D'Artagnan stood to rigid attention, his eyes fixed ahead of him at a point just above Treville's shoulder.
The captain was sitting behind his desk, fingers steepled as his eyes wandered first over d'Artagnan and then to the boy's neighbour, another newly enlisted member of the Musketeers named Antoinne.
The pairs' leathers were dirtied and ripped, and their hair in disarray. Both wore matching scowls, but only Antoinne's face was marked; a purpling bruise blossoming out around a swelling eye. By accounts the boy hadn't been completely useless after the first unexpected attack, but he had a fair ways to go if he ever wanted to brawl with men of d'Artagnan's calibre again.
Not that there will be danger of that once his father becomes involved, Treville mentally corrected himself. He was going to have to be extremely careful how this was handled.
Behind the junior musketeers at equally stiff attention stood their mentors. Monsieur Gaspard's face was a worried frown – sensible given the circumstances – whilst behind Athos' carefully blank expression was a man quietly fuming.
Treville knew that d'Artagnan could sense the disapproval in the way the boy shifted minutely, tell-tale beads of sweat gathering on his dirt-encrusted brow.
"Explain," Treville addressed d'Artagnan with a snap that allowed his anger to show.
D'Artagnan stifled a flinch and took a deep breath, forcing himself to look his commanding officer in the eye.
"There's nothing to explain, sir," he said, as formally as he could. "It was a private disagreement."
"Disagreement," Treville echoed. He sat back in his chair and regarded d'Artagnan with a disapproving scowl.
The boy clearly saw that he had chosen his words poorly and stammered to correct himself. Antionne got there before him.
"This little wretch attacked me without provocation, sir!" he said in an aristocratic twang that reeked of privilege. "I demand he be disbarred."
The young man's words died in his throat as Treville fixed him with a warning eye as sharp as any rapier.
"No provocation?" he asked d'Artagnan, whose mouth opened and then snapped closed silently in response.
The boy was clearly wrestling with his conscience, no doubt not wishing to land his partner in crime in any more trouble than he was already in, despite his obvious loathing of his fellow musketeer.
"Need I make it an order?" Treville promoted. His shoulder ached where LaBarge had injured it, barely two weeks ago. The boy certainly moved fast.
"He called my parentage into question, sir, and mocked my heritage," d'Artagnan ground out.
"An honest question, sir," Antionne rebutted, "we should all know where the mannerless tramp hails from."
D'Artagnan shifted, his hands clenching.
Treville grasped the arms of his chair, pulling himself up and fixing the Gascony boy with a baleful glare.
"Do not even contemplate it," he said, his voice a throaty growl made of deadly promise.
When d'Artagnan had withdrawn back into attention, Treville clasped his hands behind his back and began a slow stroll about the room.
"I will not have brawling amongst my men—in the courtyard no less!—whatever the provocation," he said as he passed behind the young men. "I am greatly disappointed in both of you."
"Sir, I—" d'Artagnan began.
"Silence!" Treville bawled in the boy's ear. To his credit, the young Gascon did not flinch.
The commander resumed his stride, head bent in contemplation.
"I see no other option but to deal with this severely," he declared after several tense minutes. "Gaspard, Athos; as their mentors I ask that you see to charge's punishments in whatever way you see fit. But if this incident is repeated, mark my words..."
Finishing his circuit of the room, Treville stopped behind his desk, placing his fisted hands upon the wood and leaning toward them for good measure. His shoulder twinged. He ignored it.
"...The next time I shall have the pair of you publicly flogged."
The two junior musketeer's faces paled at this and they both saluted smartly, giving no excuse for the commander to follow through with his threat.
As he left the office, d'Artagnan felt a hand encircle the nape of his neck, propelling him at a brisk walking pace through the garrison.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled, then repeated himself more clearly when the man gave no reply. He turned his head as much as the firm grip allowed and tried to catch Athos' eye but the elder musketeer ignored him, glaring ahead with a fervour in his gaze and set in his jaw that caused d'Artagnan's stomach to sink.
It had been over two weeks since the elder musketeer and his fellow inseparables had seen fit to educate d'Artagnan in the matters of "head over heart". Glumly he pondered whether this occasion would be any different.
But he was in the right, dammit! Antionne had clearly insulted him, and his mother! Surely it was a musketeer's duty to mete out such justice? Athos himself had done the same on many occasions with the Red Guard or other such discourteous cur.
Some weeks ago he had believed that attacking LaBarge had been justice too...
"It was just a small scuffle," he heard himself babbling, "You could hardly even call it a brawl." He snorted indelicately. "Not the way Antionne fights anyway."
They had reached the armoury by this point and Athos finally uttered his first sound since he had been summoned to the commander's office: a feral snarl that set d'Artagnan's pulse racing with impending doom.
"The young monsieur has an appointment with the Marquis," Athos snapped at the quartermaster, in a formal way that suggested a hidden meaning to the words. To d'Artagnan they were nonsense, a mystery which was swiftly solved when the stoic quartermaster gave a wordless nod and turned to a locked cabinet behind his desk. From this a thick leather strap was withdrawn.
D'Artagnan had never in his life been the recipient of a thrashing. His father had preferred his own belt, but that had been less than half the size of the heavy implement that now covered the width of the Quartermaster's palm.
The anger that had filled him drained away into his boots. He stared mutely as Athos took the strap and hefted it experimentally, checking its weight as one would a well-forged sword.
"I've never had occasion to use this," Athos said gruffly, his hand still firm upon the boy's neck, "...had one used on me a few times, back in my youth. The sting will take some days to wear off."
Athos pushed his student towards an empty weapon rack, just high enough that the bar would lift d'Artagnan some inches from the ground.
D'Artagnan flushed scarlet, his eyes widening to show their whites.
"I don't understand," he growled, anger returning at the absurdity of the situation. "Normally you would applaud me knocking a pompous tit like Antionne on his arse."
Athos lunged forward, snatching at d'Artagnan's lapels and raising him up so that the boy had to struggle on the points of his toes. This brought the strap close enough to d'Artagnan's face for him to smell the leather and oil, to gauge its thickness and imagine its sting. He resisted the urge to sneer in distaste.
"That "pompous little tit" is Antionne d'Melliuor," Athos was saying. "His father pays for the keep of over half the garrison. Without that boy's family, there would be no Musketeers."
"So you're telling me we have to give that puffed-up peacock special treatment?" d'Artagnan demanded, his voice quietened by disbelief. He could never have imagined his precious musketeers to have been so dishonest.
"Do you have fifty thousand livres to pay us each quarter?" Athos demanded, setting d'Artagnan down heavily and stepping back to gesticulate angrily. "…This isn't just about who you were fighting with, however."
"Oh really?" d'Artagnan drawled, his eyes narrowed sceptically.
"Really," Athos growled viciously. "Antionne is a musketeer, your brother. We do not fight our brothers—at least not in public!"
"But beating me is perfectly acceptable?" d'Artagnan snorted.
"Are you disobeying the captain's direct orders?"
"He told you to punish me as you see fit, not thrash me like a child!" d'Artagnan gestured wildly at the strap. "Athos, there is no honour in this!"
"You and Antionne forfeited your honour when you chose to roll around in the mud like swine," Athos snarled but then he stepped away, drawing a steadying breath before inclining his head toward the door, his voice a sarcastic drawl.
"Go. Raise your objections to Treville if you fancy your chances. I'm certain he will be happy to oblige you with a punishment more fitting with your station."
D'Artagnan remembered Treville's threat and stepped back, shaking his head mutely.
"Then you have a choice," Athos said darkly. "Submit to this, or do not. But if you do not you question my authority as your mentor, and Treville's as your captain, and are not fit to call yourself a Musketeer."
A lead weight sent d'Artagnan's stomach plummeting. He was in an impossible situation. From the look on his face, Athos would not be swayed in this. In reality there was no choice at all.
"Very well," he ground out, turning swiftly on his heel before he could change his mind. He tore at his lacings and yanked down his breeches harshly, letting Athos know that he was complying only under duress. His undergarments followed, and he quickly bent over the rack, pushing aside the wash of mortification that resulted from such an exposing position. He gripped the wooden legs to steady himself, feeling the top bar push into his abdomen, pressing uncomfortably on his bladder.
It was with great relief that he heard the Quartermaster leave, but the click of the door behind him sounded like the final nail in his coffin.
"You will count the strokes," Athos said blandly, clearly having fallen back into his stoic mien. "If you take too long, or miscount, I will start anew."
D'Artagnan huffed a curse and then winced as the first lash struck.
"One," he said in a firm and steady voice. He tried not to think about how much it hurt; how after a moment's numbness the stripe burned and throbbed in time with his fast-beating heart.
"We are not yet begun," Athos said coolly. "I advise you to keep any further expletives to yourself."
D'Artagnan shifted in anger. On many occasions he had heard Athos curse like a pirate, but suddenly the man wanted him to be a saint?
"I expect you will move during this," Athos said. "But any attempt to interfere with your punishment, or exaggerated struggling will cause me to start from the beginning. Am I clear?"
D'Artagnan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Yes."
Another lash descended fast and he jumped in surprise.
"Then let us begin."
It was horrible. Worse than horrible; it was humiliating. D'Artagnan's feet dangled above the floor, toe-tips barely brushing the boards, leaving him without a firm surface to push down upon. No, he had to focus all of his attention on the stripes; he couldn't even distract himself or go elsewhere in his mind thanks to the damned counting. His arms ached already from the strain of holding his body in position.
He tried to stay quiet between the strokes, coming as they were at a steady pace that allowed for a great deal of burn to build before the next fell.
At the seventh blow he was still exhaling from his last count and inhaled sharply. It wasn't quite a whimper, not really, he told himself even as his ears flamed with embarrassment. He faltered at the next word but repeated it quickly lest Athos be inclined to follow through with his earlier threat and begin again.
There was a pause and he heard the man shift behind him, flinching as a hand rested upon his back. It remained there, heavy but oddly comforting, and he took time to draw a steadying breath before the next stroke fell.
The next half dozen blows he took in silence, wondering just how many the musketeer was planning to bestow, wishing he hadn't been too stubborn to ask. Twenty. It was probably twenty, he decided. A round, sensible number, twenty. He focused on that, forcing his body to remain still.
Twenty came and he unconsciously relaxed down into the bar, huffing the number in relief and allowing his eyes to close.
The twenty-first stroke caused him to yelp in despair and disbelief. He could not help the legs that kicked or the way he squirmed as the pain rippled out across his burning flanks. There was no fresh skin remaining, and the stripes retraced already burning flesh, each stripe throbbing in unison with his heart.
"Be still!" Athos barked, the hand on d'Artagnan's lower back pressing down firmly. "Enough! Or I shall be forced to start anew."
D'Artagnan tried to suppress it but still the sob came bubbling up and broke from his lips wetly. Still he managed to turn it into a word, the only one that mattered.
"Twenty-oneeee," he burbled, letting two stray tears leak past his lids.
There was a long pause, long enough for d'Artagnan to begin hoping they were finished. Then Athos' hand began to rub small circles in his back.
With great effort, d'Artagnan took a breath and released it, stilling his body by force of will alone. Oh! If only he could press upon the ground, a sureness of footing would give his precariously tilted reality some stability, safe from hanging over the bar like a piece of tenderised meat.
The next blow came too soon. Too soon! And he choked out the number, beyond caring that his tears could be heard. He strained and pushed, legs rigid and teeth aching they were ground so hard together. Five more strokes he withstood in this manner, grimacing, tears dripping from his chin.
Athos swung low, the strap curling itself around d'Artagnan's soft undercurve, sending him lurching forward. He scrambled, clutching at the beams to keep from falling, sickness rising to close his throat.
"Please," he whimpered, his words a rush as he fought against the press of his mentor's hand, "Please, Athos, pleasepleaseplease!" He bucked and twisted, frantic in his effort to reach the ground. Deep sobs were pulled from him, chocking him as he gasped for breath.
The hand released its pressure and d'Artagnan felt himself drawn back to the floor.
The instant his boots met solid ground he felt like he might buckle in relief. Turning to Athos, he buried his face in the man's doublet, clutching his shirtsleeves, beyond caring how ridiculous and shameful the action was. He felt the man's body tense, and feared his refusal, but then Athos' arms wrapped about him, holding him tight until the worst of his trembling was done with.
Strong hands ran soothingly over d'Artagnan's back, quiet words muttering platitudes until he regained some composure. Then he was drawn back, held at arm's length so that he could be studied.
Huffing and sniffling, d'Artagnan dared to dart his eyes upward to assess the extent of his mentor's displeasure. What he saw instead was only concern; his breakdown had clearly disturbed Athos as much as it had mortified d'Artagnan himself.
"Better?" the man asked gently.
D'Artagnan's face crumpled and he dropped his chin, sniffing back more tears.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Athos. I know I'm a coward. You must be so disappointed in me. I know we must start again, but please, please not on that." He jerked his head toward the hated rack and gave a wet grimace. "I promise you I will bear this with the honour of a musketeer... what little of it remains... I will take all you give me without further excuses, only please let me have my feet."
Athos stayed silent, his face set in its usual unreadable lines. D'Artagnan dropped his head away from his judgement. He released his hold of Athos' shirt and took half a step away from him, fighting hard to regain some semblance of control, shoulders heaving with the effort. His shirt was long enough at the front to cover him and mimic a nightshirt. He felt like a child, chastised before bedtime, and no more able to withstand his lashes.
The wait was long and excruciating in its humility. Eventually d'Artagnan heard a breath drawn above him, and Athos spoke.
"I owe you an apology, d'Artagnan," the musketeer said, his voice gruff but calm. "I have been ashamedly lax in my care of you."
His head shot up, but all d'Artagnan could do was gape at the man, his brow creasing in a frown of bewildered consternation.
"This situation is new to us both," Athos said. His expression was gentle but sad, mirroring the way he often looked when the man made any mention to his past. "Not only that, but I neglected to tell you how many strokes you would be receiving. Then I took away your last piece of solidity and expected you to take your punishment without comfort... Your upset is quite understandable."
"I..." d'Artagnan stuttered, but his mentor held up a quieting hand.
"True, you deserved this lashing, but there is no instance, d'Artagnan, in which I will ever allow you to suffer through any punishment alone – as your mentor... and as your friend. I lost sight of that. Can you forgive me my grave error?"
D'Artagnan could barely find the words to form a coherent response, even if he had known what to say. Blinking rapidly and clearing his throat, raw from tears, he gave the only answer that such a strange question merited:
"Of course, my friend."
Athos smiled, his relief plain. He clapped a friendly hand upon d'Artagnan's shoulder. "Then let us be done with this."
Dread clenched nauseously about d'Artagnan's heart but he determined to be brave. Raising his chin he gave his mentor a firm nod. "Yes, sir."
Athos' smile twitched a fraction higher, the praise in his eyes shoring up the foundations of d'Artagnan's courage. He turned the boy gently toward the weapons rack once more.
"Hands upon the bar," he directed. "The count was thirty."
D'Artagnan blanched both in horror at how close he had come to success the first time, and also in dismay as he contemplated the agony of this second round. He straitened his back, however, and gave a firm nod once more, placing his hands upon the bar without a word of protest. His shirt moved as his back bent, pulling the rough cotton over his tender backside and he hissed.
Athos made a small sound of empathy, patting the boy's back and leaving his hand in place there as he had before. This time d'Artagnan felt the full solidity of his position and the hammering of his heart began to fade somewhat.
Athos shifted position and then d'Artagnan felt rather than saw the hand raise. He grit his teeth, knowing from a fortnight past that the first stroke after a rest would be a fresh kind of agony.
When the lash came he saw stars. His breath left him in a great rush as he was propelled forward, his chest hitting the bar.
Athos was at his head in an instant, hand clutching his shoulder, but before he could raise his concerns d'Artagnan had righted himself, setting his feet into a solid stance and glaring stubbornly ahead once more.
Athos stilled into rigidity, the hand upon his shoulder clenching briefly.
"D'Artagnan, you cannot surely think that I intend to start from the beginning?" he asked, his voice heavy with shock.
"It's as you said," d'Artagnan said, his voice strained but flatly determined. "I could not take such a small thing without struggling like a useless craven."
Athos huffed in irritation above him and without warning laid another sharp lash upon the boy's backside. This time d'Artagnan stayed steadfast but instead was yanked upright and about to face his mentor. The strap had been cast aside upon the ground, drawing d'Artagnan's eyes as if it were a coiled snake.
"I see you understood nothing of what I said," said Athos with a shake of his head. "You have taken the thirty lashes owing to you, you are not deserving of another thrashing. Come, it is over."
Athos turned away, trying to draw the boy from the rack. D'Artagnan resisted, his mind fogged with pain and confusion.
"I don't…" he stammered, feeling the panic begin to rise as he saw his mentor leaving him. "Athos wait!" he clutched at the man's sleeve desperately, fighting hard to control the fear that bubbled up his throat and made his next words a shameful whine. "I'm sorry I've disappointed you... I can stand this, I know it… I know I am not deserving but please allow me to regain my worth!"
Athos gaped at him for a long moment, confusion plain. Then his mouth snapped into a grim line and he laid both hands upon the boy's shoulders, squeezing gently as he gazed into his eyes.
"The fault lay with me, lad, not you. In fact you were admirably resilient considering all that I had you face. I would never punish you for my mistakes, d'Artagnan. You are not deserving of another thrashing."
But d'Artagnan wasn't listening, his panic growing into full flood. "No!" he cried desperately, wrenching from Athos' grip. He snatched the strap up from the floor bringing it to Athos and holding it out in supplication. "Please, Athos… another chance! I shan't disappoint you… you have my word."
Somewhere in his mind d'Artagnan watched in horror. He was babbling, crying once more, almost incoherent in his distress. Why was he begging for more white-hot agony from this man who looked at him with such shocked dismay? And why was it so important that he was prepared to lose all dignity to see it though? Even his self-conscious mind could not fathom an answer. He was utterly, utterly lost.