Pairings: Gen/BroT3 (okay there's one kiss in part 2. well, technically three, but who's counting.)
Wordcount: 11,177 (total 28k)
Summary: Musketeers Boarding School AU. Just because. Content warning for racial and homophobic slurs, mostly because Rochefort as a schoolboy is even more of a shit than as a grown-up, it turns out. Also, I make Athos cry quite a lot.
A/N: I've been inflicting this on evilmaniclaugh in sekkrit. She doesn't appear to hate it, so I'm posting it here too :D
Porthos hesitated outside the classroom door, unsure whether to knock or just walk straight in. To have received a detention on his very first day was the subject of a certain amount of mingled embarrassment and defiant pride, but the wood panelled halls and echoing rooms of the school were so unlike anything he'd ever been used to that he felt unusually unsure of himself.
He settled for cracking the door open an inch and peering cautiously inside. To his relief the room seemed empty and he sidled all the way in, only then discovering that it had at least one occupant, another boy sitting at a desk near the window. He looked up as Porthos came in, and Porthos nodded to him warily.
"This detention?" he muttered.
"Yes." The boy shrugged. "No one here yet."
Porthos wandered over and sat on a desk in the row in front, his feet resting on one of the seats. "I'm Porthos," he ventured. His experience of his fellow pupils thus far hadn't been what you'd call overwhelmingly welcoming, but he was friendly by nature and by this point was craving contact of any type.
The boy eyed him with a certain amount of silent suspicion before tilting his chin up in a slight nod of greeting.
It was hardly effusive, but it was at least more civil than some he'd received today.
"What you in for?" Porthos pressed, still hoping to strike up a conversation.
Athos, who'd gone back to disinterestedly staring out of the window, looked back at him with the slight sigh of someone recognising they are to get no peace.
"I punched someone."
"You?" Porthos couldn't help his surprised reaction, the boy looked to be nearly a head shorter than him, and was pale and rather anxious looking. Although the stare he gave Porthos now had enough unexpected steel in it to make him revise his estimation.
"Yes." For a second Porthos had thought he was going to make a fight out of it, but Athos seemed to decide it wasn't worth it and there was no defensiveness to his answer. It was just a statement of fact.
"What did you do?" Athos added, hoping to steer the conversation away from his own misdeeds. Porthos grinned.
"Punched someone," he announced.
Athos looked startled, and there was a second where he clearly wondered if Porthos was taking the piss. "Really?"
Porthos nodded, and for the first time Athos ventured a slight smile. "What did they do?"
"Said things they shouldn't," Porthos muttered.
"What do you think?"
Athos looked him over with a frown then gave a slight shrug and shake of the head.
Porthos gave him a hard stare, but Athos seemed to genuinely not know what he was getting at, and Porthos relaxed slightly. "Look at 'em out there," he sighed, nodding towards the window. See anyone else this colour?"
Athos automatically looked down into the grounds, where crowds of children not unfortunate enough to be currently in detention were milling about. Porthos was right, apart from a couple of Asian boys the rest were all white.
"Someone was rude to you? Just because - ?" He sounded indignant.
Porthos nodded. "Funny, isn't it," he sighed, not looking at all amused. "You think boarding schools'll be full of foreign princes and stuff. But it's not, it's all posh white boys with delusions of grandeur."
Athos raised an eyebrow. "Yes. Well. Sorry."
Porthos snorted. "Present company excepted. I hope." He smiled ruefully. "So why did you hit someone?"
"Same. Well, different reason, obviously. But someone was - being unkind. Said I looked like a freak."
"So you hit him."
"Good for you." Porthos looked him over curiously. Athos had a scar running up his top lip, that made the curve of his mouth curl a little out of the ordinary line. It drew the eye, but it hardly made him the elephant man. Athos was fidgeting slightly under his gaze and Porthos figured the direct approach was best. "What happened to it?"
Athos shrugged. He did that a lot, Porthos was noticing. "Born with it," he muttered. "They fixed it, sort of." He hunched in on himself a little, and Porthos felt sorry for making him self-conscious.
"Should have told 'em you got it in a knife fight," he said. "Then they'd not bother you."
Athos looked up then with a surprised smile and Porthos grinned at him. Behind them the door opened again and they both tensed, expecting a teacher, but it was another boy. He was tall and thin and dark haired, and looked relieved to find the room unsupervised.
"Is this - ?"
"Detention, yeah," said Porthos.
"Thank God, I thought I was late." He came over to them and sat in a chair a couple of desks away from Athos. He lounged in it apparently carelessly, but there was a tension to him that suggested he wasn't as relaxed as he looked.
"I'm Porthos. This is Athos," Porthos declared, before wondering belatedly if they already knew each other, but they didn't seem to.
"So what did you do to deserve this?" Athos asked.
Aramis looked shifty. "I hit someone."
Athos gave a stifled snort and Porthos burst out laughing. Aramis glared at them in affront. "What?"
"Sorry." Athos smiled apologetically. "It's just - so did we."
"Oh." Aramis looked between the two of them. "Each other?" he asked dubiously.
"Nah." Porthos smirked. "We were just comparing notes." He looked expectant. "So what happened?" he prompted, thinking there wasn't much about Aramis' appearance to incite teasing.
Aramis hesitated. "Someone stole my notebook."
Athos and Porthos exchanged a look. "Precious, was it?" Porthos asked with a hint of a smirk.
"Don't you start." Aramis propped his feet up on the next chair and hugged his knees. "It had my poetry in, okay?"
"Poetry?" Porthos couldn't help the laugh that escaped him, and even Athos looked mildly amused.
"Bear in mind I punched the last person to take the piss," Aramis said wearily.
Porthos stood up and spread him arms. "Feel free to try," he grinned. He was just as tall as Aramis and considerably more heavily built, but Aramis didn't look fazed.
"The last one was your size too," he declared. "He still went down like a sack of shit."
Porthos, rather than being angry, looked impressed. "You seem to have come out of it okay," he noted, Aramis apparently not having a scratch on him.
Aramis smiled for the first time. "I punched him in the dick."
Porthos cackled with laughter and resumed his seat on the desk. "Well. Welcome to freak club," he said, and Aramis untensed a little, smiling questioningly at them both.
"Are you two new?" he asked. "I've not seen you before. You're surely not first years are you?"
"No, third," said Porthos, looking at Athos, who nodded. He hadn't realised he was new too. "And yeah, first day. Not exactly my most shining achievement, to end up in detention straight away."
"I was rather hoping they'd send me home again," sighed Athos.
"Don't you want to be here?" asked Porthos in surprise. Athos shook his head.
"My parents made me come. I didn't get a say in it. And it's awful, and I hate it." He folded his arms mutinously.
"Give it a chance," Aramis said mildly. "It's only horrendous ninety percent of the time."
"I got a scholarship," Porthos told them gloomily. "I worked really hard to get here, and what's the first thing I do? Fuck it up."
Athos immediately looked guilty, but before he could say anything the door opened and a teacher came in. They all jumped to their feet automatically, and were given a sour look.
"Aramis, already?" The man sighed and consulted a piece of paper in his hand. "Du Vallon and la Fere?"
Porthos and Athos nodded silently.
"Anything to say for yourselves?"
"Sorry sir," said Athos, and Porthos echoed him in a mumble.
"Hmmn." He looked at them critically, taking in their tight expressions, and suspecting the kind of comments both might have received to incite them into striking out. "Oh, go on, get out the lot of you."
"Sir?" Aramis looked surprised.
"It's the first day back, you think I haven't got better things to be doing than sit here supervising you lot? Go on, hop it before I change my mind."
"Yes sir. Thank you sir!" Aramis jerked his head quickly at the others who both still looked frozen in place, and headed for the door.
They made their way down the corridor together with the vague feeling of having escaped from jail.
"That was kind of him," Athos ventured, when they were at a safe distance.
"Treville's one of the nicest," Aramis told him. "Lucky we didn't get Richelieu, we'd probably still have been there at midnight."
"What does he teach?" Porthos enquired.
"Treville, or Richelieu? He's maths, Treville's PE." Aramis looked at them both assessingly. "You any good?"
"At PE?" Athos gave his now customary shrug. "I'm not bad at running. And I can ride."
Porthos looked incredulous. "Horses?"
"No, seagulls. Of course horses."
Porthos muttered something about how the other half lived, and Aramis nudged him. "Come on, you look like you should be good at sports."
"Football and the like, yeah," Porthos said. "You know. Normal stuff."
Aramis grinned. "He'll love you two then. Only thing I'm any good at's the shooting."
"Shooting?" Porthos echoed, looking alarmed.
"Targets. Not each other," Aramis clarified with a grin, and Porthos glowered at him.
"Yeah, 'cause I'm from the ghetto, obviously."
Athos elbowed him. "Don't be an arse, he didn't mean that. You did look worried."
"Bloody lost mate," Porthos conceded with a sigh. "Out of my depth here."
"Better learn to swim then, eh?" Athos held his gaze with a slight smile, and Porthos found himself smiling back. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad here after all.
It was the middle of the night when Porthos woke in desperate need of a wee. He was in a dormitory of six boys, and had been pleased to discover that one of them was Athos. They'd picked beds next to each other at the far end, with Athos' against the wall.
Porthos peered through the darkness now, trying to make out his sleeping form. The only noise was the quiet breathing and occasional snoring of the boys around him, but the corner seemed too quiet. He sat up, and the moonlight showed an empty bed.
Assuming that Athos had woken with the same pressing need, he slipped out of bed and padded down the corridor to the bathroom, but it was empty. Having relieved himself, Porthos was making his way back when a noise caught his ear in the silence.
He froze and listened intently until it came again. It sounded like a sniff, stifled but unmistakeable. He tracked it to a curtained alcove and pulled back the drapes.
Sitting curled on the window seat in his pyjamas, with a miserably tearstained face was Athos.
"Go away," he hissed immediately, turning his face away and scrubbing at his cheeks.
Porthos slipped inside and let the curtain fall back to hide them. "What's wrong?" he whispered.
"Nothing. Fuck off and leave me alone."
"Doesn't look like nothing," Porthos persisted. He sat down next to him and nudged Athos gently with his shoulder. This close, he could feel he was shivering. "How long have you been here?"
Athos sniffed and wiped his nose. "Couldn't sleep," he muttered.
"What's wrong?" Porthos coaxed. "Come on, tell me. Maybe I can help?"
"Hardly." Athos sighed, then gave in. "It's just - I've never been away from home before, okay?" he admitted, flushing slightly. "Not without my family, anyway. I've never felt so - alone."
"Oh. Right." Porthos made his mind up and put his arm round Athos' shoulders. Athos glared at him in prickly fashion for a second, then apparently decided the warmth was worth the humiliation, and wriggled closer. Porthos squeezed him reassuringly. "You're not alone," he murmured. "Okay?"
At this point the curtain was pulled back and they both jumped, only to relax again when they found it was only Aramis.
"What the hell are you two doing out of bed?" Aramis demanded in a whisper. "You'll get into trouble."
"Look who's talking," Porthos retorted.
"I was only going to the loo."
"Well close the curtain again and no one'll see us," Porthos pointed out.
To his surprise, Aramis did, but with himself on the inside of it. He sat down on the other side of Athos and frowned. "Is everything okay?"
"Athos is homesick," Porthos said before Athos could reply, and he glared at him, embarrassed.
"Aren't you?" Athos asked in an undertone. He hadn't exactly got the impression Porthos had been to boarding school before either. "Don't you miss your family?"
Porthos shook his head. "Haven't got one to miss."
Athos and Aramis looked at him in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"Orphan, ain't I? Parents died when I was little. Grew up in a selection of children's homes mostly. So no, being here's no different to be honest. Bit posher, admittedly." He grinned, but Athos felt awful.
"I'm so sorry."
"Why should you be? Don't be daft."
"Going on about my family like that. It was thoughtless."
"Well you weren't to know, were you?" Porthos hugged him closer. "I mean, I hardly remember them. Be different if I'd only just lost them I s'pose," he added, missing the fact that this for some reason made Athos look more miserable than ever.
"Come on," Porthos said. "Let's get back to bed. Aramis is right, we don’t want to get a second bollocking on our first day, do we?"
They bid Aramis goodnight and scurried off to their respective dormitories. Athos was glad after all to crawl back into the warmth of his bedclothes, and this time fell asleep quickly, reassured by the unexpected comfort of his new friends.
On the way to breakfast the next morning, Athos and Porthos fell instinctively into step with each other. Athos was yawning his head off; accustomed to rolling out of bed and staggering off to school on half a mug of tea with his tie half undone, the concept that he might be expected to be up and dressed and have his bed made all before breakfast, and this all at least an hour before lessons were due to start, was abhorrent.
Consequently he was grumpy as hell, and responded to Porthos' cheerful good morning with a sulky grunt. Porthos just grinned. Athos might not be a morning person but he'd automatically joined Porthos without having to be asked, and Porthos found the knowledge that he'd made at least one friend here to be more comforting than he could say.
Neither of them referred to the events of the night before, and by the time they reached the hall Athos had perked up a little, either from the enticing smell of bacon or the fact Porthos hadn't mentioned his embarrassing little moment of weakness.
The hall was full of the clatter of plates and buzz of conversation, and Athos hesitated in the doorway, overwhelmed by the noise and volume of people. Porthos though, grabbed him by the sleeve and towed him with unerring accuracy towards the right queue, only letting go when he was sure Athos was following.
Trays suitably loaded, they spotted Aramis sitting by himself at a table at the far end of the hall, and after an exchange of looks and a nod, they headed over to join him. It occurred to Porthos they hadn't actually had a conversation yet this morning, but it also felt strangely like they hadn't stopped talking. Following Athos between the tables he smiled to himself. Having someone to be protective of made Porthos feel more confident here himself, while at the same time having the comforting sense that Athos would have his back too.
Aramis looked up in surprise when they pulled out chairs opposite him.
"Mind if we join you?" Athos asked, sitting down anyway.
"Er - no, of course not." Aramis glanced round the room, almost nervously, Porthos thought.
"We promise not to get you into trouble," Porthos told him with a smirk. "At least not before breakfast."
Aramis shook his head. "It's more that - you might not want to be associated with me," he muttered.
"What are you talking about?" Athos drawled, head bent over a cup of coffee as if hoping the fragrant steam might wake him up without actually having to drink it.
Aramis sighed. "Doesn't matter. You'll no doubt find out soon enough."
"Can't be doing with cryptic on an empty stomach," Porthos complained, tucking into the plateful in front of him. "Tell us what we've got to look forward to today. We've got maths and French and then double PE after lunch."
Aramis nodded. "Maths is Richelieu, like I said. He's strict, but he's okay if you're any good at it." Porthos looked dismal, and Aramis snorted. "Yeah, me neither. French is Bonacieux, he's a pushover. Then you've got Treville." Aramis glanced out of the window where a persistent drizzle was beading the glass. "He'll almost certainly inflict cross-country on us. First day back see, I think he likes to try and kill off the weaker boys early so he doesn't have to bother with them." He smirked, but Porthos wasn't particularly convinced he was joking.
"You gonna eat that?" Porthos asked Athos, who'd managed about one rasher of bacon and gone back to nursing his coffee.
"Help yourself." Athos pushed his plate across. "I can't eat this early, it makes me feel sick."
"You get used to it," Aramis said. "After about a week of strictly timed meals you're grateful for anything you can get. It's not like they're stingy, but there's no snacking in between times."
At this alarming news, Porthos switched his empty plate for Athos' and hastily started in on the rest of the abandoned breakfast. Athos fetched a second cup of coffee instead, and as he walked back to the table was conscious of eyes watching his progress.
"Who's that?" he asked in a low tone as he rejoined the others, indicating the adjacent table with a discreet jerk of the head. "He's staring at me."
Aramis glanced over and quickly away again. "Rochefort. His father's a comte. He's just a cunt."
Porthos choked on a mouthful of sausage and the corner of Athos' mouth twitched up in a smile. "Really?"
Aramis sighed. "Well, I don't know. You might like him, who am I to make your mind up for you. A word of warning, he's Richelieu's favourite, so you probably don't want to make an enemy of him." Aramis stared into his mug of tea, rather forlornly. "He can make your life hell," he added quietly.
They were making their way out of the hall when someone detached themselves from a group of boys lingering outside the door, and planted himself directly in Athos' path.
Looking up, he wasn't terribly surprised to find it was Rochefort. Athos was conscious of the anxiety rolling off Aramis in waves, and of Porthos at his shoulder, ready for trouble. He raised an eyebrow, waiting for the other boy to speak first, curious as to what he wanted.
Rochefort, for his part, let his eyes skim briefly over Aramis and Porthos and dismissed them quickly as being beneath his attention. He smiled at Athos, slow and arrogant and full of confidence.
"Vicomte de la Fere, am I correct?"
Athos felt Porthos stiffen at his side, and Aramis turn to stare at him in surprise. He sighed inwardly. He'd been hoping nobody had to know he had a stupid title.
"Yes. Can I help you?"
"It's more that I think I can help you," Rochefort purred. "A new school can be disorienting for the smartest of people, and it's not always easy to find the best set." He gestured vaguely to the gaggle of boys hanging onto his every word. "Perhaps you would care to join us?"
"Thank you for your concern," said Athos politely. "But I am quite happy where I am."
Rochefort just managed to contain an open sneer at the thought of Athos' companions being suitable. "I've been watching you," he continued silkily. "That little spot of trouble yesterday. You handle yourself very well."
Athos stared back at him levelly. "I'm not sure if you were intending that to sound as creepy as it did, but if so then well done." He made to move off, and Rochefort stopped him with a hand on his chest. Athos' cold glare made him drop it again, and Rochefort immediately puffed himself up, irritated by the fact he'd backed down in front of his friends.
"You're making a mistake," Rochefort declared. "You don't want to hang around with Aramis. You'll get a certain - reputation." He slid a poisonous look at Aramis as he said this, and the boys around him sniggered unpleasantly.
"Does everyone talk in riddles here?" Athos demanded, quickly losing patience.
Rochefort seized on his obvious confusion. "He hasn't told you then? Tut tut d'Herblay, and you making out you're so proud of yourself. Waiting your chance for a quick fondle in the showers were you?"
Athos, assuming Rochefort was just being tedious and unpleasant, was surprised when Aramis turned and walked off in a hurry, looking mortified and miserable. He turned back to Rochefort and glared at him.
"What are you on about?"
"Poofter, isn't he. Your 'friend' there. Queer as a - " Rochefort's sentence was cut off abruptly as Porthos shoved him so hard in the chest that he fell back against the wall.
"Get your filthy hands off me! Don't you know who I am?"
Athos laid a restraining hand on Porthos' arm, conscious of a group of teachers making their way out of the hall. "Your mistake appears to be largely in assuming we care who you are," he informed Rochefort coolly. "Come on Porthos. The air's fresher outside."
Porthos followed him out, grumbling. "Who does that little shit think he is? Just because daddy's some kind of - " he broke off and transferred his glare to Athos as he remembered the morning’s other revelation. "And you kept that quiet, didn't you?"
Athos shrugged uncomfortably. "Maybe because I didn't want you looking at me like you are right now," he murmured.
Porthos produced a noise of disgust that was somewhere between a snort and a growl, but he stuck at Athos' side as they marched round the perimeter of the building, looking for Aramis.
They finally found him on a bench overlooking the playing fields, hunched up against the cold. At least the drizzling rain had stopped for a moment, but the wind was biting.
They dropped down either side of him, and Aramis looked surprised then uneasy.
"I told you, didn't I?" he muttered. "You don't want to hang around with me."
"Yeah, but we're ignoring you," Porthos told him. "And if the alternative's mateying up with Rochefort, I'm happy to be sat here in bummer's corner, to be honest."
Athos stifled a snort of surprised laughter. "Porthos!"
Athos shook his head, looking both amused and appalled. "Nothing."
Aramis was looking from one to the other with a cautious hope. "Rochefort's right you know," he said after a second. "Just so we're clear."
"What, about you being after a quick fondle in the showers?" Athos suggested dryly, and Aramis looked shocked.
"No! I meant - look, I'm gay, alright? And I'm not ashamed of that fact, no matter what that rat bastard says." He sighed, and slumped over with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands.
Porthos patted him gently on the back. "We know what you meant," he said.
"And we don't care," Athos added. "I mean - we don't mind." He glanced at Porthos, who nodded approvingly. They hadn't exactly discussed it, but the fact they'd both acted on the same impulse suggested they were of one mind in this.
"Rochefort - " Aramis started.
"Will have a harder time making three lives a misery than one," said Athos firmly.
"He'll see it as a challenge," Aramis warned.
Porthos stretched his legs out in front of him and folded his hands behind his head. "Bring it on."
After that, the morning passed in relative tranquillity. They got their first look at the infamous Richelieu, whom Porthos hated on sight and Athos, rather better at maths in the first place, decided he had a cautious respect for.
Bonacieux, as Aramis had suggested, proved to be utterly useless at keeping order, and spent most of the lesson being sent up by Rochefort, who persisted in asking a series of increasingly stupid questions in a baffled and terribly serious tone of voice. Bonacieux got more and more flustered as he tried to answer each one in increasingly simplistic terms without the slightest inkling that his student was taking the piss, and it was all the rest of the class could do not to start laughing and give the game away.
Athos, Porthos and Aramis watched this with mixed feelings. It was a relief to have Rochefort's rather nasty attentions fixed elsewhere, but at the same time it felt like a betrayal of something to laugh at his antics. They did their best to follow the lesson, haphazard as it was, and filed out to lunch afterwards feeling unsettled.
Since the morning's encounter, Rochefort had not spoken directly to Athos again, but as they ate their midday meal all three could feel that the eyes of Rochefort and his gang of cronies were on them.
"He's up to something," Porthos muttered, sneaking a glance at the other table. "You mark my words."
"He's always up to something," Aramis sighed. "Let's just hope it doesn't involve us."
The afternoon saw them all herded out into the great outdoors with varying degrees of protesting complaint. It was cold for September, particularly when you'd been forced to exchange your nice warm uniform for shorts, and even the sportier members of the group were looking unenthusiastic as Treville put them through a series of warm-up exercises.
"Wait for it," Aramis muttered. "He'll drop the bad news any second now."
Sure enough, the afternoon's activity was revealed to be a cross-country run, information that was met by a considerable amount of groaning.
Treville eyed them all without sympathy. "And just to make things a little more interesting - " He folded his arms and stared at a point somewhere above their heads. "And to ensure there's no slacking, the last man back has to go round again."
The level of groaning and incredulity went up, but Treville was implacable and seeing he meant it, the group of boys hastily started off.
The course lay out across the playing fields, down a country lane and then curved back through some woods, describing a broad circuit around the school. It was tagged with white markers at various intervals, and was for the most part at least relatively flat.
At first the three of them ran together, but by half way round Porthos was visibly lagging behind. Athos was clearly bursting to forge ahead, and as they entered the woods Porthos laughed at him.
"Go on, bugger off, I'm holding you back. I'm built for stamina not speed."
"Are you sure?" Athos looked round at him, torn, but Porthos waved him away.
"Go on, both of you. I'm better at my own pace, I'm less likely to rupture something. And it'd be nice for at least one of us to make a good impression at something."
Athos gave him a sudden grin and took off in a burst of speed. For a while Aramis kept pace with him, and they overtook several knots of other boys before Aramis too fell back with a wave and let Athos run on on his own.
He pounded on, enjoying the burn of it, the pull in his legs and the cold air in his lungs. Even the splash of mud up his legs in the damper sections of the trail didn't bother him, and for a blissful few minutes he was running completely alone in the wood, with dappled sunlight on his face and no cares in his mind.
Coming out of the wood and back into the school grounds, he saw the leaders up ahead, and followed them at a distance, using them to check the route. When they rounded the corner of the main building and the playing fields were once more in sight, he drew on a last burst of strength and passed them at speed.
Vaguely conscious of the dirty looks he was drawing from them, Athos put his head down and concentrated on the last stretch, thumping to a stop just past Treville and his stop watch and bending over to get his breath back.
"Not a bad time." Treville nodded in something that was almost approval, and Athos flushed.
"Thank you sir."
The group Athos had just passed ran up, and he braced himself for angry words, but to his surprise a couple of them even congratulated him.
In ones and twos the rest started making it back, and Athos was relieved to see Aramis come round the corner, fetching up before him a minute later, flushed and panting.
"Wasn't so bad," Athos smirked, and Aramis looked at him disbelievingly.
"You're insane. I'm dying." He coughed, and Athos slapped him on the back.
"You did better than Porthos, anyway." He looked up each time more boys appeared on the final straight but there was still no sign of him.
As the numbers still out there dwindled to just a few, Athos and Aramis started exchanging uneasy glances. Porthos hadn't been anywhere near the back when they'd left him, but at this rate he was in danger of being the one to have to run the whole course again.
"Do you think he's alright?" Athos muttered. "He can't have got lost, surely?"
Aramis shrugged helplessly. "The course is marked well enough. And it's not exactly treacherous."
A noisy scrum of boys rounded the building and broke into a half-hearted jog, having clearly been walking while they were still out of sight. It was Rochefort and his hangers-on, and Athos glared at them in resentful anger. Their arrival put Porthos firmly last, and there was still no sign of him.
Ten minutes crawled by and even Treville was starting to look concerned, when finally a lonely figure came into sight and ran tiredly up to them.
Athos' initial sense of overwhelming relief was abruptly curtailed when he saw the state Porthos was in. Plastered with mud all down one side and covered in what looked like bramble scratches, Athos didn't miss the filthy look Porthos gave Rochefort as he ran past him.
"What happened?" Athos demanded in an undertone, as he and Aramis clustered around Porthos in a protective huddle.
"Fucking Rochefort shoved me down a bank in the wood. Ended up in a ditch," Porthos told them from between gritted teeth. "I never saw him coming."
Athos swung round to glare at Rochefort, who affected surprise at Porthos' appearance.
"Oh dear, is that mud all over him? I couldn't tell at first," Rochefort smirked.
At the implied slur Athos saw red, and was on the brink of hurling himself bodily at Rochefort with the possible intention of scratching his eyes out when Porthos grabbed him by the arm.
"You can't let him get away with that!" Athos hissed, turning back to him in fury.
Porthos shook his head tiredly. "You can't go for him in front of Treville, you'll only be the one to get in trouble."
"But - " Athos faltered helplessly, full of indignant rage on Porthos' behalf, and half embarrassed and confused that he seemed to be angrier about it than Porthos.
Porthos half-smiled at him, guessing his awkward turmoil. "Thanks though," he whispered.
Treville came up to them and looked Porthos over. "What happened to you?" he asked. "We were about to start sending out search parties!"
"Fell in a ditch sir," Porthos said, ignoring the scandalised looks Athos and Aramis were giving him. "Sorry sir."
Treville stared at him searchingly. "Well," he said finally. "Rules are rules I'm afraid. You'll have to go round again."
"Sir!" Athos protested, and Treville gave him a level gaze.
"Did something happen? If there were - mitigating circumstances - ?" he let the suggestion hang in the air and Athos looked pointedly at Porthos, who shook his head.
"No sir. Just careless sir."
"Well, off you go then."
Porthos hung his head. It had been a long day, and all he wanted to do was have a hot shower and preferably a nap before dinner. "Yes sir."
Legs feeling like lead, he started running, and it was a couple of paces before he realised Athos was running next to him.
"What are you doing?" he asked in surprise.
"Keeping you company," Athos told him shortly. From somewhere behind them came a groan of equal parts despair and frustration, and then in a scuff of gravel Aramis was running to catch up.
"You don't have to do this," Porthos told them.
"Shut up and run," Aramis panted. Porthos grinned at him, rendered temporarily speechless by their unlooked for actions.
"You should have told Treville," Athos persisted, as they ran out across the playing fields.
"I'm no snitch," Porthos objected. "Would you have?"
Athos looked uncomfortable. "No, I suppose not. Still, we'll get Rochefort back for this. I promise."
They were running through the woods to the side of the school when Athos came to a sudden stop, peering down a muddy trackway that lead off at an angle. Porthos and Aramis, heartily glad of the rest, came to a panting halt beside him.
"That leads back to the school right?" Athos said thoughtfully. "It must come out by the kitchens somewhere?"
Aramis leant on Porthos' shoulder, wheezing slightly. "Yeah, but we can't take a shortcut. Treville knows how long it takes to go round, if we miraculously turn up in half the time he'll know we cheated."
Athos shook his head. "I wasn't thinking of cheating. I was thinking of taking a detour." He looked at them and gave a sudden bright-eyed grin they hadn't seen before. "You two go on. Wait for me just inside the woods, I'll catch you up." With that, he plunged off down the path, twice as fast as he'd been running before.
Porthos and Aramis looked at each other in bemusement.
"Now what's he up to?" Porthos wondered.
Aramis shrugged. "Beats me. Still, gives us a chance to walk for a bit eh?"
Porthos grinned, and they resumed their progress along the track at a more sedate pace.
A quarter of an hour later they were standing at the edge of the treeline, waiting for Athos and wondering which direction he would come from. Speculation as to where he'd gone had got them nowhere, and while the respite from running was heartily welcome now they were standing still they were getting cold.
Five minutes later footsteps behind them heralded his arrival and Athos arrived redfaced and out of breath.
"What have you been doing?" Porthos demanded, but Athos shook his head.
"You'll see. Come on, let's get in." With that he took off again, leaving them to follow him in frustrated confusion.
Athos remained tight-lipped about his diversion for the rest of the evening, and they eventually gave up pressing him. All he would concede was to mutter something about not spoiling the surprise, and they went to get ready for bed still mystified and expectant.
Aramis was in a different dormitory from Athos and Porthos, across the corridor, and as they said goodnight there was a sudden commotion from one of the other rooms.
"Was that Rochefort?" Aramis asked in surprise. There'd been a yell of what sounded like horrified dismay. They all crowded into the third dorm and found Rochefort standing over his bed, looking incandescently angry.
Athos craned to look over Aramis' shoulder and wrinkled his nose. "Ugh, Rochefort's shat his bed," he said in a loud voice, and immediately the crowd of boys surrounding them cracked up hysterically.
"Who the fuck said that?" Rochefort looked round wildly. He'd pulled back the bedclothes to discover a thick smear of something brown and revolting looking all over his sheets.
"Oh, you haven't!" This came from one of Rochefort's supposed friends, and he glared at him furiously.
"Of course I bloody haven't you moron! Somebody's done this - "
"Are you sure it's not yours?" Porthos asked delightedly, guessing that this was what Athos had been up to. "They say dogs return to their mess." He gave Rochefort a sudden shove in the back, and he almost fell into the bed.
Saving himself with his hands at the last second, Rochefort frowned and leaned down closer to take a cautious sniff. This caused a fresh outbreak of disgusted hilarity around him, but he straightened up looking icy.
"It's not shit," he ground out tersely. "It's mud. Wonder where that came from?" He looked hard at Porthos, who grinned at him.
"You accusing me?" Porthos demanded. "Be careful Rochefort."
"What's going on here?"
Everyone jumped as Treville appeared behind them.
"Someone's made a mess of my bed sir," Rochefort said immediately. "I think it was Porthos."
There was a collective indrawing of breath at this accusation, and even Rochefort's friends looked disgusted with him, particularly those who'd been party to what happened to Porthos in the first place and appreciated the fact he hadn't grassed them up.
Athos stepped forward, ready to own up immediately rather than see Porthos take the rap for something he hadn't done, but Aramis got there first.
"It couldn't have been Porthos sir, he's been with me all evening."
Treville looked at him gravely. "You give me your word you had nothing to do with this?"
"Cross my heart sir. You know Athos and I went with him for the re-run, and I swear Porthos never left my sight from then to now," Aramis said carefully. "We've not set foot in here."
"Weren't me sir. I promise. Wish it had been, to be honest."
This got a laugh, although Treville remained stonily impassive. "Very well. Rochefort, I suggest you go and find Matron and ask her for some fresh sheets."
Rochefort looked stricken. "But sir! She'll think I've - " he tailed off miserably.
Treville raised an eyebrow. "Matron Bonacieux is not a judgemental women, I'm sure you'll cope," he murmured, and stared at Rochefort until he sighed and walked off obediently.
Treville looked round at the rest of them. "I imagine it's futile asking for the culprit to come forward, but know that I will not tolerate bullying," he said in a serious voice. "Of anyone. Am I clear?"
There was a chorus of guilty sounding 'yes sirs', and he shooed them all off to bed.
As they were getting into their pyjamas, Porthos nudged Athos and winked at him. "Thanks," he whispered. "That was genius."
Athos flashed him another of his sudden smiles. "Told you we'd get him. I reckon being laughed at's about the worst thing that could happen to him."
"He'll be out for revenge," Porthos warned. "We'll have to be careful."
"We can take him," Athos said dismissively. "What's the worst he can do?"
Porthos looked at him thoughtfully, remembering Athos' secret misery of the night before and wondering if his words meant simply that he was already in hell and nothing could make it worse.
"Will you be alright tonight?" he asked in a low voice.
Athos frowned and then blushed as he took Porthos' meaning. "I'm fine," he muttered awkwardly, then seemed to reconsider and looked up, with a slight smile. "I reckon after all that exercise I'll be knackered enough to go straight to sleep," he said. "Maybe that's the answer, two laps of the school grounds before bed."
Porthos laughed. "Rather you than me mate." He climbed into bed, and Athos did the same, and they smiled across at each other in the seconds before the lights were doused.
As the term got into its swing, both Athos and Porthos settled into the routine of life at the school with varying levels of comfort. Athos had few problems with the lessons, even though he rarely seemed to be paying attention, and to Porthos, who struggled rather more this would have been a source of resentment if not for two things.
Firstly, Athos was more than willing to spend his evenings going back over things until Porthos understood them, with a quiet patience and a complete lack of condescension that meant Porthos was never embarrassed to ask. And secondly, that despite the fact Athos seemed to be having an easier time than he was, Porthos knew he was still passing miserable nights.
More than once Porthos had woken in the night to hear the sound of muffled crying from the next bed, and he didn't know what to do about it. Athos had rebuffed any attempts he made to talk about it during the day, and since the first night hadn't ventured out of bed after dark, so Porthos couldn't confront him then either. Part of him wanted to talk to Aramis about it, but Aramis slept in a different dorm and to bring it up without Athos' permission felt like too much of a betrayal.
He wondered what was wrong. On the face of it Athos seemed entirely self-possessed and resilient during the day. The teachers seemed to like him well enough, and Porthos was fairly sure Rochefort couldn't be putting the squeeze on Athos without him and Aramis being aware of it. Could it really be that he was still homesick? For all that Athos had claimed that on the first night, he never talked about his family, never regaled them with tales of his home life like Aramis did, who had countless siblings and seemed to spring from a nest of semi-organised chaos.
So when Porthos woke one night about three weeks into term and caught the now familiar sound of hushed sniffling in the dark, he'd already made up his mind. Slipping noiselessly out of bed he crossed the short gap and climbed in behind Athos.
"What-?" Athos' hushed cry of alarm was quickly stifled as he realised who it was.
"Shh. It's only me. Shift up."
"What are you doing?" Athos hissed furiously, startled and embarrassed.
"I'm cold. You're warm. Shut up and go back to sleep," Porthos muttered, sliding an arm round Athos' waist and settling down firmly beside him.
For a moment Athos lay there tense and uncomfortable, debating making a fuss, then surrendered with a sigh. He turned his back on Porthos and they wriggled wordlessly into a more mutually comfortable position.
Gradually, Athos relaxed. No one else appeared to be awake to notice what had happened, and while Porthos' claim of being cold was an obvious lie, it had let him save face. Porthos in fact was incredibly warm, and Athos found the tight band of tension in his chest finally easing as he drifted into sleep.
When Athos woke the next morning he discovered that Porthos was back in his own bed, and wondered for a disorienting moment if he'd dreamt the whole thing. But then Porthos caught his eye and gave him a quick smile, and Athos knew he hadn't.
As they got dressed, Athos sidled across. "Thanks," he muttered in an undertone.
Porthos looked up, surprised. He'd assumed Athos would make no mention of it, had made sure he was safely out of the way before anyone else woke up, including Athos.
"Any time," he murmured back, and Athos gave him a half-smile of awkward gratitude before hastily going back to his dressing.
It was nearing the end of October. The evenings were drawing in, and the boys spent most of their downtime in the common room, waging a perpetual silent battle with Rochefort's lot to be the ones to take possession of the corner nearest the fireplace each night.
Despite keeping a wary eye on him, Rochefort had so far made no attempt to do anything else particularly awful to them, although they were under no illusions that he considered them anything other than mortal enemies now. A rocky truce was felt to be in place, at least for the moment.
There seemed to be no reason, then, for the fact that one day towards the end of the month Athos seemed to be in a complete funk from the moment he awoke. Snappish and monosyllabic, even more than was usual for him of a morning, he went downhill as the day went on, brushing off all concerned queries from Aramis and Porthos and almost getting a detention from Bonacieux of all people, such was his level of complete preoccupation throughout all their lessons.
At lunch he barely ate a thing, and when dinner time came around he was nowhere to be found. Aramis and Porthos ate their own in worried haste, wondering where he'd got to. A search afterwards came up blank - he wasn't in the common room or study carrels or library, he wasn't in the dorm or any of the bathrooms. A discreet sneak past the matron's office revealed all was in darkness and therefore he probably hadn't been taken ill. An attempt to call his mobile only told them it was turned off.
"Where the hell is he?" Aramis asked, frustrated and worried. They were sitting on Athos' bed in the deserted dormitory, Porthos having come up with the suggestion that Athos might have run away home - except all his clothes and belongings were still in place, including his outdoor coat.
Porthos looked uneasy. "It'll be lights out in less than an hour. If he's missing then it'll be noticed."
"You don't think he went for a run do you?" Aramis wondered. "What if he fell over in the dark or something? He might be lying out there in the woods, injured."
Porthos looked unhappy, but rummaged through Athos' wardrobe until he found his shorts and trainers. "I doubt he's running in his school shoes. I don't think he's gone far, wherever he is."
"But we've searched everywhere."
"Everywhere that's not out of bounds."
They looked at each other and sighed. "Come on," said Aramis, getting to his feet.
"Do you think he's in one of the classrooms?" Porthos asked, not relishing the idea of searching them all at this time of night.
Aramis was staring out of a window at the outbuildings ranged behind the school. A light blinked out in a window, and he tried to work out which one it belonged to. "I think I know where he is," he said suddenly. He lead Porthos downstairs at a run and they snuck out of a side door, aware that if they were caught outside at this time of night they'd both be in deep trouble.
They hurried between patches of shadow, hoping no one was looking out of any of the windows in their direction, until they made the relative safety of the stable block. Inside it was warm, smelling sweetly of straw and horses, the restive shifting of the animals the only sound.
"Athos?" called Aramis in a low voice. "Athos, are you in here?"
Athos had spent quite a lot of time here over the past few weeks, tending to retreat to the horses whenever Aramis or Porthos weren't around for some reason. He hadn't been able to bring his own to the school, but he still found being around them comforting.
There was a scuffling noise from further in and they moved cautiously up the row, shining a torch into the darkened stalls as they went. In the end stall, slumped in the straw next to a big black horse that was nuzzling his shoulder in apparent concern, was Athos.
"Athos!" Porthos dropped to his knees in the straw, grasping his arm anxiously. "Are you alright? What are you doing out here?"
Athos mumbled something incomprehensible, head lolling to the side. Porthos frowned. "Are you ill?"
Aramis crouched down next to them, and his foot hit something half buried in the straw. He pulled it out, shining the torch on it in surprise. It was an almost empty bottle of brandy.
"He's not ill," Aramis said in bewildered disgust. "He's drunk."
"Ath?" Porthos cupped his face and made Athos look up at him. "What the hell you playing at? Have you really drunk all that? Where'd you even get it?"
"Kitchens," Athos mumbled. He was blinking weakly in the torchlight, and clearly couldn't hold himself up.
"Are you insane? You could kill yourself drinking that much!"
"Don' care." Athos slipped sideways into the straw, not even trying to stop himself falling.
"What do you mean you don't care? Don't be stupid." Porthos shook him angrily, and Athos tried to wriggle away from him, moaning quietly. Porthos looked at Aramis in frightened alarm. "What do we do?"
"We need to tell someone," said Aramis heavily. "He might need his stomach pumped or something. He's not eaten anything all day either."
"We can't." Porthos stared at him. "Nicking alcohol and getting wasted? They'll expel him!"
"Good," muttered Athos from down near his feet, and Porthos glared at him.
"Shut up you. You've lost the right to have opinions." He caught at Aramis' sleeve as he tried to get up. "We can't tell. We can't."
Aramis sighed, giving in. "Fine. Then he needs to throw up. Everything. And we need to get him back in before he's missed - before we're all missed." He stood up. "Get him outside. We need to get rid of the evidence too." He hefted the bottle in his hand thoughtfully. "I'll slip this back into the kitchens, and bring him out some water."
"They're going to notice it's empty," Porthos pointed out, trying to get his hands under Athos' armpits and lever him up.
"Then I'll break it," Aramis said, thinking on his feet. "With any luck they'll think it just fell off the shelf. They won't know how much has gone." With that he ran off into the darkness, taking the torch with him and Porthos growled in belated protest.
Athos groaned, and Porthos looked down suspiciously. "If you're sick on me, I'll smack you," he warned. "Come on." He got Athos' arm over his shoulders and staggered out into the fresh air with him.
Tucked safely away from prying eyes at the rear of the stables, Porthos let Athos sag gently to the ground and watched as he immediately threw his guts up without prompting.
Porthos sighed, crouching beside him and rubbing his back as Athos spent the next few minutes wracked with shaking misery.
When it finally seemed like there was nothing left to come up, Porthos guided him back to sit propped against the back of the building, keeping an arm round him.
"'m sorry," Athos slurred, leaning against him miserably.
"Why'd you do it Ath?" Porthos muttered under his breath. "I thought you were getting on alright here. You really want to be kicked out that much? And why this? You could have poisoned yourself, especially drinking that muck."
"I just didn't want to have to think any more," Athos said sadly. Before Porthos could ask what he meant, Aramis appeared and he called to him quietly.
"We're over here. Watch your step an' all, if you value your shoes."
"Ugh." Aramis picked his way carefully over and sat down on the other side of Athos, handing Porthos a two litre bottle of water. "Here. This should help."
Porthos poured some into his handkerchief and wiped Athos' face before holding the bottle up for him to drink from. "Here. Get as much of this down you as you can."
Protesting but eventually obedient, Athos swallowed about half a pint then promptly threw it up again. Once more, Porthos nursed him through it, then hugged him reassuringly afterwards. "Again."
This time, Athos drank more slowly, and kept it down.
"We need to get him inside," Aramis said, checking his watch. "Or we'll all be for the chop."
"Can you walk?" Porthos asked. Athos shook his head. "Tough."
Together, they hauled Athos to his feet and helped him back through the grounds and up the rear stairs. They were just in time to bundle him into bed still half dressed before Treville came through counting heads prior to lights out. Aramis was scolded for being out of his dorm and scurried off at a nod from Porthos, trusting him to keep an eye on Athos throughout the night.
As soon as all was dark and quiet Porthos slipped out of bed again and knelt by Athos', finding that he'd already passed out. He sighed. The drama of the last hour hadn't left him much time to dwell on Athos' reasoning, but now he was wondering just what was wrong, and so bad that Athos couldn't have confided in them.
Porthos climbed back into bed, determined to stay awake and watch over Athos in case he was ill in his sleep - and promptly fell fast asleep.
Porthos was woken in the small hours by someone stumbling about near his bed, and sat up wearily. It was Athos, he realised, disoriented and trying to find his way out in the dark.
"Athos? You okay?" he hissed.
"I think I'm going be sick," Athos said, his voice thin and panicky. Porthos groaned and hastily got up, grabbing him by the arm and guiding him out to the bathroom, where for the third time that night he watched over Athos retching his guts up. During a break in proceedings, Porthos slipped back to the dorm and fetched both their dressing gowns and the rest of the bottle of water.
"Here." He draped the robe round Athos' shoulders and cleaned him up again. They sat on the cold tiles for a long while, Athos shivering convulsively and Porthos rubbing soothing circles on his back. He was furious with him, and scared for him, and sorry for him, and feeling tired and irritable and helpless, and right now this was all he could do, so he'd do it all night if he had to.
This close Athos still smelt of alcohol, and Porthos didn't think it was from the vomiting. When Athos was recovered enough to stand, he dragged him into the showers and made him get in, testing the temperature himself and then standing implacably in the way with his back turned until Athos had been in there for a good ten minutes.
When Athos was dried and dressed in his pyjamas, and had managed to clean his teeth without throwing up, and drunk some more water, Porthos finally let him get back into bed.
Athos curled in on himself, still shivering, and with a silent but fluent string of curses, Porthos climbed in behind him.
"I'm sorry," Athos whispered after a while. "I fucked up."
"Shhh." Porthos hugged him. "Apologise in the morning when I can yell at you properly." To his relief, Athos gave a twitch of laughter, and he relaxed for the first time all night. Maybe things would be okay after all.
In the morning though, it was clear they weren't going to be able to hide Athos' weak and wretched state any longer. He was simply incapable of getting out of bed, dizzy and sick and aching from head to toe, and Aramis was reluctantly dispatched to fetch the school matron.
Porthos crouched by the bed and flicked Athos painfully on the cheek until he opened his eyes.
"You've got a migraine, okay?" Porthos hissed, too low for the rest of the curious boys in the dorm to hear. "It'll explain the headache and the sickness. A migraine, yeah? Are you listening to me?"
Athos managed a nod, and pulled the covers over his head. Porthos grunted despairingly and went to get dressed. Athos was prone to migraines, so if they were lucky it would be a plausible cover story - there'd been at least three evenings so far that term that he'd spent in misery with a damp towel over his face, lying stretched out on the common room sofa with his head in Porthos' lap. Up to now he hadn't missed any lessons though, so hopefully they wouldn't be too hard on him.
Aramis and Porthos, with no excuse to stick around, had to go off to breakfast and leave Athos being escorted to the school's sickbay. They spent an anxious day worrying about him, and as soon as lessons were over, sneaked up to the medical suite.
They knocked on the door of the outer office, whose sign proclaimed "Matron: Constance Bonacieux" and waited nervously for her to open it.
"You shouldn't be up here," she scolded upon seeing them, although not too fiercely, seeing their worried faces.
"Please Matron, may we see him? Just for a bit?" Aramis pleaded, and Constance gave in.
"Go on then. But don't wear him out. Ten minutes, alright?"
They found Athos sitting up in a bed by the window, although the curtains were closed against the night. He was the only occupant, and to their relief looked pleased to see them.
Aramis took the chair, and Porthos perched on the side of the bed.
"How are you feeling?" Aramis asked softly.
"Good," Porthos declared, before Aramis could reply. "Bloody serves you right." His relief at finding Athos apparently okay was spilling out as helpless anger, although he kept his voice down.
"Porthos - " Aramis protested, seeing Athos flinch, but he wouldn't be deterred.
"No. What the fuck were you thinking?" Porthos demanded. "Were you trying to top yourself? Or just get yourself expelled? What about us, eh? Did you think how we'd feel if we lost you? Did you?" His eyes were gleaming with the threat of unshed tears, and Athos looked at him miserably.
"I'm sorry," he breathed.
"No. Fuck apologies. I want explanations."
Athos looked down at the bedspread and Porthos wondered belatedly if he'd gone too far. He reached out and covered Athos' hand with his own. "What happened, Ath?" he asked more gently. "Tell us, you moron."
Athos glanced up briefly and almost managed a smile. "Your bedside manner sucks, you know that?"
Athos did smile then, although it was a fleeting burst of light before the clouds gathered again as he reflected on the previous day's events.
"Yesterday - was my brother's birthday," he said quietly.
Porthos looked at Aramis who shrugged, looking as mystified as Porthos felt. Clearly, as explanations went, this was lacking for both of them.
"I didn't know you had a brother?" Aramis ventured.
"I haven't." Athos sighed. "He died. In the summer."
"Oh. I'm sorry." Aramis felt that was rather inadequate, but didn't really know what else to say. "How old was he?" Assuming an elder sibling in the armed forces or similar.
A shocked silence followed this, and Athos finally looked up at them. "There was an accident. He died a couple of months before I came here. In fact - it's why my parents sent me here," he finished quietly.
"I don't get it," said Porthos, confused. "Why would they send you away after something like that?" No wonder Athos was hurting.
Athos' hands shook where they rested on the covers, and he looked down again. "Because they couldn't bear to look at me any longer," he blurted. "Because they thought it should have been me who died."
"No." Porthos was shaking his head vehemently. "No, that's awful, they could never want that, they're your parents Athos! Why would you think something like that?"
"I don't think it, I know it," said Athos in a small voice. "My mother said it. I heard her."
Porthos gaped at him. "But - not to you, surely?"
Athos shook his head. "To my father. The night it happened. I couldn't sleep - how could I sleep? I came downstairs again, and heard them talking. She was upset - and I think she was drunk - I hardly blame her for that. But I know she meant it. People are more honest when they're drunk, aren't they?" He sighed. "I don't blame them," Athos repeated. "They were right. It should have been me. Thomas was always the perfect one, you see."
"Fuck that," Porthos burst out indignantly, then cast a guilty look towards Constance's office. "Nobody's perfect," he added rather more quietly. "And you've got as much right to live as anyone!"
Athos looked at him. "He was everyone's favourite, Thomas," he said sadly. "Beautiful, even as a baby."
"Bollocks," Porthos objected. "All babies are fugly."
"I certainly was," Athos sighed. "I suppose it must have been a shock, giving birth to your first baby, and finding it's horribly disfigured."
Athos shrugged. "Like I said, they fixed me. Sort of. But Thomas was perfect from the start. And everyone loved him. He was happy, outgoing, cheerful." Athos' mouth twitched in something that might have been a smile. "Nothing like me."
"I hate him already," Porthos growled.
"Were you jealous of him?" Aramis asked, wondering if perhaps this was where some of Athos' anguish was coming from. Athos shook his head though.
"When he was a baby, maybe. But I couldn't hate him. He even liked me." Athos sniffed, and hunted hastily under the pillow for a tissue. "He'd follow me round. We were friends." He blew his nose, and took a deep breath.
"And then he died, and everything changed. They sent me away, and I thought I was coping, but yesterday would have been his birthday, and they didn't so much as call me." Athos was crying in earnest now, silent tears that he was barely heeding. "Not a letter, not a phone call. Not so much as a text to ask how I was doing, not a single shred of concern that I might be having a hard time of it as well." He buried the heels of his hands in his eyes and tried to sniff back the tears. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I just - I couldn't stand it any longer. I wasn't trying to kill myself, I promise, I just didn't want to think about it any more."
By now Aramis was on the bed as well and they both held him tightly between them.
"It's okay," Aramis murmured, because when it came down to it, what else could they say? "It's okay."
"What I don't get," said Porthos, when Athos' sobs had died down, and they were sitting either side of him, wedged onto the narrow bed. "Is why you wanted to go back to the bunch of ungrateful bastards so much."
Athos gave him a watery smile, and shrugged. "They're my family, and I missed them," he said simply. "They were all I had."
"Not any more though?" said Aramis, and took hold of his hand. Porthos immediately took hold of the other, and squeezed it.
"Not any more," Athos agreed, smiling at them both.
Having overstayed their allotted time by at least twice as long as they'd been given, Aramis and Porthos were sneaking out past the matron’s office when Constance appeared in the door and beckoned them in with a stern finger.
They stood before her, and her expression spoke volumes.
"Did you hear all that?" Aramis ventured. He'd wondered why she hadn't come to turf them out before now, and suddenly wondered if she had, and had overheard Athos' explanation.
"Most of it," Constance said carefully. Then - "It's not a migraine, is it? Did Athos - take something?"
They glanced at each other but said nothing, and she slammed her hand down on the table, making them jump. "This isn't a game! I need to know. If he took something, and I've been giving him painkillers on top of it - look, I'm not interested in getting him into trouble, okay? I just need to know the truth so I can give him the best help."
They looked at each other again, and this time Porthos nodded and Aramis sighed.
"He didn't take any pills or anything," Aramis said. "It was cooking brandy. You're right, it's not a migraine, it's a hangover."
"Oh God," Constance breathed, looking both relieved and exasperated. "How much did he have?"
"Nearly a whole bottle."
"A whole - " She broke off, shaking her head in horror. "You should have told me. You should have told me last night. Do you understand?"
"Yes Miss," said Aramis, the picture of contrition.
"Is he in trouble?" Porthos asked, less so.
Constance shook her head. "Not from me. Go on now, get to dinner." She shooed them out, and walked slowly back through the ward room to Athos' bed.
He looked up at her, having heard the mutter of voices in the other room, and guessed the source.
"They told you, didn't they?" he said tiredly.
"I left them no choice," Constance said softly. "Don't be angry with them."
Athos shook his head. "I'm not." He smiled faintly. "I don't deserve them."
Constance smoothed down the covers, and Athos watched her. "Am I in trouble?" he asked after a while.
"Do you want to be?" Constance countered. It was a serious question, gently put. While she had no intention of getting him into trouble for what he'd done, particularly having heard the reasons for it, at the same time if he was determined to get himself expelled there was a worry he might do it again, or worse. And if he was truly that unhappy here, then perhaps he would be better off at home after all. But it was his choice.
Athos regarded her equally seriously, and considered. Thinking, for the first time, about what he would be leaving behind here if he went home. What he would be giving up.
"No," he said finally.
Constance smiled at him. "Good. Then just promise me one thing. You won't do it again."
Athos half-laughed. "After this I don't think I want to touch the stuff again ever in my life."
It was Constance's turn to laugh. "Maybe not for a few years, at least eh? And then do us both a favour and stay off the cooking sherry."
"It was brandy." Athos lay down and now there was an amused glint in his eye as she tucked him in. "I do have some standards."