(Before I forget, I should mention that Tom Burke - who plays Athos - just did a marvelous radio-play version of Cyrano de Bergerac, playing Cyrano beautifully. Go, listen - it's only 75 minutes!)
In Daylight, In Darkness
His is no virgin sword, he has seen and summoned death too many times to count, and his blood froze entirely when he found his brother dead, but no sight has stolen breath and sense from him like this one: Porthos, his face split open, his skin peeled like a kitchen-maid has had the handling of him. Porthos, one dark eye surely gone beneath a river of blood.
Athos curses the Red Guards' recruits coldly and comprehensively, and sets to gutting them on his sword. He very nearly cannot pull the blade free of the first's belly in time to end the second, but he manages because it is all he can do. He fetches a third down with his dagger, rage lending him Aramis's famed accuracy, and he burns at the realisation that the rest have taken to their heels.
Behind him, Porthos is keening, trying to choke back his loss. Athos drops a hand to that bowed head and Porthos lists blindly toward him. "I have you," Athos says, because he cannot say what Porthos truly wishes to hear; he has neither Aramis's medical expertise nor Aramis's familiarity with Porthos's fine-grained skin and bright eyes. Porthos shudders under his ineffective hand and Athos wants to cut out his own tongue, because what kind of man would force his friend's lover to tell him the worst of it?
Those raw boys had not liked the sight of Porthos, proud and upright, fleur-de-lis on his shoulder, cape of Musketeer blue moulding itself to his strong arm. They had wanted to tarnish the Musketeers' name, and they had fixed on the best of the regiment for their mischief. It had taken all of them to muster the nerve to face Porthos, and even then they had not had the courage to challenge him openly.
Athos had been walking toward his rooms, trying not to stretch his ears to hear whatever it was that Porthos and Pisan were saying as they strolled on the other side of the street; carts and riders had created enough of a din that all he could make out was the rapid clip of Pisan's speech and Porthos's hearty laughter. Pisan had turned a corner to head for his own lodgings, and Porthos had looked across the street at Athos, surprising him with a nodded invitation. Surely Porthos was off to meet Aramis, and they would not welcome a witness to their greetings. Athos strangled at birth the notion that they must look lovely together, intent on each other, eyes finally free to look and linger, hands and mouths following.
He shook his head, denying the thought, and Porthos's mouth turned down, supposing it to be a charmless refusal. Porthos took the turning toward The Pretty Poppy, where Aramis most likely waited, and Athos was just crossing the threshold of his own lodgings when he heard the mob of angry men. Urging each other on so that their words took on a fervid hum he'd last heard in the King's sickroom, they were readying themselves for some triumph. "Points to the man who takes down the big brute!" one of them hissed, and Athos turned to see them, undisciplined and malicious, none in uniform but all bearing some flash of crimson. "For the Cardinal, and for France!" he heard.
He followed, hand resting on his hilt, seeing them spread out in a semicircle, intent on Porthos, whose steady, rolling gait was surely faster than usual; his desire to see Aramis must have hastened his steps. "Porthos!" Athos called, the only warning he could think of, and Porthos turned, welcome already brightening his face, and the misbegotten recruits charged at him. Athos could see Porthos's blank disbelief at the onslaught, his panic at the thought of drawing his blade against a swarm of men with whom he had no quarrel, and then the one on his far left gouged at his face with his sword and Porthos staggered back, roaring his fury.
The sound alone was enough to halt them, if only momentarily, but they sprang forward again with redoubled vigour when they realised he was half-blinded by torrents of blood, perhaps even the outright loss of one eye, and Athos leapt into the fray with a yell that checked Porthos's savage swings. Athos took full advantage of Porthos's obedient stillness and dispatched those nearest to him.
There is a boy with yellow hair thick and lank as a horse's tail gawping like a half-wit at the bodies on the street. Athos thinks it's the lad he's seen Porthos exchanging words with on numberless days in the past, once even bestowing a friendly cuff to his unkempt head, and hopes the boy is worthy of the smiles Porthos has given him.
"You," he calls to the lad, feeling Porthos startle at his tone, lifting his head from its position sunk between his shoulders, "fetch Aramis. Tell him to bring his medical kit." Doubtless the boy knows Aramis – he and Porthos have been joined at the hip for a few years – and their usual haunts, and Athos trusts that Aramis will recognise the icy-voiced ogre sure to feature in the boy's message and find his way to Athos's lodgings.
It is only because his rooms are so convenient to the site that he herds Porthos up the stairs and into his bed, or so he tells himself. He cannot wash the wound to gauge it – there is no clean water to hand, and dribbling spirits across Porthos's face might do further damage to what is left of his eye – but he can press a bottle into Porthos's hand. Porthos has gone silent and his eyes are fixed shut, but the touch of glass makes him first recoil and then stretch a seeking hand out, blindly; Athos tries again to give him the bottle but Porthos turns his hand away, ceasing his fumblings only when Athos's hand is locked in his.
Over the maddening thumping of his own foolish heart, he hears Porthos say, "Athos," sounding more thankful than anyone covered in blood should be. "Athos," Porthos says again, letting go of a long breath and crumpling. Athos fixes his gaze on the widening pool of blood on the floor by the bed; he cannot look at Porthos without guilt for how cruelly his wish to have him in his bed has been granted.
It is only when Aramis is in front of him that Porthos tries to open his eyes; Athos can see it is not even deliberate, only an instinct, that whenever Aramis's face is near, Porthos's eyes will be drawn to it. His eyelids are gummed together with blood and the fluttering of his lashes looks frantic. Aramis hums, his thumb smoothing Porthos's cleaner cheek even as he continues to study his lover's face, and Athos cannot comprehend why Aramis is saying nothing, as if he does not realise how much Porthos needs to be soothed.
He had not seen much of how Porthos had cared for Aramis in the aftermath of Savoy but he remembers hearing the deep rumble of Porthos's voice, steady and enveloping, saying nothing of importance but staying just loud enough to make sure Aramis could feel the vibrations of it; Athos had approved of Porthos's methods, knowing that feeling would supersede meaning for Aramis. And here Porthos is, struggling to make sense of what has been brutally done to him, and Aramis is giving him little more than silence.
It might be irritation with Aramis, or it might simply be his own need to touch, he cannot tell which, but he draws closer to Porthos, who is, as ever, radiating heat, and starts to pick at the knot keeping Porthos's cloak draped over his arm.
"I have you," Athos says again, just to hear something other than Porthos's quickening breaths. This close to the two of them, he can smell the scent of hay, suggesting Aramis was fetched from the stables rather than the tavern, and though his own hands never shake from drink, Athos is pleased that Aramis has not been indulging if he is to take a needle to Porthos's face. That face that haunts his dreams – sometimes it is just Porthos, sometimes it is Porthos and Aramis twined together urgently – will, he realises, be forever altered, and he is unprepared for that.
Athos whips the heavy cloak away and then works on unfastening Porthos's pauldron. He rises from his crouch to deposit it safely on the table and when he turns back, finds Porthos has already shrugged out of his doublet, revealing the sweat soaking through the unbleached linen of his shirt. Aramis is on his lap, Porthos's cheek cradled in his palm as he uses a soft cloth and fresh water to clean Porthos's face. Aramis works with speed and care, cleaning first Porthos's right eye – which opens immediately, seeking reassurance that sight is not completely lost to him – and then, more tenderly still, the left. Athos finds himself gritting his teeth as if he were the one performing the delicate work, knowing himself incapable twice over – once for his ignorance of even the field medicine in which Aramis has become an adept, and again because he could not be so close to Porthos without betraying the persistence of his shameful desires.
Aided by the spring sunshine pouring through the window, Aramis works diligently, as if having Porthos's body between his thighs is too ordinary to be distracting. Aramis hasn't touched him since their night together – Athos has been both careful and lucky, and has not required Aramis's deft stitches – and Athos admits to himself he could act neither of their parts just now, each focusing so intently on the other. Singly or doubly, they are overwhelming.
At long last – Athos has been counting by Porthos's breaths, not his own masterless thoughts – Aramis has cleaned the wound cleaving Porthos's brow and cheek, and Athos can see that through some miracle or perhaps Porthos's own formidable reflexes, the eye is whole. It opens tremulously, as bright and lovely as its twin, and Aramis cups Porthos's face in his hands and leans forward so their noses are barely brushing. Porthos's big hands are cradling Aramis's skull, the tips of his fingers just touching the vulnerable nape of Aramis's neck, and now that the stitching of the wound is imminent, Athos should be offering Porthos the bottle again, but witnessing how wrapped up they are in each other, he keeps it for himself, welcoming the burn in his throat as he takes his first earnest swallow.
"No, Athos," Aramis says quietly, and the shock of remembering what happened the last time Aramis tried to deny him his drink makes him fumble the bottle. "I need you to hold him still."
Athos feels his desperate control over his body desert him abruptly. He cannot climb behind Porthos on the bed and hold him tightly, cheek pressed to his hair, while Aramis continues to perch on Porthos's lap; it is grossly unfair to ask him to touch one and watch the other, and he cannot.
Athos sits on the bed, his back against the wall. Porthos settles back in his arms, allowing Aramis to tilt his face to best catch the light, and Athos has no defences for any of this. The solid weight of Porthos, pressed hotly against him, is intoxicating all on its own and he has to look elsewhere lest he clasp him too closely; letting his eyes rest on Aramis is not markedly better, but Aramis's words draw his gaze.
"You'll look a proper soldier with this scar," Aramis promises his lover, "far less a courtier." Porthos snorts his disbelief and Aramis, having threaded his needle, smiles widely at him; they are a match in beauty, in spirit, and Athos knows he is privileged simply to witness their finding each other and should want no more. "You've seen the work I did on the Captain's eye. Shall I be as careful again, or would you prefer something more rakish?"
"Get on with it," Porthos says, but his voice indicates his amusement. Despite his careful bracing, Porthos's head jerks away at the first touch of the needle, and the buckle of Athos's pauldron gouges a divot in his round cheek, a mark of his own in Porthos's flesh.
"Apologies," Athos says but neither says a word about the fresh stream of blood on Porthos's face. He redoubles his grip, elbows cradling Porthos's jaw, hands locked over the pendant gleaming brightly on Porthos's chest. Aramis, eyes clear in concentration, keeps making his fine stitches and Porthos shifts to lie more trustingly in Athos's arms; Athos breathes in the pair of them, insisting to himself that he is content to be of use.
He had been useless after Savoy, and before, too, despising his awareness that Aramis had grown steadier and sweeter in the months since he and Porthos became inseparable.
Aramis, upon hearing of the training exercise, had seemed to burn with a rekindled friendship for Marsac, and had badgered Treville to let him go too, as the group had no one capable of stitching up wounds accompanying them to Savoy. Athos had watched like a hawk over the goblet raised to his lips, poisonous hope seeping through him that such behaviour heralded Aramis's break with Porthos. But Porthos, hearing the news of Marsac's return from abroad and Aramis's determination to join his new expedition, simply nodded as if such desire were only to be expected; Athos had felt like a fool for thinking Porthos, of all people, would cause a scene in public, and had forbidden himself to imagine Porthos laying down the law in private. Jealousy must have played no part in Porthos's thoughts – Porthos was ever the better man, as Athos had learned a hundred times over as he choked on his own need – because Aramis did go, Porthos's hand patting first Aramis's thigh and then the horse's rump to spur it into motion.
Porthos had trained no harder, had sought no other company in the days that Aramis was gone. Athos, sick with longing, would have given much to be Pisan, tucked companionably under Porthos's heavy arm, or even the wheelwright with whom Porthos traded tales for hours one night at the Poppy, a friendly rivalry between country-born and city-born.
When word came to the garrison that their brother Musketeers had been slaughtered as they slept in the snow of Savoy, Porthos's eye had sought his and his alone. Grief painted his face pale.
Athos had wondered then, as he wonders now, how much of their history Aramis had shared with Porthos. There had been no point in asking then, and after, when Aramis's return made Porthos glow like the dawn, no opportunity. Bedraggled, wounded, heartsore, and silent as Aramis was, Porthos still claimed him, carried him off, and revived him, and Athos could only dream of what passed between them, how Porthos would have brought his lover back to life.
The windows need to be cleaned; the light by which Aramis is working would be brighter if unfiltered through the thin layer of grime coating the thick glass. Athos looks at his rooms, at Porthos's shed armour, at Aramis's unfurled strip of medical implements, and at the bottles he himself has left scattered about. It is a sad truth that his rooms have never felt so warm, so homelike as now, when these two men are here, bloodied and wearied as they are.
When Aramis ties the last deft knot and pronounces his work done, Athos finds he cannot unlock his arms from around Porthos's chest. Porthos tips his chin up, good eye seeking his, and pats his hand in silent commiseration. Athos curses the fairness of his skin, which must make his heated cheeks all the more apparent, drops his grip on Porthos, and flees the bed. Aramis tactfully – how much being Porthos's lover has changed him – busies himself in bringing order to his tools and his patient; Porthos submits gracefully, his faith in Aramis still a whole and lovely thing. Athos reminds himself sternly that he has earned no such trust.
Nor has he earned the embrace that takes him by surprise. His nose is buried in the folds of Porthos's shirt and he can smell skin beneath the coarse cloth; he hears a murmur of thanks but cannot unbend enough to wind his arms round Porthos and cling. Aramis steps close to the pair of them, his arm falling across Athos's back between Porthos's. "I could not have lost him," Aramis says quietly into his ear, and Athos nods dumbly in response; despite not knowing if Aramis is uttering a threat, an acknowledgment, or a foretelling, he has the same words beating a tattoo in his brain.
"'s long as I get a proper meal soon, no one's losin' me," Porthos assures them with one final squeeze, as if they are not, all three, wearing his blood like a banner.
"Let us go then, my friends," Aramis says, and Athos has learned, in slow degrees over these long years, that they will never steer him wrong, no matter how his heart tries to twist their easy affection for him into something more consuming; that they have sustained their friendships with him without much encouragement on his part is miracle enough, and he feels a small spark of joy, clean against the murkiness of his soul, light within him as he follows them out the door.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/453805.html.