Day Eight and beyond: The Journey Home
He hadn't taken much notice of the window the night before, but the first rays of the morning sun danced orange and red across his closed lids, drawing him into wakefulness. Athos opened his eyes then clamped then shut once more, immediately regretting that decision. Dragging a hand down his face and tugging at his beard – rather filthy with post-battle mud and blood – he turned his head to the side and blinked awake.
Not one to enjoy the process of waking up, Porthos was staring at him sullenly as though Athos was personally responsible for the sunrise.
Pulling his knees up, Athos' boots slid across the floor, waking both le Main and Aramis, the latter groaning expressively as he rubbed the stiff muscles in his neck. Athos glanced at Aramis' side, reassuring himself that the marksman had not bled through his bandage during the night, then turned toward d'Artagnan.
He was surprised to find a pair of dark eyes pinned to him.
"I'm afraid to move."
Athos almost smiled at d'Artagnan's greeting, reassured by the coherency of the young man's words, but he knew d'Artagnan wouldn't understand.
"Don't," was his only reply.
d'Artagnan swallowed audibly and Athos clambered to his feet. He reached over to rouse Luca, then instructed le Main to take the boy to wash up by the pump. Porthos stood, too, and together they helped ease d'Artagnan into a seated position. His skin was still warm to the touch, his muscles trembled, but he was determined and clear-headed. When they released him, he was panting from the effort, but able to stay upright.
"What the hell happened?"
"Do you remember getting stabbed?" Athos asked.
d'Artagnan blinked at him, surprised. "Someone stabbed me?"
Athos didn't miss the worried look Porthos and Aramis exchanged.
"d'Artagnan," Athos said softly, his voice serious and every inch the young Musketeer's Lieutenant. "I am sorry to have to tell you this. I'm afraid your uncle attempted to take your life. You've been stabbed in your left shoulder, but it appears you'll recover, given time."
A myriad of emotions played across the young Gascon's face. It nearly took Athos' breath away to watch the impact of his words traverse from shock to anger to confusion and finally land once more on grief.
"And my uncle?" d'Artagnan asked.
"We shot him," Aramis answered. "In defense of your life."
"'e won't be 'urting you no more," Porthos stated.
Athos saw the lad's sorrow swim up for the briefest of moments as tears – for the loss of family or the pain of betrayal, he couldn't be sure – and then watched in slightly dazed amazement as d'Artagnan pulled it in; the tears, the pain, all of it. He simply erased it as though it had never been there in the first place.
"Thank you," he said quietly, gripping the edge of the bed with white knuckles.
"Can you stand?" Aramis asked.
d'Artagnan looked over at him. "Can you?"
Athos blinked, his eyebrows up in surprise, then glanced at Aramis. "It's a fair question."
Aramis narrowed his eyes at both of them, then pushed stiffly to his feet. He wrapped an arm around his side and then asked through clenched teeth, "Happy?"
"Ecstatic," Athos dead-panned.
"Where's Luca?" d'Artagnan asked suddenly.
"'e's fine," Porthos replied. "'e's with your man Gérard."
d'Artagnan hung his head a moment. "So my home is his now."
"It hasn't truly been your home in some time," Athos replied, earning a silent nod from the dark head.
As they prepared and ate a morning meal, Aramis instructed d'Artagnan to drink more of the herb and willow tea concoction, which the young Gascon agreed to only if Aramis joined him. Aramis changed the bandages on d'Artagnan's back once more and Porthos found a spare shirt in one of the saddle bags – a size too large, but it was better than nothing.
It took both Porthos and Athos balancing him, but d'Artagnan was able to gain his feet. He balanced on his own, taking the shirt from Porthos and staring at it a moment before Athos collected it and slipped it over his head. d'Artagnan pressed his lips close, clearly not happy with the fact that he needed assistance getting dressed, but unable to lift his arms.
"We have to find my horse," d'Artagnan said as Athos helped him ease his wounded arm into the shirt sleeves. "My weapons and pauldron are with him."
"I know someone who can help with that," spoke up le Main from the door of the house.
Athos looked around and saw Philippe standing next to le Main and Luca, his clothes smeared with mud, his eyes red-rimmed from crying. Instinctively, he stepped in front of d'Artagnan.
"I'm not here for any trouble," Philippe was quick to reassure. "I…buried my father last night, and," he paused, swallowing, his dark eyes seeking out those of his cousin, "I realized I had nowhere to go. I mean…I have a home, but…I can't return there."
d'Artagnan stepped out from the protection of Athos and faced his cousin.
"You could have given me up," he said. "Out in the yard yesterday, you defended me."
"I hadn't seen anyone do that before," Philippe replied. "Be willing to die for someone who wasn't even family."
"I would die for any of these men," d'Artagnan replied. "And they for me."
"I see that now," Philippe said, glancing down. "I know what my father did was wrong. Not just to you, but…so many things." He looked up. "But he was still my father. And I loved him."
"As you should," d'Artagnan said, nodding. "One thing I've learned with the loss of my…, well, everything," he glanced down as well, fingers tugging at the ends of the too-big shirt, "is that people have an amazing capacity to forgive." Looking back at his cousin he continued, "It's really the only thing that allows us to rise each time we're cut down."
Philippe pressed his lips close and his expression was so much like d'Artagnan's Athos blinked in surprise.
"I'd like to stay," Philippe said. "Help rebuild."
d'Artagnan smiled sadly. "That isn't up to me." He glanced at le Main. "Is it?"
le Main looked startled as if just realizing the significance of what d'Artagnan said. "I could use the help, sure."
With an aborted shrug and a slight wince, d'Artagnan lifted his chin. "There you go."
Philippe smiled. "I found your horse," he said. "I tethered him with the others."
d'Artagnan thanked him and watched both he and le Main walk from the house.
"We should go," Athos said quietly. "While you're both still on your feet."
"I need one more moment," d'Artagnan said.
Athos watched as he walked from the house, arms cradled across his middle to still their movement, his bearing stiff and stilted, his strides not quite a limp, but far from the confident gait they'd grown accustomed to.
Porthos, Luca, and Athos grabbed the saddle bags and weapons, not allowing Aramis to carry a thing, and followed the young Gascon back across the field, past the knoll that hid the root cellar and the ground well where Luca had almost died, around the East edge of the ruined house. Only then did Athos realize where d'Artagnan was heading and he motioned the others to stop.
A fresh mound of earth was next to an older grave with a stone marker. From where he stood, Athos could see the name d'Artagnan etched in the stone, the name Émilie beneath it. For a moment, d'Artagnan simply stood, staring, his body rigid and tense. Athos saw the lad lift his head, lips tight, obviously fighting to keep something at bay.
Exchanging a look with Aramis, Athos handed the saddle bags he'd been carrying to the other man and moved forward, cautiously. Just before he reached d'Artagnan, the younger man reached up and covered his face with a hand, his shoulders shaking with silent grief. Standing quietly next to his young friend, Athos thought carefully about the words he might say.
They'd met d'Artagnan mere days after he'd watched his father murdered. They'd seen the anger and the vengeance; they'd heard the passion and the drive, but until now, he'd never really allowed them to see his grief.
Losing his home – twice over, it seemed – his history and nearly all of his family settled a tremendous weight on the young Musketeer's shoulders. Athos knew that feeling, knew what it meant to accept the reality he faced while yearning to deny the circumstances that brought it about. Watching d'Artagnan now, his narrow, wounded shoulders trembling as he worked to keep his tears from them, made Athos miss Thomas with a brilliant pain unmatched by any physical ailment.
"Crying, I've often thought, is merely the final gesture of respect when you lose someone," he began. He could hear d'Artagnan sniff behind his hand. "It's…recognition. Of the impact they had on your life. There is no shame in that."
d'Artagnan dragged his hand down his face, trying to banish the tears that turned his lashes into triangles. "My father should be here," he said in a rough voice. Athos saw him glance at the mound of Earth, a tangle of emotion in his expression. "He should be here, on his land, his name on the stone next to hers. He is the one who deserves…. Not that man. It's just not…." He choked off the rest of his words.
"Your father's legacy isn't a stone or a farm," Athos said, resting a hand gently on d'Artagnan's damaged shoulder. "It's you, and the mark you will make on this world."
d'Artagnan looked at him then, eyes swollen and swimming with unshed tears, but steady.
"The way you live, the details of your life, that is how you honor your father. Not by making the same choices he might have, but by leaving the world a better place," Athos offered d'Artagnan a small smile. "As he did."
Blinking, the last of his tears tumbling from his eyes and sliding unchecked down his face, d'Artagnan nodded. He sniffed, then pulled in a slow, trembling breath, steadying his raging emotions until he could look once more at Athos with dry eyes.
When Athos removed his hand, the young Gascon swayed alarmingly before catching his balance. Athos frowned; neither d'Artagnan nor Aramis should be traveling so soon, but with their limited provisions, and the responsibility of Luca, they had little choice. Leaving Luca with d'Artagnan, the others collected the horses – including d'Artagnan's – and loaded their provisions. Athos saw Porthos head over to the North side of the house and return triumphantly with his schiavona. He knew the man would never leave that weapon behind.
le Main stood by what once had been the d'Artagnan family home's front door.
"I will miss you, Charles," le Main told him. He didn't reach out to embrace d'Artagnan, but Athos suspected it was more because he didn't want to hurt him further than any sort of reluctance. "You are always welcome here."
"Thank you, Gérard," d'Artagnan said, a small smile on his lips. "Take care of this place." He turned to his horse and his face fell. "I cannot lift my arms," he said dejectedly.
"You'll ride with me," Athos stated.
"Allow me to help?" le Main suggested.
With a small amount of effort and a few stifled gasps of pain, d'Artagnan was seated behind Athos so that there was no pressure on his back. Porthos helped Aramis mount, then tied d'Artagnan's horse behind him as Luca climbed aboard his own white mount. Nodding their goodbyes to le Main, they began the journey toward Toulouse.
It didn't take long before d'Artagnan was leaning forward against Athos' back. He could feel the heat from the lad's body through even his leathers and it wasn't long before he found himself bearing d'Artagnan's full weight. He grasped d'Artagnan's limp hands around his chest, anchoring him with one hand while he held his reins with the other.
Porthos rode up to him. "'e's out, Athos."
"I could tell."
"Looks like 'is back's bleeding again, too."
"We are a few hours from Toulouse," Athos said, glancing at Aramis. "Can you make it?"
Though his face was white and pinched from pain, Aramis nodded. "We need to get d'Artagnan to Talia's."
"Agreed." He looked back over at Porthos. "Help me keep him aboard."
"I won't let 'im fall."
They rode slowly, mindful of the wounds they bore. Each step had Athos yearning to move faster just so that the journey was finished, but he knew the rough ride would be disastrous to the injured. Head aching, heart sore, he forced himself to breathe slowly, distracting himself from his worry by thinking through the different motions and steps of sword fighting, picturing each parry and thrust. As they crossed under the stone arch that lead into Toulouse, Luca rode ahead, leading the wounded party to the Thibaut chalet.
Talia's jubilant cry when she saw her son ride into the yard was a light in Athos' shadowed heart.
Pain was a jealous thing, Aramis decided.
It refused to allow one to feel anything else while it was present, taking over the senses and flooding the mind so that concentration was a monumental effort. He was exhausted simply from working to ignore the pain in his side, exhausted from worrying about d'Artagnan, exhausted from the emotion that had hollowed him out before he'd even reached Gascony. He wanted nothing more than to topple from his horse and simply sleep where he fell.
When Talia sprang from the house with a shout of joy, though, Aramis smiled, the satisfaction of having completed at least one mission right like a balm to his heart. Luca's answering smile seemed to erase the dirt and weariness that layered the boy's face and he reached out his arms to his mother. Talia pulled him from his horse and wrapped her arms around him, sinking to the ground with his lanky, too-long body gathered against her.
"Don't ever leave me like that again," she was saying, though Aramis knew Luca could not hear her. "I couldn't bear it if I lost you." Pulling back, she cupped his face so that he could see her mouth and asked, "Are you well? You're not injured?"
Luca shook his head, then looked up at the four men who had returned him home. Talia followed his glance and Aramis saw her blanch at the sight of them. Eyes roaming from the garish marks that framed Athos' eye to Porthos' bruised face still stained with blood, his scowl more pain than anger, Aramis didn't blame Talia for her small gasp of surprise. When he looked at d'Artagnan, though, slumped against Athos, back showing blood through the bandage and shirt, Aramis felt himself pale considerably.
They were once more a damaged band of brothers arriving on her doorstep.
"It seems we are destined to turn your home into a place of healing, M'Lady," Aramis said.
"My home is yours," Talia said, standing and tucking Luca against her. "I will send for the physician immediately. There will be beds, fresh water, and food here as long as you need it."
Porthos dismounted and moved over to Athos' horse. Reaching up, he held d'Artagnan in place – the lad not waking even as Athos moved out from beneath him – and waited as Athos swung his leg over his horse's neck, sliding to the ground. Porthos then tipped d'Artagnan forward over his shoulder and lifted him from the back of the horse.
Aramis braced himself, preparing to dismount, but found his body resistant to the idea. His rib stabbed a sharp pain through his side, causing him to stiffen and press a hand to the wound. He closed his eyes to steady himself, knowing all he had to do was—
"Aramis," Athos' voice came at him from his left. Aramis opened his eyes and looked down. "Let me help you."
Nodding, Aramis braced a hand on Athos' shoulder and shifted to the side, swinging his leg over the back of his horse. Gritting his teeth, he tried – and failed – to stifle the groan of pain. Once on his feet, he held onto his saddle and Athos for a moment, gaining his balance. Athos simply watched him, waiting.
"I'm good," Aramis told him.
"Is that so?" Athos commented dryly, then stepped away.
Aramis nearly pitched forward. Athos stepped in smoothly to catch him and put Aramis' arm over his shoulder, muttering something low under his breath.
"What was that?" Aramis asked.
"Physician," Athos repeated a bit louder, sliding his eyes to the side to meet Aramis', "heal thyself."
"Perhaps we should find you a mirror," Aramis grunted as they moved toward the house, leaving their horses in the care of one of Talia's servants. "Who protects the protector?" Aramis gestured toward the cuts on Athos' cheek.
Sighing, Athos relented. "We are a pair."
They entered through the kitchen where they found Talia motioning them forward. Aramis expected to turn right down the hall to the room he and d'Artagnan had shared, but Talia led them left.
"I thought perhaps one of the larger rooms would work better," Talia said, leading them into a broad room, empty save for two beds, a chair, and two smaller tables. "I'll have the beds from the room down the hall brought in. This way you can be together." She lifted a shoulder. "It seems that allows you to rest easier."
Aramis smiled at her thoughtfulness. "This is perfect. Thank you."
Porthos was easing d'Artagnan onto one of the beds, cupping the back of his dark head to lay him down on the pillow. Athos maneuvered Aramis to the chair nearest d'Artagnan's bed, rightly assuming Aramis would refuse to lie down until d'Artagnan had been seen to and the others cared for.
"Try to tip him to the side, off his wounds," Aramis instructed, pulling off his hat and setting it aside. "Is his skin still hot to the touch?"
"Very," Porthos muttered, frowning. "Bothers me that 'e's so still." He looked over at the other two. "'e's never still."
"The physician will be here soon," Talia said. "I'll get you something to eat and water to wash up with."
"Talia," Athos spoke up. "Is Luca—"
"He's fine," she replied, her voice hitching slightly. She rested a hand at the base of her throat. "A bit dirty and bruised, but he's fine. I owe you my son's life once more. A debt I can never repay."
"There's no debt," Athos said quietly. "Aside from what we'll gladly repay for leaving you to the brutality of your husband."
At that, Talia's emotion evaporated and she brought her chin up. "He'll not hurt anyone again. What's done is done."
She left them just as two men – one of whom Aramis remembered meeting when he'd stayed earlier in the week – brought in the furniture from the other room, setting the beds at the opposite corners of the room. Athos turned to d'Artagnan and eased him onto his belly, gently removing his shirt as he did so to get access to the wounds. Aramis saw his frown deepen.
"What is it?" Aramis asked.
"We could have prevented this. I could have prevented this."
"We discussed this," Porthos retorted. "You 'ad to let 'im leave."
"I could have warned him of what was in the missive from Gascony," Athos lamented. "I could have set Bauer in charge and traveled with him. I could—"
"I could have shot sooner and prevented that first lash of the whip," Aramis broke in. "I could have put my own agenda aside and traveled with him first before seeing old Marsac."
"What's done is done," Porthos stated, echoing Talia. "All we can do now is repair 'im and protect 'im. As 'e would us."
When the physician arrived, Aramis found he remembered the man from their visit months back. The white-haired, weathered man looked at the four men with surprise, then resignation before his eyes rested upon d'Artagnan with obvious concern.
Aramis reached for Porthos' arm, pulling himself painfully to his feet and offering the chair to the physician. Allowing Porthos to help him over to the bed and then leaning a shoulder against his friend as the big man sat next to him, Aramis shifted his attention between the physician and Athos' hawk-like gaze as he hovered over the youngest Musketeer.
"The poultice has done its job well," the physician said as he examined the welt across d'Artagnan's back. "I don't yet see the need for leeches."
Aramis felt Porthos shudder silently at the thought.
"This wound appears to be infected," the physician continued as he examined the knife wound at d'Artagnan's shoulder, "but I believe lancing it will speed recovery and should help with the fever."
Athos shot an uncertain look toward Aramis, who nodded reassuringly.
"Go help Athos hold him down," Aramis said to Porthos. "This will…well, hurt is too small a word."
"Who's gonna keep you from falling over?" Porthos said quietly.
"I'll be fine," Aramis replied tightly, bracing himself with a grip on the edge of the bed when Porthos stood.
He found himself forcing slow, easy breaths between clenched teeth as he watched the physician position Porthos at d'Artagnan's feet and Athos at his shoulders, holding him still. The physician sterilized the knife in a candle flame, then leaned over d'Artagnan's shoulder, pressing the blade into the puckered, inflamed skin.
The sound echoed in the empty room, shaking through the three men watching anxiously. Aramis gripped the edge of the bed as his gut clenched, watching as d'Artagnan arched his back away from the pain, trying unsuccessfully to escape. A torrent of words flowed from him, curses in French, pleas in Gascon, even prayers in Latin – which impressed the hell out of Aramis – tripped over themselves as he thrashed. Athos and Porthos held him fast as the physician pressed the wound until all of the putrid infection was emptied and bright blood replaced the sickly, white pus.
"Easy," Athos soothed, as though talking to a skittish horse. "Easy, lad, you're safe, it's almost finished."
Moving quickly, the physician cleaned the wound, then packed it with clean, cotton material wrapping it tightly, winding the bandage around d'Artagnan's chest. As he did so, he called out instructions for keeping the wound from infection, cleaning and bandaging it, and preventing d'Artagnan from performing anything strenuous until the wound no longer seeped.
d'Artagnan lay gasping and weak, sweat causing his hair to cling to his knit brow, still not fully aware of his surroundings. The physician handed Athos several pouches of medicine and some powder that would help with the pain. As he did he scrutinized the cuts around Athos' eye.
"Seems these are too far gone for my care; they may scar," the physician said. "How's your head?"
Athos glanced once at Porthos, then answered. "It's tolerable."
"Hmm. I imaging you tolerate quite a bit," the physician remarked. "Take some of that powder for yourself. Allow yourself at least a day's rest. I'll wager you've been dealing with quite the concussion."
Athos didn't reply and the physician turned to Porthos.
"I'm solid," Porthos replied.
"But of course you are," the physician replied, sweeping Porthos from head to toe with a glance. He looked over at Aramis. "What ailment are you hiding under all that leather?"
"'e was shot," Porthos replied. "In the side."
"We cauterized it," Aramis told him.
"Shall I take a look?"
Sighing, Aramis opened his coat and with Porthos' help, shrugged free of it. He tugged his shirt loose, watching as Athos wet a cloth and sat in the chair next to d'Artagnan, trying to cool the young man down. The physician prodded and pushed at his side and Aramis tried valiantly to stay quiet but found the skin and damaged bone beneath it simply too tender to hide his growl of pain.
"You did well treating it," the physician complemented him. "I'll wager with a few days' rest you'll be good as new."
"Or better," Aramis replied, unable to help himself.
"Aren't we a confident lad," the physician tsked, then stood. "Keep that one cool and get the medicine into him as often as possible," he said pointing to d'Artagnan. "He's young and appears strong. If he pulls through the fever, he should recover swiftly."
The physician collected his things just as Talia and Luca returned with food and water for washing. The men thanked her and Aramis allowed his gaze to linger slightly as she left, noting that she paused in the doorway to glance back over her shoulder. They took turns cleaning up, setting weapons, leathers, and boots aside to rid them of the dirt and blood caked there.
Once more feeling half-way human, and at Porthos' insistence, Aramis lay back to rest, intending to close his eyes for just a few moments. When he woke next, however, it was dark. It took him a moment to realize what had startled him awake. Then he heard it once more, a low, throaty curse, pain radiating through the sound in near-visible waves.
"Fuckin' get back…get back the lot of you…."
d'Artagnan, trapped once more in a fever dream, was cursing and muttering so viciously Aramis nearly reached for his harquebus. He rolled to the side, expecting to see Athos sitting with the lad, cooling him, but was surprised to see Athos sitting at the foot of his bed, slumped against the wall, his hat covering his face and one hand resting on Aramis' ankles as if to reassure himself of the other's presence. Porthos sat with d'Artagnan, the lamplight reflecting in his dark eyes as he worriedly smoothed a cool rag over the young man's forehead.
d'Artagnan lay more or less on his right side, blankets positioned at his back to keep him from rolling directly onto his wounds. Aramis could see his expression in the lamplight – the fierce fury trapped in the lines at his brow, around his closed eyes. He was sweating and shaking at once, on hand caught in Porthos' strong grip.
"Kill 'em…," he muttered through bruised lips. "I'll kill 'em all…."
"Yeah, you will," Porthos soothed. "You will, lad."
Aramis thought to offer his help, but was transfixed by the gentle manner Porthos held in his ministrations. The big man has been his personal anchor more times than he cared to admit since the massacre at Savoy, but he thought that had simply been because he trusted Porthos so completely. Watching him now, he knew it also had to do with the focused attention paid to the person under his care.
Running a cool rag across d'Artagnan's forehead, then down his face to his neck, Porthos kept up a low stream of reassuring words. You are safe. We are here with you. No one will hurt you. All words that they each needed to hear from time to time, but could only bring themselves to say when pain held them in its grip.
As d'Artagnan thrashed in the throes of his nightmare, Porthos held the young Musketeer's hand, thumb to thumb, bringing it close to his own chest. After a few moments, the contact seemed to calm d'Artagnan and his breathing slowed, regulating. It wasn't long until Aramis saw the young man blink awake, though not fully aware, staring at Porthos in confusion.
"Where's my father?" he rasped.
"'e's not 'ere, lad," Porthos replied. "We're 'ere."
"You're here," d'Artagnan repeated.
"We've got you," Porthos promised.
d'Artagnan's eyes blinked slowly, heavy with pain and exhaustion. "Don't let go."
As he slipped once more into unconsciousness, Aramis heard Porthos whisper in reply, "On my life."
Aramis watched as the big man continued to cool d'Artagnan with sweeps of the wet rag, only releasing his hand when the lad seemed to succumb completely to oblivion and his grip loosened. When Porthos sighed, the weariness in the sound seemed to slip across the room and seep into Aramis. He watched as Porthos reached out push the dark hair from d'Artagnan's face in a gentle, almost fatherly gesture.
Aramis knew he was one of the few to witness the heart Porthos kept protected behind a guarded wall of bravado.
Closing his eyes once more, Aramis surrendered again to sleep. It was dreamless. The sleep of the dead or the innocent, he'd often said, though he was neither. When he woke a second time, the room was bright with sunlight and only he and d'Artagnan were in the room. The lad was sleeping soundly, his face unlined, the flush of fever having departed.
Rising slowly, Aramis checked his wound and found that the sleep had done wonders. Though tender to the touch, it no longer hurt to breathe and the soreness upon movement was tolerable. He dressed as well as he could when his leathers and boots were conspicuously missing, and headed from the room, passing Athos on his way back in.
"You're looking well," Athos greeted, pausing in the doorway.
"I feel well," Aramis smiled.
"Sleeping for two days generally does that to a person," Athos replied with a wry grin.
Aramis blinked. "Say again?"
"You've been asleep for nearly two days," Athos informed him. "You and d'Artagnan both."
"His fever broke," Aramis said, trying to wrap his mind around the lost time.
"Last night," Athos nodded. Aramis noticed the cuts around Athos' eye looked to be healing as well. The older swordsman clapped a hand on his shoulder. "You should get some food. Before Porthos eats Talia out of house and home."
With that Athos turned to head back into the room and look after d'Artagnan. Aramis made his way toward the kitchen, following the sound of laugher and smell of food. When he paused in the doorway, he smiled, watching as Talia laughed in delight at Porthos trying to fold the paper swans to match Luca, the look of profound concentration on his face marred only by the tongue caught between his lips.
"I have to say," Talia giggled, "that d'Artagnan's birds are a bit more…bird-like."
"d'Artagnan's got little fingers," Porthos grumped as his swan looked a bit more like an arrow. "I'm better when it comes to punching things."
Luca turned to his mother and gestured something much too fast for Aramis to follow. Talia looked up at Porthos.
"He wants to show you the new foal," she told him. "He thinks that will be more…your speed."
Porthos grinned and stood. "Let's get after it."
As the two left the room, heading toward the stables, Aramis entered and realized by Talia's secret smile that she'd known he was standing in the door way the whole time.
"Famished," Aramis replied. He relished the stew and bread, gratefully accepting seconds when Talia wordlessly refilled his bowl. "You've taken excellent care of us, M'Lady."
"You kept your promise," Talia replied. "And if anything ever happened to d'Artagnan—"
"Besides being whipped and stabbed?"
"Anything…permanent," she amended, "Luca would never get over it."
"He's on the mend," Aramis said. "Once he's strong enough, we will be out of your way."
Talia, leaned against the table resting her hand on top of his. "I like you in my way."
Aramis glanced up, measuring her quietly. He knew the look in her eye quite well; he simply wanted reassurance that she knew what she was suggesting.
"You said there were two things that helped you find balance when the panic overtook you," she recalled. "Breathing…and women."
"I did say that, yes," Aramis nodded.
"How…balanced…are you feeling now?"
Aramis allowed his smile to turn roguish and stood from the table, sliding one arm around her waist and pulling her against him. "I'm afraid I'm tottering on a precipice," he said softly, his mouth inches from hers. "It's on you to pull be back from the edge."
"Then we shouldn't waste a moment," she whispered back, grabbing the back of his neck and pulling his lips to hers.
They spent the remainder of the day in her room; Aramis lost himself again and again, finding in Talia the escape he'd needed since he'd received the letter from Marsac's father. As they recovered their breath between moments of bliss, she told him of her fears before and after the brutal death of her husband and he shared the ways the men reached realizations and found their home.
"Athos is haunted," he said quietly as Talia lay blanketed over him, her hand carefully hovering near his healing wound. "His honor…his duty forced him to make choices no man should face. But he did, and he has, and it nearly broke him."
"What's kept him whole?" Talia asked.
"We have," Aramis replied. "Finding his place among the Musketeers…finding d'Artagnan…it's balanced him in a way I've not seen. I think seeing d'Artagnan lose his home showed Athos that he had found his own long ago."
Aramis kissed the crown of her head, her loose, blond hair acting as both a shield and blanket.
"Ah, Porthos," Aramis sighed. "It wasn't home he needed, but a reminder that his family was ever at his side."
She was quiet a moment, then, "Will d'Artagnan recover from the hurt he experienced at his own family's hand?"
Aramis imagined that she was thinking of Luca, of what her son had been forced to do in order to survive. He wanted to tell her unequivocally yes for the sake of Luca, but she hadn't opened that door and he respected her too much to speak assumptions. He kept his answer centered on the young Gascon.
"If we have anything to say about it," Aramis replied, his tone turning slightly dark. "There's something about the lad…I can't quite define it, but it is almost as though he manages to have a bit of each of us within him. Athos' damaged heart and leadership, Porthos unwavering loyalty and recklessness, my secrecy and passion…."
He paused, smiling at his own wandering sentiment. "If he hadn't found the Musketeers when he did, something tells me that fate would have put us in his path at some point."
Talia lifted her head, resting her chin on the back of her hand, her mouth near his chin. "And what of you?"
"What have you taken from all this pain?"
Aramis was quiet for a moment, remembering the way he so quickly unraveled after confronting Marsac's father, how he'd felt lost until his brothers had found him, and how he'd known – without question – that they would overcome, together.
"Acceptance," he replied. He smiled down at her.
"Show me the passion behind that secret smile," she murmured, arching up to find his lips with her own.
"You do defy convention," Aramis murmured against her mouth.
"Convention is for unmarried virgins," Talia replied climbing to her knees to straddle his hips, careful to avoid his wound. "I am neither."
"Indeed not," Aramis ran his hands up the valley of her spin. "But you're also a Lady, and I a soldier."
"You're not marrying me, Aramis," Talia chuckled, leaning forward to bite at his bottom lip. "You're pleasuring me. And I believe we established that I am no Lady just a bit ago."
"That was quite the interesting move," Aramis replied, running his mouth along her jawline and letting his beard brush the sensitive spot beneath her ear. "I didn't realize one could get into that position."
"I'm just getting started," Talia chuckled, silencing him with a kiss.
Aramis slept heavily afterwards, not even noticing when Talia left the bed they shared, letting day slip to night and night once more to day before waking. This time when he wandered from the bedroom, he found d'Artagnan alone at the kitchen table, slowly working his way through a serving of bread and stew. He wore only his breeches and a clean white shirt, but his color was good and sitting as he was, Aramis could barely detect in his posture the discomfort he would no doubt be feeling for some time.
"It does the heart good to see you like this, d'Artagnan," Aramis grinned dropping down on the bench across from him.
"What, eating?" d'Artagnan teased, a smile tipping up the corners of his mouth.
"Upright, conscious, not swearing at us."
"I am sorry about that," d'Artagnan replied, his smile widening slightly, not looking one bit sorry. "Porthos told me."
"Where does a farm boy from Gascony pick up such language?" Aramis asked, grabbing a hunk of bread off the loaf next to d'Artagnan. "It's not as if you hung out with many pirates."
d'Artagnan shrugged gingerly. "My father did business with people from all over. Not just Gascony. Adults say a lot when they don't realize children are listening," he said. "I made it my job to be invisible and listen when I was a child. I used to hide inside this old cupboard in our kitchen and just listen to conversations."
Aramis smiled slightly, remembering how le Main shared the same bit of information, though with an entirely different interpretation.
"How's the shoulder?"
Aramis tipped his head in concession at that. "Both?"
"I'm…healing," d'Artagnan said. He straightened up and grimaced slightly. "It still hurts to lift my arms much. And I can feel the knife wound all the time. Athos said it's from the packing and would improve as it heals." Aramis nodded his agreement. "Can't hold a sword yet."
"It's only been a few days. Give it time." Aramis narrowed his eyes, judging the shadows he could still see in the younger man's eyes. "Are you sleeping?"
"Some," d'Artagnan nodded. "I can't seem to stop the nightmares, though."
"About your father?"
d'Artagnan nodded again. "Sometimes they don't even make sense."
"Dreams rarely do," Aramis offered. "I'd wager they'll taper as your body recovers."
"Wish I could…."
d'Artagnan shook his head. "Nothing. It doesn't matter." He ate his stew quietly a moment, then, "Yeah, it does, actually. I wish I knew how to put him somewhere." His brows nit as he struggled to find a way to explain what he mean. "Away in my mind so that I could keep his memory…but it didn't get…."
"Overwhelmed by it?" Aramis asked, thinking of the panic that could hit him at the mention of the word Savoy.
"When you figure out how to do that, you'll tell me?"
d'Artagnan smiled softly in response.
"Are you sorry you made the trip?" Aramis asked.
d'Artagnan pushed his bowl away, lifting his cup of wine thoughtfully. "No," he said. "I told you that I sought answers…and I found them. I just…."
Aramis leaned forward. "What?"
The smile that splashed quickly across the young Gascon's face was immeasurably sad. "I didn't realize that I was asking the wrong questions."
Aramis looked down, taking this in. Before he could speak again, Porthos stepped into the room, carrying d'Artagnan's boots, now cleaned of mud. He spied Aramis and his face broke into a broad grin.
"So it's back with us, are you?" He asked. "Not too worn out, I trust."
"A Musketeer never kisses and tells," Aramis smirked. In truth, he felt invigorated, refreshed. As though the days they spent at Talia's had infused him with energy he hadn't realized life had taken from him.
Porthos grinned and shook his head, handing d'Artagnan his boots. "Can you put 'em on?"
"I'm not an invalid," d'Artagnan protested.
"Right then," Porthos stood up and waved a hand at him. "'ave at it."
As d'Artagnan leaned down to grab the end of his boots and pull them on, Athos and Luca walked into the room. Luca's face lit up when he saw d'Artagnan and before the young Gascon could stop him, he was crouching down, helping to pull the boots on. Porthos huffed.
"'im you let help," he groused good-naturedly.
"It's going to crush him when we leave," Aramis murmured, watching.
"Not if we ensure he has frequent visiting opportunities," Athos replied. He slide a glance to the side. "I can't imagine that would be a problem for you."
Aramis looked away, scratching at the back of his head. He wasn't one to make promises he had no intention on keeping, but he had to admit he enjoyed the honest connection he'd made with Talia Thibaut. If there were no expectations of a future, Aramis would happily spend more time in her company. But the small piece of him that was still a gentleman knew that was not something he could ask of a woman like Talia.
When Luca stood from helping d'Artagnan pull on his boots, he reached to the back of his waistband and pulled out what appeared to be a small book. Aramis was puzzled at first until he saw d'Artagnan reach for it with a slightly trembling hand.
"He found it when we were gathering the weapons," Athos told him. "Apparently, he's been saving it to give to you when you were well enough. He showed it to me when we got here."
"What is it?" Aramis finally asked.
"My father's journal," d'Artagnan said almost reverently. "I thought…I was sure it was lost."
"The journal that put the land in le Main's name? That journal?" Aramis clarified.
d'Artagnan looked up and none of them missed the guilty look that slipped across his expression.
"What did you do?" Athos demanded.
d'Artagnan looked away, toward the only window in the room, his voice taking on a raw, husky quality as he spoke. "No one was named as inheriting the farm," he confessed. "When my uncle first looked through the journal then demanded I find the name, I realized…he couldn't read what Father had written there. Perhaps not read at all, I don't know. If the journal didn't survive, I could say anything."
"But…why give it to le Main?" Porthos asked.
d'Artagnan rolled his bottom lip against his teeth, looking back down at the journal. "If I'd said it was me, my uncle would have simply killed me. I couldn't let him take it over, that's why it had been destroyed in the first place. It had to be Gérard. It was the only way to protect everyone." He lifted a shoulder. "Except perhaps my uncle."
"Only reason 'e's dead is 'cause 'e tried to kill you," Porthos reminded him. "'e chose poorly."
"You could have sold it, though," Aramis pressed, still amazed by d'Artagnan's choice. "Never wanted for money again. The land was worth—"
"Nothing," d'Artagnan shook his head. "It was nothing but…burned out memories of a person who no longer exists." He looked up, eyes skimming over all of them. "Besides, I never really wanted to be a farmer."
"I'm proud of you," Athos told him, and Aramis didn't miss the look of surprise chased away by gratitude on the young Gascon's face. "And now, you have something to remember your family."
d'Artagnan smiled, tapping the journal against his leg. "I've a piece of my father," he agreed. "But my family's here." He reached out and rested a hand on Luca's shoulder, capturing the boy's attention. "Thank you, Luca." He pressed the journal to his chest, holding Luca's eyes with his own. "You did well."
Aramis couldn't help but see how Luca's smile echoed the young Gascon's weighted joy.
Leaving Talia's the next day was an emotional event. They each learned to say I will return in the hand signs that Luca had been practicing and made the promise individually. d'Artagnan gave him two paper swans, folded so that they linked together, connected at the wing.
As Luca held them carefully in his hand, d'Artagnan crouching down so that he could look the boy in the eye. Porthos stayed close, feeling oddly protective of both, knowing there was no way, truly, to soften the blow of this departure.
"You were an honor to your mother, Luca," d'Artagnan said, his tone low and serious, his eyes steady. "You saved me as you saved her." Luca nodded. "But, remember…killing takes a piece of you away. Be very careful."
Luca studied d'Artagnan solemnly for a moment, then motioned something with his hands that Porthos couldn't catch. However, d'Artagnan smiled and nodded, holding out his hand for Luca to shake before he pushed slowly to his full height, Porthos putting a hand at his elbow to help him up.
"What was that?"
d'Artagnan simply smiled. "He'll be fine."
Aramis held Talia just a bit longer than anyone else, and whatever he whispered in her ear caused a smile to spread across her face that had Porthos blushing. With their thanks, coin left to repay what they'd used, and bodies healthy enough to travel, they headed back to Paris.
Riding hard was still impossible for d'Artagnan, so they took frequent breaks, but rather than feeling anxious that they weren't moving quickly enough, they each seemed to want to draw out the unexpected holiday, especially Porthos. As much as he was relieved that they were together and mostly whole, he was almost reluctant to return to Paris, knowing what waited for him there.
On the road and in Toulouse and Gascony, he'd been able to put aside the business with the Court, let go of the worry that there were those in Paris who actively wanted him dead, as opposed to the typical danger that simply came from a life of a soldier. His own past – a place and people that had once been family to him – had turned on him and Porthos was completely at a loss as to how to face such a thing.
The closer they drew to the city, the heavier his dread became and soon it reflected in his features. d'Artagnan was the first to notice. He called him on it the second night on the road, roughly five hours from the city.
"What has you scowling so?"
Aramis' attention was caught now. "That's not nothing," he said. "I've seen nothing and it looks decidedly different."
"Just…not looking forward to going back is all."
"To Paris?" d'Artagnan exclaimed. "Why?"
"It was…just nice to get away for a while," Porthos evaded. At Aramis' scoff, he amended, "Y'know, aside from the…shot, whipped, stabbed parts."
"You love Paris," d'Artagnan argued. "More than any of us. I can't believe you didn't volunteer to ride ahead!"
"Is this because of the Court?" Athos asked, suddenly, and Porthos silently cursed the man for always seeing more than he let on.
When Porthos said nothing in reply, Athos chose that moment as a window of opportunity and elaborated, bringing the other two up to speed with what had transpired down on the Rue Reaumur. Porthos watched as Aramis brought his chin up, fingers tugging at his beard in his tell: the man was unusually troubled when he began to tug at his beard. d'Artagnan's eyes were black with fury and the muscle along his jaw was bouncing as he clenched his teeth.
"Don't like lookin' over my shoulder," Porthos confessed when Athos finished. "Walked into a trap when you lot left," he said, nodding toward Aramis, "and I gotta face the consequences."
"Like hell you do," d'Artagnan growled. "You think we're letting them take you just because of some misguided vengeance?"
"There are rules to the Court of Miracles," Porthos argued.
"Is that so?" Aramis inquired. "Well, there are rules to being a Musketeer as well, or have you forgotten?"
Porthos looked at him, confused.
"All for one; one for all."
"And here I thought it was every man for 'imself," Porthos muttered.
"I say we turn the rules back on them. Beat them at their own game." d'Artagnan's face was alive with challenge, his grin infectious.
"A battle with the Court?" Porthos scoffed. "You must enjoy pain."
"Maybe it doesn't have to be a battle," d'Artagnan argued, the sly look in his dark eyes drawing Porthos forward.
The plan was bold, and Porthos knew it put him at risk, but if it worked, the business with Charon would at last be behind him and there would be no one from his past looking to make a name for himself by sticking a knife in Porthos' back. They returned to Paris the next day, heading immediately to Captain Treville to report on their whereabouts.
A message had been sent to Treville when they made it to Talia's, but the intervening days of healing had to be accounted for, they knew. Treville, however, appeared so relieved to see them he simply went through the motions of reprimanding them before turning them loose on the garrison and their quarters.
The first few days back, they stayed pretty close to the garrison, cleaning weapons, mending gear, healing. It took d'Artagnan two days before he could lift a sword and another two before he could block and parry, but under their tutelage, he began to improve. Porthos even saw a smile out of him a few times as he mastered a particularly complicated combination of moves that thus far only Athos had managed.
A week after their return, Treville told them that the Queen would be requiring their protection for a journey to take in the healing waters of a nearby spring in three days' time. Porthos knew it was time to act. After a day of training, they made their way to the Grey Wolf for their evening meal. Announcing that he had business to attend to, Porthos left the other three sipping their wine and lounging in the corner of the room.
He made his way through the dusky streets of Paris, cutting down an alley and using the window ledge and gutters to haul himself to the rooftop, crouching there for a moment to take in the beauty of the day's dying light bleeding colors across the spine of the city, slipping lazy golden light, bruised with the reds and blues of evening, through windows and around chimneys.
He loved seeing Paris above the noise and stench and misery of the city. Where he could feel her heart beat while not cloaked by the filth that eventually covered everything in life. Straightening, Porthos began to traverse the rooftops, clinging to the structural edges and leaping over low dividing walls. He could see Notre Dame in the distance and caught his breath at the sight of the sunset cutting through the colored glass of the great window.
Still on the move, he made his way to the Rue du Prony, intent on making his last stand mean something. Just as he cleared a leap over one of the alleyways, he skidded to a stop, faced on the opposite side of the roof by six men, the one in the center carrying a chain wrapped around one hand.
"Shoulda stayed away," the man intoned. "We told you this wasn't over."
"You even know why you're after me?" Porthos asked.
"Charon was our leader," came the reply. "And you killed him."
"I grew up with Charon," Porthos shot back. "'e was my friend."
"You're not helping your cause, mate."
"'e was going to bloody blow up the Court," Porthos told him. "I may have killed your leader, but I saved your worthless lives."
"Now you're lying to save your own," the man with the chains growled, stepping forward.
Porthos tensed, feeling sweat gather at the back of his neck.
"It was a mistake coming up here alone," the man said, swinging the chain so that it wrapped around his other hand, then bounced free once more.
"I'm a Musketeer," Porthos stated, then let his lips curl up in a wicked grin. "We're never alone."
From the edge of the building to his right, Athos, Aramis, and d'Artagnan suddenly emerged from the shadows where the sunset had helpfully cloaked them. Athos stood with hands seemingly empty, curled into fists at his side and dangerously near his rapier. Aramis rested the barrel of a harquebus on his shoulder, staring lazily across at the six men who would have happily beat Porthos to death. d'Artagnan was balanced on the upper ledge of the dividing wall between two buildings, crouched low like a cat, his eyes dark and a main gauche balanced in one hand.
"There are six of us," the chain-wielding man informed him.
"Is that right?" Porthos commented, then looked beyond the man, his expression encouraging the patrons of the Court to rotate and look around them.
Bauer and Agnon dropped down to a rooftop from a taller building behind them. Mathieu and Grisier perched on the thatched back of a building to their right. Arnaud and Tomas climbed up over the ledge to stand to their left. None appeared armed; all looked deadly. The six men from the Court a Miracles shifted instinctively into a protective circle, suddenly finding themselves surrounded by Musketeers.
"Like I said," Porthos stated in a flat, treacherous tone. "We're never alone."
Athos pulled his sword in one fluid movement and at that signal, all but Aramis followed suite, the shink sound of metal clearing a leather scabbard echoing in the last burst of brilliant gold as the light died around them.
"You have two choices," Aramis said, the barrel of his harquebus still visible in the twilight. "You can try to take your vengeance and have your miserable lives end here on this roof top," the roll-click of his weapon was audible in the tense silence, "or you can accept that Charon deserved his fate and take your leave."
For a moment no one moved.
Then, like fading wisps of smoke, the men flanking the man with the chains began to slip over the side of the building and shimmy their way down to the Rue du Prony. Realizing he would soon be standing alone, the chain-wielding man began to back away, lifting a hand toward Porthos as though to deliver a parting shot.
Athos and d'Artagnan stepped forward raised their swords as one, the point of the blades inches from the man's throat.
"Don't. Say it." Athos ordered.
With that, the man joined his friends and slipped over the edge. The Musketeers on the flanking buildings waited a beat.
"Good choice," Mathieu called across the way, and Porthos' chuckle joined Aramis'.
Athos saluted the other men with the flat of his blade and one by one they turned away, heading back across the rooftops and down to the streets of Paris once more. Porthos turned to d'Artagnan as the younger man returned his sword to its home. He placed a hand on the Gascon's narrow shoulder and grinned.
"Beat them at their own game," he said. "Clever."
"I learned from the best," d'Artagnan returned with a smile.
Joined by Athos and Aramis, Porthos and d'Artagnan stood, shoulder to shoulder, the evening wind teasing their hair and tugging at the edges of their leathers. The city seemed at peace, the chaos of the streets too far below to matter. Lights began to flicker dully in windows and on corners, and the stars spread out above them like a blanket of diamonds.
Aramis rested his elbow on Porthos' shoulder, slouching as he had a tendency to do against any immovable object, and lifted his face to the stars. The others followed suite and Porthos found he was content, for the moment, with the stillness surrounding him.
The stood for each other.
With each other.
Because of each other.
And the universe watched.