Size: ~7K words
Warnings: naughty words, naughty thoughts, massive angst, pointless self-denial, blasphemy, confessionals, sex (both m/f and m/m), duck murder
Chronology: Picks up 5 years after “The Best We Could”
Plot: Athos pays Porthos a visit and receives some friendly advice. But will he take it? And even if he does, will Aramis forgive him for the way they last parted?
Note: Dear Rio – happy birthday! Apparently, I was a big jerk earlier this year when I wrote “The Best We Could.” So, for this fic, I wanted to make you something that a) made up for that particular fic in every way and b) kept you entertained for longer than 3 seconds. I think I may have succeeded in one of my goals!
It had been an overcast day, but that would not prevent the hunting party from setting out after a brief discussion with the owner of the château about whether the servants should follow with the entire lunch (consisting of a roasted pheasant and two stuffed capons) or merely the afternoon snack of pheasant alone and a side of quails, prepared on a spit, to the master’s liking.
The master of the house, in whom the reader could easily recognize our good friend le baron du Vallon de Bracieux de Pierrefonds, finally acceded to his guest’s insistence that the pheasant alone would suffice, given they had the appropriate amount of wine to wash the blasted bird down with. His guest, the equally easily recognizable M. le comte de La Fère, was not particularly hungry, having sojourned at Pierrefonds for the past two days, and therefore having eaten what he swore was the equivalent of a month’s provisions for a small village, all thanks to his host’s ardent displays of hospitality. At the conclusion of this aforementioned second day of feasting, Athos insisted on getting some exercise, lest he become unable to fit back into any of his riding clothes, thus threatening to remain at the house of Porthos indefinitely - a proposition which in no way displeased his old friend.
“You disappoint me in your old age, my friend,” Porthos chastised while dismounting in the middle of a clearing. “There was a time when you could eat just as much as I!”
“You forget, however, my dear Porthos, that at the time you refer to, you and I were perpetually starving, and what we considered a feast back then would now-a-days prove to you to be an insufficient midday nibble.” Athos, who in his mid-fifties had apparently lost none of his former agility, leapt out of his saddle and tethered his mount to the nearest tree.
For a moment Porthos looked wistful.
“Yes,” he finally spoke, coming out of his reverie, “Our stomachs may have been empty back then, but our hearts were full of fire!”
“It is true – we were constantly up to no good.” Athos smiled and sat down on the damp grass, careless of his cloak.
“I cannot speak for you, but as for myself, everything I did was to my benefit,” and Porthos gave his graying mustache a playful twirl.
Athos seemed to reflect on this, and neither confirming nor denying his friend’s allegations, he simply reached out his hand and said, “Well then, have you brought a musket, or am I to shoot these ducks with my pistols alone?”
“Shoot ducks?” Porthos seemed confused. “From… where exactly?”
“Why, right here, of course!” And with these words, Athos spread out on the grass, using his canteen for a makeshift pillow. These words and such actions did not dispel the confusion with which Porthos was overcome. Athos patted the grass beside him. “Come now, is the musket loaded?” Porthos nodded, uncertain about where this was going, however, still filled with remnants of the old habit of trusting Athos at his word. “Well, give it here.”
Having received the musket from his old friend, Athos propped it against his shoulder, the barrel pointing straight at the sky as he lay on the grass, and then, much to Porthos’s consternation, as the latter was not expecting it, he unloaded one of his pistols into the air. The noise of the weapon had caused a flurry of activity, as birds of every kind startled and took flight before their eyes. Without lifting an extra muscle, Athos aimed, and unloaded the musket into the sky. A duck fell.
Porthos, who had then understood his friend’s intentions, broke out into a raucous laughter and lay down on the grass next to Athos, taking the musket from him.
“I have grown devious in my old age,” Athos smirked.
“Yes, and extremely slothful,” Porthos nodded, reloading the musket with fresh gunpowder.
“More devious than slothful,” Athos assured him, not bothering to search out the vanquished duck.
“You should have told me this was to be your idea of exercise. Again?” Porthos offered his friend the reloaded gun.
“I may wait for it this time.” Athos shrugged. Apparently he was in no hurry. “They’ll come around again. They always do.”
“Perhaps after all the years, Aramis has actually rubbed off on you.”
“I would be surprised if he hadn’t, after so much friction, as it were.” Athos tried to suppress a self-satisfied grin, but it escaped out of the corner of his mouth.
“Oh! Well! That’s just…”
“More than you’ve ever wanted to imagine?”
“Don’t think I haven’t imagined it before!”
“Oh, have you?” Another duck had the misfortune of flying overhead. Athos brought it down with a single shot. “Damn this recoil,” he mumbled and rubbed his shoulder, which had just been pummeled into the ground. “Perhaps this wasn’t as great an idea as I had anticipated.”
“Do you find your slothful deviance to be foiled by your age-related decrepitude?” Porthos chuckled, and received a half-hearted slap from Athos, which was more of a wave of a hand, as if he were swatting a fly.
“Keep mocking my age, and before you know it, you’ll be it.”
“I’ll still be more handsome.”
The two old friends laughed and settled again into an easy silence, while Porthos was busy reloading the musket again.
“It’s as if there is some part of me that refuses to grow up,” Athos muttered, breaking the stillness. “I think I’ve done it all, you know? I even raised a child – I have no idea how. But there’s this…”
“Longing,” Porthos completed his thought.
“Longing?” Athos looked up at his friend. “Why do you say that?”
“Because, you idiotic man, you’ve never really had the one thing that you’ve always wanted. Or, if you did have it, you always managed to somehow fuck it up and make it go away again!”
“What are you talking about?” Athos propped himself up on his elbow.
“Are you really this stupid or are you just pretending to be?” Porthos put the musket down on the grass, for fear of being tempted to clobber his friend with it.
“Humor me,” Athos replied.
“Aramis, you imbecile! That’s what I’m talking about. Good Lord, or do you think he and I never talk about you just because you avoid talking about him like the plague?”
“In all my life, I never would have figured Aramis to be more forthcoming about this than I would be!” Athos plopped himself back down, demonstratively, instantly regretting the force of his own descent.
Porthos grinned at him slyly. “Well, perhaps he just doesn’t handle his drink as well as you do… in his old age.”
“Oh, he would just beat you for that. Ruthlessly.” Athos laughed and closed his eyes against the rays of sunlight trying to break through the scattered clouds. The ground felt warm beneath him, despite the dew.
“Do you really need me to tell you where he is again? You know, like I did… what is it now? Thirty years ago?”
Athos scratched his head without opening his eyes.
“Um… twenty-five maybe?”
“You didn’t answer my question.” Porthos prodded him with the barrel of the reloaded musket. Athos shooed that fly away too.
“He’s in Melun,” Athos finally replied, opening his eyes and moving the barrel of the musket out of his face. “A vicar general of the diocese, no less, our Chevalier d’Herblay.”
“So, you know?”
“Then, pardon the obvious question, but what the hell are you doing here?”
It was Athos’s turn to appear perplexed.
“Here – is where you live,” he said, opening his arms as if it was the most obvious of all the axioms in the world.
“You said you’d come from Paris where you have been for about a month. Melun is much closer to Paris than Pierrefonds. And yet, I find you here.”
“I wanted to see you,” Athos blinked up at Porthos as if the light was bothering his eyes. It struck Porthos as a particularly sincere sort of a statement and suddenly he felt chagrined for questioning his friend’s motives. “Was I wrong to come?”
“No! Of course not – that’s not at all what I meant!”
“Then, what do you mean?”
“Will you go to Melun?”
“What is it with the two of you, fools!” Porthos threw his hands up in the air, and stood up, as if sitting next to such obstinacy was making him nervous. “Half of what you say to each other is the opposite of what you actually mean, and the other half is generally insults! One has to wonder why you even bother to speak at all! And moreover why to me?”
This little oration clearly caught Athos off-guard.
“Does he want me to come?” Athos finally asked, a small glimmer appearing in his dark eyes.
“Yes, you hopelessly idiotic man! A thousand times – yes!”
Aramis might have been, Athos figured, their invisible protector, but that in no way exempted him from being the one observed from a distance. It was never his intention to follow him, to get in his way, to collect information, none of that was honorable, nor, for that matter, appropriate. Aramis’s own, albeit increasingly infrequent, letters have always sufficed before, and would have to suffice again.
These letters seemed to flow from an ancient understanding, a vow made, rather than from any desire to convey actual information to their recipient. So many times, after casting his eyes over a rhetorical question - When, my friend, will we be allowed to be happy? – Athos felt himself on the verge of calling for his horse to set out to answer that veiled call. But, having quit Noisy-Le-Sec, his correspondent never left him a way of knowing which direction to ride in.
That was, until she walked into his salon in Bragelonne, resplendent even in her traveling attire, too old now to wear man’s clothing, as she laughingly said, throwing her cloak at his feet, “Didn’t I tell you to expect me, Count?”
But he had not found her to be too old, her breasts resting on his chest, as his hand absentmindedly stroked her naked hips, her skin showing only the earliest signs of losing any of its youthful elasticity, imbued as she was with perfumes and pomades. No longer lavender, for which he thanked God, and buried his nose in her disheveled blond curls.
He had not asked the duchess de Chevreuse why she had come that time, nor any of the other times subsequently that he found himself waking up next to her, be it in Blois or in Paris, kissing her voracious lips in the same bed where a few years earlier he had said farewell to Aramis, in his apartment on rue Guénégaud. She might have been too old to wear man’s clothing, but apparently she still found it in herself to dress as a chambermaid, as she threw herself in his arms and laughed the wicked laugh of Marie Michon that Aramis might have often heard.
“You remind me of him, you know,” she had brought it up first, although for some time he had already been wondering exactly whom he had been going to bed with – this woman, or the man she had reminded him of. “He had eyes like no one else I had ever met,” she said, softly kissing his eyelids. “So dark, so deep, like a vortex,” her lips slid lightly along his cheekbones. “Devouring,” she whispered, and kissed him, as if by that act alone willing the past into the room with them. He had never breathed a word to her, and yet, it was as if she knew everything, as if she knew more than he’d ever admitted even to Aramis himself. “He was a furnace,” she whispered, her hand sliding up his thigh, “I wanted to immolate myself in it.” He never stopped her, he wanted her to keep going, to say all the things that he would have never spoken in a million years.
She kissed like a man, he thought, her lips applying joyous pressure to his, never gentle, never yielding. She took what she wanted, and slipped away quietly into the night, like that other catlike creature from his past.
Years passed. He did not know when and whether to expect her, only that he needed her when she was before him: this woman who in his youth seemed unwittingly to take so much from him, yet who has given him the world by bearing his son. There was something about her that left an indelible mark on everything she touched, including him.
“Oh my, whom have you been entertaining in here?” D’Artagnan wrinkled his nose as he sniffed the air of the apartment on rue Guénégaud. “And here I was hoping you were only in Paris to see me.”
“You know I have come to see Raoul,” Athos responded, playfully giving his friend a small shove.
“So is this a military issue lady’s glove I just found in the folds of your arm chair?” It was too late to lie and later still to challenge the man before him to a duel, so Athos merely laughed and snatched the telltale particle of clothing out of his friend’s hand. “I would have expected this from Aramis,” d’Artagnan added with a careless shrug.
Athos let his eyes linger on his friend’s face longer than the Gascon probably expected, allowing him to glimpse the underlying disgust beneath the seeming carelessness of the statement. Although disgust of what, given so many readily apparent options, was beyond Athos’s ability to guess at this stage in his life. He knew he had himself been responsible, at least in part, for the ever-growing rift between d’Artagnan and Aramis, these two men in his life. And if d’Artagnan had forgotten, or had been willing to pretend to forget, then he was thankful for that. He crumbled the duchess’s glove in his hand and quickly changed the subject the only way he could, “Is the King well?”
It was she who had told him about Melun, the vicarage, and - later on - about Nicholas Fouquet, the King’s new superintendant of finances, under whose generous protectorate M. d’Herblay had apparently found himself. Fouquet, whose own dubiously acquired fortunes had surpassed even those of Marazin, secret coffers notwithstanding, had been the perfect star for Aramis to hitch his wagon to.
“Why do you still spy on him?” Athos had then asked.
“Spy?” she giggled in that way that made her instantly seem twenty years younger. “I’m not Richelieu, darling, I do not have a network of spies!”
“But, Marie, after so many years, so many…” Lovers? Husbands? No – one does not say such things to a woman, even if she is one’s mistress. “Distractions,” he completed his thoughts. “Why still follow Aramis’s movements?”
“Oh, Olivier,” she said, as she stroked her fingers over his temples, something akin to true pity coloring her tone. “The furnace,” she whispered, and her lips closed over his once more.
He wanted to call for his horse again then, even as his mouth traveled down her long neck, down the valley between her breasts and past her navel. Call that horse to be saddled – to Melun – and ride, ride through day and night, never stopping. She called out his name again, and he knew that this would have to be enough.