing it within his hearing has a life-threateningly poor time of it.

But Suchet surprises him. "Would you really? I had the impression you were done with love."

Athos stares at him.

"No? I have heard the rumours, you know. I haven't lent them any credence, of course, people do so love to say the most outrageous things, but it would be nice to have the truth of it direct from you."

Athos keeps staring.

Suchet clears his throat. "At some later date, perhaps."

"Perhaps," Athos says, when Hell freezes over. "And who mentioned love? I don't even know who you are talking about."

"Don't you?" Suchet's eyes widen in surprise. "I should have thought it would be obvious. I speak of the Lady Gaëtane von Kirchner, of course."

"Of course." The mysterious postmistress. He's been half-heartedly trying to meet her for weeks. Austrian, he'd thought. "Assuage my curiosity on one point, monsieur. Her hair -- what colour is it?"

"Oh." Suchet frowns as if this is a difficult question. "Can you believe it, I don't even know that much, not truly, but she wears the most beautiful blonde wigs you have ever seen. Clearly a woman of means." Suchet proceeds to spend the next ten minutes rhapsodising about her false silken curls in exhaustive, excruciating detail. Athos spends those ten minutes wondering if it's possible to drink himself to death in that amount of time. He is attempting to find out -- for science, you know -- when Suchet mercifully ceases his oration and squints at him across the table. "Apologies, monsieur, I do tend to go on. Are you all right?"

Athos nods and wishes for home. For Paris, specifically, but even his home in Nancy will do. He wants to leave and say to Aramis no, I still know nothing, but he supposes he ought to be certain, and so he interrogates Suchet as gently as he can. Idly, almost, from somewhere in his cups, whilst losing at cards. The lady has truly asked you for nothing, he says, she does not wish for you to speak to the duc in support of some cause, she does not ask you to borrow a diamond necklace or ferry trinkets about or leave a side door to the palace unguarded or write letters or read your correspondence or--

"Write letters? Read my correspondence?" Suchet laughs, incredulous. "She is the Postmistress General of Lorraine. She does not need my help to read anyone's correspondence." He takes more of Athos' money. "Not even yours."

Athos lifts his glass. "She is welcome to it."

Through the haze of the drink, Suchet's eyes sharpen to points. "Is she?"

"Certainly." Athos curls his lip in disgust. "My letters contain nothing but rank, regrettable sentimentality. My wife, my home, my king." It's common knowledge he is bitter about all three. He doesn't even need to pretend.

"Your king," Suchet murmurs, and then deals the cards and drinks in silence. The quiet lasts long enough for Athos to begin thinking of an excuse to leave, and then Suchet says, "What if you had a different king?"

Athos sits back in his chair and lifts his eyebrows, a Florentine ducat twisting through his fingers. Suchet says nothing, and Athos looks at the gold in his hands. It's an old piece, dull and clipped, and St. John winks at him as the coin flips. He is oddly surprised. He'd assumed the conspirators were intending to put Orléans on the throne, but Suchet works for Lorraine, and so Athos finds himself contemplating King Charles... IX or X, something like that.

As far as he knows, the House of Lorraine doesn't have a claim to the French throne, but it's been a long time since he looked at the hereditary charts, and longer still since he gave a damn. He wants a good king, strong and fair and compassionate and wise, and nothing about his life in and out of the aristocracy has convinced him those qualities have anything to do with blood. True, Lorraine is probably a better choice than Orléans, but putting Charles on the throne would mean killing every living Bourbon -- Louis and Gaston included -- in which case, why would Orléans support it?

No, this can only mean Lorraine is in on it for some reason; Gaston must have promised him something. Athos looks up. Suchet is still watching him. He tosses the ducat into the small pile in the middle of the table. "Did you have someone in mind?"

Suchet chews his moustache and seems about to answer when there is a commotion from one of the adjacent rooms. Athos stiffens in his chair, but it's only Orléans and his drunken entourage. Gaston sticks his head through the doorway, an off-kilter grin smeared across his narrow face. Athos glances at him and then back at Suchet, his eyes flat but his question clear. In answer, Suchet gives him a serene smile and an ambiguous shrug.

"Brassard!" Gaston shouts. He lurches across the room and falls into one of the empty chairs. "There you are. Losing more money?"

"Monsieur." Athos bows his head.

Orléans looks round the room, squinting into the darkened corners. "You've not seen Lady Marguerite, have you?"

Athos blinks slowly, unsure what care Gaston has for Lorraine's younger sister, and tries to recall. "Not today." Not in several days; Lady Marguerite seldom ventures out in public.

"Good." Orléans leans over, conspiratorial, a hand slipping across the table to send coins clattering to the floor. "There's to be a rank ball," he says, in what he probably thinks is a whisper. "The ladies have already arrived and I'm told they have many questions. I find myself very keen to answer all of them." He tries to demonstrate the sort of answers he intends to provide, and nearly topples from the chair. "You should come."

Yes, a room full of naked prostitutes and drunken courtiers is exactly what he needs. He is in Hell. The ninth circle, it seems, him and Judas Iscariot. Athos had broken his vows and dishonoured his wife, time and time again, and this is to be his punishment: an eternity of listening to the duc d'Orléans talk about his cock. "I assure you, my lord, I'm having a fabulous time. No doubt your answers will be more than enough to satisfy." He twists his mouth, and the duc sits back with a grimace.

"Bleeding Christ," Orléans mutters, his hands up. "Only stop making that face. You're sure?"

Athos lifts his near-empty wineglass and uses it to gesture at the bottles strewn about the room. "I believe I'm nearly finished for the evening. Next time, perhaps."

"Yes, next time, or I shall think you don't like me." Orléans blinks again, swaying in his seat, and then is suddenly serious. "I'd very much like to know you like me."

"I do, Monsieur. You've only to tell me how I can serve you." Is there a treaty I can sign, perhaps, and of course I'll need a copy or two of my own, signed and sealed and witnessed, thank you, and now if you would be so kind as to accompany me back to Paris, you've a room awaiting your presence at the Bastille.

"I'll do that," the duc says, but he doesn't. He claps Athos on the shoulder and staggers off to his rank ball, about which Athos is sure to hear about later in agonising detail.

He stays a while longer, drinking and playing cards with Suchet, hoping to draw him into further conversation about the conspiracy. But as Suchet falls further into his cups, he is increasingly unable to speak of anything but his love for the postmistress, a conversation which comes with too many questions about Athos' own shattered love. He can't bear it. He makes his excuses and leaves before the sun comes up, and if he still doesn't have concrete proof regarding a conspiracy, at least he's now sure there is one.

Chapter Text

It has been raining for days, a steady, dreary drip of frozen water leaking from the heavens, and the ambassador from Charles, by the Grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, et cetera, is right at home in the grey gloom. Sir Balthazar Gerbier is a short, wide man who looks like one of those bulldogs from his country, all drooping jowls and sad brown eyes. He paces the length of Athos' gallery, anger making him move more quickly than Athos thought possible.

"This-- c'est intolerandus!" he shouts in a nigh-incomprehensible mixture of French, English, and Latin. He does usually manage to confine himself to a single language when discharging his official duties, but once the wine comes out, all bets are off. The wine came out some time ago.

Athos himself stands with one shoulder to the wall, staring out the nearest set of windows as the rain sheets down over his gardens. He is sipping claret and only partially listening to Gerbier, who seems convinced there is some vast conspiracy to drive him back to his previous posting in Brussels, currently playing host to Marie de' Medici, King Louis' exiled mother. It is something about Louis' sister Henriette-Marie, who is married to King Charles, who is infatuated with a French duchesse, who is sleeping with Charles' Master of the Horse, whose sister is the Queen Mother's wardrobe mistress, who is involved with some Bohemian ambassador in some way Athos can never remember and about which he could not possibly care less.

Officially, Gerbier's assignment is to convince Lorraine's sister Henriette to negotiate with the Cardinal-Infante of Spain to restore the Palatinate to someone's nephew. Again, Athos cannot remember. A crisis, Gerbier is always saying, a veritable crisis, to which Athos is always responding that the nephew's father was stripped of the Palatinate nearly fifteen years ago. How much of a crisis can it be? Gerbier huffs. His jowls tremble. "Perhaps I should return to Brussels after all."

"Mmmm," Athos says. It's fine with him. His shoulder twitches upwards, an approximation of a shrug.

Gerbier huffs again, mutters something under his breath about the Queen Mother, and then suddenly, there he is, his pudgy hands clamped on Athos' forearm. His huge dog eyes are watery. "Brassard." He shakes Athos' arm. "Brassard, nous sommes amici, yes? I can trust you? You are un gentilhomme, très silentium, and we are similes."

Athos extracts his arm from Gerbier's grip before the wine can spill. I'm silent because I never know what you're talking about. Similes? "That word means something in English." He is almost sure of it.

Gerbier frowns. "But I am not speaking English," he says, in English.

"Of course." Christ. This city is so entirely peopled entirely by lunatics that Athos wonders if he is the one who has finally lost whatever was left of his mind when Anne got through with him. Perhaps there is a madhouse nearby to which he can retire. "My mistake. What is it?"

"It's Lorraine, he cannot even deliver the mail, I think he cannot deliver Spain, though he did well enough I'm told with the supply lines, and--"

"What?"

Gerbier stops speaking as suddenly as if Athos had cut out his tongue, and Athos wishes he could cut out his own tongue in response. What, he'd said, just the one word, but there had been absolutely nothing of the disinterested, drunken aristocrat in it.

He waits. He sighs. "Forgive me, monsieur, the rain has me short of temper, and I was not long in that area to start." He has to force his fist to unclench before he can say, "I'm afraid I know little about the Spanish supply lines."

"You know at least they run through the duchy." Yes, yes, obviously. "I understand last season there was some trouble."

"Trouble?" Athos asks, and whatever Gerbier says next is lost to the memory of trouble, of his men rotting in the forests of Lorraine, unable to even be buried as Musketeers; of the Spanish appearing out of nowhere when he'd been told where they'd be; of his wife, riding away and leaving him to die.

When Athos forces his attention back to Gerbier, the ambassador is rubbing at his nose, pushing the reddened tip from side to side. "Nescio," he is saying, and as soon as Athos switches his brain over to Latin, Gerbier moves to English.

Stop, Athos pleads, subsisto, for the love of God, choose a language. Choose any language. Choose French.

"Subsisto?" Gerbier frowns at him. "Ah, I see. Your Latin is terrible, monsieur."

Athos looks at him.

"Not that it matters! No, no, it's quite all right, I can-- ah. Right. Yes." He chews his moustache. "What were we talking about?"

"Drinking," Athos says shortly, and turns on his heel. They are doing it already, of course, but there is stronger drink to be had elsewhere and Gerbier, ever the obedient bulldog, trots along behind him as he goes in search of it. "All right," Athos says, pouring, drinking, pouring, sitting. "Please. Start again. You said there was trouble."

After approximately thirty-seven cautionary clauses about no one being completely certain of anything at any point in all of human history, Gerbier manages to complete a sentence. He even ends it in the same language in which he started. The gist of that sentence is that Lorraine would prefer Spain to win the war, because Spain will allow the duc to retain control over his territory; Louis will annex it entire. But Spain does nothing for free, and so Lorraine was told to defend the supply lines from the mysterious ruffians in the forest who were proving difficult to kill. Lorraine had tried, failed, and so acquired help.

Athos breathes very slowly. He speaks very quietly. "From?"

But this is not where Gerbier's interest lies. He sniffs. He chews again at his moustache. He says, "Oh, someone in Paris, I don't know."

Athos looks at him.

Gerbier goes green. "Truly, I do not, Her Majesty said she knew someone, and so the letters, they were sent, they were flung to the far reaches and now you've brought it up, that is why I'm here."

Athos, knowing he has pushed as far as he can, asks, "You're here because of the Queen Mother's letters?"

"Yes!" He throws up his hands. "If Her Majesty wants for this to work, it is necessary for her to take her son in hand. Control her children! Rosales is not so stupid as he appears."

To be fair, the Spanish ambassador does appear rather stupid -- is it the hat? -- but Athos keeps that thought to himself as he tries to keep up with Gerbier, who is back to his half-baked sentences and leaps of logic and language. Eventually he manages to assemble the scraps of information into something resembling coherency: The Spanish will not support Gaston's claim to the throne unless they are convinced, through Rosales, that the duc has somewhat reformed. Anyone with eyes knows the duc has done no such thing. The Queen Mother cannot leave Brussels, and so Gerbier would like her to write her favourite son a strongly worded letter.

As an agent of France, Athos finds the generalities useful. Spain, Marie de' Medici, Lorraine for conspirators. The English for intermediaries. But he had guessed most of that already, and so he finds himself more interested in his own disastrous campaign, ruined by 'someone in Paris,' his own disgrace used to cement the conspirators' alliance. The person in Paris must be well-placed enough to have known of the Musketeers' secret mission in Lorraine, to have staged Treville's murder, to have known exactly how to frame his wife. It is a short list of people who fit that criteria; one of them must be the puppetmaster. He knew that -- he thinks he knew that -- he knows it's what Anne had said, anyway, and now he knows one more thing she'd told him had been true. His feelings about that he sets aside to examine at some later point.

Because as a regular person, Athos finds the particulars bewildering. He has no idea what Marie's letter to her son has to do with him, the post, or the duc de Lorraine. He has even less of an idea how Gerbier expects him to help -- or, for that matter, what the problem actually is. There is clearly something he's missing, and he tries to pay attention, really, but his ears still ring with remembered gunfire and Gerbier is dictating the contents of this strongly worded letter as if Athos is the Queen Mother's secretary.

"So you see the problem!" Gerbier concludes, but he does not give Athos the opportunity to say no. "You have Lorraine's ear, do you not? You are neutral, well-regarded. You can speak to him."

"About what?"

"Jesus Maria, the shrugging, the hands, for five minutes could you be less French?" Gerbier huffs rather vehemently. Athos does not elucidate his opinions of the English. "Five minutes only, it is all I ask. The communications here, they are compromised."

Athos swivels his head around. He has heard that sentence before. "What?"

Gerbier falters and shrinks back. This time, Athos does not care. "I--" Gerbier starts again, but he does not get far. "Monsieur?"

"You are certain?"

Gerbier is certain. He has no proof, but even so, he is certain. The diplomatic pouch from London arrives on Tuesdays but he doesn't get it until Thursdays. What happens to it in the meantime? Where does it go? From Brussels, the delay is longer. Sometimes letters disappear for weeks. Sometimes, the seals are off. One time, he got a letter sealed with the wrong signet altogether and how likely is that, signed by one duke and sealed by another? Not likely at all. The post is riddled with spies, Gerbier insists, they steal the mail, redirect it, sell it to the highest bidder, God only knows.

Spies are the cost of doing business, of course, everyone knows that, but these spies are making his life impossible. He needs to know what he is dealing with. If the mail is all sold to the Spanish, he must warn the Queen Mother. She can hardly send a strongly worded letter to her son telling him to be careful of the Spanish if the Spanish are going to read it.

Gerbier's solution, which he seems pleased to have come up with, is for Athos to speak to the duc: find out if the mail is monitored by Lorraine's orders, and if so, who gets to read it. If only the duc gets to read it, then it hardly matters what the Queen Mother writes to her son, because the duc knows everything already. If the Spanish get to read it, Gerbier will know how to proceed. And if Lorraine does not realise the mail is compromised -- well, surely Athos will gain by bringing this issue to His Grace's attention?

Gerbier cannot do it himself because he had made the mistake of first asking Suchet, and everyone knows Suchet is in love with the postmistress and will not hear a word against her, and Suchet controls access to the duc, and so now if Gerbier so much as mentions the mail in the duc's presence, Suchet lapses into some kind of coughing fit and hustles him out of the room. "But you, Brassard, Suchet does not control your access, you can simply ask His Grace over cards or at one of your balls or-- whatever it is you do."

What he does is drink more. If there is some systematic corruption of the duchy's post, surely the duc already knows about it. Surely it can come from nowhere but the top.

"But at the top is the postmistress." Gerbier's laugh is derisive. "A woman, spying? Whoever heard of such a thing?"

"Of course," Athos murmurs, and thinks oh, by the blood of Christ. "A ridiculous notion."

*

That night, long after Gerbier has left, Athos sits in his cabinet staring at a pile of letters and feeling more insane than usual. He sniffs cautiously at a few of them, but can smell nothing. He would know his wife's scent anywhere, he's sure. That is, unless she has changed it, along with her name and her hair. He sniffs at a few of the others: still nothing, and more of the same when he examines them for signs of forgery. The seals show no evidence of tampering, and the handwriting all looks genuine enough.

But Athos is no expert, and Gerbier had been quite clear. The mail -- all of it, private dispatches and diplomatic papers and couriered messages -- is suspect, not to be trusted. She doesn't need my help reading anyone's correspondence, Suchet had said, and there had been other comments here and there, nothing Athos had paid attention to. But now a picture begins to emerge, and Athos reels with the ramifications. Hidden rooms teeming with linguists and mathematicians and forgers, someone reading every word that passes through Lorraine.

Anne would be perfect. No, Anne is perfect. The postmistress is ostensibly an Austrian, and hadn't Anne disappeared with one? Hadn't there been something happening with the dispatches as Musketeers had died in the forest?

Had she--? No. No, this is absolute insanity. He truly has lost his mind.

He needs to focus. He grabs for a bottle of wine and pours some down his throat, not bothering with a glass, and then goes back to staring at his mail. Most of it has to do with the comté, and otherwise there is nothing of import. It had taken him some time to get established in Nancy, and more time still to have anything worth reporting, and now -- how do you report a suspicion that someone is reading your mail without alerting the person in question? Anne would know.

He swallows more wine and rings for the others.

"My lord?" Aramis sticks his head in the door almost instantly.

"Don't," Athos says, glaring at him for the title and beckoning him into the room. Porthos and d'Artagnan trail in shortly thereafter, and when the door is closed, Athos explains the situation as best he can -- excepting his demented suspicions about his wife. That's paranoia, or fantasy, and either way, there is no need to discuss it.

"A false post office sounds like one of Richelieu's schemes." From the settee, d'Artagnan looks up. "Are we sure he's dead?"

Athos looks sidelong.

"All right," d'Artagnan says, unabashed. "What about Milady, then?" Trust d'Artagnan to simply blurt out what Athos had been both thinking and not thinking.

"No," he snaps, and the cold surety in his voice surprises even him.

"But--"

"No."

"All right." Porthos, leaning against the door, asks, "So what're we gonna do about it? We need to find out if someone's tampering with the mail before we can do anything else, yeah?"

"I have an idea," Athos says, looking at Aramis, who immediately starts grinning in anticipation. "I thought you might send a letter to your friend."

"My friend?"

"The laundress."

"My cousin, you mean." Aramis' smile stretches wide. "Saying what?"

"Oh, something about how much I miss Paris and would like to come home, and to that end I plan to prove my love and loyalty to His Majesty by putting a stop to the foul conspiracy I have uncovered here in Nancy." He pauses to consider. "Do you think we should say I plan to arrest Orléans, or kill him?"

Aramis scratches at his beard and looks at Porthos. "You know what really says love and loyalty?"

Porthos considers. "An assassination attempt?"

"My thoughts exactly."

"So be it," Athos says. "Make up a time and place."

"And you want me to then send this letter to my friend?"

"Your cousin, you mean? Yes." If the postmistress is reading his mail, surely something will happen. Someone will come to thwart the assassination, or someone will try to kill him, and either way, they'll know more than they do right now.

"This is a terrible plan," Aramis says with relish. "Give me the pen."

Chapter Text

Candlemas. Athos has an unlit taper in one hand and the hilt of his sword in the other. His breath hangs in the frigid February air, mingling with that of the crowd, contributing to the haze. He can barely see. There is a cloud of breath and burning incense, fog rolls in from the river, and the candles are more tallow than beeswax, a rank and dirty burn that hovers in the air, illuminated by the flames. He is surrounded, suffocated by people, by smoke, by the solemn, otherworldly chanting of the choir, on its third time through the adorna thalamum tuum as half the population of Nancy slowly walks behind the golden cross of Cardinal Nicolas-François, the duc's younger brother.

Athos is near the front with the other members of the court, and in the distance he can see the blazing red-sun window of l'Église des Cordeliers, where they're to celebrate Mass. He spares a moment to wonder just how many candles are burning inside the building to make the window so visible in this murky dark, but he's torn from his reverie by a slight commotion ahead of him, near where Orléans is walking.

Athos' hand tightens on his sword as he shoulders his way closer, trying to see what's happening, but he doesn't get very far before everything returns to normal and the faithful resume their reverent shuffle. He falls in with the rest of them, but he's uneasy: He can feel eyes on him, the guards stationed along the route, the night watch, Aramis and d'Artagnan on the rooftops, Porthos at his back, and someone else, waiting. He wonders who it is, if it's someone nearby, if it's someone he knows, how close he'll have to get to the duc before that someone makes a move.

Bells ring out just as the choir finishes the antiphon -- vitae et mortis et salvatorem mundi -- and they wait for the pealing to stop before they start up again. Behind him, someone trips, the point of an elbow jabbing hard into his back. He grunts and turns, grabbing the man by his shoulders and shoving, but the man is just a man, some marquis Athos vaguely recognises, stumbling on the uneven cobbles and trying not to burn himself. Athos mutters an apology and lets the man light his candle for him; it keeps blowing out, but he won't put up his hand to shield it from the wind. His hand needs to stay on his sword.

He thanks the man anyway, and when Athos looks up again, he cannot see Orléans. He swears under his breath and tries to move closer, but the crowd has thickened and seems to be pressing on him from all sides. Hot wax drips onto the back of his hand and he hisses and blows the damned thing out. There is a sharp prodding at his side, but when he tries to bat it away, there's nothing there. He whirls: still nothing. He swears again, and he still cannot see the duc, and he pushes at the person in front of him, trying to get a better look, trying to get close. He thinks he can hear Porthos shouting behind him but he doesn't turn, just keeps shoving his way through the crush of bodies.

He has his hand on Gaston's shoulder before he realises no one is going to stop him. If Athos wants to run the duc through, this is as good a time as any.

Orléans turns, haughty, then confused, then curious. Athos takes a breath. He takes another. He holds up his candle, do you mind, my lord, and Gaston lights it for him. "Thank you, Monsieur," Athos says. No one looks at him twice. They arrive at the church and file inside.

*

As soon as Mass is over, he collects Aramis and the two of them head home to meet Porthos and d'Artagnan. Aramis is having trouble deciding whether he is more relieved or disappointed that no one had tried to kill Athos during the procession, but Athos himself is suffering no such ambivalence: He's disappointed. He'd spent the last few days under house arrest because Porthos was convinced someone would come for him if he stepped foot outside, and so he hadn't been able to learn anything new about the plot to kill the king, and now their attempt to learn something about the post has also failed.

Unless, of course, the postmistress read the letter and wanted him to kill the duc. Or unless she was monitoring the mail and simply hadn't got to his letter yet. Or unless she'd tried to stop him but something had gone wrong. Or unless Gerbier was lying. Or unless something else is going on which hasn't occurred to him because he is not good at this. He groans inwardly, wishing he were home, already thirsting for wine so badly he can taste it. He hates this. Diplomacy, they call it, but all it is to him is duplicity. He understands its import, and the deeper in he gets, the more he realises its need, but he has no personal taste for it. He wants only a sword in his hand and a brother at his back, solid and certain, not these shifting sands of possibility and betrayal. It's exhausting, these unending circles of thought that have him questioning everything and everyone he knows.

He drops back a pace to walk next to Aramis, who has been trailing few steps behind like a proper servant. He bumps his shoulder into that of his brother, Aramis jostles him in return, and they are more or less together when they round the corner leading to l'Hôtel de Brassard. They stop in their tracks. The main gate is wide open but no one is there to meet them, and the sconces on the outer wall aren't lit. Nor are the ones inside the courtyard. There is no light coming from any of the windows of the house.

They look at one another and start moving, Athos drawing his sword and Aramis extinguishing his lantern before fading into the shadows. Athos creeps along behind him, and they slip inside the gate and make their way along the wall towards the stables, the only part of the property showing any sign of life. There's a low wall and another gate, also wide open, and beyond that the small servants' courtyard. The main doors of the stable are open, flickering light from a brazier spilling into the courtyard before being swallowed by the darkness.

Closer now, they stop to listen. From inside, the the snuffle and snort of the horses, and then the low murmur of d'Artagnan and Porthos, arguing under their breath. Aramis nods at one of the high windows and Athos sheathes his sword and laces his hands to give Aramis a boost. Aramis jumps, pauses, pulls himself up to see, and then mutters, Christ. He drops to the ground with a thud and marches inside, irritated.

Athos follows with a sigh, and he sighs again as he takes in the scene inside. There is an unconscious man on the floor, trussed up like a turkey. This is presumably thanks to Porthos, who is rubbing at his swollen knuckles with a fearsome frown on his face. D'Artagnan has a split lip which is slowly dripping blood down his chin, and Aramis is glaring at the both of them, his hands planted on his hips. "I can't believe we missed the fun," he says. "The action was here the whole time!"

"Everyone's all right?" Athos asks. They nod, d'Artagnan passing the back of his wrist across his mouth and looking sheepish.

"He was on his way out the house when we got back," Porthos says, nudging the unconscious man with his boot. "Tried to run. You know him?"

Athos crouches to get a better look at his face. He's a bit younger than d'Artagnan, perhaps, with short, sandy brown hair and a nose that looks to have been smeared over his face, but he's no one Athos recognises. He shakes his head and stands. "Where is everyone else? Don't I employ a half-dozen people?"

The other three exchange looks.

"A dozen people?" he tries.

"Eighteen," Aramis says. "And it's Candlemas. You gave them the night off to attend services."

"Nice of you," Porthos says.

"Yes, I'm a saint. Don't they live here?"

"They went to their own parishes," Aramis says, patient. "Most are on the other side of town."

"Probably don't run screaming from the church when Mass is over, either," says Porthos.

Athos is about to protest but really, what's the point? He sighs. He turns his attention back to the intruder. "How did he get in?"

Porthos shrugs. "Front gate was locked when we got here, so he must've either broke in that side door to the gardens or climbed the wall."

"Aramis," Athos says, but Aramis is already moving, gone to check the side door. He comes back a few minutes later, wearing his sword and shaking his head.

"Still locked," he says. "If he scaled the wall there's no sign of it, but he got into the house through the tradesmen's entrance."

"Did someone let him in?" d'Artagnan asks.

"I doubt it," Aramis says, and Athos believes him. Aramis had hired and runs the staff, so if he trusts them, Athos is willing to do the same. He crouches again and starts rummaging through the man's clothing.

"Better let me," says Porthos, kneeling to take over. Athos rolls his eyes but backs away into the shadows of the one empty stall in the stables. Porthos holds something up. Metal glints. "Lockpicks. Dagger. Nothing else."

"All right," Athos says. "Wake him up."

Porthos and Aramis drag him to a trough of water and dunk him, and he comes out coughing and spitting like an angry cat. Porthos keeps him still easily enough, a fist in his collar as Aramis and d'Artagnan stand on the other side of the trough, arms crossed. In the glow of the fire, their faces are shadowed and mean.

Armel, he says his name is, I'm a thief, ain't I, the fuck you think I want. But Armel is a bad liar. If he'd come for the silver, he'd brought no way to get it out the house; if he'd come for the gold, his set of lockpicks is the wrong size for a strongbox; and if he'd come for the copper, well, good luck with the pots. If he'd come for the steel, however, Aramis is happy to oblige him. He draws his sword.

"What you doing with a sword?" Armel sounds nervous for the first time, his thin voice quavering.

Porthos dunks him back in the water, briefly, and when he hauls him out again, Aramis is smiling. "I'm sorry, did you think I was the butler?"

"Much too handsome for a butler," Porthos says.

"Yeah, that's the problem." D'Artagnan rolls his eyes.

Aramis sets the tip of his sword set against the man's neck. "Sometimes I need to visit certain acquaintances without drawing attention to myself, but I am the comte de Brassard." He leans on the blade. "And now it's your turn to tell me something true."

Armel tries sticking to his story, that he's a thief come to case the house before returning at some later date, but his skills at dissembling do not improve, and Aramis, when he wants to be, is terrifying. It's his eyes, Athos thinks -- even from where he is, he can see the good-humoured glint shift into something darker. Armel sees it, too, and gives up: the truth is that he knew the household would be out. It's Candlemas, yeah, but he was told as much when was given the job. Go through the comte's papers, that was the job, try to find out who Brassard really is, what he's really doing here.

"Go through my papers?" Aramis interrupts with a frown. "You read Latin?"

Armel freezes, more rabbit this time than cat, and then he tries again to run. Again, they stop him easily enough, and the true story eventually spills out of him: He'd grown up in a monastery nearby but felt no calling to the life, and so he'd taken some of the plate and run, ended up here, plying his trade.

"You're a spy, then," Porthos says. "Not a thief."

Armel shrugs, sullen, don't make much difference to me. He either doesn't know or won't admit who he works for, only that he gets his assignments from a prostitute he's to meet later. It's as much as they seem likely to get out of him.

Aramis jerks his head in Athos' direction and then tosses his sword to d'Artagnan, who catches it easily. "Watch him."

He leaves, Porthos trailing behind him. Athos detaches himself from the shadows and follows them out, moving quietly enough that Armel won't notice his presence. The three of them cross the servants' courtyard and huddle near the wall. "Well?"

"I'll go," Porthos says. "Find out who his contact works for."

"Is there any doubt it's the postmistress? Who else knew we would be out?"

"It's Candlemas," Aramis reminds him. Again. "Everyone's out. We need confirmation."

True enough, Athos thinks, and nods, tells Porthos to take d'Artagnan with him. Porthos jerks his head towards the stables. "We can follow him to the meeting, but I think we'll need some money for his friend."

"We can offer reasonable compensation," Aramis says, hefting his coin purse, "if you'll give me my wages early."

"You received your wages yesterday," Athos grumbles, but hands over his own purse. If this mission fails, they are going to owe King Louis a very large sum of money. Or -- on the bright side, if this mission fails, there will be no King Louis. Fiscally speaking, they will be fine. He sighs. "Follow the friend first, find out where she goes and who she speaks to, then pay her to tell you what she knows. Yes?" He pauses. They nod. "And Armel? What does he know?"

Porthos shrugs. "Nothing incriminating in the house, is there?" They think about that, but no, they've been careful. "So as long as we find out who gets the information, what's it matter? He thinks you're Aramis."

"No," Aramis says. "He thinks I'm Athos."

"No," Athos says. "He thinks you're Brassard."

"Whatever." Porthos rolls his eyes.

"Right," he says, and claps them each on a shoulder. "I don't see that anything can possibly go wrong."

*

Athos paces the length of the darkened gallery, his heels echoing against the wooden floor as he waits impatiently for Porthos and d'Artagnan to return. It's been hours; they should be back by now. He'd wanted to go himself, to wait a few minutes and then tail them to the Wolf and Fox, a shabby tavern tucked into the maze behind the market square -- Armel won't recognise me, he'd said, I can take off the rings and -- no, Aramis had said, too risky, and he'd been right, and Athos had hated him for it.

He is not acquainted with the taverns of Nancy the way he is with the taverns of Paris, and he can't go in the small hours to skulk about in the shadows, and he feels as if he's lost the plot of the evening's intrigues. He has little idea what is going on and less of an idea what to do about it, and if he thinks on it too much, he misses Anne so desperately he nearly doubles over with the pain of it.

Say what you will about his wife -- and he certainly has said all of it -- at least she would know what to do. And for that, he would be equal parts grateful and resentful, he would speak in haste and anger and say something he didn't mean, she would say something cutting but deserved, and if they managed to make it to the bed before they took each other apart, it would be a surprise. There, at least, he'd been certain.

He groans, disgusted with himself, and he is about to go for the brandy when Porthos and d'Artagnan come back looking as if someone has died. They do both come back, however, and neither of them looks physically the worse for wear, so it can't be that bad.

Locked upstairs in Athos' cabinet, Aramis pours the wine, and Porthos leans against the door and folds his arms over his chest. "The Lady Gaëtane von Kirchner," he says, straight to the point.

Athos sighs. "The postmistress." He'd been right, not that it helps any. He drains his drink.

"She knows you're a spy." Porthos empties his own cup and d'Artagnan strides back and forth across the room, picking up speed as he picks up the story from the beginning.

They'd followed Armel to the tavern, where his friend had asked a lot of very specific questions about le comte de Brassard, the sorts of papers on his desk, the names of his correspondents, the quality of his furnishings, the number of servants he kept. I think he's who he says he is, Armel had told her, but she'd shaken her head and said no, he's just good, and then Armel had said, well, not that good, I met him. He'd described Aramis and said there's guards, too, a dozen hired men on the grounds.

Athos interrupts. "A dozen?"

"You're paranoid, drunk, and endeavouring to cuckold every man in Nancy," d'Artagnan says by way of explanation.

"I am?"

"A bit of a misstep, that," Porthos says around a sudden grin. "The lady'd already heard of you. You know what she heard?"

D'Artagnan tries to hide his own smile behind his wine. Athos braces himself.

"Tell him, d'Artagnan."

He cocks one hip to the side and tosses his hair. "'Le comte de Brassard?'" His voice is high, his accent low. "'I heard his Thomas was more like a Bob.'"

Aramis makes a horrible choking sound that turns into a coughing fit, and Athos has no sympathy. He drains another drink and fails to see the humour in the situation. It is the reputation he's been cultivating, more or less, and it's hardly the first time such things have been said behind his back.

Porthos crosses the room to slap the back in question. "Don't worry," he says with a wink, "I told her later it wasn't true. She was very reassured." Athos glares as repressively as he can, but it only makes Porthos laugh, the deep ring of it joining Aramis' cough and d'Artagnan's stifled snickering. Athos relents and rolls his eyes, and Porthos squeezes his shoulder before going back to his post against the door.

After that, he and d'Artagnan take turns telling the story, an easy, familiar patter full of interruptions and digressions which Athos finds bittersweet. He hates this assignment, being here with them and yet apart. "Gentlemen, come to the point," he says, more harshly than he intends, but they pay him no mind and he grinds his teeth and is grateful for it.

The point, when they do eventually get there, is that things are bad.

The woman went from the tavern to the palace, where she gave the password to the guards at the east garden gate. Porthos, whose time in Nancy has been spent making friends with the guards by cheating them at cards and punching them in the face, had known the men in question -- they think he should leave the service of his dissolute French comte and join them at the palace -- and they had told him: The woman's gone to see Lady von Kirchner, hasn't she, she's seen about with men but it's only ever women who go in, makes you wonder if she's a postmistress or a whoremistress, or maybe both, or maybe the lady prefers the rug to the beater.

Even so, they let Porthos in to follow her. She had made for the north wing, which is where the duc hands out apartments to courtiers and officials; Athos knows the postmistress has rooms there. The woman was inside perhaps an hour before returning to her place of business, where Porthos paid her for some time and some answers.

She'd had plenty of time, but only two answers: One, Lady von Kirchner pays her to run errands, and so she runs them. And two, Lady von Kirchner is interested in people who are not what they claim, and Brassard is a spy. Of course, everyone in Nancy right now is a spy -- shopkeepers and housekeepers, kennelmen and footmen, even the nuns -- but everyone knows that, and Her Ladyship likes to know a little more. And now she does.

The four of them stare into their empty glasses as the ramifications sink in. Postmistress. Whoremistress? Spymistress. The personal implications are bad enough, that she knows he's an agent of the French crown, but the international implications are past his comprehension: the post diverted to an office of cryptographers and linguists and forgers, a single person reading every communique that passes through the duchy of Lorraine. All of it, sold to anyone willing to pay for it. Or-- rerouted? Changed? He looks at d'Artagnan. "You have to go back to Paris." The king needs to know.

"I'll leave at dawn," d'Artagnan says, having reached the same conclusion. "What about you?"

"I'm going to meet the Postmistress of Lorraine."

Chapter Text

He does try.

He has his butler send his card, and Grimaud eventually brings back her response: yes, very kind, she accepts. She proposes they meet the following evening. But in the morning another message arrives saying she's been called away on urgent business, so sorry. The postmistress sends her regrets.

More precisely: She tells her lady's maid to tell a messenger to tell Grimaud to tell the valet to tell le comte, desolée, monsieur, but please continue without me.

Athos, still in bed and not entirely awake, resists the urge to bury his head under the pillow. "What?"

Grimaud looks to Aramis, who says, "I assume you made arrangements to do something together, my lord, and she wishes you to do it alone."

Satisfied and in agreement, Grimaud leaves, at which point Aramis starts laughing. "And what, exactly, were you planning to do together with our most mysterious postmistress?"

Athos makes an attempt at levering himself upright. "Is this a simple cancellation, or is she trying to say she wants me to continue spying?"

"I can't think what else she might mean. I suppose she could be being polite, although we know she knows." He frowns and puts a finger in the air, moving it from side to side as he tries to trace the connections. "Although I don't know if she knows that we know that she knows." He shakes his head and crosses the room to throw open the shutters, so that his back is to Athos when he says, "I begin to miss Milady. She could translate for us."

Athos looks at his hands, twisting in the coverlet. Begin? I was there already, he thinks, and she could translate, yes, but she probably would not. She is where she wants to be, which is to say, she is not with me. She sent us into an ambush and she left with another man. He lays back down.

Aramis comes back to the bed and pats Athos' knee in something like an apology. "Come, get up." He brandishes Athos' dressing gown. "You're hunting this morning with Orléans. I know how you love mornings, but killing something always makes you feel better."

"No, killing something makes you feel better. Drinking makes me feel better."

"No, my friend, it does not." Aramis lets that sit a second too long. "But perhaps you could try both? Kill something and then drink. If you cannot meet the postmistress, at least try to find out more about her. Isn't one of Orléans' grooms in love with her?"

"Love," he mutters, disgusted. "Yes, along with every other well-positioned man in the duchy. Christ, I should have known." As near as he can tell, half the court is in love with her; Athos can name at least six men in raptures over her beauty and in agony over her inconstancy, and another half-dozen well on their way. If the men in question begin to speak to one another instead of to him, the lady will have Hell to pay. Part of him hopes she knows what she's doing, but more than that, he wonders if he can use it as leverage when he does meet her. He doesn't know that she'll be willing to help him -- nor does he know if he has enough money to buy her help, if it comes to that -- but he does hope to convince her not to have him decapitated. He needs a drink.

He tries to keep his enquiries discreet, but it hardly matters: In private, everyone is more than happy to enthuse about her charms, but as for meeting her, it proves impossible. He does not understand it. She's busy, yes. She's often elsewhere, yes. But she has rooms at the palace; he is there more often than he is not. She has a position, a title of sorts; so does he. She has countless admirers; many of them are ostensibly his friends. How difficult can she be to find? And yet find her he does not.

A few days after she cancels their assignation and fails to reschedule, he goes to the offices of the post, thinking to surprise her. She's not there. She is rarely there, in fact, and currently she is out inspecting the post-inns of the duchy. She will be back at some later and undetermined date. Did she go alone? No, my lord, why do you ask? Oh, no reason in particular, it's only that you do so hate to think of any harm coming to her. Well, she is never alone, and if she were, I'm sure my lady can take care of herself, and there's something in the way the clerk says my lady, quickly, in English, that punches the air from Athos' throat.

"Your paramour," he says to Suchet. He sounds unhinged. "Tell me. Her neck, does she-- is it--" But he has not had enough wine to finish that sentence. He presses his fist to his mouth.

Fortunately, Suchet requires almost nothing in the way of encouragement, and launches into immediate raptures about the absolutely perfect neck of the absolutely stunning Lady Gaëtane von Kirchner. He does not mention a scar. He does not say anything about large necklaces or high collars, only long white lines, a delicately jumping pulse, a hint of lavender and salt.

Unfortunately, Suchet does manage to keep his wits about him long enough to ask Athos why he wants to know, which obliges him to come up with some answer. "Oh, d'Ardouin mentioned her the other day. I thought of my wife."

"Your wife's neck, you mean." For a moment, Suchet's tone is arch and his eyes keen, but the moment passes. He frowns. "I thought you were estranged from your wife. Isn't she in a convent?"

Athos frowns back.

Suchet's tone gentles. "I have found, monsieur, that talking about my burdens sometimes eases them."

"I haven't."

Suchet gives him an unimpressed look worthy of Athos himself. "I noticed. But surely you don't think-- Lady von Kirchner is from Vienna. A widow. And she is the postmistress. And--"

And has blonde hair. Maybe. Yes. And and and. Athos holds up a hand. "I am aware. Of course I think no such thing." He is ridiculous. But he can breathe again; he does so. "I only meant I've not yet had the pleasure and if they look alike it could be awkward. Which reminds me..."

She and Suchet both sit on Lorraine's council, but otherwise, the two of them rarely meet; most of their interactions are through letters, which he supposes has a certain elegance. But it is likely that Suchet can arrange a meeting for him, or perhaps tell him where she will be one day, and he can happen by. Postmistress, he will cry, as if wildly surprised. What a fortuitous coincidence. He is trying to think how best to phrase this request in some way which better aligns with reality when Suchet says, "I'm certain she will be at the ball for Montmorency."

Athos blinks, his attention caught in earnest. "His Grace is coming here?" The duc de Montmorency is a military man, well-known, well-liked. Smart, charismatic, rich. He is a Marshal of France, an Admiral of France, an Everything of France, and if he is a part of this conspiracy, he's going to be a problem. "Why?"

For a moment, it seems as if Suchet might truly answer him and say oh, we need to discuss overthrowing Louis, and that's best done in person. Instead he says, "Why not? There's to be a ball in his honour, and you know, don't you, the last ball before Lent is always a masquerade."

Christ in Heaven, of course it is.

***

The great hall glitters brilliantly, light from the chandeliers and floor candelabras scattered brokenly across the room by mirrors and jewels. Outside the moon is full, and its silver light pours through the high arched windows of the palace and lends an otherworldly air to the proceedings. At one end, on a raised platform bracketed by buglers and torchbearers: the Dii Consentes, the twelve major gods of the Roman pantheon. Some are recognisable as both themselves and as their alter-egos -- Lorraine can only be Jupiter, and that's definitely golden-haired Orléans as Apollo. At his side is Lorraine's younger sister, Lady Marguerite, the bow and arrow of Diana on her back. Athos can't tell which of the gods is Montmorency, but he suspects Neptune, a bit older than the rest, bearded white and masked, resplendent in shimmering robes of blue-green silk, a trident in his hand.

An odd thrill chases up and down Athos' spine. He has not participated in a masquerade before, only stood frozen in stone-faced misery outside the Louvre one February night shortly after he'd been commissioned, wondering why on God's gloomy earth anyone would bother. But inside, here, there is something he cannot name, some undercurrent of expectancy and intrigue, dark and optimistic both. It has been a long few weeks of stress and worry, the postmistress' sword hovering over his head in silent, shadowed threat.

She is in the room tonight, he knows, and he will meet her, will look into her eyes and listen to her voice and determine what sort of threat she really is. He's said as much, in their strange half-correspondence of rescheduled assignations and midday messages and missed opportunities, and she had agreed. I'll find you, she'd said, through the usual mess of couriers and go-betweens, and Athos had begun to understand why half the duchy was infatuated: the danger, the challenge, the mystery. He hopes she does find him.

Presumably, she will be looking for Aramis. He's here, dressed as a Roman gladiator, half-naked and glistening with oil. Bait. He'd been surrounded within seconds.

Athos himself wears tawny silk and broadcloth, his long hair teased and curling from his head. A mask of stiffened leather covers the top half of his face, painted black with golden highlights and eyes of fire, the wide triangular nose of a lion. It angles down over his mouth, the area around which he's shaved bare for the first time in years, the skin there pale and sensitive. The rest of his beard has grown long, and though he's eager to trim it down tomorrow, for tonight, it makes a very effective mane. He has come as Timor, god of dread and fear, and people draw away from him before leaning back in with uneasy smiles.

He is surprised to find he does not hate it. The wine flows freely and the masks hide a multitude of sins; everyone -- himself included -- is looser, unconcerned with propriety, speaking and laughing and drinking and dancing with whomsoever they'd like without regard for arbitrary rules imposed on them by birth and chance. It reminds him of Anne, of the way she'd made him feel, free and floating and not giving a good Goddamn about anything but her. For once, the reminder is more sweet than bitter.

As for the postmistress, he has little luck. He is better at small-talk than usual, true, but all the masks in the world cannot make him proficient, and so he takes to dancing. Several lifetimes ago, he was good at this, and he finds he still is, the steps drilled into him as a child coming back easily. He partners every woman-appearing person he can, looking for green eyes and blonde hair, but he is starting to run out of likely suspects when he realises the postmistress may well have come as a man.

He groans inwardly and threads his way through the crush of bodies, trying to make his way outside for some fresh air and some wine. He needs to think, regroup, speak to Aramis and learn if he's had better luck -- but he does not get far before he's stopped by Janus, a full white mask covering his face, a black one on the other side of his head. He is otherwise dressed simply, a white linen toga covering his scrawny body.

"You don't look bewitched," he says. Athos does not recognise the voice: high, thin, young.

"Is there some reason I should?"

"Oh!" Janus sounds surprised. "Circe is around here somewhere. Doesn't she bewitch lions?" He goes up on his toes, his neck craning as he looks around.

"Not exactly." He follows Janus' gaze; he has not seen a Circe yet tonight. "She turns her enemies into beasts." Then they lie around bewitched, but it's no use quibbling.

"There she is." Janus points. Perhaps twelve feet away is a woman facing the other direction, a cascade of dark curls falling to the centre of her bare back. She is swathed in diaphanous white silk that leaves little of her body to the imagination, and there is a familiarity in the slope of her shoulder and the curve of her hip that fills Athos with dread and desire, a heavy lodestone in the pit of his stomach that pulls in her direction. "Circe!" Janus shouts for her attention, waving his arms, and says to Athos, "Her enemies, or her lovers?"

Circe turns around, and Athos is staring through two masks into a sickeningly familiar pair of green eyes. "Is there a difference?" He feels as if he has been kicked by a horse: the blank shock, the lack of air, the dense drag of pain.

Even at this distance, even with both of them masked, he can see that she has recognised him, and that she is surprised. Athos would like to move, wants to turn on his heel and walk away and spare himself whatever humiliation is to come, but he's not capable. He tries, and he cannot. Instead he stands rooted as she moves closer, her eyes never leaving his. Perhaps he is bewitched after all; God knows she long ago turned him into a beast.

Janus is blathering, but Athos can't make sense of it. There is a kind of roar in his ears that drowns out the music and the conversation and the laughter. It gets louder as she moves closer.

It takes forever.

When she is finally in front of him, scant inches between their bodies, he is struck by how small she is. He thought there could be nothing about her he does not remember in exacting detail, but this -- this, he forgets every time. She takes up so much space in his mind and in his heart that when he pictures her, she is larger than life, certainly larger than he is. But now, practically barefoot in front of him, wrapped in thin silk rather than the usual voluminous skirts and armoured corsetry, she barely clears his shoulder. She is exactly the right height to rip out his throat. He wishes she would, almost as much as he wishes he could cover her, bundle her up in his own thick cloak. She would kill him for that, he's sure. She might kill him anyway. Certainly she would have the advantage if she were to try, given that no part of his body is currently heeding his orders.

He swallows, his eyes tracing every perfect, hated line of her, and fails entirely to come up with something to say. Not dead, I see, springs to mind, followed shortly by, at least your breasts aren't bare, and then, what in seven Hells do you think you're doing and how many men in this room are you fucking and the postmistress, really, and why didn't you come back to me. But he can say none of it in front of Janus, who -- unbelievably -- is still talking.

The longer he says nothing, the harder she becomes. She stares at up at him, cold, remote, every inch of exposed skin powdered and polished so that the whole of her body appears carved from the same ivory as her mask. He wonders if that makes him Pygmalion, in love with a statue of his own creation. He wonders if her lips would warm under his were he to kiss her. He sways forward, and she is the one who catches him, her hand up, two fingers light against the skin of his bared upper lip. She is hardly grazing him and yet he almost groans under the force of it, the pleasure of her hands on skin so long untouched, and he suddenly wonders what the Hell they think they're doing. He isn't even drunk, although he's suddenly desperate to become so. Sweat breaks out across his shoulders. He pulls himself together, turns around, and walks away.

*

He leaves his horse in the palace stables and walks home, his leonine shadow gliding over the cobbles. Part of him expects her to follow him, and it's not a long walk but he spends it looking over his shoulder, his hand always reaching for the sword he's not wearing, and by the time he rounds the last corner and opens the main entrance gate, he's running.

He pounds up the stairs to the bedchamber, where he tears the mask from his face and throws it across the room. He shoves open a window to admit moonlight and crisp air, and then sinks to his knees on the rug. His vision swims. His heart stutters, his lungs contract, he can't think. He knows he needs to do something to calm himself, to clear his fogged and fractured brain, and though he wants a drink so badly he's already swallowing, he knows there's no point.

He drops his head to the edge of the bed with a groan and is fumbling with his clothes before he's fully aware of it. He takes himself in hand and thinks about his wife, tries to remember the last time they were together, before she'd tried again to ruin him. It had been pouring rain, and he'd staggered back to his tent after some skirmish, muddy and bloody and drowning, and she'd fallen on him before the flap had fallen shut, her fingers digging trenches in his skin. He can relive every second, and yet it's no good. His cock hangs soft between his legs, unresponsive, disinterested.

Frustrated, he yanks at his cloak, his jacket, his shirt, tugging at laces and buttons until he manages to get at the white silk glove he has tied to his left bicep. It's Anne's, left at the crossroads; as a Musketeer, he'd kept it in a pocket, but now, he wears it against his skin. There were many reasons he'd never told her he had it -- shame and fear and selfishness and an odd sort of optimism, that when the war was over and there was no intrigue left between them, he would find her, he would give it to her, they could start again. It is both disgusting and fitting that he uses it like this, his hope for a better life wrapped around his cock, but since when has shame ever stopped him? He closes his eyes and lets himself believe it is her gloved hand on his slowly filling prick, and finally, finally, he can feel something.

He braces his left arm against the bed and tries to make this fast. It's been a long time, after all; he is usually too drunk or too miserable to rise to this particular occasion, and he would have thought his body unable to hold out even if he wanted to. He doesn't want to, though, he wants this over and done, he wants her out of his head, but God hates him, and Anne walks out of his head and into the room.

The candle she carries illuminates just enough for him to see that she's still dressed as Circe, though she no longer wears the mask and has pulled on a heavy woollen cloak. He can't see her eyes but he can feel them, their weight and their heat, though what she can see in this light is anyone's guess -- the state of his clothing, yes, the state of his cock, probably, but not, he hopes, the glove. He doesn't know if he should stand and face her, if he should stay on his knees and crawl, if he should say something, do something, look away, continue this shocked and stupid staring, he doesn't know, and somehow, he nearly spends then and there. His body jerks and then it takes everything he has to drop his head to his arm and wait, his entire being tight and throbbing with shame and desire.

Anne will know what to do. She always does.

This time, what she does is cross the room, soft-footed, a whisper of silk. A thud as she sets down the candle, a rustle as she takes off the cloak, and he should probably look up but he can't. Instead, he shudders, his body trembling when he feels her heat at his back, her hands in his hair, long fingers gentle against his scalp. He's not sure what he expected but it wasn't this, this tenderness more devastating than any torture she could devise, and he melts into her touch like a pillar of salt in the rain. It usually takes some time for him to disappear inside himself, but tonight it's instant, one graze of her skin against his and he's gone, he's nothing, he's no one, he's whatever she makes him.

He sighs in relief and blank contentment, but when he tries to give her more of himself, tries lean back into her legs, she stops him. Her knees press him forward, trapping him against the bed. She urges his other arm up but he has to let go of his cock first, and after a short hesitation in which his heart threatens to crack his chest open, he does it. Her glove is crumpled and concealed in his fist, and as she trails her fingers down the line of his arm, ever closer, he screws his eyes shut. He holds his breath. She gently prises his fingers open.

"Ohhh," she breathes, and there is a second in which he feels as if he's scrabbling at some eroding cliff, the rocks crumbling to dust beneath his bloodied fingernails, but then she kneels behind him, her arm around his waist to steady him. He's afraid, he realises. Even though he'd planned to tell her one day, had wanted her to know, he hadn't wanted it to happen like this -- not remotely like this -- and he is terrified of what she might do now, all the ways she might use the knowledge of his shame and of his fragile hope against him.

But nothing happens. He continues to breathe. His heart continues to beat. She doesn't laugh or leave or push him away or say any of the thousand cutting things she has every right to say to him. She simply holds him, her body draped over his, her thighs next to his own and the warm weight of her breasts against his back, her forehead resting on the nape of his neck, their fingers tangled together with those of the glove. She breathes with him, gentles him back to himself.

When he's able, when he's stopped trembling in her arms, when he thinks he can take it, he nods: All right, go on, whatever you were going to do, do it. He regrets this at once. She plucks the glove from his fingers, puts it on, and rips an orgasm out of him in seconds, a few rough strokes of her hand and a twist of her wrist like she's gutting a rabbit. No buildup, no lingering caress, and he can't even say there's pleasure, only this gasping, empty ache as his vision blurs and his body heaves.

What, he thinks, eventually. He is flat on his back. He isn't at all sure how that happened.

"Was that what you wanted?" she asks him from-- somewhere. His left? His ears still ring.

What, he thinks, again. No. What sort of question is that? He tries to open his eyes, but doesn't manage it. "I don't want any of this."

To his credit, he realises immediately that it was the wrong thing to say. His next attempt to open his eyes is successful, and judging by the look on her face, what he's just said rates somewhere near you must die and your grasping cunt on the list of his more regrettable statements. He blinks up at her, shit, he says, reaching, no, Anne -- but she is peeling the glove from her hand, she is stepping over his prone body, she is lifting the glove as if to slap him with it. He sucks in his breath and scrabbles back in blind panic: What if she does hit him with it? What then? Does it count as a challenge, in here, like this? If he's a comte, she's a comtesse, perfectly able to issue one. He can't ignore a challenge. He can't fight a woman. There's no one to stand for her, not when he's her husband. He cannot duel himself, much as he'd sometimes like to.

He hadn't thought he had anything left for her to take from him, but his code, the rules he lives by, the last vestigial shreds of his honour -- if she twists it like this -- it's unthinkable, please, he says, please, and she stops. It is with visible effort that she masters herself, wipes all expression from her face, straightens her back. He collapses to the floor in relief, and before he can gather himself to say something, she has dropped the glove in the mess of semen on his stomach and left the room. The door slams behind her.

For the space of several seconds, he stares at the panelled ceiling and wonders what in holy Hell just happened, and then he scrubs at his face and manages to lever himself upright. He fumbles for his clothes, knowing he needs to go after her, but the only clothing at hand is the lion costume, which he can't get into on his own. By the time he's dragged on what few clothes he can reasonably get away with and staggered out to the courtyard, she is gone, and he knows there is no hope of finding her. Still, he has to try, and he's making for the gate when it opens in the other direction and Porthos bursts in.

"It's Aramis," he says, panting, and Athos pulls up short. "Caught duelling." Porthos, who has clearly sprinted here, puts his hands on his thighs and bends at the waist to catch his breath.

Athos swears and pushes past him to stick his head out the gate, looking anxiously down the street. No sign of Anne, though of course it's pitch-black, the few torches out burning thin in the frozen air; and in any case, she wouldn't have brought a light. She can probably see in the dark. "You didn't see anyone on your way here?"

Porthos shakes his head and looks up. His frown deepens. "Why's your shirt on backwards? And-- Jesus. You look like Hell."

No doubt. Athos looks down at himself with a groan before starting to wrestle with his shirt. Porthos stands upright and studies him, speculative, but Athos cuts him off before he can ask any more questions. "Who was he-- why-- oh, fucking Christ, never mind." He turns to go inside for the rest of his clothes, his sword.

Chapter Text

In the shadows of the Bastion des Dames, just outside the palace gardens, there is blood on the cobbles. It soaks into the dirt between the stones, moonlight and fire reflecting off its glistening surface. Aramis is still in his gladiator costume, half-naked in the frozen midnight air, but if he's cold he shows no sign of it.

Sitting on the ground next to him is a man in red and yellow Montmorency livery, glowering and clutching at his side, blood seeping slowly through his fingers. They are surrounded by torchmen and palace guards, the captain himself foremost amongst them. Evard is a short, broad man, very like a series of boxes stacked atop one another. Athos has met him several times, but has not yet found it necessary to form an opinion of his character.

He stops next to the captain and folds his arms over his chest just in time to hear Aramis say, "Oh, that was not a duel." He smiles down at the man sitting next to him. "This one requested a fencing lesson, and I slipped. Careless of me, truly."

The man, red-faced, sniffs angrily.

"A fencing lesson." Evard looks sceptical and jerks his head at Aramis' weapon, a short sword in a Roman-style scabbard. Athos had thought it a prop. He is still not sure it isn't. "With that."

Aramis' smile doesn't falter. "Are you requesting a demonstration?" He looks Evard up and down. "You look as though you can handle a short sword, monsieur."

Athos groans inwardly and barks at Aramis to shut up before he can make this any worse. Aramis looks slightly chastened, but Athos isn't fooled. He turns to Evard. "Captain, I'm sure we can--"

"What is the meaning of this?" The new voice cracks through the darkness, just ahead of its owner, a man in blue-green robes still carrying a trident. Neptune, come straight from the ball, but without his mask and white beard, Athos recognises the long, pointed face and slightly crossed eyes of the duc de Montmorency.

He dips his head in something approximating a bow. "Your Grace."

Montmorency's eyes sweep over the scene before settling on Evard. "Well?"

"These men were duelling, my lord."

"No," Aramis says, but stops when Montmorency's head snaps round and he steps forward. Aramis stiffens and fixes his eyes somewhere in the distance and says, "A demonstration only, monsieur. Ask your man. No challenge, no seconds, no duel."

But Montmorency doesn't ask his man anything. He keeps staring at Aramis and finally says, "You look familiar."

Court, perhaps. One of Aramis' ill-advised liaisons. The army. Aramis hesitates and glances at Athos, who lifts a shoulder imperceptibly, leaves the decision to him. "I was at Montauban," Aramis says.

"Ah." Montmorency had arrived six weeks into that siege with 500 horse and five infantry regiments, but the city had been too well-fortified for the reinforcements to matter. In just over two months, the royal army had lost 16,000 men to disease and fighting. It was an ugly, embarrassing loss, given there were only a few thousand Huguenots defending the town in the first place. More than ten years later, Aramis is still marked with the scars, some of which are plainly visible on his naked torso. It's on the list of things he does not particularly care to discuss.

It is also extremely unlikely that Montmorency recognises him from Montauban; it's not as if Aramis had been one of his men. It's a gamble, playing on the bond of soldiers when one of them is a duc, but Aramis' luck holds. Montmorency turns to Evard. "Let them go."

"My lord, I--"

"Let them go," he says again, voice sharp with command.

"You heard him," Athos says, matching his tone to Montmorency's. Evard has no real recourse, not standing there with no proof and no witnesses and two members of the nobility, one of them very high-ranking indeed and both of them liked by his master. He nods, and the guards move away.

Montmorency turns. "Brassard, is it?" Athos nods, and Montmorency fixes him with the same piercing gaze he'd turned on Aramis. "You also look familiar."

"I have spent time in Paris, monsieur." He'd seen Montmorency at court several times, but Montmorency is not often there. He is more often in the field, leading some army or besieging some citadel, and Athos is reasonably confident he's not about to be recognised. Not here, not looking like he does, half lion and half disaster. The Musketeers never did have much in the way of grooming standards, but Treville would have sent him home. Montmorency looks ready to do the same. He sniffs.

"Exiled, were you not? What for?"

Athos makes him wait a few seconds. "Duelling."

"With?"

"Oh, just some marquis His Majesty was fond of."

"Kill him?"

"I am the one in exile, monsieur."

"Well." Montmorency claps him on the shoulder. "Keep better control of your men. You'll hear from the doctor." Which Athos supposes means he will be footing the bill. He dips his head again and Montmorency turns and disappears into the gardens, his own men at his heels. When they are closer to being alone, Athos whips his cloak over Aramis' shoulders and walks away.

*

He rounds on Aramis as soon as they pass into the inner courtyard of the house, backing him against the wall near the gate sconce. "What the Hell were you thinking?"

"Oh, I don't know," Aramis says, a hard undercurrent in his voice. "I was thinking one of us should try to figure out what's going on."

"Yeah." Porthos, striding across the courtyard. He's been waiting, pacing, and now he leans a shoulder against the wall and looks between the two of them. "What is going on?"

Athos glares at Aramis and waits for him to elaborate. But he doesn't; he simply glares back, and so Athos has to ask. "Something on your mind, my friend?" His voice is nasty and he knows it, so it's no surprise when Aramis snarls at him, nor when Porthos puts his hands between them.

"Whoa," he says, like he's calming the horses. "Aramis?"

But Aramis is in no mood to be calmed. He leans around Porthos to poke Athos in the chest with two hard fingers. "What's the matter with you? We've been here for months, and we barely know anything. I'm--"

"Bored?" He phrases it as a polite inquiry.

"Bored? You think I'm bored?"

"Aren't you?"

"Well, yes, but--"

Athos ducks under Porthos' arm and drives his fist into Aramis' stomach, I'll punch you so hard you'll beg me to kick you. The wind gusts from Aramis' mouth, and at no point does he beg Athos to kick him. Instead, he lands a hit of his own, and Athos' jaw explodes with pain as his head snaps to the side. He staggers back and Aramis charges him, head down and bellowing like Porthos. Athos sees red, and the next thing he knows, the two of them are thrashing about on the frozen dirt exchanging half-hearted blows, and he has a button from his own cloak between his teeth. The cloak itself is nowhere to be seen. He rolls to his back with a groan.

Above them is Porthos, backlit and looming, his arms folded. He is spectacularly unimpressed. "Feeling better?"

Aramis sits up. "Two fights in one night," he says, rubbing gingerly at his ribs. "Spectacular." Truth be told, he does sound better.

Athos stands and straightens slowly, rolling his shoulders, flexing his hands, prodding at his aching jaw. He extends a hand to Aramis, pulls him to his feet and into a one-armed hug. Aramis thumps him on the back.

"Inside," Porthos says, grabbing each of them by the scruff of the neck and herding them towards the door. "And upstairs."

In his office, he and Aramis stand by the basin in the corner, rinsing the blood from their hands and faces. Porthos pours the wine, cuts it with water, and says, "So. Who was here tonight?"

"What?" Aramis rounds on Athos so quickly it's as if they never stopped fighting. "You had someone here? Was it a woman?" Apparently he can read the answer on Athos' face, because his own face shifts from anger to appalled incredulity. He rears back. "You were supposed to be working! You left the ball without warning, I looked around and you had vanished, I was worried, and now you're telling me it was to take a vacation in the low countries?!"

"Right mess he was, too," Porthos says, unhelpful. "Shirt on backwards and everything."

Aramis looks pained. He leans a shoulder against the wall. "At least tell me it was the postmistress and your night was not a complete waste."

Athos stares fixedly at some point to the left of Aramis' head. "It was."

Silence greets this pronouncement. There is a battle played out across Aramis' face, disbelief and delight waging a war for prominence. Anger has long since ceded the field.

Porthos has an easier time of it: He lifts his wineglass in a toast. "Didn't think you had it in you."

Athos lifts his own glass, an ironical salute. "There's more." He drinks it all down. "It's Milady. The postmistress is my wife."

This time, their silence is one of outright shock rather than bemused surprise, and after a few uncomfortable seconds, Aramis and Porthos move as one to grab his shirt and shove him round against the wall. He tips his head back, resting it against the wood panelling and staring down the length of his nose at them, waiting for the shouting to start. But Porthos asks, you all right, and Athos can only blink at him because really, Porthos ought to know better than to ask him a question like that at a time like this.

"Right," Porthos says, stepping away. "Forget I asked."

Athos feels his shoulders sag, though he knows Porthos isn't trying to make him feel guilty. He runs his hands through his hair, tries to tuck it behind his ears, tries not to say anything stupid or insulting.

Aramis lets go his shirt and pats him a bit, there there, it will be all right. "Well, I suppose that explains why the postmistress hasn't had you killed."

He shakes his head. "She was as surprised as I was."

Porthos: "You sure?"

"Yes," he says, and is surprised to find that he is. He knows he's never seen her, Grimaud and Aramis write the notes, and every description he'd heard of himself was too unspecific to be of use -- a tall man with brown hair and a beard. "I assume the death threats will begin in earnest tomorrow."

Porthos and Aramis make identical sounds of disbelief. "She won't kill you," Aramis mutters. "If that woman has a weakness, it's you."

He makes his own sound of disbelief. "She tried to kill me-- what, six months ago? And you as well, if I recall."

The two of them exchange looks. Aramis scratches the back of his head and looks at the wall. Porthos frowns at his feet.

"What," he says.

"She didn't, though," Porthos says. "She was with us maybe a month, could have killed you any time. Or any of us, really."

"You very easily," Aramis says. "All that swordplay in the forest, it would have been--"

"You were tired, could've made a mistake, slipped up--"

"Slipped in--"

"Enough," Athos snaps, and tries to glare them both into silence. It only sort of works, in that they make a valiant effort to repress their grins. He squeezes his eyes shut. "Do you expect me to explain how her mind works?"

"Nah," Porthos says. "But you could ask her how it works. And while you're there, ask her if she'll help us."

"I don't suppose you already asked her, did you?" Aramis sounds hopeful. "While you were strolling through the garden of delights? Good to see you, glad you're still alive, who're you working for these days, want to help us stop a coup?"

Athos stares at Aramis.

"God, I hope not," Porthos says. "If you looked the way you looked after asking her that..." He shakes his head. "Not good."

He moves his stare to Porthos, and so he is surprised when Aramis hooks two fingers in the collar of his shirt and peers down at his chest. "What--" he starts, and then his stomach twists as he remembers that morning in Chardogne, Aramis walking into what had likely seemed a massacre. Athos had frozen, mind blank and body paralysed as he was overcome by panic, shame, fear, disgust, all manner of things he could not hope to control. But Anne could, and she had. She'd stepped in to shield him with some story about brambles, which he now realises Aramis must have seen straight through. They must have come to some unspoken agreement about his comfort. His stomach twists again, or perhaps his heart, and he shoves at Aramis' shoulder. "It wasn't--"

"Maybe I should be the one to ask her for help." Aramis speaks over him and moves away. He waggles his eyebrows. "I can be very nice, and I think she likes me."

"She likes me better," Porthos says. "I can ask her."

Athos lets his eyes fall shut and tries to breathe, their nonsensical bickering offering up both comfort and annoyance. When he can't take it anymore, he snaps out, "I will speak with her." They shut up. "She's my wife, it's my mission, my mess, my responsibility." He opens his eyes and focuses on Aramis. "Now, please tell me you learnt something useful during your fencing lesson."

Aramis beams at him. "I thought you'd never ask. Montmorency is raising an army."

*

In the morning -- the afternoon, really -- someone brings the post. One of the dispatches must be in cipher, because Aramis bangs through Athos' bedchamber and into the cabinet, and then there is blessed silence for several long minutes. Athos succeeds in sitting upright, propping himself against the headboard and sipping at the watered wine left on the side table.

When Aramis emerges, he looks disgusted and angry, and they go about their ritual in stony silence until Athos finally asks about the mail. Aramis snorts. "A very helpful warning. The duc de Montmorency will be in town, we should take care and take notice." He yanks hard on one of Athos' belts. "It was sent weeks ago. Delayed by the postmistress, I'm sure."

"I already said I would speak with her." Grimaud had sent the card this morning.

"You should let one of us do it," Aramis says, for what must be the fifteenth time. They'd circled back around and argued about it well into the night, and Athos may have conceded the point -- he and Anne have too much between them for a businesslike conversation about the mail, for a simple offer of money in exchange for his letters remaining untouched. It's likely that Aramis or Porthos could simply ask her, and that's all it would be, but if Athos goes, it will not go easily.

Circumstances being what they are, however, it has to be him. He keeps trying to explain, but all he can think about is gutting rabbits. Even without a knife, it's simple: a good grip, the right pressure, and then a quick, sharp snap.

He's hungry. He's hard. He hates himself. He wants to go back to bed. He wants Anne to take him apart.

"No," he says. "I will not use you to hide from my wife." He wants to, but he cannot, and he refuses to discuss it any further.

Anne, however, refuses to discuss anything whatsoever. She returns his card that day, go fuck the devil's daughter written neatly on the back -- in her own hand, this time. He writes that's what got me into trouble in the first place but throws it into the fire, so he likes to think he's learnt something. He sighs and he tells Grimaud to send another card in the morning, and every morning until she relents, and then he trudges to the palace to get his horse.

***

Porthos drops a huge ring of keys on his desk with a jangle and a self-satisfied smile. "Keys to the palace," he says. His smile gets bigger.

Athos lets out a low whistle and picks them up, running his thumb over the cool metal teeth of the biggest one. They are largely identical -- copies, made quickly, without regard for the ornamentation or artistry of most palace keys. "Tell me you didn't kill anyone for these."

"Nah." Porthos tries to look affronted, but he's too pleased with himself for that. "Evard can't hold his drink and that smith -- you know, the one I told you about, with the daughter -- he owed me a favour." Some of the smile slips from his face. "Might not be the best copies, he mostly does weapons, but I figure it's better than nothing."

"Indeed. Thank you."

It's a tacit dismissal, but Porthos stays where he is, thumbs hooked in his belt, a stormcloud gathering slowly over his brow. Athos pours a drink and waits. Porthos will get there when he gets there, and Athos doesn't expect to care for the destination. He's right: Porthos looks at the keys and says, "One of them's to her rooms."

Athos' arm freezes, the glass of brandy halfway to his mouth. "Yes," he says, and sets the glass back down. He doesn't have to ask. He doesn't know which key it is, obviously, but he does know which rooms are Anne's. More than once he has caught himself staring at her door, willing it to open, praying it would not. He assumes it is only a matter of time before he passes out on her threshold, and wakes to her boot on his neck. God alone knows what she'd do then; Athos surely never does.

Porthos interrupts this delightful fantasising. "Heard from her?"

"What do you think?" He has not heard from her. He has seen her, however. Nearly every day he sees her: strolling in the gardens with Suchet, out riding with Orléans' groom, in Lorraine's presence chamber with his younger sister, at the market with retainers, whispering in alcoves with the Spanish ambassador, the English ambassador, the Imperial ambassador. Weeks he spent trying to see her and failing, and now he cannot stop. Every rustle of movement he doesn't quite catch, every echo of sound he cannot quite hear, every whiff of scent he cannot identify: everything is her.

None of that is Porthos' fault. Athos sighs. He tries again. "No, I've not heard from her."

"Been a few weeks since the ball. If she was gonna betray you--"

"Us," he snaps, and throws back his drink. If she had tried to kill him alone, that would have been one thing, but she'd come for his brothers. Again. She'd known what would hurt him most -- his friends, his men, his mission -- and she'd taken it. She had tried, at any rate. Because-- what? He still doesn't know. "I did not walk into that ambush alone, or have you forgotten? She betrayed us, and she waited a few weeks to do it, so forgive me if I'm not resting easy."

"Yeah," Porthos says. His stool scrapes across the floor as he sits. "About that."

Porthos draws. He talks. He questions. Block the escape routes here and here, Athos says, pointing at the map Porthos had scrawled on the back of a parchment. Crossbowmen there, at least two, four would be better. But really, it's a terrible place for an ambush.

"Yeah." Porthos looks at the map, and then at him, waiting. When Athos doesn't say anything more, Porthos tosses the quill aside and sighs, says, "Look, I don't know her like you do"--Athos snorts--"but I been ambushed by her before, and she knew what she was doing. Picked her spot, brought an army, had a backup plan if it didn't work."

"Came herself to see it done." Anne always had liked to watch.

"Yeah," Porthos says. "And that."

"You don't think it was her."

Porthos rubs at his bristled cheek, frowning at the map, and when he finally looks up, he says, "Neither do you."

Chapter Text

Porthos, of course, is right. Anne would never have been so sloppy about an ambush, and if she wanted him dead, he would be dead a thousand times over. He knows that. Even so, he cannot talk himself into believing she had nothing to do with it. She may have only wanted to hurt him, or perhaps she wanted the Musketeers out of Lorraine, or there may have been some other objective he cannot fathom. Her motives, as ever, are a mystery to him, but it seems so is his own mind. He doesn't know what to think, how to feel, what to do.

All he knows for certain is that he is getting nowhere. Lent drags on, and in the inevitable slog towards spring, the days get longer and his temper gets shorter and he is tired of eating herring. He is tired of half-drunken searches of the palace which yield no results, tired of the looks Porthos and Aramis exchange when they think he won't notice, tired of the same court drama with the same vapid courtiers and most of all, he is tired of his wife.

She continues to dog his steps with such determination he suspects she's doing it on purpose, and yet still she refuses to speak to him. She returns his cards with increasingly colourful suggestions written on the back as to where he might visit instead, whom he might see, what he might do. The offices of the post are closed to him. When he sees her in public and starts in her direction, she is gone by the time he gets there.

And yet there's been no hint of betrayal. As far as he's been able to discern, she's told no one of his true identity or purpose. No one treats him any differently, and his mail does seem to be reaching him in a more timely fashion. It has helped, and it hasn't. Montmorency is raising an army in Languedoc, yes, but claims it's pledged to Louis. Lorraine is raising an army but insists it's to defend his eastern borders against the Swedes, who have been sweeping inexorably south through Europe and razing anything in their path. The new campaign season is about to start, and Lorraine probably should be raising an army to defend his borders against Sweden. He's not, but he says he is, and it's believable enough that without proof, France cannot move against him without provoking the Empire, which no one wants to do.

So here he remains, sitting in Nancy picking at his dried herring, tired and hungry and anxious. He has information and no way to tell anyone, knowledge and nothing to show for it, and his greatest fear is that Anne is simply biding her time, dreaming up some ever more painful scheme, holding her tongue until she can do maximum damage. He has tried simple enquiries, overwrought pleas, demands, threats. She has ignored them all.

"You should write her a poem," Aramis says.

Porthos starts. "Roses are red, violets are blue... forgive me already..." He trails off, stroking his beard, deep in thought.

"So we can ssss... no. Put to? You can run me through? No, no, none of that's right." Aramis frowns into the middle distance and twists dramatically at his moustache.

"What'd you say to her, anyway?" Porthos asks. "Must've been pretty bad."

Athos grinds his fists into his eyes.

"I've got it." Aramis snaps his fingers and starts again. "Roses are red, violets are blue, saw you yesterday, was keen on the view." A lewd gesture, in case Athos fails to take his point.

"Oh, yes, that ought to sway her," he says. "Here's one: roses are red, violets are blue, get out of here now before I hit you."

They leave, laughing, and after some consideration, Athos sends: At least allow me to apologise in person before more drastic measures are required. I'm told poetry is the next step.

Her response, returned immediately on the back of his own card, is succinct: Roses are red, violets are blue, write me again and I'll have you killed.

Aramis reads it out to him with a frown. "Well."

"Not what I'd call romantic," Porthos says, peering over his shoulder.

Aramis shakes his head sadly. "She's not even trying."

Athos sighs, because he thinks she is trying, although what exactly she is trying is beyond him. Christ, he's exhausted. "Where was she?" He catches the messenger before he can leave, a boy of perhaps thirteen. "Her offices?"

Yes, the boy says, his eyes darting to Athos' face and away again, quickly. "But monsieur," he says, nervous, glancing at Athos, at Porthos, back to Athos, down to his feet. "Her offices are guarded."

"Good."

"No," Aramis says, suddenly in front of Athos, hands out. "You can't."

"I think you'll find I can."

Aramis leans in, speaking softly. "Storm her offices and you'll get us all killed, her included. Let me go."

"We've discussed this." Athos knocks Aramis' hand away and tries to duck under his arm, but Aramis' forearm slams across his chest like an iron bar.

"She doesn't want to see you!" It is a truth they have all been carefully avoiding, but Aramis throws it at him now, his voice harsh, his body immovable. Athos sags with the force of the blow, feeling winded, not sure he wants to see her, either, not sure he wants to force the issue, and even less sure what choice he has.

Porthos clears his throat. Aramis glances at the messenger, frozen a few feet away, eyes big as saucers. Behind him, Grimaud is watching, his face blank, and God only knows if there are other servants about. Probably.

Aramis coughs. He steps back, smooths the creases from Athos' shirt. "My lord," he says, unwilling to so thoroughly destroy their cover in front of the staff. He is smiling, but his voice is tight. "My apologies. May I look after this business for you?"

"No," Athos says, straightening. "She'll see me." He sounds far more confident about that than he feels, but something here must give, and he is sick and tired of it always being him. She will see him today and they will have this out, and if she doesn't kill him, he will leave her alone.

He clips on his sword and holsters a pistol. Aramis, unhappy but no longer arguing, slings a heavy cloak over his shoulders.

"Lead the way," he says to the boy, and to his brothers, "If I have not returned by nightfall, burn this Godforsaken hellscape of a city to the ground."

*

The guard at the door is one he's met on previous occasions, one who's turned him away every time, and Athos would very much like to use the man's head for a battering ram but here again, he is disappointed. He strides into the office as if he has legitimate business, and no one says a word -- not the guard at the door; not the handful of people milling about in the middle of the room, waiting for the clerk; not the clerk himself, arguing with a liveried servant about Brussels; not the guard at the back door, who nods deferentially; not any of the dusty young men in the adjacent room, playing cards and waiting for their next assignment; and not Anne, who looks up from her papers when he walks through her door and kicks it shut behind him.

She does move, however, and fast, a pistol in her hand, primed and levelled at his head the moment she sees he has one of his own. He stares at her over their twinned barrels as if they're on a field of honour, waiting for some second to drop a handkerchief.

"Truce?" he finally offers. He may have come here for a fight, but not one of this sort.

"Now, why would I agree to that?" Her eyes flick down to his gun, pause, and then deliberately move lower. Her mouth stretches into a slow, feline smile. She may as well lick her lips. His groin tightens, and he grits his teeth. She raises her eyes to his. Her smile widens. "You're only half-cocked."

He shouldn't look. He knows how to work his own damned gun. He knows she's baiting him. He absolutely should not look.

He looks.

"Bang," she says, and she pushes the hammer forward, sets her pistol on her desk. The smile is gone.

Bleeding Christ, he really is a fool. "You looked away longer than I did." He aims his tone at irritation, and misses by a mile. Whining petulance is where he lands instead.

"Yes." Only half a smile, this time, bland and somehow bitter. "But we both know you won't shoot me."

He almost wants to, if only to prove her wrong. He puts his gun away. "You, on the other hand..."

"This again?" She rolls her eyes. "No." She sounds tired, and she looks it, too, her skin paler than usual and drawn, her cheekbones standing out so sharply he is somewhat surprised she isn't bleeding. "I won't shoot you, either, but only one of us knows that. What do you want?"

"An explanation. You owe me that much." He is as tired of this as she sounds, this agony of uncertainty, this maelstrom of hurt and confusion and desire and anger constantly churning in his gut. "Was it about punishment, or revenge for what I said, or-- or what?"

"Or what," she spits out, her eyes flashing. "Don't act as if you don't know."

"I don't!" God, he should have had a drink or five before he came in here.

"You weren't exactly welcoming, were you?" She sits back, her lip curling with contempt. Her eyes drop again. "Oh, I suppose the one part was happy enough to see me, but--"

"What?" He cuts her off with a frustrated wave of his hand. "No. I don't mean the night of the ball. You shocked me and my words were... ill-chosen. You have every right to be angry."

Her eyebrows climb.

"Though if you had stayed," he grumbles, "I might have clarified."

It does not mollify her in the slightest. "So clarify."

"You first." He tosses a letter to the desk, a piece of paper folded round the handkerchief he'd given her before she left the Musketeer camp that first time with de Cormier. It was how she'd lured him into the ambush: a note in her hand to change the location of the rendezvous, the handkerchief to authenticate it.

There is no hint of recognition on her face as she examines it, only a slight frown, a touch of curiosity creasing the skin between her eyes as she opens the note. Her brows snap together when she sees the handkerchief, and she doesn't even finish reading the message before she is shaking her head. She reads it again, and then a third time. She turns it over, holds it up to the window, sniffs at it carefully, scrapes her thumbnail across the ink. She digs in her desk for a tinderbox and lights a candle, and she holds the paper high over the flame. Eventually she drops it on top of everything else and closes her eyes.

"A moment," she says, and it is clear the request has cost her.

He really ought to say no. He ought to press this unexpected advantage while he has it; he does not imagine it will last long. "To get your story straight?"

One corner of her mouth tugs up slightly, but she doesn't answer, and she doesn't open her eyes. The handkerchief is crumpled in one clenched fist, and she lets it go to put her head in her hands. She looks small, and weary, and wretched. The sight strips away his anger and leaves only the dull ache of his loss. There was a time he might have gone to her. There was a time she might have welcomed him.

With some effort, he gives her what she'd asked for and turns away. Her office is smaller than he'd expected, cramped and dark and cluttered, though the crackling fire warms it well. The room could not be more different from the vast and empty spaces in which the Cardinal preferred to work. There is nothing to see here, Richelieu seemed to be saying, what schemes can I possibly be concocting when I have only one chair? With Anne, there's so much to see and no hope of taking it all in, and you miss the things which matter.

In her office are a few groaning bookshelves, high on the walls. Her desk is a monstrosity of carved oak, and on every available surface there are account books, charts he cannot make sense of, and more maps than he has ever seen in his life. They are tacked up to the wooden panelling, overflowing from the file trunks that line the walls, and stacked in neat piles on the desk. For the first time, he wonders what is involved in running a post office, let alone one of the sort she runs, and how in God's name she has any idea how to do it. But he cannot ask, and so he examines the nearest map, which is hanging next to the door. It's Paris, or nearly. It is some older, alternate version of Paris, possibly one drawn by a drunkard from memory. Notes and corrections in her handwriting are scribbled all over it, half in Latin, half in French.

"You didn't have any Latin when we were married," he says, not looking at her. She had insisted on practising their vows so she wouldn't botch the pronunciation.

"I had some," she says. "I lived in a convent."

Anne, in a convent. It is difficult to imagine. "Before you robbed it."

"Yes." Her voice is tight. "Before I robbed it."

He sighs. It is only that he doesn't know -- he had read the correspondence that Thomas had left, the reports of her former life. It is likely he can still recite them. Time was, when he was very drunk, he did exactly that. But he has never heard the story from her. An oversight, he thinks, but before he can tell her that, she says, "And we are still married."

"Inter prospera et adversa," he mutters under his breath, words he hasn't said since their wedding.

"And when are the good times?" she asks, so quietly he doesn't think she meant for him to hear it. But hear it he does, and the undercurrents of devastation in her voice drag him round to face her.

She looks cracked open, her jaw trembling as she tries desperately to hold herself together. Her anger he can take, but her sorrow he cannot. He never could, and seeing it now tears her name from his throat and jerks him across the room and to his knees, where he grasps her clenched hands. It's all the comfort he dares offer; she never did accept it easily, and he had learned the hard way that if she were in need of his comfort -- or anything else -- she would simply take it. All he could ever do was be there for the taking. "What happened?"

Her lips curve into a wry look he cannot call a smile, and she lays a hand on his face, her thumb brushing the corner of his mouth. Her green eyes search his. "Why? Are you going to believe me?"

He has no idea. He can't lie to her. He rubs his cheek into her palm, presses his lips to the heel of her hand. "Tell me."

She pulls her hand away and settles it atop his own, and they both stare at their entwined fingers as she speaks. "I lost that handkerchief, but I don't know when. I gave it to Antoine and don't remember if he gave it back. We were, what, a fortnight in the field, three weeks? I may have dropped it and not noticed." He gives her a dubious look. "But I think my wine was drugged that first night in Fournier. I slept heavily and woke with a splitting headache." He starts to say, well, I understand wine can have that effect, but she shakes her head. "No, I know the difference. I thought it odd, but just assumed I'd had more than I realised. I was not exactly paying attention."

That doesn't sound like her. That sounds like him. "Why not?"

A hesitant glance through her lashes. "I did not write that letter. If Schmidt drugged the wine just enough and stole the handkerchief as I slept, he could easily have done it. He knew when we were to meet, he had my writing, he is an excellent forger. I assume you walked into an ambush?"

"I did."

"And you thought I sent you."

Can you blame me? But he looks up and finds no need to say anything. She is wearing that awful smile: angry, resigned, despondent. He asks, "Where were you?"

"Where do you think?" Her eyes flash. "Waiting for you."

Again. He rubs at his eyes. "I was-- I would have--"

"He wanted the Musketeers out of Lorraine," she says, cutting off his stammering in a surprising act of mercy. "If you had been killed, they would have gone, but as you are exceedingly difficult to kill, a backup plan became necessary. Evidently that plan was to convince you of my treachery and drive you away."

And it had worked: He had believed she had put them in too much danger for anyone to stay in Lorraine. It is a very convenient explanation she offers, absolving her of responsibility without providing any proof.

"I do not imagine it took much convincing," she says, bitter words, but lacking her characteristic rancour. "You sent everyone to the front after the ambush?"

"Later that day." He swallows and continues, though he's not sure why. "After we escaped, I sent d'Artagnan and Porthos with the orders. I did try to find you. Aramis and I rode back to Fournier, but you had gone. I sent him to meet the rest of the men and I returned to Paris."

"Aramis? I am surprised he let you go." Unhappy, too, from the sound of her voice.

"I pulled rank, gave him an order, and left as he was sleeping." The true surprise is that Aramis still speaks to him at all, although now he thinks on it, Aramis has punched him rather often since their arrival in Nancy.

He slots his fingertips into the hollows of her knuckles. They fit as they always have. "I first thought to follow you," he says. "You were only a day ahead. They said you had ridden east with another man." He stops; she waits, though he knows his pauses drive her mad. There is no reason for this to be so difficult, but he can feel the words squirming up his throat and lodging there. He is trying to spit them out rather than swallow them. "Your own horse, your own volition. I thought it was what you wanted, and I thought--" His words finally choke him into silence and he curls into her lap. He breathes, and breathes, and when he is able, he says, "After what I said to you-- I thought for once to respect your wishes. To do what you wanted me to do and let you go."

"That was not what I wanted." She says it immediately, as if there were never any question, as if it were easy. She pushes a hand through his hair and tugs him up. Pain lances through his knees as he straightens, and he focuses on that smaller, sharper ache rather than the one spreading slowly through his chest, weighing him back down. "But yes, I left with him. He offered me a new life." She gestures around the room, that terrible smile on her face again. He can't stand to look at it. "And I thought you had betrayed me."

"Because I did not come?" It hardly casts him in a good light, but he's not sure he would call it a betrayal.

Her smile is not so awful, this time. More arch than angry, still sad but not sorrowful. "No, that I've grown used to." She doesn't mean it to be cruel, he can tell. She's seen the glove. She knows he was at the crossroads, and now she knows he didn't willingly abandon her at the bridge.

She sighs, and it is her turn again to stare at their hands as she talks. "When I got to Fournier, he already knew everything, or he claimed as much. He said you had already sent the Musketeers to the front, that nothing I said was true. That you would not be at the bridge, because you had already left Lorraine. And of course you weren't, when I went." She looks up. Her voice is bleak. "He said you had sent me to him with false information, knowing he would know it to be false."

He sucks in his breath. "You thought I sent you to die."

Can you blame me? She does not say it, but it's hardly necessary. Of course she thought he sent her to die -- for France, to save his men, protect his honour. It's nothing he hadn't done before. He had practically told her he would do it again. And even believing that's exactly what had happened, she had gone to the bridge to wait.

He jerks his hands away and slumps against the wall like a half-empty sack of grain. The floor pitches and rolls, taking his head with it. He feels the worst sort of drunk, something seething in his stomach, something sitting heavy on his chest. His eyes are stinging, so he closes them. Anne's skirts rustle as she moves. He feels the heat of her body next to his, the weight of her head on his shoulder, and he presses his wet face to her hair. She reaches for his hand, and they sit together in silent, aching misery.

Chapter Text

"You should go," she says, later. Her fingers twitch against his thigh. Neither of them moves. "I have work to do."

Right. She has a job. What does it take to run a post office? How long has he been here? He tilts his head back to look at the window. He can't see the sun, but it does at least still shine; it can't have been that long.

"And I imagine you need a drink," she says.

Yes, but doesn't he always? This is more important, his mission in Nancy, whatever this is between them -- although he is not certain either of them can withstand another round. And if he opens his mouth to start asking questions about who pays her and for what, another round is exactly what they will get. His only real hope is that it will involve less crying. He rubs his eyes. He swears under his breath.

Does he believe her version of events? And if so -- if she, too, had been deceived -- does it mean she can be trusted? She'd as much as admitted she works for Schmidt, who was behind it all in the first place. But on whose orders? Does it matter? Is this truly the first she'd heard of the ambush? And how much does what happened in the forest all those months ago have to do with the coup? Some, he knows, but--

He keeps trying to think it through, but he is mired in his own despondency, that two people who had once been so in love had managed to destroy one another so utterly. Some stranger had found it the work of moments to convince them the other was guilty of the worst sort of betrayal. He hadn't questioned that she'd turned on him, and she hadn't questioned that he'd done the same. They'd both hoped but neither had believed, and what good was their hope, in the end?

"What are we supposed to do now?" he asks, with no real expectation of an answer.

She does not have one.

Christ, his eyes are stinging again. "I did come on business," he says, desperate. Perhaps they can start shouting at one another after all. At least they know how to do that.

"Did you? Well, I prefer not to discuss business whilst weeping on the floor." Her voice is as dry as her face. She sounds more like him than he does.

"At no point," he says, a finger beneath her chin to tilt her face to his, his thumb grazing her cheekbone, "were you weeping." He is honestly not sure what he might do if she were to start. Her glassy eyes alone had nearly killed him. He wonders if she knows that, if she can do it on command, and then she smiles at him, small and sad, and he stops caring. To Hell with all of it, in fact, and he closes what little distance remains between them and brushes his mouth across hers.

He means it to be soft, a chaste and comforting caress, but her mouth opens under his and at the first touch of her tongue, his skin all roars to life, every aching inch of it suddenly and painfully full of feeling, like sliding into scalding water in the dead of winter. He pulls her to his lap and presses closer, his tongue into her mouth, his hands into her hair, his body into hers, and he is intensely aware of every place they touch and every place they don't, and none of it will ever be enough.

They rip at their clothes, and when they've managed to get the necessary pieces open or off or shoved aside, when she's taken him fully into the hot familiar clench of her body, she wraps her arms and legs around him and they hold close, chest to chest, eye to eye, flesh to flesh. It's shockingly intimate, their kisses tasting so much of heartbreak that he doesn't think he can bear it. He trembles beneath her, his body a distant, anguished thing of blood and thunder, threatening to run away. He tries to get closer, deeper, more, to bind and anchor himself to her, but it's too much, and all he can do is sit back. He tries to watch her ride him but can't keep his eyes open; she appears to him in flickering glimpses, more vision than woman: her lip turning from pink to white where she bites it, the jumping pulse at her neck, the drop of sweat at her temple.

He leans back further, trying to get enough leverage to thrust, but her lips curve and she moves with him, keeps him under control and right where she wants him, and it's all he can do hold on, lost in the heat and haze of her body. "Careful," she whispers, passing her hand over his face to cover his eyes. "You wouldn't want me to see too much."

But he does. He wants her to see everything, know everything, have everything -- yes, Christ, he mutters, I do, bending forward to set his teeth at the ridge of her collarbone, to yank the pins from the hair she has shoved up under that ludicrous wig. He wants it off, he wants her real, he wants--

What, she says, you want what, you do what, say it, and so he tells her as best he can, whispers it down her sternum as she arches, licks it into a line beneath her breasts as he tears her bodice away, presses it into the muscles of her thighs as he steadies her. I do want this, he thinks, or means, or says, all of it, I do want you, I do love you, I do take you to be my wedded wife, I do -- and he realises he'd said it all when she stops his mouth with her own.

"Stop," she says, voice catching as he shoves up, broken uneven thrusts that are all he can manage like this. "I don't-- ah, God, I don't tend to credit declarations made by men as they're docked."

It is not a bucket of ice water, not sunk as he is into the molten core of her, but still he stops moving, sits back against the wall, as far away from her as he can get. He takes his hands off her body and puts them on the floor. "This is when you choose to discuss your many other men?"

He knows, of course. How could he not? She had flaunted it in front of him. But what right does he have to object to anything she'd done when he'd killed her? When he'd left her? But he doesn't like it, and he especially doesn't like to think about it, and some of the things she'd done had been murder, to which he objects on general principle, and the whole of it spins him right back round to where he started: in bed with a scorpion, begging for her sting.

"There were never any other men," she tells him, voice low, hips rolling, hands sliding along his face and into his hair, twisting, pulling, God, he says, what? "All the men were you," she says, and some deep part of him burns to ash and blows away. "Every man I took, and every man I killed."

Oh, Jesus Christ, he thinks, arching back and pushing his hips up, and up, trying to get deeper. He wonders if the king fucked her like this. "Don't," he gasps, unsure who he's talking to. "Forget about them."

She grabs his hair and yanks, forcing his head down to meet her eyes. "Make me."

He shoves and lunges with a growl and puts her on her back, ripping the sleeve from her arm in one brutal tug. She twists and scrambles beneath him, but he wrests her arms down and slams them over her head, wrists pinned in one hand. He kneels over her body, stay, he says, and she doesn't, and he squeezes, and she smiles, and he snarls, and she stays. She likes to make him work for this, he knows, and so he does, kneels over her body and uses the sleeve to tie her wrists to the desk. The knots won't hold her if she doesn't wish to be held, but when he glances down, she is paying no attention to the bonds; she is staring at his dripping cock.

She lifts her head, neck craning, but she can't reach him on her own so he slides one hand to the back of her head and wraps the other around himself, leaning forward to trace her mouth. He leaves it glistening, and her tongue darts out, chasing the taste, chasing him, and when he tells her to open for him, she does so without hesitation. Slowly, he feeds her his cock, pushing into the heat of her mouth until he hits the back of her throat. He holds still, eyes closed and head back, consumed, his skin tightening with every spasm of her throat, every stroke of her tongue, every draw of her mouth as she sucks.

He kneels up higher and takes her with him, both hands supporting her head now, her shoulders pulled tight. He blanks his face and empties his eyes and pushes further down her throat, staring at her and waiting for -- there, that slight edge of worry as she starts to twitch beneath him, starts to tug at the bonds, her eyes watering. He withdraws so she can breathe, and then shoves back in as she gasps around him. It's not enough air. Her eyes snap wide and she heaves beneath him, increasingly frantic.

"Stop," he says, lashing out with his voice, and she does. It's enough. He wants this, yes. He wants her. He wants her mouth, her hands, her skin, her heart, her -- yes, her cunt -- her everything, but he has no need of her breath, not anymore. It's inconceivable that he ever did. He eases out and lets her breathe, her tongue still pressing along his length, and he thinks he's made his point when he's surprised by her hands on his hips. She's slipped her bonds and seems about to push him away, but no, she holds him close and pulls off only far enough to whisper around his heated skin, do it, take it, come on.

He stares at her and remembers her that night at the inn, stretched to her limit and begging, filth pouring from her mouth as she confessed to her darker desires. He had not been paying close attention, his mind and mouth being otherwise occupied, and he had been far from sober, and it had all just seemed part of their game. Words, vicious and obscene -- could you come watching me choke? -- but only words. Now she hisses, "Please," around his cock, almost angry, a bare hint of teeth, and it all comes rushing back. He lifts an eyebrow. Her nails tear into his skin.

"Please? That's very polite." His tone is as sharp as her nails. "But if you want something, you'll stay where I put you."

Her eyes darken and her lips curve just so, stretched as they are around his cock. She strokes his length a few times, still sucking at the head while her hand tightens and twists, all of it intended very precisely to undo him. But when he asks if she heard him or requires some incentive to listen, she lets him go and lays back down, wrapping the sleeve around her wrists and grabbing the leg of the desk. He doesn't need to tie her again; this time, he can tell, she'll stay. And anyway, he doesn't want to move to do it, he wants to stay where he is, wants to fist his hands in the silken hair at the back of her head and slide his cock into the wet heat of her open throat.

"Eyes," he snaps, when hers drift shut, because as terrifying as this is to do while they stare each other down, he needs to be able to watch her panic rise and fall, needs something to focus on beyond the question he cannot quash -- is this how it was? Did she choke on the end of the rope like she's choking now on his cock, her body bucking under his, thick drool on her chin and an animal fear in her eyes? Fuck, he mutters, not sure he can do this, but when he eases out enough for her to breathe, to calm, to settle, he only says again and shoves back in before she's ready. Again, again, again, and keeps her there, riding that knife's-edge, working himself farther down her throat and staying longer each time, pushing past the panic and beyond, sliding out to let her breathe and pressing back in before she can, never giving her enough.

God knows how long it takes for her to finally surrender. She goes limp in his arms, body and breath abandoned entirely to his control. He pulls out as soon as she does, leaning to seal his mouth over hers, breathing into her as she shudders and gasps against him. He lets go, only to haul her legs over his shoulders and drive himself home, bending her nearly in two, a thumb pressed hard where their bodies join. Her mouth opens wide and he thinks she might scream, but she stays silent and shaking around him, her eyes unseeing. He fucks her though it, long slow strokes as inevitable and inexorable as everything they've ever been, and when she comes again he lets himself go, and follows her down.

*

They lie in the wreckage of their clothes and stare at nothing in particular. He is trying to remember the name of those fish, the tiny flashing ones which glitter and are gone, impossible to catch. There is a metaphor he would like to construct, about those fish and the thoughts flickering through his head, but he cannot even get that far.

Some eternity later, Anne, her head tucked under his chin, murmurs, "A bigger pair of fools you would go far to find."

"And you would come back round to us." He presses a kiss into her hair and thinks, one day I will bed my wife in an actual bed. Other men contrive it; surely I can do the same.

One day, a bed: optimism. Folly. Madness. He shifts to better wrap his arms around her and wonders at what point he will come to regret this. Or-- will he? Has something changed? He feels changed, but he can't think. Perhaps it's only that he is appalled, the way he so often is whenever the two of them are lying spent in some ruin of their own making. He'd gathered her in his arms, held her as she'd curled into him and calmed, but even so he is the last person in this world or any other who ought to have been choking her for pleasure, and he should--

"Oh, Christ," she says, hoarse. "Stop. I can hear you torturing yourself from here. Are we to business, then?" She trails a finger down the line of his throat and starts plucking idly at the ties of his shirt. She slides her hand inside the collar, her palm warm against his skin. "Unless that was the business in question." Her fingers find a bruise she'd bitten into his chest.

"Hardly. That was--" He has no idea what the Hell that was. "--not business." Or if it was, it was business of a different sort. He arches an eyebrow in her general direction, not that she can see it. He puts it into his voice instead. "Am I to understand you think fucking on the floor is somehow more conducive to business than weeping on it?"

He can feel her lips curve against his neck. "Say 'fucking' again."

He obliges her, and when she presses two fingers to his mouth, he kisses the tips of them. Why not? He feels well enough. Her mood seems conducive, or at least it does not seem unfavourable.

"Help me stop the coup," he says, and then his chest constricts in something like horror. That was not at all what he'd meant to say. He'd planned to mention Orléans, try to tease out her thoughts and discover where she might stand on the issue, perhaps learn who she truly works for and what she already knows, not simply--

"For France?" The smile is mostly in her voice.

"You don't give a fourpenny fuck about France," he says. And then, because he has apparently given up on the basic business of thinking, "Do it for me."

"All right."

"What?" He had not expected that to work.

He can feel her sigh as she sits up, turning to tug at his legs until he shifts and bends them for her. She leans against him, chin propped on his knee, and levels him a look. "You asked me for help. I agreed."

At what price, he almost says, but that will not end well for him and so he keeps his mouth shut. Still, she must have some reason, some inducement. It is not a frown he tries to keep from his face, exactly -- more a question. What is the catch?

"Where is your difficulty?" she asks him, whilst he tries to determine how to phrase his question in some way which will not end with her leaning over to bite his bollocks off.

He is distracted from this endeavour when he looks up and is struck anew by the spark in her eyes, the pressed-flat line of her mouth. She is irritated, but she still exudes that air of lazy satisfaction she has after sex, and just like that, all the thoughts fly from his head and he can only stare. She is a perfect mess. Her hair is a sweaty ruin that might happily house a family of birds, and her face is streaked with sweat and tears and spit and paint. One sleeve is shoved off her shoulder and bunched along her upper arm; the other is shredded and twisted round her desk. There are bite-marks along her collarbone, and her bodice is torn and hanging loose, her breasts pushed up over top of it. He reaches and rubs, his thumb pressing and dragging over a nipple, and when it draws tight, he curls up to suck it into his mouth. She inhales sharply, her hand pulling at his hair even as she bends forward, as if she isn't sure if she wants more of him or less.

"If you want me to refuse so you can use your mouth on me until I relent--"

"Not your worst idea," he says. He knows she likes his mouth. He moves to her other nipple and draws hard, tongue working, until she gasps, her fingernails scraping against the back of his neck. As soon as he feels her give in, he releases her and falls back to the floor, an arm behind his head. He does try not to grin at her. Sort of.

She glares and jabs two hard fingers into his stomach. "Do you want to talk about this, or not?" Not, he thinks, not really, but she stands and rolls her shoulders, rubs at the back of her neck. She starts trying to tuck her breasts back into her torn bodice but doesn't get far before stopping to rake her eyes over him, still sprawled half-naked on the floor. "Monsieur le comte," she says, voice dry, "at least do me the courtesy of putting away your cock. If it's of no use to me, I would prefer not to look at it."

The temptation to reach down and stroke himself back to usefulness is almost overwhelming -- it might take a while but he could do it, he thinks, her watching him the way she is -- but she reads the intention on his face and shakes her head. He blinks up at her, wide-eyed and as guileless as he can manage, and he catches a hint of amusement on her face as she sits and puts her head in her hands. He throws an arm over his face to hide his own helpless smile.

*

"All right," he says, sitting down on the other side of her desk like a regular postal patron with legitimate business. Their clothes have been somewhat restored to order, though her hair is hopeless. She'd pulled it into a messy plait and rolled her eyes when he'd offered to help: Though he had eventually learnt to dress her after he'd undressed her, doing anything to her hair beyond ruin it had remained a mystery.

"All right," she repeats, and waits, and changes. She grows colder as he watches, more distant and contained, and any optimism he had acquired starts to dwindle.

"I know what you do here," he says.

"At the post office?" Her eyebrows climb. "Yes, I am the postmistress. I run the post. Work that out yourself, did you?"

That deserves a glare, he thinks. He supplies one. "You do not only run the post. You know the contents of every dispatch which goes through Lorraine. You control what gets through and when. I don't know how you do it, but I am certain you do."

"Are you?" There is not so much as a flicker of reaction in her eyes. No admission, no denial, no concern. If anything, she sounds bored. "All right, let's say that's true. What help do you want from me?"

"I--" He stops, staring at her with a sinking feeling in his chest. She hadn't said what coup? -- she must already know about it. And she had agreed to help him stop it, but she ostensibly works for Lorraine, who is in on it. Suddenly he feels as if all the questions he had when he walked through the door remain questions, and he has no idea what he can tell her. In short, he doesn't know if he can trust her, and he doesn't know how it is he's run so far and ended up exactly where he started. He hates it here. He drops his head to his hands with a groan. "I don't suppose you have any wine."

A sigh, a drawer, a splash. "Brandy." She pushes the glass across the desk.

"Thank you." He swirls the light amber liquid around and inhales: nuts, vanilla, something floral. He reaches for vague hypotheticals. "If you are in control of which letters get through and how quickly, and if you are in the habit of making copies of certain dispatches and selling those copies to interested parties, I would ask that you refrain from doing so when the letters are mine." There. Clear enough. Vague enough. He takes a sip of the brandy, swirls it in his mouth, lets it sit on his tongue. He closes his eyes to savour the burn of it in his throat, and he opens them to find her watching him.

Her head tilts as if she's waiting for him to say more, and when he doesn't, she asks, "That's what you want? To be left alone?"

She sounds surprised, he thinks, and faintly offended, and then copies, copies, he'd said, she makes copies. "I am an idiot." She does not argue the point. He stares at her, and then into his drink. He truly had come only about his own correspondence; somehow, the rest of it hadn't occurred to him: that she might already have the proof he needs, that she could simply dig through some strongbox and hand him some papers and send him on his way.

He needs to start again. "What do you know?"

"Everything," she says, and to his astonished face, "You do realise I sit on Lorraine's council? What do you think we do? Lorraine is an independent territory. The coup isn't treason. It is not even a much of a conspiracy. It's politics. It's securing the most beneficial alliance. With Gaston or Philip on the throne, Lorraine keeps the duchy. The end."

"You really do sound like the cardinal," he says, after a moment.

Her lips press into a thin, unhappy line.

"I meant no insult, only that it is a different way of thinking. I prefer things more..." He trails off, letting a vague gesture complete the sentence when he cannot find the word. Predictable? Orderly? Straightforward? Idealistic?

Whatever he might have said, she understands him, and rolls her eyes. "Yes, that's what you prefer, and you get angry when things are otherwise. Which they usually are." Two fingers rub at the scar on her neck.

"Yes." It stings, but it is a fair assessment. "I'm trying."

"I've heard that before."

"If you help me stop the coup and are caught..."

"Oh, yes." She stops rubbing at her scar and draws the fingers across her throat, grim.

"But..." He looks at his hands for a while. He throws back his drink. There is no reason for her to agree to this, not if there are other options, and he thinks there probably are. She could honour his first request, and simply look the other way while he and the others muddle through. They'll figure something out; they always do. If she does nothing to actively help him now, it might save her life later, and there is no crown worth her life. He cannot imagine she thinks there is -- especially the crown of Louis de Bourbon, who had used her and humiliated her and discarded her as if she were nothing, when in fact she is everything. "Forgive me," he says, forcing his eyes back to hers. "But I don't understand."

Her head tilts. Her eyes narrow as she studies him, and then she sighs. Whatever she sees on his face, she keeps it to herself. She refills his glass and pours one of her own. "No, I don't imagine you do."

"Tell me, then."

She looks up at him from across the vast expanse of her desk, which may as well be the ocean for all the distance it imparts. She is in New France, glittering, cold, mysterious, and he is left behind. "You know what," she says, "just go. We can finish this later." A sudden exhaustion frays the edge of her voice.

He stands. "Anne--"

"That is not my name," she snaps. "Leave."

He hesitates for the space of several more seconds, and then turns to obey. He gets as far as the door, but his hand falters when he reaches to open it. "No." He bars it instead, and can dredge up only a very mild mortification to realise it hadn't been barred already. He puts his back against it and looks at her. He can read nothing but wariness on her face. "For all you say we know each other, I am not convinced. You say we have only each other, but I have my brothers, and you-- I cannot read your mind. I don't know what just happened here. So tell me."

Anger and astonishment pass over her face, but there's something else behind her eyes he can't identify, something small and haunted, fearful. It makes him want to shoot the person who put it there, but he probably did it himself. He wonders: If I shoot myself in the arm, might we move past whatever this is? Doubtful, though she might appreciate the offer.

"Tell you what, exactly? You want to know what I want from you, Athos? You want me to name my price?"

He feels his shoulders start to stiffen in the face of her anger, and he carefully forces them back down, keeps his voice even. "If you have one, by all means, but that is not what I said. I am not calling you a whore, I am saying you've agreed to risk your life for this, and I would like you to tell me why."

"You would like-- how many times?"

He blinks in confusion.

"Because I have told you I want from you. I've done it more than once. I have told you and I have begged you and I have asked you and I have waited for you and I have crawled across France behind you, and then I have waited for you some more." She is speaking through clenched teeth, lip curled, voice low and shaking with effort and emotion, and he can see he was wrong. She is not angry: she is furious. The rage spilling from her is palpable, keeps him pinned to the door. "So tell me again what you would like. Tell me how many times you would like me to say it before you feel we're even."

What he would like, actually, is to answer. What he might say is God's guess -- 'no' is the only word which springs to mind, and he knows it to be hopelessly inadequate -- but he would at least try, only something seems to have lodged in his throat.

Anne has no such difficulty. "There was a time I would have said it again, but as it happens, I am through letting you punish me for the crime of loving you."

Stop, he manages, please, but she does not, her words hitting him like a battering ram, hard and heavy, again and again. "Or is the greater crime that you love me? Forgive me, I never remember which of those is worse in your eyes, loving or being loved. I compromise you, isn't that right? And for that you hate us both."

No. It isn't right. He takes a breath. He takes another. It isn't wrong. "Tell me how you really feel."

She stands and stalks across the room, a predatory gleam in her eyes. He holds still, fingertips digging into the wooden door behind him, and she smacks the flat of her hand into his chest to hold him. Her other hand she slides into the collar of his shirt and down the sleeve, and he clenches his jaw as something pulls, something gives. She tugs her glove free from where it's tied to his arm and steps back, silk dangling from two fingers.

She gives him a pointed look. "I am not the one who has a problem with that."

He resists the urge to beat his head against the door. This conversation he had been hoping to put off a while longer. "What am I supposed to say? I would not have gone to England, but I always did intend to find you."

"Really," she says, as if inquiring after the weather. It is more worrisome than her fury. "When?"

He frowns. "After the war, when we no longer had so much between us."

"After the war." She nods, thoughtful. "Another five years, then? Ten, perhaps? Assuming you lived, of course, and it's not as if your odds are good. Tell me, did you imagine I would wait for you? I realise I always have before."

His frown deepens. He hadn't let himself imagine it at all. If she waited, he would be happy. If she did not, he would be drunk. "I don't know," he says. "I would have waited for you."

If he'd expected that to soften her, he is disappointed; her anger comes roaring back, fierce enough to make her tremble. "Well, that's fine, then. Your plan was to spend another decade drinking yourself to death and calling it love, and when you did come to find me, if I had not been doing the same thing, if you found me to be other than the girl you married--"

"You were never the girl I married!" he shouts, an explosion, his voice trying to make itself heard over the sudden thunder of his pulse. He's had enough of this. "That girl did not exist. I wronged you, I admit it. Grievously and repeatedly, and there are no possible amends I can ever make. But you wronged me, too, and I am trying-- you think I don't love you? I do. You think I don't want to be with you? I do. But I don't know how, Anne." It is nothing more or less than the truth, but the effort of saying it exhausts him, eats up all his anger and leaves only his despair. He sags against the door, spent. "I don't know how."

When he opens his eyes some eternity later, she has backed away from him and is leaning against her desk, hands curled so hard around its edges that he fears something might break. He thinks it is as likely to be her as it is the desk. "I wish you had not said that." The emptiness of her voice fills him with dread.

"What, that I love you? I--"

"Don't," she snaps, almost frantic. "Stop. You want me to name my price, here it is: I will help you keep that imbecile on the throne, and in return, when this is over, you will go back to Paris with your idiot friends and never try to contact me again."

Chapter Text

Part III.
If we go on explaining, we shall cease to understand one another. —Tallyrand

By your words you will be justified, and by your words condemned. —Matthew 12:36

***

Night is falling fast. The fire is stoked and she has just finished lighting the candles in her office when there is a commotion in the outer chamber: drunken shouting and the thud of furniture, a disagreement in danger of turning into a brawl. She sighs and reaches for her cloak. Normally this is the sort of disturbance the guards handle, or the bored couriers who lounge about in hopes of work, or even that clerk she hired off the street, the ugly one with new clothes and old habits.

Tonight, however, she takes it as a sign to give up on her work. She was clearly not meant to accomplish anything. She has a huge stack of correspondence to deal with, but as usual, Athos laid waste to all her plans. Once he'd gone, she'd stared out the window in hollow disbelief, her mind warring between regret and resolve but her body making its opinion clear: At the thought of never seeing him again, her stomach revolts, her throat constricts, and there is no part of her which doesn't ache.

And so whatever is going on, it is a welcome distraction. "What is the meaning of this?"

Halfway through the question, she knows the answer; the two drunken idiots making a scene are Porthos and Aramis. She keeps the recognition from her face. Porthos is difficult to understand through the shouting and the shoving and the slurred speech, but it sounds as if he would like to lodge a complaint, something about a bribe and a card game and a diplomatic pouch from a city which does not exist. The two guards had tried cajoling them back out again, come now, nice and easy, the way you do with drunkards, but Aramis is getting belligerent and the guards are losing patience.

"Enough!" she shouts, and they all four turn her way. "If these gentlemen have a complaint about our services," she says to the guards, "I shall entertain it. After all, I have nothing better to do." She makes a sweeping -- albeit sarcastic -- gesture towards her office, and Porthos and Aramis stagger in.

When the door slams shut behind them, she and Aramis speak simultaneously, and they say the same thing: "Where is he?"

Aramis looks murderous. Porthos looks worried. Both of them look sober. Her stomach clenches with a different sort of pain.

"You did say you were gonna kill him," Porthos says, folding his arms. Behind him, Aramis strides from one side of the room to the other.

"No, I said I was going to have him killed, after which I would hardly wait around here for you two to show up. I thought we had at least established I am not stupid. What happened?"

"We don't know," Porthos says, "but he said to burn the city to the ground if he didn't come back by dark."

"And you thought to start with my office? Plenty of paper to use for kindling, I suppose." She sits down, splashes some brandy into a glass, and doesn't offer them any. Instead, she watches as Aramis stamps through the office, poking and prodding at the walls, the shelves, the trunks, the window, the fire. "Did you check the gutters? He's not here, I can assure you."

"Your assurances!" Aramis explodes in her direction and traps her in the chair, hands bracketing her head. His face is only inches from hers. "And what are your assurances worth, madame? What did you do to him this time?"

"Aramis," Porthos says, his voice low. He moves to put a hand on Aramis' chest, but he's not quick about it, and he does not pull Aramis away.

She considers all the truths she might tell: I sucked his cock. I surrendered my breath. I bit his mouth. I tore his shirt. I tried to free us both. "I agreed to help."

He does not back off. "At what price?"

Neither of them seems likely to believe the price she'd named -- she hardly believes it herself -- and she would rather be marched to the gallows than have this conversation, and so she purrs, "Oh, don't worry," her low voice heavy with insinuation, a feline smile curving her lips. "He is always very satisfied to pay whatever price I name."

Aramis curls his lip in disgust and pushes himself away, but it's only to slump against her desk. "I apologise," he says with a slight bow of his head, surprising her. "I'm worried about him. He has not been himself since we got here--"

"Since longer than that," Porthos says, voice dark.

"--and after a few hours with you he's often ready to..." He lifts a hand, flicks his wrist.

"Throw himself into the river?" He had certainly looked ready to throw himself into something, but it's far more likely to be a bottle than the Meurthe. She supposes it's conceivable he went straight to the nearest tavern and is halfway through their wine stores by now, but she doubts it.

"I did say he wouldn't survive another bloodletting," he says.

"You did." She stands. The cloak falls from her shoulders. Aramis steps back and plants a hand on his hip, frustrated, but as his eyes drift over her, he comes slowly to attention. She may have been avoiding the glass, but she knows what she looks like: her hair is a knotted mess despite the plait; her eyes are puffy and bloodshot and bright with a lifetime of unshed tears; her clothes are irreparably torn, the one sleeve of her dress still tied to the desk; plenty of her skin is on display, much of it bruised, some of it broken. "And I said, nor would I."

He takes it in, increasingly troubled, and his voice is grave when he asks, "Are you-- what happened?"

She lifts her eyebrows. He lifts his open hands. They both know he does not want to know.

"Touching," she says. "How close are you to stopping the coup?"

They stare at her. They stare at each other. They stare at her.

When it is clear they are not going to answer, she says with exaggerated patience, "I ask because if you found out something recently and he's been arrested, I could probably just go get him."

"Right," Porthos says, already halfway out the door. "What're we waiting for, then?"

She raises her voice to stop him moving. "We don't know that's what's happened." She doubts it, but she grudgingly concedes she does not always know everything, and the possibilities are endless. It may have to do with the coup, or he may simply have been robbed, or it may be about her: She is not without her enemies, and they had been cloistered in her office for hours. "But say it has. If he has been taken up for spying and I go get him, we all leave Lorraine immediately with the hounds of Hell behind. Are you prepared to run?" She pauses to allow them to answer, but they stay silent. "I am not. And if we leave before you've managed to secure the proof you need to stop the coup, it's another failed mission, and a rather disastrous one at that. How do you imagine that will go over?"

"All right." Aramis shoves a hand through his hair. "Did you send us into that ambush?" He asks this question as if he's fully prepared to trust her answer.

"No."

Porthos: "He wanted your help. You said yes?"

"Yes."

Back to Aramis: "Do you love him?"

She sighs. Perhaps I ought to wear a sign round my neck, she thinks, or brand his arms upon my forehead. "Yes," she says, though it hardly matters. She'd loved him just as much when she'd been trying to kill him, and that had certainly hurt less than whatever it is she's trying to do now. But she sees no need to point any of that out to these two. "Unfortunately, I do."

"So help us now," Porthos says.

"You do realise I already agreed? There's a tavern round the corner, sign of John and the Wolf. Meet me there in ten minutes."

The two of them leave through the front door, all smiles and gallantry and apologies to the guards, and when they have gone she scrubs her face clean and quickly replaits her hair. She pulls off her second sleeve so she at least is even, and then drags on a heavy cloak, huge and hooded. There is a hidden door in her office, and she makes use of it, and once she's collected her husband's friends from the tavern, they begin the search.

Fortunately, it does not take very long -- less than two hours. From her informants, she learns that he was attacked not long after he left her offices, that the fight had started with one man and then two, that in the end it had taken five to drag him away, perhaps six. As for why, or who, or where: shrugs. Men, you know. Drunk, most like. No swords, and no, monsieur had not drawn his own. That way.

And so here he is, supposedly, in the back room of another low tavern tucked into a grim and grimy innyard. She is peering through a small serving hatch, Aramis and Porthos to either side of her, vibrating with fury, muscles jumping, sinews twitching. Ten men, she says, maybe more, still trying to see, but she can see nothing beyond the bunch of borachios blocking her view, shouting and laughing, stamping their feet, clapping their hands as if playing some game. But then they part and indeed there he is, hands tied and suspended over his head such that his toes barely scrape the floor, which is slick with blood. His jacket and shirt are off, his head lolls, dirty hair swinging in his face. He has enough strength left that he still has his hands wound around the ropes and is trying to hold himself up, keep the weight off his wrists, but he will not last much longer.

His hands, she thinks. His hands. This is how people lose their hands. She loves his hands. Go, she says, now, on her feet without realising it, a tempest boiling inside her, like the storm of rage she used to live inside after he killed her and before she killed him. At times she'd wished it back, and now here it is, now it will break her open and lay waste to everything, now--

"Is there a plan?" Porthos asks, but she is already moving, already through the door, her shot already fired, the man with his hands on Athos already slumping to the floor, the butt of the gun already a club in her hand she's swinging. "Guess not."

"I'll be glad when we can like her," Aramis says, and then they're there, flanking her as she makes her way through the room.

Later, it will seem unbelievable, the way the two of them part the bodies before her like the sea, but in the moment, she barely notices. She has eyes only for one thing. Athos slowly registers the commotion and looks up. He sees her and flinches, tries to blink the blood from his eyes, and she keeps moving until her body is pressed against his and she's reaching up above his head to where his hands are tied. Her own hands are bloody and she doesn't know why, and she's holding his sword with absolutely no recollection of where it came from. He wasn't wearing it.

"This will hurt," she says, her mouth against his ear.

He makes a sound which might be laughter, and she braces to take his weight. "All right," she says, "on three," and cuts him loose on one, sword clattering to the floor. His arms slam against her shoulders as if they're made of lead, and Athos sags against her with a low, cracked groan, his breaths coming in deep shudders which shake his entire frame.

She stands with him in the centre of the maelstrom while Porthos and Aramis make short and vicious work of people and furniture both: Porthos has put someone's head through a bench, and Aramis has just knocked someone out with a chair leg. Bodies and blood and splinters fly in equal measure, and it takes her a moment to realise that Porthos and Aramis are not really moving; they are circling her instead, keeping everyone at bay, giving her the time and space she needs to deal with Athos. Her intention had been to get him out, but he curls into her, his face buried in the crook of her neck, her body caving under the dead weight of his arms and shoulders, and she does not imagine he'll be walking on his own any time soon.

"Turn with me," she tells him, and they shuffle round like dance partners risen from the grave, staggering, filthy, smeared with blood. She backs them out of the fray to get to the wall, something to support her whilst she supports Athos. He has his sunk teeth into her shoulder, trying not to scream as the circulation returns to his arms. It hurts. Everything about this hurts. She ignores it and opens her cloak to let him in. His skin is so hot she's amazed her dress hasn't gone up in flames, but she wraps the cloak around them both and holds on tight.

The next thing she's aware of is Porthos, who, she surmises, has been talking to her. She doesn't hear a word he says until his hand lands on her shoulder. "C'mon, c'mon, give."

"What?" She jerks away.

He throws a look over his shoulder at Aramis, who is standing by the door, bloody chair leg in one hand and the other extended, motioning frantically. "The watch," he calls, eyes fixed on the other room. It's loud, and it does not sound like the usual tavern noise. "We have to go. Now. Now. Now!"

Porthos moves forward, arms out. "You can't carry him," he says. "Let me--"

NOW, Aramis is chanting, NOW NOW NOW--

"No," she snaps, but she hears herself, and knows she sounds demented. Porthos is right. Aramis is right. She turns her mouth to Athos' ear. "Can you move your arms? Porthos has to take you."

He mumbles something against her mauled skin and she feels him try, his muscles straining, teeth sinking back into her shoulder. He shudders, sags, curses, mouths gently at her neck in apology. "Not yet. I can probably walk, but not quickly."

She looks to Porthos and shakes her head. He swears. The commotion in the outer room is getting louder, getting closer, and Porthos takes one of Athos' raw wrists, lifts, bends, swings Athos' body up and onto his back, an arm and a leg over his shoulders. Athos does not scream but from the way he's gone limp, she thinks he lost consciousness. Good. Porthos is already moving, dodging the bodies laid out on the ground, Aramis covering him as they head for a side door.

"What about you?" Aramis asks.

She shakes her head and steps out of the room. "Run," she says, "go," and he's already doing it. "I'll deal with the watch."

The door slams behind him mere seconds before the guards rounds the corner, the captain himself in front. She steps in front of the door and pushes her hood back. "Captain."

He pulls up short, his men skidding to a halt behind him. "Postmistress," he says, suddenly wary. "I didn't realise you were here."

She smiles. "I'm not."

Chapter Text

Next day she is early for the meeting of the duc's council. No hardship there, as she had not even attempted to go to bed. Lorraine does not attend, and so as chamberlain, Suchet presides. He sits at the head of the table in an armchair and drums his fingers on the wood, waiting, waiting.

The finance minster trickles in, the foreign secretary, the chancellor, and before the minister for military affairs arrives, Suchet looks at her and says, "I'm afraid, madame, I need you to take over with Brassard."

The quill in her hand stutters. Ink smears. Paper tears. "Excusez-moi?" She looks up. "I thought you were friends."

"Of a sort, but I am nowhere. The man's as tight as a-- well." He clears his throat. "You know."

And so she does. She knows precisely. She says, "I already told you there was nothing in his house."

"I know." Suchet twists one end of his moustache. "But we must be certain he has no ties to France before we approach him. He has not seemed opposed, but neither has he seemed exactly amenable. You do know I hate to ask, but we are running out of time."

She puts down her pen and tries not to roll her eyes. Athos could not be less suited for this type of work. Months, and neither has he seemed exactly amenable? God in Heaven. She sighs. "When does Montmorency leave?"

"End of the month, I believe," Suchet says. "I'll speak to him." The duc must return to Languedoc to raise his army, and by the time that's done, Lorraine is to have mercenaries at the ready. In late summer, with France's royal armies tied up by the Spanish, Gaston will march on Paris at the head of these mercenary troops, attacking from the northeast while Montmorency comes in from the southeast. It's months away yet, but raising an army is not a fast process -- nor a cheap one.

"How quickly can you work, madame?" This from the finance minister, Miron, sitting opposite her. "We need the money yesterday. Orléans' financing has been slow to come through, and mercenaries--"

"Yes," she cuts in. "I know, mercenaries are expensive." She knows because Miron complains about it incessantly. "You believe Brassard has enough to help?"

Miron's shoulders twitch in something like a shrug. "He is not in debt. They don't know him in Antwerp, Florence, any of the banking houses I contacted. His estates, so far as anyone knows, they are lucrative, and a loan would pose no difficulty. Your boy said he seemed rich enough, yes?"

"Yes," and she thinks it all true: falsifying a title is one thing, but an entire comté is another matter entirely, and pulling it off would require someone with more acting ability than Athos will ever possess. She wonders how he truly feels about all of this, if he knows or cares that the estates are lucrative, if he'll have to give them back when this is over or if Louis will make him run them forever as a perverse sort of punishment. She huffs in quasi-amusement, almost wishing she'd talked to him instead of slept with him, but that has always been their way. She never regrets it in the moment, and the thought of making some other choice when he touches her -- the thought of there even being another choice to make -- is laughable, but she cannot help but think that somehow, there should be more.

Of course, that's all over now.

"So what is it you want me to do?" she asks.

"Whatever you think best," Suchet says. "Find out if we can trust him. Get close to him, drug him, seduce him, blackmail him, steal from him, I honestly do not care."

Good Lord, she thinks, my life is ridiculous. Get close to him. Whore myself out to my own husband to find out if he's trustworthy enough to join the coup he has enlisted my help to stop. She channels the dry drawl of the husband at issue. "You said he hates women."

Suchet twists an end of his moustache, eyes half-closed as he thinks. "I don't think that's it. You intrigue him. You drove him insane for weeks as he tried to meet you. I believe he still has feelings for his estranged wife, and you"--he points--"are the perfect woman to make him forget his troubles. You should see his face when I rhapsodise about your beguilements."

"My beguilements?" No need to see his face. She can picture it exactly, and she has to bite the inside of her cheek to keep the smile from her own.

Suchet nods. "He will not discuss it, but the marriage must have been a love match. Every time I say the word 'love' I end up fearing for my life. And you have seen his chevalière."

She's seen it. She thought nothing of it, but now she realises it's because he wears it the same way he had worn the la Fère ring when they were married: turned inward, arms facing his heart. When she'd noticed, she had stared at it in pleasant, hazy surprise until he'd ducked his chin and given her a shy smile: Why shouldn't everyone know I am yours? She'd sucked the tip of that finger into her mouth and taken him back to bed, and they had been only for each other.

The ring, the glove, the shocked and shattered look on his face when she'd told him to go back to Paris and leave her be. He hadn't believed her, not at first, but whatever he had seen on her face had convinced him, and then he had gone without a fight. Damn him, anyway. Damn them both.

The last member of the council chooses that moment to show up, the door slamming behind him and thankfully jolting her from her reverie. Guerin, of military affairs, slides into the seat next to her with a grunt. He's a large, florid man, past his prime and lacking the intelligence of other military men she could name, but he's harmless enough, and not without a ruthless pragmatism she appreciates. He'd spoken for her when Lorraine had named her to the council -- no one thinks a woman can spy, so who better? -- and they often find themselves allies in the petty disputes that spring up between Miron and the foreign secretary, Clouatre.

"Thank you for joining us," Suchet says, sarcastic. "Shall we begin?"

They do so, but her heart is not in the discussion. Her mind is elsewhere, racing, trying to determine some course of action which will not get her killed. Athos had confused her yesterday, unsettled her with his love and his hate, his regret and his rage, his tears and his lust, his pleas and his demands, and now -- sitting in the council chamber with these high-ranking men who listen to what she has to say -- she is more confused than ever.

The problem is that she likes it here, or she had until Athos had appeared in the middle of that masquerade, god-like and glorious, and ripped her life apart. No one here questions her motivations or her methods or her morals. They tell her what they need, and leave the rest to her. If she has concerns, they are entertained. No one tries to coerce her into doing things she would rather not. The duc can order her around, of course, but she can think of no position in which that would not be true, and so far Lorraine has left her to her own devices. The only shackle she still wears is the one which binds her to Athos.

"My lady?"

She refocuses on the conversation. She taps the point of her quill on the paper in front of her. She looks at Suchet. "We need a treaty."

Suchet's eyebrows -- everyone's eyebrows, she imagines -- go up. "You told us to go without. Nothing in writing, you said."

"Yes, and your insistence on that has cost us, madame," Miron says, glaring. She can very nearly see him tallying up the figures in his head. "Private couriers tearing about, one message at a time, bribes, it never ends."

"No. It doesn't." She tries to keep the irritation from her voice, but it's difficult. They've been having this exact conversation once a week for months. "But as writing something down means someone can read it, and as I do not run the only black room in Europe, it seemed prudent. I did think the coup was at least something of a secret."

"France doesn't have a black room," Miron says, sullen.

"No," she says again. "But the one in Brussels is a sieve. We start writing letters to Marie de' Medici, and Louis will know everything inside a month. He'll annex the territory and no one will stop him." Already she has to intercept half of Gerbier's letters to keep this from happening.

"Yes, yes, all right." Suchet breaks in, as tired of this argument as she is. "We are all in agreement." He glares at Miron, who is not in agreement, but who subsides nonetheless. Suchet turns back to her, dubious. "And yet you just mentioned a treaty. Why the change of heart?"

She does not say: Because Athos needs a piece of paper. She says: "Something is wrong with Rosales," which will get no one killed, except possibly Rosales, who is odious. Besides, the statement has the additional advantage of being true: of late the Spanish ambassador has been distant, distracted, and there has been something off about the reports he sends home. "I'm investigating, but I fear he's planning a double-cross, and without a treaty we will be without protection."

"If we're gonna do it," Guerin says, "we should do it while Montmorency's here." He ticks the players off on his fingers. "Rosales for Spain, Orléans, Gerbier for the Queen Mother, Lorraine-- who else?"

"Soissons' proxy and Brassard, if they are providing funds." Clouatre, the foreign secretary, emphasises that if and sits back to watch his handiwork, fat fingers laced over his prodigious stomach, lips pressed thin under his curling grey moustache.

Miron nearly convulses. "If? What do you mean, if? Brassard I understand to be a possibility only, but Soissons, I understood him to be a sure thing. If we cannot count on--"

"Thank you, monsieurs de Clouatre, de Miron," Suchet says, raising his voice and managing, somehow, not to roll his eyes. "There is no issue with Soissons, I assure you. My lady von Kirchner, do you have any concrete information about Rosales, or just a feeling? Nothing? All right, do let me know when you know something, and good luck with Brassard."

"Merci," she says, her smile wan. She suspects she will be needing it.

***

She is let into the house that night without a word or question, no card needed. The footman takes her cloak and looks as if he might say something, but she waves him off.

When she gets to Athos' bedchamber, she stands in the doorway and remarks, to no one in particular, "You are very lax on security here at l'hôtel de Brassard. You never know who might walk in."

Athos' shoulders jerk at the sound of her voice. He is propped up in bed in a nightshirt, a blue quilt pulled up to his hips. His chest and ribs are bruised so badly she can see the shadows through his shirt. His hands are limp across his stomach, his wrists carefully bandaged. The left side of his face is one massive bruise, swollen and discoloured, and he is otherwise as pale as the linen he's wearing. His eyes open slowly and he looks straight through her, blinks, and turns his head away.

She swallows and tries to do the same, but she cannot. She keeps staring at his hands. His fingers have not so much as twitched since she arrived.

"I told the staff to admit you," Aramis says. He is lounging on a stool, his shoulders against the wall, long legs stretched in front of him and crossed at the ankle. Next to him on the floor is a Bible and a bottle of wine, and she can hear the slight smile in his voice when he says, "I had a feeling you might stop by."

"How is he?" she asks, ignoring whatever it is he is trying to insinuate.

"Irritating," Aramis says. "He is a terrible patient, as I'm sure you know. I gave him something for the pain and he should recover with time and rest, neither of which he wants. Perhaps there's something you can to do persuade him to stay in bed."

She glares sidelong.

"It's only that I have to hit him." His voice dips into a whisper. "And I think he likes that better when you do it."

She ignores that -- and the growl that comes from the bed -- in favour of turning to face Aramis fully. "You think I can talk sense into him?"

"Not at all," he says, agreeably enough, but now that she's looking at him she can see he acquired plenty of bruises of his own in last night's altercation. Under the bruises, he is worn and haggard, much like the way he'd been all those months ago in the forest. "But I will be very glad to be elsewhere while you try. How long do you think you might need?"

There is another grumble from Athos, which she disregards, though she agrees with its general sentiment. The truth is that she does not want to be alone with Athos. Or-- no, that is not the truth. The truth is that she wants very much to be alone with Athos. It is a terrible idea. "Where is Porthos?"

"An excellent question." Aramis springs to his feet. "I'll just go get him, shall I? Shouldn't take more than ten minutes. Or fifteen. Fifteen?"

She and Athos hit him with identical glares.

"Twenty minutes," he says. "That's the best I can do."

In the ensuing silence, the urge to go to Athos is nearly overwhelming, to cross the room and sit on the bed and smooth the hair from his battered face. Instead she goes to the fire, where she grabs the poker and prods desultorily at the flames, staring into the embers until her eyes water and her throat is raw from breathing smoke. She nearly checks the flue. But no, it's her and Athos, and the smouldering ruin they've become.

"Why are you here?" He is speaking slowly, over-enunciating, the way he does when he's barely this side of drunk.

"I would prefer not to be," she says, but moves anyway, setting the poker aside and sitting on Aramis' vacated stool. "But there is much to discuss."

"Discuss it with Porthos and Aramis. You seem to have won them over."

"Whereas you're as stubborn as ever," she snaps, stung by the indifference in his voice. They have been many things to one another over the years, but never indifferent, and it occurs to her that he sounds exactly as he had so long ago when he'd told her to make her peace with God. It's no easier to listen to now than it had been then. "If you wish to never speak to me again, I'm afraid the next few weeks will be a constant disappointment. But don't worry, then you'll get your wish, along with your king."

"No." His head rolls slowly in her direction and she finds herself unprepared for his eyes, blown wide and shining from his battered face. His pupils are shrunk to pinpricks, adrift and nearly invisible in the ocean of his eyes. She inhales, trying to keep her breath steady: she was wrong. This is not indifference. This is opium.

"That is not what I wish," he says, distinct and distant at once. "That is what you wish."

"And since when have my wishes mattered to you?"

He blinks at her like a newborn emerged as the question sinks in and the answer rises to his lips, his words sluggish but steady, an inexorable tide. "Yesterday you took me to bed, agreed to risk your life on my behalf, told me you wanted nothing more to do with me, came to my rescue like some avenging angel, beautiful and terrifying in the extreme. You killed two men and covered our escape, and now here you are in my bedroom looking as though you'd like to eat me alive." He stops to think that through, and when satisfied he hadn't missed anything, he continues: "So I am afraid, my lady von Kirchner, that I require some clarification as to your exact wishes if I am to comply."

Eat him alive, indeed. "How much opium did he give you?"

"Mmmm." He closes his eyes and carefully lays his head back. "Enough to loosen my tongue. Evidently."

"Well." She drags the stool closer to the bed. "This could be interesting."

"I do not see how. I am not the liar in the room."

"No? Remind me of the last lie I told you."

He turns his head and stares at her in bleary-eyed silence. She can practically see him sifting through his memories, looking for some accusation he can make.

"I'm waiting." There is more poison in her tone than she'd expected; she thought herself purged.

"Yes," he says, a frown creasing his brow. "My apologies. I really meant to stop making you do that."

She nearly topples off her stool.

"I have it," he says, his face clearing. "The most recent one which matters, anyway." The lines of his brow fall smooth, and there it is, that accompanying fall of her stomach just before he says something cruel or stupid or -- as now -- both: "Omnibus diebus vitae meae."

Before the words are out of his mouth she's on top of him, hands fisted in the linen of his nightshirt, heedless of his injuries and snarling in his face, "How dare you, how Christfucking dare you claim all the days of my life when you--"

"Why not," he gasps, why not, trying to lift his head to hers, and she shoves him back down to the bolster. She tries to get up but he catches her, his indrawn breath and the clouded ice of his eyes as effective as any snare, and just as painful. Her heart thrums like a rabbit's as he keeps talking, why not, he says again, when you have all of mine, and then the slow slide into incoherence: my life, your life, what does it matter any more, my death awaits your pleasure, I swore it and you swore it and you came for me, you worked with my brothers and you came for me, you always come for me, you must care for me or why bother saving me--

"Athos--" She reaches for him in something like panic, remembering: how she'd felt when she'd thought him dead, the world diminished and dull; how she'd felt last night when she'd seen him tied and beaten, the world run red and her rage poured boiling; how she'd felt when he hadn't come, and he hadn't come, and he hadn't come, the wrenching hollow pain of it every single time, and no end in sight. "I can't," she says. She pulls her hand away before she touches him, and instead slumps next to him on the bed. "I cannot keep doing this. Neither can you."

"But why can't our fresh start be here?" The plaintive hope in his voice is nearly too much for her to bear. She closes her eyes and resolves to tell Aramis: no more opium. Even Athos' nasty in-vino-veritas moods are better than this, and he's going to hate them both all the more in the morning. "Isn't that what you wanted? It is a new place. We have new names. Schmidt interfered but we know that now, we can--"

"Athos, stop." She swallows; tries to wet her lips, but her mouth is dry. "He exploited a weakness, but the weakness was ours. And you hate it here."

He ignores this and forges on, stubborn and petulant. "Until we are both dead. That's what you told me. We agreed. We swore before God, before witnesses, before each other."

"And dead is exactly what we will be. Is that what you want?"

"No." A pause so long she thinks he's fallen asleep. "But do you not think"--the dry click of his throat as he swallows--"do you not think it might be better to be dead than to feel dead?"

"Blood of Christ, I don't know." She tips her head back, eyes still closed. This is easier when she cannot see him. "All that time you thought I was dead, that's how I felt. I have no desire to feel that way again, but I cannot imagine death would be an improvement." She's not certain she believes in Hell, but frankly, why risk it? If there is an afterlife, she has no illusions about where her eternity will be spent. "I would rather live."

"Then live with me," he says, simple, hopeful, so much like the young man she'd married that she has to bite down on her tongue and dig her nails into her skin to provide some tolerable pain. She had thought -- hoped, wished, prayed -- that he could not hurt her anymore, but here he is, her heart in one hand and a slaughterman's knife in the other. He sighs, her name gusting from his mouth. "I'm tired, Anne."

"I know. So am I."

He heaves himself up, groaning with the effort of it, his movements jerky and pained, and then he sprawls across her lap. "Move," he mumbles, and she no longer has the will to push him away. She shifts, and he haltingly wraps his arms around her waist, head tucked into the crease of her hip.

Tenderness mingles with resentment and despair as she looks at the spill of his hair over her skirts; she was fooling herself to think she could do this. Why had she thought she would last a lifetime when she lacks the strength to resist him for ten minutes? But there's no use in fighting now, and she can blame it on the opium. He certainly will. Decided, she reaches out and does what she's been wanting to do since she walked into the room: touches him, smooths the curls from his battered face.

"How are you feeling?"

"Better now," though he looks terrible. His skin is a contrast of pale white and the livid purple of new bruises, the rusty red of scabs. A nasty gash jags along his hairline, and she recognises Aramis' needlework. "The pain is... far away."

"That would be the opium talking."

"Mmm. It's nice."

"Don't you dare." Although she would not say no to some opium herself, some distance from the pain.

"No."

"Your hands?"

"I can--" His fingers curl into her hip. "I can move them, but they tingle." He says, "It's as if I am touching you all the time," like this is some wondrous miracle.

"Oh, for God's sake." She combs her own fingers through his hair. They tingle. "Go to sleep, Athos."

He yawns and burrows his face more deeply into her lap. "Will you stay?"

"Sleep."

Chapter Text

When she wakes some time later, it takes a while to remember where she is and why and with whom, and when she does remember, she would like to forget. At the very least, she would like to deal with everything at some much later point, when she has had more sleep, when she has loosened her laces and taken off her shoes and laid down properly. Instead, she tries to keep from groaning as she opens her eyes, tries to stretch out her aching neck. Most of the candles are out, but Aramis and Porthos are sprawled on the floor near the fire playing cards, silent in the soft spill of light on the hearthrug.

In the bed, Athos is curled around her body like a cat, and he's snoring like one, too, a soft and sleepy wheeze she wishes she found irritating. She does not. Fortunately, that is enough to irritate her, and so she glares at him and clears her throat, trying to get his brothers' attention. Aramis immediately tosses his cards to the floor and stands, earning a glare from Porthos, who whispers furiously, "I was winning."

"You were cheating," Aramis whispers back. "It doesn't count." To her: "How is he?"

"How should I know?" she snaps, but she does: "He's cold."

"I'll fetch a second quilt."

When Aramis has gone, Porthos asks, "What about you?"

"I don't need a blanket." Athos is blanket enough. He always has been. She tries rubbing some of the grit out of her eyes.

"Not what I meant."

She runs her fingers idly through Athos' hair and wonders what on earth to say to that. I'm fine will not fool Porthos. And she likes him, she thinks, or she might if circumstances were different. Even so, she has little desire to bare more of herself to her husband's friends than she has already. Being here, like this -- it's bad enough. Last night had been bad enough. Those weeks in the forest, all of it: bad enough.

"Is there any wine warmed?" she asks him.

"Yeah." When he hands her the cup, he says, "You can leave, if you want."

As if in answer, Athos sighs in his sleep and curls more tightly around her. She quirks an eyebrow at Porthos.

"He won't like it," Porthos says, shrugging. "But when does he like anything? We'll look out for him." He turns to go stoke the fire, but not before she sees the look on his face.

"You don't mean tonight."

He finishes with the fire in silence, and then the bed dips under his weight as he stretches lengthwise at the end of it, a foot against one post and a shoulder to the other.

"I mean him." He nods to Athos, as if she hasn't tried leaving him a thousand times already. Sometimes she even succeeds. It's only that it never lasts. Porthos forges on. He says, "You make each other miserable," but there's no heat in it, no accusation, no pity. He talks to his hands. "I dunno what you want, but I grew up in the Court of Miracles, and I know how it is to... want more. To be searching. To think you're out, find out you're not." He gives up on his hands and looks straight into her. "If there's something here for you, you should try keeping it."

Athos shifts in his sleep, nuzzling closer still. She lays her hand on his neck to quiet him, staring down blank and wide-eyed. So many times, she thought she knew what she wanted, and yet here she is. "We married for love," she says, after a while, stroking the warm pulse point at his throat. His heart beats in time with her own. "Fool that I was, I thought falling in love... I thought it would be a few months of blissful delirium and then everything would settle. Somehow we just keep falling."

"Yeah." Porthos is looking at his hands again. "I don't think it's supposed to be like that."

"I don't exactly have a basis for comparison," she says, suddenly irritated. "Why are we talking about this? What is your point?"

"Made it." One shoulder lifts. "Now we're just talking. You know how to do that, yeah?"

She rolls her eyes and flips him an obscene gesture, but the door opens before he can respond with more than a smile. Aramis appears, a quilt draped round his shoulders like a cape. He's also brought broth and bread, and he carries another flagon of wine.

"This looks cozy," he says, smacking the door with his hip to close it behind him.

Porthos moves to take the quilt and drape it over her and Athos both, and she trades Aramis her wine for broth. She accepts the blanket and the bowl, but neither sits well, and she cannot bring herself to be polite. Vulnerability spreads like a rash over her skin, and she doesn't understand why she should be the one feeling defenceless when Athos is the one who is injured. It's his friends, she thinks, they way they handle her with kid gloves and have conversations about her with their eyebrows but they came to her for help, they let her into his home, they left her in his bed -- they love him, she knows, and he loves her, and she-- what, he let them into his life and she is obliged to do the same?

Suddenly she understands what Athos had said to her the night of the ball: I don't want any of this.

"The coup," she says, more sharply than she'd intended. "Where are you?"

Porthos and Aramis nearly snap to attention, and they stand at the foot of the bed and deliver their report as if she were Treville. Or, she supposes, as if she were Athos.

They have the basics: Orléans with mercenaries and Montmorency with his own army, a pincer attack on Paris in late summer. Proof, however, has been hard to come by. They have some names, yes, some promissory notes, a list of witnesses they could persuade to give testimony. It does not add up to much.

Athos, they say, spends half his time rifling through papers in the palace, but he has found nothing. When she hears this, she cannot keep the smirk from her face. "He can stop. There is nothing to find. No orders, no dispatches." All messages are conveyed in person. Nothing is written down. She takes a few moments to relish their dismay before continuing: There should be a treaty soon, and at some point Brassard will be invited to sign it. Whether he gets a copy will be contingent on Athos' acting skills -- they wince -- but perhaps, with some coaching and some strings pulled, he might prevail. But if his masculine wiles cannot gain him a copy, well, there are other ways.

"Masculine wiles?" Porthos looks dubious.

Athos, draped across her lap, starts to stir. Yes, his masculine wiles, though she concedes it's possible she is more susceptible to them than most. A sleepy grumble comes from somewhere beneath his hair. She glares in its general direction.

Aramis says, "We'll need to wake him soon."

"Why? He's far more agreeable when he's unconscious."

No one argues the point, but nonetheless, wake him they do. He blinks up at her, fuzzy-eyed and messy-haired, and whispers, "You're still here."

"You're still heavy." He has the sense not to smile at her, though his good eye crinkles at the corner. She reaches out and smooths the lines away with her thumb. "Nothing has changed," she says softly, and just like that, any hint of smile disappears. "You need to move."

This feat is accomplished with a great deal of grunting and groaning and help from his brothers, and once done, she puts herself in the corner of the room near the fire, as far away from him as she can get. Not the most subtle of moves, granted, but subtlety is wasted on these three anyway.

By the time his dressings are changed and broth has been forced down his throat, he is glaring at her so fiercely she fears she may combust. He declined another dose of opium, and two things have been made plain: one, that he believes he is hiding the extent of his agony, and two, that agony is considerable. She can see that even breathing hurts him, every rise and fall of his chest another piercing pain, and she has to clench her teeth just to look at him.

"I have names," she says to Aramis. Of the dozen men who had been in that room last night, beating Athos for sport, four of them are dead and two may as well be. The other six are listed on the piece of paper she hands over.

"They weren't taken up?" Aramis glances at the paper briefly.

She shakes her head. She didn't want the watch -- or anyone else -- questioning them. No telling what they might have said about her own actions, or what it might have revealed about her motivations and loyalties. No telling who the watch would tell, either. No -- whoever set those men on Athos, and whatever their reasons, the fewer people who know about it, the better. But still she wants answers, and as she cannot go herself, his brothers should do nicely.

"Did they say anything to you?" she asks Athos.

A few beats of silence. "They did."

"Let me guess," she says, lip curling, because she can hear it in his voice: "It's my fault. You think I set those thugs--"

"Not you," he says, as if the notion is ridiculous. Her relief does not last long. "One of your paramours. They said to stay away from you. Spoken for, they said. And so soon after you told me there were no other men. My feelings might have been hurt had they not been so busy breaking my ribs."

"Maybe we should--" Aramis elbows Porthos, who points at the door as the two of them inch towards it, here we go again. Her own thoughts exactly.

"No," she says, "stay. We are through discussing my paramours. Did they say who? I thought not. None of them would have done this."

"Suchet--"

"Suchet? What-- oh, right, my beguilements." She nearly laughs. "Have you seen Suchet? Please. I like my men more--" She bites off the sentence just in time, but her hand is already up, waving vaguely towards Athos. A noise of disgust issues from her throat.

Porthos and Aramis frown in confusion -- Athos continues glaring -- and so she is obliged to explain that Suchet has no designs on her. No, he has been trying to get close to Athos. Most men are more than happy to get drunk and complain about women, and so that was the tack Suchet had taken. He had not counted on Athos being quite so Athos.

When the Athos in question scowls and wonders why any of this is relevant, she says, exasperated, "Mercenary armies are not cheap. He would like to ask you for money, but only if he believes you will not run back to Louis. So if you want your proof, let this happen. Suchet will befriend you, I will seduce you, and when we have declared you trustworthy, you will be given a treaty to sign." She rubs her hands together as if washing them clean. "Et voilà."

Silence. More silence. "You will what?"

"Oh." She smiles. "Didn't I mention?"

The scowl hardens on his face as he stares at her, and for a moment she thinks he might argue. But no. He clenches his jaw, he winces with the pain of it, he sags against the bolster. "Fine. What else?"

"It's not as if I like this any better than you do. I will bring my work and sit in the office. God knows I have plenty, and your servants can gossip about all the time we spend in bed."

Aramis leans over and says under his breath, "The servants won't gossip."

"So encourage them," she grinds out, because Christ, does she have to think of everything? To Athos: "Eventually we will need to be seen together, but it can wait until you are more recovered."

"I said it was fine. I asked for help, I"--a harsh exhale, a convulsion of his throat--"I agreed to your price. I will dance to your tune, you may as well start whistling."

Next to her, Porthos says under his breath, "Price?"

She glances his way and crosses her arms, steady, steady. "You'll need to look out for him after all."

His eyebrows lift. She braces herself, but he only nods gravely and reaches for her shoulder. He squeezes once, not looking at her, and pulls his hand back. Her fingertips dig into her arms.

*

By the time she manages to extract herself from l'hôtel de Brassard, it is hours later, and they had agreed to only the barest outline of a plan -- Porthos and Aramis to figure out who attacked Athos, her to learn who hired Schmidt, and Athos to do nothing whatsoever. That last had been the main sticking point, of course, and now she is so exhausted she is considering taking a page from her husband's book and finding an obliging tavern to serve her a drink and leave her to sleep it off under the table. Her bed will be better, yes, but the tavern is closer, and immediacy has its draw: those few hours of sleep she'd managed with Athos constitute all the rest she's had in days.

But when the watchman lets her out the gate, she makes it only a few steps before realising that something is not right -- shadows moving at the wrong time, an echo of footsteps-not-hers. Under the guise of bundling deeper into her heavy cloak, she makes sure her pistol is within easy reach. She darts across the street, and as she passes the mouth of a darkened alleyway, a hissing noise issues from its inky depths, a death-rattle gasp that comes a second time, a third. That time, it sounds like postmistress.

Warily, she slows, and so the body which comes lurching from the shadows hits the clammy brick wall instead of her. Whoever it is, he has one hand extended, postmistress still in his mouth.

She knows that voice. "Armel?" She fists her hands in his cloak and hauls him a few feet into the alley, to be swallowed by the dark. "What the Hell are you doing?"

"Sorry," he gasps out, air rattling around in his chest. "Sorry, my lady, I-- I need-- I fucked something up and then something else and now--" The hand which closes around her wrist is sticky with blood.

"How bad?" She lets go his jacket and reaches for his other hand, which she now notices is pressed hard against his right side, black blood seeping from between his fingers. "Christ. All right, come on." She takes his other arm and slings it over her shoulder, and together they stagger whence she came, grumbling the entire way for wholly different reasons.

Athos' watchman lets her back through the gate with a long-suffering what-now sigh to which she can relate, but he takes over with Armel while she hurries through the inner courtyard to the door, inside, up the stairs, through the series of antechambers. When she bangs into the bedroom, Athos and Aramis both look up, startled, Athos from the bed and Aramis from his book, and both of them are moving before she says a single word. Athos shoves himself upright with a bitten-off groan and looks as if he might try to stand -- what, she says, no, stop -- but Aramis is there, one hand clamped on his shoulder to keep him still. His other arm he extends in her direction. "Are you--"

"I'm fine," she says shortly. "I've brought a guest." Yet another long-suffering sigh, but Aramis hurtles out the door regardless, heading towards the racket coming from the stairwell.

"You're bleeding," Athos says, his gaze roaming over her body as if looking for the wound, catching on her bloody hands.

She holds them out to him. "It's not mine. I'll explain momentarily," she says over her shoulder, turning to go.

The restless anxiety in his voice stops her halfway out the door. "You're truly not hurt?"

She sighs and turns back, crossing the room to take his face in her bloodied hands. "Truly," she says, forehead to his. "Now come, lie down. You know what a terrible nursemaid I am, if I have to deal with more than one injured man at a time, I'm likely to kill the both of you."

In the adjacent room, Porthos and the watchman and are half-carrying, half-dragging Armel towards the fire. "No, in here," she calls, and it stops the watchman cold. She supposes it does strain propriety, a grubby thief bleeding out in the comte's bedroom. But Athos will get reckless if he starts feeling left out, and she has no intention of relaying everything Armel says back to Athos simply because propriety dictates they be in separate rooms.

From behind her, Athos says softly, "Ordering my servants around?"

She turns her head. "Someone has to."

"Do it," he shouts, not taking his eyes from hers, though the effect is somewhat lessened when he clutches at his ribcage in pain.

Even so, it is sufficient: The watchman springs back into action, helping Porthos to drag Armel to the bedroom. She spreads her cloak over the hearthrug -- wouldn't want his dirty blood besmirching Brassard's carpet -- and they lay him out, pale and sweating in front of the fire. Candles, she orders the watchman, who does not move, and the chambermaid now hovering at the door she sends for water and clean linen. The chambermaid does not move, either.

In that bored drawl she loves and loathes in equal measure, Athos asks, "Must I tell you more than once to do as my lady says?"

The two servants' eyes go wide and they nearly fall over trying to scrape their way from the room, probably because Athos rolled 'my lady' around in his mouth as if the syllables constituted the most delectable feast in Heaven.

"Are you out of your mind?" she hisses at him. "They will think I'm your--"

"My wife?" His voice is very carefully blank, but his eyes are so wide and innocent that there is no doubt he is up to something. "I thought we were supposed to be encouraging the gossip."

"I hate you."

He inclines his head and Porthos breaks into a mysterious coughing fit just as Aramis returns, the basin of water and clean linen with him. The sight of him sends Armel into a thrashing panic: although he no longer believes Aramis to be le comte de Brassard, he does still believe him terrifying.

"Be still," she says, kneeling near the boy's head to hold his shoulders down.

"It's all right," Aramis tells him, "no hard feelings." He winks, an easy, reassuring smile flickering on his face before he gets to work. He cuts Armel's clothes away so he can better see the wound, a hole which goes straight through him, dark blood leaking steadily out either side. Aramis is going to clean it, he's going to stitch it, and then he's going to pray about it. Armel might prefer to be unconscious for most of that, he says, but Armel shakes his head, still panicky.

"Then tell me what happened," she says, because she does not like the look on Aramis' face, nor the solemn glance he levels at Porthos, nor the pallor of Armel's skin. The boy could use a distraction. And besides, if he is going to die, she needs to hear his information.

He casts dubious glances at Porthos and Aramis, but both of them are more focused on the fluid coming out his body than any words which might come out his mouth. Still, he gestures for her to lean closer and drops into heavy cant to tell her some story about being hired to break into l'hôtel de Brassard and steal a stack of stolen love letters belonging to the duc d'Orléans.

At that particular gem, she looks up sharply, but Aramis really is lost in his work. Porthos, however, is evidently following the cant, because now he is staring at the ceiling and shaking his head, a Goddammit look on his face which tells her everything she needs to know.

She turns on Athos a look to curdle milk, and it shrinks him back into the pillows. "What?"

"Is there some reason you did not tell me someone broke into the house?" Her voice is even, if glacial. "Oh, I know. You would prefer to blame me, as you do for everything else."

He blinks at her, brows snapping together in confusion. "What?"

"What," she spits.

Porthos grabs a candelabra and opens the door to the office, light held high above his head as he peers into the room. "Someone broke into the house," he announces.

"Oh my God," she says. "You didn't know?"

"Wait." Athos sits up, gritting his teeth against the pain, eyes gone to flint. "One of your creatures broke into my house for the second time, and you are the one who's angry? I suppose you--"

She is on her feet. "How dare you--"

"Oh, I think I--"

"Oi!" Porthos shouts them both to silence. "Armel," he says, and rather pleasantly at that, "what else?"

Else: an operation of sorts, people waiting, watching for Brassard to leave the house. He was followed to the offices of the post and then... detained, let's call it. Detained by another dozen men. Porthos clenches his jaw. As does she, for that matter. A message was sent to Armel, and he took the opportunity to let himself into the comte's office via the window and went looking for the letters. Once found, he'd swiped them and tried to run straight to her. Why? Well, he knew she was interested in Brassard, for one, and for two maybe he could sell her the letters at a higher price, and three, "still work for you, don't I?" Yes, and so she has dibs on his information. But he never had found her; he'd been found instead. But now here they all are.

"And the letters?"

"Jacket," he gasps out, and Aramis pauses in his stitching long enough to cut the rest of the garment off Armel and hand it over. She's ripping at the seams before the boy says another word, and there come the letters, three, four, five blood-spattered pieces of parchment she throws at Athos. He reaches for them, his fingers trembling and weak. Their eyes meet. She turns away.

"One last small detail," she says to Armel. "Who hired you?"

His jaw acquires a distinctly mulish set. "Said I fucked up, didn't I?"

"I assumed that was about the hole in your side."

"Nah." A weak and watery grin. "That ain't my fault."

She lifts an eyebrow.

"Ain't entirely my fault," he says, unrepentant.

"You don't know."

He shakes his head. "Told him I didn't find no letters. Followed him to the academy, the one with the cat, abbess said he went out the back, met someone in a mask, one of those" --he splays a hand over the top half of his face and peers at her through his fingers-- "French disease, like, so I thought, follow him, too, but..." He gestures at the wound.

"The masked man stabbed you, or you were jumped as you followed him?"

"Did it himself."

Porthos asks Aramis, "We know anyone with syphilis?"

Aramis frowns in thought, but Armel answers before he can say anything: "Only had the mask, not the disease, abbess said he's a regular."

She glares down at him. "You spoke to the abbess, and there was time enough to discuss this man's mask, his proclivities, his habits, his health, and yet you did not find out his name?"

"Got stabbed, didn't I!"

"God in Heaven," she mutters. "No one in this room has been stabbed nearly enough times."

Chapter Text

The clerks of the cabinet noir stand when she enters the room, a long and narrow chamber, low-ceilinged and lined with strongboxes. The tables are all shoved to the centre, people huddled in small groups, working. Dispatches go in one end and out the other: opened, copied, resealed, read, and in that order to speed things along. Her teams of forgers and linguists are good, but her codebreakers -- well. Athos seems to think she has mathematicians chained up in the palace dungeon, but she has only the one, and unfortunately, Vigneau is not chained to anything. He is, instead, shifting his weight from foot to foot as he stands in front of her desk and offers up excuses as to why he has not yet broken the latest French ciphers.

"The French ciphers," she says.

"They resist all frequency analysis, and-- my lady?"

She stares, unblinking, unbreathing, her entire future unfurling before her.

"Are you all right?"

Not exactly, no. Carefully, and from what seems a great distance, she watches as her hand reaches for the parchment he's holding, a series of numbers sure to mean something, but what? They know it to be a substitution cipher -- A for B, et cetera, but infinitely more complicated, and without the key, no one can read it. No one in this room, nor any other: the French codes have proved unbreakable, Louis' cryptographer some crazed genius, the diplomatic circles in all of Europe flummoxed.

The key would help, but no one has managed to identify it. But now -- and she curses herself for not having realised it sooner -- now, she knows where she might find it, knows its keeper to be injured, knows she can walk straight in and take from him anything she wants.

"Madame?"

"Yes." She shakes herself and hands the paper back. "Leave me. Rosales has a new cipher from his masters in Madrid, work on that a while. I may have something for you on this in a few days."

He bows stiffly and in some confusion, but he goes, leaving her lost behind the papers on her desk. It has been several days since she was here, and the pile grows and grows in her absence: dispatches, awaiting her decision. Burn, file, sell, pass along. Tell the duc, don't tell the duc. Blackmail material, no, no one cares. Irrelevant. Uninteresting. Baffling; save that one for later. She goes through it mechanically, hands sifting through the secrets as her mind wanders l'hôtel de Brassard.

The key to the French ciphers. The one in Athos' possession would not unlock the specific dispatches on her desk, of course, but it would tell her what sort of cipher they're working with, and that ought to be enough: enough to blow Europe open, to get her out of Nancy. She likes it here well enough, yes, but still she goes about her business with her breath held, waiting for someone to try to take this from her. Lorraine and his council tolerate her -- like her, even -- but she does not imagine these nobles would appreciate learning the truth of her past any more than la Fère had.

Elsewhere, she knows, there are more things, and better ones. She could go to Vienna, where all the real espionage is occurring. Or somewhere in Italy, always a diplomatic disaster in need of skills such as hers. When Schmidt had installed her here, he had said: dealing you some cards, play them right, get better ones.

And now, she realises, playing is exactly what she has been doing.

"Jacob," she calls, and he appears. Her right hand in this particular sphere is a gifted linguist with a sharp mind, and -- best of all -- he almost never opens his mouth. When he does, she finds him well worth listening to. "Find out who wrote these." She gives him the love letters, these blood-stained pieces of paper which got Athos beaten, Armel stabbed.

"Copy?" Jacob is unfazed by the blood. Or, so far as she has been able to discern, anything else.

She nods, but-- "Best make it two. And," as he turns to leave, "have someone send me Rosales' file."

Someone does, and she begins, although she is not sure what it is she's looking for -- some excuse she can use to convince Lorraine of the need for a treaty. The process is slow, not really even a process: more a confused meander through a forest of ambassadorial correspondence. She finds herself lost more than once, and by the time Jacob finally comes back to her, it's gone dark. There are no windows down here, but she can tell -- the chill in the air, perhaps, or the girl who's come and gone with new candles.

Jacob closes and bars the door, which is unusual for him, and she learns why when he drops the letters on her desk and says, "From the lady Marguerite de Lorraine." The two copies fall on top of the originals with a satisfying thwack.

A low whistle escapes her. Lorraine's younger sister.

But Jacob is not finished. On a hunch, he had pulled the correspondence from Rome, and several months ago, Gaston had asked for a papal dispensation to get married. "Why would he have done that?" Jacob asks. The canonical laws governing noble marriages are not his speciality, but in this case, it's a rhetorical question.

She answers anyway: "Because Louis said no. Urban also said no?"

He nods.

She drums her fingers on the desk, all right, so they want to get married and cannot. So what? It hardly counts as a tragedy. Although when she and Athos had announced their intention to marry, plenty of people had told them no, and a tragedy is exactly what they had counted it. They had married anyway. The real tragedy, of course, was yet to come.

Irritated, she snatches up a letter and starts reading it out.

...but know that I will never love any but you, and that with all my heart and soul, and all my life long. If I have one hope, it is that the knowledge of my passion for you will bring you contentment and comfort until we can be together.

"Until we can be together," she muses. "Do you suppose that means 'until we can get married,' or 'until we can tell people we've already gone and done it'?"

"We would know. Unless." He trails off with a frown, and she waits, lets him think it through. "Unless Lorraine's brother performed the ceremony." Cardinal Nicolas-François, the duc's younger brother, has been more frequently in town, and she has not yet heard a good reason for it. "A small service, immediate family only. They could probably keep it secret."

Yes, but they should at least have told her -- her job, after all, is to guard their secrets, and she cannot guard them if she has no idea what they are. And now there are missing letters someone thinks are worth killing for, and she has no idea who that someone is, or why. She is abruptly disgusted with the lot of them.

All right, she says, let us assume everyone is an idiot. Jacob grins. A safe assumption, and so they walk it through: Perhaps Lorraine himself does not know. Perhaps someone other than the cardinal performed the ceremony. Perhaps their theory is wrong. Or perhaps it isn't, and Gaston truly is stupid enough to have married Marguerite against the orders of his brother and his king, and now that king can simply walk into Lorraine and take it over. And if that weren't bad enough, Gaston's treaty with Spain requires him to marry a Spaniard when he takes the throne. So perhaps he did elope, treaties and alliances be damned, and now the crown is out of reach.

Love like that, Jacob says, shaking his head with something like envy, and she grinds her teeth. Yes. Love like that. Stupid, stupid, stupid, she says to him, and pours herself a drink. Avoid it if you can.

*

By the time she slips through the gate of l'hôtel de Brassard, the moon is a thin sliver in the sky, and the icy wind off the river feels like a knife to the face. The servants treat her as if she lives there, asking no questions, and the footman who lets her inside exchanges her cloak for a candle and points her upstairs with a resigned God-help-you air which does not bode well.

In his room, Athos is alone but awake, a book by his side. If possible, he looks worse than he had the night before. The second and third days after a beating are the worst, she knows, but that does not make him any easier to look at. She stops at the threshold, looking anyway.

He scowls at her through his hair. "What now?"

"Good evening to you, too."

But he only stares at her, waiting, and she gives in and steps inside. When she does, he says, "Don't worry. I will not say anything which might embarrass you."

She keeps her voice mild and says, very precisely, "Go to Hell."

"Don't worry about that, either."

Fine, then. If this is how it's to be: "Who knew you had those letters?"

"Porthos, Aramis, and d'Artagnan."

Speaking of whom. "Where is d'Artagnan, anyway?" Frankly, she is surprised he isn't chained to the bedpost and growling.

But somehow, the question yanks Athos out of his surly mood and plunges him so quickly into maudlin regret that she nearly asks him how much opium he's had this time. Some, she thinks, moving closer to examine his eyes.

"I did not know it was you," he says, frowning at his hands, going on to explain that he sent d'Artagnan to Paris when they'd begun to suspect the post was compromised. Treville, King Louis, Father Joseph -- "they will all know about your operation."

She tilts her head, but he will not meet her eyes. "And you feel guilty about that," she says, incredulous.

"I don't know. Maybe." He glances up. "You have a life here, and I"--he swallows--"even if I had known, what choice did I have? I had to tell them." He deflates somehow, his skin an empty sack, and he shoves a shaky hand through his hair. "And it always comes to that, doesn't it, what you want and what I must do."

"Oh, stop being so dramatic," she snaps. "Nothing would ever come to that if--" you trusted me, she thinks, but it's like stamping on a dormouse. He turns away, but not before she sees his glassy eyes, the trembling of his jaw. She sighs. "I admit the hairshirt looks good on you, but you can take it off. They already know." Her involvement would likely be a surprise, yes, but it's not as if she invented cabinets noirs. That honour goes to Vienna. They've since spread to Brussels, Madrid, Rome, probably London; Louis does not have one, but it is only a matter of time.

He stares at her, bleary-eyed and baffled, and says, "But Father Joseph sent us here. If he knew about the black room, why did he not warn us?"

Because why bother, when the French codes are unbreakable? Because he did not realise who he was dealing with? Or-- "Because he wanted you to fail."

The puppetmaster they are all so concerned about: It could well be Father Joseph. He had been in Richelieu's service, had known of her and her work. Her history with Athos would not be difficult to track down if one had access to the Cardinal's papers, and Father Joseph certainly does. He is ideally placed to have known Treville had sent her to the Musketeers last summer, and it would have been easy for him to stage Treville's abduction.

The play of emotions across Athos' battered face is rather remarkable -- anger, disbelief, bewilderment, back to anger, and then pure and simple resignation. "Father Joseph set the coup in motion and sent us to stop it."

"It is what I would do." She leans one shoulder against the far bedpost. "Play both ends against the middle. If the coup succeeds, Gaston has him to thank. If it does not, Louis knows whom to credit."

"And either way he ends up at the king's right hand."

"Exactement."

"Can we prove any of this?"

"Of course not. Tonight I am in the business of speculating only." She fills him in on the letters -- who wrote them, her theories on why, on what happened.

"Christ, what's the point?" When she lifts her eyebrows, he attempts a clarification: "Stop the coup, don't stop the coup, what does it matter? Father Joseph wins either way, those fools are planning to die for love, and is one brother truly any better than the other? Both of them are imbeciles. And I am not even a Musketeer, you know that? I resigned my commission when you-- when I lost you again. I don't know why I am doing any of this." He flounces back against the pillows.

Oh, dear. "I'm sure I told Aramis no more opium."

"Less, you said." He huffs in protest. "And my problem here is not the opium."

"Of course. Have you slept since I left? No, I thought not." She approaches the bed with a frown on her face, not sure what to do but feeling a vague stirring to do something. Despite what he thinks of her, she takes no pleasure in seeing him so shaken. But she never has been good at comfort, and she hears herself say, "I could--" She makes a loose fist with one hand, jerks her wrist suggestively, and is rewarded by a stare of such appalled incredulity she nearly laughs.

What's wrong with you, he wants to ask -- it is all over his face -- but then her lips quirk, and his follow. The tension breaks.

"All right, all right," he says. "Point taken."

"It would help you to sleep." She tries valiantly to keep a straight face.

"Really." He gives her a sceptical look. "My ribs are broken. Get in the damn bed, would you? Just don't touch me."

"Oh, I wouldn't dream of it," she says. "How are your hands? Can you unlace me, or shall I send for a maid?"

With a grunt of pain, he shoves himself upright and reaches for her. She turns for him, but the instant she feels the pressure of his fingers at the small of her back, she realises the enormity of her mistake. Her intention was to update him on her progress and then go home, and she is not entirely sure how she has ended up listening to him say, "The dexterity is there," as he works her laces, "and the strength." His hands clench at her waist, bending the boning with his grip. "The feeling, however...."

"Dexterity is all I require from you," she says, a habit, an attempt to keep the mood light, but it isn't, and suddenly she doesn't-- she can't--

"Then you shall have it, madame," he murmurs, and she tries to turn, to stop this madness, but his hands hold her in place. "No," he says. "Let me."

And so she stands before him, helpless and shuddering as he opens her clothes. His touch feels reverent, like it had their first time, but once again his hands are different, no longer the soft hands of her noble husband nor the hard hands of a soldier, but something in between. The time in Lorraine has softened his calluses and, he says, the time in the ropes had softened his nerves. Her body feels different to him, and he would know, he knows the texture of her skin better than his own, has dreamt of its feel, runs his hand over silk and velvet and linen and thinks of her--

Jesus, she says, stop talking, but that's worse. That leaves her nothing to focus on but his hands, baring her skin and touching every inch of it twice. Never, not even during those long and lazy summer days at la Fère, has she been undressed so slowly.

He uses the time to acquaint himself again with the arch of her foot and the bend of her knee, the hollow of her hipbone and the curve of her breasts, and it is not until she's bearing down on his fingers that she realises she's sunk deep into the featherbed and the haze of her own pleasure, and all she wants is more.

Athos is stretched out next to her, head pillowed on her stomach, his hair a cornsilk spill across her breasts. He is barely moving and she is barely breathing, and yet somehow the pressure of him is immense. He's cracking her eyelids and splitting her toenails and she does not understand what's happened, how he's doing it. She thinks she might be crying. Please, she says, his presence inside her relentless and unending but not enough, please, and she has no idea what it is she wants from him beyond more, more, always more.

Anne, she hears him say, her name and his God's interspersed, a prayer he's been chanting for hours. Anne, Anne, hush, it's all right, Anne, God. She's never heard him sound like this, his voice like it's coming from a crack deep in the earth. He's so tense she has a moment of worry and wonder but she cannot think about it, she only wants more, Athos, please, more.

"There's no more," he whispers, reaching up with his free hand to smooth back her sweat-soaked hair. He shudders, or maybe she does. His lips brush the side of her breast. "There's no more, Anne, that was my thumb." He moves, only the barest undulation, but it nearly bends her in two, the pressure and the pleasure of it enormous, all-consuming. She'd thought, truly, she had thought she knew all there was to know of pleasure, of him and the way his body fit with hers, but never had she imagined this -- she'd long ago admitted he was part of her, that he'd broken her open and made himself a home, that it is his essence which colours her marrow, but now his hand pulses with the drum of her heart and inside her, he is infinite.

*

For an hour she shakes, curled into a ball in the far corner of the bed, away from Athos and the comfort he's tried to offer. But she does not see what comfort there can be in the face of such shattering intimacy, so vast and terrifying, and every time she tries to face that chasm, she has to dig her nails into her skin and then she shakes a while longer.

Were it anyone else -- not that she is under the illusion that anything like this would have happened with another person -- but just for the sake of argument, were it anyone else, she might be able to accept it, to let him sprawl over her lap as he has so many times before. She might anchor herself with a hand in his hair, might sleep without dreaming.

But this is not anyone else. This is her husband, who buys his pleasure with pain, tempers his kindness with cruelty, and who has now had his hand so far inside her it felt as if he'd closed his fingers round her heart and forced it to beat to his chosen rhythm. Knowing he had that power over her was one thing but this is another altogether and it's too much, she mutters, rolling out of bed. "Too much." She gropes for the first piece of clothing she can find.

He says something but she is not listening. No, she is focused on getting as far away from him as possible, and she staggers out the room and makes it halfway down the stairs before her legs will no longer hold her and she clutches at the rail, collapsing in on herself with a choked sob. She absolutely does not cry, and she sits there and continues absolutely not crying until she hears someone move behind her.

When she turns, she fully expects to see Athos, but no: It is a maid. Her bath is ready.

It is almost worse, dealing with his knowledge rather than his presence, the realisation that he knows her well enough to know what it is she wants right now. He is hurt and exhausted and most probably confused, but still he'd sent the maid. "Lead on," she says to the girl, and it is with no small sense of relief that she slips into the scalding water, lavender-scented, and then is left blissfully, entirely alone.

Athos will appear eventually, she is sure, and by the time he does, she has managed to pull herself together. She has stopped shaking, at any rate, but even so, she is grateful when he gives her a mug of spiced wine. His face is unreadable under the bruises as he studies her, and then he steps to the other side of the screen. She stares in that general direction, her shadow flickering against the wood in the firelight.

"Should you be out of bed?" she asks, when she can no longer bear the silence.

"No."

"Aramis will be so pleased I stopped by."

"Are you?" he asks, voice bleak. It is obvious he is worried about her answer, but she does not have one. When that becomes clear, he asks, "Should I not have--"

"Stop." She cuts that line of questioning off before it can get started. "It was-- I was-- Christ," she mutters, feeling foolish, feeling young. She cannot even finish a sentence. "Come out of there," she tells him, and he appears from the other side of the screen wearing only his nightshirt, looking every bit as young and lost and uncertain as she feels.

"You kept asking for more," he says, and she can do nothing but reach for him.

Slowly, he drags a stool to the head of the tub, so at least he is behind her. She tips her head back against the edge, eyes closed, and after too much silence, he begins to comb through her ruined hair with his fingers. She says, "I know. I am not saying I didn't want it. I did. I do." All she does is want, and want, and want. "And last time you gave me everything I asked you for, you killed me for having it."

His fingers stop, and in the quiet, start again.

"I keep thinking I have moved past it," she says.

"I as good as tied a rope round your neck and hung you from a tree. How do you move past it?"

"That, believe it or not, I am past." Her voice is dry, the statement so absurd she nearly smiles. "It is not the sentence, but the trial." They both know she never got one, and now, even after everything, "tell me," she says, "when those men set upon you in the street and tied you up to torture you, and they said it was about me, the first thought in your head wasn't no, was it? It was of course."

He does not deny it. She knew he wouldn't -- could not -- but she still feels the sting of his silence, and she knows he can hear it in her voice when she tells him she will be leaving. A week she plans to be gone, perhaps more; she will ride out to meet Schmidt and learn from him whether Father Joseph truly is behind the coup. She anticipates an argument, or at least a token protest, but she gets neither; Athos only tells her to take Aramis with her, and she finds that she, too, is finished arguing.

By the time he brushes the tangles from her hair, he's so exhausted his yawn threatens to suck all the water right out of the tub, and given that his ribs are broken, it doubles him over in pain. She eyes him dubiously, worried he's about to collapse and hit his head on the side of the tub. She tells him so, expecting a fight, but again she does not get one. All he does when ordered back to bed is ask if she will come.

"Yes," she says. "In a while."

"All right." He presses his lips to the top of her head and into her hair, says, "Take anything you want from me, Anne. It's freely given."

Then he is gone, and she is alone in the bath. She shivers until the water goes cold.

In the bedroom, Athos is sleeping on a pile of blankets in front of the fire. The oil he'd used -- and he'd used plenty, which she had failed to notice -- had thoroughly soaked into the featherbed, which is now a ruin. She stands over him, aching and empty and wanting and wanting again, and then instead of taking him into her arms, she goes into his office, and takes the key to his ciphers.

Chapter Text

The Imperial garrison at Moyenvic is a slow-burning disaster, a shambles of bad morale, lax discipline, and misinformation, the few soldiers left simply biding their time until campaign season starts up again. They know if Lorraine is sucked into a war -- and there are several available options -- the Empire will not send reinforcements, and they will be on their own. And so, when she and Aramis ride in, no one particularly cares.

Quickly enough, they find a boy to see to their horses, and another to escort them to the captain's quarters. The captain isn't there, but Schmidt is; she knew he would be. They meet every now and again to exchange news, gossip, rumours, whatever one has learned in which the other might be interested. Schmidt works the villages and border towns, seems to know every farmer and forester and vintner in the duchy, and is acquainted with their feelings on taxation and Protestants and everything in between.

Their next meeting was supposed to take place next week, and elsewhere, but there is no surprise on his face when she and Aramis enter the office. He is standing by the window with clean hair and a new tunic, facial hair trimmed into a neat triangle.

Her plan, which has been a source of great comfort to her for several weeks now, is to slit his throat. Or better yet, reflect on those hours she spent waiting for Athos, lonely and dying every second, and shoot Schmidt in the stomach. While he dies slowly and in a great deal of pain, she will toss the office, rip the seams from his clothing, rifle through his saddlebags, find the name she wants. In the unlikely event any of the Imperial soldiers care-- well. She has seen Aramis fight. She likes their chances.

But when she throws her dagger, she sinks it into the wood of the window frame a half-inch from Schmidt's head.

"Always so happy to see me," he says, not even blinking. "And brought a Musketeer."

Aramis: behind her in his riding leathers and mud-spattered cloak. He's replaced his customary blue with the red and yellow of Lorraine, and there's not a fleur-de-lis to be found on his person, but yes, it is difficult to look at him and see anything but a Musketeer. He tips his hat, bars the door, and then lounges against it, arms crossed and one knee cocked.

"That's not necessary," she tells him. "You can wait outside."

If he were Athos, he would stare at her until she realises the futility of that suggestion, and for a few moments, she thinks that is exactly what he'll do. But then he ducks his head in apology, a wry smile on his lips. "He may love me like a brother, my lady, but if anything happens to you on my watch, that love will be nothing in the face of his wrath."

Blinking, she says, "I am well acquainted with his wrath," but she would never have expected Aramis to fear it, least of all on her behalf.

"So then you see why I cannot wait outside."

"I can," Schmidt says.

"Very funny," she snaps over her shoulder. "You and I have business."

"And him?"

Aramis ducks his head again, a bow this time. "On my honour, I will hear nothing, and I will say nothing. But I will not leave you alone."

"Very well." She turns to Schmidt. "I propose a trade. One name for another. I want to know who hired you last summer."

He studies her, that beetle-black gaze as unsettling and inscrutable as ever. She waits him out, and finally he says, "Not in the market for a name."

"No, but there is one name you wish to keep off the market." She reaches for the scrap of paper tucked into her bodice and holds it out to him.

He eyes it, takes it, reads it, and throws it into the fire. His face never changes, but when they have all watched the parchment burn to ash, he pulls a key from the chain round his neck and opens a small coffer behind his desk. She tenses -- and behind her, Aramis leans like a pointing dog awaiting her command -- expecting Schmidt to produce a gun or stiletto or some kind of poison bomb, but instead he produces a folded-up piece of paper.

The outside carries a seal, unbroken, a stylised letter T pressed into a dark red smear of wax. Neither she nor Aramis recognises it, and so she retrieves her dagger from the window frame and begins heating the blade in the fire. Wordlessly, Schmidt hands her a blank piece of paper and she transfers the seal over, preserving it. Surely someone in her office back in Nancy will know it.

That done, she unfolds the letter and finds herself staring at an order for her own death.

"Might want to burn that," Schmidt says, and after a few more seconds, that is exactly what she does. Then she waits. He says, "Work through a middleman, the usual cloak and dagger. That"--he points to the fire, where the paper is curling at the edges, flames eating away at the ink--"was passed along, came from the man himself."

"You must have some idea who it is."

He shrugs in vague acknowledgement. "Same idea you got."

"All right." She drops to the stool near his desk, arranges her skirts. "To business, then?"

*

Aramis pesters her the entire trip home.

It starts immediately: What was that, he wants to know, as they're tacking up to leave the garrison. What name was on that paper, as they stop by a stream late that afternoon to water the horses. Where did you get it, over chewy bread and gritty wine at an inn. Why didn't you ask for the middleman, waiting for the stableboy to bring the horses in the morning. Why didn't you kill him -- I thought, he says, his back to a tree as he cleans his pistol, I really thought you were going to kill him.

"So did I," she finally snaps, the first question she has bothered to answer. But he hadn't killed her, had he, and so now they are even. "Anyway," she says, more reasonably, "he was only doing his job. He was given information and he used it. I would have done the same. So would you."

"Maybe." Aramis slams the cleaning rod down the barrel. "Instead you traded your insurance."

"My what?"

He gives her a long look. "Whatever name was on that piece of paper, it was your insurance, was it not? In case Schmidt ever came for you."

He's right, but she sees no need to say so. She'd spent months tracking it down, one thing she could use to save herself if it became necessary. The name, when she'd found it, had been costly in the extreme. Schmidt had protected his lover -- his male lover -- exceptionally well, and yet his immediate capitulation had still surprised her.

In retrospect, she is not sure why she had been surprised; she knows too well how she reacts when someone threatens Athos. The true surprise is that Schmidt hadn't killed her for it, but then again, the simple fact of her existence has been surprising her for years. She sighs.

Aramis says, "And you used it for Athos instead of for yourself."

"Yes, I'm sure the minstrels shall sing the song of our love for centuries."

For several seconds, she thinks she has managed to shut him up, but no, he is humming something under his breath. A romantic chanson, no doubt. "Oh, for God's sake." She snatches up his hat from where it's on the ground between them, and flings it at his head. "We are going."

*

They are only a few minutes from l'hôtel de Brassard when she reins in her horse and tells Aramis to ride on without her. She needs to find out if any of her people recognise the seal, and Aramis is perfectly capable of delivering the report without her input.

His eyes dart between her and the house, uneasy. "If I ride through those gates without you--"

"Where you choose to ride is no concern of mine," she says, irritated. "You needed only to deliver me safely back to Nancy, and here we are. Consider your duty discharged."

"Very well, madame," he says, formal and unhappy. "Any message for monsieur le comte?"

"Tell monsieur le comte," she says, voice cold, "I shall expect him to call on me when he's able."

"He's sure to love that."

Yes, well, it had been nearly two weeks since she'd left him sleeping in the pile of blankets in front of the fire, and in that time, she'd become more and more preoccupied by the space he used to fill. Inside her he is resonant, even in his absence, and the chasm of his loss grows and grows. She had been hoping it would shrink -- had been counting on it, even, that in their time apart she could shine and don her armour and so have some chance of surviving their next meeting unscathed.

But that had not happened, and as she and Aramis had approached the house, her heart seemed louder than the clatter of hooves against the cobbles; certainly it was faster. She had tried to press on, if only out of stubbornness -- of the two of them, Athos has always been the one to shy away -- but then she'd found herself reining in her horse.

Now she says, "I don't give a damn what he loves."

She digs in her heels and rides in the other direction, and knows that shying away is exactly what she is doing.

***

Athos does not call on her.

It is given out that he was in a hunting accident. An enraged boar, they say. Thrown from his horse. Or dragged. Possibly gored-- or was that the horse? No one is entirely sure. No matter, Brassard is lucky to be alive, and now there he is, back at the duc's gaming tables. And regularly attending Mass. It is Eastertide, and so a good time for it, but the going theory is that his near-death experience brought him closer to God.

Mass, she says. Does that not usually take place in the morning?

Like everyone else, Athos had always gone through the motions, but he had hardly been devout. She knows there was no boar. So what game is he playing at? He is avoiding her in public, does not respond to her notes, does not call on her, and she refuses to call on him given what had happened last time she'd walked through his door. Were she to do it again, she's not certain she could summon the strength to leave.

Mass it is.

*

Monday she sits behind him, and when she has stared at the hair curling over his collar long enough, she leans forward and whispers into his ear, "Are you planning to confess later?"

His shoulders stiffen. He shakes his head.

"Why not?" She can almost taste the shell of his ear.

"Not enough time," he murmurs.

"You have been sinning so often?"

He turns his head, drops his eyes to her mouth. "Yes."

*

Tuesday he is the one who sits behind her. He says nothing.

*

Wednesday is more of the same, his gaze heavy on the bared back of her neck, and by the end of the service, she thinks she may have soaked through her skirts. Her pulse is slamming so heavily between her legs she's not sure she will be able to walk.

She manages, somehow. As they leave, she sees that Athos is having difficulties of his own.

*

On their knees for Thursday's Consecration, she presses her shoulder into his. He moves but it's only to turn, to bend his head and ask, "Going up?"

She nods. He shifts away.

When it's time, they get to their feet, but it seems he will not be taking Communion. It obliges her to push past him, and she trips -- terribly clumsy of her, really. His hands go to her hips but she falls anyway, catches herself on his chest. Her fingers curl into his doublet.

She goes up on her toes, sliding against him, and says, "I do so hate to miss an opportunity to partake of my Lord's body."

*

At the Council meeting that afternoon, Suchet says, "I noticed Brassard sat with you today. Have you been successful?"

"A few days of whispering at Mass and you think I've uncovered all his secrets? Hardly."

His moustache twitches. "I think you are good at your job, madame."

She rolls her eyes, though she has to admit it's gratifying. She asks, "Has he said anything to you?" After all, the plan she had discussed with Athos involved Suchet befriending him and her seducing him, and he apparently believes that last should happen at church. She hopes his ideas on friendship are somewhat less bizarre.

"Not really," Suchet says, and she sighs. "He seems to be spending most of his time with Rosales of late. I assume he is avoiding me lest I fly into a jealous rage and he finds himself obliged to kill me."

Men, she mutters, pinching the bridge of her nose. And what business can Athos possibly have with the Spanish ambassador? As far as she knows, he hates the man. But she still has nothing concrete on Rosales and so there is no treaty for Athos to sign; Armel is not yet well enough to search for the person who hired him; no one recognised the seal given to her by Schmidt; and she has not yet found anything which might confirm Gaston's marriage. She may as well keep flirting.

"Well," she says. "I am making progress, but it will take a bit more time."

Suchet nods knowingly.

*

Friday she's behind him again. Neither one of them takes Communion, and his is hair soft against her cheek when she asks him about it. "It's not like you to turn down wine."

"If I am going to kneel to drink," he says, tongue darting out to wet his lips as he tilts his head sideways and whispers, "I would prefer a sweeter vintage."

*

On Saturday, Rosales shows up late, sporting a bruise on his face and looking aggrieved under his magnificently feathered hat. Titters ripple through the congregation. Rosales reddens and storms back out, feathers swaying.

Next to her, Athos stares dead ahead, his face inscrutable in profile.

"Do you know what that was about?" she asks him, voice low but nothing secretive about it. Everyone else is talking about it; they may as well.

His eyes slide in her direction. The one she can see crinkles at the corner. "Are you asking me for gossip?"

Yes, and as they are switching roles, she gives him a flat and dead-eyed glare, as reminiscent of him as she can make it. His lips twitch but he nods and beckons her close, closer still. He puts his mouth much, much nearer her ear than he needs to. His hand is a steady presence at her lower back. His breath is warm as he relates the previous evening's entertainment, although she can tell by his tone that he did not find any of it particularly entertaining.

It started with a card game and quite a lot of brandy, as these things tend to do, and then someone, somehow, acquired an ass. They dressed the ass in bridal finery -- from where? God only knows -- and things were heading for the inevitable drunken collapse until it was Orléans' turn to ride the ass. He refused, and Rosales muttered something no one heard. Whatever it was, Gaston became enraged, but all his inebriation allowed was one poor punch and an insult aimed at Rosales' hat. Rosales, only slightly more sober, staggered out the palace, shouting in Spanish.

By the time he finishes this story, she is trying not to laugh at how put-out he sounds. She suspects this is largely for her benefit, and that if she were to look at him, that slight smile would be on his face. But she cannot be sure, because she cannot turn her head. His hand has drifted lower and his mouth closer, and now his beard tickles her skin, and his lips are warm against her temple.

He pulls away when someone near them coughs, and together, too-aware, they sit and kneel and stand again, and when it is time for Communion, both of them go. He offers her his arm as they proceed to the altar. "Try not to fall this time," he says, as they shuffle slowly towards the front.

"Why? I could practice looking properly receptive while I was down there. There's a trick to how you hold your tongue, you know."

Her step falters as if she really is about to trip, and his hand closes like a vice on her upper arm. "Not even you would dare."

"I might surprise you."

He has not let go of her, but his grip has loosened, and now his thumb strokes down the back of her arm. "You always do," he says, genuine affection in his voice. His eyes may as well be stormclouds when he looks at her, but they are serious, sincere. He lets her go, but hours later, she can still feel that stroke of his thumb.

*

On Low Sunday, one week after Easter, the duc is hosting a feast. Presumably there is some religious reason for this, but the real reason is: Why not?

"Will you be there?" she asks Athos, after Mass, standing in the nave and conversing like relatively normal people.

"Probably not," he says. He never had been one for large gatherings. "You?"

"I considered it, but I'm really very hungry, and there may not be anything there to satisfy."

His throat works convulsively. "You never know. You might find something new which might do it."

"I suppose." She reaches out and tucks a lock of his hair behind his ear. "But I know what I like."

*

A week into their new religious regimen, and the early mornings have started to wear on him. He seems barely awake when she finds him after services, lighting candles.

"St Monica," he says, when she asks. His eyes shift in her direction. "Do you know her?"

"Not personally, no."

"She is the patron saint of troubled marriages."

She thinks about that, and reaches for a candle of her own.

"And alcoholics," he adds, wry, and then says he has a friend who nearly became a priest, or a monk, or one of those wandering penitents. Something like that. "Anyway, I asked him-- well, in truth I only asked him about breakfast, but he started lecturing me about St Augustine. Monica was his mother."

"Oh, Augustine I know very personally. He wanted so badly to be chaste."

His eyebrows go up. "A struggle with which you are intimately familiar?"

A slow, slow smile. "Not yet."

*

After Mass, she gets to her offices to find Jacob there waiting for her, a leather portfolio tucked under his arm. "About Rosales," he says. "I may have found something."

*

"If two lie together," the priest reads on Tuesday from Ecclesiastes, "then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?"

Athos' hand brushes hers.

*

She is late to that day's Council meeting, but before Suchet gets a chance to toss her a sarcastic greeting, she says to the chancellor, "Start drafting the treaty."

The letters Jacob found hit the table. On their own, they would not necessarily be enough, and individually, they are meaningless. But seen all at once, and taken together with Rosales' black eye, an obvious picture emerges: He hates the duc d'Orléans. The letters are full of exaggerated tales of the duc's bad behaviour, tailored to make him look irresponsible and untrustworthy, not someone Spain should back no matter how much land he promised in return.

He has not outright urged his masters in Madrid to reconsider the coup, and nor has he said anything demonstrably false. Nothing Spain has sent back gives anyone cause to believe they are taking Rosales' personal grudge seriously. But even so, it is enough of an alarm bell that everyone agrees a written treaty is a good idea after all. It will take the lawyers a while to hammer it out, says the chancellor, but he shall begin straight away.

Chapter Text

Four. Four doors have gone to splinters under the force of Porthos' shoulder; four times her heart has gone through the race-soar-crash as Aramis has stepped alone into black uncertainty and they've waited, Porthos for a second and her for a signal; four calls of 'empty' have reached her in the darkness; four rooms have been tossed before they've moved to the next on the list.

They have had no luck tonight and so she is expecting it, the fourth echo of 'empty' to come from that chamber, but instead: a grunt and a gunshot. Light flickers -- Aramis isn't blind in there -- but then Porthos steps inside. Her vision goes dark. Glass shatters. Another shout, someone enraged, and she flattens herself against the wall next to the door, double-checks her pistol, waits, waits -- there.

A body hurtles through the doorway, smashes into the wall. She steps forward to fire but someone else slams into her arm and sends her shot wild -- the ceiling, she thinks, there is plaster everywhere and the first man is diving down the stairs and everywhere is shouting, more doors opening, feet pounding up the stairs, down the stairs, Aramis yelling for Porthos, Porthos yelling for her, the window, he says, he's going out the window. Another crash.

She darts into the room to see Porthos leap through the shutters, into the pouring rain. Splinters fly everywhere. She is halfway to the window, on the verge of throwing herself out after him, but finally sense prevails: What would that accomplish? The two of them will catch the man or they won't, and nothing she can do either way will help them now. There are many circumstances in which she is an asset, but a footrace through torrential rain and rivers of mud in her sodden skirts is not one of them.

No, better to turn her attention to the room (one set of saddlebags, nothing of interest). It is the first one which might hold some clue about who wants Gaston's love letters badly enough to have had Athos beaten and Armel stabbed (one clothing trunk, nothing of interest). The names she'd given to Porthos and Aramis had led them all here (dressing table, nothing of interest), after the two of them had come up hard against several dead ends and asked her for help (one pillow, mouldy feathers, nothing of interest). She had initially refused, but Athos had looked at her this morning as if she had used the last of his wine to drown some kittens, and now here she is (mattress, bedstraw and horsehair, nothing of interest), wet and tired and nothing to show for it.

Christ, she never learns. She stabs the mattress again for good measure and sits down to wait.

That is her intention, at any rate, but peeking out from beneath the bed is a prayer book, maybe a Bible. She picks it up, holds it by the cover, thumbs through the pages, and there-- a scrap of paper flutters to the ground.

She tucks it into her bodice just as Porthos and Aramis trudge back inside, dripping water and disappointment.

"I take it he got away?" she asks, voice mild.

The puddles at their feet get bigger as they glare at their boots in sullen silence.

They miss Athos; she can see it in the way they move, as if they've both lost a limb and are trying to compensate. For a few moments at a stretch, it almost seems to work, until everyone realises that it's her at their back, and not her husband. She is not any more comfortable with the situation than they are. They may need her help -- she knows this city and its inhabitants better than they do, and that knowledge goes far -- but Athos is better suited to tonight's work than she will ever be, and all of them are feeling his absence.

Still, she is the one they look to now: What's next, Porthos wants to know.

"Home." She stands up. The two of them try not to look too obviously relieved. "I found a promissory note we can run down tomorrow, but if you two are not back before the sun comes up, Athos is going to do something stupid."

*

It's too late. Athos has already done something stupid: He has broken into her rooms.

Granted, this is likely her fault. She had rummaged through the set of palace keys he just happened to have lying around and handed him the one which would get him through her door, and then she had taken the rest. After all, she needs them more than he does. So perhaps he had not precisely "broken in," but here he is, sitting in her salon, brooding manfully in front of the dying fire: in one hand a drink; at his feet, a mostly empty bottle of armagnac.

Ten, twenty seconds after she comes in, she is still waiting for him to to offer up an explanation, or even to acknowledge her presence. When he does neither, she sweeps past him and declares her intention to go to bed. She has been out all night with his friends, working on his mission, and he will tell her why he's here, or he won't. She'll be damned if she is going to drag it out of him.

Without her maid -- she will not call for Kitty with Athos in her rooms -- it takes her longer than usual to get changed and cleaned up, out of her soaked clothes and into her nightshift and robe, mud and rainwater scrubbed from her skin, hair down and back up again. The entire time, she is listening for his tread, expecting his hands to take the place of her own, thinking if she looks up he will be there, watching from the doorway.

He isn't. She stands in the doorway instead, calls his name, intending to-- what, she has no idea. Her emotions are the usual incomprehensible riot they become whenever he gets within sixty leagues of her. Best to ignore them.

"Can we do this in the morning?" she finally asks, though she has no idea what this even is. "You could"--she swallows--"come to bed."

Nothing. His silence edges her into frustration, drags her across the room, snapping, "If you came here to-- Athos?"

Now she is worried. He is looking right through her, lost in some internal desert, empty, hopeless. His eyes are bloodshot and puffy; at some point, he was crying. Twice more she says his name before he comes out of it and blinks up at her, eyes big as moons, totally bewildered. Hello, she says, and follows his gaze as he looks from her to his other hand: the glove she'd left at the crossroads a few lifetimes ago, the one he had worn until she had taken it away that day in her office.

She reels. Her back hits the wall, mind flying furiously. Where had she put it? A coffer, she remembers-- what else was in it? There are papers she could never explain to him -- the copy she'd made of his codes; a stack of copied letters, some of which he or Aramis had written, some of which are forgeries; her own reports on who he is and what he might be doing here -- but no, she thinks, breathing, breathing. None of it is kept anywhere near that glove. "Say something."

He wets his lips. He says, "I--."

You what, she thinks, but his lost look has shifted into one more familiar. This one she knows too well, what it means, what he wants from her. She tilts her head, watches his eyes darken. Yes, there it is. A mild enquiry, then: "Did you come here for the glove?" To take back to Paris with him, perhaps, as he will not be taking her.

"I--" he says again.

"Why? Can't you bring yourself off without it?"

For a brief second he is startled, frowning, but his face clears soon enough. He sits back, averts his eyes.

She takes the drink away from him, tells him to stand up, move over there, no, turn, a bit more, good, that's it. "All right," she says, lighting a few more candles, stoking the fire. When the light is better, she sits down in the chair she'd made him vacate and gets comfortable. "Go on, then." She sips at the brandy -- rather nice -- and lifts the glass in a toast.

Athos stands silent on the hearthrug as if his feet have put down roots. She drinks. She waits. He says, "What?"

Her languid wave encompasses his whole body, and includes the glove. "Show me how you use it, and you can keep it."

Dubious and a bit dumbfounded, he says, "And you?"

"I"--she takes another drink, makes a show of curling her legs up underneath her--"have had a long night."

His look seems endless, one emotion after another traversing his face: confusion, anger, uncertainty, obstinacy, shame, arousal. She meets his eyes and waits for desire to win out. It always does.

This time proves no different. He nods once and spares a brief glance for the ceiling. He seems about to cross himself -- too much church, she thinks -- but moves instead, two long strides to bring him to the chair, where he snatches the brandy away from her.

She watches his throat work as he downs the drink, and he returns the glass with an ironical bow. Turning, he shrugs out of his jacket, tossing it aside and giving her a chance to admire the square set of his shoulders, that stiff backbone she pretends she wishes would bend more often. His boots thud to the floor one at a time, and then he peels off the bootliners. His toes curl into the hearthrug and then he looks up, eyes glittering like swordpoints as he reaches for his trousers.

Her intent had been to stay distant and cool. Disinterested. To sit and sip and watch. Perhaps, later, to put him on his knees and hook her legs over his shoulders, let him make good on his morning insinuations. But his trousers slide to the floor in a soft rustle of fabric and disinterested is the very last thing she is. No, she is hungry for the sight of him and more, and there is nothing aloof about the ache of her body, its rhythmic clench as he reaches for the ties of his linens. He eases them down so slowly she is convinced he is putting on a show for her benefit, although that is the last thing she would have expected of him.

What she expects is for him to stop there, and he does; he stands before her clad only in his shirt. It hangs to mid-thigh, his arousal obvious, and now his shyness equally so: the awkward slant of his shoulders, the dip of his chin, the glance up at her through his hair.

"Just pretend I'm not here," she tells him.

"Why?" He looks up, brows drawn together in confusion. "I never do that."

She tries to look away but cannot, and if he keeps talking to her like that, low, his voice a physical drag on her skin, she will never be able to stay in this chair. So often his honesty is irritating; like this, it is ruinous.

"You're here now," he says, and suddenly she knows the true source of his shyness: "Let me see you."

Her heart thuds like it's heavier on one side than the other, but she rises to her feet without hesitation. This I can do, she thinks. This game I can play. She watches him watch her hand as she trails it down the side of her own neck and across the swell of her breasts. She plucks at the tie of her robe and lets it fall to the floor, and they reach for the hems of their shirts at the same time.

Months, since she has seen him naked, but years since it has been like this -- clean skin glowing in the firelight, the two of them alone in a room, no one on the other side of the tent, nowhere else to be, nothing else to do. They are expected at Mass in a few short hours, yes, but if they miss it and people notice, so much the better.

So she takes her time, catalogues all the ways he is different and the same: still slim-waisted and lean, the muscles of his sword side well-defined, though his time in Nancy has filled him out some; he is no longer the gaunt creature of bone and sinew he'd been in the forest last summer. No new scars she can see, but his torso is a rainbowed mess of fading bruises. And his cock -- made for her, she used to think -- as stiff and straight as the rest of him.

When her eyes eventually make it back to his face, she finds him watching her, lips quirked. "Seen enough?"

"Never," she says, because he is not the only one who can wield honesty like a weapon.

It hits its mark. Athos never could take a compliment, but tonight it's worse than usual; he practically flinches away from it.

"Come on, then," she says, not wanting him to go too far. "Show me."

Another quick glance spared for the ceiling -- I cannot believe I am doing this, he may as well shout -- but she distracts him by sitting and spreading her legs. His hand closes on his cock immediately, thumb dragging across the head, peeling back the foreskin. His eyes are hot, greedy on her body, and she touches herself wherever he looks. Her aching breasts spill from her hands and she wishes for his callused fingers on her nipples and down, down over her stomach and lower. Her nails scrape her inner thighs and she wishes it were his beard, and it is his cock she wants as her fingers slide easily into the wet clench of her body. He wants it, too, his hand always moving, long lazy strokes too light to bring him to completion, but--

"God," he breathes, voice choked with wonder. He squeezes, his hips juddering forward. "The way you look at me."

It can only be the way he looks at her, eyes overflowing with feelings she refuses to name. "The glove," she says.

He nods and falls to his knees to dig through the pile of clothes on the floor. His head stays bent for a moment after he finds the glove, but then he sits back on his heels. With both hands, he brings it to his face. He inhales, deep and shuddering, and his eyes fall shut in something like ecstasy.

Suddenly she hurts, the old familiar pain of all the air being taken straight out of her lungs. He must have breathed it all in himself, she thinks. Stop, she tells him, stop-- and his eyes blink open, murky with desire. He says, "It long ago stopped smelling of you."

"Stop," she says again. She turns her head away, eyes screwed shut.

"Anne?" He sounds confused. "Did I... do something wrong?"

She shakes her head. She bites her bottom lip. "No," she says. "No." She swallows. "Come here."

He comes on his knees, shuffling forward, and before she can say anything else he lays the glove between her legs and follows it down. Now it will smell like me, she thinks with an edge of hysteria, arching back with a soft moan as he mouths at her through the thin silk. It's soaked through almost instantly, a hot strange drag against her flesh as he licks it into her body and then draws it back out again. She grabs his hair as he replaces his tongue with his fingers, fucks them into her with deep twisting thrusts, sucks at her clit through the glove.

Her hips grind up against his face. "This is not," she gasps out, "how you normally use that thing."

"It could be." She can hear his smile, but then he flattens his tongue against the side of her clit, a hard rhythmic press to match the thrusting of his fingers, and she comes shuddering on his face, unable to hear anything at all.

"Christ," she mutters, when she can speak again. She tugs on his hair to get him up, and he comes readily enough, but she doesn't-- it isn't-- "I hate that you no longer wear my locket," she whispers, without entirely meaning to, a nail scraping at his throat. She feels him swallow.

He leans up and catches the back of her neck. "So give me a new one," he whispers back, forehead to forehead. "I'll wear it."

She angles her head and kisses him, licks the salt of herself from his open mouth, and then she reaches for the chain around her neck. He turns, lifts the hair from his nape as she fastens on the necklace.

It sits there, a shining golden heart nestled in the hair at the base of his neck, the chain too short for him, the picture incongruous. His finger slides over it. He smiles, one-sided, soft. She smiles back, and then reaches for the chain and twists, watches it bite into his skin and cut off his air, and the pleasure and the pain of it drives him back down to her lap. "Better," she says, as he clutches at her waist and falls into her.

"Please," he mumbles, back to licking at her through the glove between her legs.

Still sensitive, she shudders under him. "Please what?"

He gets as far as "I want" before she twists the necklace again to cut him off, hips riding up to seek the heat of his mouth.

"Never mind." She says, "Stay right there and want a while longer," and by the way he groans against her, she assumes what he wants is exactly that.

When she's come again, again, again, shaking and sighing against his mouth, his hands everywhere, the waves of pleasure drowning her -- God, she says, again, and he obliges, but eventually she is too sensitive to take more, and she slides off the chair and to her knees behind him. He immediately sprawls across the seat, head cradled in his arms. She runs her hands up the smooth contours of his back, finally feeling the skin she's been itching for.

On the floor beside her, the glove is a soggy ruin, but she picks it up anyway and wraps it around his cock, stroking slowly, hardly any pressure at all. Restlessly, he shifts against the chair, against her, and she moves closer, pressing her still-heavy breasts into his back. Her other hand roams over his chest, prodding at his bruises, scraping over his nipples, tugging on his chest hair. Her lips drag across his shoulder, up towards his ear.

"The glove is destroyed," she whispers, teeth at the hinge of his jaw. "You came here for nothing."

His hips jerk forward, cock sliding through her loose fist. "That isn't why I came."

"Why, then?" And against her she can feel his body tense, every muscle resisting the words, and so she slides her hand down to his balls. She palms them for a few seconds, a moment of pleasure, and then she grabs the base and twists. With a strangled groan he throws his body back -- she would fall if she hadn't braced for it, but she had, and now his head rests on her shoulder, his throat bared as he tries to breathe through it. She sets her teeth against the straining tendon of his neck. "Why?"

For this, she expects him to say, always only this, but no. All she gets is a muttered, miserable apology. So she puts him on his back, and drags the confession out of him, one broken word at a time. The more gently she touches him, the more he thrashes beneath her, begging for pain, for punishment, for what he deserves, and worse.

Evidence, is what he came for. He knew she would be out, and so he came to search her rooms and learn one way or another whose side she is really on. But instead of evidence -- which is here, she knows -- he had found her diary, the journal she had kept when they had been married, which she had taken from the house before she'd burned it to the ground. She hadn't wanted him to find it, to read it, to know what a fool she had truly been. But he had found it, and he had read it, and in it he had seen the girl he'd married.

That girl did not exist, he had shouted at her that day in her office. But she had, and she was somewhere in those pages of lovesick ramblings. Anne barely recognises the person who had written them. But Athos had recognised her, and he had murdered her, and now he sobs and writhes and begs the woman she became to make him hurt.

She almost does it.

But she's tired, and they have been hurting long enough. She curls up behind him and takes him in her arms. In a way, she knows, this is worse for him, to have looked her in the eye and admitted to the lot of it, no physical pain to distract him -- and then to be touched with tenderness despite it all.

He cries for a long time.

***

Late again to Council, and Suchet cannot keep the slight smirk from his face when he asks her why she missed Mass this morning. "Were you with monsieur de Brassard, by any chance?"

"Ask him for the money," she says, ignoring the question.

"You're certain?"

"Yes."

*

When she returns to her rooms, they are empty.

She had expected Athos to be there, in bed where she'd left him. They had woken on the floor, wrapped around each other but freezing in front of the dead fire, and he'd thrown an arm over his eyes with a groan and asked, how many years must I be married before I spend the night with my wife in a fucking bed.

Get in it now, she'd said, kissing his chin. I have to go but I will join you later, and now it is later, and there is no one to join.

She frowns. She looks over her shoulder, through the salon and into the office. In something like a trance, she goes in and digs through one of the strongboxes. She pulls out the false bottom. The file -- the evidence Athos had said he'd come for -- is gone.

Chapter Text

Options. Options. One trunk she could get out with, a bit of money and some jewels already in the bottom, but where would she go? The keys to the French ciphers were her keys to the diplomatic corridors of Europe, and now they are gone -- and so is Lorraine, for that matter. If Louis finds out about the treaty or Gaston's hypothetical marriage, or both, he will annex the duchy, and where will that leave her? Back in fucking France.

It is possible she could go to the duc and tell him Athos is a spy, and that the coup is in danger. She can picture it now: They would be in his presence chamber, and he would look at that ornate clock of his, the one specially made in Augsberg, and he would say, how many hours ago was it, madame, that you said you had seduced him and that he could be trusted? And she would say, two hours, my lord, but in actual fact, he seduced me, and he cannot be trusted at all.

Christ, she may as well mention his masculine wiles. You don't understand, monsieur, the things he can do with his mouth.

Schmidt might help her, if she can find him, which is unlikely. The countess of Thurn und Taxis, postmistress for the Empire, might be prevailed upon for a position in one of its black chambers -- if she could deliver the keys to the French ciphers or a recommendation from Lorraine or another set of papers from Schmidt, none of which she has, and none of which she can get, and all of which leaves her still and forever stuck in fucking France.

If this panicked process can be called thinking, then that is what she is doing when she catches sight of the damn diary on her desk. Athos had left it there, dead centre, where she would be sure to see it. She has not opened this book since she took it from the house, but she never had been able to burn it, and now she sits before it, dread and curiosity both guiding her hand.

At the time, she had been unprepared for a long con. Oh, it was easy enough to play at nobility for a few hours at a stretch. A few days, even. But a lifetime? As a comtesse, she was expected to plan menus and train staff and lay in supplies and settle tenant disputes and inspect clothing. She was expected to embroider. Her knowledge was all superficial, and the diary tells of her frequent clashes with the staff as she tried to figure out the rest. Everyone was frustrated and some were suspicious, but except for Thomas, no one was unkind. It went more smoothly once she realised she could simply ask them for help.

Athos, though -- Athos she never asked for help, no matter how she longed to go to him and say forgive me, but I have no idea what I'm doing. It would have been tantamount to admitting her lies, and she had wanted so badly to make it work, to become the woman he believed her to be, the person he loved.

Because she loved him. That much is clear. She loved him deeply, desperately, fully, without thought or reason or reservation. It practically drips from the page, and she is somewhat surprised to see that she had not drawn a heart around his name every time she'd written it.

It's embarrassing, really. The words of a lovesick fool. And here now she sits, no less lovesick and twice the fool.

She puts her head in her hands.

There has never been any possibility of a clean break between them, she knows, and although she has no intention of going back to Paris with him -- not that he has asked -- she had hoped for something more amicable than knives in their backs.

Christ, she should have said something. But how do you explain keeping your options open to someone who has never had anything but options? Still, she might have tried. If she had done so earlier, he might have listened. Now he never will.

*

"What are you doing here?"

Aramis, fist raised to continue pounding on the door, frowns down at her from beneath his hat.

"Did he get himself kidnapped again?" she asks. "Because if so--"

"What? No. Though he did send this." He thrusts a piece of paper into her hands and pushes his way into her rooms, Porthos right behind him.

The note informs her, somewhat awkwardly, that monsieur le comte had a prior engagement which slipped his mind, and so he ran off. But he is very sorry, and if she would care to call at l'hôtel de Brassard later this evening, he would be pleased to receive her and apologise personally and at great length.

She whirls to face Aramis, who has tucked himself into her window embrasure as if he intends to protect her rooms from a siege. "Is this true?" The paper crumples in her fist.

"Presumably. It is from Athos."

"Even wrote it himself," Porthos adds. "You know how often he does that."

"You saw him this morning?"

"Yes," Aramis says, drawing out the word. "He rushed in, changed, rushed out. Hunting."

"Hunting." She looks again at the note. "And he seemed... all right? He knew you were coming here? He did not say anything else?"

Porthos groans. Loudly. "Please tell me you didn't have another fight."

"A fight? No." A few moments' awkwardness, perhaps, but, "we were--"

"No!" Aramis, presses against the window as if he is trying to escape. "I know what you were doing. Ten minutes alone and the room smells like a brothel for days." A pause. "You know, if you two could refrain from the stairwork for a even a few seconds, your lives would be much easier."

Her eyebrows lift in disbelief. "Says the man who threw his leg over the queen of France. Everyone's lives would be much easier if you took your own advice."

"I never need to take anyone's advice," Porthos muses. She and Aramis both turn to look at him. He is scratching his beard and looks rather pleased with himself. "Probably because I'm such a good judge of character."

They continue their dubious staring.

"What? This shit never happens to me."

Aramis turns to her with a shrug. "He has a point."

"Nothing happened!" She throws up her hands, and in the face of their sceptical looks, drops them down again. Was that true? Had nothing happened? God, her head is spinning. "Why are you here?"

They exchange concerned glances, and she remembers the promissory note at the same time Porthos says the words. "Supposed to track it down today."

"Oh." She sounds faint. "So everything is just to proceed as planned, then? As if nothing happened?"

"But," Porthos says, "you just said nothing happened."

"Mother of God," she mutters, squeezing her eyes shut. "All right. I need to think."

"Is that something you can do out loud?" Aramis asks, hopeful.

No. She looks at the hearthrug and thinks of Athos, sobbing and wretched in her arms as he'd faced the enormity of what his doubt had cost them. That was no act. Of that, she is certain.

And so he'd taken the file this morning, or he had not taken it at all. And if he had taken it this morning, then why is this farce occurring in her rooms? He would not have sent his friends to her if he believed her treacherous. He would not have sent some note about personal and lengthy apologies if he intended to arrest her.

Perhaps someone else has the file. Now she's stopped to think, she cannot be sure when it disappeared. Or perhaps Athos does have it, and he does not care what's in it. Perhaps he knows her, now, the way he had not when they were in Pinon. Perhaps he threw it in the fire to give them both another chance.

"Milady?"

"Yes, thinking time is over." She reaches for her cloak and her gun. Her knife, she already has. "Let's go."

*

It seems M. Durand is expecting them.

The banker runs when she pushes back her hood, but Porthos had gone round the back and has appeared behind him, arms crossed, shaking his head. Aramis' pistol is aimed very squarely between Durand's eyes.

"We only wish to see--" she begins, and that's when the shooting starts. A bullet slams into the wall and a body slams into her own -- Aramis, diving, rolling, shooting, and she is on the floor and scrambling for cover.

Behind the counter. Porthos and Durand locked in a grapple, Porthos plainly trying not to hurt the man too much. Don't bother, she wants to say, but is interrupted by Aramis, hurtling over top of the counter. He crashes into Durand and they all go sprawling as another round of gunfire starts up. Four? She cannot hear well enough to be sure.

Aramis clambers over her to peer round the side of the counter. A bullet zings by his hat -- hey! -- and she tosses him her pistol. He catches it almost without looking, slides his own across the floor. Snatching it off the floor, she digs for a cartridge, bites off the paper, reloads for him as she waits for Porthos to get bored and do something about the damned banker, struggling on his belly like a dying fish.

Aramis waits, listens, waits, fires. A shout, a crash. They exchange pistols again.

"Would you please hurry it up?" she asks Porthos, digging for another cartridge.

"Since you asked so nice," he says, and then he has a knee in Durand's back. He wrenches an arm backwards and pulls up, up, up, until Durand screams.

She takes the opportunity to shove her gun in his mouth. It is not loaded, but she doubts he realises that. "Shut up. You know which book I want. All you have to do is give it to me."

A panicked nod. His eyes dart to a pile of five or six account books in the corner. She pulls the gun away. "Which one?"

"Th- th- third one."

"Are you sure? You understand I will not be so nice if I have to come back."

Another panicked nod. It goes on and on and on and probably his head will wobble right off his neck, so she does him a favour and slams the butt of her gun into his temple. Porthos is firing over top of the counter before Durand's head hits the floor.

"How many left?" She bites the paper off another cartridge, spits it out, pours the powder down the barrel.

"Three, maybe four," Aramis says. She jams the ball home and tosses him the gun. "Take the book and go. We'll meet you."

She considers protesting, but no. They can handle this.

*

By the time they walk into her office, she has the name they need: Rosales.

She spins the book on her desk so they can see, but they are too busy looking at one another to bother with the ledger. There is horror on their faces.

Rosales. Athos went hunting with him this morning.

Palace, she snaps, right now, all of them already moving, already outside in the street. Aramis yanks a man off his horse and swings up into the saddle, shouting apologies all the while. She is about to do the same when he hauls her up behind him and digs in his heels. Porthos, on his own commandeered horse, is already in front of them, yelling for people to get the fuck out the way. The people heed this excellent advice.

The stables are their first stop, to get better horses -- not to mention one of her own -- and find out which way they went this morning. She is down and calling for an equerry when Porthos taps her shoulder and points with two fingers. There, munching lazily on some oats, is Athos' Friesian.

"My lady von Kirchner," a man says, striding round the corner. He bows over her hand, all very correct, tells her how much he hopes he can be of assistance. Porthos and Aramis step behind her and snap their spines straight, and it is very much like they are her retainers.

To the equerry -- Jean? -- she says, "I was given to understand a hunting party rode out this morning--"

But he is already shaking his head. "No, madame, His Grace called off the hunt just before they were to ride out. I believe some members of the party returned to their homes, but most accompanied him inside."

They leave the borrowed horses in his care and head for the palace, entering through the north wing. Inside, she lobs her keys to Porthos and tells them to wait in her rooms, and then she hurries off.

Council chambers, someone says, and she is barely conscious of getting there. The guards on the door let her in without question, and then she finds herself with twenty sets of startled eyes on her: Lorraine, Orléans, Montmorency, various councillors and ambassadors and quite a lot of lawyers. The treaty, then.

Her eyes snap to Athos as if they're magnetised. He is the picture of bored aristocratic disdain as he looks at her, and then he blinks lethargically and pushes himself to his feet. The scrape of his chair across the floor seems to remind everyone else of their manners; suddenly they all bound to their feet with various murmured greetings. She nods to the lot of them but cannot take her eyes from Athos. He is still watching her, but she can read nothing on his face beyond the fact that he's fine. He's fine.

"My lords," she says, to the room at large.

Athos sits; next to him, Rosales does the same. His smile is jagged underneath that hat, and he leans sideways to say something into Athos' ear. Athos has to shift so as to avoid being impaled by a feather, but once he starts listening, he does not like what he hears. He is still staring directly at her as his face hardens. His eyes narrow to slits.

Lorraine, from the head of the table, says, "This is most irregular, madame."

"Yes, my lord." She drops into a quick, apologetic curtsey. "Forgive the interruption, but I need to speak with monsieur le vicomte for a few moments."

In an adjacent room, she and Suchet huddle together for a quick and whispered conference: Rosales not only hates Orléans, he is actively against this treaty. But why, Suchet wants to know, and that is a question she cannot answer. King Louis is terrible for Spain -- personal, perhaps?

She sticks her head back into the council chamber. "Monsieur de Clouatre, if you would be so kind as to join us for a moment."

The foreign minister does so, bushy grey eyebrows raised in mild enquiry. Here is a theory, she says, help me with it: According to the terms of the treaty, Gaston is to marry the daughter of Olivares, the Spanish First Minister. Falling out of favour, Clouatre says -- yes, precisely, but if his daughter is married off to the new French king, he will back in. Yes? Yes. But if the coup fails, or if the treaty never happens, then Philip will require a new First Minister.

Rosales?

Clouatre chews his moustache and thinks about that, head tilting this way and that as if he is examining an apple for worms. "I suppose it is a possibility. He is well-placed, and in Madrid, they seem to like his hat. But if it became known the treaty failed due to his machinations..." He draws two fat fingers across his throat.

She looks at Suchet. "But if the treaty failed because Gaston married someone else?"

He groans.

"So it is true!" she hisses.

Now Clouatre groans -- what? -- and Suchet winces. "Yes. How did you find out? Wait, forget I asked. Does Rosales know?"

"He suspects."

The two of them curse under their breath and then apologise; Suchet curses again. She rolls her eyes and asks, "Is there proof somewhere?"

Yes, Suchet says, but he is unsure where. Lorraine's younger brother, Cardinal Nicolas-François, performed the ceremony, in the private chapel in the middle of the night. Family only, very hush-hush -- one would hope, she says -- hardly any witnesses. It was entered into the parish registry but then the cardinal swapped the books, and intends to keep the old ones until the marriage can be made public.

"He could not have simply... not recorded it?" she asks.

"No, he said, but he used a great many more words."

She sighs, glances back towards the main chamber. "How close are you to finishing?"

They both shake their heads. "Not very," Clouatre says. "Rosales has been difficult, and Brassard..." He trails off awkwardly, eyes sliding towards Suchet.

"He is rather more opinionated about the military plans than we were anticipating."

She tries not to roll her eyes. This is what he had wanted, and yet still he cannot simply cooperate. Put a bad idea in front of him, and he insists on telling you how bad it really is-- or at the very least staring at you until you understand how stupid you are. He is happy to carry out these bad ideas, of course, just so long as everyone is clear on the facts. There is fondness in her voice when she says, "And you need his money, so you cannot just tell him to go to Hell."

"Precisely."

"Well." Her smile is bright and insincere. "Have fun in there. I suggest you hurry things along. Get something signed before Rosales manages to find the cardinal's books."

She intends to find them first, of course, but that is neither here nor there. Especially given that she then intends to hand them to Athos. She leaves out the other side of the room, glad her services are not unnecessary for the boring parts of treaty negotiation.

*

When she has spread the good news -- Athos is unharmed, and she has a vague idea of where they might find proof of Orléans' marriage -- Porthos asks, "But if Rosales finds the book, he'll mess up the coup, right?" Right. "And we wanna mess up the coup." Yes. "So why don't we just let him do it?"

She blinks and sees Athos in that tavern, hands tied, feet slipping on a blood-slick floor. She turns her head. Very evenly she says, "He had Athos beaten. He is lucky to be alive. He does not also get what he wants."

"Right," he says, eyebrows up. "Forgot who I was talking to for a second."

*

The promise of the marriage registry fills neither her day nor her thoughts. She and Aramis search the chapel and its offices but find nothing, and there is too much activity near the cardinal's rooms to get near them undetected. Tomorrow, she says, and so he and Porthos go to return the horses they'd commandeered, which leaves her alone in her rooms as the sun goes down, staring at the note Athos sent and contemplating getting very, very drunk.

Those few seconds of eye contact when he'd been in the council chambers had given her nothing. She has absolutely no idea what he knows, what he has been up to with Rosales, who has the file from her room. Her options are to run, or to go over there and tell him everything and hope he does not kill her. Again.

It should be easy. He won't. He won't. She knows he won't. He can no more kill her than she can kill him, but still the walk to l'hôtel de Brassard is slow, her feet dragging as if each footfall sinks her to the knees in the muck. Every step she takes requires her to gather up her strength, because maybe he won't kill her, but there is a look he gets in his eyes she would rather die than see again, and that, she is sure, is what she is walking into.

Trust him, trust him: the litany pounds through her body with every beat of her heart, and it's ridiculous and terrifying at once. To be here, now, again, after so many years, choking on what she should have said but did not.

A noise behind her, a footstep. Too close. No one should be--

The world goes dark.

*

The noise wakes her -- hammers, she thinks, everywhere. She tries to open her eyes and nearly vomits from the pain of it, the light blinding and everywhere.

"Be still," someone says, the voice vaguely familiar. Rosales.

Though she is not generally inclined to listen to people who have kidnapped her, that is a good suggestion. She follows it, waits for the pounding in her head to recede, and when she thinks she might be able to open her eyes again, she does it. Slowly.

It does not help. She is in a room, and that is all she knows. One window, shut tight against the cool night air. A table, some stools, a settee in the corner. She is near the crackling fire, tied to a chair, wrists rubbed raw behind her. Her weapons are gone. There is blood still drying on the side of her face.

Rosales, smug and without hat, watches her from across the room. He is wearing a gun but no sword, and she wonders what the Hell he thinks he's doing. She has to swallow a few times before she manages to ask. He sneers at her. "I think you know what I want."

"To stop the coup? Strangely enough, so do I. This adventure will not help your cause."

"That is what you would like us to think, but madame, I know better."

Us, she is about to say, but from outside the door comes the thud of boot-heels and the jangle of weaponry, and she knows who it is before he walks in the door: Athos.

He sees her immediately, and only the slightest stutter in his step betrays his surprise. At least she knows he didn't do this. He stops and stands between her and Rosales, cocked hip and crossed arms, and asks, "Is there any particular reason the postmistress is tied to a chair?"

"She has been working against us."

She can stand it no longer. "Us?" she demands. "You two are working together?"

Neither of them bother to answer, which she takes as a yes. For half a second, she is so angry she thinks she might claw enough skin off her wrists to let her slip the bonds. This must have been why Athos came to her room, looking for evidence. Rosales, dripping venom in his ear.

"And you did not think this was something I needed to know?" she snarls.

Athos glances at her. "Clearly not." He looks at Rosales. "Proof?"

"Over there." He nods at the table.

Athos looks, and she follows his gaze. The file. Of course, the file. Her heart sinks somewhere near the bottom of her stomach as Athos reaches for it.

He leans against the wall, keeps her in sight as he flips through the pages. She watches his face as it happens. No surprise, but all the rest of it is there: resignation, disappointment, confusion, and then the betrayal, the pain, the anger.

I was coming to tell you, she thinks, as loudly as she can. If he will just let her explain. "My lord--"

"Shut up. I don't need to hear it." His voice is sharp with command, and that, she thinks, that was it. He's decided. He'd wept in her arms because he'd failed to listen last time, and this time he is not even going to ask. She supposes it spares him the trouble of deciding whether he believes her.

Fine, then. She feels herself slump back into the chair, the carved back hard against her shoulderblades. Her blood feels like slow-moving sludge in her veins. Somewhere they are discussing what to do with her, but she can barely hear them. She hears the soft crackle of the fire instead, can feel its heat on her skin, the ropes on her wrists, the blood on her face, and otherwise nothing. She looks at Athos. Nothing.

But she can see, and what she sees is Rosales, his gun out and levelled at her head. She thinks she smiles at him. Then she sees nothing -- no, Athos. She sees Athos, his back blocking everything else as he steps in front of her. She hears his voice. "...damning, but I will not let you execute a bound and unarmed woman."

"Lorraine isn't going to arrest her for doing her job."

"I agree that is unlikely. Perhaps you might have thought of that."

An exasperated sound from one of them -- from both of them? -- and now she can see Rosales again. He has stepped around Athos, and now he has a shot. Take it, she thinks. Do it.

Athos has other ideas. His own gun is out and up, his arm steady. "Shoot her and I shoot you."

She can see the moment Rosales believes he'll do it, and that is the moment she believes it, too. "God, just let him shoot me," she says. She should be fighting this, she knows, trying to get out of her bonds or trying to talk sense into them or trying anything whatsoever. She wants to. She can feel her pulse slamming in her neck and she wants to feel it forever, but she-- she cannot keep doing this, she has said that all along, and all it gets her is more of the same. "Any day now," she says.

Athos glances at her over his shoulder, a frown between his eyes, and then Rosales is moving, faster than she's seen him move before, and he's behind Athos, gun against his head. "Then you do it," he says, spinning them round to face her.

"Are you serious?"

But they all know he is. She can see Athos weighing the options, and she can see there aren't any.

"What do you think?" Athos asks her, over the barrel of his gun.

She swallows. Her throat is so thick. At least if she is to die, she can do it this way this time, looking into the clear blue of his eyes, his face still the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. There are worse ways to go. It would be better if she could touch him, but looking at him will suffice. Her lips curve into a trembling smile. Her eyes are stinging, but she will not cry. Not now. "Do it," she whispers. "End this."

His lips curve into a smile, small but genuine, his eyes soft and shining, crinkled at the corners. Do it, she says again, choking. She is not supposed to be choking. He bites his bottom lip and nods.

"All right," he whispers back. "I'll end this," and he turns the gun around, slams the barrel against his shoulder, and pulls the trigger.

He and Rosales both go down.

Anne starts screaming.

Chapter Text

"You absolute fucking idiot," she says, on her knees, the chair in pieces behind her. "What have you done?" She will be digging the splinters from her skin for years, but: She has her hands on his shoulder, she is trying to stop the bleeding, she is slashing through her skirts to make bandages, she is cursing Athos in every language she knows and three she doesn't.

He, on the other hand, is doing nothing. Dazed, glassy-eyed, he blinks up at her. "Did I hit him?"

"What do you think? Of course you hit him. You're--" A lunatic? Quite possibly the devil himself? He had angled the shot so the ball went straight through his shoulder and lodged somewhere in Rosales' brain. He is very dead, and Athos is very stupid, and she is very-- "You were supposed to shoot me."

He huffs, almost a laugh, really, and then it trails off into a pained groan. "My inability to do that is well established."

Sit up, she orders, and she manages to get one hand to either side of the wound, wondering where in Hell his friends are. Had he come here alone? No: noise, distant shouting, the sounds of struggle. "I was going to betray you."

"No, you weren't," he murmurs, eyes fluttering shut.

She stares stricken, some part of her thrown clear across the room while her body is still trying to fill the hole he'd blown in his own.

At some much later point, she thinks: What?

That hit to the head she took, or maybe Athos had shot her.

What other explanation can there be for the sudden sharp pain in her chest, her open mouth, her cramped stomach, her empty lungs, her blurred vision? She tries to look at him, but she can barely see. You don't know that, she thinks. I don't know that. None of this makes any sense. Where are the others?

"On their way, and I do know that," he says, insistent. Had she been speaking out loud? "Or I-- I hoped, if I didn't know. I trusted." A pause. "Though if you are so Hell-bent on doing it, go ahead. Take the codes, let me bleed out right here." Another pause. "But I wish you wouldn't." His voice keeps getting softer, gentler. "And I must warn you, it would not work. I am not going to die of a shoulder wound, and I would be obliged to come after you."

A jagged, breathy sound wells up and out of her -- a laugh, she thinks, or a sob. She still cannot see him. And she cannot understand why she is sitting shocked and incoherent when he is the one who's been shot.

"Anne, if you do not stop crying, so help me God, I will shoot myself again."

"I am not crying."

"Good, then." A slight smile, a grimace, a curse. "Because I really dislike being shot."

"You've only yourself to blame."

"Perhaps." With his good arm, he reaches for her, draws her in, and she has to close her eyes as he kisses the tears from her face. "I wanted to-- I made a different choice this time," he whispers.

"Christ." She presses closer, breathes him in. "We are such colossal fools."

"Yes." He smiles, lips curving against her own. "Also well established."

She leans in to kiss him, once and more again, and she is still kissing him when the door crashes open.

It's d'Artagnan. "Really?" he asks, outraged. "There's a corpse right there." He points at Rosales' body, as if they might have somehow failed to notice its presence. "And he had men downstairs, we could have been one of them! You should have been ready, not--"

"What'd we say about knocking?" Porthos follows him in. "Always a good idea with these two."

Aramis is last through the door. "Better would be to never let them in a room together," he says, looking around. "It's like this every time. Broken furniture, blood everywhere, dead bodies, their clothes in shreds."

"Shut up," she says, "all of you," but she is laughing and though she tries to stop, she cannot seem to do it. She thinks Athos is laughing, too, something she hasn't heard in so many years she'd forgotten the rust-raw sound of it, and she kisses him again to remember the taste.

"You didn't tell me they'd both gone completely mad," d'Artagnan says, watching dubiously.

"Shut up," she says again, because d'Artagnan is wrong: 'completely mad' does not come anywhere close to the savage soaring thunder of her heart, and Athos-- oh. Athos is pale, starting to sweat, and the thread of his pulse beneath her hands is beginning to fray. She says, "Aramis."

His face goes grim with barely a glance at the wound. "Sorry, my friend," he says. He taps some powder -- opium, she thinks, and this time, she is not inclined to argue over the dose -- into a cup of wine and hands it over. Athos drinks. "You know what's coming."

Athos groans as if he does indeed, and when Aramis shoves an iron into the fire, Anne knows what's coming, too. Cursing under her breath, she tries to move away, but Athos will not let her go. She ends up straddling his legs to hold him down, his good arm around her and his bad one between them. He tucks his face into the curve of her neck, beard scraping the still-healing spot he bit into that night in the tavern.

"Ready?" Aramis asks, when he has peeled away the blood-soaked strips of skirt she'd used to slow the bleeding. Athos grunts his assent, and then he nearly breaks her ribs when Aramis puts the red-hot iron to his skin. He gasps in pain, mouth open against her, but otherwise he does not move. The acrid stench of burned flesh fills her nostrils, clogs the back of her throat. The sound of it happening is worse.

"This is what you get for shooting yourself," she says, when Aramis has done the other side and her stomach has stopped its turning. Aramis applies salve to the burns while Athos whimpers quietly, somehow managing to convey that this part is far more painful than either the shooting or the cauterising. Hush, she tells him, stroking up the curve of his spine as he slowly releases the death grip he has on her body. She kisses the top of his head.

Eventually, when he can speak again, he grumbles something about her turn, and when she protests, he says, "Your arms are shredded and your head started bleeding again ten minutes ago."

She rolls her eyes, but nonetheless she moves to let Aramis see to her arms while Porthos shreds what is left of her underskirts. He fashions a sling and straps Athos' left arm to his torso, and when that's done, Athos falls to his back and stares at the ceiling, breathing carefully and waiting for the opium to kick in.

"You two are a mess," d'Artagnan says.

"And thank God you've returned to point it out to us," she says, turning so Aramis can examine the gash on her head. "When did you get back?"

He scrubs a hand across his eyes. "A few hours ago. We have a problem."

"Well, that's very surprising," she says. Athos grumbles something unintelligible. "Everything usually goes so well. What is it?"

Louis, of course. Easter has come and gone and campaign season is upon us, and His Majesty wants Lorraine. He left Paris at the head of the royal army, and in a few days, he will reach the border. D'Artagnan rode ahead and promised to meet him there with justification for an invasion. "So," he says, looking around hopefully. "There's proof of a conspiracy, right? I've been gone for ages. By now you must have a treaty or something."

Porthos scratches his cheek. Aramis clears his throat. Athos closes his eyes. D'Artagnan's face falls. "You're joking."

"Athos, my darling," she says.

He groans and with his good hand, gropes around for his hat. When he finds it, he uses it to cover his face.

Everyone watches this performance, and then they look to her for an explanation. She says, "Rosales did not sign the treaty before Athos shot him."

"I did not think about that," comes his irritated voice from beneath the hat.

"And if you had?"

A few moments of silence as, presumably, he thinks about it now. "I still would have shot him."

"Very enlightening, thank you. So now what?"

The other three all begin speaking simultaneously, bickering nonsensically and talking over one another, arguing semantics, and in general, not helping. She looks at Athos, who manages to sit up without sounding as if he might die at any moment. Under her breath, she asks, "How do you stand it?"

He lifts an eyebrow. "Gentlemen," he says, not even raising his voice. They all fall silent. She glares at him sidelong, and sees his lips quirk. He dips his head in her direction: go ahead.

"I see two options," she says, and even d'Artagnan listens as she lays them out.

*

According to Athos, the unsigned treaty -- a draft only, but who cares? -- is in Suchet's office at the palace; he had not taken it home, because they are planning to meet again in the morning to continue negotiations. But Anne lives in the palace, and her appearance there will raise no questions, and it just so happens that she has a set of keys. So she will go get it, and then she will take it to her own office, where she will sign and seal it for the lot of them, and then, she says, we ride.

They have to be through the gates and well away before Suchet realises the treaty is missing, before Rosales' absence is noticed or his body is discovered. One day of hard riding will get them to the border; from there, due west to the king.

One day of hard riding, and they all look uneasily at Athos, who should not be doing any riding of any kind, and who is wholly unconcerned by this fact. "What you all fail to realise," he says, voice low and clipped, "is how fervently I desire to get the fuck out of Lorraine and never, ever come back. You could shoot out my other shoulder, set the forest on fire, and plunge the land into Hell, and it would not stop me riding through it." He pauses to consider. "Also, the opium seems to be working." He looks at her. "Do not let me keep talking. God only knows what--"

"Enough," she snaps, cutting him off. He closes his eyes in something like contentment and lies back down on the floor. She watches, torn by the twin desires to lie down next to him and never let go; and to walk from the room and never look back.

Nothing for it. Deep breath. "Aramis," she says, "with him. Porthos, with me. D'Artagnan--"

"Yeah, I know."

"All right, then." She pushes herself to her feet and bundles herself deep into Aramis' cloak. "Ready?"

They get halfway out the door when Athos calls, "All for one!" from somewhere under his hat, voice muffled and drugged. Aramis pats him on the chest.

"And one for all," d'Artagnan mutters, in much the same tone she imagines he says the Hail Mary. "Let's go."

*

Her rooms. Clean clothes on her body, more in her saddlebags. Money, some jewels. Papers, seals, weapons. More weapons. The diary gets halfway to the fire before she shoves it into her bags instead, still unable to get rid of it.

"Coming with us, then?" Porthos asks, staying out of her way as she packs.

"To the border, yes. I certainly can't stay here after helping to kill the Spanish ambassador and forging an international treaty to stop a coup the duc is supporting." God in Heaven, she thinks, what has she got herself into.

A fair point, he admits. "And then?"

The wig -- the wig, she consigns to the fire. "Then we'll see." She tosses him the keys they'll need to get into Suchet's office, and she does not bother to lock the door behind her when she leaves.

Deeper into the palace they go, backstairs and empty corridors past the porters and pages, guards, chambermaids. They go in stockinged feet and shadow, and only the hot rush of adrenaline keeps her mind away from Athos, finally trusting her but bleeding for it. I made a different choice.

A door, a desk, a dog. She stops short, but Porthos crouches, reaches, and then the dog is panting happily as Porthos scratches behind its ears. She digs through the pile of papers on the desk to the thwack-thud of its tail and the beat of her heart.

No problems as they leave the way they came, no questions as they get her horse from the stables, no second glances as the postmistress walks into the post office and out the back, across a narrow courtyard, into the cabinet noir. No danger here, not really, and Porthos lets out a low whistle as he lights a few candles and looks around. "How's this place work?"

"Efficiently," she says, clearing some space on a worktable, spreading out the treaty. "Though this will take some time." The paper she can match, its weave and its size. Then a few different inks, sealing wax, a pile of signets and the signatures to copy. Careful, no rush, no hurry, quill steady in her hand, breath steady in her lungs, Porthos steady at her side. Braided cord in red and yellow to bind it.

By the time it is wrapped in leather and sewn into the back of Porthos' jacket, the sky is a lightening navy, dew on the grass and birdsong in the air, and they walk out the front door. They get on their horses. They ride straight down la Grand Rue and past the palace, past l'Église des Cordeliers with its stained-glass sun, where Athos and Aramis round the corner and fall in behind them. Porthos drops back and then it's her and her bodyguards, making for the silhouettes spearing the sky at the end of the road, the ink-black towers of la Porte de la Craffe.

The gates are still closed but she is still the postmistress, known to the watch, prone to riding out at all hours, an armed escort to see her safely to her destination. If the bribe increases with the size of her escort, so be it. She sits her horse and awaits their decision, palms sweating and arms stinging. Athos nudges his horse closer, though she cannot imagine how much good he will be if they have to fight their way clear. He is hiding it well -- it would take someone who knows him like she does to notice he is injured -- but she can see it, and she is having trouble seeing anything else.

The gates open. The four of them ride through and head north at a slow trot, and it is not until they make it a league or two out, no one giving chase, that she can breathe. Athos straps his arm back down, and they turn west and ride, the rising sun at their backs burning off the morning fog.

*

They are met by outriders as the sun goes down, and she nearly tumbles from the saddle, Athos right behind her. By noon, he had been half-unconscious, and so Porthos had boosted her up to settle in front of him. He had wrapped his arm around her middle, laid his head against her shoulder, and passed out. When his horse tired, they switched to hers, back and forth between them, but when she tired, there was nothing to be done. The day had passed in a near-delirious blur of exhaustion and pain.

Through commotion she barely registers -- soldiers and courtiers, too much chatter and bright blue and fleurs-de-lis, a glimpse of His Majesty's wide and toothy smile -- she and Athos are half-carried into some farmhouse and put to bed, and her eyes slam shut like portcullises.

***

"Where have you been?"

It is well into the afternoon, but Athos' gravel-dragged morning voice is the one which greets her, coming from somewhere beneath the pile of blankets.

"I was--" she starts, but she has to stop. Frowning, she leans against the door and presses her fingertips into the rough wood. Where to begin? "I think the king just offered me a job."

Silence from the bed, and then the quilt moves as Athos attempts to extract himself. He does not get far. A glimpse of hair, a pained groan. Movement ceases. The voice again, irritated. "Would you mind--?"

"Hm? Oh. Right." She digs him out from under the blankets and helps him sit up, arm curled against his chest like a broken wing. "Aramis is making a poultice," she says, eyeing the bandages on either side of his shoulder. "He will be up soon."

He wrinkles his nose and reaches for the cup of cold broth on the side table, which she knows to be liberally laced with opium. "You were saying."

"Was I?" She slides into the bed behind him and wraps an arm around his waist, his skin bare and sleep-warm. It would be too easy to drift off this way. Another week of sleep, she thinks, and that might restore her. With a yawn, she hooks her chin over his shoulder, rubs her cheek against his.

"It must be bad," he says. His glance at her is dubious, sidelong -- does he dislike the thought of her speaking to the king? But he turns his head enough to kiss the corner of her mouth.

"No, not bad." She sits back against the headboard with a sigh and he follows, settling against her with a sigh of his own.

Not bad at all, she thinks, but that does not mean she has any a better idea of where she might start: Porthos, waking her, seeming seconds after she'd closed her eyes. The king, at a table spread with maps, calling her Lady von Kirchner and acting as if they had never met -- a relief, frankly. Musketeers, none of whom she knew, stationed at the doors. Father Joseph, all in grey -- his monk's robes, his long goatee, the pallor of his skin -- hands tucked into his sleeves, staring narrow-eyed at the forged treaty. An argument of some kind, although coming as she had two-thirds of the way into it, she could not be sure what was being argued. Something about Orléans.

And then the king again, gesturing for space, for the room's other occupants to move away and give them a bit of privacy. "A black cabinet," he said. That is what you call them, yes? "I want one."

Athos tips his head back and says, "That job would be in Paris."

"I did think of that, yes."

He sits up. Too quickly, it turns out; he gasps, and has to stop and catch his breath. "Anne--"

A knock at the door. Yes, she calls out, expecting Aramis with the poultice, but no. It is Father Joseph, come to make a somewhat incomprehensible speech about France. Its unparalleled beauty, the honour and the glory inherent in serving such greatness, though sometimes, you understand, we all do things we might not otherwise agree with. Things we may come to regret.

Do we, Athos says, half question, half not.

Father Joseph continues as if Athos had not spoken -- if you hold France in your heart, madame, monsieur, all will turn out well. Clearly he was right to send Athos to Nancy, and now he has a proposal for madame. Vienna, perhaps. Venice. Brussels. Anywhere she wishes. He will provide any recommendations or introductions, any proof of identity which might be required. And of course, he says, your husband is welcome to accompany you. A soldier of monsieur's caliber would surely be welcome anywhere. "Though that wound does not look good," he says somberly. "Perhaps later we might pray over it."

He twists the end of his goatee between a thumb and forefinger, and there it is, a flash of gold, a signet ring, the stylised T which had sealed the order for her death.

"Your Eminence," she says, staring at the ring, "is too kind."

His glance follows hers. He rubs his thumb across the knuckle just above the ring. "Not at all. Such loyal service deserves a reward."

"I am sure you are aware His Majesty has already made me a proposal."

His mouth twists. "Oh, yes. I am indeed." His tone is slithery, sinuous. "He speaks of you, you know. Your many and varied talents. I am sure he will be more than pleased to have them again at his disposal."

She nearly rolls her eyes because really, is that the best he can do? But behind her, she can feel Athos' demeanour as it shifts from that of an injured man, disinterested but polite, into what she can only describe as leave now or die where you stand. Judging by the anger thrumming at her back, she imagines he can make this happen without leaving the bed or putting on his trousers.

But Father Joseph has some backbone; she will give him that. He smiles placidly. He bows. He is eloquent, gracious, effusive in his thanks to them for the substantial service they have done the crown. Do let me know what you decide, he says to her, and then is gone.

From across the room, she looks at Athos, who has returned to his broth. "Defending my honour?" It both is and is not a surprise.

"You are my wife."

"Your own honour, then." Of course.

A frown appears between his eyes. "Is there a difference?"

She sighs; this is pointless. "It will not be the last time someone says such things."

"No." His voice is grim. "It was the second-to-last time."

Oh, she thinks. Oh, Christ. He's serious. "Well, that's very sweet," she manages. "But this all assumes I am coming to Paris."

His eyes widen. "I-- yes. I had assumed. Why would you not?"

After a few seconds, she falls to her back on the bad, sinking slowly into the feathers. She stares at the ceiling. Somewhere up there, surely, is some semblance of coherency she might extract from the last forty-eight hours. It is more difficult than it should be. Little rest, less time, and now he is reaching for her, touching her, combing his fingers through her hair, and what is she supposed to be doing? His presence engulfs her senses, overwhelms her mind, and it is a long time before she is able to speak.

"He may not be wrong about Louis," she says. "And I assume you noticed his ring."

He had. Their speculations had been right: It was Father Joseph who had sent the Musketeers into Lorraine and hired Schmidt to get them out; who had driven Gaston into Nancy and then sent Athos there behind him; who had done what he could to kill them both.

Not that it matters, of course. They cannot prove any of it. L'éminence grise remains a power behind the throne regardless of who sits on it.

"Well," Athos says, not sounding nearly as distraught about this as she was expecting, "he brought us together again."

"Did he?"

"Did he not?" Now he is distraught. "Are you seriously considering-- what, Vienna? Florence?" He indicates the pile of their bags in the corner. "All right, then, the codes are there if you want them. Go ahead."

She sits up slowly. "You brought them for me?" In the chaos of -- was it only yesterday? -- she had forgotten about the codes. "Why?"

"I seem to have developed a taste for treason. It really brings out the flavour of the opium in my brandy."

"Athos--" Suddenly she wants to vomit. She stands and goes to the window, arms hard around her middle.

"Why do you think? I love you."

"You love me." She snorts. "The opium in your brandy. Would you listen to yourself? Or look." There is no glass in the room, but he can glance down well enough, see the bandages and scabs and scars and bruises. "You were right. I compromise you."

A gust of breath and he deflates, his chin sinking to his chest. She makes for the bags in the corner. If she accepts Father Joseph's offer, she will owe him. If she accepts Louis' offer, well, she will work for Louis. But if she has the key to breaking the French codes, she might be able to start over on her own, without owing anyone -- except Athos, of course, and their debts are beyond accountancy. She has tucked the codes into her bodice when he says, "So does my shoulder."

She turns. She straightens. What does his shoulder have to do with anything?

"I did blow a hole in it," he says, as if she will not see it every time she closes her eyes for the next decade. He looks down at the wound and tries to shrug, but it hurts him too much. "Aramis thinks I will recover, but I may never use my left arm the way I did before. It will compromise me. But I do not intend to compensate for that by cutting my arm off and dulling the pain with drink." He stands up and reaches for her, and she reaches back as if compelled. "You compensate for your weaknesses by knowing what they are and protecting them."

He pulls her hand to his heart, covers it with his own. "Anne," he says, he whispers, he sighs.

This close to him, all she can see are his eyes: huge, glittering, turbulent; and in turn the maelstrom inside her coalesces and breaks over both of them. She jerks her hand away. She makes a fist. She wants to scream, to storm and rage against him, to hurt him, but her hand lands flat against the bare skin of his chest, almost gentle, her fingers curling, grasping, caressing.

"Now!" Still she tries to shout. Again she fails, though you wouldn't know it by the cost, the heaving of her chest and the tearing of her throat. Her voice comes out as shaky and weak as the rest of her. "You dare to say this to me now? Now you want to protect our love, now, after-- when I--"

"Yes," he says.

As always, her remaining strength deserts her in the face of his simple honesty, and it is his strength instead keeping her upright when she collapses against his chest. He murmurs something into her hair and gathers her close, hand sliding up her back to rest at the nape of her neck. They stand there, swaying to the beating of their hearts, until speech returns.

She slides her hand up his chest and hooks her fingers into the ridiculous necklace she had given him the other night, a cheap heart trinket on a too-short chain. "So I'm a gunshot wound, am I?"

The wry half-smile she loves so well. His lips brush her forehead. "You are much nicer to look at."

A laugh, nearly. "How long have you been working on that compliment?"

"At least all yesterday," he says, eyes soft, only a hint of teasing.

Whatever he is about to say next is interrupted by a perfunctory knock at the door, and then a long-suffering groan. Athos squeezes his eyes shut and she goes on her toes to kiss his eyelids before stepping round him to greet whomever has come to bother them this time.

Aramis. He says, "Well, at least one of you still has your clothes on."

She lifts an eyebrow. "If you think clothing will stop him..."

"Me!" Athos sounds affronted.

"No," Aramis says, grinning, "but I hoped the bullet wound might." He has brought the poultice, and she, it seems, is wanted again by the king.

"I'll wait," Athos says.

She snorts. "I would hope."

"No, Anne," he says, catching her hand to pull her back round to look at him. "I am telling you, I will wait."

"You absolutely have to stop saying things like that," she says, but takes his face in her hands to kiss him, deep and rich with promise and meaning and all the things she has neither words nor time to say.

***

Three days.

Athos had not said how long he would wait. Is three days too long? When it was her, she had not even waited for sundown, and the sun is setting even now as she chases it westward, another day gone. She kicks her horse up to a gallop and but tugs on the reins almost immediately, apologetic and disgusted. Running animals into the ground will not get her there any faster, and she is having some difficulty imagining it matters: She had not told him she would be back. She had not told him anything. She had taken the codes and gone to the king, and she had not returned. She'd had little choice, but Athos--

Again she kicks up her horse, swears, slows down. The horse likely thinks she's mad. She is inclined to agree.

She had not even made it to the king before d'Artagnan and Armel had galloped past, d'Artagnan standing in the stirrups and shouting, Armel riding next to him grim-faced and sick, hanging on for dear life. They had found the parish registry containing proof of Orléans' marriage to Marguerite de Lorraine, and if Louis had been waiting for something before he marched, this was it, and she had been pulled along in His Majesty's wake.

They rode for Moyenvic, swinging north to get around Nancy and planning to roust the imperial garrison before turning back again for the capital. Along the way, Louis said, smiling brightly, I thought you might tell me about the black cabinet and how it works and what it might do for France, and when we have finished with that topic, I require more information about the political landscape of Lorraine. Tell me, how often does the duc host grand events? And how are his shoes? And my brother, tell me everything. And you say you've read his correspondence with my lady mother? Is she still in Brussels with that fat man?

Saying no to any of this was not an option, of course, but she had thought the conversation would last a few hours at most. But three days later and she is right back where she started, riding up to the farmhouse they had stayed in with a sinking heart. The owners come out to meet her. Monsieur le comte left this morning, they tell her. A carriage had come for him, and he'd gone west. No, he left no message. And are you sure you won't stay? It will be dark soon.

Dark, but the moon is full and the road is worn, and she can at least make it to the next town before she stops. There, she can ask if anyone has seen him, make sure she is heading in the right direction. If he truly has gone west, he is on his way back to Paris. He will not be difficult to find there, but perhaps she will catch him before he arrives; even in a carriage, he will not be traveling quickly.

But only a league or two outside of town, an odd scene presents itself. A carriage, stopped by the side of the road. She can just make out its silhouette, moonlight glancing off its surfaces. It does not seem to have crashed, but there are no horses in sight, and no people. Cautious, she reins in her horse, slowing down.

As she gets closer, she sees a tent just off the road, and a small fire. And there's the horse, grazing happily. But she is only a few leagues away from one village and a few more to the next; surely they did not have to make camp. A broken carriage, perhaps, or highwaymen, though this is not much of an ambush. Still, she makes sure her pistol is primed and in her hand as she approaches and calls out a greeting.

Behind one of the trees, a rustle of movement. A figure steps from the shadows.

Athos.

She stares at him. The world hangs suspended.

"You're late," he says.

"You waited."

"You thought I would not?"

"I--" She swallows. "I had some doubts. How long... how did you know I would follow you?" Her stomach twists, as if she has said something unkind, been cruel -- had she? "Athos?"

She cannot see his face when he says, "Come down from there."

With a deep breath she swings off the horse. She reaches out, but there is no need. He is there already, kissing her, kissing her as she kisses him back, in question but mainly in answer.

- ### -

Chapter Text

Epilogue.
My beloved spoke, and said to me: Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. —Song of Solomon 2:10-11

***

He is not expecting her, but then again, he never is. She does this, still, appears as if out of nowhere, and every time it stops him where he stands.

This time he is standing in the doorway of the captain's office, and he leans his good shoulder against the jamb and watches her sitting there, entranced by the elegant sweep of her hair off the nape of her neck. This, too, happens every time: he will get some glimpse of her and find himself captivated. She is familiar and novel at once, and it often takes a few moments to gather himself, to remember what's happened and how they got here.

To hear his brothers tell it, he spends the vast majority of his time gaping at her in stupefied wonder. This is not strictly true, and Athos glares at them as best he can, but if enduring some gentle mockery for his propensity to stare at her is the price he must pay, he will pay it all the days of this life and the next.

"It tends to be frowned upon for spies to be sniffing about the captain's quarters," he says, eventually.

She sends an arch look over her shoulder. "And sniffing about the captain's drawers?"

A sharp inhalation. "Scandalous." He tries to sound as if he means it.

Her mouth curves as she stands and turns, drawing him into the room with her presence alone. "Well, as you are not the captain and I am not a spy, perhaps everyone's delicate sensibilities are safe."

"Safe? You go too far, madame." He kicks the door shut behind him. Best be sure, and he enjoys the way it makes her eyes darken, the fast flare of her nostrils.

Two more steps and her mouth parts in surprise, eyes widening as they flick down. He follows her glance and pulls up short. "I should have told you," he says, realising too late that he is back in uniform. Accepting a commission into the King's Musketeers is, he reflects, probably one of those things he ought to have mentioned to his wife. Nearly a decade of marriage, and he is unused to having a wife.

He sighs. He had assumed his return was only a matter of time. Since arriving in Paris, Treville and his brothers have been relentless in their attempts to get him to rejoin the regiment. Initially, the point had been moot: He had needed to sleep for a week or two, and his shoulder needed to heal. But this morning at the Louvre, the sling off his arm and Anne elsewhere and his brothers grousing, he had relented. Treville had tossed his uniform at him -- thought I should save it for you -- and Athos had put it on and made for the garrison. His sole condition was that he would not be returning to the captaincy, and he needed to gather up his few personal belongings and move them to his own quarters. Or, he supposes, looking at her now, to Anne's.

It is another thing they have not discussed. He has rooms at the garrison. She has rooms at the palace. He is there more often than he is anywhere else, but it can hardly be called a traditional arrangement. Still, it seems to be working. Or it had been, until he had somehow forgotten to--

"What are you torturing yourself about now?" she asks, moving closer. "Of course you were going back." Her voice is distant, and there is an odd look on her face: startled, rapt, a touch fearful.

He does not understand, and so he waits for her to come to him. She does, a slow dreamy glide, eyes on-- ah. It is not the uniform. It is this uniform.

The Musketeers had been in Lorraine illegally; they had carried nothing which might identify them as French. After that disaster, he had resigned his commission, and in Nancy, he had not been a Musketeer at all. This uniform, she has not seen.

A quick flare of heat lights the back of his neck as he looks down, suddenly awkward. One day he hopes to stop having this reaction to being caught loving her -- after all, she hardly minds -- but some part of him remains plagued by a nameless, nebulous fear.

"When did you do this?" she asks. He pretends not to notice the tremble in her fingers as she traces the forget-me-nots embossed in his jacket.

"After"--he clears his throat--"after I was promoted to captain. After I missed you at the crossroads."

"Well." She is trying to sound brusque. Instead a soft sigh laces through her voice, and he wonders at his ability to put it there. "Someone is very sentimental."

"Someone?" He recognises a challenge when he hears one, and this one he is grateful to meet.

He steps into her space and backs her down, not touching her, staring into her sea-green eyes, a breath of space between their lips. When her legs come up hard against the desk, he can taste her small exhalation of surprise, and he lifts his head enough to let her see his wry smile. He would like to pick her up, but he cannot do it one-handed, and if he re-injures himself tossing her around, he will never hear the end of it. But she knows what he wants, and she lifts a single imperious eyebrow before she does it anyway: plants her palms on the edge of the desk and slides on top of it, papers scattering in the wake of her spread skirts.

He bites the finger of his glove to pull it off and goes to his knees, hand sweeping up beneath her skirt in a slow deliberate tease that makes her tip her head back, breasts heaving. Her shaky breath turns to a gasp when he finds what he is looking for. He stands. She glares.

It is the handkerchief he had given her in the forest, lost, then found, now worn on her thigh. "Tell me again," he says gravely, dangling it between thumb and forefinger, "which of us is sentimental."

She huffs. "I came here to give you a gift, but if you insist on being wretched"--she tries to snatch the handkerchief back, but he jerks it away at the last second--"it will be a long time before you get anything from me."

"A stiff penalty." The handkerchief floats to the floor as he works his hand back beneath her skirts and slides it up, up to the soft skin of her bare thighs and higher still, until her desire slicks his fingers. She leans back on her elbows with a quiet moan, eyes closed, the long column of her neck exposed. He can see her pulse jumping at her throat -- she's beautiful always, God knows, but especially so like this -- and he bends over her arching body, gloved hand tangled in the hair at the back of her head. Against her open mouth he whispers, "Very stiff, but madame"--he shifts his thumb to the side, where he knows she likes it, presses harder as he rubs, fingers twisting, thrusting, waiting for the clench of her body as she nears completion--"I think you're bluffing."

He pulls his hand away and leaves her trembling, and when she tries to come up off the desk he only tightens his grip on her hair and yanks her back down. When she opens her mouth to curse him, he slides his two wet fingers inside and closes his mouth over the whole of it, kissing her taste away.

"You'll pay for that." She sinks her teeth into his lower lip, just enough to sting.

"I hope so," he says. "You mentioned a gift?"

A bark of laughter from her throat and he swallows it down, a crooked smile on his face as he straightens. She follows him up but does not let him get far, legs locked around his as her fingers work the top few buttons of his jacket. He lifts his chin to give her better access, but she only trails her fingers along the delicate chain of the necklace he wears. It looks ridiculous, she is always telling him, and perhaps she has a point -- it is very obviously a woman's necklace, a golden heart on a too-thin chain -- but in front of Anne, he has been worse things than ridiculous.

So when she tells him to take it off, he hesitates, frowns. When he lifts his hands to obey, one of them settles over the heart instead. "Why?"

From nowhere she produces a small package, bound with string and leather.

Blinking down at it in some surprise, he says, "You really did bring me a gift."

Her chin lifts. "I said as much, did I not?" Her voice is tight. "I am not in the habit of lying to you."

"I know." And he does know, though the surety is still new enough to surprise him on occasion, and old habits are hard to break. "But nor are you in the habit of bringing me gifts without any particular cause."

She softens after a moment, some of the teasing glint creeping back into her eyes. "Who said it was without cause? I can assure you, husband, that it is an eminently practical gift."

"Oh, well. You should have said so. As long as it is not sentimental." He plucks at the string. "You know how much I abhor rank sentimentality."

She flicks at the petals on his pauldron. "So I see."

Her tone is light, but he can see she is nervous about this gift; her eyes keep sliding from his to the parcel and bouncing off again. He pauses in the unwrapping to shake the second glove off. "Thank you," he says, sliding his hand to the back of her neck, kissing her forehead.

"You haven't opened it."

He shrugs. "You thought of me."

"One day," she mutters, sounding disgruntled, "I hope to be able to stop."

He hides his smile by kissing her again, lips coaxing until she relaxes into it. "That would hardly be fair."

She rolls her eyes and shoves at his chest. "Open the damn thing, would you."

A silver locket. Give me a new one, he'd said, and now she has. It is not very different from the one he used to wear, though this one is nicer, the chain heavier. Inside, there is nothing.

"I thought," she says, swallowing convulsively, eyes averted, "that as we are starting fresh... Christ, don't look at me like that, you know I cannot--"

He shuts his stinging eyes and kisses her, if he cannot look at her, kisses her with every bit of thanks and promise he knows to make. He kisses her until his lips are sore with it, until they both are breathless and wanting, and when he thinks himself capable of speech, he lifts his head and says, "I thought you said it was practical."

Her mouth curves into dangerous, glinting smile. "Oh, it is." Her voice is a low frisson down his neck as she tells him to put it on, and his cock -- which he had been successfully ignoring -- starts aching for attention. Hers, preferably.

A flash of movement. She grabs the chain. Twists. Yanks. He cries out, mouth opening involuntarily as he tries to choke down air but cannot. She seals her mouth over his, breathing, but it is no help. He is reduced: the bite of metal into flesh, the hot throb of blood beneath his too-thin skin, the pressure behind his eyes and in his cock approaching unbearable. He leans in, giving what he can, feeling both whole and wholly inadequate.

"See?" She lets go and licks at his gasping mouth. "Extremely practical."

She's right: This chain is thicker than the other, unlikely to break, and it imparts a heavier pain he likes more. Even in his near-mindless state he can tell it gives her more leverage. The noise which comes from his throat sounds suspiciously like a whine. He sags against her, face buried in the curve of her neck. "Anne," he whispers, wanting more, always wanting more. He feels her shiver against him. "Take me home."

"I was about to say the same to you."

He wraps his arms around her and feels himself surrounded. "I am home."

"Then so am I."

- FIN -