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Reckoning

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Present

The sky was red.

Not even the burnished bits of gold that edged the horizon as the sun climbed from the shadows tempered the inflamed morning. It meant something. A sky like that, it was a portent, a warning.

“We must move quickly.”

A whispered voice, the words urgent, almost frantic as they slapped the chilled morning air. The field before him lay quiet. He breathed through that quiet, marveling in the ability to fill his lungs. Relishing the completion of a simple act he had taken for granted his entire life.

The burgeoning light seemed to strike each blade of dew-heavy grass, turning the acres into a blanket of silver. It felt as though, if he stared at it long enough, the peace stretching across that field might actually be real. Something he could hold onto, believe in, trust.

“You will need to keep very close to us.”

The cry of a hawk cut the morning; the world seemed to have held its breath until that moment.

He blinked slowly, his eyes heavy with pain that lingered in his bones, his soul resigned to feeling it forever. He followed the flight of the creature as it cut down from its aerial surveillance and dove, down, down, wings folded close until at the last moment it stretched them, buoying its descent just so. The aborted screech of a mouse reached his ears and he saw the hawk collect the creature in its talons, its wings beating the dew from the grass as it ascended once more.

“d’Artagnan.”

Death. He remembered now. The red sky warned of death. Blood had been spilled in the night and it stained the morning.

d’Artagnan.

Hands were at his shoulders, their weight almost too much, the pain from muscles pulled past the point of resistance screaming through his body at the contact. He couldn’t stifle the shuddering groan that slipped from his heart outward, like ripples on a pond, ending at his fingertips and lingering in his hands.

The grip softened, loosened, but didn’t depart.

A figure stepped between him and his view of the peaceful, empty field. The hands slipped from his shoulders to his face, palms at his cheeks, fingers cupping the back of his head, forcing his eyes front, demanding he focus.

Aramis. Blood on his face, framing his eye, slipping from the corner of a wounded mouth to mat his beard. His was part of the blood that stained the sky.

“Look at me,” Aramis demanded, his voice soft but his tone that of an order, as though he would accept nothing short of d’Artagnan’s full cooperation.

d’Artagnan blinked once again. He saw the man before him, heard his words, but they seemed to fall from Aramis’ lips and float in the air between them, hollow and meaningless. They were simply sounds, nothing more. The pain seemed to scoop him out, the pressure of Aramis’ fingers at the base of his skull enough to send spikes through his head; his vision grayed a bit at the edges, folding inward as he tried to focus.

“If you stay close us, Porthos and I will protect you,” Aramis said slowly, not releasing d’Artagnan’s face.

“Look at ‘is eyes, Aramis.” Porthos. His voice an imprint of strength in the fragile morning. “‘e’s slipping from us.”

Porthos was suddenly standing next to Aramis, their shoulders overlapping in such a way it seemed to d’Artagnan they were one person.

Perhaps they are, he mused with a strange sense of detachment.

There didn’t seem to be a time in recent memory where one was without the other. They breathed in concert, his brothers. They breathed for each other when necessary. These men who had become his family. These men who had offered him a purpose. These men who would die for him.

“Focus, d’Artagnan. Focus on my voice.” It was such a monumental task, this request.

“Go easy, Aramis,” Porthos was saying, “’e was barely breathin’ when we found ‘im.”

“We cannot let him fade,” Aramis whispered, that urgent, frantic tone tumbling against d’Artagnan’s ears once again.

“’e needs rest,” Porthos argued. “Can’t even…lift…on ‘is own!”

“Don’t…think…I know…?”

The words seemed to be sliding around in the air, tinny and thin. d’Artagnan knew he needed to do…something, but he couldn’t remember what. The persistent flirtation of darkness was once more tugging at his awareness and he yearned to give in. He wanted to sink to the ground and allow it to blanket him in oblivion. The pain in his head spilled down his neck like liquid fire, burning through his shoulders until his body longed to retreat from it.

To say he hurt would be a frightening understatement.

d’Artagnan felt something pinch the taut muscles where his neck met his shoulders. Hands. Aramis or Porthos, he wasn’t sure which, but someone was gripping him tightly, trying to direct his focus.

“d’Artagnan,” Aramis called his name once more. “Look at me. Right here, at me. Are you with me?” Aramis patted his cheek with a glove-covered hand. “Let me see your eyes.”

d’Artagnan blinked, shifting his gaze until he was once more staring at his friend as if through a veil. Pain dulled his perception and clouded his memory. There was something he was supposed to do, something….

“’e should stay ‘ere,” Porthos growled, though not in anger, d’Artagnan recognized. In fear. Fear for him.

“We can’t leave him alone,” Aramis argued, not looking away from d’Artagnan’s eyes. “In any case, we need him.” He glanced quickly to the side, toward Porthos. “Athos needs him.”

“Athos,” d’Artagnan breathed, frowning, piecing the memories together.

“We will get him, d’Artagnan.” Aramis spoke the words like a pledge.

Athos. Bleeding on the floor of the barn, eyes closed, mouth silent, body still. Athos bleeding for him, to save him. It was Athos’ blood in the sky as well.

“He wasn’t moving,” d’Artagnan found himself saying.

He hadn’t registered the words before they slipped free, as if someone else was suddenly in charge of his mouth, his mind numb in defense against the pain.

“’e’s tough, our Athos,” Porthos said, still so close to Aramis he blocked the light from the rising sun. “’e’s got plenty of fight in ‘im.”

d’Artagnan peered at Porthos through his bangs. “They shot him.”

“’e was breathing,” Porthos snapped, worry turning his voice harsh. “Didn’t come out ‘ere to lose anyone. Don’t plan on changing that now.”

“Came for me,” d’Artagnan whispered.

“Followed this idiot,” Porthos muttered, bumping Aramis with his elbow.

“This is not your doing, d’Artagnan,” Aramis said, clearly hearing a doubt that Porthos had missed in d’Artagnan’s disjointed muttering. His dark eyes drew d’Artagnan’s once more. “You held out longer than I could have.”

“They still got him,” d’Artagnan mumbled, the slightly dazed detachment slipping over him once more as he listened to himself speak. He felt himself sway drunkenly, Aramis’ grip the only thing keeping him upright for a moment. “Didn’t matter…didn’t protect him.”

“You did,” Porthos growled, moving closer still, until d’Artagnan was able to see the bruises across the big man’s cheek, his eye stained red. Porthos’ blood in the sky. “You bought ‘im time. Bought us time.”

With a step and a nudge of his shoulder, the big man moved Aramis to the side and squared off in front of d’Artagnan. He didn’t touch him, d’Artagnan registered, but he didn’t have to. His proximity was enough contact to brace d’Artagnan for his next words.

“There is no shame in what ‘appened to you.” He dropped his chin, leveling his wounded eyes with d’Artagnan’s numbed gaze. “They tortured you, but you’re still alive, yeah? And that means one thing.” He lifted d’Artagnan’s arm, carefully avoiding the torn and bleeding skin around his wrists, and set a dagger in his palm, wrapping d’Artagnan’s fingers around the hilt and closing his fist around the grip. “You end those bastards.”

d’Artagnan saw his friend’s lip pull up in a snarl, his dark eyes slip to black with intent. Something shimmered in the air between them, Porthos’ words sparking a fire in d’Artagnan’s wounded heart. He had been sitting, slumped, on the tree stump where they’d rested him after their escape, but he started to push to his feet, holding Porthos’ gaze.

His body keened in protest at the movement; the muscles along his ribs and across his shoulders seized painfully, the damaged skin at his wrists gasped when the cloth from his loose shirt slipped over the tears, and his head throbbed where his skull had been cracked, blood matting his hair and sliding down the side of his face to paint the edge of his jaw.

He could taste it from where his teeth had cut his lips, his cheek. He could smell it from where it stained his shirt, his skin. He could feel it down the back of his neck, on his face, on his hands.

His blood in the sky.

By the time he managed to stand, one of Porthos’ hands on his fist, the other at his opposite elbow, balancing him, he was dizzy and breathless.

“Can you hold a harquebus?” Aramis asked him, frowning as he tended to do when he doesn’t register he’s being watched.

d’Artagnan looked down at his hand where Porthos still helped him grip the dagger. The big man stepped carefully away, slowly releasing his hand. The moment he was absent the loan of strength, d’Artagnan dropped the dagger, unable to command his trembling hands to obey. He simply had no strength left in his arms. He swallowed, then looked up at Aramis and shook his head slowly.

“No matter.” Aramis muttered, then staggered slightly, a hand to his head as if in pain.

Porthos stuck out his free hand to balance the other man, keeping his hand on d’Artagnan’s elbow. d’Artagnan watched as the sunlight split the trees, dancing in pale beams across Aramis’ face, turning the blood there from wounds into war-paint. With Porthos standing between them like a bridge, Aramis and d’Artagnan regarded each other, waiting.

d’Artagnan was the first to nod. They had saved him, and it may have cost them Athos. He would not betray them now with weakness. No matter that the pain left him feeling small, overwhelmed, lost. He squared his shoulders as best as his torn muscles would allow.

“What will you have me do?” he asked, forcing strength he did not feel into his tone.

“We will move quickly,” Aramis said, his voice hurried, the words practiced. Behind him the red sky was diluted by light, turning the horizon into a bruised, violated dawn. “They’ve not had enough time to take him from the barn as Porthos set their horses loose when we arrived.” He reached for d’Artagnan again, clasping his free arm in a painfully strong grip. “You get to Athos. That is your only thought. Get to Athos.”

“What of you?” d’Artagnan asked, drawing strength from his friend’s grip as he would heat on a cold day. “What will you do?”

Aramis looked at Porthos and d’Artagnan saw something slide between them that could not have been contained by mere words. It was a silent conversation a decade in the making, one that d’Artagnan had no hope in translating, on his best day. Porthos simply nodded once, his eyes looking dangerous in the growing light of the morning.

“Whatever we must,” Aramis replied.

As d’Artagnan waited, forcing himself to stand steady and not waver as his body so wanted to do, Aramis and Porthos armed themselves as best they could with the weapons they’d managed to keep with them on their rescue mission. He saw Porthos pull a fist-sized iron ball, a thick black wick protruding from the top, from a pack on the ground. The big man slipped the bomb into his doublet, resting it atop his weapons belt, then glanced up at d’Artagnan.

“For luck,” he said, the quick grin that crested his mouth stopping just short of his eyes.

“My friends,” Aramis said quietly, drawing their eyes. “We return together, or not at all.”

d’Artagnan nodded, ignoring the sway of his exhausted body, the tremble of his hands. Whatever energy he still had, he would give it over to them. Porthos stepped up next to him, pressing his shoulder gently against d’Artagnan’s as if somehow knowing it was the one way to offer the younger man strength. d’Artagnan drew on that and braced himself to move forward.

As they turned their backs on the peace of the field beyond and headed toward the barn that would haunt d’Artagnan’s dreams for years to come, the sky behind them slipped from red to blue, sunlight cutting through the shadows.

***

Two Nights Prior

Despite what Athos had claimed as they’d ridden away from the palace after the news of the King and Queen’s heir-to-be, d’Artagnan knew the heartache in Aramis’ eyes was not from a chance encounter with the Mellendorf woman as Athos claimed. Porthos knew as well – and, d’Artagnan suspected, suspected the root cause, though he wasn’t saying. The swarthy man spent an inordinate amount of time keeping a close eye on the marksman, as though afraid if he looked away, Aramis would fade into the melancholy that seemed to track him like a predator.

Aramis covered his pain well, as always. He attended his weapons, he bantered with the men of the garrison, he frequently visited his lady friends. If one wasn’t looking closely, it would appear as though they had survived the ruse with the Cardinal collectively unscathed.

Some, it would seem, better because of it.

Athos’ step was noticeably lighter without the weight of his wife’s sin around his neck. d’Artagnan had even caught his friend smiling on more than one unexpected occasion, especially when teased about the attendance and emotion exhibited at his mock funeral. Porthos, with the exception of maintaining a vigil over his friend’s well-being, was as lustful for life as ever, though he tended to try his luck at a few too many card games for Athos’ liking.

For the sake of the others, especially Athos’ new-found internal peace, d’Artagnan worked to maintain the same sense of contentment – or at the very least emulate Aramis’ skilled performance. If he claimed to be whole long enough and loud enough, then surely it would become his truth. Or so he thought.

Then one day, Aramis saw through the smoke screen that d’Artagnan wasn’t yet skilled enough to maintain.

Perhaps it was because their misery was shared; perhaps because Aramis was simply more astute at identifying problems of the heart. Whatever the reason, nearly two weeks after they’d saved Constance from Anne’s nefarious plot, and after several nights spent trapped in a restless parody of sleep, an attempt was made to rescue d’Artagnan from himself.

Aramis arrived at his quarters and, without a word of invitation, physically hauled the young man out into the courtyard of the garrison and then beyond.

d’Artagnan, for his part, gave not one thought toward protest. He was desperate to release the tension that had been coiled in his gut, hot and sharp like a serpent’s teeth, since Constance had told him goodbye. He’d acknowledged her reasons – his father had raised him to be a gentleman, after all – despite the fact that he didn’t agree with them. The knowledge that she was with that coward, that warden, bound by a prison of vows that offered her no love, no happiness, ate at him a little more each day.

What good was love if honor kept it at bay? What good was feeling anything if acting upon it only damned those for whom his feelings were generated? What good was having a heart if it was only to be broken, splitting him in half and bleeding him out with each exhale?

“Where are we going?”

It was the only thing he’d said to Aramis when the man grabbed him by the front of his doublet and dragged him from his quarters. Instead of answering, Aramis had offered him a rakish smile that turned his eyes to obsidian: black mirrors that gave away nothing. It was a dangerous look, one that d’Artagnan had learned to guard himself against in the year since he’d first met these men.

Aramis was liable to do anything when his eyes held that light.

d’Artagnan followed the older man through the darkening streets of Paris, the smell of the city, the people, permeating the night and pressing against him like a hand at his back, urging him forward. The darkness was cut here and there by a lit street lamp, but the further they traveled, the less light was offered. Before long, he realized where Aramis was leading them: the Barley Mow.

While it fronted as a tavern, serving food and drink, it was really little more than a brothel. Porthos only showed his face when he was in desperate need of a card game. Athos only walked through the doors to haul Porthos out before he got in over his head.

But the moment they stepped through the doors, d’Artagnan realized that Aramis was enough of a regular he was recognized almost immediately. This worked to their advantage; they were seated and had wine in their hands before Aramis had been able to tip his hat. There was something about the air in this place, heavy with the scent of tobacco and some other sweet-smelling substance that turned the room dim and cloudy, which seemed to disconnect d’Artagnan from the cares of the world outside the flimsy wooden door.

“It is in a place such as this,” Aramis said, low enough his words were meant only for d’Artagnan, “that affairs of the heart can be forgotten.”

“I thought you came here for love,” d’Artagnan commented, surprised to find that he had finished his first cup of wine so quickly.

Aramis poured him another from the full, green-glass bottle sitting between them on the table. He shook his head, the edge of his mouth tipped up in a slight grin. “This is not love, my young friend. This is release. Liberation.” He tipped his chin down and leaned forward slightly. “Sex.”

d’Artagnan was glad the shadows in the confined room hid his blush. “I wasn’t aware there was much of a difference.”

Aramis sat back, his eyes slowly roaming the room as though assessing each occupant. “And that is why you sit here next to me, wounded so deeply it’s practically visible.”

d’Artagnan had told them all of Constance’s decision when he’d returned to the garrison that night she’d said goodbye. They’d been sympathetic and quietly supportive, but since then had said not one word about it. He’d assumed they’d thought he had put it behind him, choosing to move forward with his life. It wasn’t until Aramis’ words that he realized he hadn’t fooled them for a moment; they’d simply been waiting for him to bring it up.

Apparently, Aramis was tired of waiting.

“She made her choice.” d’Artagnan’s words came out darker than he honestly intended.

“And now you must make yours,” Aramis said, touching the brim of his glass to the one gripped in d’Artagnan’s hand. “Women are the perfect distraction from the hell we allow to live inside us, feeding on our fears and weaknesses until it becomes such an all-consuming fire it threatens to destroy us entirely.”

d’Artagnan looked at his friend, naked surprise on his face. Aramis often spoke passionately, but rarely were the words so personal. He watched as something played across the man’s features, turning his handsome face and seductive gaze into something frigid and furious.

Aramis had eyes that could carve words into another’s skin; the look in them now, though, could easily cut so deep they would kill.

“What is this new hell of yours, Aramis?” d’Artagnan whispered the question, unable to give too much strength to his voice. “What is going on with you?”

Aramis looked at him and for a moment d’Artagnan couldn’t breathe. The last time he’d seen such raw pain, he’d been looking at Athos the night he pulled the older man from the burning remains of his family home. For a stretch of several heartbeats, Aramis didn’t move, didn’t blink, but then someone across the room dropped a glass and the sound of it shattering broke the spell of the moment.

Blinking slightly, Aramis smiled – an honest, genuine expression – and rested his hand on d’Artagnan’s shoulder.

“We are not here because of my hell,” he said. “We are here because of yours. I know how to manage the balance of my heart. You,” he gripped the tense muscle in d’Artagnan’s shoulder, just above his collar bone, “do not. You may have lost Constance to circumstance, but you still must live.”

d’Artagnan felt his breath catch at the mention of her name. “I am living.”

“You are existing,” Aramis corrected. “You are moving through the motions, erecting a false front, putting on a performance. And doing so quite well, I might add.”

“I learned it from the best,” d’Artagnan jabbed, lifting a brow at his friend. Aramis dropped his hand and sat back. “Isn’t this all a bit ironic coming from you?”

“No,” Aramis replied shortly, his tone matching the serious expression in his eyes. “This is practical.”

“How do you figure that?” d’Artagnan pressed, finishing his second glass and pouring himself a third.

He wanted to be numb, or at least distanced from the pain of Aramis systematically destroying the protective walls he’d built around his heart. He noted that Aramis had yet to finish his first glass; had Athos been with him, they’d be well into their second bottle by now.

Athos was quite accommodating in that respect.

Aramis sat forward, resting his forearms on the table, his fingers clasped around his wine glass. “You may have many loves in your life, d’Artagnan, or you may have just this one.” He sighed noisily, his words carrying a bit. “But if there is anything I’ve learned in the years I’ve been a Musketeer it is that we are not truly meant for love.”

d’Artagnan wondered at the manner in which Aramis had used that word. What it meant to him clearly didn’t align to d’Artagnan’s definition. He found himself wondering what it meant to Athos, to Porthos. Where was the line drawn for these men between desire and devotion? Was it more than the fire, the passion, the need he felt with Constance? Was it more than the escape Aramis sought in a place such as this?

“That can’t be true,” d’Artagnan protested weakly.

He saw two men sitting at a table close to them shift to look their way. One, wearing a garishly red cravat and stroking his pointed beard in an almost leering way, had his eyes directed at Aramis and made d’Artagnan decidedly uncomfortable. He was about to rest his hand on the hilt of his sword in a warning when he realized one of the many women in the tavern was striding their way. The man’s attention shifted from Aramis to the woman walking past him and d’Artagnan relaxed his guard.

“Oh, but it is,” Aramis continued quietly, oblivious of the men. “Take our friend Athos,” he went on. “Love nearly destroyed him when it warred with duty. It spent five years driving him to drink and melancholy and then nearly took his life.”

“One example hardly—“

“Porthos considered leaving the Musketeers for love,” Aramis pressed on. “I bet you didn’t know that.”

d’Artagnan shook his head, surprised.

“But he realized that he could not change the marrow of his bones and chose to remain a soldier.”

“Hang on,” d’Artagnan shook his head, leaning forward, the empty cup hanging from his fingers as he pointed at Aramis. “You have fallen in love more than anyone I’ve ever known. How is it you can say—“

“That is where you are mistaken, my young friend,” Aramis interrupted, his eyes turning rakish once more as he reached out an arm and snagged a pretty blonde, her corset cinched up so tight her breasts all-but spilt over the top.

Her skirt was basically a petticoat and seemed to be torn a bit in the front just below her knees, hanging longer in the back. Aramis swept her up and planted her firmly in his lap as though she weighed little more than a feather.

“It isn’t love that finds me, but a respectful appreciation for the female form and the pleasurable distraction it provides.”

The girl grinned, the curve of her lips wrinkling her nose in a way that Aramis apparently found quite appealing as he slipped a hand to the back of her neck and pulled her mouth to his, kissing her as though she was his first taste of water after a day in the sun. d’Artagnan watched openly, the wine making him slow to recognize his voyeurism.

The girl reached up to grasp Aramis’ shoulders, holding herself steady as he pulled away, both of them taking a moment to gather their breath before Aramis looked back over at d’Artagnan. The girl followed suit, her lips bee-stung, her chin slightly red from the friction of Aramis’ beard, her eyes bright with desire. d’Artagnan swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry.

“You are not innocent,” Aramis said quietly, his dark eyes on d’Artagnan. “We all know this.”

d’Artagnan glanced down. He could still not think of her as Anne; that had been the name of Athos’ wife, his love, his betrayer. To d’Artagnan she was simply Milady DeWinter and Aramis was right: seducing him those many months ago had not required a significant amount of effort on her part. Constance had been his first taste of love. Of knowing what it meant to take someone in his arms and give them a piece of himself. Of knowing completeness so true that every day without it he was crippled.

“But if you do not find a way to direct that tension you carry within you like a weapon,” Aramis said, sliding his hand from the girl’s neck to her small waist, bringing her close enough to him she was practically sitting on his hip, “it will become a liability.”

d’Artagnan poured himself more wine. “As will I,” he said, bringing Aramis’ unspoken warning to conclusion.

“This is a very serious conversation for such good looking men to be having,” the blonde spoke up, her voice carrying with is a lilt that caught both their attention. She was not French, but d’Artagnan couldn’t place her accent and it clearly mattered little to Aramis. The man was leaning forward to kiss her once more and only stopped when she pulled back slightly. “Let’s find someone to keep your friend company so we can go elsewhere.”

d’Artagnan felt suddenly nervous. He knew this was exactly why Aramis had brought him here and he also knew it was exactly why he’d willingly followed, but now that the moment was upon him, he didn’t want Aramis to leave, didn’t want to be alone, facing a stranger who would expect…something from him. Not love, clearly. Perhaps not even affection.

But at this point he wasn’t sure he could even generate an appropriate amount of lust.

“Do you have someone in mind?” Aramis asked the blonde, his mouth a breath away from her swollen lips.

“Yes,” she whispered, her eyes fluttering closed, the expression on her face enough to heat d’Artagnan’s belly and make him wonder where Aramis’ other hand had gone. “Isabeau.”

“And is she nearby?”

“Just there,” the blonde nodded to the table of men d’Artagnan had noticed earlier.

A slim brunette in a red dress – one that covered her a bit more than Aramis’ companion’s – stood just out of reach of the men at the table, a look of distaste folding features that had clearly seen more than her share of bawdy, drunken men. She was too weathered to be beautiful, but there was a handsomeness there and something about her eyes caught d’Artagnan’s attention. They were large and blue and absolutely nothing like Constance.

“What is your name, ma chére?” Aramis whispered to the blonde, his voice rough.

“Enora,” she replied.

“Go rescue your friend from those scoundrels, Enora,” Aramis ordered, the hand cupping her face turning his words into an invitation, “and we shall all retire upstairs for the night and forget the world.”

Enora smiled, then slid from Aramis’ lap, causing the older man to suppress a slight groan at her movement. d’Artagnan shot a look at his friend, then over to the women and back. His body was tense – to the point the muscles were nearly quivering. His mouth was dry, his eyes burning. He was not ready for this. Not like this.

“Yes, you are,” Aramis replied, gripping his shoulder once again, dragging d’Artagnan’s eyes up. He hadn’t realized how loudly he was telegraphing his panic. “She is not yours, d’Artagnan. You need to let her go, move on. And this is the best way for you to do so.”

“It’s your way,” d’Artagnan argued. “I don’t know if it’s mine.”

The women approached their table and Aramis sat back, smiling. “You are about to find out, my young friend.”

Bonsoir,” Isabeau said, her voice a husky contrast to Enora’s light tones. She leaned against the table near d’Artagnan side, then hitched a leg up on the table so that her ankle rested at his thigh, leaning forward and crossing her arms at her bent knee, her position pressing her breasts together in such a way it was nearly impossible for him not to stare. “Enora says you’re looking for me?”

“I—I, uh….”

“My friend recently survived a broken heart,” Aramis supplied as d’Artagnan found that he’d completely lost his grasp on basic communication skills. “Is this something you’ve dealt with before?”

Isabeau smiled and d’Artagnan watched in fascination as the expression changed her features from hard and suspicious to yielding and inviting. He felt the corners of his mouth tugging up in an automatic response of their own accord. She reached out a slim finger and gently traced his jaw line, the soft brushing of a beard just beginning to shadow his skin.

“Yes,” she said softly. “Yes, it is.”

Aramis needed no further encouragement. He stood abruptly, sweeping Enora into his arms and turning toward the stairs at the back of the small room. A man stepped in his path, but before d’Artagnan had a chance to worry, Aramis implored Enora to fetch a small leather bag from his doublet and had her toss it to the man, nodding backward toward d’Artagnan.

“For my friend as well.”

The man hefted the pouch, the unmistakable sound of coins clashing within, then moved away. d’Artagnan registered what had transpired, knowing he was now committed to the task and finding himself almost too deep into the wine to even find his feet. Her smile softening as though she recognized his reasons for hesitating, Isabeau reached down and took his hand, stepping away from the table and tugging slightly. He had no choice but to stand and follow her.

As they moved to the stairs and upward, catching sight of Aramis disappearing through a doorway and kicking it closed behind him, d’Artagnan began to actively blank his mind. I am not who I am. I am not what I am.

He was simply someone here with a willing woman, seeking to lose himself in an act that had satiated him time and again. Seeking to forget. Seeking to distract. Seeking to feel.

To allow himself to feel something other than pain or tension or loss or sorrow or anger. Something other than the overwhelming desire to find Constance and take her and let that be the end of it.

Isabeau opened the door to a small room, much like the one he’d stayed in the first night he’d arrived in Paris, where he’d slept with Milady. It smelled of sweat and stale breath and, inexplicably, roses. He imagined she used rosewater to cover up the stench from her previous clients, and appreciated that small attempt to make the room inviting.

He stood at the foot of the bed, feeling the wine sing through his veins as his heart pumped rapidly, fueled by anxiety. Isabeau faced him, her head tilted in curiosity, studying him as she pulled pins from her dark hair and allowed it to fall heavily around her shoulders.

“You remind me of someone I used to know,” she said softly, her gaze traveling up from his boots to linger at his eyes.

d’Artagnan found himself nodding, remembering the person he’d been before Paris, before Constance. Before his heart had rusted and he’d lost himself to only one purpose: the Musketeers.

Without another word – knowing her job well enough to recognize when words were not only unnecessary but problematic – Isabeau stepped forward and worked his weapon’s belt loose, carefully removing the leather and swords, setting them on the floor next to the bed.

d’Artagnan couldn’t help but remember how Constance had torn them from him, minding little about where they’d landed, so desperate had she sought contact, skin, his touch. Isabeau moved close again, her throat exposed to him as she looked up, her blue eyes sweeping his face and something close to sorrow finding itself at home on her face. He ignored it, grasping her waist, feeling her curves under his splayed fingers.

She began to remove his doublet, parting the leather and the white shirt beneath, finding his skin. Her fingers were soft and cool against him. d’Artagnan closed his eyes as she traced his collar bone, slipping up his throat and skimming across his jugular, pausing at his thrumming pulse, then let her thumb push against his bottom lip and, Christ, d’Artagnan thought, Jesus bleedin’ Christ.

He kissed her, his mouth slanting over hers, too hard to be nice – not as he’d kissed Constance all those many times – and felt her hands crawl up into his hair, twisting it enough to hurt just a bit, pulling his lips closer, her tongue slipping between his teeth. She tugged at his hair, her body arching up toward him, seeking contact, but he didn’t want to touch her anywhere else, not yet.

He didn’t want to feel all the ways she wasn’t who he wanted.

Isabeau was skilled, however, and in moments she had him against the end of the bed, a post at the small of his back, the pressure of her lithe body forcing him to shift so that it didn’t bruise. She moved her hands inside his parted doublet, lifting the loose cloth of his shirt and for a moment he lost himself in the way her breathing was so common.

She could be anyone in that moment.

Pressed against him as she was, he could feel the way her supple breasts were firm, easy, soft against the hard lines of his chest. As she maneuvered him to the bed, backing him up until he had no choice but to tumble onto the straw-filled, dusty-smelling mattress, d’Artagnan told himself he wanted this. He wanted her. He wanted to bury himself inside her and lose himself completely.

And then he opened his eyes and he simply stopped. Everything stopped but the slam of his heart and the rasp of their breathing.

Shit,” he mumbled, trying to push away without hurting her. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“Close them. Close your eyes again,” Isabeau implored. “I can be her. I can be her if you need me to be.”

But she wasn’t and she couldn’t and this might work for Aramis but he was not Aramis and he needed to leave. He needed to leave now.

He elbowed himself back on the bed, away from her curved body. She must have seen something that looked like terror in his eyes because she straightened up and stepped away from the bed, allowing him an escape.

“I’m sorry,” d’Artagnan breathed, gathering up his weapons in a clumsy, sweaty grip. “I’m sorry.”

“Go,” Isabeau sighed, her expression slipping once more to hard and disinterested. “You’ve already bought the night, just go. I’ll join Enora and visit your friend.”

d’Artagnan stumbled out into the hall, feeling chilled and too warm at the same time. His body had responded to her, unable to quite help itself, apparently, but his mind and his heart were stronger than simply carnal lust. Still, it made it quite difficult at first to get himself under control. He paused outside her doorway, leaning back against the wall, sweat gathering his hair against his forehead and neck and tenting his lashes as he closed his eyes, forcing himself to slow his breathing.

In moments, however, he heard the unmistakable sound of pleasure from behind a closed door and realized he was just outside of the room Aramis and Enora had disappeared into. Curling his hand into a fist, he pounded on the door.

“Aramis!” he shouted through the thin cracks. “I am leaving.”

A thud as something was thrown at the door was his only answer and the gasping, throaty cries began to escalate. d’Artagnan turned and charged down the stairs, crashing into the same gate keeper who’d stopped their ascent moments before. d’Artagnan hadn’t taken time to look closely at the man earlier, too distracted by the idea of Isabeau, but the man was huge. He would have dwarfed Porthos, for sure.

“Excuse me, Monsieur,” d’Artagnan mumbled, working to slip around him.

The man planted a hand on d’Artagnan’s chest, easily holding him back. d’Artagnan looked up and realized that the two men who’d been speaking with Isabeau earlier were now staring his way once again. He shifted his attention directly to the man preventing his escape.

“Your charge is quite well, I assure you,” d’Artagnan stated. “I simply have to leave.”

“My…charge?” the man rumbled, a thick, wiry brow arching up. After a moment he let out a deep, mocking chuckle and removed his hand. “Couldn’t get it up, that it?”

d’Artagnan felt no need to justify his departure to a procurer. Fastening his weapon’s belt around his waist, the buckle closing his loosened doublet, he moved around the large man only to find himself stopped by two drawn swords and the men who’d been eyeing their table earlier.

“Where is the other one?” the man with the impressive cravat asked, his accent thick and decidedly not French.

d’Artagnan sighed. “Not that it’s any of your business, but he is otherwise engaged. Now, if you would please stand aside.”

“You are a Musketeer,” the man continued, lowering the point of his blade so that it was close to d’Artagnan’s exposed throat, his eyes going to the pauldron at d’Artagnan’s shoulder.

Realizing that the men had been listening to their conversation for some time before Isabeau had made her presence known, d’Artagnan wasted no time in pulling his own sword, but kept it low, not crossing the other man’s blade.

“Stand aside,” he repeated, his voice low and dangerous. “Before I run you through.”

The pair of them easily outweighed him and were a battle to be waged by hand-to-hand alone, d’Artagnan knew he wouldn’t stand a chance. However, d’Artagnan was the kind of lean muscle with a level of raw energy that served him well in a swordfight; Athos had recognized and honed that skill over the last several months. d’Artagnan regarded the two men with complete confidence that if they engaged him, he would emerge victorious.

Either recognizing this or deciding he wasn’t worth the effort, the men lowered their swords and moved out from in front of the door. Not bothering to glance back, d’Artagnan pushed through the doorway into the muggy night, sheathing his sword the moment he was free of the tavern. The streets were shadowed, the only lights burning on an occasional street corner or in a scattering of windows. The rounds of the night watch were scattered and inconsistent in this part of town.

d’Artagnan could barely see through the gloom of night and moved on pure instinct toward the garrison.

He was a coil of nerves and unsatisfied want. Silently he cursed Aramis and his assumptions. He cursed himself and his inability to release. He cursed Boniceaux for simply existing. He cursed Constance for honoring her vows.

So intent was he on his black thoughts he didn’t see Porthos until he plowed directly into the man, pulling roughly from his grasp as Porthos set him back on his feet.

“Oi! Where’re you off to, then?”

d’Artagnan blinked, looking around, getting a sense of his surroundings. They had collided on a street corner, one lamp burning behind his friend, turning this tiny bit of night a muted gold. He realized he wasn’t near the garrison at all. In fact, he was roughly two steps from Constance’s street.

“My quarters,” he replied, a bit dazed to find himself so close to the Boniceaux home.

“Aramis with you?” Porthos looked past d’Artagnan down the darkened street.

“No,” d’Artagnan shook his head. “He’s back at the Barley Mow. Will probably be there all night.”

Porthos started to grin, but then looked d’Artagnan up and down, taking in his disheveled appearance and less than together attire. “Why aren’t you there?”

d’Artagnan rested his weight on one hip, his palm dropping to the hilt of his sword. Unable to come up with a response, he simply shook his head, looking down the road. The streetlight burned out and cast them into almost complete shadow.

“’e took you with ‘im sos you could ‘ave a brush, yeah?”

“You could say that.”

“Don’t guess it worked too well, then,” Porthos muttered.

“What do you know of it?” d’Artagnan grumbled. His eyes adjusted enough to a night solely lit by starlight he could see Porthos shift his stance, hooking his thumbs in his weapon’s belt.

“Nothin’ ‘cept you’re wound tight enough you could be a fuse.”

Frowning at the big man, though he had no idea if Porthos could even see his expression, d’Artagnan deflected, “Where were you tonight?”

“’ad some unwinding of my own,” Porthos replied, his teeth showing in the gloom as he allowed himself to grin. He tapped his pocket and d’Artagnan heard coins clack against each other. A card game, apparently. Porthos’ primary means of working out whatever tension built inside his enigmatic friend. “What, you didn’t like the wench?”

“The wench was fine,” d’Artagnan signed, his blood beginning to cool from his anger-filled journey. “It’s me. I’m wrong.”

Porthos sighed a bit and d’Artagnan felt him shift closer. “There’s nothin’ wrong with you, lad. Jus’ gotta give it time.” His voice was low, a comforting whisper against the night.

“Aramis said I would become a liability.”

Porthos was quiet a moment and d’Artagnan found himself leaning a bit forward in the dark, seeking a sign that his friend had heard him.

“Aramis means well,” Porthos finally replied. “Remember that. But ‘e sometimes gets…lost in ‘is own escape and ‘e don’t realize it might not work for others.”

“You know what’s going on with him, don’t you?” d’Artagnan asked.

Porthos didn’t reply and d’Artagnan felt him step even closer. He could smell wine on his friend’s breath as he spoke. “C’mon back with me, d’Artagnan. Paris is not a lady at night. Too many trulls about in the dark.”

“I’ll be along in a moment,” d’Artagnan replied, looking back down the street where the Boniceaux house waited.

“You’re certain?” Porthos asked, clearly hesitant to leave him to his own devises. “Athos’ll be lookin’ for you to return. Got early training on the morrow.”

“I’ll be fine, Porthos,” d’Artagnan assured his friend. “I’ll see Athos in the morning.”

For a long moment, Porthos didn’t move. A bellman began to approach from the side street, moving slowly on the stilts that allowed him to reach and relight the street lamps. d’Artagnan remained stubbornly silent until Porthos sighed, his shoulders bowing with recognition that he’d lost this battle.

His posture speaking clearly his feelings on the matter, Porthos began to head slowly back in the direction of the garrison, side-stepping the bellman as a wick was lifted to relight the flame in the lamp above them. d’Artagnan stood still until he knew Porthos was far enough away and then made his way slowly down the street toward the Boniceaux home.

It was a mistake; he knew it was a mistake. His instincts screamed at him to back away, follow Porthos, return to the garrison and his life without her. But he ignored each screech of his conscience.

Once he reached the back lot, he leaned against the tree that stood just a few feet from her back door, looking up toward where he knew her sleeping chamber to be. He hadn’t ventured this way since that day she’d told him goodbye. He’d thought about it each day since, but he’d not allowed himself to get this close.

Which, as it turned out, was a good thing.

Because now that he stood here he wanted to be closer. He wanted to be there. Where she was. And it was probably the wine talking and it was probably mostly the fact that he’d not let Isabeau do her job and it was probably the fact that it was night and everything felt and looked and was different at night…but he allowed want to take over.

He moved toward the house, no clear thought in his mind, no plan, just Constance.

When the door opened, his heart stopped, curling up in his chest. She stepped outside, clad in a loose, white gown, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, her hair free and spilling around her shoulders. She had a basket hooked on one arm and it was clear she intended on being outdoors for only a moment, but then she saw him.

There was five feet between them but it may as well have been an ocean. Her large, dark eyes seemed to drink in whatever pale light was allowed by the moonless sky and he saw the flash of her throat as she worked to bring her breath under control.

“What are you doing here?” she whispered, her voice quivering slightly.

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “I—I didn’t mean to come.”

“We can’t…,” she let the basket slip from her arm, stepping forward and allowing the door to shut behind her. “We can’t.”

“I know,” he replied, his voice choked as he worked to keep himself in check, to respect her choice, to control the want. But she was looking at him with starlight in her eyes and her hair was loose and he could smell lavender. “I’m sorry.”

He took a step back, but she moved forward as if connected to him by a taut string of need and he froze. The look on her face was open and desperate and bloody hell, he thought.He knew what she felt like, what she tasted like and goddamn but he wanted that again. Wanted her again.

“d’Artagnan.”

He’d heard her say his name many times, but not like this. Not with that hitch and that break and that thread of desire slipping through it and Christ it made his blood heat as though she’d touched him. He felt himself shudder.

Please.”

He didn’t bother asking her please what because if he was wrong, he didn’t deserve to be here and there had never been anything right between them. He stepped forward, not giving either of them time to take a breath, and collected her, nothing but a nightdress hiding her shape from him as her shawl fell to the ground. He captured her mouth against his and it felt right.

d’Artagnan trembled against her, feeling her hands reach up and wrap around his neck, pulling him close as she curved her body flush against him, slipping her fingers into his hair as though they belonged. With one hand he held the back of her head, the other reaching down to circle her narrow waist. A distressed sob slipped around the moan at the back of his throat and he wanted to press her against the wall and take her. There, now. Under cover of night.

“I love you,” she whispered the word desperately against his mouth when he allowed her a moment to breathe. “I love you I love you I—“

He cut her off with another kiss, feeling her tongue in his mouth, her teeth tugging his lower lip closer, her hands at his face, his neck, fingers digging into his flesh as though to anchor herself in some way. d’Artagnan knew he had to step back, now, before he couldn’t release her again.

But damn if he could let her go.

“We can’t,” she sobbed against his lips. “It’s too much.”

“I can’t remember what it was like to breathe before you,” he confessed, his forehead to hers. “I can’t remember who I was before you.”

Pulling her face away, but not releasing him, Constance looked up at him, her eyes searching his. “You were brave and wonderful just as you are now.”

“How do we do this?” he asked her, realizing suddenly that the tears on his face weren’t only from Constance. “How do we not have this?”

Her chin trembled and she pressed her hands to the side of his face. “Carefully,” she replied. “A little more each day.”

“I hate him,” d’Artagnan confessed, his lips curling in a snarl. “I would celebrate his death.”

“You don’t mean that,” Constance shook her head, sniffing. “I know you don’t mean that.”

“How do you know?” d’Artagnan challenged, his brows pulling close as he stared, unable to tear his gaze from her eyes.

“Because I wouldn’t love you so much if you did.”

His face folded, sorrow pulling his lips into a frown, his eyes welling, though the tears held.

“You have the heart of a Musketeer, Charles d’Artagnan,” Constance whispered, stretching up to her toes and pulling his face down to her. She kissed his forehead and as she sank to her heels he caught her and held her in a fierce embrace, his face buried in her hair.

“It’s yours,” he whispered in return. “It will always be yours.”

He stepped back slightly, still unable to completely release her, and let his head fall to her shoulder, his hands at her waist. She pressed her cheek to his ear, her hand at the back of his neck. They stood that way for a heartbeat and then he backed away, slipping into the shadow of the tree cast by the faded starlight. Constance sobbed once, watched him melt from her sight and then with a shuddering breath turned, gathering her shawl but leaving the basket, and stepped back into the house.

The heart of a Musketeer.

A heart not truly meant for love. Duty, honor, brotherhood…but not this. He had made his choice, just as Constance had made hers. He was a Musketeer and he must honor the path life had taken them both down.

He released a tight breath, his lungs feeling battered, his eyes gritty.

It wasn’t right or fair, but d’Artagnan knew that if he was to move past this pain he was going to have to make a decision. Several, in fact. One of them being to not traverse this street unless absolutely necessary. Another was to avoid brothels, even those fronting as taverns, until he was certain he could lose himself in the casual connection as Aramis did.

Taking a moment to steady his breathing and dry his eyes with the back of his hand, d’Artagnan stepped out from the shelter of the tree, his only thought to retreat to the garrison and the safety of his quarters where he knew he could eventually wear himself out training. He never thought to check the cloaked recesses of the buildings around him. He never thought to be on his guard.

It was a mistake for which he would pay dearly.

The blur of motion came at him from the right leaving him only enough time to throw his arms up in surprise and instinctive protection. The blow exploded through his skull and sent him reeling, dazed, to the street. He heard his sword clatter as it hit the stone path and he tried to roll to his back, his movements clumsy and disjointed.

Quedarse abajo, cachorro!”

The words came at him, foreign and confusing and he tried to push upright when he felt a boot slam into his ribs, lifting him from the ground with the force of the blow and driving the air from his lungs. He choked, coughing for air when another blow caught him across the cheekbone and the world went dark.

***

He came aware in stuttered glimpses of the world, as though consciousness were the surface of the ocean and he were bobbing within it. The world was faded at the corners, fog-like shadows collecting at the edges of his perception and rolling toward center. Noise splashed around him, disjointed, meaningless.

d’Artagnan would have been happy to simply slip back into the embrace of shadows if fire hadn’t licked down his ribs as something bit into his wrists, tugging his arms forward. He grunted helplessly as his body slapped the unyielding ground, sparking his sense to full awareness. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep his groan in check.

His head throbbed; something sticky and wet plastered his hair uncomfortably to the side of his face and stung his eye. His left eye wouldn’t focus and there was a strange ringing in his ear that seemed to echo off of his jaw bone.

Though he could still feel the chill of night, he could tell he was no longer outside. His jacket was missing; the thin cotton of his shirt rucked up to expose the skin of his back. He was prone, stretched out on some sort of wooden floor, the boards beneath him broad and rough-hewn; straw tickled his nose and poked the side of his face. Cautiously he looked up, realizing suddenly that his hands were bound together at the wrists with strong, thick rope, his arms extended over his head. His pauldron was missing, as were his weapons.

And three sets of boots were at his eye line.

“You have read the Bible, yes?” The voice was low, foreign, the accent thick.

d’Artagnan’s ear was not as attuned to languages as Aramis or Athos. He only knew when it wasn’t French or of Gascony. This man’s accent was neither. When he didn’t answer, one of the booted feet nudged him roughly in his bruised ribs and he flinched, pulling his arms down instinctively.

It was then that he realized they were tied to something, arresting their movement.

“Responder a la pregunta!”

“What?” he gasped, resisting the urge to draw his legs up and protect his side. Spanish, he realized. The man was shouting at him in Spanish. Suddenly he wished he’d paid closer attention when Aramis tried to teach him simple words.

“The Bible! You know it, yes?”

“Yes,” d’Artagnan replied, lifting his head further to get a better view of his surroundings. He felt the weight of a boot at the small of his back.

“The crucifying,” the man continued, his voice returning to the calm, almost conversational tone. “You know how it is they die?”

d’Artagnan began to feel a cold knot of dread curl up in his gut, shivering outward. He didn’t answer, looking over his shoulder, trying unsuccessfully to focus on the man who held him down. The unnatural angle of his neck sent a hot stab of pain through his eye and he was forced to lower his head once more.

“They, how you say…suffocate.”

The word caused d’Artagnan to draw a slow, shallow breath, his forehead against the straw, the foot at his back pressing down harder.

“They hung by their arms,” the man continued, crouching down so that d’Artagnan could feel his breath on the side of his face, his words a poisoned whisper in his ear, “the weight of their bodies too much. Their lungs could not fill. Their hearts could not beat. But it took hours. Days.”

The man reached out and moved d’Artagnan’s hair from the side of his face, then grasped his chin and turned his face upwards, twisting his neck roughly.

“This is what we will do to you.” He saw the man now, the pointed beard, the small eyes, the lavish red cravat. It was one of the men from the tavern.

Should have just run the bastard through.                                                                                      

“J-just,” d’Artagnan suppressed a wince of pain as the other man shifted his weight to press harder against his back. “Just so long as…it’s not drawn out,” he said on an exhale. “Don’t want to suffer.”

The man holding his chin frowned, releasing his face so that it hit the floor. At that, d’Artagnan did groan slightly, unable to bite it back quickly enough. The man spoke in rapid Spanish to his comrades and d’Artagnan felt the foot at the base of his spine release. He was able to take one full breath before he felt hands under his shoulders, dragging him roughly to his feet. He stood, his hands hanging down, weighted by the thick rope, two men flanking him and holding him upright.

“You mock me,” the man growled, stepping up to face d’Artagnan, his breath stale and smelling faintly of curdled milk.

d’Artagnan was surprised to see that the man was shorter than he’d first thought. It hardly mattered, though; the men who held d’Artagnan up, their grip keeping him from doing little more than shifting his feet, towered over him.

“You think you are brave, yes?”

d’Artagnan ignored the question, taking a moment to look around. He was in a barn – an empty one by the smell. No live animals, no heated bodies, nothing he would normally associate with such a structure. Just tall wooden beams and old, moldy straw. Cool night air slipped in from the opened doors at the front and what looked to be a ventilation hatch above the hay loft. A lantern hung from a hook behind the Spaniard, and near the door was a table with two chairs, a cluster of candles spilling wax over the wood in the center of the table.

He could hear only silence outside – no voices, animals, nothing. It was as if Paris existed in another world. The harder he tried to think about where they could have taken him, the more his head hurt.

“I think you are not so brave at the night, though,” the man continued.

Unable to help himself, d’Artagnan arched a brow at his captor. “This is night,” he said, waving his bound hands a bit in front of him. “That’s what they call it when it goes all dark like this.”                

A snarl twisting his thin lips, the Spaniard backhanded d’Artagnan with surprising strength, cutting the inside of the young Gascon’s cheek against his teeth and sending his already aching head ringing, his vision slipping in and out of focus. A ring from the man’s hand sliced open d’Artagnan’s cheek just below his eye.

The man issued a command that d’Artagnan didn’t understand, but the tone had the hairs on the back of his neck standing attention. Before he was able to think of an appropriate reaction to the slap, his hands were jerked roughly upwards, a rope fixed to his bindings tossed over the broad cross-beam above them.

One of the two men who’d held him upright pulled the loose end of the rope and d’Artagnan was suddenly stumbling backwards, scrambling for purchase, even as his arms were stretched tightly upright. He had a half second to grab a hasty breath before the man yanked the end of the rope once more, pulling d’Artagnan off his feet completely.

He couldn’t bite back the harsh cry of pain as his shoulders screamed from the weight, the skin on his wrists tearing beneath the coarse coil of rope as his body bounced slightly. He instinctively searched for ground, pointing his toes as much as his boots would allow, but finding only air. The muscles along his sides stretched painfully and as he brought his head up, he realized how difficult it was for him to draw a full breath.

“You see, now, yes?” the Spaniard approached him.

d’Artagnan didn’t reply; he was too busy giving serious thought to spitting in the man’s face.

“You see,” the man nodded. “And now, you will talk.”

“I have…nothing to say,” d’Artagnan gasped.

The man smiled enigmatically. “You will.”

He lobbed words in the direction of the man holding the rope and d’Artagnan felt his body lifted slightly higher before the man tied off the end of the rope, stepping away and leaving d’Artagnan hanging by his wrists. Without another word, the three men walked from the barn, leaving the candles burning, but taking the lantern with them.

d’Artagnan was alone in the semi-darkness of the barn. He dropped his head back, trying to see around him – a ledge, a stall, a bench, a discarded chunk of wood, something he could use as leverage. There was nothing. He may as well have been hanging in the center of a deserted island.

Bringing his head level once more he realized he was beginning to breathe a little too shallowly, his vision graying out. By twisting his hands just so, he found he was able to wrap them around the rope supporting his weight and pull himself upwards just enough to grab a lung full of air before letting himself back down once more.

It wasn’t ideal, but it was something. He could keep that up until his brothers found him. Or until his hands went numb. Or he lost strength in his arms. Whichever came first.

As he stared at the pitch dark beyond the cracked opening of the barn door, he replayed his night, wondering what he’d missed, how he’d ended up in this mess. He’d been foolish, distracted, angry. He should have paid more attention to the men at the tavern. He should have paid more attention to his surroundings when he left the tavern. He should have returned to the garrison with Porthos. He should never have visited Constance—Constance!

No, she was safe. He’d seen her disappear inside her home before the world went dark. Boniceaux – could he have arranged…? But the Spaniard had been at the Barely Mow. How would Boniceaux have known where Aramis had planned on taking him that night?

Aramis! The men had recognized him as a Musketeer; was Aramis also captured, trussed up somewhere, unable to call out?

“Hello?” d’Artagnan tried tentatively, his voice bouncing hollowly off of the dark. “Anyone there?”

Only the muted chirping of frogs greeted his ears. They were near water, then. It was something. He had no idea where they’d taken him. It couldn’t have been far; it was still night, but what he didn’t know of Paris and her outlying areas could fill a book. If Porthos had been with him, the man would mock him for not being able to even hazard a guess as to how far outside of the city he now resided.

If Porthos were here, you wouldn’t be in this mess, d’Artagnan chided himself, pulling up on the rope once more to take a breath.

The big Musketeer was truly a wonder, having gotten himself out of more scrapes in the time since d’Artagnan had met them than he could remember. His swarthy appearance and quick grin both set people on edge and put them at ease. Those who didn’t know him were not always able to determine quite what to make of Porthos, but there was no one else d’Artagnan would want next to him in battle.

Except perhaps Athos.

There were times d’Artagnan had found himself simply watching in wonder as Athos bested man after man as they trained. d’Artagnan was never quite sure if he’d found himself seeking to connect with Athos because he’d initially tried to kill the man and still searched for trust and absolution, or if there was something in the older man’s stoicism that d’Artagnan found familiar, comforting. Much like d’Artagnan’s own father, Athos held himself to a different set of criteria than others, forcing himself to stay just a bit aloof, enough away from the men that he could watch them carefully.

Watch over them. Guard them. He missed the man right now. Missed his steady gaze and calm demeanor. Where most saw coldness, d’Artagnan saw control. Where others saw judgment, d’Artagnan was learning to see caution.

Tugging in another breath, d’Artagnan wondered about the things Athos was always so busy not saying. It was as though whole paragraphs of feeling were held in the man’s eyes, simply waiting for an avenue to reach the surface, but before they could escape, Athos built a wall.

He was an expert craftsmen of internal architecture.

As the gray of dawn crept over the world beyond the barn doors, d’Artagnan mused that Athos was teaching him more than just how to handle a sword. He had learned to shield himself over the last year. If he hadn’t, there would have been no surviving Milady’s coy seduction. However, d’Artagnan was in need of a refresher course if he was to survive in a world where Constance was forever out of reach.

Hours passed.

His thirst began to war with his shallow breaths as the gray morning became an overcast day. When the storm rolled in, d’Artagnan felt the clash of thunder in the stretched sinew of his joints, his heart thudding like a panicked bird as he tried to stretch out the time between breaths longer and longer, his arms trembling from the effort and his hands long-since numb.

The candles had burned out at dawn, a river of wax hardening on the table in a faded, yellow smear. Somehow keeping his eyes trained on that lump helped him maintain focus, able to press the fear down low, into his gut, where it couldn’t choke him. When the Spaniard and his two companions walked back into the barn, the rain had stopped and the air in the shadowed space was close and muggy.

“You are still here, I see?” the Spaniard said, chuckling at his own joke.

“Th-thought I’d h-hang around awhile,” d’Artagnan managed, his voice a rasp against the quiet of the barn.

“You must like my company, yes?”

d’Artagnan rested his aching head on the inside of his arm, the pain exacerbated by his position and incredible thirst. As if sensing his particular pain, the small Spaniard pulled out a flask, tossing back a swallow of its contents and smacking his lips in satisfaction. d’Artagnan didn’t even realize that he’d caught his lower lip in his teeth.

“You like this, yes?”

He looked away, not willing to give the man the satisfaction of seeing his need. He missed the visual cue that preceded the hit, and before he was ready or braced for it, the taller of the two men reached up and belted him in the mouth with a large, closed fist, causing his head to snap back painfully, his lip to open and his arms to pull with a white-hot pain that sent his body swaying and senses reeling.

He didn’t even hear himself cry out.

“Hush, now,” the Spaniard soothed, placing a hand on d’Artagnan’s hip to stop his body from swaying.

The feel of the man’s hand on his taut muscles was enough to make d’Artagnan want to cry out once again, and he bit his lip in an effort to stay quiet, the blood gathering in his mouth.

“We will talk now.”

d’Artagnan waited a beat until he could feel the blood sloshing a bit in his mouth, then he spat it at the Spaniard, coating the man’s face with a spray of red. Without flinching, the man curled his hand into a fist, the rings adorning his fingers becoming weapons, as he drove the fist into d’Artagnan’s gut.

This time, he didn’t have air to cry out. The rings hit his bared skin where the loose white shirt skimmed the top of his breeches and he felt something crack inside of him. The pain that rocked through him whited out everything else until the world faded to nothing.

For a brief, wonderful moment, d’Artagnan felt peace.

Fate, however, was not to be that kind and a shock of cold water brought him around, the force of the water’s impact causing his body to swing on his bound wrists. This time the man didn’t stop the motion, letting him swing painfully, his shoulders straining to a breaking point.

“You are awake?” the man asked, peering up at him. “Good. You will tell me where I can find Athos of the King’s Musketeers.”

“Go to Hell.” He barely recognized his own voice. It was low, feral, empty of everything but hate.

The man began to speak rapidly in Spanish and for a moment d’Artagnan thought he was once more giving instructions to his cohorts until he realized the words were being flung his way. The man paced in front of him, waving his arms as though to punctuate a thought or emphasize a word; d’Artagnan could do nothing but stare.

He couldn’t understand a damn thing the man was saying.

After a moment, he tried to pull himself up to grab air when the man who’d raised him aloft in the first place jerked on the rope, causing d’Artagnan to grunt in pain. The Spaniard whirled to face him, his narrow face red with anger, his lips so thinned they disappeared within his neatly-trimmed beard.

“I ask you again! Athos! Where is he?”

“Ask all damn day,” d’Artagnan gasped.

“Do you know what it is to suffocate?” the Spaniard asked, surging forward until his face was close enough d’Artagnan could see where flecks of his blood still splattered the man’s face.

“I’ve…a pretty good…idea.”

“You will panic, your heart pounding,” the Spaniard whispered, his breath hot on d’Artagnan’s skin where the laces of his shirt gaped, exposing his sternum. “Your head will ache so you wish it to…explode.”

Spittle from his lips peppered d’Artagnan’s chest and throat. He didn’t let the man know that he was pretty much already at that point, thanks to whatever they hit him with the night before. He stared at the man, schooling his features and trying for dangerous, but pretty sure he fell somewhere in the neighborhood of terrified.

“Perhaps, if you knew why I seek this man, you would divulge his location.”

“Doubt,” d’Artagnan felt a shudder of pain slip through him, stalling his breath and capturing his voice for a moment, “you wanna buy him…a drink.”

“He killed my sister.”

d’Artagnan remained silent. He wanted the man to take it for denial, but in truth he could no longer draw breath to speak. It was difficult enough to stay conscious.

“He seduced her, bedded her, and in a drunken rage, murdered her.”

The man moved away from d’Artagnan and reached for something that lay in a pile next to the wax-stained table. It took d’Artagnan only a moment to realize that it was his pauldron. If there had been strength in his body he would have growled, but he could barely focus. His heart was slamming wildly, sweat turning his shivering skin clammy, his lips tingling as he gasped, over and over, hungry for air.

The room around him grew dim and from a distance he realized the man was still talking, but he could no longer hear the words. It could have been French, Spanish or even his native Gascon dialect and he wouldn’t have understood him. His head hung low, no fight left in his body.

And then…relief. His feet suddenly rested on a platform of some kind and his arms sagged. Choking on breath, d’Artagnan gasped himself aware, swaying precariously on the bench he now stood upon, his wrists screaming as he wavered enough to pull at the ropes. He dragged in ragged gasps of air, blinking his eyes clear and searching the room for his savior, only to find the narrowed, beady-eyed gaze of the Spaniard.

“You will not die until I allow it.”

d’Artagnan swallowed, feeling true fear for the first time since he’d woken in the barn. This man clearly had no problem taking him to the brink and dragging him back from the edge of peace. His body wept with even this small relief from the pain and trembled from the anticipation of the pain to come.

“Athos. Of the King’s Musketeers,” the man repeated, this time thrusting d’Artagnan’s pauldron in his face so that he could smell the leather and see the shallow strike marks from where his friend’s swords had buffed out the newness on the fleur-dis-lis.

“Fuck you,” d’Artagnan growled.

When the bench was kicked free, d’Artagnan dropped to the end of his rope, and his body screamed. The world spun around him as the muscles along his lean torso began once more to squeeze the air from his lungs. A spike of pain stabbed through his head, making his vision waver.

“You are loyal to this Athos, yes? He is…how you say…your brother-in-arms?” the Spaniard mused, running his fingers lightly over the pauldron. “You have love for your brother, yes? You think he will come for you. Save you.”

d’Artagnan simultaneously yearned for that and feared it. He knew the man saw the desperate hope on his face at the word save. He couldn’t help it, could stop the gasp of longing at the thought of salvation and relief. But Athos could not come for him, not when that was exactly what this man wanted.

“You feel the same for the others, I think. The man you left at the tavern, perhaps?”

Panic gripped d’Artagnan the likes of which he could not recall. “Leave…him….”

“What? You wish he would not see harm, yes?” the man leaned forward once more, so close he blurred in d’Artagnan’s vision. He shoved the pauldron against d’Artagnan’s cheek. “Athos.”

d’Artagnan held his tongue, trying only to keep breathing. It did not take long for the man to grow impatient when he did not speak. Muttering at the other men, he tossed the pauldron back on the pile that d’Artagnan realized now also contained his jacket and weapons, and stormed from the barn, his comrades at his heels.

Alone once more, d’Artagnan tried to pull himself up to grab air and found his arms trembling so violently he was barely able to find even a small amount of relief. As he hung by his wrists, his body shaking, his mind buzzing, a tear slipped from his burning eyes to blend with the blood on his face.

Continued in Part Two

Chapter Text

***

He had lost all sense of time.

The light danced in gray and pale gold across the empty lot visible through the opened barn doors. He knew the day stretched out, peaked, and faded to shadows. He knew he came close to slipping away with it at least once more, but one of the Spaniard’s companions returned to place the bench beneath his feet just as d’Artagnan felt his last breath sliding from his lips..

As darkness gripped the world outside once more, d’Artagnan attempted to stand, desperate for air, but his strength had left him. Blood from his various wounds had dried to his skin, but the wounds themselves left him trembling and aching. His legs shook as he tried to relieve the stress on his arms, but he truly had nothing left.

d’Artagnan wasn’t sure if it was pity or simply a need to keep him alive a bit longer, but the man stepped up on the bench next to him, holding him upright as his arms sagged, and offered him a dipper of water. d’Artagnan leaned against his torturer without shame, his only thoughts on breathing and the cooling water that slipped down his throat, soothing his dehydrated body. He didn’t even open his eyes; he simply stood and breathed.

All too soon, the reprieve ended and the bench was once more kicked free. This time, d’Artagnan felt the skin beneath his bonds rip, the rope slipping on the blood. He screamed, unable to stop himself, and uncaring who heard him.

He hung in the darkness for an undetermined amount of time, the night close, the sounds from the deserted lot growing louder, but unable to drown out the pounding of his heart as it beat against his ears, pushing the pressure in his head to the point d’Artagnan knew the Spaniard had been right: he was sure his head would explode.

Without consciously realizing it, he’d began to whisper words of a song to which he’d long ago forgotten the tune. His father had often sung it while walking the fields, or after a few too many glasses of wine. The story the song told had always intrigued d’Artagnan and at the same time made him rather sad. It was that of a highway man in love with an inn keeper’s daughter. Soldiers invaded the inn, intent on capturing the man, and the daughter hung herself from her window to warn her love away.

As his arms stretched, his body hanging weak and heavy, his wrists and shoulders burning and his lungs folding close, d’Artagnan realized he knew how the girl had felt, hoping her sacrifice would save someone she loved. If he died this night, denying the Spaniard access to Athos, his death will have been worth it.

All he had left in this world were his brothers; nothing was worth their deaths. Even his life. The thought gave him the first sense of real peace since fear had gripped him at the hands of the small Spaniard.

Therefore it was rather disconcerting when he saw the lantern lights approach the barn and heard a very familiar voice growling in protest at the way he was being handled.

“I will see you hang for this!”

“Ah, but first,” the Spaniard practically purred, “you will indulge me.”

d’Artagnan lifted his heavy head slowly, peering out through heavy-lidded eyes, blood from his head wound having crusted in his lashes, his dark hair hanging over his forehead. Aramis was shoved forward through the barn door, landing roughly on his hands and knees in the straw. He pushed himself upright, but was held to his knees by two sets of heavy hands. His hat was missing, as were his weapons, but he still had his jacket and pauldron.

Blood framed his face around one eye. He gaped at d’Artagnan, fear and horror at war on his handsome features.

“My God. d’Artagnan,” he breathed, his complexion paling further beneath the crimson stain.

“Ah, yes, we have a name at last,” the Spaniard smiled, a little giggle punctuating his realization.

d’Artagnan kept his eyes on Aramis, watching as the older man closed his eyes in a wince at having given away a bit of information. It wasn’t Athos. As long as it wasn’t Athos, he’d done his duty as a brother. He’d protected his friend. And he needed Aramis here, needed the small strength seeing his friend brought to his tortured body.

“What have you done to him?” Aramis growled, looking up at the Spaniard.

“Simply shown him the limits of his endurance.”

“How long has he been like this?” Aramis asked, anger slipping under his words.

“Since he left the company of the beautiful Isabeau last night,” the Spaniard revealed, walking between Aramis and d’Artagnan, circling the marksman as though sizing him up.

When he blocked d’Artagnan’s view of his friend, d’Artagnan found himself twisting to see around the man’s narrow shoulders, needing to keep Aramis in his sights.

“He will not survive much longer,” the slim man shrugged.

d’Artagnan forced a breath out through his nose, but other than that forced himself to make no other reaction to the man’s words.

“Stubbornly, he has refused to provide me with the answers I am looking for and has required me to take…alternative means.”

Aramis tried to get up only to be shoved roughly to his knees once more. As the Spaniard moved around to the back of Aramis, d’Artagnan found his friend’s eyes and held them, drawing strength and forcing himself to breathe. The initial horror in Aramis’ dark eyes was replaced by rage that burned so hot d’Artagnan felt it. Used it. Drew it into him and held it.

“Enora is very good at her job, yes?” the Spaniard continued. “I dare say better than most to have kept you occupied for more than a night. And letting me know just where you could be found.”

d’Artagnan watched as Aramis forced himself not to flinch, processing the implication of the man’s words. Vaguely, d’Artagnan remembered noting Enora’s accent, but had been so distracted by the prospect of why they were in the tavern hadn’t thought the wench to be a threat. Clearly, neither had Aramis.

“She came at a high price, as did her companion,” the Spaniard revealed, pulling at his pointed beard. “But my contact was right. They were,” he ran a finger down the side of Aramis’ face, tracing the blood that spilled there, “worth every cent.”

Aramis swallowed tightly, a muscle bouncing in his jaw. The questions shifted to Spanish and d’Artagnan registered the moment Aramis realized that he had no idea what was being said. Aramis replied in equally rapid Spanish, his lip curling with such disgust d’Artagnan could guess what the man had been asked. The Spaniard barked several more questions at Aramis, but the marksman remained silent.

Reaching his threshold of patience, the Spaniard grabbed Aramis by his hair and yanked, hard, pulling the other man’s head back and exposing his throat. From the sleeve of his ornate red coat, the Spaniard produced a knife, resting the blade on Aramis’ skin, the tip pressed to the soft underside of his chin, buried in his beard.

“Slit my throat,” Aramis managed, “and I won’t be saying much.”

“It is not you who should speak to me,” the Spaniard hissed. “It is that stubborn boy!”

“I see no boy here,” Aramis replied.

Despite himself, d’Artagnan felt his mouth tip up in a tremulous smile. The Spaniard looked over at him, the blade still pressed to Aramis’ throat. d’Artagnan blinked slowly to meet the man’s dark eyes, unable to muster even a flicker of concern as to what the man might do to him.

“You,” the Spaniard purred once again, the knife not budging an inch as he stared at d’Artagnan. “You care for this man, yes? He is…your brother?”

d’Artagnan didn’t move. Couldn’t. His world was swiftly narrowing to the valley of light cast by the lantern, centering on Aramis and the knife at his throat.

“You tell me where is Athos, and I spare him,” the Spaniard promised. “You remain silent, and he dies.”

“He doesn’t know where Athos is,” Aramis said, his voice strained by the angle of his neck.

Before d’Artagnan could attempt to speak and caution Aramis against sacrificing himself for d’Artagnan’s sake, a cry of warning was heard from outside the barn. The Spaniard and his two cohorts brought their heads up in surprise and the initial shout was joined by more, the voices growing louder as they approached the barn.

“You are not alone,” the Spaniard realized, looking down at Aramis.

“I am a Musketeer,” Aramis replied. “We are never alone.”

With that, Aramis reached up and grabbed the man’s wrist, bringing up a knee as swiftly as he brought down the man’s arm, cracking the bone and forcing his hand open to lose the blade. The Spaniard shouted in surprise and pain, backing away swiftly, cradling his wounded arm. Aramis popped to his feet, grabbing the sword from the scabbard of the man nearest him and turned to slash at the other man who’d held him down.

d’Artagnan tried to shout a warning as the man whose sword had been stolen lunged at Aramis, but found he had no air with which to do so. He could no longer pull himself up on his ropes; his arms were spent. He hung, helpless and strangling, watching as his friend battled two men while four others poured in from the empty lot, Spanish filling the air like verbal knives.

Dimly, as though viewing the fight from the bottom of a well, d’Artagnan saw the unmistakable figure of Porthos wading into the group of men, all as big as he, fearless in his attack. The close quarters of the empty barn aisle called for a different fighting style and Porthos met the challenge. He kicked at one opponent while reaching back over his shoulder to grab another, hauling the man by the neck over his shoulder as he turned to slam his fist into the jaw of a third.

As d’Artagnan watched, Porthos made his way to where Aramis was fighting off two men with his borrowed sword, putting his back to Aramis’ and creating a deadly force. Heavy-looking shackles were swung and d’Artagnan saw Porthos’ head snap back, the metal catching him along the side of his face and eye, drawing both blood and ire. The sound of gunfire caused the battling men to duck and as the first grey whispers of dawn approached, d’Artagnan saw Athos standing in the doorway of the barn, smoke from the barrel of the harquebus in his hand curling up around him.

“Porthos! Get d’Artagnan!”

Athos’ order rang out over the melee and was the last clear thing d’Artagnan registered before his breath left him and a blurred darkness enveloped him. He never saw who cut him down or how. The next thing he was conscious of was someone viciously rubbing at his chest, and words crashing against his ears, demanding that he breathe, now, dammit, breathe!

Gasping, choking, as though surfacing from the depths of an ocean, d’Artagnan pulled air into his starved lungs, stars dancing before his eyes as he blinked them open, trying to make sense of his surroundings.

“I’ve got you,” whispered a deep voice in his ear. “Easy now, I’ve got you, that’s it. Breathe, just breathe.”

Porthos. He was lying on the ground beneath the beam where he’d hung for so long, his head and shoulders in Porthos’ lap, the big man’s hand on his chest and his voice in his ear. He wanted to warn them, say something about getting Athos the hell out of there, but he could do nothing except what Porthos bade him do: breathe. He closed his eyes and sagged into Porthos’ embrace, letting the big man support him as his muscles were no longer able to.

Someone was cutting the ropes from his wrists and he cried out, arching away from the searing pain as the bindings were removed, his torn and bleeding skin agonizing as the raw wounds met air. He heard someone swear, and felt the arms around him tighten, but he was struggling to remain conscious. When the ropes were gone, someone began to rub his hands, his fingers, avoiding the damage at his wrists, but working feeling back into his appendages. He prayed they wouldn’t do the same to his arms: they hurt badly enough with Porthos’ grip.

“You have not won, despite what you think.”

He knew that voice. The Spaniard.

“Is that right?”

d’Artagnan opened his eyes, surging forward. Athos. Two sets of hands grabbed him, holding him back, bracing him.

“It appears we have bested your men and have you at sword point,” Athos continued, confidence sitting at home on his face. “What am I missing?”

d’Artagnan rolled his head toward Athos’ voice, trying to focus, seeing bodies lying prone or slumped around them, the Spaniard and one other man on their knees in front of Athos.

“Athos,” he breathed, not registering that he spoke aloud, not realizing that with one exhale he’d unwound all the hours of his resistance. He tried to reach for the man, but couldn’t order his arms to move. Aramis caught his hand and rubbed life back into it.

“It is you,” the Spaniard whispered. “You are Athos of the King’s Musketeers.”

No! d’Artagnan wanted to scream, wanted to deny the truth, find a way to return to the reality where he’d prevented the Spaniard from discovering his prey, but he couldn’t find the words. It was as if half his vocabulary had suddenly vanished.

“You have me at a disadvantage,” Athos said, angling his sword so that the point pressed a bit more fully into the Spaniard’s doublet. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”

“I am Miguel de Vega of Zaragoza in Aragon,” the Spaniard informed him.

Athos calmly tipped his head to the side, folding his lips down in a frown. “I am afraid you are not known to me, Monsieur.”

d’Artagnan felt one pair of hands leave him, and looked to the side where Aramis was now standing. He held a sword, red with another man’s blood, at his side, but his eyes were on Athos. Porthos kept d’Artagnan held tight, but there was a tension now in his body that hadn’t been there before.

“You will remember my sister Theresa de Vega,” de Vega replied. “You bedded her then murdered her.”

“You are mistaken,” Athos stated, his voice calm.

“No, it is you who are mistaken,” de Vega snarled.

The shot seemed to explode from somewhere inside d’Artagnan’s aching head. His heart screamed as he saw Athos lurch backwards as if punched, his back slamming against the barn post behind him. Porthos released d’Artagnan as he and Aramis turned as one toward the man they’d thought unconscious who had shot Athos from a prone position on the floor of the barn.

d’Artagnan tried to crawl forward, his numb arms useless, his torn muscles screaming, as Athos slid to the ground. He could not turn his eyes away from the wound at the man’s shoulder, the blood staining the bits of exposed shirt a garish black in the lantern light. He saw Athos staring at him, his blue eyes slipping from shock to anger.

Seconds before he felt the hands at his wounded shoulders, he turned his head to see Miguel de Vega reaching for him, murder in his eyes.

“d’Artagnan!” Athos bellowed, as if ordering him to do something to protect himself, or perhaps finding a way to escape.

But d’Artagnan was powerless to do more than stare with contempt as the Spaniard grabbed him by his wounded arm and hauled him up close, a human shield against Aramis’ and Porthos’ wrath.                   d’Artagnan tried to struggle, but the Spaniard twisted his arm around behind him, grabbing his painfully raw wrist, causing d’Artagnan to cry out, his knees buckling. He presented little fight at that point, too wracked with pain to muster the coordination to resist.

STOP!” the Spaniard screamed, the dagger that he’d pressed to Aramis’ throat now at d’Artagnan’s.

Blinking, d’Artagnan saw Aramis and Porthos freeze where they’d been battling the man who’d shot Athos as well as two others who’d regained their senses from the earlier battle. They looked from where d’Artagnan sagged, nearly senseless, at the point of de Vega’s blade to where Athos sat slumped and bleeding against the barn wall.

“Drop your swords,” de Vega demanded.

Aramis narrowed his eyes and Porthos tilted his head.

“You must think us fools,” Porthos growled.

“Do as he says,” Athos gasped.

Porthos exchanged a look with Aramis. “Apparently we are.”

d’Artagnan heard the clatter of metal against the barn floor and pushed his trembling legs upright, relieving some of the pressure against his screaming shoulder.

“I have what I desire,” de Vega informed them from behind d’Artagnan. “You will leave. Take the boy. Leave Athos with me.”

“That’s not going to ‘appen,” Porthos stated flatly.

de Vega pressed the blade tighter against d’Artagnan’s throat. “I can kill him now. It matters not to me.”

“Go,” Athos ordered, slightly breathless. “Leave.”

d’Artagnan shot a look at his friend and mentor, the weakness in the man’s voice striking fear into his heart and sending a surge of fire through his wrecked body. Athos was holding his wounded arm with his opposite hand, his eyes hooded and heavy, as though he were slipping away from them.

d’Artagnan growled, the sound roiling up from his gut and bringing with it the pain and fear from the long hours of the previous day, the loss and the longing from his encounter with Constance, and the anger at the temerity this man had to attack and accuse his friend without evidence. The sound echoed from the abandoned walls of the dimly lit barn and startled Aramis and Porthos into a crouch as d’Artagnan suddenly pressed backwards, knocking the blade from de Vega’s grip and sending the Spaniard staggering.

Landing on his knees, d’Artagnan was barely able to stay upright, but his diversion had been enough for Aramis and Porthos to grab their weapons once again and attack. He couldn’t tell how many of de Vega’s men were left standing, but he saw one man lunge for Athos, slamming his fist across the Musketeer’s jaw and sending him soundlessly into a heap on the barn floor.

NO!” d’Artagnan finally found the strength to yell, wanting to reach for the man, but unable to so much as lift his arms.

“Porthos!” he heard Aramis yell. “Get him! Get him, go!

d’Artagnan felt an arm snake around his waist, felt himself hauled up, tried to find his footing, but stumbled, sagging against the grip. He couldn’t tear his eyes from Athos’s silent, bleeding, unmoving form. He’d failed. He’d failed him.

“C’mon, lad,” Porthos grunted and in moments, d’Artagnan felt himself turned and tipped, Porthos slinging him bodily over his shoulder as if he were of no more consequence than a sack of feed.

He could see Aramis following closely behind, but his awareness slipped as they breeched the cool air of night, moving swiftly through the shadows to the tree line and beyond. If it weren’t for the pain ricocheting through his body he would have easily lost his battle with consciousness. They paused at the edge of a clearing, night on the cusp of releasing its hold on the world, and Porthos eased him off his shoulder to sit, slumped on the top of a stump.

“Goddamn it.”

“We regroup. Go back for him.”

Damn it all, Aramis.”

“This man will not take our brother from us.”

d’Artagnan began to slump forward, unable to remain upright.

“Easy, now.” Porthos caught him, held him upright. “Stay with us, lad.”

“They certainly put you through it.” He heard Aramis sigh.

“We ‘aven’t much time.”

“I must do something for him – at least bind his wrists.”

“That little Spaniard is out for blood, Aramis.”

d’Artagnan simply blinked as the words flowed around him. The world was beginning to wake. The trees came to life with the retreat of the owls and the call of the mourning doves. The sun stretched lazy arms at the edge of the horizon.

And the sky was red.                                                                                                                  

***

Present

They moved quickly, Porthos in the lead, Aramis close behind. However, neither their reassuring presence nor the knowledge of who depended upon them was enough to keep d’Artagnan from weaving dangerously, unable to stay running in a straight line. At one point, Aramis closed ranks, pulling up next to him and tried to leverage an arm over his shoulders to support him and d’Artagnan saw white.

When his vision cleared once more, he realized that Aramis had simply pulled him close, bracing him upright with one arm while his other was occupied by his primed harquebus. They reached the edge of the tree line just outside of the barn. Aramis set d’Artagnan down wordlessly, his entire focus on the opened barn door.

The Spaniard – it was difficult for d’Artagnan to think of him as anyone else after so many hours – was standing just inside the door, recognizable by his elaborate cravat. He held his broken wrist close to his chest, his eyes on something deeper inside the interior of the barn. Four men, from what d’Artagnan could see, were stretched prone in the empty barn lot with three more standing guard. He had no clear memory of how many men had been part of the melee earlier; his only hope was that this was the extent of the Spaniard’s men.

“What’s the plan?” Porthos asked quietly.

“You go low, I go high,” Aramis replied.

“You call that a plan?”

“I go low, you go high?” Aramis amended.

“That’s a bit better.”

d’Artagnan managed to look at his friends over his shoulder. “The man wants Athos to pay for the death of his sister,” he said, surprised at the rasp of his own voice. He sounded as if he’d been screaming for hours. “He may have him strung up as he did me.”

“All the more reason for me to come at them from the top,” Porthos reasoned, pulling at the point of his beard in thought.

“Athos is innocent of this accusation,” Aramis said quietly.

At that, both Porthos and d’Artagnan looked at him in surprise and concern.

“What do you know of this?” d’Artagnan asked from where he sat, unaware of the effect his wounded eyes had on Aramis’ conscience.

“I knew Theresa de Vega,” Aramis confessed.

“Safe to assume you…knew ‘er as you do most other women?” Porthos asked.

“It was years ago,” Aramis continued. “She was passing through France.” He licked the pad of his gloved thumb and wiped at the sight of his harquebus in a distracted, worried manner. “I only recall her name because she told me she was related to the Queen through a cousin.”

“That figures,” Porthos grumbled.

“If she is dead, it did not happen while she was in my company.”

“Nor Athos’,” d’Artagnan defended.

“’ow did this lout even get Athos’ name?” Porthos muttered.

“I suggest we return the favor and question him,” Aramis said, taking a breath and squaring his shoulders. He glanced down at d’Artagnan. “We will create the necessary distraction. All you must do is get to Athos.”

“I won’t let you down,” d’Artagnan promised, though he was momentarily uncertain exactly how he was going to climb to his feet.

“Oi, Aramis.” Porthos raised two harquebuses he’d managed to procure in the confusion of their escape in either hand and bumped his friend with an elbow. Aramis looked over. “Next time you get yourself lost in the bed of a wench, make sure she ain’t a Spanish spy.”

“Next time,” Aramis nodded once, then reached down and, as gently as he could, lifted d’Artagnan to his feet.

d’Artagnan nearly bit through his lip to keep quiet as his muscles wept at the motion. Aramis pulled a dagger free from his back sheath and put it in d’Artagnan’s waistband, meeting the younger man’s eyes. d’Artagnan was breathing hard, both from pain and nerves, and could only manage to nod his thanks.

“All for one,” Aramis said quietly, his gaze taking them both in.

“And one for all,” Porthos finished looking toward the barn.

With a cry that sounded like a banshee come to reap souls, Porthos broke cover and ran at the barn, his shots finding a home in the body of one of the guards. Before he’d dropped his harquebuses and pulled his sword, Aramis was on his heels firing at a second guard, their duel entrance stirring up a shield of chaos that allowed d’Artagnan to slip from cover and run in a slightly wavering gait to the side of the barn. As he began to slip along the outside wall, he saw Porthos scrambling up the side of the barn, using the wooden braces and one of the wounded guards as leverage, and disappearing over the roof.

Unable to keep an eye on where Aramis had gotten off to and keep his balance, d’Artagnan hurried along the outer wall to the back entrance of the barn, slipping inside and searching the gloom for Athos. To his great relief, he didn’t see the man hanging from any rafters – either by his arms or otherwise – and moved further into the shadows. He could hear de Vega shouting in Spanish as he drew closer to the entrance, and saw Porthos slip inside through the upper ventilation door above the hay loft.

It took him a moment to find Athos, and his knees wavered once when he saw that the man was not only alive, but was alert and glaring at his captor with venom. He’d been tied, his hands behind his back, and a gag placed in his mouth. His weapons were missing, but d’Artagnan suspected they were in the same location as his own lost pauldron.

d’Artagnan heard the clash of metal beyond the doorway and prayed that Aramis was holding his own. He made his way as carefully as he could to the post across from Athos, not yet breaking his cover, and searched the shadows for any more of de Vega’s men. He saw one other besides the Spaniard standing, weapon at the ready, next to Athos. Leaning heavily against the beam, dizziness momentarily overwhelming him, d’Artagnan forced himself to breathe as his body threatened to shut down around him.

“de Vega!” Aramis called from outside in the lot. “Release my friend and send out your men and no harm will come to you.”

de Vega released a torrent of Spanish that even d’Artagnan’s untrained ear could tell was filled with insults.

“That’s not very polite,” Aramis scolded.

The Spaniard stormed across the aisle to Athos, dropping to his knees and ejecting the blade from his sleeve, the point of it inches from Athos’ jugular. d’Artagnan wasn’t even aware that he’d moved. He only knew that he was suddenly standing in the center of the aisle, the dagger Aramis had placed in his waistband now in his shockingly steady hand, pressed against de Vega’s throat.

“You are a fool,” the Spaniard snarled.

“Let him go,” d’Artagnan demanded, barely recognizing his own voice.

de Vega muttered in Spanish at the man standing with his blade on Athos and the man lifted his sword to d’Artagnan’s chest. Without looking away from de Vega, d’Artagnan saw Athos stiffen, felt his friend’s eyes pierce him, but he did not falter.

“Surrender or die,” d’Artagnan promised coldly.

“You are barely on your feet,” de Vega scoffed. “A strong breeze would set you on the ground.”

“Unfortunately for you,” d’Artagnan continued, feeling the tremors begin to roll through him, “it’s not very windy in here.”

de Vega’s man pressed the sword harder against d’Artagnan’s skin and in retaliation d’Artagnan pressed his blade hard enough to draw blood at de Vega’s throat.

“I really don’t have all day,” Aramis was saying from the empty lot. “I mean, this is hardly sporting of you. First you use a woman to distract me while you pursue the wrong man,” he sighed loudly, “and then you won’t even face me yourself.”

“What is this? Wrong man?” de Vega looked from Athos to d’Artagnan and back. “What is he saying?”

“He’s saying,” d’Artagnan stated bluntly, “surrender. Or die.”

He couldn’t help his own sharp intake of breath as he felt the point of the other blade at his side.

“Ah-ah,” came a voice from above, causing both de Vega and his man to look skyward. d’Artagnan heard the hiss of a fuse being lit from one of the many lanterns hanging on the beams lining the aisle. “Don’t go there.” He waved the lit bomb in the eye line of de Vega’s man. “Not if you enjoy breathin’.”

“Stand your ground,” de Vega ordered his man.

The man lowered his sword, not taking his eyes off the mad man in the rafters, a bomb in his hand.

“He’s deceiving you!”

“You sure ‘bout that?” Porthos asked, tilting his head and regarding the bomb curiously. “Just as soon take us all out than ‘ave some Spanish bastard kill my friend.”

At that, de Vega’s man dropped his sword and ran outside, only to be met by Aramis and subsequently overpowered. d’Artagnan glanced up in time to see Porthos’ wide grin as he pulled the fuse from the bomb and tossed the iron ball harmlessly into a pile of hay nearby in the loft. As Porthos released the still-sparking fuse, Athos swept his legs out and knocked de Vega to his back. Porthos dropped from the rafters to straddle the man, keeping him on the ground.

“So, it’s surrender, then?”

de Vega released the blade he still held in his grip and relented as Porthos flipped him over to tie his hands.

Suddenly, the energy and adrenalin that had propelled d’Artagnan to this point evaporated and he felt his knees vanish, sending him pitching forward to the ground, the knife in his hand clattering free just out of reach of where Athos sat tied. Blinking rapidly, d’Artagnan tried to push himself up, to roll to his side, but he was completely without strength.

He heard shouting, someone calling his name, but the darkness at the edges of his vision rushed to center with dizzying speed. His body seemed to seize up and cry out in one rush and then nothing. Black. Peace. All the fight and the pain was gone.

And it scared him to death.

“…foolish boy….”

“…blood everywhere….”

“…careful…arms…hanging….”

He heard voicing swimming around him, felt his body lifted, felt his head fall back into air, his arms hanging painfully at his side. He couldn’t distinguish who touched him, why, or what they were saying. At one point someone pressed something cool to his lips and he moaned helplessly, turning toward the comfort. Chasing that, however, was a fire at his wrists, licking up his arms and he tried to pull away, feeling the groan of pain dragged from him.

“Easy, you’re safe….”

He wasn’t certain. There had been so many hours alone, so long trying simply to breathe.

“We have you, d’Artagnan.”

They had him. His brothers. His family.

“Breathe, lad, that’s it, go easy now….”

He could breathe now, the pain of it not so great, the deep ache a reminder that he lived.

“Need you to open your eyes….”

“…back to us, lad.”

There was more movement and someone held him, the warmth and scent of gunpowder and sweat too close to be anything other than an embrace. He felt his body shifted abruptly and there was a sudden, sharp pain in his head and he opened his eyes with a gasp.

“d’Artagnan?”

Athos.

He swallowed roughly and felt the edge of a water skin placed on his lips. Closing his eyes, he drank greedily until it was pulled away. He tried not to whimper.

“There will be more when we are certain you can keep it down,” Athos told him.

d’Artagnan opened his eyes once more. It took him a moment to realize that he actually lay with his head and shoulders in his friend’s lap. Athos’ wounded shoulder was bound, his arm against his chest, a spot of crimson on the white bandage. His face was pale, his lip cracked, but he seemed otherwise intact.

“Where…?”

“Porthos procured a wagon,” Athos informed him. “You and I are to ride back to Paris in style.”

The half-grin Athos awarded him sent a surge of light through d’Artagnan’s wounded body. He tried to sit up, to get off of Athos’ lap, but suddenly realized movement was all-but impossible. His muscles had seized up, rebelling from even the smallest command. Athos put his free hand on the top of d’Artagnan’s head.

“Easy,” he said. “Just lie still.”

“Athos—“

“Everyone is safe, d’Artagnan. Relax.”

“Your shoulder,” d’Artagnan protested.

“The ball cut through muscle and exited out the side,” Athos glanced down at his bandage. “Aramis was able to bind it and we’ll have a physician see to it when we return.”

“Aramis? Where—“

“Aramis is driving, Porthos is just there,” he nodded to the side of the wagon, “and de Vega is behind on the spare horse,” Athos informed him. “There is nothing more you need do until we arrive in Paris.”

“I don’t even know where we are,” d’Artagnan confessed, sighing. He wanted to put a hand to his aching head, but he was unable to lift it. It was as though his arms each weighed more than his whole body.

“An abandoned farm, several miles outside of the city,” Athos told him. “Apparently, the men who apprehended you had set up camp here for quite some time, avoiding detection.”

Athos adjusted d’Artagnan carefully, shifting him so that his shoulders were better supported. The motion called d’Artagnan’s attention to his friend’s pauldron and his eyes flinched. Athos followed his line of sight.

“We have it safe,” Athos assured him, another rare smile ghosting his lips. “Aramis collected your effects – including your sword. You’ll be wearing it again as soon as you’re able.”

“How did you find me?” d’Artagnan asked, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a wince as a ripple of pain swept over him like a wave.

Athos frowned, looking away.

“What is it?”

“To my shame, I did not,” Athos replied. “Aramis suspected you’d fallen to harm when he discovered his chosen companion had…other intentions for his time.”

“She was a spy for de Vega,” d’Artagnan nodded.

“Indeed.”

d’Artagnan exhaled slowly, hoping his next statement would not insult his friend. “He said you killed his sister.”

“Theresa de Vega was a Spanish spy,” Athos replied. “She was killed, but it was not by my hand. And despite what our companion claims, I also did not bed her.”

“I knew that part,” d’Artagnan replied.

“That’s two, Aramis,” Porthos called to his friend in a low, teasing voice.

“Yes, I am aware, thank you,” Aramis grumbled in reply.

“I don’t understand—” d’Artagnan started, but was forced to stop to catch his breath and close his eyes as the wagon rattled over a particularly rough patch of road. Athos braced him, but with one arm wrapped it was a clumsy hold and d’Artagnan felt the impact roll across his abused muscles.

“Go easy, Aramis,” Athos called. “He’s quite pale.”

“My apologies,” Aramis called over his shoulder. “It is not the best kept road to Paris we’re on.”

“’m fine,” d’Artagnan gasped. “Truly.”

“You look it,” Athos muttered in a sarcasm-laden tone, one eyebrow raised when d’Artagnan opened his eyes once more. “Aramis treated the cut on your head and the wounds at your wrists as best he could. They will be painful, but they will heal. There doesn’t seem to be any lasting damage there.”

d’Artagnan nodded gingerly; lasting damage or no, his head felt like cracked glass filled with too much water. Still, it wasn’t so much the open wounds that pained him as the stretched, wrung out muscles that lined his ribs and burned at his shoulders.

“The damage caused by…,” Athos paused here, his brows pulling close, “the hanging, however, may take quite some time to heal.”

“I’ll be fine, Athos,” d’Artagnan reassured him, hating to see the look of guilt sweep the older man’s face.

“You should never have had to endure such torment,” Athos shook his head. “Certainly not on my account.”

“I was protecting my brother,” d’Artagnan argued. “You would have done the same.”

“d’Artagnan—“

“No,” d’Artagnan shook his head, searching for what he must say in this moment to convince his mentor that what he’d done had been both worth it and right.

It was almost as painful to seek out the explanation as it had been to slowly suffocate in that barn. There was a reason he kept such things inside where no one else could see them.

“When I was hanging there,” d’Artagnan began, his eyes slipping from Athos’ face to stare up at the grey sky, heavy with rainclouds, “the only thing that kept me strong enough to keep pulling myself up so that I could breathe was the thought that I was protecting you.”

He felt Athos rest his hand on the top of his head, avoiding the tender lump beneath the cut left behind by de Vega’s treatment.

“de Vega said,” d’Artagnan continued, forced to bite back another groan as the wagon rattled over a rut, “that I loved my brothers. That was why I would tell him your location. Because if he could get to me, he could get to you. And I couldn’t protect everyone.”

“d’Artagnan—“ Porthos started from the back of his horse.

d’Artagnan cut him off, his sentences punctuated by quick, shallow breaths. “I thought about that. Quite a bit. Because Aramis had said Musketeers are not meant for love.”

The men around him were silent, listening.

“I saw Constance just before de Vega caught me,” he continued. “And then I had to…to release her. Again. I felt in that moment that Aramis was right. It hurt too much. There wasn’t…honor in that love. There was only sacrifice.” He closed his eyes, riding out a particularly painful muscle spasm, then pressed on. “But then…hanging there…in that barn…I realized there were some things worth sacrifice. Worth my sacrifice. Like brotherhood. And friendship.”

He opened his eyes, looking up at Athos, then turned his neck stiffly to see Porthos. “Aramis?”

“I’m here,” Aramis replied softly.

“We are meant for love, my friend,” he said, exhaling slowly, as the pain clenched through him, his voice growing tight. “We simply have to define it differently.”

He closed his eyes when he received no reply, no reaction from his friends, feeling as if he should have kept silent. With a need to recover from exposing too much vulnerability and emotion, he concluded, “I knew you would come for me.”

When Athos flexed his fingers in his hair, it felt almost like a familiar grip to his shoulder, a nod of acceptance. He kept his eyes closed, and forced himself to relax into the touch. His body hurt too much for him to truly sleep, but he felt himself doze, aware of the rocking of the wagon, the soft hum from Aramis as he drove, the way Athos carded his fingers through his hair.

“Is ‘e out?” Porthos’ voice slipped quietly over the edge of the wagon.

“It appears so,” Athos replied.

“You believe what ‘e managed to survive?”

“Yes,” Aramis replied. “That boy has a will of iron.”

“No more brothels, Aramis,” Athos scolded.

“It wasn’t a brothel,” Aramis protested. “But…yes. Agreed.”

“Perhaps for you either,” Athos dared suggest.

d’Artagnan felt the sadness encased in Aramis’ heavy sigh.

“My soul requires confession,” Aramis replied quietly, “and my true sins are too much to speak of.”

“Your only sin is thinking yourself so unworthy as to require such absolution,” Athos chided. “Well. That and not being discerning of whose bed you fall into.”

“’e’s going to be all right, yeah?” Porthos asked. “Don’t think I’ve seen ‘im quite so wrecked as this.”

“It was rather horrifying to find him hanging in that barn,” Aramis agreed. “He’ll be in pain for some time. It’s hard to tell how deep the muscle damage has gone.”

“He’s strong,” Athos said quietly, his hand a comforting weight on d’Artagnan’s head. “I’ve not seen one so young show such resilience.”

“I had a bad feeling,” Aramis remembered. “I knew he wouldn’t have simply wandered away. But I admit I didn’t realize it had gone so far.”

“We should keep a closer eye on ‘im,” Porthos stated. “On each other as well.”

“How did de Vega get my name?” Athos mused.

d’Artagnan heard Aramis’ voice raise, calling out in Spanish to the man tied to a horse at the rear of the wagon, and was unable to stifle the start the sudden noise gave him. Athos was quick to place a reassuring hand on his shoulder, grounding him in the motion of the wagon and his surroundings as he opened his eyes.

“Easy, it’s just Aramis, continuing his questioning,” Athos said in reassurance. “Sleep, d’Artagnan. We’ve a bit of a ride to go yet.”

“Water,” d’Artagnan whispered, drinking carefully when Athos balanced the skin on his lips as de Vega replied to Aramis in Spanish.

“What did he say?” Athos asked when their prisoner when quiet once more.

“You’re…not going to like this,” Aramis cautioned.

d’Artagnan felt Athos go still.

“Tell me.”

“Enora – the wench from the Barley Mow – is an acquaintance of a certain female assassin who was recently banished from Paris.”

“Anne,” Athos whispered.

“Seems this was a plot she had in the works for some time; it simply took de Vega a bit to get to Paris and begin to hunt for you.”

“Athos,” d’Artagnan breathed. “If that is true, there’s no telling how many others….“

“I cannot live my life looking over my shoulder, wondering what plot to kill me my wife currently has set in motion,” Athos replied sternly. “And I will not allow you three to do so, either.”

Love, it seemed to d’Artagnan, was not done torturing Athos quite yet. His wife was seeking restitution far beyond her reach and influence. Perhaps Aramis was right after all; perhaps Musketeers were not meant for love.

The men grew quiet once more; d’Artagnan was lulled once more into a doze, his body too abused to stay alert and listen to the conversation that flowed periodically around him. He woke when the wagon finally stopped at the garrison and blinked groggily as there seemed to be an inordinate amount of motion outside the edges of the wagon. He heard Aramis calling for assistance and their fellow Musketeers exclaiming about the marksman’s appearance.

He’d almost forgotten that Aramis and Porthos had been wounded in the battle; he remembered now the blood on Aramis’ face and the bloodshot eye Porthos had turned his way. None of them were returning unscathed, and all for a purposeful misdirection and the lot of them off their guard.

Hands reached up and eased him off of Athos’ lap, helping him from the end of the wagon. His attempted protest that he could walk as aborted the moment one of the men moved his arm up over their shoulder and the pain snapped through him like a whip. d’Artagnan bit down on his lip, but the quick cry of pain arrested the movement.

“Go easy,” Porthos admonished. “’is wounds are deep.”

“’m fine, Porthos,” d’Artagnan gasped, though he was unable to open his eyes as the world spun dizzily around him.

“You are not,” Aramis snapped. “Do not be stubborn about this, d’Artagnan.”

The other man’s next words were lost to d’Artagnan as four of his fellow Musketeers lifted him and he felt himself being carried into the infirmary. His friends followed closely behind and as the men set him gently on an open bed, d’Artagnan pressed his lips tightly closed, breath puffing out as he tried to ease the pain that crackled through his bones.

Athos stepped up close to him so that he could see without rising, a cautious look on his face.

“d’Artagnan,” he began, “you have a visitor.”

d’Artagnan frowned. But when Athos stepped aside and revealed Constance, he couldn’t arrest the ache that spiked through his heart, causing him to fold his brows close, his body clenching in reaction. She looked first at him, taking in his battered appearance, then her eyes shifted to the other three, finally landing on Athos and his bound arm.

“I’m…relieved you’ve returned alive,” she said, her voice trembling with barely-contained emotion. She kept her eyes on Athos as she spoke. “I heard there was trouble and…,” she caught her breath, pulling her chin up so that her neck was visibly tense. “I am just…just so very glad you’re all alive.”

“Constance,” d’Artagnan called from where he lay, his voice rough with longing.

He wanted to sit up, to wrap his arms around her, to offer her some comfort, but he could barely move and holding her was an impossibility. Not only because of his wounds, but…simply because. There was nothing he could say to her in this moment, with the eyes of his brothers upon them, that would be enough.

“Thank you.” It was grossly inadequate, but it was all he could bring himself to say.

She turned to face him and he could see her trembling, see the tears balanced on her lashes, making her eyes appear bigger, making his heart break. Her chin shook, drawing her lips down in a frown, but she pulled in a breath and steadied herself.

“Please be careful,” she said, as if to the room, but this time her eyes were on d’Artagnan. “I could not bear it if anything happened to you. After all,” at this, she did glance at Aramis and Porthos, “you saved my life.”

The two Musketeers nodded at her, offering her a small smile. She looked once more at d’Artagnan then turned and exited the infirmary, nearly colliding with the physician as he entered. d’Artagnan closed his eyes, breathing slowly as his heart burned.

“Ain’t right,” Porthos muttered.

Not even pretending to wonder what the big man was talking about, d’Artagnan replied. “Doesn’t have to be right. It simply is.”

“Perhaps not forever,” Aramis said softly. d’Artagnan opened his eyes to regard his friend, watching as Aramis kept his gaze focused on the physician as he attended Athos’ shoulder. “Love like that,” Aramis shook his head. “It’s not something that is ignored.”

d’Artagnan blinked in surprise at him. Aramis offered him a small, almost shy smile.

“Perhaps you’re right, d’Artagnan,” he conceded softly, his voice rich with thought. “We simply need to redefine love.”

Porthos looked at Aramis, then over at d’Artagnan. “Shall I note the day and time? Aramis saying someone else is right ‘bout love?”

“Please do,” d’Artagnan smiled.

“You both need rest,” Athos broke in, looking at Porthos and Aramis. “When the physician is finished with you, return to your quarters – your quarters, Aramis – and rest until tomorrow morning. I’ll ask Serge to bring you by some food.”

“What of you?” Aramis asked immediately.

“He’s not leaving here tonight,” the physician declared as he prepared to sew up Athos’ shoulder. “Neither is that one,” he continued, nodding at d’Artagnan.

“We’ll be fine,” Athos assured him. “I believe, however, that Porthos is correct. In the future, we should all be more vigilant concerning each other’s safety.” He glanced at d’Artagnan. “Especially those whom Milady has gotten her hooks into.”

“Athos,” d’Artagnan asked quietly. “What will happen if she does ever return to Paris?”

Athos looked at him, then slid his eyes across the other two as though with a look he could sweep them all behind him and stand between them and the evils of the world. “If she ever returns to Paris,” he said, his voice hard, cold, deadly, “there will be a reckoning.”

d’Artagnan swallowed, knowing with complete certainty Athos spoke the truth. He closed his eyes, listening as the physician continued to treat the wounds his friends had sustained while rescuing him and wondered if the next time they would be able to spot the danger, or if they’d walk blindly into it once more, trapped in Anne’s intricately woven cat’s cradle.

And he couldn’t help but wonder if next time the red sky would be for them.

END