A/N: I had a last-minute inspiration for a story for the June 2018 fete des mousquetaires contest with the theme couer d'artichaut - "a heart of an artichoke, a leaf for everyone". It also implies a heart of mystery given all of the layers of an artichoke heart.
Set immediately after S1, Epi 9 - Knight Takes Queen. I can't access the episodes from where I am on vacation, so apologies if I have got my facts/timeline a little wrong. I'm sure there is plenty more than that wrong too - typos, grammatical errors, etc. It's what happens when I don't have time to send my fics to my lovely beta-reader. Thank you for your patience!
D'Artagnan paused in the alley, looking at the modest house at the other side of the courtyard. A lamp was lit at the entrance and a soft glow came from one of the windows. He was expected so he was not surprised to see the lights, only surprised how it made him feel. A warm welcome, a place of respite, a place of pleasure. A place where a beautiful woman waited for his touch. A woman he had made love to and had enjoyed every moment in her company. A woman who had supported him when his need was greatest and believed in his dream of earning his commission in the Musketeers.
An image of Constance sewing a tear in his shirt, laughing by the big hearth in her kitchen at something he had told her, pushed into his mind. God, he loved her. With every ounce of his being, he knew he loved her. Bonacieux had been away to the fabric mills in Perpignan that night, and for the next three. Their secret life together flourished under the roof of her inattentive husband. Inattentive was wrong - he paid attention to her in the worst, most limiting ways a husband could claim a wife. He knew nothing of her passion, dismissed her intelligence, and kept her as one might a prized goat. It had taken everything D'Artagnan had to not beat him to a bloody mess on more than one occasion. But then Constance would have never forgiven him and that was truly the only thing that stayed his hand.
A woman's figure appeared briefly in silhouette in the window. No doubt looking for him as he knew he was late. The evening bell had rung long ago and he was overdue enough for her to be worrying. He didn't like that. D'Artagnan didn't want anyone worrying on his behalf. He wanted to appear strong. He had an urge to protect her. An urge he was fighting as he knew that she was more than capable of protecting herself and besides, that was not his business here tonight.
He knew he should go in. But still he lingered, leaning against the cool, damp stones of the alleyway, his head falling back as he let out a deep sigh and tears climbed unbidden into his eyes. He raised his arm to wipe them away, the creak of the fresh leather of his pauldron oddly loud in the confines of the alley. Athos and Porthos had done their best last week to ensure it become as worn and scarred as theirs, but only time would take off the stiff newness of it until it eventually molded to his shoulder in a way that no other could wear it. But not yet. It was still fresh enough to smell of the tanner, his commission something he found hard to believe was real until he touched that bit of tooled leather on his shoulder.
What he had felt that day was more than joy, it was a wave of emotions, so many of them. Exhilaration at besting LaBarge, relief at being accepted by the King, fear for the Captain's life, pride in what he had accomplished and peace, such a peace, at feeling like he was coming home. It was something he had only before found with his father, and then, in a different way, with Constance. But that could never truly have been his home. It was someone else's home and he was a bandit stealing someone else's time with every minute he spent with her.
Another memory rose in his mind, her sitting at the same place by the hearth, but this time there was no laughter. Only cruel words and bitter denial of him, of them, of his dream of becoming a musketeer. Oh, but it hurt still. D'Artagnan felt it now again, a hollow pain in his chest that opened up each time he thought of her. Her words running again and again in his head. He took in a deep shuddering breath and tried to force the thought of her from his mind. His hand rubbed absently at his chest in an instinctive gesture toward the ache he felt there.
He had to get himself together. He breathed. Deeply, slowly as Aramis had told him when he stitched him up after the fight with LeBarge. Think of the pain leaving with every breath, he had said. D'Artagnan wasn't so certain it had worked at the time, the stitches being a painful process regardless, but maybe it would have been worse without the breathing. He leaned against the wall, finding some strength in its rough stones, and he breathed. He breathed until his heart felt like it was there again. He breathed until he could remember something else.
The first time they had been in bed together had been tumultuous, athletic, a contest of minds and bodies and he had lost so very thoroughly to her and never minded in the least. Afterwards had been soft words as he trailed his fingers over the smooth body laying in his arms. Raw and dark confessions and a promise of protection and care. His heart quickened at the memory and he held that close as he steadied himself. Despite everything she had done, he had not lost his passion for her. She was gorgeous and bold and he wanted her as much now as he did that first day. He took one last deep breath and smoothed his hair back from his face. He would need an excuse as to why he was late, a good one, or this was not likely to go well at all. With a tug to his doublet he pushed off the wall and made his way across the courtyard.
He raised his hand to knock, but the door was pulled open while his fist was still in the air. Her pale, delicate hand reached from the open doorway to grab a fistful of his shirt and yank him to her. Pressed closely against his chest, she took from him a deep kiss as painful as it was passionate. He felt his breath quicken as his arms slipped around her slim waist and he returned her desire with a crushing kiss of his own. Some part of him wanted to simply ravage her in the doorway and perhaps he might have had she not broken their embrace and stepped back into the house, leaving him breathless on the threshold.
"You're late," she said with an arch of a brow, clearly expecting an answer.
"I'm sorry," D'Artagnan said, licking the sweetness of her kiss from his lips, "Athos kept me back," he knew he sounded bitter, but he was, about the entire situation. Sharing it could only help matters at this point. There was no sense in lying if he didn't have to.
"Athos is a bastard," she said with a wry smile, "You'll come to see that in time. Come, supper is getting cold."
D'Artagnan felt the race of his heart, the uncomfortable tension of it feeling almost too big for his chest. He was glad she had turned her back to him, as he again put a hand to his chest and pressed hard against the rapid beats beneath his figures. He breathed. He could do this. Regaining his composure, he followed Milady further into the murky depths of the house, leaving the warmth of the hallway behind him.
They were waiting for him at the Wren, as they had said they would be, shortly after midnight. A chair was there for him, and Porthos filled an empty cup even as he sat down.
"How did it go?" Athos was terse, folded in on himself as he leaned forward, arms crossed on the table and hat tugged low over his eyes. He was taut. Dangerous. Closed. Everything about his friend spoke pain but his voice was steady with no trace of whatever emotion he was feeling.
"Just as it was supposed to," D'Artagnan kept to the easy emotions. He had been sent on a mission, he had accomplished it, and now he was reporting back. Simple, easy. No one needed to know more. No one needed to know about the trouble with his heart.
"Does she suspect anything?" Athos took a sip of wine as D'Artagnan answered.
"Why would she?" D'Artagnan gave a shrug, "You were right that she had been keeping watch over me. She knew about Constance and was more than ready to accept that I was at her doorstep a scorned lover," D'Artagnan took a long sip of wine and looked at Athos, trying to find his eyes in the darkness, "She told me not to trust you." To his side, Porthos stiffened in protest and Aramis let out a small huff of disbelief, but Athos merely tilted his head enough to capture D'Artagnan's gaze with his steel blue eyes.
"And?" The weight of D'Artagnan's entire world was in the question of a single word.
"It's the one thing I don't doubt," D'Artagnan said with honest conviction. Everything else might be falling apart, but Athos was a rock in rough waters.
"Good," there was almost a smile on Athos's lips. Almost.
"Well done then," Aramis said with a smile as he gave D'Artagnan a pat on the back, "Good to know you weren't exaggerating the depths of your charms." Porthos let out a hardy laugh and Athos rolled his eyes. Some of the tension of the situation broke, and D'Artagnan felt something inside himself loosening in some way. He had been accepted by them, he had gone on missions with them, earned his pauldron beside them, but this - this was an act of brotherhood that put all other things between them to the pale. He was overwhelmed by their trust.
"Very well, Gentlemen," Athos said, straightening up on the stool and calling them all closer with a look, "The clock is wound now and there is no going back. This is the last meeting we will have in public. Don't breathe a word outside of Treville's office." Aramis and Porthos nodded in agreement, their faces suddenly solemn. They had made a vow to put an end to Richelieu and his pet assassin and they would keep it. As much as it disgusted Athos to have to deal with her and as dangerous as she was, Milady was the key to their plan. It would take some weeks, but they had time, patience and determination to spare. Milady was not the only one of their number who knew how to dissemble. D'Artagnan nodded too. He could do this, despite his feelings. Porthos raised a glass.
"One for all," he said quietly. The other three followed suit, touching their cups to together.
"And all for one," they replied in unison, D'Artagnan included. He felt a flutter in his heart again, this time of joy, of responsibility and of love. This was what earning his pauldron had meant. They drank.
Not long after Athos retreated to a corner by the fire, two more bottles of wine the only companionship he was interested in. Porthos got a game of cards started, after forcing D'Artagnan and Aramis to make a contribution to his far too light coin purse. He promised he'd share the winnings with them tomorrow although from the skeptical look on Aramis's face D'Artagnan figured his odds were not good of seeing the money again.
Despite several invitations from comely serving women, Aramis choose instead to sit with D'Artagnan and share stories about his time in the infantry. It was unusual for Aramis to skip the attentions of a woman for the companionship of his comrades, but D'Artagnan didn't pry. None of them generally did. Aramis and Porthos had been friends with Athos for years and had not known about Milady until Athos's outburst at the trial of Ninion La Roche. And even then, he did not tell them everything until after the business with Gallagher at the convent forced to him explain. That he had brought D'Artagnan into his confidence earlier could only be due to a moment of weakness as the former Comte watched his house burn to the ground. D'Artagnan could not believe Athos would have told him otherwise. He wondered though sometimes how Athos and the others had so quickly let him into their circle. He had saved Athos's life, yes, but he had also threatened it. He had proved himself to be hot headed and irresponsible and yet they accepted him, vouched for him to Treville, and pulled him into the heart of the regiment. He wished he could discuss this with Constance. She always saw things so clearly. But she was lost to him. Even should the circumstances change, the plan they had set in motion this night required that he continue in their separation. He could not even try to win back her heart.
"Come on, it's time for bed, Musketeer," Aramis said, putting his empty cup down with a flourish.
"I'm fine to stay," D'Artagnan answered, "Besides, shouldn't we look after Athos?"
"Your brooding tells me you are not fine," Aramis said with a knowing glance, "And Porthos will see Athos to his rooms after he finishes losing all of our money in that card game. Come," Aramis stood and gestured to the door, "Let's get some air before we head back to the Garrison." D'Artagnan gave a shrug and finished off his wine before rising to join his comrade. He could be miserable back in his bunk as easily as he could be here. With a nod to Porthos to make sure he knew Athos was his responsibility, the two Musketeers made their way from the tavern and into the cool nighttime air.
"Ahhh," Aramis breathed in deeply, stretching his arms, "This is nice. Look at that moon." He smiled, gesturing up to the sky. D'Artagnan had to smile back, there was really no choice with Aramis.
"So, do you want to tell me what is troubling you?" Aramis said with a companionable arm over D'Artagnan's shoulder, "Or do you want me to guess?"
"Why do you think I am troubled?" D'Artagnan asked, "I am just tired from the day."
"D'Artagnan, it is fine if you wish to say you prefer to keep your own council," Aramis spoke softly but firmly, "But it is not fine for you to lie to me. I see the sadness in your eyes and the worry in your face. You can not expect me not to enquire as to your wellbeing." It was the kindness in Aramis's soft brown eyes that undid him. D'Artagnan stopped short in the street, an overwhelming sense of sadness and longing capturing his entire body. Aramis dropped his hand from D'Artagnan's shoulder and stood silently before him, waiting. D'Artagnan breathed but did not speak until he felt some control over his voice return.
"I love Constance, with all of my heart," D'Artagnan said, "With every breath of me I love her." Aramis nodded, a sad smile on his lips. Of course he knew, they all did, about that situation and how she had rejected him. "But also . . . Milady," D'Artagnan struggled to keep speaking. He had said nothing of this to anyone, "Up until a few weeks ago, I didn't know. About her, about Athos, about any of it . .She helped me. She is the one who gave me the 30 livre to enter the contest. I would never have gotten my pauldron without her support. She offered me a place after Constance told me to leave, I . . She . . .," D'Artagnan stepped away from Aramis suddenly finding it difficult to breathe but unable to stop the rush of words from flowing from his mouth.
"I want her, Aramis. I wanted her. Not in the same way as Constance, not at all. But she is the most beautiful woman I have met and she and I . . . We . . . Aramis, how can I feel this way!" D'Artagnan's voice broke in despair, "How can I want her still if I love Constance? How can I care what happens to her after what she has done to Athos? How can I feel this, all of this, just here like a thousand needles in my heart," D'Artagnan pressed his hand over his chest again, overwhelmed. He staggered as a pain as deep as any wound tore into his chest and left him fighting to breathe. He thought he might just die of grief there on the street but Aramis did not let him. The Musketeer was beside him again in a moment, firm hands gripping his arms and keeping him on his feet. He felt Aramis push him backwards and he took two steps only to bang into something against the back of his knees. They buckled, and he sat heavily on the top of a wine barrel, the marksmen still holding him steady so that he remained upright.
"Take some breaths, D'Artagnan," Aramis encouraged, just as he had when he had stitched up his arm, "You will be fine. Hearts hurt sometimes, but you will be fine."
Aramis stood with him, waiting for the pain to pass, waiting for his breathing to steady, waiting for the silent tears to stop falling. He said nothing more, but he did not let go and D'Artagnan eventually slipped one hand up to clutch Aramis's wrist as the pain in his heart slowly dissipated. He lost track of time, but it did not seem to bother Aramis the length of time they stood there. The pain passed, only to be replaced by deep shame. D'Artagnan felt his cheeks grow warm as he realized what a pathetic sight he must be. He was a Musketeer now, not the same boy from Gascony who had come to Paris a year ago. He started to rise but Aramis gently held him in place.
"Better now?" He asked. All D'Artagnan could do was nod. Aramis gave him a reassuring pat before releasing him and depositing himself on another barrel beside D'Artagnan's.
"You should have told us about your feelings for Milady before we started down this road," Aramis wasn't chastising him but rather seemed sad, "We could have found a different way."
"This is the right way," D'Artagnan was immediately defensive, "I don't love her. I don't. And after I learned she was Athos's wife, and all she had done, I couldn't . . ." D'Artagnan fought to find words that made sense, "But it doesn't mean I feel nothing. I feel . . . I mean if Constance hadn't, maybe I wouldn't . . . Damn, Aramis. This is complicated." Aramis smiled and laughed.
"Truer words have rarely been spoken, mon ami," Aramis said.
"How is this possible?" D'Artagnan sighed, exhaustion creeping into his body, "How can I love Constance so completely and yet, despite everything, feel for Milady . . . I don't know what I feel." Aramis gave D'Artagnan a knowing look and gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze.
"You have become a fierce warrior in a short time," Aramis said fondly, "But in affairs of the heart you are still a boy from the country," D'Artagnan started to protest, but Aramis waved him off, "I mean you no offense. You cannot fault yourself for what you have not experienced. The only way to learn about love is to love. It is perfectly possible to love more than one person at a time, to love them for different reasons, to love people you should not, and not love people you are destined to be with."
"How can that be?" D'Artagnan was having a hard time believing all of that. Aramis had a reputation of being a libertine, but he could not truly love all of those women. "The church says there is one woman for each man."
"And do not widowers remarry?" Aramis asked, "Or men have affairs? Did you think that the widowers only loved once or the husbands only loved the women they were contracted to marry? Do you think Bonacieux loves Constance? Or she him?" Aramis smiled broadly, a light brightening in his dark eyes, "Love is so full, so bountiful that truly it cannot be limited, or suppressed or forced. We can attempt to deny it and we can make pretense to it, but our hearts will rule us despite our wishes."
"Not according to Athos," D'Artagnan said darkly.
"Ha! Athos is a perfect example!" Aramis laughed, "We always knew that his heart had been broken, but now that we know the story it explains everything about his brooding, dark countenance. He is a thundercloud, until one of us is sick or injured or threatened. Then his heart is tenderest of all. Athos is still in love with Milady, despite all that has happened. So do not think it so unusual that you cannot simply purge her from your heart as you might a bucket of wash water to the street."
"I want to though," D'Artagnan said sadly, "I'm not so certain now what Athos wants, but as for me, I cannot understand how I can keep her in my heart at all. Not when it has been left in shreds already by Constance."
"Your heart is like a limb, D'Artagnan," Aramis explained, "It takes a wound and it must heal. Only we can't stitch it, it just must heal itself. And like any wound, it takes time. No matter how we may feel about it, wounds heal at their own pace and they are not without their pains as the flesh knits together. If we are lucky, all we will carry after is a scar. If not, we might limp, or lose the limb altogether. The heart is the same. Some wounds heal, some never do and sometimes the pain will stay until your last breath on this earth."
D'Artagnan had listened quietly but at Aramis's last statement he raised his head to meet the marksman's gaze. His eyes were bright and troubled, a window into a heart that knew sorrow. D'Artagnan felt his own heart respond.
"You feel like this too," D'Artagnan said bluntly, "Who was she? When?"
Aramis gave a sad smile, "She was long ago and she was just a few weeks ago as well . . ." Aramis trailed off and sighed, taking his hat off and running a hand through his hair. "My heart has many scars, but much joy too. I will not pry and I ask you not to either, only know that carrying a broken heart gets easier, and with Athos and Porthos around, it is not so bad all of the time."
"And Athos, what of his heart?" D'Artagnan asked.
"That is in our care now too," Aramis smiled warmly and stood up from the barrel, "And at least it explains all of the drinking. Really D'Artagnan, your situation could be much worse. You could be Athos." Aramis gave him a friendly smile and D'Artagnan couldn't help but smile at the joke. Aramis offered him a hand and D'Artagnan took it, letting himself be pulled up from the bench.
"I won't let my feelings get in the way of the mission," D'Artagnan felt compelled to reassure the marksman but perhaps he was reassuring himself.
"I know you won't," Aramis smiled, "I have faith in you." He put a hand on D'Artagnan's shoulder and they started to walk back to the Garrison. "I also have faith in Constance," he said with an mischievous arch to his brow.
"Has she said something to you?" D'Artagnan felt hope spring to life in his chest, a flutter in his heart that just a bit ago had threatened to do him in."
"No, she has not, but truly she does not need to," Aramis gave his shoulder a friendly squeeze, "It is in her eyes every time she looks at you. Be patient, mon ami. I suspect a happy ending is in store." D'Artagnan wished he could be as sure as Aramis sounded, but instead he let his wounded heart rest and he would lean on his brothers as he waited for it to heal.