Chapter 1: Day One: Paris
Day One: Paris
It was the stillness that caught his eye.
d'Artagnan stood in the center of the arena motionless, eyes fixed on nothing, a palm resting on the hilt of his rapier, as though he were carved in stone. Athos couldn't even see him breathing. He simply stood, as if waiting for something. Or someone.
Porthos and Aramis had wandered off, presumably to bid farewell to Porthos' patroness, Madam Clerbeaux. Athos didn't miss the sadness in the big man's eyes, or the mischievous glint in the marksman's. That was an encounter he welcomed avoiding. As d'Artagnan had so aptly declared, he no longer put his trust in love.
Treville was in a fair amount of pain, though he managed to maintain his stoic façade through the remainder of the competition and parting of the royals. It wasn't until he'd retreated to the Musketeer tent, Athos as close as his shadow, that his legs weakened, his knees vanishing. Athos had guided his Captain to a seat and summoned the physician, waiting while Treville was examined, the broken clavicle set and bandaged sufficiently for the journey back to the garrison.
"I will summon a carriage to take you," Athos told his Captain, noting the tight lines around the other man's eyes.
"That won't be necessary," Treville replied, voice haggard. "I can ride."
"With a broken shoulder?" Athos scoffed, arching his brow. "I think not."
"I'm still your Captain, Athos."
"Yes, and as your Lieutenant it is my responsibility to ensure you are safe," Athos retorted. He'd softened his tone as he took in the pallor of his Captain's features, recognizing the need for a show of strength. "At least this once."
Treville had stubbornly pushed to his feet in protest, gone alarmingly white, and nearly pitched forward into Athos' arms. After being settled once more in the camp chair, he'd agreed to a carriage. It was only when Athos left the tent to summon the ride that he spied d'Artagnan still in the center of the arena. Calling to one of the pages busy dismantling the stands, Athos charged the boy with securing a carriage for Captain Treville, then ventured toward the young man, his boots sinking into the loose, churned-up dirt.
d'Artagnan didn't react to his approach; he was in a world of his own. The sweat generated from his battle with LeBarge had dried, but his dark hair still stuck to his forehead and cheeks in places. His lips here slightly parted, his eyes down, and Athos could see a slight tremor in his arms once he drew close enough.
"d'Artagnan?" he called, halting his movement when the lad started violently, pulling his sword free from its scabbard in a motion so fluid it was clearly driven by instinct.
Athos stayed where he was, holding his hands out in the universal gesture of please don't stab me, and dropped his gaze to catch d'Artagnan's eyes.
"A-Athos," d'Artagnan replied, blinking rapidly as if surfacing from a dream. He glanced down at the sword in his hand, frowned momentarily, then sheathed it. "I'm sorry."
"What are you still doing here?" Athos asked, not yet dropping his hands, his eyes pinned to d'Artagnan's face, watching as lines of weariness climbed across his features to replace the vacant, stunned expression of earlier.
"I, uh…." d'Artagnan looked around, as if only just realizing that everyone had left, the arena slowly being dismantled. "I don't actually know."
It hit Athos then, how exhausted his young friend appeared, how much had transpired for him over a short span of time. He couldn't even be sure the lad had slept more than a few hours since Treville had announced the inception of the contest. Athos approached, clapping a hand firmly on the unblemished pauldron that now graced d'Artagnan's shoulder.
"Come," he implored. "We'll return Treville to the garrison and celebrate your commission."
d'Artagnan blinked again, looking down at his shoulder, at the fleur-de-lis just above Athos' hand. "It's real. It happened."
"It's real," Athos assured him. "You have earned this, d'Artagnan. You defended your Captain."
d'Artagnan swallowed, frowning as he looked up to meet Athos' eyes. "It was more than that," he said softly. "LeBarge…."
"You avenged your home," Athos stated, thinking back to the fear that had stabbed through him when he found d'Artagnan inside the Bastille at the mercy of LeBarge, the young man's thirst for vengeance having gotten the better of him. "Your father would be proud of your actions today."
Emotion once more finding a home in the young man's dark eyes, d'Artagnan rolled his bottom lip against his teeth, catching it in a bite clearly meant to hold back an exodus of some kind. Athos waited, watching as the young Gascon worked to bring himself under control. With a low, shuddering breath, d'Artagnan lifted his head in a half-nod, giving Athos a ghost of a smile.
"Right, well," he nodded. "It's over."
"Are you ready for what follows?" Athos asked, arching a brow. "For the life of a Musketeer?"
"Haven't I been living that life in all but name?" d'Artagnan asked, pride bringing his chin up in a gesture of defiance.
"Indeed," Athos replied, offering him a small smile of approval. "You have at that."
Looking around once more at the growing shadows, d'Artagnan tilted his head. "Where are the others?"
"Knowing Porthos," Athos sighed, "a tavern. With a card game."
d'Artagnan was uncharacteristically quiet on the ride to the garrison. He sat next to Athos on the bench seat, their horses tied to the rear of the carriage and Treville safely ensconced inside. Never one to initiate conversation, Athos was content to leave the lad to his thoughts. There was clearly more going on behind those dark eyes than being overwhelmed from winning his commission.
When they pulled into the garrison, d'Artagnan hopped down first, and Athos frowned as he saw the lad sway slightly, reaching out a hand to the side of the carriage to balance himself. He gathered the reins, tying them off at the side of the bench seat and by the time he'd climbed down to join d'Artagnan, the lad had opened the door and was easing Treville to the ground. Athos said nothing about his young friend's momentary weakness, simply following his Captain into the infirmary.
It didn't take Treville long to dismiss them, as Athos suspected. They turned as one to leave when Treville called him back.
"I would not ask this of you, except…," Treville began, then looked away, glaring slightly at the physician as the man waited to treat his Captain. "There are some affairs that require seeing to, and I do not believe I will be able to fulfill. I am going to need your assistance, Athos."
"You have it, Sir," Athos replied immediately.
"Take your leave tonight. Be with your men," Treville glanced toward the door where d'Artagnan had exited. "He did well today. Your faith in him was rewarded."
"That it was," Athos nodded, still watching Treville.
"There is something troubling him," Treville looked back up at Athos. "I would have thought receiving a commission in the Musketeers would not be regarded as such a solemn event. Not only that, your provocation in the garrison the other day was hardly enough to have elicited the response you received."
"I did find him in the Bastille, if you'll recall," Athos reminded his Captain. "Near to getting his neck broken."
"When I told him of the loss of his home," Treville said, adjusting stiffly on the bed and shaking his head at the physician, forcing the man to wait, "he seemed…ashamed. Not angry." Treville looked up at Athos. "Ashamed and afraid."
Athos frowned. "I'll talk to him."
"Perhaps just keep an eye on him," Treville advised. "If it were you, I doubt you'd open up about something so personal."
"d'Artagnan is not me," Athos replied, though he felt irony scatter the words in the space between them.
"He's more like you than either of you realize," Treville replied, unknowingly repeating Athos' own sentiment, not one day prior.
"He'll have one of us watching him until this melancholy passes," Athos promised.
"Thank you," Treville sighed, nodding as the physician approached once more. "Report to my office in the morning."
Athos tipped his hat in acquiescence, then turn and left the room, surprised to find d'Artagnan waiting just outside in the growing darkness. His breath turned to small clouds against the twilight, the courtyard prematurely darkened by low-lying clouds threatening rain to wash away the day's toil and blood. Athos drew up next to him and paused, head tilted in question.
"I thought it best to wait for you," d'Artagnan explained.
"You are tired," Athos replied, noting the sag of his young friend's shoulders. "Perhaps you should rest."
d'Artagnan dropped his gaze from a vacant stare toward their horses to rest on the muddy ground. "I have no place to go," he confessed quietly.
Athos nodded, realizing how layered that sentiment truly was. Whatever had transpired between the young Gascon and the Boniceaux, Athos surmised by the lad's comment in the arena earlier that day he wouldn't have been staying there any longer, commission or no commission. Not that he would have returned to Lupiac, but the fact that he now could not added weight to his words.
"You do," Athos told him, resting a hand gently on the shoulder bearing the new pauldron. "You belong here, with us. The quartermaster will see to your lodging while we seek out our friends."
d'Artagnan's mouth pulled up in a small, but grateful, smile and he nodded, following Athos toward the archway of the garrison and the Paris streets beyond. Athos called to the stable boy who sat at the large table with Serge and told him to see to their horses and carriage when he was finished with his supper.
They stepped out into the streets and Athos felt himself enveloped by a familiar discomfort of the city. The tension that had eased from his shoulders within the walls of the garrison coiled through his muscles once more and Athos registered d'Artagnan absorb it from him like an impact.
Paris never really fit Athos; he walked the streets wary and watchful, on guard for any attack or surprise encounter. The city caused him to feel both suffocated and exposed, surrounded by dangers he might not be able to defend himself – and others – against. He trusted no one outside of the men he'd pledged his loyalty to, and he was perpetually convinced that death waited for him within each alleyway or around every corner.
d'Artagnan, he'd noticed, was a bit of a chameleon. Athos had yet to discover how the young man felt about the city because each time they ventured out, d'Artagnan took up the mantel of the man nearest to him. He was wary and watchful when close to Athos, he ran the rooftops with Porthos like one born in the embrace of the streets, and he'd nearly perfected an imitation of the sly, secretive smile Aramis let slip from beneath the brim of his hat.
As they made their way to the Grey Wolf – the one place besides the garrison he knew they could all meet up when separated – Athos wondered at this boy who'd morphed into a man before his eyes and somehow made himself such an integral part of their number he couldn't imagine the Musketeers without him.
Even with the time they'd spent together, he wondered how much they truly knew about d'Artagnan.
"Ah, there he is! The man of the hour!"
They were greeted by Aramis' triumphant shout the moment they walked through the doors of the Wolf. Athos hung back in the shadows cast by multitudes of candlelight and hung lanterns, watching as Porthos and Aramis reached for d'Artagnan, pulling him toward a table already laden with decanters of wine and mugs of ale. d'Artagnan stumbled forward with a slightly dazed smile on his face, accepting the cup Porthos thrust into his hand, wine sloshing over the lip to stain the sleeve of his tunic.
Athos didn't bother concealing his smile as he watched his friends pull d'Artagnan into the controlled chaos of their celebration; the lad needed to forget whatever it was that weighed him down. Just before he stepped forward to join the fray, however, Athos caught movement from the corner of his eyes: the swing of a skirt, a flash of red, and a scent – detectable over even the sweat of men and tang of wine – of forget-me-nots.
With a quick glance toward his friends, inadvertently catching Aramis' jovial gaze, Athos darted to his right, following what might only be his imagination. But he had to be sure. He knew she was in Paris, knew she could find him anywhere, but was she looking? What would she want except to cause him more pain?
He stepped out through the side door, looking either way down the side streets of Paris, the energy of the city and her patrons shifting from day to night, capes and cloaks turning dark to hide or protect, carts pulled indoors, lights being lit. The stench of the streets masked any scent he might have thought he detected and the only swirling skirts he saw nearby he'd have to pay a few sous to approach. Frowning, he slumped against the side of the building, staring resolutely toward the west for no particular reason other than it was away from the garrison.
"Everything in order?"
Athos suppressed his instinct to draw his sword at the sudden voice at his elbow. He should have realized that Aramis would have followed him; the man missed nothing. Especially not momentary panic captured in a furtive glance from a friend.
"It is," Athos sighed. "I thought I saw…someone." He glanced over his shoulder. "I was wrong."
"Come inside," Aramis implored, resting a hand on Athos' shoulder. "Help us toast d'Artagnan." His fingers tightened, effectively turning Athos back toward the Grey Wolf. "Or get him too drunk to wallow."
Athos stepped back into the room, smoke curling up from the fireplace and lanterns and sliding secretive veils around the clientele. "You see it too, then?"
"See it?" Aramis scoffed. "It's rolling off of him."
"None," Aramis shook his head, then nodded toward where d'Artagnan sat next to Porthos, his lips turned up in a placating smile that didn't reach his eyes. "But I'm nothing if not tenacious."
"That you are," Athos agreed, moving to the table and dropping heavily into a chair opposite Porthos.
He wasted no time grabbing an empty cup, filling it, then draining it, and allowing Porthos to refill it. As the wine hit his system, he let himself relax a bit into the languid sensation of loosening limbs and dulling mind. It was only then that he realized how bright everything had been to that moment. Every word sharp, every movement illuminated first by the perceived truth that Treville had been after glory followed by the actual truth that his Captain was once more protecting his men.
He raised his cup. "To Treville."
The men followed suit, d'Artagnan's cup the highest.
"A Captain without measure, who stood in our place against a monster," Aramis stated, his eloquence capturing what Athos felt.
"To Treville," Porthos echoed, and they drank.
No sooner had their cups hit the table than Porthos spoke once more.
"To d'Artagnan," he said, his free hand gripping the younger man's shoulder. "For slaying the monster."
d'Artagnan's brows folded in as if in denial, and Aramis picked up the toast.
"Agreed. Few men have arrived in our ranks with nothing and found a toe hold in our brotherhood. Fewer still have picked themselves up from the dirt time and again when we've bested them in battle. And I can think of none who stepped forward to defend their brothers' Captain – at the risk of their own life – and defeated an opponent twice their size." He lifted his cup and nodded at d'Artagnan. "You are my brother, Charles d'Artagnan of Lupiac in Gascony. Our brother. And a Musketeer."
Athos watched as d'Artagnan's eyes never left Aramis' face, bright with captured tears at the marksman's closing words.
"A Musketeer," Athos echoed, nodding toward the young man across from him.
They drank to him and d'Artagnan smiled; this time it hit his eyes. The night wore on, the wine flowed and Athos watched as incrementally d'Artagnan relaxed, the warmth of the tavern, of his friends, surrounding him like an embrace. The peace that filled Athos sitting among his friends was unlike any he'd felt before. It was more than just the comfort of companionship; it was home.
Athos let the wine slip through his own system, settling him as nothing else did while he watched his brothers laugh. Porthos was open and raucous, laughing as he lived: with his whole heart, holding nothing back. Aramis was a careful enigma: his smile giving nothing away, his eyes entreating one to look closer. d'Artagnan seemed to alternate between the liberty of youth and the burden of reality, his head tipped back, eyes twinkling until he seemed to realize he was too free with his emotion and he swallowed it down, filing it away somewhere inside as though to bring it back and light a darkness in his future.
It was after several hours spent amid quicksilver tidal shifts of mood that Athos detected a definitive layer had been peeled away from each man, revealing a truth only wine and the trust of brotherhood could expose. Their conversation had slipped from the complex irony of the contest to sharing stories of past battles and conquests, ending with Porthos admitting to the appeal of Alice Clerbeaux and a life outside of the Musketeers – the idea of which, Athos noted, troubled Aramis greatly if the teasing he flung the big man's way was any indication.
The tavern had almost emptied; only three other patrons aside from themselves remained, and those men were heavily ensconced in a game of cards. Athos was slightly surprised Porthos hadn't departed their celebration to try his hand at what appeared to be a battle of wills.
"You're wrong, Athos," d'Artagnan said into a silence that had wrapped around them in the past minutes.
Athos brought his focus back to their group, staring curiously at d'Artagnan. The lad was slumped against the wall, one foot up on the bench so that his bent knee offered support of his arm, the opposite hand clasping his wrist as if that grip was the only thing keeping him together. He was quite drunk, Athos could see by the bleary gaze and loose limbs, but by the scowl darkening his features it was not a pleasurable inebriation.
Aramis and Porthos had matched the lad drink for drink, but they were clearly better suited to such endeavors. Both sat upright, arms resting on the table, shoulders bowed, eyes on a middle distance that spoke of the direction of their thoughts, not of their faculties. At d'Artagnan's declaration, both turned to look at him.
"Am I?" Athos replied mildly.
d'Artagnan nodded, but didn't look up. "He would not have been proud of me."
"What's all this, then?" Porthos muttered, his scowl darker than d'Artagnan's. "Who's 'e talkin' about?" He looked over at Athos.
Athos frowned, trying to catch up with the young man's thoughts. He saw Aramis sit back in his chair, an expression of understanding crossing his features as he reached up to tug at his beard.
"He hated violence. Soldiers. Anything to do with battle," d'Artagnan continued.
And then Athos knew.
"d'Artagnan," he began, leaning forward.
"He would have hated that I killed LeBarge – no matter what he did to our home, our farm."
Athos closed his mouth, exhaling slowly, waiting him out. Aramis caught Porthos' eye and shook his head once, almost imperceptibly.
"He wanted to protect the people of Gascony from such violence," d'Artagnan informed them, his voice gone hollow with pain and grief. "It's why he brought me with him. Because I would follow him through anything. I'd do anything for him." He sniffed, looking up as though just remembering he wasn't alone. "Do you know it was supposed to be my uncle? A man I barely knew. Hadn't seen for years. He was supposed to travel with Father to Paris."
The others at the table sat quietly, letting the words unspool before them, watching as their young friend bled out emotion that had been trapped inside for far too long.
"Instead, I traveled with him. And I let him die." His words were chosen like shards of broken glass, selected for impact, cutting each of them with a prism of memory. "I killed the man who killed my father. And I killed the man who destroyed his farm. And none of it makes a damn bit of difference. Father's dead. And the farm's gone."
The expression in the young Gascon's eyes seemed to suck all the air from the room. Athos felt suspended, helpless in the face of such raw emotion.
"I expected it to feel different, killing LeBarge," d'Artagnan uttered in a low, warbling voice. "I wanted it to…. I wanted to be able to breathe again. I didn't want my father to be right, that killing only brought more pain, but…," he looked up, directly at Athos. "He was."
Athos opened his mouth, a need to find words that offered some sort of comfort tugging impatiently at his heart, but before he could speak Aramis leaned forward, the leather of his coat creaking with the motion.
"d'Artagnan, listen to me." He spoke quietly, but his tone captured their attention. "You are not your father. Your choices are yours; your life is yours." Athos watched as d'Artagnan's heavy eyes tracked to Aramis' face, the tears held at bay threatening to spill as he listened. "You did not avenge your father, your home, to appease the memory of your father or offer his soul peace. You did it for yourself."
Athos frowned at that, but watched as d'Artagnan nodded ever-so-slightly.
"Every choice we make in life must be for ourselves or it will be reflected in false actions. We defend each other, we protect each other, and we do it for ourselves. We do it because it defines us. It is all we can do. Do you understand me?"
Athos wasn't sure he did, but saw d'Artagnan nod again, either responding to the sentiment or Aramis' soft, impassioned tone. There was something arresting about the way Aramis spoke when his whole attention was focused. Athos was certain that was how the man brought many a woman to her knees. Just now, his sincerity and intensity was reflecting in d'Artagnan's liquid eyes and whatever the logic behind his words, the lad was absorbing the implication.
"You fought bravely, with honor. No loss can take that from you."
Aramis laid his hand on d'Artagnan's forearm and Athos shifted his gaze to Porthos, noting how the big man was not watching d'Artagnan, but Aramis. Something in what Aramis was saying seemed to trigger Porthos' interest because he was looking decidedly less inebriated than he had moments prior. Before Athos could inquire, however, Aramis took his sage advice one step too far.
"Now, perhaps we should call it a night and return you to the Boniceaux for your last night—"
He hadn't finished the proposition before d'Artagnan's eyes flared with something indecipherable and he reached for his cup of wine once more. As Athos looked on, blinking in astonishment, the lad finished his cup, then poured another, downing it like water. As he reached for a third, Athos called out and Porthos caught his arm.
"Leave it," Porthos all-but growled.
"Let me go," d'Artagnan pouted, trying to wrench his arm from Porthos' grip.
"Not bloody likely," Porthos replied, standing and hauling d'Artagnan up with him.
Athos knew it was coming, but seeing the alcohol hit d'Artagnan was jarring. The moment d'Artagnan was upright, the hooded, emotion-filled eyes went distant and unfocused and he sagged against Porthos as though someone had struck him. The big man caught him easily, shaking his head and looking over at Athos.
"Shoulda stopped two bottles ago."
Blinking in surprise, Athos surveyed the table. He felt relatively sober; he hadn't realized how much they'd consumed.
"'e got 'is quarters yet?" Porthos asked, hefting d'Artagnan's limp form against him so that the lad didn't slide to the floor in a heap.
Athos shook his head, rising to move around Porthos and grasp d'Artagnan from the other side. "I don't know."
"What did I miss?" Aramis asked, blinking owlishly at the trio, his dark eyes a bit blurred around the edges.
"Clearly something has transpired with Madam Boniceaux," Athos said, dragging one of d'Artagnan's arms across his shoulders and balancing the lad's weight with Porthos. "He's been walking in a cloud of gloom since before the competition."
"I thought it only the loss of his farm," Aramis, lamented, tossing coins on the table and grabbing his hat.
"We'll take him to my room," Athos stated as d'Artagnan slumped further, not quite unconscious, but not anywhere close to coherent. His feet were dragging as he made a somewhat half-hearted attempt to keep up. "It's the closest to the entrance at the garrison."
"Where will you sleep?" Porthos asked as they exited the tavern.
"I don't believe I will," Athos sighed as d'Artagnan groaned, his head lolling against Athos' shoulder. "He'll need looking after."
Aramis strode next to them, bringing up a fist to his mouth. "Such an opportune moment for a comment as to your expertise in these matters."
Athos arched a wry brow in his direction. "Your restraint is appreciated."
They entered the garrison four abreast, Aramis waving off the concerned looks shot their way as the Musketeers in the courtyard caught sight of d'Artagnan hanging limply between Athos and Porthos. Once deposited on Athos' bed, the young man succumbed to the pull of oblivion, his mouth agape, his breath heavy from alcohol. Athos sighed, shaking his head.
"Tell me I don't look as pathetic when you drag me home from the tavern."
"I could," Aramis replied, his thumbs hooked in his weapons belt. "But I would be lying."
"We'll see you in the morning, yeah?" Porthos tugged on the brim of his hat, making his way around the bed and toward the door.
"You're going back there, aren't you?" Athos asked, not looking at his friend.
"That card game was just gettin' started," Porthos replied, a grin evident in his tone. He left the room and Athos glanced askance at Aramis.
"Not to worry," Aramis sighed. "I'll make sure he returns in one piece."
Athos nodded, then closed the door behind Aramis' departing form. Turning to the bed, he carefully removed d'Artagnan's boots and weapon's belt, rolling him to his side to pull the dagger sheathed at his back free. d'Artagnan muttered something unintelligible, burying his face deeper into Athos' pillow. As he did, he brought his left arm up and Athos caught sight of a rust-colored stain on the lad's shirt, just where the sleeves of his doublet fastened.
Dimly, he recalled LeBarge getting in a strike that had made them all react with drawn breath. Unlacing the ties of d'Artagnan's doublet, he maneuvered the leather from the lad's shoulder, pulling the pauldron free, and setting both the jacket and shoulder guard to the side. Throughout all of this, d'Artagnan remained limp and unresponsive, the wine having smothered any awareness to Athos' manhandling.
Lifting d'Artagnan's arm, Athos parted the slice in the shirt and saw a shallow cut along his upper ribs, thanks to the edge of LeBarge's sword. It didn't appear to require needlework; the bleeding had long ago stopped, but it would probably sting for some time, and was a reminder to Athos that the fight had been close. It had been damn close. He wet a cloth and cleaned off the dried blood, then folded the parted pieces of cloth back over d'Artagnan's exposed skin. The lad could change shirts in the morning.
Digging out a bottle of wine from his personal stash, Athos settled in for the night at his small table, feet propped up on the end of his bed. He tipped his head back against the wall and sipped at the wine, studying the cracks in the ceiling above his head and listening for d'Artagnan.
d'Artagnan was a restless sleeper; it was something they'd all noticed the first mission he'd accompanied them on that had taken them out of Paris. He never seemed to relax fully, as though he felt the need to be always on guard. When he did sleep, he had nightmares, often times waking those who weren't on watch with a shout or a swing of his arms. Tonight, however, he slept like the dead, his breathing heavy and regular, his lanky body still.
Consuming your weight in wine will do that to you, Athos mused.
Though the hour was late, this was the time when Athos felt most at peace. He personally rarely slept a full night, preferring, instead, to sort through the many categorized and compartmentalized thoughts that he never let himself spend too much time exploring during the day.
It had been Anne in the tavern earlier. Actually, physically present; he was certain of it. Primarily because the flash of skirt he'd seen had been red. Whenever he'd seen her since the night his chalet burned, she wore white. Like the day he'd watched her hang.
Swallowing another mouthful of wine, Athos closed his eyes.
He suspected that she hadn't been more than a city block from him since she revealed her presence back in Paris. He had been so rocked by the realization that she wasn't dead, that he'd been living with false guilt for so many years, the implication of what she might be planning had been lost on him. For those five years, he'd lived only with the guilt of his actions; now he lived with the ghost of her memory.
A very real ghost, walking among the men at the garrison, stepping in front of his sword during training, standing over his bed at night, staring at him with silent accusation.
It mattered not that what he saw couldn't be real, that the visions were a product of his haunted mind. He saw her just as real as d'Artagnan lying sprawled on his bed. He saw her and each time he felt the pain that had stabbed through him when the rope snapped taut with her weight.
Opening his eyes, Athos stared once more at his worn ceiling and thought back to when he'd first met Anne, how intoxicating it had been just to be near her. How once he'd kissed her he'd craved more, never satisfied with one taste. She's been air to a drowning man, freedom to a captive. She'd been his light, his escape, his anchor all in one. He'd lost himself to her, turning a blind eye to everything – everyone – that wasn't her.
She had once been his home; his world. And that world had turned dark and twisted into something unrecognizable without her.
d'Artagnan stirred restlessly on the bed and Athos glanced over, watching carefully in case the wine turned on the young man, looking to make a reappearance. d'Artagnan rolled to his back, his neck arching slightly as a troubled frown drew lines across his young face. One hand pressed against his chest, over his heart, the other curling loosely in the bed linens. Athos watched, bothered, as whatever nightmare gripped his young friend held tight.
"Can't see his face…," d'Artagnan mumbled. "Gérard…I can't see him…."
Athos puzzled at the unfamiliar name. They accepted d'Artagnan nightmares as part of package when it came to the young Gascon. When traveling and taking turns keeping watch, they shared an unspoken understanding that each would wake him should the dreams take hold.
He didn't move to wake him this time; he knew from experience that it would be a near-impossibility for d'Artagnan to shake the vestiges of the dream until he'd slept off the effects of the wine. Instead he kept a watchful eye that the dream didn't send d'Artagnan thrashing to a point where he injured himself and listened for the name once more. He couldn't remember anything in what the young man had shared with him about his past that had included someone named Gérard.
A low moan escaped d'Artagnan's lips, but after a moment, he relaxed, sleeping deeply once more. Athos simply watched him sleep, using the vigil to shake the memory of Anne from where it always caught on the corners of his mind. If he didn't allow himself to relax, to let down his guard, he could keep her away – the memory of her, anyway.
The real woman who had been in the tavern that night – waiting for him, he was sure of it – would be harder to avoid.
As the night wore on, it was clear that Athos wasn't the only one haunted. The dream that twisted something inside his young friend captured d'Artagnan twice more before allowing him to rest once again. Each time, Athos heard him call for this Gérard, the anguish in his tone almost enough to force Athos' hand and wake him if only to smooth the lines of remembered pain from d'Artagnan's face. Something always stopped him; a resistance to sympathy, a denial of affection, or perhaps fear of allowing someone to mean too much to him.
As the night sighed, the hold of the moon slipping away and dawn clawing across the horizon, Athos felt himself nodding off, his head bouncing from his chest to bring his eyes level once more, determined to keep watch, to stand guard. Night held more dangers inside one's mind than outside in the world. It was Athos' job, as he saw it, to ensure his men weren't taken by the devils they kept locked inside.
The sun brushed the sky with gold and the garrison began stirring outside Athos' window when d'Artagnan finally opened his eyes. Athos tipped his chin forward, watching carefully. This was going to be a rough reentry.
Chapter 2: Day Two: Paris
Day Two: Paris
When d'Artagnan woke, it was slowly, as if his lashes weighted the lids immeasurably. Athos stayed still, watching as d'Artagnan blinked himself to awareness, bringing up a hand to his forehead, fingers trembling slightly. He licked his dry lips sluggishly and Athos watched him work to swallow.
"Bloody hell," d'Artagnan groaned, his voice sounding as though a rasp had been taken to the lining of his throat.
"Good morning to you, too," Athos greeted, dropping his feet to the ground with more force than necessary, the reflective wince crossing d'Artagnan's features evidence that the reverberating thunk echoing against his too-sensitive ears.
"Have mercy, Athos," d'Artagnan whispered.
At least he recognizes who is with him, Athos thought. That's a start.
"I believe I did when I gave you my bed last night," Athos replied.
Squinting through the murk of the shadowed room, d'Artagnan peered at him, a hand still at his head. Slowly, he took in his surroundings, then grimaced. Dragging his feet from the bed, d'Artagnan gradually leveraged himself upright, ending up with his elbows on his knees, head in his hands.
"How bad is it?" Athos asked, tempering his voice, recognizing the lines of pain, the bowed shoulders, the trembling hands from many a fragile morning.
For a moment, the only sound was d'Artagnan's slow, purposeful breathing, and then, "I can hear colors."
Athos schooled his features so that his sympathetic smile didn't permeate his tone. "There is water in the pitcher next to you," he directed, watching as d'Artagnan's eyes tracked in the general direction of the bedside table. "You should drink some."
"I'll only bring it up."
"Perhaps, but you need it," Athos pushed. "Trust me."
"I suppose you would know," d'Artagnan grumbled.
Athos narrowed his eyes. Impertinence he would accept from Aramis; the man had earned a few snarky comments after the times he'd watched over Athos in a similar state. d'Artagnan, however, had not.
"Your boots and effects are here at the table. Drink some water, clean up, and report to the yard in thirty minutes," Athos ordered, pushing to his feet.
d'Artagnan peered up at him through a veil of dark fringe, his eyes clouded and puffy with morning-after pain. "Are you serious?"
Athos arched a brow and tugged at the edge of his coat, arranging his expression into one that was dead serious, despite the empathy he felt. d'Artagnan was young, but he wasn't a boy, and Athos knew as much as he might want to, he couldn't coddle the Gascon. He had to be ready and willing to send the young man into danger, if duty demanded it. He had to be willing to risk his young friend's life for the sake of King and country.
He couldn't afford too much sentiment, no matter how much his heart bade him give way to the pathetic plea in d'Artagnan's dark eyes.
"You are Musketeer now, d'Artagnan," he replied, all warmth drained from his tone. "No matter what you choose to do in your free time, you must be fit and ready for duty each day."
"Is it even daylight?" d'Artagnan asks pitifully.
Athos reached behind him and pushed open the wooden shutters shielding his room from the bright light of the morning. As the sun beams crossed d'Artagnan's face, he gasped and shrank back as if burned.
"All right; I've got it," he groaned, holding his head in both hands. "Sadist."
"You may borrow one of my shirts," Athos offered.
At that, d'Artagnan looked up. "What? Why would I need your shirt?"
"It seems LeBarge left you a souvenir," Athos nodded toward d'Artagnan's side.
The lad lifted his arm and probed with careful fingers at the shallow cut on his side, clearly feeling the sting the moment he did so. "I didn't realize…."
"Clean up," Athos said, tugging his hat on and reaching for the door.
The tone was different, misery having evaporated as quickly as it had arrived.
"Thank you." d'Artagnan sat up straighter, looking around the room once again, letting his roaming eyes still once they hit Athos' figure standing before him. "You gave up your room – your rest – for me."
To hear Aramis tell it, Athos thought, I did it for myself.
"You are my brother, d'Artagnan," Athos replied carefully. "We step in when a brother is in need." He opened the door. "Though," he paused, looking over his shoulder at the young man. "I would think twice before drinking quite that much wine again."
d'Artagnan nodded, wincing. "Athos?"
Athos sighed, pulling up short once more.
"I need an hour before I can report to the yard."
Athos turned to face d'Artagnan, his brow arched once more, this time with curiosity. "And why is that?"
d'Artagnan sighed, the tips of his fingers rubbing at the center of his forehead, his eyes closed tightly. "I must return to the Boniceaux," he said. "Retrieve my things."
That will not be easy. Athos tipped his head. "Do you wish to talk about it?"
"There's nothing to talk about," d'Artagnan muttered, shoving his hair back away from his face and reaching for the water pitcher. "I…misread the situation."
Athos glanced at the floor. "Understood."
Not giving d'Artagnan another opportunity to pull him back, Athos made his way to Treville's office, grabbing two mugs of strongly-brewed tea and a hunk of bread from the table that Serge set out for the men on his way. The courtyard smelled strongly of mud and manure, scents that would be erased as the men filled the empty spaces with sword practice and strategy talks.
Winter still lingered in the early morning and late evening, but the chill burned off with the light of day, and Athos didn't bother to pull on his gloves as he nodded to Bauer and Agnon sitting at the table. Neither said a word as they tipped their chins to him in greeting; morning wasn't the best time for conversation.
Climbing the stairs situated behind the broad community table, he made his way to Treville's office. The Captain was at his desk, sans leather doublet and pauldron. A sling had been fitted to secure his arm across his chest and his face was pale; the effort of moving was clearly taking a toll.
"Sir," Athos nodded, setting one of the mugs on Treville's desk.
Treville took a breath, set down the paper he'd been reading and plucked the mug from the edge of the desk with greedy fingers. He grimaced as he swallowed and Athos spared a thought to making the contents a bit stronger next time.
"Everyone intact this morning?" Treville asked.
"More or less," Athos tipped his head.
Treville looked up, but Athos merely met his gaze, silently. If the Captain wanted to know more, he would need to ask directly. Athos was not one to speak idly of his brothers.
"We have been given a reprieve, it seems," Treville said, leaning back in his chair gingerly. "The Cardinal has gone a bit quiet in the wake of his Red Guard's defeat. And the King is planning a hunt in three days, so he is...," Treville sighed, "preparing his wardrobe."
"Understood," Athos replied, though, in truth, there was very little he understood when it came to his King. Other than the man had spent his entire life within the grounds of the palace and had nary an inkling of what transpired in the city he claimed to love.
"There is much bookkeeping," Treville indicated with a nod. "Tedious. Ridiculously necessary, but tedious. If you are willing…."
"I am here to help, Captain. If it's bookkeeping that you need completed, then so be it."
Treville nodded once, leaning forward and proceeded to provide Athos with a litany of the different missives, reports, and messages that would need to be drafted or approved over the next three days. Athos listened, ensuring his expression remained impassive, but inside felt himself sinking a bit as he realized how much of his Captain's daily life consisted of such laborious efforts in empty action.
And yet he'd still put himself in the arena to face LeBarge to protect his men.
"Lastly, there is still the issue of LeBarge," Treville concluded, causing Athos to blink. It was as if Treville had followed the flow of his thoughts.
"When Richelieu made the man a captain in his Red Guard, he provided him with a title and salary. One which d'Artagnan is now eligible to inherit, having killed him in combat approved by the King."
Athos was unable to help his arched brow. "Sir, I am quite certain d'Artagnan will want nothing from that man."
"Agreed," Treville nodded, "and I'm also quite certain Richelieu would find a way to deny it to him, if he did want it. However, even that generates administration, and that is where the issue comes into play."
Treville poked his finger at a stack of papers in the center of his desk. Athos tilted his head but was unable to read the information printed there. He waited as Treville leaned back once more, cradling his wounded arm.
"More information has come to light about LeBarge's crimes, due to his brief appointment in the Red Guard. It is true that he selected d'Artagnan's farm specifically because it was linked to Alexandre d'Artagnan. However, what we didn't realize was that he had help."
Treville nodded, pointing once more to the paper on his desk. "Someone local, helping to identify the destruction that would cause the most damage to Gascony."
"Do we know who provided this aid?"
Treville shook his head. "We do not. However," he sighed, tipping his head back, "I fear that if d'Artagnan were to find out that someone from Gascony betrayed his father, his reaction would be rather disastrous."
Athos brought his chin up. "You underestimate him."
Treville arched a brow. "And you say this based on what? Finding him in the Bastille, nearly getting himself killed avenging his father's farm?"
Athos frowned, silent. His Captain had a point; however, he knew that were the situations reversed, rather than keep this information from him, d'Artagnan would be helping him get to the bottom of it. Athos didn't reveal his thinking to Treville, thinking it best to handle it quietly.
He was certain he'd be able to reason with d'Artagnan, convince him to learn from his mistake at the Bastille.
"We need to respond to the missive and be done with it. LeBarge is dead. d'Artagnan is a Musketeer. This is a story for the past," Treville concluded, his voice tight, his lips thin with pain.
"If you would like to go rest," Athos suggested, "I believe I can take over from here."
"Thank you, Athos," Treville sighed, pushing to his feet. "I will return tomorrow."
"Take as long as you need, Captain," Athos implored. "Should things get out of hand, I can easily summon you."
Treville leveled his eyes on Athos, outwardly weighing his options. "Agreed."
Once his Captain had shuffled stiffly from the room, Athos sat behind the desk, reading through the papers, beginning with the investigation into LeBarge. The missive that Treville had pointed to seemed to be from the Lord Mayor John-Pierre Molay of Gascony. The loss of the d'Artagnan farm was a great blow to the community of Lupiac, it seemed. Reports that LeBarge was guided on his path of destruction had been flooding into Molay's office since the tragedy.
According to the missive, Lupiac's Watch was led by a man named Gérard le Main. Athos sat back suddenly, reading that name. Molay claimed that le Main sought ownership of the devastated lands and with no true authority or heir, Molay was inclined to grant it. However, it appeared this could start a bit of an uprising among the people of Lupiac.
"Gérard," Athos murmured, sitting back and staring blankly at the parchment before him. There could be more than one Gérard in Lupiac, he thought.
Treville wanted the matter settled; truly, it was not a concern of the King's Musketeers. If anything, it was a community matter, possibly impacting one of the King's guard on a personal level, but that was it. There was truly nothing Treville could do other than advise Molay in how to run his own township. Scrawling a reply that he believed would satisfy Treville, Athos moved on to the next document, working to put the troubling familiarity of the Watch leader to the back of his mind.
He lost track of how long he sat there, systematically cataloging the messages and reports. The noise from the open window rose and leveled with the activity of the men in the courtyard below. When Aramis entered the office, Athos looked up, surprised. By the slant of the light cresting the edge of the balcony, it was early afternoon.
He lifted his chin in greeting before registering his friend's appearance: face pale, lips pulled into a thin, tight line, dark eyes troubled and restless.
"Aramis?" Athos called, drawing the man's attention. "What is it?"
"Apologies, Athos," Aramis replied, his voice a ghost of its usual, confident tone. "I forgot that Treville…." His words tapered and he turned, reaching for the latch once more.
"Wait." Athos stood and moved to the side of the desk.
Aramis straightened at his word, dropping his hand from the door, but held himself so still that Athos arrested his approach. For a moment, Aramis looked trapped, panicky. Inexplicably, Athos was suddenly reminded of how the man had been in the weeks following the massacre at Savoy: hollow, walled-up, on the edge of shattering.
"What is it?" Athos repeated, his voice softer.
Aramis shook his head, still not looking directly at him. "Nothing. It can wait."
As Aramis moved once more to leave, Athos stepped forward. "Treville will be gone for the day, if not longer."
Aramis stiffened, then looked over. "Damn."
"Talk to me." Athos tried to temper the words so that they came out more as a request than an order, but he could see by the flinch of muscle along Aramis' jaw that he'd taken it as the latter.
Pulling his hat off with one hand, Aramis shoved fingers through unruly hair, then headed away from the door, across the room in an aimless, restless pace. Athos stayed where he was, keeping his eyes on his friend, waiting him out.
And suddenly, without preamble or warning, Anne appeared. She wore white, just as she always did when he saw her this way. Just as she had that last day. Her hair was down, her eyes bright, her feet bare. She stood quietly, completely still, no movement of her chest as she breathed, her dress as Aramis moved around her, as though she were unaffected by her environment.
Which, of course, she was. Because despite the fact that he was staring right at her, she wasn't there.
Since discovering that his wife had not died by his hand, he'd been seeing her everywhere. In the garrison, in his chamber, in the palace, walking the streets of Paris. Always in white, forget-me-nots woven into her hair, that secretive smile on her face. She appeared when he was nose-deep in a bottle or stone-cold sober, it mattered not. She would stand, staring at him, or move around whoever was in his company. She never said a word, and she left as quickly as she appeared.
He knew it was a trick of his mind, knew that despite how real and flesh she appeared, Anne was not standing in the office, next to Aramis, peering at Athos over Aramis' shoulder, accusations in her eyes. It didn't stop him from catching his breath. It didn't stop him from allowing his eyes to stray.
Athos hadn't spoken of these…visions…to anyone. Not even d'Artagnan, who had been there when Anne nearly killed him months ago, physically pulling him from the fire, saving his life. They would think him mad.
He wasn't mad.
He was haunted.
"I need leave for a few days," Aramis began.
"To go where?" Athos inquired, pulling himself back to the present at Aramis' request, his voice slightly more edged than he'd meant it to be simply because it took so much energy to ignore her.
Aramis twitched, tilting his head to the side as though avoiding a hit. "It's personal."
Athos brought his chin up, thoughts racing. Aramis had no family left. Adele had been killed by the Cardinal for her infidelity. As far as Athos was aware, there was no one outside of the Musketeers Aramis considered personal. However, he had kept Anne, his title, and lands a secret from his brothers for years. It would come as no surprise if Aramis and Porthos had done likewise.
"If I need you, how shall I reach you?" Athos said, trying a different tactic.
Anne moved around Aramis, keeping her enigmatic green eyes on him, her lips twisted into a knowing smirk, both playful and mocking. Athos resolutely looked away from her, forcing himself to stay centered.
If he focused completely on Aramis, Anne might fade.
Aramis studied the floor, pressing his lips tight. The tightness around his eyes exposed a depth to the man he seemed eager to dismiss when interacting with people. For all his loquaciousness, Aramis was a bit of a mystery. He regularly deflected the attention of his friends with a surplus of words; this method worked especially well on Athos who was not fond of words.
Of any kind.
"You won't need me," Aramis replied quietly. "You have d'Artagnan and Porthos."
"I have an entire regiment of Musketeers," Athos commented, hooking his thumbs into his weapon's belt and dropping his chin. He kept his eyes on Aramis' profile. Denied his attention, Anne was almost gone. Almost. "What if I need to reach you?"
Aramis lifted his eyes and the look held there pierced Athos' heart. It was loss and regret and if he didn't know better, Athos might think Aramis was edging on desperate need to escape. The man was pale, his eyes too dark, and the tension along his jawline was similar to what Athos had seen just prior to battle.
"It's Marsac," Aramis revealed quietly.
Before Athos could react to that, the door opened once more, nearly crashing directly into him. He put a hand out to arrest its movement and stared as d'Artagnan stepped inside, startling at the unexpected proximity of Athos just behind the door. Athos blinked, glancing behind the lad to see if Porthos was there, thinking they'd followed Aramis up.
d'Artagnan's quick, surprised glance at Aramis, however, dismissed that notion.
"Oh, uh…I can come back…," d'Artagnan muttered.
"No, no," Aramis lifted a hand, staying d'Artagnan's movement. "I'll go. I was through here."
"It's fine, Aramis," d'Artagnan hastened, stepping back toward the opened door. "I'll just—"
"Oh, both of you, stop it." Athos heaved a sigh and moved to stand in front of Treville's desk.
He took a breath, glancing at the floor and resisting the urge to shove a hand through his hair in exasperation. When he looked up, they were both staring at him and Anne, thankfully, was nowhere to be seen. With any luck, she would not return. At least for today.
"d'Artagnan, come inside and close the door. Aramis, stay where you are."
They followed his instructions, neither looking at him or at each other. Athos shook his head. Whatever was troubling these two, they were either going to speak to it or dismiss it; he was having none of this.
How does Treville cope with us idiots? Athos sighed inwardly.
Jaw tight, he studied his two friends for a moment, letting the tension ease from him before speaking. It wasn't their fault that he was haunted by the woman he hadn't killed. It wasn't their fault that he could no longer sleep because of this twisted guilt.
It wasn't their fault he was slowly losing his mind.
"You're looking…better," Athos observed, nodding toward d'Artagnan.
The lad was cleaned up, dressed in his leathers and pauldron, but there were shadows within his eyes and Athos could easily detect the lines of discomfort that still plagued him from the headache that had followed him into waking. The set to his jaw, however, as though he was prepared to walk head-first into a straight wind, made Athos wonder what had transpired in the hours since he'd last seen him.
"Did you settle into your new quarters?"
"Yes, thanks," d'Artagnan replied, lifting his chin and glancing away from Athos. "Didn't take long. I don't have much."
"Constance must have been sorry to see you depart," Aramis commented, a familiar, easy smile gracing the corner of his mouth.
d'Artagnan's scowl wasn't missed by either of the older men. He crossed his arms over his chest, tucking his fingers beneath his biceps and stared at Athos. "I need to speak with Treville."
"Treville is recuperating," Athos informed him, noting d'Artagnan's expression shift from disappointment to worry as he was reminded of his Captain's injury. "I'll be filling in until he returns."
"All right, then," d'Artagnan nodded once, swallowing. "I'm here to speak with you."
d'Artagnan darted a quick look at Aramis who stared back with mild curiosity, giving no indication that he had been struggling through his own request just moments before. Athos waited as d'Artagnan worked through his decision to speak up with Aramis present.
"I need a few days' leave," he said.
I'm in charge for a few hours and they're scattering to the winds. Athos forced himself not to look at Aramis.
d'Artagnan brought his chin up in a now-familiar motion of pre-emptive defiance. "I need to return to Lupiac; I need to see to my farm, see what's left after…after LeBarge…."
Athos thought immediately of the missive that lay folded up on Treville's desk. "I don't think that's a good idea, d'Artagnan."
Clearly prepared for such a reply, d'Artagnan dropped his arms and stepped forward. "I have not been back there since I departed with my father nearly a year ago. LeBarge purposely targeted my father's farm because of who he was. I left…," he stopped, glancing down, his dark eyes dancing across the cracks in the floorboard as if seeking an elusive phrase, "…my life there, Athos."
He looked up and for the second time that day, Athos was struck with the raw need crackling through one of his friends. It seemed to shimmer from d'Artagnan in a loose ricochet of emotion where Aramis had been able to keep his tightly wound, trapped beneath glass, visible but contained. d'Artagnan hadn't mastered such control and Athos had to stop himself from drawing back in reaction to the young man's intensity.
"I left everything back there. And now…with my commission, I'm…I have to be someone else. Someone…new." He blinked, rolling his bottom lip against his teeth and looking away, eyes drifting toward the opened window. "I can't be that person until I put the old one away."
"d'Artagnan," Athos said quietly, trying to infuse the words he knew would cut d'Artagnan with a tone that might add a balm. "It's simply too dangerous to allow a lone Musketeer to ride so far." d'Artagnan's eyes closed and he shook his head slowly, his body visibly tensing as Athos continued. "You have enemies now – more than highway men and the dangers of the road. You defeated a member of the Red Guard—"
"Hardly a member," d'Artagnan growled. "His rank was a mockery."
"Nevertheless," Athos pressed on. "Should the Cardinal discover you are riding alone, it wouldn't take much for him to send his Guard after you and we'd never be able to get to you in time."
We'd never even know it was happening, he thought, a chill of horror slipping down his spine.
"I'll go with him," Aramis spoke up suddenly.
As one, Athos and d'Artagnan turned to stare at him.
"What was that?" Athos demanded.
"What was that?" d'Artagnan echoed.
Aramis took a step forward. "I'll ride with him. There's no equal to my aim; two Musketeers are an even match for a troupe of Red Guard."
Athos tipped his head, confused. "And what of your request?"
Aramis studied both men for a moment before turning away. He carded his loose, curled hair, studying the bare boards of the side wall intently.
"This morning, a letter was delivered to me," he began. Athos saw d'Artagnan glance his way from the corner of his eye, but he didn't tear his gaze from Aramis. "It was written by Marsac's father."
Athos felt something inside of him go still. He recalled the aftermath of Savoy; he'd never known the names of the Musketeers who'd died there. He'd barely known Aramis at the time. He'd been newly cemented into the Musketeers, just navigating the unfamiliar waters of brotherhood.
However, he clearly remembered Aramis' distress when the Duke visited and they found out the truth of Treville's involvement. He remembered the pain in his friend's normally secretive eyes. He remembered the drive that led Aramis to both uncover the truth and protect his Captain. And he remembered seeing how Aramis shook with silent grief as he held the body of his old friend, the man he'd been forced to kill.
When no one spoke to fill the silence, Aramis continued. "Treville had informed him of Marsac's death – leaving out the specifics, naturally – and he has requested Marsac's effects be returned to him."
"Treville can approve their return," Athos stated.
"True," Aramis nodded, then rotated half-way so that he was almost facing them. "But he doesn't have them." He looked up, meeting Athos' gaze. "I do."
Aramis nodded. "His harquebus and pauldron. I have them both."
"His pauldron should be returned to the regiment—"
"Athos." Aramis said his name with such disappointment Athos felt scolded. "I took the man's son from him. He deserves to have these things, and…it must be me."
"You protected your Captain," Athos protested, thankful that d'Artagnan had remained silent this whole time. "You did your duty."
Aramis stepped forward, meeting Athos' gaze squarely. "I did. And I would do it again. Even though it brought me pain." He tipped his head slightly and Athos felt d'Artagnan draw in a breath, the room shrinking around him. "You might have an idea of what that feels like."
Athos swallowed, once more hearing the rope pull taut, the creaking as her body swung from the branch. The sound suddenly beat against his ears loud enough he nearly flinched. He had to force himself to keep his eyes on Aramis, to not look around the room, fearing he'd see her once more, staring at him silently, her eyes screaming.
"Marsac's home is in Toulouse," Aramis continued. "That is just outside Gascony. I will accompany d'Artagnan to his home and he will help me see my duty finished." Athos registered the moment d'Artagnan saw his opening, the lad turning and squaring off next to Aramis, both facing him. "That is, if you approve."
Athos was caught. They would never disobey a direct order, but he had the opportunity to deny their travel in an effort to protect them, or allow their passage in a show of support. Both were driven by honor and duty, and both were haunted by reason.
As he stared back at them, both sets of dark eyes watching him steadily, waiting, he realized that he might've allowed Aramis leave on his own. The man was older, experienced, skilled. However, he would never have set d'Artagnan out on his own. He was impetuous, quick to react, stubborn. He may be good with a sword and quite a resilient survivor, but his penchant for drawing trouble gave Athos plenty of reason to keep an eye on him.
Still, they'd have each other. d'Artagnan would keep Aramis from becoming too mired in his guilt, too reckless with his life. Aramis would keep d'Artagnan focused, grounded in the present and not allow him to slip into loss and melancholy as he seemed wont to do.
"Fine," Athos replied, the sag of relief in d'Artagnan's shoulders not going unnoticed. "You each have a week, starting in the morning."
d'Artagnan grinned – there was no other word for it; the light of it illuminated his eyes – and glanced Aramis' way with gratitude.
"But," Athos cautioned, pointing at Aramis, "you are telling Porthos. He will not be pleased at being left behind."
Aramis sat his hat atop his head, then tugged smartly at his beard with a nod. "Done."
They turned to leave and Athos called out. "A moment, d'Artagnan?"
Aramis moved through the door, but Athos saw by his shadow he didn't head down the stairs into the courtyard, instead waiting for their younger friend. d'Artagnan paused with his hand on the door latch, head tilted in curiosity, waiting.
"What do you know of a man named Gérard le Main?"
The surprise in d'Artagnan's expression at hearing that name came as a slap. He looked down, away, his mouth opened partly as though looking to speak and forgetting exactly how to form the correct words. After a moment he pressed his lips closed, swallowing.
"He…uh, he was my father's friend," he replied. "He helped him with a great deal at the farm."
"Were you aware that he is now head of The Watch in Lupiac?"
Athos was puzzled to see the visible relief wash over d'Artagnan.
"You mean he is not dead?" the young Gascon asked, his voice whisper-thin.
Athos shook his head, realization filtering in as he replied. "I assure you, he is very much alive."
d'Artagnan closed eyes, exhaling. "I just…I haven't heard his name in some time." He looked over at Athos. "How do you know it?"
"A missive that came to Treville regarding LeBarge's crimes," Athos replied, choosing not to bring up d'Artagnan's nightmare the night before. "He was mentioned in it."
"And he's okay?"
Athos nodded, even more intrigued as to who this man was to his young friend than he had been before. "He's fine. I simply wondered if he had direct connection to your farm, and now I know."
"Thanks again, Athos," d'Artagnan replied, a smile returning some of the color to his face.
As he left the office, Athos sighed, slumping against the desk. "One morning filling Treville's shoes and I've gone and reduced our number by two," he muttered to himself. "What else can transpire today?"
Not more than an hour later, Athos' hunger pushed him from the confines of the office and the tedium of working through the documents stacked on Treville's desk. He made his way down to the community table, grateful as always for Serge's ever-watchful eye. No sooner had he slumped down on the bench and dropped his hat next to him than a bowl of stew and a cup of wine was placed before him.
Athos nodded his thanks and tucked in.
Glancing around the yard as he ate, he saw Aramis and d'Artagnan near the stables, cleaning weapons they apparently planned to take with him on their journey. Bauer, Agnon, and Mathieu were sparring in another area of the yard and men were gathered in various groups, spending their down time as soldiers did. Three days before a mission would be a blessing for some and torture for others, but they were professionals. Athos wasn't worried about—
Aramis cry of their friend's name startled Athos into sitting up straight, his eyes darting toward the garrison entrance. The swarthy man was standing, hatless, his wiry curls standing out in various directions. As Athos watched, Aramis set the musket he was cleaning against one of the hitching rails and hurried forward, toward Porthos.
Athos might not have noticed anything was amiss were it not for the strange list to Porthos' stance. It was almost as though the big man was leaning against a non-existent post, held upright by some sort of magic. Athos stood, joining Aramis' approach. As he drew closer, he saw that a deep gash across Porthos' left brow was leaving a trail of blood down the side of his friend's face.
"What happened?" he barked instinctively, watching as Aramis reached the big man first, catching his arm and steering him to one of the benches fixed to the side of the living quarters.
Aramis' grip was tight and he didn't so much as ease Porthos down as force him off his feet.
"Where were you?" Athos continued his inquisition.
Porthos looked at him blearily, his dark eyes tracking away from Athos and catching on Aramis. Athos watched as their friend anchored himself with Aramis' gaze, seeking and finding his balance there. He blinked for the first time when Aramis put a gloved hand to the side of his face, his thumb skimming the edge of the cut that bisected an older scar from a wound that had barely spared Porthos' eye.
Aramis thrust his other hand behind him, toward Athos, in a gesture clearly meant for him to hold off the interrogation. Athos pulled himself in, frowning, as d'Artagnan skidded to a stop next to him, both of them watching as Aramis crouched in front of Porthos.
"Tell me," Aramis demanded, his voice quiet but serious.
Porthos stared at him, blinking sluggishly as though waking from a dream. "'s Flea," he said, his brows furrowing. "Got some tosser tryin' ta pinch the Court from 'er."
"You were in the Court?" Athos pressed, earning him a glare from Aramis. He narrowed his eyes and returned the expression, but obligingly closed his mouth, waiting.
"I thought I told you we'd handle it later," Aramis said, turning back to Porthos.
"Well, I can't exactly wait until it's convenient for you, can I?" Porthos grumbled, beginning to look a bit more like himself. "Not when a friend's bein' 'assled."
"Someone was hassling Flea?" Aramis pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of his coat and pressed it to Porthos' head.
Hissing, Porthos flinched away, but held still when Aramis cupped the other side of his face, creating a brace.
"They was about to."
"And you simply happened to be in the right place at the right time, is that it?"
"Somethin' like that."
d'Artagnan and Athos stayed silent, letting Aramis continuing his questioning. Athos crossed his arms over his chest, leaning against the nearest post, and watched. d'Artagnan remained squared off and prepared, but tucked his thumbs into his weapons belt, stepping back a bit into the shadows of the building overhang. They'd both instinctively made themselves smaller, less of a distraction – or target – so as not to threaten Porthos with too many people pressing close.
"You went back to that game last night, didn't you?" Aramis accused.
Aramis straightened, crossing his arms. "Porthos."
"No!" Porthos pushed to his feet, but the sudden change in elevation was a bit much and he swayed once there, forcing Aramis to reach out and steady him. "I came back, like I said."
"And then?" Aramis didn't release him, his grip firm but gentle as he continued his questioning.
"Then…," Porthos lifted a shoulder, closing his wounded eye. "I went out again."
"To the Court?"
"Didn't quite make it there," Porthos confessed. "Ran into a coupla wankers from the old days, givin' me a time of it. Callin' me out for Charon."
"That was months ago," d'Artagnan exclaimed.
Porthos looked over as if just realizing he and Aramis had an audience. He pulled a bit away from Aramis, reaching out to steady himself against the wall behind him.
"Court's got a long memory."
"So you, what? Attacked them?" Aramis asked, his tone clearly saying that he was trying to get a rise out of Porthos to drum up answers. They all knew the man had a temper, but he was also not stupid enough to pick a fight without back-up.
"No, I told them to sod off! And I left." Porthos brought his chin up.
"Left by what route?" Aramis pressed.
Porthos glanced up over their heads, and Athos sighed, shaking his head. Porthos' rooftop romps were excellent when evading the Red Guard, but not so clever when it came to those who'd also grown up in the arms of Paris. Porthos took the cloth from Aramis' hand and pressed it against his forehead, wiping the blood from the corner of his eye.
"Caught me over on the Rue de Prony, roughed me up a bit. Took one of 'em out—"
"Dead?" Athos asked.
Porthos shook his head. "No."
"Good." He took a breath. Less administrative work.
Aramis sighed, shaking his head and pinching the bridge of his nose. "Why didn't you trust me? I said I'd help you."
"You said," Porthos took a step forward, dropping the hand that held the handkerchief to his side, "that you would 'elp me look into it." He shook his head, his dark eyes glittering. "'at's not the same and you know it, Aramis."
"You're looking for trouble." Aramis declared, surprising Athos. He wasn't usually this blunt with Porthos. "Have been since you said goodbye to your widow."
Athos saw d'Artagnan flinch at that, straightening from the shadows.
"You leave 'er out o' this," Porthos snapped.
Aramis scowled, stepping forward until he was literally toe-to-toe with Porthos. "She's the reason you're acting reckless. Flea can take care of herself; we both know that. There's no reason for you to get yourself killed over anyone in the Court. Not anymore!"
"They were family once," Porthos growled in response, not backing down.
"Who tried to murder you!"
"Enough," Athos stepped in, pressing his hands against their shoulders and forcing them each back a step. "This is getting us nowhere."
Porthos' lips were pressed close, buried within his dark beard. He was no longer listing, but a line now bisected his brows, the only indication that he was in any pain.
"Porthos, go to the infirmary. Make sure your head is in one piece."
"Humor me," Athos drawled before looking at Aramis. "You finish getting ready for tomorrow. You can have another row at him about the Court when you return."
"Oi, what's this? Where're you goin'?" Porthos' anger immediately vanished, his tone confused and concerned.
"Toulouse," Aramis replied. His shoulders sagged a bit and he dropped his chin, peering at Porthos from beneath his brows. "Marsac."
Porthos gave him a sidelong glance. "You're not goin' alone."
"I'm going with him," d'Artagnan replied before Athos could stop him.
Athos closed his eyes briefly, then looked at Porthos.
"d'Artagnan has business in Gascony," he said. "They will travel together."
"Then we all go," Porthos declared.
"I cannot; I am stepping in until Treville is healed," Athos informed him.
"And you need to rest," Aramis told Porthos, placing a gentle hand on the big man's shoulder. "You haven't slept in days."
"Told ya, 'm fine."
"They wouldn't have been able to catch you if you were," Aramis contradicted, pointing toward the general direction of the rooftops.
Porthos leaned closer to Aramis, pitching his voice lower. "You can't deal with this on your own, Aramis," he practically growled. "You know what 'appens to you."
"I have it under control," Aramis replied, matching the big man's tone.
Athos exchanged a puzzled glance with d'Artagnan; apparently the young Gascon didn't know what they were talking about either.
"Only because you haven't faced it since Marsac died," Porthos returned, glancing past Aramis to d'Artagnan. "You gonna tell 'im 'ow it can get to you? What to do 'f it does?"
"We'll be fine. Besides," Aramis tipped his head toward Athos, "are you really going to leave him here alone?"
Athos watched a muscle in Porthos' jaw flex as his looked from Aramis, to Athos, to d'Artagnan, then back to Aramis. Something shifted in his eyes with that last glance, and as Athos watched, the dark-skinned man seemed to pull in, closing off something within his eyes. Athos could practically hear the walls slide into place.
"Right, well. Better get to it, then." Porthos glanced over Aramis' shoulder, not meeting his friend's eyes, then looked at Athos. "I'll be in the infirmary."
Athos nodded, then watched him turn and walk away. When he was out of earshot, Athos tipped his head toward Aramis, asking in a low voice, "Has he really not slept in days?"
"If he has, it's been very little." Aramis lifted a shoulder. "Getting that thirty livre wasn't easy work and he put more of his heart into the effort than he meant to."
"What was he talking about? What affects you?" d'Artagnan asked Aramis.
"It's nothing. Just Porthos worrying," Aramis shook his head.
They stood quietly for a moment, then Athos sighed. "Go. Finish your preparations. I'll check on him in a bit."
Aramis nodded, but Athos noted he was reluctant to tear his eyes from where Porthos had disappeared into the infirmary. d'Artagnan followed Aramis back to where they'd left their weapons and Athos leaned against the post once more.
At this rate, he wasn't sure who would have the more difficult week: those returning to face their pasts or those forced to remain and confront the present.
Chapter 3: Day Three: The Road
Day Three: The Road
Porthos hadn't been in the courtyard when they rode out the next morning.
Not that Aramis needed to see his friend before departing, but…he had hoped. Things hadn't been left easy between them. Had Porthos been there to see them off, Aramis would have been reassured that his friend bore no hurt from his parting, especially as it might appear to Porthos that he was putting this journey above any of his friend's concerns.
Which, he had to admit, he was. But that didn't mean he wasn't torn about it.
In the last five years, there had been very little Aramis had done for the Musketeers that hadn't included Porthos. They simply worked well together, reading each other's signals, accepting each other's limitations, covering for each other's fears. There was an understanding they shared that Aramis had not found with another person in his life since he'd left his father's home.
Traveling with d'Artagnan made logical sense – and was apparently the only way his current commanding officer would approve of this journey – but he felt the lack, not having the steady presence of Porthos at his side. Athos' parting words had been to simply keep an eye on their youngest, noting that all may not be well in Gascony. Aramis had nodded his acquiescence, wondering at that last missive.
Clearly all was not well: a mad man had recently decimated a farming community.
Athos had been a tad overprotective of d'Artagnan since the lad first infiltrated their brotherhood, but this additional warning seemed a bit much. Aramis hoped they could each quickly complete their tasks, settle their consciences, and return to what had become home these past years.
The chill of dawn burned off as they breached the outer limits of Paris, heading out into the countryside. Free of the confines of the city, the air seemed to grow lighter, breathing easier, and the sunlight cleaner. He eased into the canter, keeping abreast with d'Artagnan, who rode as though he'd been born on horseback, and enjoying the feel of the wind in his face.
Aramis was reminded of the last time they followed this path: d'Artagnan had been seriously injured and the three of them battered by the toil of overcoming Red Guard disguised as bandits. But they had returned, and Aramis attribute it to their unity. Which only ended up causing him to feel the lack of his friends' presence all the more.
They continued in silence for several hours, making good time and separating themselves from the cloying harness of Paris, the King, and the duties of the Musketeers. To rest their horses, they periodically drew to a walk before heading off again. As the sun crested a sky so brilliant blue it hurt to look at it too long, Aramis brought a hunk of break from his satchel, nodding to d'Artagnan to do the same. They ate on horseback, looking to make Toulouse in two days' time.
As they rode and ate, he glanced askance at d'Artagnan, noting the set of the young man's jaw, the shadows clinging to the corners of his eyes. He didn't envy the lad's journey. His own would be difficult, but manageable. It was simply his duty to perform after Marsac—
Aramis took a breath, purposefully turning his mind from such thoughts. Savoy was long ago; he'd learned the truth and had behaved as a soldier. He'd forgiven his Captain, his friend, and had moved on. Nothing good could come of lingering thoughts in such a state.
"So," he spoke up, needing to fill the suddenly heavy silence. d'Artagnan started at the unexpected sound of his voice, blinking and glancing his way. "Barely a day after becoming a Musketeer and you're on the road to open old wounds. Some people would need a bit of time between one and the other."
"I have no intention of opening old wounds," d'Artagnan shot back, his voice husky with memory.
"Really," Aramis drawled. "You don't imagine that might happen, returning to your home for the first time since you departed?"
d'Artagnan glanced over, adjusting his seat slightly, the dark blue of his heavy travel cloak shifting free of his saddle. "You're one to talk," he accused. "What was that Porthos was saying yesterday? How are you not troubled about visiting Marsac's home?"
"Ah, deflection," Aramis nodded. "An apt tactic, were you not sparing with a master. What do you expect to find when you reach Lupiac?" Aramis pressed, having seen the wound in d'Artagnan's eyes.
The healer in him sought to remove the poison and keep it from festering; the friend in him knew it would take a fair amount of trust for d'Artagnan to release such pain.
d'Artagnan narrowed his eyes for a brief moment, then looked away. "I don't know."
Aramis tilted his head at that. The lad's voice had a quality unique among the four of them: by pitching it just right, d'Artagnan was able to cut through clutter or erect an effective shield. It was soft, rich, both lyrical and dangerous and one could never be quite sure how close to the surface his true emotion lay.
"What are you hoping to find?" Aramis asked, sincerity tempering his tone.
"Answers," d'Artagnan sighed.
Aramis rode quietly beside his young friend, processing what he knew of d'Artagnan's past – of d'Artagnan himself. It struck him, suddenly, that all he could truly say for certain was that the lad's father had been murdered before his eyes and he'd grown up on a farm. It wasn't much to say for someone who had fought and bled at his side this past year.
"d'Artagnan," he started. "Have I ever told you about the last time I visited my own family home?"
Looking over with surprise, d'Artagnan shook his head.
"No, I thought not."
Aramis slouched a bit in his saddle and swung his right leg across the pommel, resting his elbow on his bent knee. He'd tied his reins in a knot and let them hang on the horse's neck, trusting his mount to keep to the path as he'd done a thousand times before.
"There was a time I wanted to be an abbé, as you know, but certain…shall we say, proclivities, prevented me from every truly committing to the order."
d'Artagnan rode silently, his head canted sideways as he listened.
"Several years before I was commissioned into the Musketeers, circumstances caused me to take my leave from my family home outside of Paris. My dear mother had been taken by sickness when I was a boy, my older brother and younger sister had married well. That left just my father." Aramis lifted his chin, remembering. "The day of my departure, he called me into his study and said, René—" he tipped his head toward d'Artagnan with a conspirator's wink, "—he always called me René. René, he said, you will have many opportunities to bring shame to yourself and your family. Choose wisely."
"Choose wisely?" d'Artagnan repeated, drawing his head back. "That was it?"
Aramis nodded, his eyebrows fleeing to his hairline as he sighed. "He was an enigmatic man of few words."
"They could have at least been words that helped you."
"Ah, but they did, you see," Aramis corrected him. "Each time I've slipped while on my path as a Musketeer, I've thought of those words and wondered if this was the choice that would bring shame to myself and my family, or if there was still one more opportunity to be had." He shrugged, lifting the corner of his mouth in a grin. "Since I never really know, I simply have to keep trying."
d'Artagnan returned his grin and shook his head. "Is any of that actually true?"
"Well, I did consider life as an abbé."
"You," d'Artagnan's grin widened. "A priest."
"I can be quite pious," Aramis returned. "I have been told by many women that I'm quite skilled on my knees."
At that, d'Artagnan laughed outright and Aramis decided to take it easy on pushing the lad for answers as to what could be waiting for him in Gascony. They still had another day's ride to Toulouse and he preferred to not have two friends out of sorts with him if he could help it. As they continued down the road, Aramis shifted his leg back into the stirrup preparing to pick up the pace once more. He could see a copse of trees on the lee side of a curve in the road, casting shadows across their path.
Just then d'Artagnan called out, pointing ahead of them. A brace of pheasants were crossing the road not fifty yards away.
"Hungry?" d'Artagnan asked.
"You catch them, I'll cook them," Aramis offered.
Before he could say another word, d'Artagnan had kicked his horse into a run. Aramis let him get several strides ahead before he followed. He saw d'Artagnan draw his harquebus just as he turned the curve in the path toward the trees and disappeared from sight. What followed was a terrifying cacophony that had Aramis urging his horse forward.
The shot from d'Artagnan's harquebus was followed by a loud crack and the sound of his friend crying out just before a loud splash. Aramis pulled his horse to a stop next to where d'Artagnan's nervous mount danced before a large tree limb that had fallen across the road, alarmed to find the saddle empty. Catching the dark horse's reins, he looked around hurriedly for any sign of his friend, spying instead only the body of the bird. He dismounted, tying the horses to the tree limb.
"Here," came the sullen, terse reply.
Aramis moved around the limb to see his young friend crawling out of a shallow creek, holding one arm against is chest. His dark hair was soaked and hanging in his face and he was muttering something about there being a bloody fucking branch in the bloody fucking road. Once he reached the bank, pulling his boots from the muck with a wet, sucking sound, Aramis crouched down near him, working to bite the inside of his lip to keep from smiling.
"Well," he started, "looks as though you got the bird."
d'Artagnan peered up at him through a curtain of wet hair. "You're cooking the damn thing."
Aramis felt the amusement edge up beyond his control and he dropped his head back and laughed.
"Go on," d'Artagnan said, waving a hand at him. "Get it out of your system."
"You're quite the sight, my friend."
d'Artagnan glared past Aramis toward his mount. "No carrots for you tonight," he told the animal, then frowned. "Aramis, will you check his legs? He hit that limb rather hard."
Aramis pushed to his feet and moved over toward d'Artagnan's still-nervous mount. Running his hands down each leg, then picking up to check the hooves, Aramis nodded reassuringly.
"He's intact. No harm done."
d'Artagnan exhaled in relief, slumping a bit on the muddy bank. Aramis reached down and grabbed d'Artagnan's hand, pulling him to his feet, but stopping with concern as d'Artagnan gasped in pain.
"What is it?"
"Wrenched my shoulder," d'Artagnan replied.
Aramis frowned. "This is as good a place to stop for the day as any," he declared. "Let me see if you've done any real damage."
Muttering unintelligibly, d'Artagnan made his way toward the offending tree limb, his boots making squelching noises as he moved. Dripping, one arm hanging at his side, the other curled protectively against his chest, he stood completely still, staring at the tree limb as though not sure what was to happen next.
"Sit," Aramis ordered.
As if mentally ordering his knees to bend, d'Artagnan sank stiffly to the surface of the tree limb, bracing himself upright. Aramis stood in front of him, vision drawn to the lad's shoulders. It only took him a moment to see what the problem was, and he was fairly certain he was about to make d'Artagnan's already bad day turn much worse.
"What?" d'Artagnan muttered, his voice low and wary. He looked up at Aramis, blinking water from his lashes. "You look like you're having an epiphany and I don't like it."
"Yes, well. It appears you've managed to move your shoulder a bit out of socket."
d'Artagnan narrowed his eyes, glancing back at his mount. "I didn't."
"I must say I've not seen you come off a horse quite so easily before," Aramis commented, setting his weapons belt and doublet aside to allow for easier movement. He approached d'Artagnan. "Were you distracted?"
"By the pheasant," d'Artagnan reminded him.
Aramis shook his head, helping d'Artagnan undo the toggles that held his leather doublet and sleeves in place. With practiced ease he rolled the garment from d'Artagnan's sore shoulder, then helped him slip it off his other arm.
"I have seen you stay seated in a firefight, one hand holding a harquebus, the other a rapier. A brace of pheasants is nothing compared to that skill."
Aramis watched as d'Artagnan fumbled with the laces on his shirt and took pity on the lad, moving his hands aside so as to help him remove the soaked garment as well. Aramis set the sopping cloth aside, exposing d'Artagnan's bare chest to the elements, the water droplets skimming across the goose bumps covering his flesh. The unsightly knot of d'Artagnan's shoulder joint caused Aramis to grimace. He gently probed the muscles surrounding the knot and d'Artagnan flinched away.
"Easy," Aramis murmured, resting the flat of his hand on d'Artagnan's back as if reassuring a spooked horse. "What's on your mind, my friend?"
Holding himself still, d'Artagnan sighed, the exhale capturing what sounded like years of if onlys and a lifetime of lost hope.
"Old wounds," he replied finally.
Aramis felt the honesty in those heavy words fall between them like a stone. Now was not the time to press the issue, but Athos had been right when he'd said d'Artagnan needed watching. There was much more behind those dark eyes than the lad was willingly exposing.
"You can't continue with that shoulder like this," Aramis told him. He shifted so that he faced d'Artagnan's side, then gently pressed his hands flat to either side of the lad's shoulder. d'Artagnan's skin was damp and chilled and Aramis felt a slight tremor running through the muscles there.
"I'm going to put it back in place, but it will hurt."
"Grab hold of something," Aramis ordered, watching as d'Artagnan reached out and gripped one of the stunted, protruding branches from the fallen limb that had causes the ruckus in the first place.
Without warning, Aramis gave his hands a sharp twist, pushing the joint back into place. d'Artagnan's cry of pain was bitten off and Aramis heard air hammering out through gritted teeth. The branch d'Artagnan had grasped to balance himself snapped and his dark head bent forward. Aramis shifted so that his hip blocked further forward motion and held still as d'Artagnan brought his breathing under control.
Reassured that the lad wasn't going to pass out on him, Aramis gave d'Artagnan's wet hair a pat.
"There, now," he said watching the muscle along d'Artagnan's jaw bounce reflexively. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"
d'Artagnan glared up at him, but remained silent. Aramis tilted d'Artagnan to the side to make sure another wound wasn't lingering.
"What's this?" he asked when he saw the cut along the back of d'Artagnan's ribs. It wasn't bleeding, but looked a bit irritated.
"It's nothing," d'Artagnan replied, but didn't pull away. "From LeBarge, during the fight. It will heal."
Aramis nodded, brows furrowed, replaying the fight and remembering d'Artagnan rolling off the edge of LeBarge's sword, stumbling with the impact. They hadn't thought much of it at the time, but perhaps they'd been remiss in that assumption.
"If it begins to trouble you, make sure to let me know," Aramis replied.
d'Artagnan simply nodded and pushed himself to a wavering stance. Aramis waited until he was balanced and watched as the young Gascon made his way toward his horse. By the time he'd changed from his wet clothes to the only spare dry ones he'd brought with him, Aramis had seen to the horses, set a fire up, put a pot of creek water to boil, and was cleaning the bird.
Pausing next to where Aramis had deposited his doublet and pauldron on the rocks next to the fire, d'Artagnan used one hand to spread the leathers out to dry. He'd managed to get his spare shirt over his head, but hadn't slipped his sore arm through the sleeve or tucked it into his breeches.
With one eye on d'Artagnan's stilted movements, Aramis set the bird on a spit above the fire. Then retrieved his bags from where he'd propped up their saddles. Opening a pouch from his saddle bags, he dumped a packet of herbs into the now-boiling water and then moved over next to d'Artagnan. The lad was pale, his mouth rigid with obvious discomfort, but he was moving easily enough.
"I wouldn't move that shoulder much tonight if I were you. Want some help?" He nodded toward the loose sleeve.
With a look of irritation at his own arm, d'Artagnan nodded and allowed Aramis to help him slide the shirt on the rest of the way.
"Porthos dislocated his shoulder once," Aramis said, offering d'Artagnan an escape from the berating he was no doubt giving himself. "Much worse than this. His arm was practically at the front of his chest."
"Aramis, please," d'Artagnan muttered, looking slightly green at the description.
"Sorry," Aramis lifted a hand and made his way back around the fire to where he'd set their plates and utensils. "Just saying you're not the first."
"How'd it happen to him?" d'Artagnan asked, then smirked slightly in reaction to Aramis' raised eyebrow. "Wait, I think I know. Rooftops?"
"He wasn't always able to clear the distances between buildings," Aramis shrugged, stirring the pot of water.
"So he's told me," d'Artagnan replied.
Aramis reached into the pot of water and scooped out a mug full of the simmering liquid. "Drink this."
"Is it that foul-smelling concoction you've given me before?" d'Artagnan asked warily.
"Yes," Aramis replied, arching a brow. "And if you didn't get yourself into quite so many scrapes I wouldn't have to give it to you."
Grumbling, d'Artagnan accepted the mug, then settled back against the tree limb as they waited for their food to cook.
"Who taught you about medicines and herbs and such if your mother died when you were a boy?" d'Artagnan asked suddenly.
Aramis tilted his head at that. No one had ever inquired before. It had simply been something about him they accepted, like Athos' stoicism and Porthos' raucousness.
"There was a Jesuit priest near our home," Aramis told him, watching the fire, remembering. "He had books on the subject written in various languages – Latin, Spanish, even runes."
"The language of the Celts?"
Aramis nodded. "Much of the herbal remedies came from druid practices."
"Isn't that…," d'Artagnan winced as he shifted positions. "Pagan?"
"Perhaps," Aramis conceded. "If anyone had caught him, there would no doubt have been trouble. He simply claimed his remedies were from God and when they worked, no one questioned it."
"Is that how you learned Spanish?" d'Artagnan asked, cupping the elbow of his sore arm with his opposite hand, holding himself still.
"It is why I learned. Not how I learned." Aramis answered, without offering further information.
d'Artagnan seemed to accept this as an end to the latest barrage of questions and quietly sipped the mug of hot, herbal liquid Aramis had provided. Night drew close around them, sending the thicket they'd camped within into shadow before the rest of the world saw the last of the sun. When the pheasant was cooked, they tore the meat from the spit and ate greedily.
"I must say," Aramis commented around a mouthful, "this is the best tasting bird any of my friends has ever landed on."
"I didn't land on it. I shot it," d'Artagnan protested.
Aramis grinned. "I cleaned this bird. There wasn't one bit of lead in the thing."
d'Artagnan looked away, chewing.
"You landed on it."
"I…may have scared it to death," d'Artagnan conceded.
At that, Aramis cackled. "You certainly have a knack for that, I'll grant you. I believe you give Athos daily heart attacks."
"It's good for him," d'Artagnan muttered with a wry smile. "Interrupts the brooding."
Aramis tipped a pheasant leg toward him in a salute of agreement. "He has been especially…ominous lately."
"You noticed that, too?" d'Artagnan asked with a frown. "Thought I was being overly sensitive."
"Any idea of the cause?"
d'Artagnan glanced away. "No," he replied, his voice a gruff disguise of the truth.
Aramis frowned, wondering if the lad knew and refused to divulge, or if he were troubled that Athos was keeping something from all of them.
"Would he have let you go?" d'Artagnan asked suddenly.
"Let me go where?"
Using a piece of pheasant meat to gesture, d'Artagnan pointed down the road. "To Toulouse. Alone. If I hadn't come into the office yesterday, would he have let you go?"
Aramis took a breath. "Yes."
"He was protecting you, d'Artagnan. You're important to him."
Sullenly, d'Artagnan stared into the flames as he finished his meal. The firelight reflected on his angled features, turning his dark eyes into depthless pits, his cheekbones tossing shadows.
"It takes quite a bit for Athos to admit when he cares about something," Aramis informed him. "And he doesn't always do so with words."
"He has more faith in you," d'Artagnan pointed out.
"Well," Aramis shrugged, stretching his feet out before him, parallel to the fire. "I've earned it."
d'Artagnan glanced at him.
"Until what?" Aramis asked.
"Until he trusts me as he does you and Porthos?"
Aramis wiped the pheasant grease from his lips with the back of his hand, then crossed his arms over his chest. "It isn't about trust, d'Artagnan. It's simply time. And experience. And," he lifted a shoulder, staring at the fire, thinking, remembering, "…not dying."
He hadn't realized how hollow his voice had become, or how closely d'Artagnan was now watching him. He fell into memory, lost to the wretched, helpless feeling of watching the light leave a brother's eyes. He couldn't help but think of Marsac, of the shift in weight as life fled and the man grew heavier in his arms.
"Sometimes," he said quietly, not quite fully aware that his words were audible, the void around him seeming to swallow the sound, "it's easier to say you don't care than to explain all the reasons why you do."
"Aramis," d'Artagnan's volume matched his own, as if worried he'd startle Aramis if he spoke up too loudly. "If you want, I'll go with you to Marsac's home. You don't have to do that alone."
Aramis brought his eyes up, regarding the young man before him, seeing an age to his eyes that he rarely took time to notice. He smiled, his lips trembling slightly, wanting to cave with the effort. d'Artagnan was traveling back to his devastated home to find who he'd known from his youth was alive or dead, and he was offering to spare Aramis the burden of solitude in his own journey.
"You're a good man, Charles d'Artagnan," Aramis replied. d'Artagnan looked away. "And I thank you for the offer," Aramis pulled himself forcibly free of the melancholy he could feel tugging at him, "but this is something I must do."
They took turns keeping watch that night, d'Artagnan taking the first round. His shoulder ached too much for him to get comfortable, he claimed, so Aramis prepared him some medicine that he knew would help take the edge off, though it would take a bit to kick in.
Aramis' dreams were a tangled vista of the past several days, and because his mind was perhaps his worst enemy, he found images of Porthos transposed with Marsac. He dreamed that he held his friend in his arms, feeling the warmth of blood spread across the big man's chest, flooding the air with a coppery tang, spilling over an ineffective grip as Aramis tried to stem the flow.
He knew he was calling out, shouting, begging Porthos not to succumb, but he could hear nothing. It was as though he'd been struck deaf. The moment Porthos gave way to death's dominion, Aramis watched his friend's dark eyes leech of color, turning white and horrific as they stared up at him, sightless and terrifying.
He woke with a strangled cry, his jacket twisted about him, sweat matting his hair to the back of his neck, the feeling of Porthos dying in his arms all too real. d'Artagnan was crouched over him, concern written in the lines framing his eyes, a hand resting at Aramis' shoulder where he'd shaken the man awake.
Waving off his young friend's worry, Aramis got up, went to the creek to splash water on his face and took up his watch. It had been some time since he'd had such a vivid dream. Logically he knew it stemmed from a combination of the situation where he was going and the one he came from, but logic served no purpose when the night was heavy and thick and there was nothing tangible to reassure him that what he'd seen wasn't true.
d'Artagnan watched him warily for a bit as he took his spot on the bed roll next to the fire. Long enough that Aramis gathered the shouting he couldn't hear in his dream had been more audible than he'd originally thought. Gruffly, he told the young man to go to sleep; they had a long ride ahead of them.
He didn't like the way d'Artagnan's eyes seemed to strip away all protective walls he spent so much effort building.
It wasn't long before he realized that neither of them had a good relationship with sleep. d'Artagnan lay on his side, off his sore shoulder. His body was tense; Aramis could see lines of discomfort – if not outright pain – in the way he held his arm against his chest, putting his back to the fallen limb they camped beside so that he didn't roll.
As Aramis hoped, the medicine he'd provided allowed the young Musketeer to drift into sleep, but d'Artagnan's own dreams seemed to grip him tightly, sending his body into a tense arch as though he were bracing for a blow that never came. Aramis poked at the glowing coals of the fire as d'Artagnan twisted roughly, grinding his teeth loud enough Aramis heard it from his perch.
"Can't see him…," he whispered, though Aramis had to wonder if it was actually a scream. "Gérard, can't see his face…."
Aramis looked up, surprised. It was the same name that Athos had asked d'Artagnan about back at Treville's office. Just as he reached over to wake d'Artagnan and spare him further imagined torment, the young Musketeer relaxed, the dream having apparently released him and offering him the chance to breathe freely, of which Aramis was grateful.
He knew intimately what it was like to have nightmares feel too real to be simply dreams. He'd felt the pain of losing himself to oblivion only to reclaim his truth in the harsh light of day. He'd seen the possibilities cloaked by night lost to the moment when duty stood in the path of desire. He watched d'Artagnan following that same path, walking in the footsteps of men he trusted.
And it broke a piece of his heart.
Chapter 4: Day Three: Paris
Embarrassed Author's Note: In my haste to post this story in one go, I accidentally left this chapter out. If you started the story from the beginning after 9pm CT on the 19th, you won't notice anything. ;) I've reordered everything so all is well now but, *covers face* I hated myself for a bit last night after I realized. Hopefully I've not disrupted anyone's enjoyment of the story. Onward!
Day Three: Paris
Standing in the doorway of his quarters at the back of the garrison, Porthos watched Aramis and d'Artagnan ride out. He'd given thought to seeing them off; it would have offered Aramis some solace, he knew. But there was part of him that wanted Aramis to wonder, to worry.
Never let it be said that Porthos du Vallon was purely altruistic in nature.
He'd go to the ends of the earth for his brothers, but once in a while, he wanted to see how far they would go for him. Besides, it was Aramis' fault Porthos was entertaining notions about life outside of the Musketeers. Had he not suggested they take advantage of some wealthy widows to achieve their thirty livres for the contest, Porthos would never had the occasion to meet Alice Clerbeaux and he wouldn't be feeling as though his life was so upside down it was almost right side up again.
Just as they breached the archway of the garrison, Aramis glanced back over his shoulder and Porthos knew the marksman was looking for him. He pulled himself further into the shadows so there was no chance he'd be seen. When he was certain the two Musketeers had departed, he stepped into the courtyard, skirting two men who were beginning a practice session with their main gauche, and headed for the common table.
"Feeling a bit puckish, are we?"
Porthos turned to see Athos sitting on the stairs that led up to Treville's office, his blue eyes leveled on the whetstone and dagger in his hand, though Porthos wasn't fooled: the man saw everything at once. It was a scary sort of power that Porthos never took for granted. He paused and slapped the leather of his breeches with the length of his headscarf, having left his feathered hat back in his quarters.
"What makes you say that?" he muttered.
Athos shrugged, running the blade along the stone, the smooth shink of the metal echoing through the still-quiet yard.
"He isn't leaving you behind on purpose."
"What do you know of this letter he received?" Porthos asked.
Athos remained silent, turning his blade over.
"What does 'e think 'e's gonna do, 'eading back there?"
Athos simply glanced up, an eyebrow arched.
Porthos narrowed his eyes at the older man. "I love it when you share."
"What Aramis does is his business; he requested leave and it was granted."
Porthos crossed his arms. "You only granted it so someone could watch out for d'Artagnan."
Athos looked down, then blew on the blade. "One has nothing to do with the other."
Athos sheathed his dagger and stood. "You're projecting."
"And you're lyin' to yourself, you think this 'as got nothin' to do with d'Artagnan."
Athos turned and climbed the stairs toward the office. "Treville is out again today. I'll have his orders ready in an hour."
"I won't be 'ere."
As Porthos knew it would, his declaration caused Athos to halt in his tracks, half-turning to glance at the big man over his shoulder.
"What was that?"
"I got business in the Court."
"I thought you settled that yesterday," Athos replied, glancing up at the wound on Porthos' head.
"All that 'appened yesterday was me coming back 'ere for some 'elp and bein' told to sod off," Porthos grumbled, knowing he was being unfair, but still feeling the sting of rejection.
Athos took a step down. "That's not true."
Porthos shrugged. "Not like it matters now. I gotta take care of this."
He lifted his hand, stopping Athos' protest. "Do what you gotta do, Athos."
He wrapped his scarf carefully around his head, pulling it down over his brow, avoiding direct pressure to the bruised cut that he carried from his last trip to the Court of Miracles, and turned his back on his friend and Lieutenant. He knew that if Athos wanted to he could not only order him back, he could make life rather difficult for him. He was, after all, a soldier.
A soldier currently behaving like a petulant child, but for the moment Porthos didn't care.
Everything was turned sideways and he'd lost his internal compass. Walking from the relative safety of the garrison into the tangled mess of people and noise that was Paris, Porthos exhaled with a sense of release. He always felt safer once out in the cacophony and stench that was the city. He knew what to expect here, even if not always when to expect it.
The sunlight had turned brassy as dawn burned away, the canopy of rooftops filtering beams down the murky streets below and turning away shadows. An ever-present energy thrummed through the city streets fueled by merchants and vendors, those looking to barter or simply survive. There were all manner of folk from the gentry to the rabble traversing the routes Porthos followed. He felt the heat of it all like a cloak of familiarity, a heartbeat that only he could detect.
Making his way through the gathering crowd of morning merchants and patrons, Porthos followed a meandering path toward the Court of Miracles. He knew they wouldn't be expecting him this time; they figured the attack yesterday would have sent a message. They were right, but it wasn't the message they'd intended on sending.
Porthos' involvement with the Court of Miracles had been pure chance. His earliest memories were of the street; he actually had no idea how old he was when he was first indoctrinated into the carnival-like life that permeated the inhabitants of the Court.
If he tried, or if he were really, really drunk, he could sometimes recall a voice, a face, a gentle smile and strong arms. Someone holding him and shielding him, but it was only impressions, really. Whoever his parents had been, they were out of his life long before he was old enough to make concrete memories. His childhood was the streets, his youth the Court, and Treville had saved him from having his life end there. However, he couldn't help but wonder if that was all there was for him.
Someone who had survived growing up in Paris to join one of the most elite fighting units in the country, without any nobility to his name, surely had something else to offer the world. Something else to gain from the world. Something more than fighting and blood and death. Someone, even, to carry on the dubious name of du Vallon.
A shout of a merchant to his right startled Porthos from his tunneling thoughts. He looked around, realizing that he was growing ever closer to the curtained edge of the Cours des Miracles. He ducked down an alley adjacent to the Rue du Temple and crossed behind a dilapidated group of apartments that he knew may as well be a brothel.
A group of archissupots – primarily students who were too poor to live in Paris, but also too poor to leave – clustered at the back of the building just outside of what most of Paris would consider the border of the slums, whispering among themselves in the argot, or slang, of the Court. Only one glanced at Porthos; he was glad that he'd purposely left his pauldron back in the garrison and wore his older leathers, but wished for one of his older hats to shield his face.
It was dangerous for a Musketeer to be caught in public sans uniform; if he were captured by the Red Guard, they could make his life quite difficult, if not throw him directly in the Bastille, but, it was more dangerous for a Musketeer in full gear to show up in the Court. His best bet for survival was to blend in as much as possible.
He slipped into a shadowed alcove, glancing toward where the scaffolding that surrounded this part of the Court clustered together, creating crevasses and hiding spots for anyone appointed as look-outs for soldiers, Red Guard, or the Watch. The Court of Miracles had its own law, such as it was. It had its own language and subculture of crime and promiscuity, but for so many people, such as Porthos, it was home.
Or, it had been at one time.
He'd grown up with no faith or law, no language outside of what they taught him. He wasn't raised as a gentleman like Athos or d'Artagnan. He wasn't offered consequences like Aramis. Heaven and Hell were merely words to him, not actualities.
However, with all of that, he'd belonged. He'd had a home, been accepted, was part of something. He'd never imagined such symbiosis could occur twice in a lifetime until Treville found him in a street brawl and stuck a sword in his hand.
And then he was law.
And had brothers who put their faith in him.
And he suffered consequences.
Peering around a corner, he saw two men as dark as shadows lurking at the tops of a scaffolding, behind dingy scraps of cloth that hid a number of traps meant to deter or capture. Porthos knew each trap; had constructed several of them. He sent out a call – a three-note trill of his tongue followed by a sharp whistle. When it was returned, he slipped around the corner and sank into the shadows, never making eye contact with the guards, merely merging with the rank reality that beat at the heart of Paris.
Keeping his head down, Porthos made his way through the mud-churned street, passed smaller alcoves and hovels that served at someone's sanctuary, brothel, or headquarters. The longer he walked the less he knew why he was there. Something had tilted within him; his compass was skewed and always before when that had happened he'd been able to ground himself through two people: Aramis or Flea.
At the moment, Aramis was gone. Facing his own demons. He had been too rattled by Porthos' half-confessed truth about considering a life outside of the Musketeers to listen and let the words flow until they made sense again. Until he was no longer thinking that he could have possibly given up the life of a Musketeer – left his brothers – to live with Alice. Until the very idea that he could ever have anything beyond soldiering was laughable.
Until he remembered how to find the balance he needed among his brothers again.
The day seemed to collapse on itself as Porthos navigated the Court. He traded a coin for bread and wine from a man living inside what looked like a stack of apple crates, eating the meal while tucked up inside an alcove. He inserted himself into a card game, winning three hands before he felt the mood turn south and he slipped away.
Eventually he realized he was simply wandering, retracing steps, risking calling too much attention to himself as the day began its exhausted fall toward evening.
"What in the bloody 'ell are you doin' 'ere?"
The words were scratched onto the smoke-thick air before a slim hand with an iron grip struck like a snake and hauled him sideways into a narrow alleyway between two buildings. There was just enough room for two men to walk past each other, the only light from a torch burning from a sconce at the far end of the alley.
Porthos stumbled, reaching with a fumbling hand for his dagger, the only weapon he wore that was visible. He had a small knife and another dagger secreted away in his sleeves, and of course, there was always brute strength.
"I told you not to come back."
Her blonde hair was tangled, small braids woven throughout to keep it out of her face when necessary, beads at the ends of the braids to fasten the hair up when needed. Dirt was smudged across the bridge of her nose causing her dove-gray eyes to light up, even in the shadows.
"'s good to see ya," Porthos purred, reaching to cup her cheek, remembering its softness.
Flea smacked his hand away. "'s that right? Well, won't be so good when you get me killed, now, will it?"
"'ow's that?" Porthos pulled his head back.
"Took me nigh on five months to get this lot to put that bit with Charon behind them an' trust me again."
She was glaring at him, the light in her eyes no longer a welcome one. Porthos remembered, then, how dangerous she could be. Flea hadn't survived the Cours de Miracles as long as she had without learning to be vicious. She had been deadly when they were children; he had no doubt she'd honed that skill.
"Thought you'd be 'appy to see me," Porthos tried again, giving her a grin as he remembered their tryst the last time he'd returned to the Court – hauled there by Charon himself.
"Oh, want to pick up where we left off, do ya?" Flea asked, tilting her head a bit, and letting her hips lead her forward.
When she pressed her core against him, Porthos drew in his breath, having been too long among women who seemed more like works of art than actual flesh and blood people. He could practically feel Flea's pulse, she was that close to him. He curled his hands into fists to keep them at his sides.
"I thought…y'know, maybe—"
Flea pushed at his chest, though with his back to the wall there was nowhere for him to go.
"You thought wrong."
"Listen, Flea, I 'eard you was in trouble—"
"And where'd you 'ear that, hmm? What reliable source spread that information?"
Porthos blinked. It hadn't been a reliable source. It had been a vagrant in a tavern, dressed like a beggar. Come to think of it…he was pretty sure the man's crippled leg had been false.
"'s what I thought," Flea muttered, shaking her head. "You let 'em play you, Porthos."
He dragged a hand down his face. He should have waited for Aramis. Investigated properly.
"Why didn't you trust me?" Flea asked, and Porthos had to blink, bringing her into focus, so closely were her words bound to what he imagined Aramis saying to him in this moment.
"If I was truly in trouble," Flea told him, her voice low and sad, "I would have come. Found you. I'm fine 'ere, Porthos. But you're not."
"So this was all to get me into the Court."
Flea shrugged with her eyebrows. "Get you in, never let you out. Court's got a long memory; they're not forgetting what 'appened to Charon 'cause o' you."
Porthos shook his head. He'd been blind. Aramis was right: he should have seen this coming.
"Don't suppose it'd do any good to tell 'em Charon was trying to blow up the bloody place?"
"Why are you 'ere alone?" Flea ignored his question, stepping close. "Where are those Musketeer friends of yours?"
"I…," he shook his head, looking at the ground, at the footprints frozen into solidified mud, the press of a leaf into the earth, "…slipped away. Thought I 'ad to do this on my own."
"What is it?" Flea asked, pressing her hand gently against the side of his face, her thumb caressing the bottom part of the scar from a blade that barely missed taking his eye. "What's gotten into that 'ead?"
She always had known him better than anyone else. She'd been his first source of comfort and companionship, able to read in his eyes words he'd never find inside himself. The only other person to see him that clearly was Aramis.
"I met a woman," he found himself saying, suddenly unable to keep the words at bay. "Unlike anyone I've met before."
"Proper woman," Flea whispered.
Porthos nodded. "She…suggested I…," he swallowed. "Leave the Musketeers."
"And do what?"
Porthos looked at her. He had no answer; he simply shook his head.
"She bewitched you, that's what," Flea stated, leaving her hand on his face, but tilting her chin down so that her glittering eyes caught and held his. "Made you forget who you are."
"Who am I, Flea?" Porthos murmured, barely enough breath behind the words to give them form.
"You are a soldier," Flea replied without hesitation. "You are the most stubborn man I ever met. You are fire and fury and you need to remember that right bloody now."
He nodded, working to absorb her words, to believe them.
"You are better than this place, Porthos."
She gave him a quick, stinging slap. "Yes. You are. You leave it, you 'ear me? You leave it and you stay bloody away."
"This…was my 'ome, Flea." At this he did touch her, reaching out to fold his large hands around her narrow shoulders. "Thought it still might be."
Flea shook her head again, stepping back and shrugging off his hands. "'asn't been for a lot o' years now." Her eyes grew hard, cold. "And you damn well know it."
Porthos drew back from the look in her eyes. "What…?"
"'ome is family, Porthos. You think anyone 'ere is family to you? I'd leave ya in the street," she told him, her expression one of blank indifference. "If it meant the difference 'tween me an' you? Me wins every time." She narrowed her eyes. "You know 'at's true. You've seen it."
Porthos did know. The strongest instinct in the Court was the instinct to survive, at all costs.
"But those Musketeers? They'd fuckin' die for you. Bleed out so's you could take one more breath. They're your 'ome."
Porthos felt cold, his heart slamming against his ribcage as he listened to her. He knew this. It was branded on him like the scars that traversed his body; scars from wounds they had healed. From wounds he had received for them. She took a step forward, not touching him, but not needing to. Porthos' whole being was focused on her next words.
"So I ask ya again," her voice dropped, "what in the bloody 'ell are you doin' 'ere?"
"Remembering," Porthos replied.
Flea stared at him a long moment, then took a deep breath, as though deciding something. "Michael and Shakes are the ones what caught you on the Rue du Prony," she told him, her eyes flicking up to the bruise peeking out beneath his head scarf. "They're at the south wall."
"Thank you, Flea," Porthos said, reaching out impulsively and catching her at the back of the neck, pulling her forward.
He pressed his lips the crown of her head, breathing in the scent of cloves and sage and a little bit of musk that was all Flea. She leaned in to him for a moment, then pushed away, turning and heading out through the entrance of the alley where she'd snatched him. Taking a moment to gather his bearings, Porthos headed out the opposite way, following the path toward the still-light streets of Paris and leaving the mounting darkness of the Court behind him.
One lesson growing up in the Court of Miracles taught Porthos was to always have at least three friends: one to walk beside him, one for him to follow, and one to watch his back. The definition of friend, however, was loosely framed around people indebted to him or afraid of him. It was a lesson that served him well, and bound him for a time to both Charon and Flea.
It was also a lesson that living among the Musketeers – where friends were brothers and aligned themselves out of loyalty and devotion – caused him to forget.
Michael and Shakes had, indeed, been at the south wall. Their compatriots, however, had not. Porthos never saw them coming. As he made his way toward the Rue Reaumur, leaving a different way than he came in, two men emerged from the shadows and one descended upon him from above via a platform on the ever-present scaffolding.
As a fighter, Porthos was nearly unmatched. The problem was, many of his moves – so successful when fighting the Cardinal's Red Guard – had been learned in the Court.
He planted an elbow in the throat of one attacker while grabbing the man who'd landed on his shoulders and throwing him to the ground. As the third punched viciously, catching him in the kidneys and ribs, Porthos swung a heavy fist down and crashed his knuckles across the man's cheekbone. The two he'd knocked down swiftly got up and were soon joined by more.
"Aw, now that's not quite fair," Porthos commented, moving to ensure his back was toward a wall. Seven men were advancing on him. "Need to leave some of you still able to walk tomorrow."
Two rushed him at once, shoulders down, barreling right at his gut. He sidestepped at the last second and they ran their heads into the wall behind him. The fading day added to the shadows cloaking the Court and Porthos knew he could not stop fighting or he would be dead.
Surprisingly, one of the patrons of the Court came to his aid. A man roughly his size, but with a slimmer build, wearing a loose, ragged cape over his head and face, stepped up beside him and expertly blocked a punch before landing his own. Never one to miss an opportunity, Porthos rotated and put his back to the stranger, using the other's momentum as a catalyst to land a powerhouse punch against a larger opponent.
Then he saw the chains.
They were wrapped around the hands of one of the men and swinging for him. He ducked, grabbing his comrade and pushing him low, avoiding the first swing. The second caught him across the ribs and Porthos grunted in pain. The man behind him still crouched low and Porthos rolled over him, back to back, using the motion to offer him some thrust behind a well-placed kick.
He stood, grinning as he saw the man with the chains topple back across the collection of unconscious attackers gathering around them. He missed the look of alarm that crossed the shadowed features of the man who'd come to his aid.
"Porthos!" the man cried out, grabbing his shoulder and shoving him roughly to the side.
Porthos hit the ground, hard, staring up in shock as he realized the man in the ragged cape…was Athos.
He was currently catching the arm of someone gripping a knife – a knife that had clearly been meant for Porthos' back. Struggling mightily, Athos shoved the knife-wielder back away from Porthos, working to keep the blade away from his own throat. Still blinking in shock, Porthos was slow to gain his feet.
The man with the chains was standing once more, and the moment Porthos gained his balance, he charged, head down and shoulders in, a bull of a human. Catching Porthos in the chest, he lifted the big man off his feet and plowed him backwards, directly into the scaffolding.
Porthos felt his back crash against one of the rickety support beams and split it in half. The chain-wearing assailant continued forward and Porthos shattered two more beams with his back. Dimly, he was aware that the structure the beams were supporting was beginning to topple. The man with the chains seemed to suddenly realize it as well; he released Porthos and backed away quickly, but not quickly enough. The structure rained down scraps of wood and rotting cloth over both of them. Porthos, on his back where the man had released him, curled his arms around his head in instinctive protection and rolled to his side, feeling a series of dull thuds as the platforms and supports scatted over top of him.
In the wake of the cacophony there was silence so complete Porthos was afraid he'd gone deaf. Dust settled around him, causing him to cough, his eyes tearing up in reaction. It took him a moment to realize he hadn't been killed and another to realize that he was relatively intact. Still coughing, he rolled gingerly to his back, but in doing so, shifted the weight of the beams, inadvertently pinning himself against the grime of the alley floor.
He could hear Athos calling to him, the man's voice like a whip cracking through the quiet of the gathering night. He tried to reply, but the dust coating his face and lining his throat choked him. He continued coughing instead, the pressure of the beams across his chest growing with each forced exhale until he felt himself unable to draw a full breath.
"Answer me." It was an order. Porthos heard it in Athos' tone. He was compelled to obey.
"Ath—Athos!" It was weak, but it was something.
He felt a platform shift, freeing his legs, but increasing the pressure of the beam on his chest. He pressed his palms against it from the underside, trying to push it up, but feeling no give. The air still trapped in his lungs felt as though it was crushing him. He was sinking in a quicksand of panic and pain, thinking only that the Court had won after all.
Then, from the growing edges of dark beyond his limited field of vision, he saw a figure stagger forward.
"I see you," Athos panted, his face dirt streaked, expression caught somewhere between anger and fear, and one of the most welcome things Porthos had seen in a long while. "I'm here, my friend."
Porthos guessed he must have looked fairly panicked for Athos to offer him such reassurance.
"Can't breathe," he managed.
Without another word, Athos wrapped his arms around the beam and pulled, trying to lift it from Porthos enough that the he could slip free. It wasn't budging. Porthos pushed from below, but knew he wasn't being much help.
"Try harder," Athos ordered, gasping from the effort.
Porthos pushed, feeling the blood rush to his face as he strained upwards. The beam shifted slightly – enough to offer him room to drag in a gasping lungful of air, but not enough to slip free.
Athos glared at him. "What good is being strong enough to throw a grown man over your shoulder if you can't even lift a piece of wood?"
Porthos glared back, but lacked the breath to formulate a decent retort. Instead he pressed upward, a low growl building in the back of his throat from the effort, the sound increasing as the beam shifted. Athos pulled, Porthos pushed, both swearing from the effort until the beam finally moved enough that Porthos was able to scramble free, sitting in a slumped heap, a hand to his chest, grateful for the sweet taste of air.
He felt Athos' hand on his shoulder and looked up. The question was captured in Athos' expression, plainly visible in the growing evening shadows. Porthos nodded: he was all right. Coughing a bit more to clear his throat of the dust, he looked around for the assailants. A few stood at the outskirts of the shattered scaffolding, others were picking their defeated comrades up from the pile Porthos had left on the ground. He watched those on their feet begin to move closer as they realized the destruction hadn't done their jobs for them.
Porthos knew he was in trouble – they both were. But that wasn't what worried him most. It was the fact that he didn't see was the man who'd caused this mess that had him scanning the darkness.
"Where is 'e?" Porthos muttered, pushing to his feet and staggering a bit.
Athos reached for him. "Who?"
Porthos half turned, searching the rubble for tell-tale signs. "The bloke with the chains."
He heard the wood shift as Athos, too, turned. "I see no—"
Porthos heard the snap of wood and clink of chains at the same moment Athos spoke. He turned, reaching for his friend, but before he could grasp him, a crushing blow from a fist covered in chains slammed across Athos' face.
To Porthos' horror, Athos went down, landing in a heap and remaining motionless.
With a growl befitting a wild animal, Porthos lunged forward, his momentum adding power to his already heavy fist as he crashed his knuckles against the assailant's temple. The man staggered, but Porthos didn't pause. He drove his other fist into the man's gut, then twisted around until he was at the man's back, his arm locked across the man's throat in a tight, suffocating grip. The man struggled, the chain-wrapped hands coming up to beat ineffectually at Porthos' arms.
Within moments, Porthos had deprived the man of air enough that he sagged, his arms falling to his sides. Porthos released him and the man crumbled, falling face-first into the pile of scaffolding. Kicking at the chains still around the man's hands, and landing a few kicks to the man's body while he was at it, Porthos looked up at the rest of his would-be attackers, his fists at his sides, murder in his eyes.
"'ow bad do you want it?"
"This isn't over," a man Porthos didn't recognize growled at him. "You'd do well to remember that."
"I took out nine of you lot," Porthos growled back. "You'd do well to remember that."
At that, those still standing seemed to slowly evaporate into the shadows. Porthos stood in the center of wreckage, cuts on his lip and cheek streaming thin lines of blood through his dust-streaked face, breath hammering through his parted lips. He waited a beat until he felt certain no one would take advantage of a turned back, then rotated to crouch next to his friend and savior.
Rolling Athos to his back, he saw that the chains had cut his friend across his cheek and forehead, digging furrows into his skin and scalp. He felt for breath at Athos' mouth and let a shuddering breath escape when the exhale ghosted his palm.
"What were you thinkin'?" he whispered, using the pad of his thumb to wipe some blood that was pooling in Athos' closed eye.
Knowing he couldn't stay there any longer, Porthos propped Athos up, then tucked his shoulder into the older man's middle, lifting him across his shoulders before pushing to his feet. His ribs screamed, various bruises throbbed, but the weight of the man he carried hurt the most.
Either because they were out – night was a busy time for those in the Court – or because they were too far in, no one bothered him as Porthos made his way down the Rue Reaumur. It was full-dark now. No stars graced the leaden sky and the night lamps only illuminated a small sphere of influence.
The garrison was too far for him to carry Athos; he had to find shelter soon. Stumbling forward, Porthos found himself wishing desperately for Aramis. The marksman kept a level head on his shoulders, his blithe, calm voice a line of reason amidst a sea of chaos. Not to mention, he'd be able to stitch Athos up right quick.
He staggered a bit under Athos' weight, hampered by his own weariness and wounds. Athos groaned with the shift, his loose arm swinging against Porthos' backside.
"Just a bit more," Porthos panted as he made his way to a nearby tavern with rooms to let. "'ang in there, Athos. Just a bit more."
He made it to the door and, gasping, eased Athos onto a bench just outside the entrance. The man looked dreadful: the blood had drying in rivulets down his face, matting his hair and staining his lashes and brows. He was pale under the dark smear of blood, and seemed to be fading in and out of consciousness, but as long as he kept breathing, Porthos was ready to ignore the rest.
Pounding on the tavern door, he waited until a man with a mug of ale in his hand opened up and peered blearily out into the darkness. Catching sight of Porthos, the man backed up in shock, his eyes wide and fearful. Porthos didn't really have time to register his own appearance, covered in dust from the collapsed scaffolding. Gathering Athos up, Porthos slung the unconscious man's arm across his shoulder and dragged him through the door to the bar, barking an order for a room.
"Ground floor," he muttered, "and be quick about it."
"Don't serve no beggars," a gnarled man growled at him.
Porthos saw that he had good reason, running a tavern and Inn on the outskirts of the Court. But Porthos wasn't one to have patience for the plight of his fellow man on a good day. Today was certainly not a good day.
"Give me a goddamn room or I swear to you I will burn this place to the ground," Porthos stated, his blood-stained face impassive enough to frighten the innkeeper.
With a nervous nod, the innkeeper motioned for him to follow and Porthos hauled Athos along in this wake. As they crossed the threshold, Porthos called out, "Wait," and gently lowered Athos onto the only bed in the room. Turning to face the nervous innkeeper, he handed the man two livre – left over from the money he'd gathered with the trinket Alice offered him – and asked him to bring hot water and bandages.
Money tucked safely in his pocket, the innkeeper was quick to comply. Porthos straightened Athos out on the bed, using the supplies the innkeeper provided to clean the blood from his friend's face. Once cleaned, the cuts didn't look as bad – most had already stopped bleeding – but the bruising made Porthos wince and Athos still hadn't opened his eyes for more than a few seconds. Porthos used the bandages that the innkeeper had provided to wrap around Athos' head, padding the deepest cuts along his forehead and scalp.
Stripping out of his own doublet and pulling his scarf free, Porthos made quick work of inspecting his own wounds. Mostly bruises, perhaps a cracked rib, but everything would heal with time. He wouldn't be comfortable for a while, but he wasn't bleeding any longer, so that was a plus. He used the last of the water and cleaned the blood and dust from his face and hands, hoping that he looked less like a vagrant and more like the soldier he was.
Exhausted, Porthos sat at the side of the bed, laying another warm cloth over the cut on Athos' cheek and slumped forward, his head propped in his hands, elbows resting against his knees.
"Please, Athos, wake up," Porthos whispered. "I'm sorry. I didn't…. I was an idiot."
"Yes, you were," came a rough, husky voice.
Porthos' head snapped up so fast he felt like someone had plucked a muscle in his neck. "Athos?"
"Not so loud, if you don't mind," Athos groaned, furrowing his brow and raising a hand to his head. He pulled the cloth from his cheek and pressed it gingerly against his bandaged forehead. "This is payment for not having sympathy with d'Artagnan's hangover, isn't it?"
"Never mind," Athos sighed, lowering his hand and blinking blearily at Porthos. "Is there water?"
Porthos stood quickly, pouring fresh water from the pitcher at the bedside table into a wine cup and handing it to Athos. He moved to the head of the bed and help the older man sit up, easing him back against the wall so that he wouldn't have to bear his own weight.
"What hit me?"
"Chains," Porthos answered.
"Not very sporting of them," Athos replied.
Porthos managed a small smile. "Why, Athos?"
Closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the wall, Athos exhaled slowly, not even pretending that he didn't know what the other man was talking about. "You were acting particularly suicidal this morning."
"'ow did you know I was in trouble?"
Opening only the eye that wasn't marred by bruising or cuts, Athos stared at him. "Do you honestly think I could be your leader and not know when you were in need?"
Porthos stared at the floor, feeling the world swirl around him, a cyclone of noise and questions. He wanted to say yes. Aramis had fooled them all for years with his panicked attacks when remembering Savoy – or so he thought. d'Artagnan was still a bit of an enigma. There were secrets surrounding Athos' history as a Comte.
Athos' question made him tired and ashamed. He was aching and exhausted and parts of him hurt that hadn't received a blow. Parts on the inside, deep where he mostly ignored. He rubbed at his chest.
"I forgot," he said quietly. Glancing over at Athos he clarified, "For a little while…I forgot who my family was."
"It's one of the strongest human traits, forgetting," Athos said quietly, eyes closed once more. "If we could remember…we'd stop having wars."
Porthos sat quietly, staring at Athos' bruised face. "You probably need needlework," he said. "But…I am not Aramis."
"No, you are not."
"I wish 'e were 'ere, too," Porthos confessed on a sigh. "I think better when 'e's around."
"You think pretty good on your own, too," Athos told him, offering Porthos a grimace that tried valiantly to be a smile.
"'ow bad is it?" Porthos asked, seeing the clear lines of pain tracing paths across Athos' face.
"I'll live. But I won't be happy about it."
Porthos chuckled, then sobered quickly. "You went down so fast, I thought…." He shook his head. "Scared me."
"Now you know how I felt when I saw that structure come down on top of you," Athos replied, pressing fingers to his temple once more. "Are you…broken?"
"I'll live," Porthos echoed Athos, lifting the side of his mouth in a half-grin. "Thanks to you."
"You've done the same for me," Athos replied, his voice going tight as a wave of pain rippled across his expression.
"Should I go for a physician?"
"No," Athos grunted, trying to get more comfortable. "I don't doubt they'll be watching for you. But I wouldn't say no to some willow tea."
Porthos nodded. "I'll find it for you. 'ow were you able to leave?" he asked. "To find me?"
"Treville," Athos murmured.
Porthos stared at him, amazed. "Treville isn't…?"
"He's hurting," Athos replied, "but I think it was worse for him not being at the garrison. He returned this evening and told me to go find you."
Porthos hung his head. "'e knew I'd left you."
"Word had gotten to him that you were seen in the Court. He was worried."
Porthos rubbed his face. "Messed up right good, 'aven't I?"
"No, my friend," Athos sighed, his eyes drifting to a corner of the room and resting there as if looking at something.
Watching Athos' eyes, Porthos glanced over his shoulder, half expecting to see the innkeeper had returned, but there was no one in the room with them. He glanced back at Athos, frowning, and watched as the man's blue eyes tracked slowly across the back of the room as though watching someone, then slipped closed with another low, sad sigh.
"We all have to go back home once in a while to realize it's not truly home anymore," he said finally.
Porthos stayed quiet for a long moment, thinking. "That's what you're 'oping d'Artagnan will realize, yeah? Why you sent Aramis with 'im?"
Athos tensed up; only then did Porthos realize the older man had actually relaxed a bit.
"Our pasts hold devils," Athos murmured. "It's always good to have a friend by our side when we face them."
Porthos reached out and clasped Athos' forearm, waiting until the other man's fingers closed around his arm in a return grip.
"Or a brother," Porthos replied.
Athos nodded slightly, then blinked aware once more, his gaze searching the back of the room as though seeking reassurance from someone. Porthos looked over his shoulder again, seeing nothing, and frowned.
"I'm goin' for the physician," he stated. "That tosser cracked your 'ead but good."
Athos tightened his grip on Porthos' arm. "No."
"You're after lookin' for someone who isn't there," Porthos claimed, jerking his head over his shoulder. "Who is it you need, Athos?"
Athos closed his eyes, and a look of pain that had nothing to do with the blow to his head slipped across his face. Porthos held still, gripping the man's arm, waiting.
"It's nothing a physician can cure," Athos told him, and the edge to his voice, the torn sound of heartbreak, stabbed at something deep within Porthos. "She haunts me."
Athos opened his eyes and looked resolutely away. "My conscience."
"Your conscience," Porthos repeated. He narrowed his eyes, feeling pieces of the puzzle that was Athos suddenly fall together in his mind. "It's 'er, right? Your wife?"
Athos nodded, not looking at him.
"But…she's not dead, Athos," Porthos pointed out carefully, wondering what fragile ground he was treading upon with his confusion.
"And that's the hell of it," Athos sighed. He slid his gaze to lock onto Porthos. "She isn't here and yet she is. She isn't dead and yet she is. She isn't who I thought and yet she is."
Frowning, Porthos reached out and gently brushed some of the dirty, blood-caked hair from where it fell across the bandage covering Athos' forehead. His friend closed his eyes, clearly too weary to keep up the front. They needed to regroup, Porthos realized. Reconnect and unify.
They needed to be together, the four of them; that would shore up the walls Athos needed in order to keep his mind from tearing him apart.
"You are a good man, Athos," Porthos whispered, tightening his grip on the other man's arm.
Athos sighed and slumped further down onto the bed. Porthos changed the compress on his head, this time wetting it with the cool water from the pitcher, and laid it on the bruised skin.
"Rest," he said quietly. "I'll wake you when it's time."
"Time for what?" Athos mumbled, nearly asleep once more.
"To go home," Porthos replied, adjusting the cape Athos had donned as a disguise to wrap around the man a bit more like a blanket.
He remembered Aramis waking them every few hours when getting hit in the head like this; he would keep watch and make sure Athos was fully intact before they traveled back to the garrison. And then he intended to ride out for Toulouse as soon as he could convince Treville it was necessary. Their brothers needed them.
United, they stood strong. Divided, well, he'd seen tonight firsthand what could happen.
"All for one; one for all," Porthos whispered, sitting back against the wall at Athos head, keeping one hand on his friend's shoulder, waiting until it was time to wake him once more
Day Four: The Road
When the gray light of morning reached the outer edge of the thicket, Aramis woke his young traveling companion, watching carefully as d'Artagnan sat up with a groan.
"How's the shoulder?"
"Bloody fantastic," d'Artagnan grumbled.
"Try rotating it a bit," Aramis requested.
d'Artagnan did as he asked, his face going pale and he let loose a stream of profanity mixed with words from the language of Gascony that sounded a bit like poetry, though Aramis was fairly certain it wasn't poetry fit for mixed company. Shrugging off Aramis' hand, d'Artagnan pushed to his feet, cradling his arm a bit before trying to move it around more.
"It will be stiff for some time," Aramis told him.
d'Artagnan shot him a look. "You don't say."
"Your muscles must realign. We could create a sling—"
"No," d'Artagnan shook his head. "I can't ride with a sling."
Aramis tipped his chin down, regarding d'Artagnan beneath his brows. "Can you ride at all?"
"Aramis," d'Artagnan practically snarled. "If this is an attempt at humor—"
"I'm not talking about you being unseated," Aramis replied, though he did have to school his features a bit. "I'm talking about the pain."
"I'm fine," d'Artagnan proclaimed and proceeded to put on his now-dry doublet and pauldron, buckling his weapon's belt and attaching his cloak.
Aramis pretended not to notice the pale hue of his young friend's face and the sheen of sweat that graced his brow and they cleaned up the camp and mounted for the remaining ride to Toulouse. During the night, clouds had crowded the sky, turning the daylight into a gray overhang that seemed to press down upon them, amplifying moods that had been walking the razor's edge of darkness since they left the garrison.
"What did you mean yesterday when you said you were hoping to find answers?" Aramis asked.
d'Artagnan lifted his chin in acknowledgment that he'd heard Aramis speak. He rode with the reins in one hand, his other resting on his thigh, relaxed in the saddle as if nothing had transpired out of the ordinary the previous day. Aramis watched, waiting, determined to get something out of his friend.
"Do you think we'll encounter the Thibauts in Toulouse?" d'Artagnan replied in lieu of an answer.
"Why? Do you intend on getting your answers from them?"
"You are tenacious aren't you?" d'Artagnan muttered, glancing askance at his friend.
"It has been said of me."
Sighing, d'Artagnan rubbed at the bridge of his nose. His shoulders slumped almost imperceptibly in defeat, and when he began to speak, his voice was hushed, as if he were in a confessional. Aramis found himself leaning closer, watching carefully, not wanting to miss a word.
"A few months back, a letter meant for my father was delivered to the palace."
"I remember," Aramis nodded.
"It was from my uncle – my father's brother. The man who was supposed to have accompanied my father to Paris." d'Artagnan's gaze rested on his horse's neck. "He made mention in that letter that if he didn't hear from my father he would run the farm his way, whatever that meant. It troubled me both because of the…tone, I suppose, and because there was a man, Gérard le Main, who my father had always trusted to run the farm in his absence. It was Gérard Father left in charge upon our departure. I had sent him a letter informing everyone working the farm of my father's death and the fact that I would be staying in Paris; the letters must have passed each other."
Shifting in the saddle, d'Artagnan sighed again. "I received only one sum of money from my farm in the time I've been in Paris." He glanced at Aramis. "It's one of the reasons I was so desperate for the commission; I have no money to live or repay my debt to the Boniceaux without it."
"You sent for money, yet none came?"
d'Artagnan nodded. "This alone worried me; Gérard would never have simply denied me, but…my uncle was never fond of me – not that he really knew me. I'd only met the man once when I was a young boy, but something about my very existence enraged him. I figured that he'd decided to cut me off, I just hadn't figured out what to do about it."
"Why didn't you come to us?"
d'Artagnan shrugged gingerly. "I didn't want to burden any of you with it. I wasn't truly a Musketeer, and you each had your own issues."
Aramis frowned. He wondered if Athos had been aware of how dire things had become before the opportunity to challenge the Red Guards had presented itself. A thought occurred to him.
"How did you come across the thirty livre? Is that why Constance—"
"No," d'Artagnan shook his head sharply. "I'd not indebt myself to her for more than I already am. Constance…," his jaw tightened and his tipped his head to the side, looking down, "…doesn't feel for me as I'd thought."
Aramis brought his chin up. "Falling for a married woman brings one a unique pain, regardless of how possible the connection might seem in a burst of passion."
"Yes, I suppose you're right."
"So, you found a patron?"
d'Artagnan nodded. "She's come to my aid before, though, admittedly, I don't know a thing about her."
"And your uncle?"
d'Artagnan frowned. "When Captain Treville told me what LeBarge had done to my home – and why he'd singled my farm out in the Lupiac community – I was devastated, to be honest with you, but also confused."
d'Artagnan looked at him. "Why hadn't my uncle defended it? What changes had he enforced that made the place so vulnerable? And why, if he'd taken it over, was it still associated with my father?"
"That is a lot to discover on your own," Aramis noted.
"I don't have a choice," d'Artagnan stated. "I cannot ask this of any of you; it's my issue, my burden."
"Yes, but you are one of us, d'Artagnan. You have brothers – brothers who would die for you, if needs be."
"No one is dying for me," d'Artagnan shot back, his voice low and dangerous. "My life is not worth—"
"What? Ours?" Aramis scoffed. "d'Artagnan, do you remember what I told you, back in the tavern?"
"Before or after I tried to drink the place dry?"
"I said that what we do for each other, we do for ourselves. If I did not sacrifice for you, for Porthos, for Athos…who would I be?"
d'Artagnan was quiet.
"I have a proposition for you," Aramis said. "I will finish my business in Toulouse with haste and join you in Lupiac. You will be there less than a day before my arrival."
"And what of your mission? Meeting Marsac's father?" d'Artagnan's brows were pulled close. "Your proposition still leaves you to face that alone."
Aramis pressed his lips closed, gathering up his reins. "I took Marsac's life," he said quietly. "It doesn't matter the reason. The truth is…I need to face that alone. I want to atone." He leveled his eyes on d'Artagnan. "For both of us."
"But what about Porthos' warning? Is there something I should know about—"
"Porthos is a good friend," Aramis interrupted. "He's seen me through some very rough times. Battles…there are things that happen when you're in a battle that mark you. Like a scar that no one ever sees. And for me, that scar…it bleeds sometimes. Porthos has simply learned how to," he glanced at d'Artagnan, "stop the bleeding. I have it under control; trust me."
"I understand," d'Artagnan said quietly, though his still sounded reluctant.
They rode on in relative silence, the creak of their saddles and the occasional snuff of their horses breaking up the gray light and eerie absence of bird calls. Aramis kept a side-eye on d'Artagnan, watching as the young Musketeer curled in on himself cradling his sore arm to take pressure off of it, then straightening to stretch the muscles along his back.
They paused for a brief lunch, eating cold meat and bread and drinking from their canteens while their horses grazed. As they rode on, Aramis had almost allowed himself to relax into the companionable quiet when d'Artagnan spoke up.
"Why a soldier, Aramis?"
"What do you mean?"
d'Artagnan looked at him. "Why turn your back on priesthood? Why did you not at least try that life?"
Aramis thought for several moments, his heartbeat counting the length of time stretching out between the question and his answer. "I suppose I could tell you that there is a streak of violence in me, but, truly a soldier's life is about maintaining peace. Or I could tell you it was something noble like King and country, but to be honest, I didn't give a thought to either before the Musketeers."
He slouched in the saddle, staring out across the open, empty field before them, appreciating that d'Artagnan rode silently beside him, listening and waiting.
"There's also the viable adventure reason. Honor and glory, you know," he tipped his head to the side, a smile lifting the corners of his eyes. "Or maybe it was simply that Treville stuck a sword in my hand and saved me from losing myself to a life of endless brothels and meaningless moments of brief carnal connections."
Adjusting his reins and looking down at the pommel of his saddle, seeking the right words to convey what it had felt like to be pulled toward the opportunity Treville presented to him. How he'd never before felt as though he'd belonged; how he knew he could offer something to this brotherhood, that he'd be valued as someone of significance.
"I think it boils down to a verse in the Bible that I've never forgotten. From the book of Isaiah, chapter six. I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" He lifted his eyes to the horizon once more. "And I said, Here I am, Lord! Send me."
After a beat, he glanced at d'Artagnan.
"Send me," the young man whispered in reply, his tone reverent with understanding. "My father would never have accepted me being a soldier." He glanced down at his hands, shaking his head sadly. "Soldiers go to war. Soldiers kill. There is no love there, no search for peace, no honor." His tone was brittle, words cracking at the edges and filtering between them like dust. "He would not have accepted this choice."
"Life is an endless war, and war makes its own soldiers, d'Artagnan," Aramis countered. "There are soldiers everywhere, not just in uniform." He narrowed his eyes at the bitter, gray sky. "The honor is found in the person, not the title. I have met less than honorable priests who have never drawn blood, but have killed men all the same."
d'Artagnan nodded. "I feel that what is true for me now, is different than what was true for me before my father died." He swallowed loud enough for Aramis to hear. "Or if he had lived."
Aramis felt the longing and regret seep between d'Artagnan's words and knew there were dozens of responses he could offer the young man, but only one that would stem the flow of pain: acceptance.
"You define your truth, d'Artagnan," Aramis said quietly. "Not your father, not me, not Athos, not Treville. Only you. I don't know what you might have chosen had your father lived, but I will tell you this," he dipped his chin down so that the young man looked him in the eyes, "if it hadn't been the Musketeers, we would have felt the lack."
d'Artagnan's smile trembled at the corners of his mouth, then grew in strength. When he'd nodded his appreciation, Aramis nodded in return, then kicked his horse into a run, listening for the echoing clatter of d'Artagnan's mount behind him.
As they approached the familiar walls surrounding Toulouse, Aramis smiled. They had arrived unscathed – well, mostly – and in record time. d'Artagnan was a good traveling companion, when he wasn't getting injured. Didn't make up for the lack of Porthos, but he did add his own value to the mix. As they made their way through the streets, Aramis tipped his hat at those who looked up from their afternoon work to take in the presence of newcomers.
He planned to find the nearest Inn – they'd stayed at one the last time they visited, while waiting for d'Artagnan to heal enough to be able to ride – and settle in for the night, seeking Marsac's home in the morning. He wanted d'Artagnan to do the same, but he wouldn't stop the other man if he chose to ride on, getting into Gascony before the night took hold.
A low rumble of thunder chased the press of air at their backs and Aramis felt the temperature drop. He glanced up, not seeing much change in the clouds, and noticed d'Artagnan was doing the same. If the rain began, as it certainly promised to, he would insist that his young friend wait until the morning to ride on, especially considering his shoulder.
He pulled up short at the sound of his name, looking around. d'Artagnan's horse danced next to his.
"It is you!"
It took him another moment to zero in on the voice – familiar, feminine, and friendly. Those three didn't usually combine when calling out his name in public.
"It's Talia," d'Artagnan stated, a smile in his voice.
Aramis saw her then; she was not dressed as the lady he remembered, but as a commoner, her golden hair plaited in a braid and tumbling down her back. She carried a canvas satchel over one shoulder and held a hand to her brow, blocking her eyes from the sudden kick of wind as she grinned up at them.
Aramis swung down from his horse, and caught her hand, pressing a kiss to her knuckles. "My Lady," he greeted. "I almost didn't recognize you."
Talia Thibaut laughed, reaching her hand toward d'Artagnan as he, too approached. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, she wrapped an arm around the young man's shoulders and pulled him close for a hug. Aramis saw d'Artagnan stiffen slightly – no doubt from the pressure on his sore joint – then relax and return her brief embrace.
"What a wonderful surprise this is," Talia smiled, her blue eyes dancing between them. "Why have you come?" A shadow crossed her face. "Is everything in order? My cousin—"
"The King and Queen are both fine, my Lady," Aramis reassured her, enjoying the way her smile returned to light up her eyes. "We are actually here on personal business."
"In Toulouse?" She sounded surprised.
"Yes," Aramis nodded, then gestured to d'Artagnan. "Well, I am. d'Artagnan will be moving on to Gascony in the morning."
"Well, then you shall dine with us tonight," Talia declared.
"No, we couldn't—" d'Artagnan started to protest, lifting a hand in protest.
"Nonsense," Talia objected. "It's about to pour, as you've no doubt noticed. I have just been to the baker's and have bread for the week. Luca will be overjoyed to see you."
Aramis glanced at his young friend and saw d'Artagnan's face relax into a genuine smile.
"I would love to see him as well," d'Artagnan confessed.
"He's been learning a language with his hands," Talia told them, her smile softening as the spoke of her son. "A priest nearby brought it back from his travels to England and asked to teach him years ago, but Pierre would not allow it."
"Has your husband had a change of heart?" Aramis inquired, remembering distinctly that it had been Pierre Thibaut who had, allegedly, sent the bandits after his wife and son many months ago with a mission to silence them, permanently.
Talia tipped her head. "Not…exactly. My husband is dead. Not long after you departed our town for Paris."
"I am sorry for your loss," Aramis offered sincerely. "That must have been a blow."
Talia arched a pale brow, secrets hiding in her eyes. "You would think."
Aramis and d'Artagnan exchanged a quick, confused glance at her tone, then Talia took a beat, turning for the street toward her home.
"Follow me, if you will. Your horses will be well cared for and you can be fed and rested before your business."
They fell in step behind her, Aramis offering to take her satchel of bread, which she allowed since he hung it from his saddle. As they walked, she filled them in on the changes that had taken place in her home and in Toulouse after her husband's demise. She still dressed as a Lady when the situation called for it, she told them, but when fulfilling household duties, it became so much easier to wear the older, more manageable clothes that she relented.
"Besides," she commented with a teasing smile over her shoulder at Aramis, "I'll wager that neither of you have ever tried to ride while wearing a corset."
"Can't say as I have," Aramis agreed.
"It takes tremendous effort to simply breathe while strapped into those contraptions. Anything beyond that may as well be asking us to capture moonlight in a bottle."
They reached the stone fence that ran the length of the Thibaut grounds surrounding the chalet just as another rumble of thunder was caught in the quickening wind. Aramis blinked as his horse's long mane blew forward, slapping at his cheeks and eyes. He stepped aside, standing between the two horses as d'Artagnan led his with his good, left arm.
"Wait here for just a moment, if you don't mind," Talia implored them. "I'll run ahead and find Luca, then send Philippe out for your horses."
As she hurried away, Aramis found himself watching her, the smooth swing of her hips, the casual strength in her gait. She'd always been above his notice; as a cousin of the Queen, she was immediately off limits, but dressed as she was, and as familiar as she'd been around them, he couldn't help but allow himself to appreciate the natural beauty she possessed.
"Attractive woman, Talia," d'Artagnan commented.
"That she is," Aramis agreed quietly, not tearing his eyes from her retreating form.
"Rather convenient that her husband is no longer with us."
"Yes," Aramis replied distractedly, then realized what d'Artagnan had said. He shot the younger man a mock glare. "What is it you're implying?"
d'Artagnan merely grinned, his dark eyes dancing with mischief. "Perhaps you'll be longer than you thought in following me to Gascony."
Aramis took a half-hearted swing at the Gascon before he saw d'Artagnan's attention shift to something over his shoulder. Turning, he saw a lanky, toe-headed boy running toward them. Thirteen-year-old Luca Thibaut had grown at least three inches in the months since they'd last seen him. His grin spoke the words they knew he could not and he practically launched himself at d'Artagnan in greeting.
d'Artagnan dropped the reins of his horse and caught the boy against him with his good arm, returning Luca's exuberance. Aramis noticed how d'Artagnan was careful to wait until they'd released each other and Luca could see his face before he spoke his greeting, remembering how the boy read lips.
"You look well," d'Artagnan said with a smile. "It's great to see you."
Luca grinned and nodded, then turned to Aramis, offering him a hug as well. Aramis had to chuckle. He hadn't had this much physical contact outside of a bedroom or battle in years. It still amazed him how someone who could not hear could convey such honest emotion. Luca communicated better than many orators Aramis had encountered over the years.
As the first, fat drops of rain slapped against their saddles, hitting the brim of Aramis' hat and pelting d'Artagnan's bare head, Luca squinted up at the sky, then made a motion with his hands. Aramis tilted his head, confused, but saw d'Artagnan's face light up.
"Rain?" d'Artagnan asked, mimicking the motion.
Luca, watching the young Gascon's mouth, grinned and nodded, holding his hand up to the swiftly-falling drops then repeated the motion. d'Artagnan laughed, a sound of pure delight that struck Aramis through the core. It was a sound they didn't hear often.
"Come! Come inside!" Talia called from the doorway of the house, waving them forward as another young man roughly d'Artagnan's age, whom Aramis assumed was Philippe, claimed their horse's reins.
Aramis and d'Artagnan pulled their saddle bags from the back of their mounts, then followed Luca inside, stopping just inside the door so as not to drip water all over Talia's floor. Luca grabbed d'Artagnan's right hand and tugged him forward, unfortunately before the young man could pull the wounded appendage away.
Aramis heard d'Artagnan's low gasp of pain, but watched with admiration as he made sure not to alarm Luca by flinching away. He simply extricated his hand from the boy's and instead handed Luca his saddle bag to hold.
"We'll get water on your floors," Aramis protested as Talia called them forward.
"Oh, don't be an idiot; they're just floors," Talia returned. "Come get dry before you catch your deaths."
Aramis marveled at the comfort he felt sitting at Talia's table. It was true they'd spent time at her home before, but the circumstances had been so different, and with Athos and Porthos present the focus had been on getting d'Artagnan well enough to travel, not on Talia. As they sat, Aramis watched the woman move around the table as if she'd never had servants, providing them with bread and wine and a stew that had his mouth watering.
d'Artagnan positioned himself next to Luca, his sore shoulder away from the boy, and faced him as Luca showed each new word he'd learned so far in the hand language his mother had mentioned. Aramis remembered how quickly Luca had taken to the young Musketeer their last trip when the mission had been simply to keep the boy alive, and it seemed that in the intervening months that bond had not decreased.
"I should have brought him to Paris sooner," Talia was saying and Aramis noticed her eyes resting on her son with the same adoration he remembered seeing before. "I'm long overdue for a visit with my cousin and your Captain mentioned that we were welcome at the garrison."
"That you are," Aramis nodded, sitting back and leaning one arm on the table, his fingers resting on the stem of his cup. "Clearly, Luca would have friends."
"Athos did mention there were other children," Talia commented, humor bubbling through her tone and quirking her lips.
d'Artagnan merely glanced over with a half-smile, not rising to the bait. As they sat and talked, Aramis watched servants stroll into the kitchen as though comfortable they belonged. Talia would offer food, suggest an activity, or smile a greeting, depending on who it was. Aramis had not seen the house of one connected to royalty run with quite such casual elegance before. It defied convention in every possible way.
Then again, he didn't recall Talia Thibaut to have been all that bothered by convention when he first met her.
The lad who'd cared for their horses, Philippe, was the last to enter and Talia bade him stand by the fire to dry off and warm up. She introduced the men to him and Aramis didn't miss the startled look he shot at d'Artagnan when Talia mentioned his young friend's name.
"Philippe is from Gascony," Talia elaborated, having missed the lad's wide-eyed expression.
Aramis noted the boy held the same dark coloring as d'Artagnan, right down to the near-black eyes. He also bore the trademark strong jawed-features of the Gascony region. d'Artagnan regarded Philippe with mild curiosity, though most of his attention was still centered on Luca. He nodded a greeting at Philippe, but didn't draw the boy into conversation as Luca tugged once more at his sleeve, gesturing something, but frowning, as though he couldn't figure out how to tell d'Artagnan what he meant.
"That means paper," Talia translated as Philippe nodded to her and took his leave. "I believe he's asking after the birds."
Aramis smiled, remembering the intricately folded paper birds that Luca had shown d'Artagnan how to construct as the young Musketeer was healing from his wounds. Much to Athos' consternation and Porthos and Aramis' amusement, d'Artagnan had continued the habit in the months since leaving the Thibauts in Toulouse.
"Is there paper near?" d'Artagnan asked.
Talia nodded, waving her fingers to catch Luca's attention. When he was looking directly at his mother, she instructed him where to find the paper and Luca tugged at d'Artagnan's sleeve, asking him to follow. Chuckling, d'Artagnan stood and Aramis saw him press his hand against his sore shoulder as he rotated it stiffly, then followed the young boy from the room.
"Is he wounded?" Talia asked, her brows low over her bright blue eyes, exactly like her son's.
"He came off his horse on the way here," Aramis told her. "He'll be fine; just a bit sore."
Turning so that she faced Aramis, the fire from the large stone hearth at her back, Talia studied him closely. "What business brings a Musketeer all the way to Toulouse that doesn't involve a missive from the King?"
Aramis pressed his lips close, spending a moment attempting to concoct a believable lie, when suddenly he realized he didn't want to. "I've come to visit the father of a fallen brother," he said.
She lifted her chin. "Not Athos or Porthos?"
Aramis shook he head. "This man…," he frowned, looking away from her probing gaze. "This man, I killed."
"I don't understand."
"To be honest…," he sighed, leaning forward, his hands now braced around the base of the cup. "I don't know that I do either."
Without lifting his eyes from the pale reflection of the firelight in the red liquid within his cup, Aramis found himself telling her about meeting Marsac, training with him, developing a bond as close as he and Porthos. When he came to the morning of the ambush at Savoy, he felt something shift within him, as though a hand had reached into his chest to squeeze his heart.
The words continued to spill from him, his voice low, almost monotone in their clinical detachment, but the ache within him built. He felt the hand twist his heart viciously as he recounted waking with blood in his eyes, a searing pain bisecting his forehead and sending his vision sideways. Only Marsac was left. He pulled Aramis from the melee and bound his wound, but then left him amid the bodies of his friends. Marsac stripped his pauldron from his shoulder, dropped it at Aramis' feet, and vanished into the snow.
When Talia touched his arm, Aramis flinched, spilling the cup and sending wine across the white cloth that covered the table. The crimson stained the white with such a poetic resonance that he suddenly found he couldn't look away. It was blood staining the snow and he couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't blink.
The voice was far away, the sound of clashing metal and screams of pain suddenly so much louder. He found himself feeling the weight of a weapon in his hand, needing to fend off whatever was going to take him back to the moment, the moment of blood on the snow. He tightened his grip, but the weapon seemed to slip away. He reached for it, but everything around him was suddenly murky, uncertain.
Cool hands framed his face, a grip strong enough to be almost painful.
Finally blinking, Aramis took a breath, surprised as the hands forced his eyes away from the stain of wine by physically turning his head. In an instant he was back, the hollow ache in his chest evaporating as though it had never been present. The only thing that remained was a tingling of his lips and a tremble of his hands as he worked to even out his breath.
Talia Thibaut was standing in front of him, her small hands gripping his face, her fierce eyes boring into his.
"I—" He blinked again, turning to look at the stain he'd caused on her white cloth. "I am so sorry."
"Forget the cloth," she snapped, letting her hand slide away. "Are you all right?"
"That hasn't happened since…." He shook his head, rubbing his eyes and wished fiercely for Porthos' steadying presence. Where the hell had that come from? "I haven't felt…. I don't…." He covered his eyes with his hand. "I thought I was past it all."
He forced himself to take a slow, deep breath, reaching instinctively for the rosary around his neck. The edges of the cross dug into his palm as he tightened his fist around it.
"I imagine you've not spoken of this in some time," Talia surmised.
Aramis dropped his hand, but did not meet her eyes. "Silence is the only refuge for those who suffer," he replied.
"What happened to Marsac?" Talia asked quietly, resting a hand on his wrist and keeping her eyes on him, forcing him to look back at her and not at the spilled wine. "He returned to you, didn't he?"
Aramis nodded, pulling in another breath, slowly releasing his hold on the rosary. "He did. He was in pursuit of the truth of the massacre. He found it, but…."
"But in the truth, found more pain," Talia guessed.
"Yes." Aramis exhaled. "Yes, and I'm afraid that…to save my Captain, I…."
Talia swallowed. "So you're the one."
At that, Aramis started. "The one?"
"I know Antoine Marsac, your friend's father."
Aramis sank back against the chair, barely aware that she'd taken his hand in hers, pressing her palm against his as though to ground him.
"Somehow – I do not know how – he learned that his son was killed by a fellow Musketeer. He wouldn't believe it. He wrote to find the truth."
"That is the truth," Aramis breathed. "Marsac was too…," he frowned, struggling to find the right word, "…damaged to see that the man he thought betrayed us had no choice in his actions."
"And, clearly, neither did you," Talia said softly.
"Does he seek revenge?" Aramis asked, purposely emptying his voice of any emotion.
"Antoine is not a vengeful man," Talia shook her head. "I believe he simply…needs to know."
"I plan on returning Marsac's harquebus and pauldron to his father."
Talia sat back. "I will go with you."
Aramis shook his head quickly. "No, m'Lady, I don't think—"
"Aramis, I am no Lady, despite my title," Talia interjected, her voice firm. "And I will go with you, if only to stand outside until you have finished."
Aramis looked at her a moment, then glanced over at the wine spread across the cloth, remembering the feeling as if his heart was being crushed. Reaching once more for his rosary, he nodded, "Yes."
They sat quietly for a moment, Talia watching him, Aramis staring at nothing, his eyes distant, his skin alight with too much sensation. He felt the weight of his clothes, the scruff of beard at his chin, the brush of her hand resting against his. He forced himself to breath evenly, thinking of Porthos' deep, steady voice intoning the rhythm until he was able to grab his balance.
"I used to find myself captive to these such…attacks," he whispered. "After Savoy, they occurred rather often. But I haven't…it's been such a long time that…."
"How did you overcome them before?" Talia asked, her voice pitched low.
"Breathing," Aramis replied. He looked at her beneath his brows. "Women."
He flicked his eyes away as Talia straightened, lifting her chin slightly at that confession. So, you are a bit of a Lady after all, he thought. Glancing down, he pulled his hand slowly from her grasp.
"No need," Talia replied. "It simply surprised me."
Aramis arched a brow. "What did?"
"That you suggested it first," Talia smirked, standing as they both heard boots clattering against the wood floor in the room beyond, approaching the kitchen.
Still reeling from both the disorienting attack and Talia's forwardness, Aramis found himself staring blankly at d'Artagnan as he approached the table.
"Are you all right?" d'Artagnan asked immediately, his brows drawing close over the bridge of his nose, his eyes taking in the scene with a sweeping glance.
"Yes, fine," Aramis nodded quickly, pushing to his feet. "Just…finding out where Marsac's home is located."
d'Artagnan's eyes immediately softened; it was apparently the only explanation for coming upon his friend in such a fragile, harried state that he needed. "And you're still determined to go without me?"
"I'll be fine, my friend," Aramis replied, choosing not to mention that he'd accepted Talia's offer of company.
With a last, measuring look at Aramis, d'Artagnan turned to look at Talia. "Madam, I hoped you might answer a question. Set my mind at ease."
"Of course," Talia nodded, smiling at him, though her eyes were troubled. "Where has Luca run off to?"
"He is in his room," d'Artagnan told her. "I'm afraid we've nearly exhausted your paper supply. He was ready to seek out books."
"No matter," Talia said, reaching out and resting a hand on d'Artagnan's arm. Her sleeve slipped from its folded cuff and came to rest at her bent elbow. "We know where to find more. Seeing the light in my son's eyes at your return is worth a ream of paper."
"Talia," Aramis broke in, reaching for her arm that still rested on d'Artagnan's. "What is this?"
A wide, puckered scar ran like a pink snake from her elbow along the inside of her arm and around to her wrist. Talia pulled her hand free and slid her sleeve back into place.
"As it turns out," she said quietly, her voice going cold, her eyes like slate, "we all have suffered." She stepped away from both of them. "I believe I'll turn in. Don't mind the cloth; I'll have it cleaned in the morning. I'll see that your room is prepared. It's across from Luca's, so you'll be able to find it easily."
"Talia," Aramis called once more as she attempted to walk away. The room had suddenly gone silent, a chill in the air that had nothing to do with the weather outside. "How did you come by that wound?"
Aramis felt the weight of d'Artagnan's gaze; the young man turned and stood quietly next to him, his stance telling Aramis that the question he'd come in to ask Talia was not too different from the direction of their current conversation. Talia stopped walking, but did not turn around. Her shoulders seemed to square as though bracing for a blow. When she spoke, she did not turn around.
"My husband was not a good man," she replied. "You know this. You protected Luca from him."
"He did this to you?" Aramis asked, horror making his voice weak.
"Yes." At this, she turned, pushing up the sleeve of her dress, exposing the scar. "He blamed me for his son's deafness and this," she held her arm aloft, "was his way of ridding me of the sin that had marked our child."
Aramis felt the room narrow around him, the same crushing sensation of before threatening to return. He wasn't sure why seeing her scar would draw him back to that place, sending him spiraling into the gray rush of breathlessness and paralyzing fear, but he sensed it approaching none-the-less. He wanted to speak further, but something prevented him. d'Artagnan's shoulder brushed against his as the young man crossed his arms and Aramis was certain his encroaching panic was palpable in that brief contact.
"Talia," d'Artagnan asked, taking a half step forward so that his shoulder overlapped Aramis'. It was such a familiar move of protection that for a moment, Aramis wondered if he'd perhaps been coached by Porthos. "How did your husband die?"
Talia's eyes flew to d'Artagnan's face and Aramis found himself shocked out of the encroaching breathlessness. The directness of d'Artagnan's question, the steady cadence of his voice, grounded Aramis in a strange sense of normalcy. This is what they did: they sought the truth in order to protect those who could not protect themselves.
"Why do you ask this?"
"Something Luca showed me," d'Artagnan revealed, his voice low and almost dangerous. "When we saved him from the bandits, that didn't end the threat to his life, did it?"
Talia clenched her jaw, lifting her chin, her blue eyes flooding with tears.
"He has a scar on his neck, near his ear, that I know he did not have when he rode with us," d'Artagnan revealed. "I couldn't understand what he was trying to say to me, but…his father did it to him, didn't he?"
A tear escaped, tracing a path down Talia's cheek, but she didn't say a word.
"Talia." d'Artagnan spoke her name like a sentence; as though it was everything he could and needed to say. Captured in the tone was a promise: you're safe with us.
"My husband is dead," Talia stated, tear-flooded eyes anchored to d'Artagnan's. "And that is the end of it. Thank you for your company this evening. I trust you can see yourselves to your room."
Without another word, she turned and exited, leaving the two men to stare after her. For a long moment, neither of them moved nor spoke. Aramis imagined he could hear d'Artagnan's heart beating in the suffocating quiet of the empty room.
"You think she killed him," Aramis stated.
"I don't know what I think," d'Artagnan replied. "But I know something happened." He glanced over at Aramis, pulling at his lip in thought. "Luca has changed; he is…shuttered. Careful."
"And the scar?"
d'Artagnan's brows flexed over the bridge of his nose. "It looked to be from a knife." They were quiet a moment, then d'Artagnan continued. "If he were my son, I wouldn't hesitate to take action if someone took a blade to him." He looked at Aramis. "Would you?"
Aramis didn't reply at first, thinking about all that had transpired in the few hours since they arrived in Toulouse. He thought of the light that seemed to surround Talia, the care she extended to them, the clear love she had for her son. He thought of the gentle way she'd balanced him when speaking of Marsac and Savoy overwhelmed him. He thought of how she'd opened her home to them, welcoming them in a way he hadn't been in longer than he cared to remember.
"What do you suggest we do?" Aramis asked.
d'Artagnan turned to face him, his dark eyes twin pools of secrets. "Nothing."
For a moment, Aramis inexplicably thought of Athos, wondering what his taciturn Lieutenant would do if faced with this situation. He knew what Porthos would do, knew what he wanted to do, but Athos….
"If she has committed murder, it is our duty—"
d'Artagnan stepped forward, closing the space between them and forcing Aramis to lift his chin to stare his young friend in the eye.
"She has not," he stated, his voice hard and unyielding. "If anything, it was self-defense and no sense of duty—" he practically spat the word "—will convince me otherwise."
Aramis stared at d'Artagnan for a moment, his mind racing. Finally, after a moment, he nodded. "Her husband is dead, and that is the end of it," he said, repeating Talia's words.
Returning Aramis' nod, d'Artagnan turned and led his friend down the hall to the room across from Luca's. Two small beds had been placed along opposite walls and Aramis found that he was suddenly, overwhelmingly tired. He sat heavily on his bunk, pausing before removing his boots. He looked across the way, surprised to see d'Artagnan mirroring him, his right arm cradled across chest as though to protect it.
"Felt nice for a bit there," d'Artagnan said softly, then glanced up, meeting Aramis' eyes. "Didn't it? Kind of like…." He tapered off, helplessly, a shrug implied in his tone.
"Home," Aramis finished for him.
d'Artagnan nodded. "Or…how I remember it, anyway."
"Get some sleep," Aramis told him. "Tomorrow promises to be long."
They made quick work of readying themselves for sleep and before Aramis was able to stretch out on his bunk, he heard the heavy, deep breathing of d'Artagnan from the other side of the room.
Aramis lay in bed, restless, unable to quiet his mind. Thoughts of death tangled with duty and he couldn't seem to find a path clear between what he'd done to Marsac and the act he and d'Artagnan had just agreed to turn a blind eye toward. He wasn't unaffected by death; quite the contrary, but he also didn't typically spend his days waiting for it, as he'd often accused Athos of doing.
His friend, the former Comte, seemed often times to simply be waiting for the next death until it was, finally, his turn. It was a sad weight Aramis could see in Athos' eyes, bowing his walk, limiting his speech. It was because of this that Aramis purposely chose to embrace the marrow of life, to take every opportunity to feel and see and do whatever the road put in his way.
The haunting silence of the woods at Savoy and the dozens of sightless eyes and still hands surrounding him would always be too real. The feel of Marsac's body growing heavier as his last breath escaped was something his arms would never lose. He knew death – his own, his friend's – was inevitable. He simply didn't want to sit back and wait for it.
Feasibly, that was what prompted Talia Thibaut's hand: preservation of one life at the cost of another. He knew that intimately. He'd chosen his Captain over Marsac, doing his duty as a solider. He had been acquitted of any wrong-doing. He may not have forgiven himself, but he had been forgiven by the laws of men and God.
d'Artagnan had reached that realization much more quickly than he; there was something in the lad that seemed to face duty with a clearer head and more balanced reasoning than any of the rest of them.
Perhaps, Aramis wondered, as he looked across the room at his sleeping friend, he's simply more at peace with himself than the rest of us.
The tense arch of d'Artagnan's neck could be seen even in the darkened room. It was the same posture he'd seen the night prior when a nightmare held him in its grip. d'Artagnan shifted restlessly on his bunk, murmuring unintelligibly as Aramis sat up slowly.
"Then again," Aramis muttered to himself, crossing the room to wake d'Artagnan, "I've been wrong before."
He placed a hand on d'Artagnan's shoulder, pressing gently. d'Artagnan flinched and came awake with a start.
"What is it?"
"You were dreaming. Again."
d'Artagnan groaned, rubbing his face, then dropping his forearm across his eyes. "They didn't have faces," he mumbled.
Aramis drew back. "Who didn't?"
"Both of them. There was...nothing there."
Aramis frowned, suddenly concerned. "d'Artagnan, are you awake?"
Dropping his arm, d'Artagnan shifted again on his bunk, rolling to his side, trying to get comfortable. "Unfortunately."
"You know who I am? Where you are?"
"Yes. And yes."
"What are you—"
"I'm fine, just…go to sleep, Aramis," d'Artagnan mumbled into his pillow. "It was only a dream."
Confused by the shift in his young friend's demeanor from lucid logic to confused mid-dream murmurs, Aramis crossed the room and stretched back out on his bunk. Whatever he thought of Talia Thibaut's actions concerning her violent, dangerous husband or of d'Artagnan's haunted, subconscious mind, neither issue could be solved tonight.
Resting his hat over his eyes more for the familiar weight and smell than to protect from any unwanted light, Aramis was asleep in moments.
"Silence is the only refuge for those who suffer." -- I pulled this from a line Aramis actually speaks in Dumas' novel, for those sharp-eyed book fans reading this.
Chapter 6: Day Five: Toulouse
Day Five: Toulouse
It seemed only minutes later that he was once more opening his eyes, but he could tell by the light seeping in beneath the brim of his hat that it was dawn, or near it. He pushed his hat back to the crown of his head and saw d'Artagnan up and strapping on his weapons. Sitting up slowly, he thought of what he should say to the young Musketeer to bolster him on the road to confront his past.
Before he could speak, however, d'Artagnan glanced at him over his shoulder, unspoken questions in his eyes. It was that slight bit of sympathy, that smear of worry Aramis saw captured in the young man's glance that set him on edge. He was fully capable of carrying out his duty in a manner befitting a Musketeer; he didn't need to be reminded that there were times he was completely hollowed out by just a word.
A dark knot settled in his chest, pressing on his heart. "You know, perhaps you're right," he began, clearing the sleep from his voice. "I may stay here with Madam Thibaut a bit longer."
d'Artagnan merely lifted an eyebrow, the side of his mouth tugging into a smirk. "Oh, good. You're still obnoxious. Here I was worried about you going all honorable on me."
"No chance of that, my friend," Aramis muttered good-naturedly, glad that d'Artagnan was willing to play along. He needed the game right now. The pretense of control. For reasons he didn't want to explore too closely, it was all he had.
Slinging his cloak over his shoulders and fastening it at his neck, d'Artagnan glanced around the room as the sunlight rose high enough to slip down the far walls from the eastern window. Aramis watched as a muscle rippled across the young man's jaw, the Gascon's primary tell that his nerves were raw, exposed. As d'Artagnan bent to pick up his saddle bag, Aramis felt a pull at his heart, the same that he'd registered as they rode out of the garrison sans Porthos and Athos.
"Wait for me," he stated impulsively.
d'Artagnan looked over at him, surprise clear in his expression. "Sorry?"
Aramis removed his hat and set it on the bed next to where he'd discarded his jacket the night before. He shoved a hand through his unruly hair with a huff. "Let me finish with Marsac and I'll travel with you."
d'Artagnan tilted his head slightly. "We covered this already."
"Perhaps I've changed my mind," Aramis argued, shoving to his feet. "Perhaps I don't want to think about you having to face this alone."
Or perhaps he was just afraid of coming apart facing the father of his old friend.
d'Artagnan swallowed and Aramis saw the muscle in his jaw flinch again. "It's fine, Aramis. I knew what I was getting into when I requested leave."
"Aramis," d'Artagnan interrupted him, his dark eyes softening as his mouth tipped up in a small smile. "It's fine."
Frowning Aramis realized that he couldn't very well force the young Gascon to wait. The most he could truly do was wish him well. "Be careful."
d'Artagnan's smile turned into a moderate impression of Aramis' own roguish grin. "When have I ever been anything else?"
Arching a brow, Aramis nodded toward his right shoulder. "Would you like me to make you a list?"
Glancing away, d'Artagnan pressed his lips closed in a tolerant expression. "I'll see you soon."
"I'll tell Luca you said the same," Aramis assured him.
d'Artagnan nodded, then, taking a moment to square his shoulders, he stepped from the room, leaving Aramis alone in the dusky quiet. Aramis sat completely still for a while, letting the Thibaut household come awake slowly around him. He heard a low hum of voices down the hall where he remembered the dining area to be. Peeking through the door, he saw that someone had set a basin and pitcher of water outside in the hall. Collecting it, he took his time cleaning and preparing for the day, unwilling to admit – even if just to himself – that he was stalling.
Once dressed, he followed the aroma of spices and entered the dining area to find an endearingly domestic setting: Luca at the table eating, a fire blazing cheerily behind him, Talia standing next to him slicing through a loaf of bread. It was quiet except for the crackling of the flames, but as Aramis watched Talia glance at her son, he realized that no words were necessary.
"Good morning," he greeted, announcing his presence as he stepped into the room. He noticed the wine-stained cloth from the night before had been removed and replaced.
"Well," Talia sighed, half turning to face him. "It certainly has been a busy one."
"Oh?" Aramis took a seat across from Luca, watching as the boy ate systematically, his eyes down, purposely avoiding any chance at engaging him in conversation. "How so?"
Talia sighed, and moved over to the fire to pull a kettle of steaming water out with an iron hook and a towel wrapped around her hand for protection. She poured Aramis a cup of hot tea and nodded toward the bread. He took it, feeling the shift in the air as Talia continued to speak. It was as if someone had pressed a blade to his throat.
"We discovered – well, rather, d'Artagnan discovered – that our stable boy, Philippe, has left."
"Philippe?" Aramis asked, frowning. "The boy who also hails from Gascony?"
"The same," Talia nodded. "d'Artagnan went for his horse and had to secure the tack himself. Which in and of itself isn't a problem, but I'm troubled by Philippe's departure. We haven't known him long, but he seemed like a solid hand."
"Any idea where he might've gone?"
Talia shook her head. "None. Unless it was back home."
Aramis' frown deepened. Convenient timing.
"And Luca," Talia sighed, resting a hand on her son's shoulder. Luca didn't raise his head at her touch. "He's quite troubled that d'Artagnan left without saying goodbye."
Aramis tilted his head. "He knew that d'Artagnan was set to leave this morning, yes?"
Talia smiled slightly. "Yes, but…," she shrugged. "When you're a boy sometimes you decide to believe something else than what you're told."
Aramis regarded Luca for a moment, but when the boy didn't look up under his scrutiny, Aramis settled his hat on his head and stood. "Do you require assistance with the horses in the absence of your stable hand?"
Talia shook her head. "We'll manage. But if you're planning to leave, you'll have to wait just a moment for me to get someone to keep any eye on Luca."
"No," Talia cut him off, her blue eyes unyielding. "I will be traveling to Antoine's house with you as we discussed."
Her tone gave no quarter. And if he were being honest with himself, Aramis really didn't want to go alone; he just didn't want to go with someone for whom he needed to appear strong. He swallowed his sigh and nodded. "I'll go prepare our horses."
The day felt leaden, the sky the gray of a musket barrel. The light had an almost tin-like quality, as though he were peering at the world through a sheet worn thin from use. He blinked several times, but the sensation didn't clear.
Last night's rain had left everything soaked; ankle-deep puddles littered the yard and the area around the chalet smelled of musk and cedar. He was glad that d'Artagnan wouldn't have to ride to Lupiac in rain; with his father having been killed during a rainstorm, Aramis could only imagine what sort of memories that would have kicked up.
Not more than twenty minutes later, Talia joined him in the stables, wearing what looked like men's breeches and a long coat. Aramis blinked at her audacity, but said nothing – primarily because the look in her eyes challenged him to make comment. He handed her the reins of the spare horse and mounted without asking her if she required assistance. He was fairly certain she would have smacked him for that.
"The Marsac home is on the other side of town," Talia told him.
Aramis nodded without replying. He was doing everything in his power to think about anything else, but knew that very shortly he'd have to confront Marsac's father and tell him…something. Thankfully, Talia was comfortable riding quietly beside him. Having to make conversation at the moment was a feat beyond him.
Toulouse lacked the wheel-and-spoke organization of Paris. In actual fact, there seemed to be very little planning at all when it came to layout out the streets of the small town. As they rode, they wound through what passed as the town center, following curves and switchbacks within a labyrinth only a local could navigate with any sort of certainty. Talia pointed toward a section of road that looked like a forgotten turn in a maze and Aramis laid his reins on the horse's neck.
Before Aramis was prepared, Talia was pulling her horse to a stop in front of a small stone house, smoke curling lazily from a chimney. The backdrop of the gray, cloud-heavy sky set an ominous tone and belied the homey setting. Aramis felt sweat gather beneath the brim of his hat and run in irritating trickles down the back of his neck. His teeth were clenched so tightly he felt the ache move from his jaw to his temple, pressing against his eyes.
"I'll wait here, then," Talia said quietly.
Aramis gave her a curt nod, then dismounted, handing up the reins to his horse. He tugged his jacket into place, checked the position of his own pauldron and sword, and settled his hat squarely on his head. He must look the very picture of a Musketeer when presenting Marsac's effects to his father. Reaching into his saddle bags, he withdrew the unloaded harquebus and Marsac's worn, scarred pauldron, cradling both against his chest as he exhaled a steading breath.
Without a glance at Talia, he moved toward the front door of the Marsac home, pausing a moment before he lifted his hand to knock. As the door opened, Aramis felt something bottom out within him, emptying the cavern of his chest such that he felt his heartbeat echo. His legs felt like lead, his lips numb, his eyes burning.
The man before him was his friend, only ravaged by time. White wisps of hair swirled around a balding head, blue eyes turned up at him curiously, and a generous mouth pressed thin lips in a serious line. Aramis' words evaporated, every eloquent thing he might have said, every reassurance, every epitaph gone. He simply stood, staring silently.
The elder Marsac frowned in confusion until his eyes caught on Aramis' pauldron and a light of understanding dawned. His gaze traveled to the items in Aramis' arms and sadness unlike any Aramis had seen before slipped across his expression as though a painter's brush had captured loss.
"Monsieur Aramis?" The voice was raspy, thick and quaked around his name.
"Monsieur Marsac," Aramis replied, nodding his head in greeting.
"You received my letter, yes?"
Aramis swallowed, nodding again as he found himself yet unable to respond appropriately.
"Would you like to come inside?"
He didn't know. Part of him wanted to simply thrust the items into the man's hands and run. Part of him knew he'd traveled this far to do a duty and owed it to his friend to step inside. He couldn't bring himself to respond.
As though reading his uncertainty on Aramis' face, the elder Marsac reached forward and placed a thin, time-wrinkled hand on Aramis' forearm, drawing him forward.
Aramis did not stay long inside the Marsac home; every minute he spent felt surreal, as though he were standing outside of himself, watching a stranger. He heard the man who was Aramis of the King's Musketeers speak the words that needed said. He saw that man stand at attention and reverently hand the weapon and pauldron to the father of a man he'd killed.
But he felt detached, incomplete, a ghost of himself.
"You did what my son could not," Antoine Marsac concluded, his eyes on the scarred pauldron in his arms. "Something broke inside of him along the way and he never learned how to fix it."
Aramis wanted to tell him that something broke in both of them at Savoy, Marsac was simply honest about it. He never played the game, really. Never put on the show as Aramis did every day of his life. Because of that day, because of that loss, Aramis knew he was destined to be haunted and, in some ways, alone for the rest of his days.
Antoine Marsac looked up at him, and a sad sort of gratitude sat heavy in his gaze. "Thank you."
Aramis frowned, confused. "Monsieur, I…I took your son from you. I can never atone for such an injustice."
"No, Monsieur," Antoine looked at him, shaking his head slowly. "No, you brought him back to me." He lifted the pauldron. "All my son ever wanted was to be a Musketeer. A soldier who fought for his country. You let him die a Musketeer despite having not lived as one."
Aramis nearly choked on the lump in his throat. "By your leave, then."
Antoine Marsac nodded, smiling his thanks, and Aramis practically stumbled through the door, leaving it open behind him. He reached his horse and grabbed the reins from Talia, nearly missing the sad smile and wave she offered toward the home behind him. He knew, then, that Marsac's father was watching him ride away and tried valiantly to sit straight and tall in the saddle, but the ache in his chest made it impossible.
He leaned forward, riding curled in as though his life bled out from where his heart should be and he had to stem the flow. Riding blindly, trusting his horse to remember the path they'd followed, he reached the Thibaut stables before Talia. He was trapped in a fog, the sensation that his heart and lungs were being crushed so real he practically fell from the back of his horse, leaving the animal standing in the stable yard, reins trailing, as he staggered forward into the barn, searching for some solace.
Or somewhere to hide.
Unaware of the echo of his rasping breaths, Aramis dropped his feathered hat in the dirt, tugging viciously at his jacket, trying to get it open and offer himself some relief. His vision was beginning to tunnel, the edges of barn folding in around him. The world was losing focus, slipping in and out of his grasp, edging on complete darkness. He didn't register going to his knees, but suddenly found dirt beneath his hands, his fingers clawing at the Earth, desperate to stop the disorienting motion. He reached for his rosary, needing its familiar reassurance, but couldn't untangle it from his clothes.
He was gasping, words pressing forward in a mad rush to escape and then shattering against his teeth, falling into the open in half-thoughts and partial-truths, and Christ he needed to breathe. If he could just take a breath—
"Aramis, you're okay, look at me. Aramis, look at me."
He could not obey, could not lift his eyes. He felt hands on him, demanding, pushing him to the side so that he rotated on his knees and sat in the dirt, his back against something solid, the sword and harquebus in his weapon's belt slipping awkwardly with the motion. Blue eyes swam into his field of vision and hands were at his face again and he was suffocating.
He was strangling on captured breath, the hand of guilt reaching into his chest to curl vengeful fingers around his heart and squeeze.
"Porthos isn't here. I am here."
He'd been calling for Porthos? Just as well, he needed the man. Needed his voice, his patience, his path out of this maze of panic and pain. He couldn't find his way out alone. He couldn't—
Lips were on his. Hot, demanding. A mouth captured his staggered, stilted breath, held it, then exhaled into him. He opened his eyes slowly, only just realizing they'd been closed.
She practically sat in his lap, crouched over him as she was, her hands on either side of his face, holding him steady, her mouth on his, lips drawing him in. Pulling away slightly, she searched his eyes and waited, letting him inhale a ragged breath, then another. The burning pressure in his lungs eased and he felt emotion surge up, demanding release.
Aramis wrapped his arms around Talia's small back and pressed her close, lips coming together once more, only this time with two very willing participants. It was like kissing sunshine, like stepping outside on a bright winter morning. Her lips were hot, her tongue tantalizing and Aramis realized he'd never paid quite such exquisite attention to the mere act of kissing before. It had always been the opening production before the true performance began.
Her hands were at his neck, anchoring herself, a low moan slipping out helplessly from the back of her throat and encouraging Aramis to continue. He moved his hands from her waist to her buttocks, sliding her closer, needing more of her, and Dieu her mouth was perfect.
He lost track of how long she held him, giving him her mouth as an anchor to regulate his heartbeat, his breathing, keep him grounded and sane. It wasn't until she shifted on his lap that he began to respond to her attention in other ways. And for the briefest moment, he entertained the notion of stripping her of the manly attire and claiming her as a conquest here on the floor of her barn. He was desperate for it, hungry for the escape, for the release and oh, good Christ he didn't want to stop.
Apparently noticing the change in him, Talia drew back, slowly, almost reluctantly. Aramis had to center himself, remember where he was, why he was there. He was spinning.
"I didn't know how else to get your attention," Talia told him. "I didn't want to slap you, though that was my other option."
Bringing himself under a semblance of control, Aramis managed a shaky smile. "You chose wisely," he replied, rolling his lips toward his teeth, gathering himself.
"You weren't making sense," Talia told him. "I couldn't figure out what you needed, aside from Porthos."
"Porthos?" he asked, his surroundings beginning to come into focus.
"You were calling for him, and you just sounded so desperate, I…." She sat back, her weight now on his knees, and looked slightly ashamed. "I didn't know what to do."
"M'Lady," Aramis said, feeling his face and hands begin to tingle, the world around him crackling as reality became once more concrete. "You did beautifully. And I thank you." He took a low, slow breath, then dropped his chin, peering at her from under his brow. "Though I believe it's in our best interest for you to depart first, as I have…to get myself in check."
Talia stared at him blankly for a moment, then understanding dawned and he saw for all her forwardness and confidence, she was still had the innocence to blush.
"Of course," she pushed fluidly to her feet, stepping across Aramis' outstretched legs. "I'll leave you to it, then."
"Talia," he called as she began to turn away. He waited until she was facing him once more. "Thank you. I am in your debt."
"You owe me nothing, Aramis," she replied, her voice low and serious. "You are a good man and do not deserve to be…haunted so terribly." She looked away, out toward her house. "We all make choices in our lives. We all must live with the consequences of those choices." Looking back at him she smiled slightly, "We simply have to accept that some choices, while painful, are not our graves. That what seems to bring about an end is in reality a beginning. And we have a duty," she tipped her head forward at that, causing Aramis to bring his chin up, "to grab hold of that beginning and never let it go."
Aramis sat quietly for a moment. "Your words are wise, M'Lady."
Talia looked at him a moment more, then turned and headed back to her house. Aramis brought a slightly trembling hand up to his lips, pressing his fingertips where her mouth had been, thinking about his choices, and his weakness. He'd lost track of time since he'd left the Marsac home and when he finally climbed to his feet, he felt himself sway slightly as his equilibrium found stability.
He was stiff, sore, as though he'd been the one to come off his horse and not d'Artagnan. Making his way to the stable yard he saw that Talia had tied both horses to a rail outside the barn. He led them inside, needing something mundane to try to regain control of his trembling limbs, the fuzz of white noise in his brain. He relieved her mount of its saddle and bridle and then adjusted his own for a longer journey.
No matter how badly he simply wanted to curl up and sleep, he had a promise to keep to d'Artagnan and now that his task was behind him, he owed the young man a friend. A broken shell of a friend, but it was something, he supposed.
Talia's cry was like a bucket of frigid water down his back. He turned and hurried from the barn just as she flew through the gate surrounding her chalet. She fairly crashed into him in her haste, her eyes wild with worry.
"What? What is it? Is he injured?"
Aramis frowned, trying to hold her still as she struggled free of his grasp and ran back into the barn. He hurried to follow her.
"What do you mean, gone?"
Talia was frantically going from stall to stall, checking on the horses within, clearly looking for something specific. When she reached an empty stall, she cursed, then turned and pushed past Aramis once more to head to the tack room. He heard her curse again before she came back to him.
"I returned to the house and he wasn't in his room." She pushed strands of loose hair away from her sweat-streaked face. "I thought perhaps he just needed some time alone – it can be exhausting trying to communicate with the rest of the house at times – so I didn't think anything of it. But when I went to find him for the noon meal, I couldn't find him anywhere. Anywhere."
Aramis grasped her shoulders, trying to hold her in one place to get the full story. "Could he be somewhere on the grounds?"
"His favorite horse is gone, as is his tack."
Aramis took a breath, Talia's fear seeping into him. A deaf boy on the road with no one to watch his back…the possibilities of tragedy were endless. He felt the world rock beneath him, his vision swaying nauseatingly as he fought the residual shock for control. He needed to focus, to concentrate on a task, shove the sensation of shattered glass in his lungs to the back of his mind. It was the only way he was going to get himself back.
"Where would he have gone?"
Talia looked up at him and the tears in her eyes cut something deep inside of him.
"I think he's gone after d'Artagnan."
Aramis blinked at that. "Does he know where d'Artagnan is?"
"I told him this morning, when we found out about Philippe." Talia shrugged her arms free and put her hands at her face. "He was upset but I thought it was simply because he wanted more time with you both. Perhaps he thought Philippe went with d'Artagnan!" She waved a hand at the open barn door.
Aramis frowned. "And that he was left behind."
Taking a breath, Aramis felt strength begin to seep into him on the heels of renewed purpose. The encounter with Antoine Marsac had left him hollow and weak, but he was a soldier, and a Musketeer, and if there was one area where soldiers like Aramis excelled, it was following orders. Even if they were self-inflicted.
"Talia," he said, his tone catching her attention. "I will find him. I promised d'Artagnan I'd join him when I was finished here. I will secure Luca and return him to you."
"I'm coming with you."
"No." This time, his was the tone that brooked no argument. It was firm enough that she blinked at him in surprise. "You will stay here in case he returns. You have a duty to this home and the people here."
"I have a duty to my son—"
"Talia." He infused her name with the same tone he'd heard in d'Artagnan's voice the night before: trust me, believe me, I will not fail you. "Stay here and I will bring him back to you."
Talia's face crumpled slightly. "If what you said is true, d'Artagnan is riding straight into a place of pain. Luca has had enough pain to last him three lifetimes." Aramis saw that she was rubbing at her arm, the scar there visible as the sleeve followed her motion. "I've tried so hard to protect him, but he's had to…there are things recently that have…changed him."
"I understand," Aramis said softly; this time his hands went to her arms in comfort, not capture. "I do. You trusted us with your boy before and we brought him to you safely. Do so again."
Talia swallowed and nodded once, a tear escaping the prison of her lashes and leaving a searing trail down her cheek.
Aramis returned her nod, then collected his hat and went outside to gather up the reins of his horse. Mounting, he looked down at her. "Send word back to the garrison in Paris that we may be delayed. Athos is expecting us back in two days' time."
"I will," Talia promised, a hand resting at the base of her throat.
"M'Lady," Aramis tipped his hat to her.
Aramis had always prided himself in his ability to prepare, to visualize the outcome of any encounter. It became a survival mechanism after Savoy, when they'd been caught so unaware. All he needed was a plan, even if it was paper-thin, and he could adjust the outcome according to how well he followed the course he laid out in his mind.
However, at the moment, he could barely see an inch in front of him. He had no idea how to find Luca, how d'Artagnan was faring, and if he would be a help or hindrance to either of them the state he was in. As he rode off west, toward Gascony, he fought to still the latent tremors within him that spread outward from his heart like ripples on a pond.
He was a soldier. And soldier's followed orders, even to their death.
That was as good as the plan would get, for the moment.
Chapter 7: Day Five: Gascony
Day Five: Gascony
d'Artagnan had ridden into hell.
The journey from Toulouse to Gascony had been wholly uneventful. So much so, he wondered at Athos' words of caution regarding highwaymen and bandits. It seemed the only time he'd ever encountered trouble on the road was when he'd had his brothers riding with him.
Without anyone to distract him from it, d'Artagnan had allowed his thoughts to wander back to the day of his departure from Lupiac. He'd been eager, desperate even, to leave the farm, the smallness of it all. He'd not even looked back as he'd ridden next to his father, excited about the prospect of adventure. As he crossed the border into Gascony, he recalled how his father had tried to caution him, prepare him for what their journey was ultimately to have been: an appeal to the King.
He hadn't really listened; he'd figured when the time came, he'd back his father and share what he knew. Passionate intensity would make up for lack of factual interpretation, as he'd seen it. He'd simply been excited to shake off the hooks of the simple life in Lupiac, to see what the world had to offer him. Continuing backward on that path, back past the outlying homesteads and the roads that lead to different provinces within Gascony, d'Artagnan found himself replaying conversations, moments, scenes in his head.
Every precious second he'd spent with his father felt wasted as he barreled through his childhood, wished away his youth. He'd followed his father's lessons until he could repeat the information by rote, missing the wisdom caught within. He knew the maps of France, but not why the borders mattered so deeply to folks from Les Mans, Nice, Toulouse. Not until he'd finally reached Paris and stood in the court of the King himself to hear stirrings of war and unrest.
He'd practiced the ways of a gentleman as his father had instructed, but hadn't realized how valuable those lessons would be until he'd met Constance. He'd grown up feeling as though he somehow simply knew the value of grain, the rotation of the crops each season, the health and well-being of livestock and was bored with it all until he'd ventured into the Court of Miracles and saw the utter lack of every element he'd taken for granted.
Riding through the familiar countryside of his past, remembering how often he'd lived inside his own head, dreaming of adventures and far-away escapades, d'Artagnan felt his chest constrict, emotion burning a path up his throat to sear the backs of his eyes. Nostalgic memories of a somewhat idyllic youth warred with the chilling reality that it was now not just simply a part of his past…it was gone.
He'd not wept for his father; he'd barely allowed himself any release of emotion when he'd learned his home had been destroyed. He couldn't break down now, not when he was finally returning to set things right.
Or as near as he could make them.
It was only when he found himself following the achingly familiar path to his father's farm, a path he'd traveled nearly every day for two decades, he felt true panic set in. He didn't want to believe it when he came upon the house – or what had once been the house. It was as though he were in a dream. Or, more accurately, a nightmare.
Pulling his horse to a stand-still, d'Artagnan slouched in the saddle and stared.
The farm had never been overly large; it merely consisted of their home, a barn for the horses, some outlying buildings the corralled animals, used as protection from the elements, and the fields. On the other side of the acreage of crops, the serf homes for the indentured servants spread out every so many yards, totaling five in all. Alexandre d'Artagnan put people to work on the land until their time was served. Some had stayed, paying rent, while others had moved on, but d'Artagnan had nothing but happy memories of the people who had lived there.
Now, however, he saw only a twisted, hellish reflection of what the thriving farm had once been.
Some of the walls of his home still stood, though the edges were charred and collapsing in on themselves. The interior appeared to be nothing but a husk, remnants of furniture visible from where he sat his horse. The outlying buildings were gutted, and d'Artagnan could smell the unmistakable sickly sweet, cooked-meat stench of animals having been trapped inside and left to burn to death. The fields surrounding the buildings were black; he couldn't see far enough to determine if the destruction ran the entirety of the acreage.
A rough, raucous cry of a raven startled him and he shot his dark eyes to the tree line that surrounded the burned out husk that was once his home. Finding the large, black bird, d'Artagnan felt a chill slide down his spine as the beady eyes seemed to look straight through him. After a moment, the raven lost interest in their staring contest and took to the sky with a few beats of its great winds, a murder of its companions joining the escape from adjoining trees and slipping away as though d'Artagnan's arrival had interrupted some kind of fowl wake.
Feeling a strange sense of numb detachment, d'Artagnan dismounted, looping his reins over the horse's neck. The tight pull of muscle along his shoulder caught his attention. He rotated it a bit to shrug off the uncomfortable sensation, releasing the clasp of his pauldron and removing the leather sleeves of his jacket. He stuffed both into his saddle bags, letting his horse graze free, feeling sure he would be able to call him back.
He was chilled without the cover of his leathers, but something didn't feel quite right about entering his father's house dressed as a soldier and at the moment he was too shocked by the reality surrounding him to truly care. He made his way toward what was left of the building that had once been his childhood home, unable to draw a full breath. He could see the small cemetery off to the west of the building's edge and stumbled toward it.
The headstones appeared untouched, though the grass around them had burned, no doubt from an errant spark tossed off by the burning house. His grandparents – his father's parents – and his mother rested there, as did a still born sibling that had arrived long before d'Artagnan had been born. His father should have been there as well, but instead rested on the grounds of an Inn just outside of Paris.
Facing the shell of his father's home, d'Artagnan realized he was shaking.
It seemed to be enveloping him slowly, inside out. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to pull a slow breath in through his nose, fighting to ignore the charred smell of wet, burned wood. He'd known this would be difficult; he needed to get a grip and finish what he set out to do in the first place.
Turning away from the gravestones, d'Artagnan started toward the house, but stopped just outside what was left of the door. He couldn't yet bring himself to step inside. Instead, he moved around the house, eyes sweeping the grounds. He ignored the barn, the remains of the animals that had been trapped within. He ignored the shell of carriages and wagons slumping in tattered remains against what was left of the corral.
On the far side of the house, he found the old ground well, the opening flush with the slope of the hill and still covered by a trap door he remembered his mother insisting on, terrified that he'd wander off and fall through. Beyond the ground well, against the hillside, he saw another trap door leading to his mother's root cellar.
As the door seemed to be one of the only things not charred, he decided to start there. Pulling the door toward him, he gasped and fell back at the acrid stench of rotted flesh assaulted him. He landed on his backside, scurrying away from the opening until his palms hit the stone edge of the ground well. Choking on shock, he pressed the back of his hand against his mouth and peered again toward the root cellar, unable to see inside from this angle.
There was no way to tell what – or who – had been left to die within the confines of the cellar. The slope of the hillside thrust the interior of the cellar into immediate shadow, and d'Artagnan had fallen too far back to peer inside from his position. The daylight had begun to slip from him, twilight beginning to edge the perimeter. Rolling to his hands and knees, d'Artagnan pulled in several steadying breaths as he once more gained his feet.
He knew he wouldn't be able to investigate the root cellar in the dying light. With his back to the cellar, he faced the house once more. The dead would be no less dead in a few moments.
"Right, then," he muttered to himself, stepping around the ground well and moving toward the house.
He didn't need to bother with the door; the walls on this side of the structure had burned away enough he was able to step through a larger break. Stumbling slightly on debris, d'Artagnan found his footing and began to make his way through what had once been the kitchen and dining area. He began to breathe shallowly; the smell of the burned wood had long ago been tempered by the elements, but d'Artagnan imagined he could still detect the odor of a destroyed past.
As he made his way further into the kitchen area, he could still see the hearth and some of the fireplace. The furniture was nothing but ash beneath his feet and a few charred chair legs. Broken cooking utensils and bent metal workings gave evidence to how hot the fire had been at its apex.
Moving into the rest of the building, d'Artagnan found the primary sitting room, an area his mother had loved and where he'd spent most of his lesson time. In one corner, he could still see a pile of blackened books resting on what had once been a shelf. He bent and picked one up, the pages disintegrating in his hands, the ink faded from the heat.
A painting – he believed it to be one of his parents after their wedding – lay curled in its frame on the floor against the far wall and d'Artagnan saw the shattered glass that had once been the front to a weapon's cabinet littered across the floor. The wood from the musket and harquebus barrels was gone, leaving only the metal pieces. But two of his father's swords still remained.
This room had once been full of life: noise and chaos and the murmur of home and family. It had been the place he'd come when he'd broken his arm, when he'd felt his first broken heart, when he'd found out that his mother had died. The destruction around him cut a quick, clean pain through him, causing him to gasp with the heat of it.
In the year since he'd left the farm, he'd not often thought of the home he'd left behind. So much of his youth had been spent looking away, yearning for adventure. He hadn't appreciated the safety and security his home had provided.
Absentmindedly, d'Artagnan picked up the cutlass, remembering that he'd left his rapier back on his horse and carried only his main gauche. Sword in hand, he moved through the rest of the house, seeking his father's room. The room that had once belonged to him was first, however, and he paused in the doorway, eyes taking in the complete destruction of his past.
Nothing was left.
Not a book, or a bed, or even the collection of stones he'd once placed on the windowsill, one for each accomplishment in his father's training regimen. The wardrobe his mother had left him had burned down to the base, any clothes left inside destroyed.
Moving beyond his room, he found the door to his father's room still partially intact, though tilted off its hinges, and had to kick it open. Stepping within, he found similar destruction, but was only concerned with one thing. Beneath his father's window had been a loose floorboard. His father had tucked the important papers therein; papers that would determine who now owned the property, devastated or not. The land was still worth something and d'Artagnan had debts to repay – not just to the Boniceaux.
The wall with the window was now gone; however, the floor beneath it, though charred black, was still relatively intact. Letting the cutlass fall to the floor next to him, d'Artagnan dropped to his knees and dug through the debris to find the loose portion of the board. Soot wafted up and caused him to cough; he wiped it from his face with the edge of his sleeve. Finally able to pull the board free, he peered inside.
It was still there: the metal strong box that his father kept their family's past and future within. Lifting it out almost reverently, d'Artagnan blew the dirt and soot from the top, holding it as steady as possible in his trembling hands. The last person to have touched that metal box was his father. There was something very significant about that fact; d'Artagnan simply couldn't put it into words.
The light was fading from the charred, death-ridden buildings, chilling the air. He needed to, ironically enough, start a fire. He needed to see who or what was in that root cellar. He needed to take a look inside the box.
But for the longest time, he simply could not move.
"There's so much I want to say to you," d'Artagnan whispered, eyes pinned to the box in the dimming light. "So much I should have said before. I should have listened. Paid more attention. Without you," he sniffed, feeling emotion burn his eyes, "the world feels…hollow."
He sank to his heels, still staring at the box. "I have friends – brothers, really. I have a purpose. And there is a woman…," he tapered, unsure how to speak about Constance even now. "But you're not here to know about it."
Swallowing, he tried to fill the vacuum that surrounded his words with breath, but everything that fell from him was sucked into a void of pain and loss and he felt himself drawn toward it.
"Things matter a bit less knowing that you're just…not here anymore. It doesn't really matter that Constance is married because you're not here to be shocked. And it doesn't matter that I'm now a Musketeer because you're not here to disapprove." Tears were choking him, desperate to be set free, but he stubbornly held them at bay. "Avenging your death brought no satisfaction. Killing LeBarge for destroying our home left me feeling…empty. What would you have done, Father? Would you have avenged me?"
It had grown too dark now to even see the box before him without aid of an additional source of light. Sniffing again, d'Artagnan pushed to his feet, his lower legs and feet now beset with pins and needles from having been folded beneath him for so long. He stamped feeling back into them and, tucking the metal box under his arm, stumbled toward the opened kitchen area. Slumping down in the break in the wall, facing the ground well and root cellar, he opened the box.
Folded within was a small leather-bound journal and several loose papers. The journal was tied closed with a leather string. He tucked the journal into his shirt, and sat with the loose papers in his hands. The idea of reading what his father had captured on those papers made him immeasurably tired. He suddenly wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep, location secondary to oblivion.
He jerked violently, startled by the sound of a voice coming at him from the thick dark.
"Who's there?" he called.
"Philippe told me you returned, but I didn't believe it."
d'Artagnan stood, scanning the darkness in the direction of the voice. "Show yourself."
"We thought you were dead, you see. Killed like poor Alexandre."
Crushing the papers in a fist at his side, d'Artagnan reached for his sword, remembering too late that he'd left it on his saddle, the cutlass back in his father's room. He pivoted so that his back was to what remained of the wall and he was facing the general direction of the voice.
"I sent letters," he stated. "Several of them."
"And yet, we knew not that you lived." The voice carried on in a sort of sing-song manner; d'Artagnan could sense that it was circling the front of him.
He heard rustling behind as well and suspected that the person confronting him was not alone. Moving on instinct, he slipped the journal from within his shirt and tucked it into the crack in the wall next to him, hiding it completely. He shoved the papers into his shirt where the journal had been.
"What is it you want?" d'Artagnan called.
"Why, simply to reconnect, Charles," the voice replied, silky-smooth in its reassurance.
d'Artagnan heard a shink of flint on stone and a flame came to life at the end of a torch, illuminating the face of the man before him, standing much closer than d'Artagnan had first thought.
"After all," the man said with a cold smile. "We're family."
d'Artagnan gasped helplessly, his childhood coalescing in an instant of memory, reducing him in that moment to eight years old, hiding in the cupboard where his mother thrust him in a panic, peering out through the opening between the doors. His father stood arguing viciously with two men – one of whom sounded exactly like his father – but young Charles d'Artagnan couldn't see their faces. The man pushed his father, hurting him. There had been blood and screaming and he tried desperately to find out who had crashed into their home and spread such hollow-eyed terror among the people he loved…but he couldn't see their faces.
"Uncle Aimon," d'Artagnan choked out, working to steady his voice. "It's been…a long time."
"Indeed," Aimon d'Artagnan replied. "I believe the last I saw you was the day my brother chose his whelp of a son to journey with him to see the King."
d'Artagnan frowned. "I don't remember seeing you then."
"Ah, but you wouldn't, would you?" Aimon replied, glancing to the side as though in remembrance. "You were quite busy preparing for your grand adventure and paid no attention to the details."
d'Artagnan swallowed, knowing that despite the contempt in his uncle's tone, the words were, in actual fact, true. It was his greatest regret since his father's death: missing the details of the man's lost life. He darted his gaze to the side of the torch, trying to see the movement in the shadows that he could hear well enough.
"What is it you want?"
"I think you know," Aimon replied.
"I assure you, Uncle, I do not," d'Artagnan began to pivot, trying to see who was coming up behind him when he was suddenly grabbed, roughly, from behind. Two sets of vice-like grips clamped down on his arms and held him fast.
"You left, Charles," Aimon spat, his tone no longer one of congenial nostalgia. "You took my place at the Palace, and I am taking yours here. I simply need the documentation to prove what is rightfully mine."
d'Artagnan forced himself not to react. Suddenly, pieces of a puzzle began to shift in his brain, sliding and snapping into place, creating a picture he hadn't consciously realized he'd been seeking. His uncle had threatened to run the farm his way in his letter months ago; for reasons that d'Artagnan couldn't fathom on his own, the fact that the land belonged to Alexandre d'Artagnan was clearly impeding that effort.
"I don't have it," d'Artagnan grunted, trying to twist away from the men who held him firm. "And besides, you were running the farm this past year anyway, why do you require documentation?"
"Because your friend le Main is making life very difficult for me," Aimon growled. "He set LeBarge upon the farm to destroy me."
d'Artagnan went cold. "That's not true," he growled. "It can't be."
"Oh, but it is," Aimon purred, a smile twisting features that except for several deep wrinkles could have been d'Artagnan's father. "He practically put the torch in the monster's hand."
Closing his mind to the instinctive resistance to insinuation of betrayal, d'Artagnan thought quickly. "I don't have what you're looking for," he said. "But…I think I know where you can find it."
Aimon's expression didn't change and for a moment d'Artagnan feared the man had been watching long enough to know that he'd already found the strong box. But then his coal-black eyes shifted in the firelight to land on one of the men holding d'Artagnan fast and the grip holding him loosened. He jerked his left arm free and glared at the dark shape holding his right arm, trying not to wince when the man gave his arm an extra twist before releasing him.
Turning, d'Artagnan tossed a question over his shoulder. "Who is Philippe to you?"
His uncle was quiet for so long he thought the man was choosing to ignore him.
"It's fitting that you don't know," Aimon commented, moving toward the broken remains of the d'Artagnan home. "Your father never had much respect for family."
d'Artagnan bristled at that. As far as he was concerned, the only one without respect for family was the man standing inside the ashes of his home holding a torch. But as the odds were not in his favor, d'Artagnan held his tongue.
"Philippe is your cousin, boy," Aimon revealed. "My son."
"Why send him away to work in Toulouse?"
"Well, we can't all be supported by the King, now, can we?"
Aimon d'Artagnan had clearly no concept of what had transpired in his nephew's life over the last year, and just as clearly had no interest in learning. Sparing a second to wish desperately that his Musketeer brothers were somehow impossibly lurking in the shadows of the structure, d'Artagnan turned and headed carefully back toward his father's room where he'd foolishly left the cutlass.
The three men followed and d'Artagnan heard them curse as they crashed against debris in the dark. As he crossed into the room that had once belonged to his father, he searched the shadows for a glimmer of metal that would signal where he'd dropped the cutlass. Someone shoved against his back and he stumbled forward, cursing beneath his breath.
He had to be smart about this. Yes, the man was technically family, but he'd also given no indication that he cared one iota about d'Artagnan's safety. In fact, the presence of the two men with him indicated that the opposite was true. d'Artagnan knew he had to simply get away from this moment, head back to Toulouse, and return with Aramis. It was his only shot.
I have the biggest 'I told you so' headed my way, he lamented.
"It's here," d'Artagnan said, shuffling his feet along the floor. "A loose floorboard."
Aimon made his way forward, holding the torch, and began to scour the floor with the scrutiny of a judge. The firelight glinted off the blade of the cutlass as he walked past it and d'Artagnan drew a breath, waiting until the other two men had also moved beyond him before diving for the weapon.
Rolling to his feet, he held the blade before him.
"You can look until you turn to ash," d'Artagnan growled. "You'll not get one bit of help from me."
"You impertinent bastard," Aimon growled.
"On the contrary, Uncle, I know exactly the man my father was," d'Artagnan replied, keeping the two cohorts in his line of sight. "Shame I can't say the same for poor Philippe."
He'd been well-trained and was skilled, but one cutlass against three men was nearly impossible. Especially when one of them carried a harquebus. d'Artagnan saw the dull gleam of the barrel reflect in the firelight and dodged the blast just as his uncle cried out to not kill him.
"He's hidden the papers somewhere, you fool," Aimon growled.
d'Artagnan lunged at the man wielding the harquebus – it would take him at least two minutes to reload, if he was skilled – and drove his left shoulder into the man's chest, swiping at the other man with the sharp edge of the blade. A cutlass was excellent for slicing into a man, not so great at stabbing and in the close quarters of his father's burned-out room, d'Artagnan was left with little room to cause maximum damage. He felt the blade dig in to flesh, heard his victim's high, brief cry, and then something crashed across the side of his face, brilliant, impossible stars filling his vision.
He stumbled to his knees, losing his grip on the cutlass, the warm slick of blood spilling down the side of his face and stinging his eye. He curled his hands into fists, swinging with as much effort as his dazed brain could manage. Moving purely on instinct, he went for the throat, his fists making contact.
Rolling to his back he shoved a foot upwards as Porthos had taught him and felt his heel sink into something soft. Up on his knees once more, he thrust his elbow sideways, sensing someone reaching for that side, but his motion was arrested the moment his attacker grabbed his right arm and twisted it behind his back.
The pain was blinding. No stars this time. His vision simply went white as the muscles in his shoulder screamed. He arched his back, unable to stifle his harsh cry of pain, his body moving instinctively to escape, and inadvertently presented his jaw as a target for a heavy fist. Knuckles slammed across his face once, twice, and then d'Artagnan was spinning, slumping sideways, his body and brain disconnected in their efforts to keep him conscious and upright.
"Search him! Find the papers!"
d'Artagnan tried once more to struggle, but his movements were halted almost immediately as the man holding him tightened his grip on his right arm. He brought his head up, sluggishly, trying in vain to see his uncle, but the darkness and his aching, spinning head made it almost impossible.
"Good luck," d'Artagnan managed, blood filling his mouth from where his lips had crashed against his teeth. "'f he didn't want…you to have it…," he dragged in a breath, "…you won't get it."
"We'll see about that," Aimon growled and slammed his fist against d'Artagnan's cheek once more.
This time there was no resistance and d'Artagnan was quite suddenly falling into black that was so complete it was depthless.
Chapter 8: Day Six: The Road
Day Six: The Road
Athos pressed two fingers to the bridge of his nose as if the pressure itself would ward off the headache threatening to turn him inside out. The chill of the early morning, coupled with the rain that had begun during the night, did nothing to stave his impending dark mood. He wanted wine – lots of it – his bed, and oblivion. In that order.
"We can stop anytime," Porthos said.
Athos knew the big man was staring at him as he had been doing since they left Paris behind them. Furtive glances from beneath the wide brim of his hat as they rode, outright open stares whenever they rested their horses. Athos knew he was fine; he'd had plenty worse than this head wound. But he also knew that he looked ragged and wrecked and that Porthos blamed himself.
"No, we cannot."
Porthos wasn't winning any prizes for pictures of health himself, Athos mused. Bruises marred one side of his face and his lower lip was swollen around the cut that split it practically down the middle. He held himself stiffly in the saddle, a sure sign that the bruised ribs he'd sustained from either the fight or the scaffolding collapse were bothering him.
"We're probably overreacting," Porthos offered for the hundredth time.
The rain fell in heavy sheets, soaking them completely in minutes. The leather of their jackets and breeches kept their skin somewhat protected, but their cloaks were weighted with water and Athos longed to remove his and be free of the burden. He looked over at Porthos, water sloughing down the drain of his hat brim to splatter on his friend's bent knee, they were riding that close.
"No, we are not."
They'd returned to the garrison at dawn the next morning, Athos making a beeline for the infirmary and whatever pain medication he could collect. His face and scalp were throbbing from where the chains had cut him and the ache in his head told him that he wasn't going to be moving easily for some time. Before he'd left the physician's care, Porthos had barreled into the infirmary with troubling news.
Treville had received further word from Gascony: the Lord Mayor was retracting his plea for intervention on the matter of the d'Artagnan property and had issued a warrant for the arrest of Aimon d'Artagnan. Knowing he'd not had time to send his response to the first missive, Athos followed Porthos back to Treville's office. The charges against Aimon d'Artagnan had not been listed, but Athos felt the chill settle into his bones at the look on Treville's face.
"Sir," Athos had started.
"Go after them," Treville interrupted, his free hand cupping the elbow of the arm trapped by the leather brace and sling. "Find Aramis in Toulouse and retrieve d'Artagnan. I want him nowhere near this."
Athos had echoed that sentiment, but seeing the concern settle in the eyes of his Captain had strengthened his resolve. Not even bothering to check if Treville was fit for duty or if Porthos was cleared to accompany him, Athos had settled his hat gingerly on his wounded head and nodded at his swarthy friend. They'd made quick work of preparations and rode out of the garrison just as the sun crested the horizon behind Notre Dame.
The ride had been hard on both of them; they'd stopped for only a few hours to rest their horses and eat, then got back on the road, eager to reach Toulouse in record time. By Athos' calculations, when they arrived Aramis should have had time to pay his respects to Marsac's father. With any luck, d'Artagnan had waited in Toulouse in order to allow Aramis to accompany him to Gascony, though Athos' gut told him differently.
Either way, the older man knew, their medic would waste no time joining them to come to the aid of their youngest.
"d'Artagnan don't even know 'is uncle," Porthos pointed out.
"Who is it you're trying to convince?" Athos snapped.
"Myself, mostly," Porthos confessed. "Just don't like to see you look so scared is all."
"I'm not…scared," Athos protested, surprised by the assessment.
Porthos lifted a shoulder in a non-committal response.
"Perhaps I am a bit…concerned," Athos allowed, frowning and shifting in the saddle. "But that's not the same thing."
"That boy is a fighter," Porthos assured him. "Not much 'e's gotten 'imself into that 'e can't get out of."
"I was stupid to let him go in the first place," Athos muttered. "I knew there was something amiss in Gascony before he even requested leave."
"So it's a fortune teller, is it?"
"The letter to Treville stated—"
"Nothin', that's what," Porthos growled. "The letter was just a bunch of whining, is all. You did right by d'Artagnan. Leave it."
"I let him walk into a nightmare," Athos sighed, his frown folding his wounded brow.
"Athos," Porthos called his attention with the soberness of his tone. "Even if there was nothing 'appening with 'is uncle, this trip would be a nightmare for 'im."
Athos sat quietly, thinking.
"There's not one of us what hasn't lost – people, homes, love," Porthos continued. "You, me, Aramis…we've had years to hide it all away somewhere inside us. And sometimes," he shrugged, glowering into the rain. "Sometimes it still lays us flat when we ain't lookin'. d'Artagnan, 'e's not stopped, not once since 'e walked into the garrison after your head, to find that hiding place."
"I sometimes forget how young he is," Athos confessed. "I think about where I was, what I was doing when I was his age and it…staggers me to look at him."
"This business with LeBarge," Porthos shook his head, "it's workin' on 'im. If you hadn't let 'im go back it woulda eaten 'im up."
"I suppose you're right."
"'course I'm right."
"Now we simply have to prevent anything worse happening."
"Worse than losing 'is father and 'is home?" Porthos gave him a sideways glance.
"There are worse things," Athos muttered darkly.
"Your head's a scary place."
They rode on through the rain, reaching Toulouse by mid-day. Not knowing where to search for Aramis, they found the Inn where they'd stayed while d'Artagnan healed up during their last visit to the town, and went inside to warm up, dry off, and seek out information. Porthos went to the bar and ordered them some food and drinks while Athos stood by the fire, the heat of it easing some of the ache behind his eyes.
"Oi," Porthos called his attention, handing him a bowl of stew and a cup of wine.
They sat and as they ate Porthos told him that the Innkeeper knew where Antoine Marsac lived.
"Figure we start there, yeah?"
"We could ride on to Gascony," Athos suggested.
"Aramis'd never forgive us if we left 'im out o'this."
"You're worried about him," Athos stated, watching Porthos closely.
For a long moment, Porthos didn't respond, then he nodded, his eyes dark with memories. "Yeah. I am."
"Still think I did right by letting him leave?"
Porthos shot an expression his way that would have made Athos chuckle if he wasn't so weighted with worry.
"You didn't let Aramis leave. You know that, right?"
Athos felt this side of his mouth pull up in a reluctant smile. "I suppose so."
"Man's as stubborn as a two headed mule," Porthos growled. "Didn't owe Marsac a thing, you ask me. That man left Aramis to die. 'e nearly did from that head wound, too."
"I remember," Athos replied softly, thinking back to those dark days after Savoy when he was still navigating the maze of brotherhood and loyalty, learning to leave the Comte behind and take up the yolk of a soldier.
"'ad nightmares for years," Porthos continued. "Still gets these…spells. Like 'e's being suffocated and strangled at the same time. I blame Marsac for all of it."
"Surely you can't put the fault of the ambush on him," Athos protested.
"Spanish may 'ave attacked them, but Marsac nearly killed Aramis."
Athos waited a beat, then said, "And Aramis killed Marsac."
"There's no hiding place for that kind of pain," Porthos admitted.
Athos finished his stew and stood up. "We'll find him, Porthos. We'll do this together." As he set his dishes on the nearest table, he heard Porthos' muttered response.
"Bet your ass we will."
Antoine Marsac was at home and offered them shelter from the rain, but Athos was too anxious to get to Gascony. Antoine told them how Aramis had visited the day prior, and left looking rather worse for the wear. Athos saw Porthos tense up at this news and asked if the elder Marsac had any idea where Aramis might have gone when he left.
"He was with Madam Thibaut," Antoine old them. "Perhaps she knows."
Athos and Porthos shared a surprised glance at that; Athos had remembered, of course, that the Thibauts were in Toulouse. It would be hard to forget that journey months ago when they'd almost lost d'Artagnan before he'd ever had a chance to become a Musketeer. It hadn't occurred to him that Aramis might have sought out the family.
They thanked Monsieur Marsac for his help and followed his directions to the Thibaut chalet. On the way there, the rain finally tapered, much to Athos' relief. It was one thing to be riding wounded, quite another to do so while soaked to the bone.
There was a decided pall across the Thibaut grounds. No activity revealed that anyone was even at home behind the heavy wooden doors. Athos knocked anyway, pulling his sopping hat from his head and slapping it ineffectually against his equally wet legs.
When Talia Thibaut opened the door, Athos' first thought was that she was ill. He frowned immediately; his scowl, coupled with the wounds marking his face, enough to send her stepping back a few paces.
"Madam Thibaut," Athos greeted. "I apologize for the intrusion. May we come in?"
"But…surely it couldn't have reached you yet," she replied, a hand going to her throat and her loose, white sleeve falling to her bent elbow.
Athos' scowl deepened and he shared a look with Porthos. As one, they stepped into the Thibaut home, crowding Talia back into the dining area.
"My letter!" Talia practically squeaked, tension turning her voice tight and thin. "Aramis said—"
"Where is Aramis?" This from Porthos, and Athos knew the big man didn't intend to sound as threatening as he did; worry was coloring each word.
Talia's hand was shaking, tears flooding her eyes. Athos felt his fear spike and he reached for her arm, grasping it gently. "Talia."
Something about how he spoke her name seemed to calm her and she blinked, pulling in a breath. "Aramis has gone to Gascony. Luca rode off yesterday, looking for d'Artagnan, we think. He's gone after them."
"And your letter?" Athos pressed, keeping a hold of her arm.
"Aramis asked that I send you a letter alerting you to their delay."
The worry for her son would explain the red-rimmed eyes, the pale skin and dark circles, but it didn't explain the tremor in her hands, nor the puckered skin Athos felt on her arm beneath his fingers.
"What has happened here?" he asked her, his gaze serious.
The room seemed to draw closer, as though his words had somehow removed the air from around them. He felt Porthos take a step forward, their dual attention focused on Talia.
"Where is your husband?"
Talia didn't pull her arm from his grasp; instead, she seemed to lean on his hand a bit, her eyes blood-shot and wrecked as she took them both in.
"My husband is dead," she replied, her voice tinny sounding in the quiet of the dining room. And then, as though giving in to a great demand, her voice wilted a bit as she continued, "We killed him."
Athos blinked, dropping his hand in surprise. Porthos pulled in a sharp breath next to him, but neither of them said a word.
"He was a horrid man. Brutal." She began to rub at her arm, the pink scar there drawing Athos' eyes. "If we hadn't…," she shook her head. "Luca would be dead."
"Who is we?" Porthos asked, and for a moment Athos knew the man was afraid she would name their friends.
Talia kept her eyes level but seemed to look through them. "I pulled him off of Luca," she said, her voice echoing dully. "He had a knife to my boy's throat, I thought…," she trailed off a moment, but then finished. "Luca took the knife. He ended our suffering."
Athos thought of the gentle boy they'd protected those many months ago, how light seemed to wrap around him, how he'd taken to d'Artagnan so quickly and fiercely. He thought of how they'd all reacted when they found out that Pierre Thibaut had allegedly been behind the threat to Luca's life, and how resolution had been put in the hands of the Red Guard.
That boy had killed. Had been forced to kill. And he could have stopped it.
He should have anticipated it; the moment was clearly primed for her arrival. However, suddenly seeing Anne just behind Talia, standing barefoot in her white shift, forget-me-nots in her hair, had Athos jerking, startled, and stepping back. The twist of her lips challenged him to speak. The accusations in her green eyes chilled his heart.
"Did Aramis know this?" Porthos asked Talia.
Athos wasn't able to tear his eyes from the image of his wife, moving silently along the back of the room toward the large dining table, trailing her fingers lightly along the wood.
"Only that Pierre is dead," Talia said. "I couldn't bring myself to…," she gulped, a tremor running through her body. "They asked, but…I couldn't…."
"That boy was forced to kill his own father," Athos said, as though to counter the dare in Anne's expression. It's not the same as you, he couldn't help but think. You murdered Thomas. You took him from me. It's not the same.
"Please," Talia said, her tone becoming liquid with desperation. She stepped forward, putting a hand on Athos' arm, her eyes only for him. "Please, you can't blame him."
At that, Athos tore his eyes from Anne and focused completely on Talia.
"I blame myself," Athos told her.
"We shoulda never left the Red Guard to 'andle that situation," Porthos chimed in, and Athos found himself immeasurably relieved that his friend followed his thinking. "It's our fault."
"No," Talia shook her head, blinking away more tears. "I stayed. I could have taken Luca, appealed to my cousin, but I stayed."
"And now Luca is on the road, searching for d'Artagnan," Athos concluded, bringing them back on point. He glanced up and nearly sagged with relief when he realized that Anne was no longer lurking in the shadows of the room.
"He sees d'Artagnan as his friend," Talia explained, "and he is so lonely."
"Unfortunately, d'Artagnan isn't heading anywhere pleasant," Athos lamented.
"Which is why Aramis went after him so quickly," Talia explained.
"This was yesterday, you say?" Porthos asked, already turning toward the door.
Talia nodded. "Yesterday, late afternoon. Aramis…," she tapered, looking away, then back at the men, uncertainty in her eyes.
"'e went to see old Marsac, yeah?" Porthos asked.
Talia nodded. "It was hard for him. When we returned, he…." She put her hand to her throat once more, looking for the words to describe what she'd seen.
"Panicked," Porthos completed for her. "Couldn't breathe?"
Talia nodded. "He didn't look well when he left, but…I didn't stop him." She looked regretful and defiant at the same time.
"We will find them," Athos stated. There was no other outcome he would allow. "Be ready for our return."
Talia could only nod, her throat working furiously. Athos turned and followed Porthos from the house, glad the rain had finally stopped. The ground was churned up and slick, the mud pulling at their boots as they stalked to their horses and swung aboard, not speaking. Porthos pulled his hat over his scarf-covered hair and nodded at Athos, taking the lead down the road, west from Toulouse.
If he'd suspected that Athos had seen Anne again, he didn't say a word. His whole focus was on finding his friends and getting them back together, safely. Athos kept his eyes pinned to the big man's tense shoulders as they rode, needing the focus. He calculated in his head the distance between Toulouse and Gascony; Aramis should have reached Lupiac last night, but had he found Luca? And what of d'Artagnan?
The road sloshed mud up past their horse's legs, splattering them with great, stinging globs of mud, the chill in the air left behind by the storm turning their breath into a stream of fog. They'd been riding long enough the sun had turned pale, the heat more of a memory than an actuality, when Porthos called out.
"I see it."
"'s a camp."
"Doesn't mean it's him."
"Doesn't mean it ain't."
Giving him that point, Athos followed as Porthos veered in the direction of where the thin stream of smoke curled up from a thicket of trees, just inside the boarder of Gascony. He saw Aramis' big, black horse first, the animal ground-tied and without its saddle. Next to it was a white mount – definitely not d'Artagnan's.
Porthos called out a warning shout to the camp so that no one would shoot them, but when they received no answering shout, Athos' worry spiked once again. They pulled their horses to a stop near the other mounts, slipped free of their mud-encrusted saddles and hurried toward the fire. The sight that met their eyes offered them only a small modicum of relief midst the flurry of concern.
Luca sat with his back to them, a stick in his hand, poking at the glowing coals of a small fire. Aramis lay on the opposite side of the fire, wrapped tightly in his cloak, asleep or unconscious. His face was drawn and pale, his hat missing, and Athos could see him shivering from where they stood.
Porthos wasted no time. Hurrying past Luca, he ignored the violent start the boy made when the big man suddenly appeared in his field of vision. Luca looked wildly about, but when he spied Athos, a low moan of relief slipped from his lips and he stood, reaching for the older man.
Athos put an arm around the boy, allowing Luca to bury his face against his muddy, wet cloak, his eyes on his friends.
"Aramis," Porthos said quietly, placing a hand on the side of Aramis' face. The medic started, his eyes opening slowly, his gaze vacant and dazed. "Aramis, look at me."
Aramis turned his head, his movements sluggish and awkward. "Porthos?" The word was slurred.
Porthos pulled his wet hat off and grinned, his hand cupping Aramis' chin and keeping his head turned upward. "Yeah, it's me."
Athos saw Aramis blink several times, his gaze shifting from Porthos across the fire to Athos, then back. Something clicked for him then and he shoved upright, leaning against the tree at his back, the cloak falling from his shoulders and pooling at his waist. His leathers and pauldron were littered with the same clumps of sticky mud that covered Athos and Porthos.
"We are," Porthos nodded, his dark eyes never leaving Aramis' face.
"What happened to you?" Aramis' gaze tracked the bruises on Porthos' cheek and forehead, then darted over to the rather glaring cuts framing Athos' eye.
"Ran into some old friends," Porthos replied curtly. "What 'appened to you?"
Carding his unruly hair with a trembling hand, Aramis glanced over at Luca before asking, "You got the letter?"
Porthos, still crouched next to his friend, shook his head. "Nah. 'eaded out before it was ever sent."
Aramis blinked again, clearly calculating the length of the trip and the time it would have taken for them to get there, and nodded. "I'm glad."
"Are you injured?" Porthos asked, tilting his head to take in as much of Aramis' expression as he could.
"No, I—" he glanced quickly at Athos, eyes shifting to Luca, then sliding lower, the firelight refracting in sharp angles across his expression. "I found Luca."
"Aramis," Porthos nearly growled, his teeth clenched, and reached out, gripping the smaller man's shoulder. Athos saw Aramis' head wobble slightly with the force of Porthos' attention-grabbing shake. "Talk to me."
Aramis shook his head slightly, looking down then away. "I cannot."
"You have nothing to fear from speaking freely in front of me, my friend," Athos spoke up, his voice carefully modulated to be low and non-threatening. He waited until Porthos and Aramis both looked his way. "We've been through worse."
Aramis looked back at Porthos and the big man nodded. "I had to tell 'im."
Closing his eyes, Aramis let his head drop back against the tree behind him. "In truth, I did not find Luca. The boy found me."
"He was alone on the road," Athos allowed. "You found each other."
Aramis shook his head, not opening his eyes. "Sadly, no. I thought I could…."
He took a breath, lifting his head from the tree and leaning forward, propping his elbows on drawn-up knees. Porthos, Athos noted, didn't draw away. Instead he seemed to instinctually know that Aramis needed him in close proximity to expel his next words.
"We're soldiers. Musketeers," Aramis said quietly. "We follow orders. We do our job. We fall and we rise, again and again. No matter the cost, no matter the pain. We simply," he lifted his eyes to meet Porthos' dark gaze, "go on."
"Until we cannot," Athos said quietly.
Porthos looked over at him and Aramis nodded, looking down toward his lap, one hand clasping the opposite wrist.
"d'Artagnan tried to come with me to see Marsac's father," he said quietly. "He tried…multiple times…and I wouldn't allow it. I thought I needed to do this on my own. I thought I owed it to the man to…," he lifted a shoulder, "own up to what I did."
Athos saw Porthos shift so that his scowl was aimed at the fire and not his friend.
"It was like before," Aramis admitted. "It just…swamped me. Just cut my feet from me and left me weak."
"Why didn't you stay at Talia's?" Porthos asked.
"I couldn't," Aramis shook his head. "Luca was alone on the road and d'Artagnan…," He shook his head again, the enormity of finding words to share his thoughts with them becoming almost too much. "He's facing his past alone. No one should have to do that. Especially not him."
"Why especially not him?" Athos asked, feeling he knew the reason, but needing to hear Aramis say it out loud.
Without looking at him, Aramis replied, "Because he is all of us. In some ways the best of us. And we owe it to him to protect him from what we couldn't prevent."
"What do you need?" Porthos asked quietly, still looking at the fire.
"We need to get on the road," Aramis said, pushing his cloak from his lap. "We could be to Lupiac in an hour—"
"No," Athos cut in as Porthos reached out a hand to halt Aramis' motion. "He asked you, what do you need?"
Aramis looked over, clearly confused.
"You're exhausted, Aramis," Athos continued.
"'ow did Luca find you?" Porthos jumped in.
Aramis sighed, his shoulders sagging. "I thought I could push through. I thought the mission alone would be enough to overcome the weariness, but…," he sighed. "I came off my horse, just there," he pointed to where the mud in the road was churned up. "I couldn't rise. It was as if my body was made of lead."
"You always was wrecked for 'bout a day after one of them spells," Porthos said.
"You warned me," Aramis said quietly.
"Yeah, I did," Porthos glanced at him. "And you didn't listen."
"I listened," Aramis protested. "I merely…ignored."
"Gonna think twice 'fore doin' that again, yeah?"
Aramis dropped his head back. "Yeah."
"Luca found you in the road?" Athos asked, trying to bring the conversation back on track.
"He did." Aramis looked over at the boy who was now sagging against Athos, near sleep. "I thought it was d'Artagnan at first. Would have served me right, too."
"Why is that?" Athos asked.
"d'Artagnan came off his horse on the ride out. Wrenched his shoulder. I…," he shrugged, "may have given him a bit of a hard time about it."
"I'm almost certain he deserved it," Athos assured the medic. "We will rest here until dawn," he declared. "Will you be fit to ride then?"
Aramis nodded. "If I'm not, I don't deserve to be."
"Good," Athos nodded. He looked down at Luca who had finally given in to the pull of sleep, lulled by the safety of the men's presence. "We have two choices: charge one of us to return Luca to his mother while the other two go after d'Artagnan, or stay together."
"I am heading for d'Artagnan," Aramis replied immediately. "I made him a promise. Talia knows that Luca will be safe with us. That will lessen her worry."
"'e doesn't know," Porthos reminded Athos.
Aramis sat a bit forward again. "Know what?"
"We visited Talia," Athos told him, "in search of you. She told us her husband was dead."
"Yes, this I knew," Aramis replied, but Athos saw the frown.
"Luca was forced to kill his father," Athos informed Aramis, watching as the already pale features of his friend leeched further of color. "He did so to save their lives."
"Mon Dieu," Aramis whispered, pressing his fist to his mouth. "d'Artagnan thought it was Talia, but never…not Luca."
"I say we stay together," Porthos declared. "We cannot simply return Luca to 'is mother until we know for sure that d'Artagnan is safe."
Athos nodded, looking at Aramis, who nodded as well.
"It is agreed," Athos said, shifting from the log to the ground and pulling the sleeping boy with him. "At dawn, we ride for Gascony."
"I'd appreciate it if you allowed me to accompany you."
The voice came at them from the dark, on the other side of Aramis and Porthos, and had all three men startled into reaching for a weapon. Before anyone had a moment to exhale, three loaded harquebuses were pointed in the general direction of the voice, though no one was actually visible. Athos cursed his inattentiveness; just because they were not on the main road from Paris did not mean danger was no longer lurking in the dark. There could be one person or twenty for all he knew.
Clearly aware of the danger his arrival placed him in, a man slowly emerged from the shadows, hands up, palms out. He was dressed in leather breeches and a coarse white shirt, a black cloak flung loosely over his shoulders, close-cropped gray hair with fringe shadowing soft blue eyes. Lines framed his features, putting him older than Treville and his build exposed years of toil. He kept his eyes low, catching Athos' gaze first. Porthos stood in one fluid motion, making sure to keep himself out of Athos' line of fire while he maintained his aim.
"Who are you?" Athos demanded, watching as Porthos moved around behind the man, disappearing immediately into the dark to check the perimeter of the makeshift camp.
"My name is Gérard le Main," the man replied. "I hail from Lupiac. I was forced away from my home and am making every attempt to return."
Athos frowned. "You are the head of the Watch in Lupiac," he said, recognizing the name from Treville's missives.
"I am." le Main blinked in surprise at Athos' declaration. "Or, I was."
Porthos reappeared at the fire. "'e's alone, far as I can tell."
Athos returned the safety on his weapon, adjusting Luca's head from his lap to rest on his discarded cloak, and stood. Porthos and Aramis followed suite, their weapons shouldered and visible, but no longer aimed at le Main. For his part, the newcomer did not lower his hands just yet.
"How did you find us, le Main?" Athos demanded.
"Purely on accident, I assure you," le Main replied. "May I sit?"
"Of course," Athos agreed, though he noted that no one else made move to relax.
Porthos was keeping a weather eye to the darkness beyond the circle of firelight; Aramis watched le Main with a false casualness that typically spelled death for anyone who took it for granted. Realizing that he'd put himself at a disadvantage, le Main lowered his hands, and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, once he'd sat on the log nearest Athos.
"I assure you, I mean you no harm," he said quietly.
"You'll forgive us if we're overly cautious," Athos replied. "After all, you were able to catch us completely unaware."
le Main raised an eyebrow. "Seems that's more your problem than mine."
Porthos huffed. "'e's from Lupiac, all right."
"You know others from my home?" le Main asked, looking at Porthos.
Athos exhaled slowly, but purposely didn't change his expression. "We are enroute to joining one of our number," he said. "He traveled there just yesterday."
"A Musketeer from Gascony?" le Main asked, sitting up straighter. "That is a wonder."
"I believe you know him," Athos continued, watching the man closely for his reaction. "Charles d'Artagnan."
le Main paled, his mouth falling open in shock. "Charles is…alive?"
"He is," Athos replied, his hand slipping to the butt of his harquebus.
The tears that reflected in le Main's eyes surprised him, and he didn't miss the look that passed between Porthos and Aramis. le Main buried his face in his hands for a moment and they all heard him drag in a sharp, heavy breath. He muttered something behind his hands; Athos couldn't pick it up, but he suspected that even if he did, he wouldn't have understood. It sounded like something in the dialect of Gascony.
"I thought him dead along with Alexandre."
"You were close?"
le Main sniffed and nodded. "After his mother died," he began, "I cared for the boy when his father…could not. I was Alexandre's servant, but he treated me as family."
"Gerard," Aramis said suddenly, his voice a whisper of wonder. "I can't see their faces."
Lifting his head abruptly with shock, le Main looked hard at Aramis. "What did you say?"
Athos was also looking at Aramis. "You, too?"
"Yes," Aramis nodded. "d'Artagnan's always been plagued with nightmares, but…he had what appeared to be the same dream both nights we traveled."
Athos sighed, sitting back down on the log next to the sleeping Luca and giving Porthos and Athos leave to do the same. "I first heard it the night of his commission," he revealed. "In all his nightmares prior, he's never spoken a name."
"He dreamed about me?" Gérard le Main whispered in wonder.
"After he received word that LeBarge destroyed his home," Athos elaborated, "his dreams became…specific. He spoke your name and then said that he couldn't see the faces." He glanced at Aramis. "I didn't question him."
"Nor did I," Aramis replied, slumping exhausted against the tree. Athos saw Porthos subtly spread the cloak across his friend's body once more.
Athos looked at le Main. "Do you know what he was talking about?"
Sighing, le Main rubbed the back of his head in an unconscious, nervous gesture. "I believe so, yes. Charles' uncle, Aimon d'Artagnan, is a bitter, unhappy…cruel man," he began. "He felt slighted when their father left the farm to Alexandre, though he was the younger of the two brothers. He felt he knew more about the value of the land and how to run the farm as a business. When Émilie, Charles' mother, still lived, he came to the house with one of his men, drunk and volatile and threatened Alexandre."
He dragged his hand from the back of his head around to cover his mouth, pausing in thought, his eyes on the firelight and years away. Athos waited, watching the man, wondering about what he knew of their young friend. He saw Porthos shift so that he was sitting near Aramis' head, his own back to the tree now, his knees up and his weapon pointed toward the darkness.
"At my behest, Émilie hid Charles in a cupboard in the dining area until the fight was over and Aimon had left. It was…violent. There was a great deal of struggle and not a little blood. When I retrieved the lad while his mother was attending to his father's wounds, all he would say to me was that they didn't have faces. I…didn't understand what he meant for the longest time." He hung his head, speaking toward the ground. "Then I realized, he had no idea who his uncle was. Had never met the man before. All he knew was that people came into his home, hurt his father, and he was powerless."
"How old was he?" Athos asked.
"He was eight years old," le Main replied softly. A look of pained nostalgia crossed his face and sat squarely in his eyes. "I haven't thought about that moment in years. When Émilie died a year later, I found Charles in that cupboard. I have no idea how long he'd been in there, but he refused to come out until the next morning. From then until he was too grown to fit, I suppose, that was his refuge when he seemed to feel threatened or afraid." He shook his head and glanced down. "I never spoke of it to Alexandre; he would have seen it as Charles shirking his duty, not as a boy seeking protection. Comfort."
Athos thought back to when he'd first heard d'Artagnan speak Gerard's name in his nightmare; it was no surprise that he'd thought of the first moment his home had been threatened.
"He met his uncle for what I believe was truly the first time at Émilie's funeral. He saw him one other time before he left us with Alexandre for Paris."
"He mentioned something about a letter from his uncle, several months ago," Athos probed further, letting what they'd learned about d'Artagnan sink in, slowly. "Is Aimon looking to take over the farm?"
le Main looked pained, so much so that Athos saw Aramis sit forward, the healer in him unable to temper his concern.
"He had already done so," the man lamented, his voice ragged with such raw grief that Athos felt himself pull away. "His cruelty wasn't reserved for his family; he was destroying the town."
He pressed his palms on either side of his head and Athos suddenly felt the pressure of the night. It was almost as if the darkness had slipped inside him and started to wring out his lungs. Forcing himself to take a slow breath, he met Porthos' own troubled gaze before returning his focus to le Main.
"That was why I signaled LeBarge," le Main whispered.
"What did you just say?" Porthos asked, his voice low and dangerous.
Athos looked up and saw that Aramis had a hand out and resting on Porthos' arm, that pressure enough to stay the big man's wrath.
"He asked you a question," Athos repeated.
le Main lifted his head and looked Athos square in the eye. "I signaled LeBarge, told him where to focus his destruction."
"You are the reason LeBarge burned down d'Artagnan's farm?" Aramis repeated, slowly as though the words were foreign to him.
le Main nodded, his gaze not leaving Athos.
"Why do you wish to return to Lupiac?" Athos questioned.
"Aimon has returned to his brother's home," he replied. "He seeks documents that Alexandre hid there to prove his right to the property."
"Wouldn't they've burned up?" Porthos asked.
le Main shook his head. "Alexandre hid them in a metal strong box," he revealed. "Only Charles and I knew of the location."
"How do you know this is where Aimon is going?" Athos narrowed his eyes, feeling a cold sense of dread grip him.
Sighing with regret, le Main turned, and lifted the edge of his tunic, exposing the lower half of his back. It was crisscrossed with angry, red welts, healing over but painful looking. Athos bit the inside of his bottom lip to keep silent.
"I told him," le Main admitted, turning back around to face them. "I didn't tell him where, just what."
"And once he left to find the box, you escaped to, what? Kill Aimon?" Aramis questioned.
"Something like that, yes," le Main nodded. "I didn't know that Charles was heading that direction, of course. If I'd known the lad was alive…."
"He wrote you," Aramis informed him. "He wrote several letters."
"They never reached me." le Main raised a hand as though swearing to it.
Athos looked over at his friends, noting how Aramis now leaned against Porthos rather than the tree, doing his best to stay engaged, but clearly exhausted. His eyes were bright and troubled.
"d'Artagnan is walking into a trap, Athos, if he hasn't stumbled into it already," Aramis said quietly.
"He knows how to take care of himself."
"I promised him, Athos," Aramis leaned forward slightly with the fervor of his words. "I let him go alone because I—" He broke off, looking away, but he didn't need to say more.
Athos met Porthos eyes and nodded. They knew how seriously Aramis held a debt to a friend.
"We must be ready to help him as we can," he leveled his eyes on Aramis, "which means, we must be rested. Two hour shifts until dawn. I will take the first."
"And what of me?" le Main spoke up.
"You're in this now, whether you like it or not," Athos told le Main.
"But the property?" le Main asked.
"You 'elp us save our friend," Porthos told him, casually rotating the barrel of his harquebus until it was pointed in the general direction of le Main, "maybe we'll 'elp you with the farm."
"Rest," Athos ordered, his eyes on Aramis, his hand laying protectively across Luca's shoulders. "Dawn will come soon enough."
Aramis' eyes slipped closed as though he was simply waiting for the order. Porthos leaned back against the tree, his body much too tense for rest, though Athos knew he would eventually. le Main warily slid down to the ground, the log he'd been sitting on at his back. He crossed his arms over his chest and stared resolutely at the fire. Athos looked out into the darkness of the make-shift camp, chosen only because it was the place Aramis' exhausted body gave out.
d'Artagnan must never know, he thought resolutely.
The knowledge that someone he trusted had purposely enabled a mad man to destroy his home would devastate d'Artagnan, Athos knew. He would do everything in his power to get his young friend out of Lupiac and back to Paris none-the-wiser.
Chapter 9: Day Seven: Gascony
Day Seven: Gascony
He could hear the rain.
It seemed to swell and taper in time to his swaying consciousness. The intermittent sound of the heavy drops pelting the wooden door – his only access to the outside world – erased his sense of time. He could have been trapped beneath the earth, in the darkness, the smell of death and rot permeating every ragged breath, for days or hours.
When he first woke, the feel of ropes at his wrists pulling his hands behind his back, his head cascading pain down his spine in rivers of agony, had him recalling a confusing tangle of images from when Vadim had him tied to the barrels of gunpowder beneath Paris. For a disjointed moment, d'Artagnan hadn't been able to recall where he was or why he hurt so viciously.
The rain brought him back.
It had been raining when his father was killed; it seemed fitting to be raining when d'Artagnan faced his own demise. He couldn't see an inch in front of him, had no idea what manner of death was trapped with him. The only thing he did know was that he'd been tied up inside his mother's root cellar. And when he tried to move his arms to loosen the ropes, pain flared across his back, centering on his right shoulder, white hot and sharp, causing him to breath in more of the putrid air that caressed his chilled skin like a living thing.
He faded for a bit, slipping into a welcomed oblivion where the pain was manageable, the image of his home not a hollow husk of charred remains against the backs of his eyes. Waking again, startled aware by an indistinguishable noise, he brought his head up slowly, the muscles along the back of his neck sore and stretched.
The noise, he realized, as awareness took hold once more, was a collection of voices clustered outside the cellar door. Before he had prepared himself, the door was ripped open, letting in too-bright light and momentarily blinding d'Artagnan. It was then, with the chill of the air after a spring storm, he realized that he'd been stripped not only of his leather vest but that his shirt had been pulled free of his breeches and sliced open down the front.
Someone had done a thorough job searching him for his father's papers.
Squinting up at the figure descending the small flight of stairs into the interior of the root cellar, d'Artagnan realized that his eyes had adjusted to the syrupy darkness around him. The body of a dog – his father's dog, he thought by the markings – lay nearby. He saw no other indication of mayhem, aside from the person now approaching him, and decided to believe that the unfortunate canine was the only source for the stench that had been surrounding him.
"You're wanted topside," the man growled at him, grabbing him by the shoulders and hauling him roughly to his feet.
"Guess you drew the short straw," d'Artagnan snapped, tightening his abdomen to keep himself from swaying against the man as dizziness threatened to swamp him.
He felt his ropes cut free and bit down on the helpless whimper that climbed the back of his throat as he moved his right arm. His fingers danced with pins and needles as circulation returned. Plucking the edges of his tattered shirt, he glared at the man.
"I take it you didn't find what you were looking for?"
"Get on up there," the man snarled, pushing d'Artagnan toward the stairs.
He stumbled up the stairs, squinting against the early morning light as he stepped out onto the still-wet grass. By the sun's position, he's been in the cellar at least ten hours, apparently giving his uncle ample time to gather more men from the village of Lupiac. He counted eight men, plus his uncle, standing in various places in and around the ruined d'Artagnan home.
The reaction of one of the younger men at the sight of him told d'Artagnan all he need to know about looking as bad as he felt. If the other's expression was anything to go by, he may have been one of the walking dead from the stories saved for Devil's Night. Blood had dried along the side of his face during his night in the cellar and his head itched where his hair was plastered to his skull.
He tentatively dabbed at his split lip with the edge of his tongue, feeling the chill of a pre-storm wind against his bare chest. Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance, but he couldn't tell how far away the rain was quite yet.
The man who had been sent to fetch him pushed him forward and d'Artagnan stumbled slightly as he was maneuvered toward his uncle who stood between the ground well and the outer wall of the house. Another young man stood next to Aimon and d'Artagnan thought he looked vaguely familiar.
"Philippe?" he asked.
The young man brought his chin up in surprise and d'Artagnan realized he'd guessed right.
"You lost your chance for a family reunion years ago," Aimon growled. "I want the papers, boy."
d'Artagnan lifted the torn edges of his shirt. "You took them, Uncle."
Aimon threw a fist full of crumpled paper at his face. "They were nothing. Letters between your father and mother. Meaningless."
d'Artagnan couldn't help but feel a tug of regret at the thought of the history his uncle had just thrown away. "I have nothing else," he replied.
"You lie," Aimon stated, emotion suddenly leeched from his voice, causing d'Artagnan's worry to ratchet up.
Aimon nodded at someone standing behind d'Artagnan and before he could react, he felt his arms grabbed roughly by two men. They propelled him toward the west side of the house and what appeared to be make-shift stocks, though there were no openings for his head or hands. The cross-beam stood roughly at his chest height. d'Artagnan knew with certainty that this had not been here when he'd arrived the evening before. His uncle had constructed it during the night.
"So, it's the stocks is it, Uncle?" d'Artagnan called over his shoulder as the two man pushed him forward. "Bit difficult to cause public humiliation on my own farm!"
"It's not yours, boy," Aimon stated in that same dead tone. "And that isn't stocks."
d'Artagnan felt himself go cold as the sound of leather snapping against itself reached his ears.
"You will tell me where the papers are," Aimon declared. "Just as your friend le Main told me what to search for."
d'Artagnan skidded to a stop, planting his feet and wrenching his left arm free from his surprised captor. He turned, shoving the man on his right off-balance and glared at his uncle. "That is the second time you have insinuated that Gérard betrayed me."
"I am speaking the truth," Aimon said to him, the whip balanced easily in both hands. "He destroyed your farm and he told me how I can keep it."
"No," Philippe spoke up suddenly, stepping up to stand next to his father. "I was there. Gérard took ten lashes before he confessed."
d'Artagnan shot an incredulous look from Philippe to his uncle. "You tortured the information from him."
"Just as I will you," Aimon declared nodding to the men.
d'Artagnan found himself grabbed once more and turned roughly to face the heavy wooden stock, his arms pulled away from either side of his body with a jerk that sent lightning up his right arm as the muscles along his shoulder pulled. A leather strap was slipped over his wrists. He fought, growling and tugging at the leather straps, kicking sideways at the men who held him fast, desperate to free himself.
However, nearly a day without food or water, a night tied up in the dark, and a beating sustained the day prior quickly sapped his strength. The straps were fastened to the side of the cross-beam, approximately as long as d'Artagnan's wingspan, and his torso was shoved roughly onto the flat of the wood. He felt someone slide a blade up the back of his shirt, slicing it in two and pulling it from his body.
"You fucking monster, Aimon," d'Artagnan spat. "You will burn for this!"
"Such language," Aimon practically purred, his voice tinged with amusement at d'Artagnan's ferocious, yet helpless, struggles. "And here I thought my brother raised you to be a gentleman."
"You wouldn't know what a gentlemen was if one walked up and stabbed you," d'Artagnan snarled. "It should have been you killed on the road, dammit. It should have been you."
He suddenly felt the rough weight of a hand on his back and smelled the curdled milk stench of stale breath as his uncle leaned over him, whispering, "If I had been with your father, whelp, we both would have lived."
"You are filth," d'Artagnan snarled. "You'll get nothing from me."
Aimon backed away. "We shall see."
Since joining up with the Musketeers, d'Artagnan had been bludgeoned, nearly blown up, punched, cut, and shot, but he'd never been whipped. There was no way he was giving his uncle the satisfaction of seeing him break, no matter how much it hurt. Curling his hands into fists, he forced his gaze on the tree line along the far west of the farm, fighting to calm his breathing, and focused on the memory of playing in those trees as a child. Hiding from his mother, then later Gerard. Climbing high into the branches, imagining he could see Paris.
When the first lash struck, he felt it lick across his back from left to right. For a moment, it didn't really hurt. Then air caught it and he felt the burn, like a dragon's tongue. He clenched his jaw, his eyes burning as he pinned them to the trees. His uncle was saying something – asking him something – but he was too focused on keeping calm to hear him.
He did hear something, though. A three-note whistle that could have been – but wasn't – a bird. A sound that someone had taught him as they raced the rooftops of Paris, traversing classes and blurring social dividing lines as they explored the city from above.
"Porthos," he breathed, eyes scanning the trees until – yes, there. Perched between two trees, his brown and black Musketeer leathers blending with the shadows.
And if Porthos was there, then…he saw them all now. Athos standing at the tree line below where Porthos was perched, Aramis several trees over, his musket trained on the gathering of men, and…who was that just below him?
"Are you going to answer me, boy?"
"Fuck you," d'Artagnan growled.
"I'm going to beat the impertinence out of you," Aimon snapped, and d'Artagnan heard the whip cut through the air.
Before it made contact with his skin, however, a crack from the trees echoed just after another low roll of thunder and d'Artagnan heard his uncle cry out in surprise. He grinned, seeing Aramis lower his musket. Just then, a small, blond figure shot from the trees, making a bee-line for d'Artagnan.
"Oh, God, Luca?" d'Artagnan gasped.
Barely registering that the others had followed, weapons trained on the men gathered in and around the shell of the house, d'Artagnan watched as Luca Thibaut reached his side and pulled out a small, silver dagger from his belt, cutting the leather bindings away from d'Artagnan's wrists. The moment his arms were freed, d'Artagnan felt his body weep and forced the pain deep into his gut. He couldn't think about it now; if he did, it would overwhelm him.
Crouching down beneath the cross-beam, d'Artagnan grabbed Luca by the shoulders and pulled him close enough to see his lips.
"What are you doing here?" d'Artagnan demanded.
Luca's hands began to fly, but d'Artagnan couldn't follow what he was trying to say. Before he could coach Luca to slow down, however, gun fire erupted from the men Aimon had rallied to his cause and d'Artagnan ducked, pulling Luca's head down. Glancing to the side, he saw Porthos and Athos running toward the melee, another man on their heels. Aramis headed directly for him.
"Get Luca to safety," Aramis yelled as he paused next to the cross beam whipping post to reload his musket and use it as a brace. "Find somewhere."
d'Artagnan nodded and took hold of Luca's face. "Stay with me."
The boy nodded rapidly, eyes wide and scared, but trusting all the same. d'Artagnan waited until Aramis stood to fire and then grabbed Luca's sleeve, pulling him to his feet. They began to run, heads ducked low, and the motion burning the cut along d'Artagnan's back, the sensation of having been licked by fire reaffirmed. He felt blood sliding down the valley of his spine, but ignored it as he propelled Luca around the north wall of the house toward the root cellar, gunfire, shouts of men, and the clash of swords swirling around them.
So focused was he on getting Luca to safety that d'Artagnan never saw the man who'd fetched him from the cellar charging from the side. The force of the man's tackle sent d'Artagnan flying forward, breaking his grip on Luca's arm. He landed hard on his left side, the air pressed from his lungs by the man's weight.
The agony that ripped through d'Artagnan from the impact snapped something inside of him. He cried out, a wordless sound of rage and pain and denial. A haze of red enveloped him, his hands raining blows on the man with little thought to skill or placement. He simply wanted to hurt someone as badly as he hurt. His attacker – turned victim – didn't seem to know what to do with the ferocity. He stumbled back, gaining his feet and trying to escape.
d'Artagnan wasn't satisfied with that. He managed to get himself upright, Luca's safety momentarily forgotten, and lunged at the man, reaching for his throat. He'd never felt such fury before – especially not directed toward a man whose name he didn't know. His only focus was causing this person pain and he wasn't going to stop until he was satisfied.
Unfortunately, the man was twice d'Artagnan's size and not hampered by wounds. Engaging in the battle once more, he knocked d'Artagnan's hands away and wrapped his own around the young Gascon's throat, shoving d'Artagnan roughly against the crumbling wall of his ruined home. When his whip-marked back made contact with the remains of the stone wall, the pain shocked d'Artagnan back into focus. He clawed at the man's hands, feeling his air slip from him through his ever-tightening throat. The world was noise and chaos and yet he could barely hear any of it over the drumming of blood in his ears.
He couldn't remember what had become of his weapons – his main gauche was long gone, and the knife he kept in his boot was too far to reach. He tried to break the man's hold, but felt himself fading, breathing now a distant memory.
Then, the impossible happened.
Luca – having been lost and forgotten in the melee of the attack – had apparently managed to find a way inside the remains of the house. As d'Artagnan fought the hold pressing him against the wall, Luca leapt onto the shoulders of the man from the top of the broken wall, wrapping his legs around the man's throat, one hand gripping beneath the man's chin as though he was riding a wild horse.
The man released d'Artagnan immediately; sagging on weakened legs, d'Artagnan coughed, dragging in desperate gasps of air as he blinked away his blurred vision. Coming back to himself, he realized that he was on his hands and knees, the cacophony of the mêlée around him, the smell of gunpowder hanging in air saturated with battle cries. Luca clung to d'Artagnan's attacker, one arm raised above his own head.
Clutched in that raised hand, d'Artagnan saw the same silver dagger the boy had used to free him, poised to plunge down into the man's vulnerable neck.
"No! Luca!" He knew the boy could not hear him, but years of instinct couldn't be overpowered by logic in the heat of the fight.
d'Artagnan launched himself forward, reaching for Luca, desperate to spare the boy the burden of someone's death by his own hand. Staggering back from the weight of the boy on his shoulders, d'Artagnan's attacker choked and gasped. d'Artagnan saw what was about to happen seconds before the man began to fall, but words did him no good and he simply wasn't fast enough.
The man crashed through the brittle wood covering the ground well, and d'Artagnan barely registered his cry of realization before instinct kicked in and he dove forward, right arm thrust out to grab at anything he could. Luck or God was on his side and he grasped Luca's upraised hand by the wrist, the knife falling from the boy's grip.
As the man fell, shouting ineffectually for help, down the length of the deep ground well, d'Artagnan was brought into abrupt and vicious contact with the earth as Luca fell to the furthest reach of his arm, his weight pulling at his right shoulder so savagely that d'Artagnan screamed in pain.
If the boy had been any bigger, any heavier, d'Artagnan would not have been able to hold on.
Feeling his body being drug toward the edge of the well by Luca's weight, d'Artagnan dug the fingers of his left hand into the earth, desperate to arrest his movement, the toes of his boots catching on tufts of grass. His vision blurred, eyes stinging from blood and sweat, and he blinked hard to clear them. He couldn't see far enough down into the well to see Luca's face, but he could hear the boy's helpless moans unable to communicate beyond that.
His breath rasped through parted lips. He wasn't going to be able to pull the boy up and he felt himself slipping further. He was too weak to stop their plummet. It seemed he would die on his father's farm after all.
He felt hands at his ankles, moving up his legs to grip his lower back.
"Do not let go."
"Athos," he breathed. "Please."
"Don't you let go."
"Luca," he pleaded, at a loss to speak more than one word at a time. His back burned, sweat and blood mixing to soak the waistband of his breeches. His arm was on fire. And his hand was going numb. "Luca."
He felt the hands leave his waist and was unable to quell the moan of despair that echoed from inside his aching chest. He stared down the well, trying to see Luca, wanting to reassure him, but found himself barely able to keep his eyes open. It took so much concentration to keep his hand gripped tightly around the boy's slim wrist.
Voices swam around him, a sea of noise and orders and senseless babble that crashed against his ears and faded away to a meaningless roar. His world had been reduced to the clasp of a hand on a wrist, nothing more. Everything outside of that connection was lost to d'Artagnan.
In moments, hands were once again at his waist and he felt another presence by his side. Daring to look to his left, he saw Aramis on his belly next to him, the whip his uncle had used to score his back gripped tightly in the marksman's hands. As the end of the whip was lowered into the darkness of the well, Aramis spoke, his voice low and reassuring.
"Keep hold of Luca."
"I will." d'Artagnan's arm was shaking; he groaned with the effort of keeping his grip. "Hurry."
As though breaking the surface of the darkness drowning him, d'Artagnan saw Luca reach up with his free hand to grasp the extended whip. He wrapped his hand around the leather and as soon as he had a grip, d'Artagnan felt his body being pulled backwards along with Aramis. The moment Luca's arms were over the edge of the ground well, Aramis grabbed the boy and pulled him the rest of the way, only releasing him when he was completely free.
d'Artagnan felt himself rolled to his back, then gathered up, strong arms wrapping around him, his head tucked up against a sturdy chest. He couldn't open the hand that held Luca's arm so tightly. The boy was crying silently, trembling with fear and adrenaline, and d'Artagnan wanted to pull him close and comfort him, but found it was all he could do to catch his breath.
"We have you." The words rumbled against his ear as he was held gently. Athos. "We have you."
Athos's gloved hand reached over and carefully pried d'Artagnan's hand from Luca's arm. His shoulder ricochet pain down through his fingertips and up to his jaw. He wanted to curl toward the warm body holding, but forced himself instead to calm his breathing. Once he had control of his trembling body, d'Artagnan slowly sat up, away from Athos, and looked around. As though waking from a dream, he dimly realized that the zeal of battle had died off while Luca hung suspended from his hand. He saw Porthos standing behind four men, all of whom had their hands behind their back.
Philippe sat next to Aramis, staring resolutely at the ground, his hands bound in front of him. It took d'Artagnan a moment to realize that someone had a gun pointed at his cousin; a man standing behind Athos. He assumed it was the unidentified man he'd seen with his friends at the tree line.
With one man down the well, that left his uncle and two other men unaccounted for.
"Where is he?" d'Artagnan rasped. "My uncle, where is he?"
"He won't be far," said the man behind Athos.
d'Artagnan knew that voice. He twisted, wincing at the pull along his back, and saw Gérard le Main standing behind Athos, a harquebus in each hand.
"Hello, lad," le Main smiled, softly. "Seems we've a bit of catching up to do."
"Talk later," Athos said, pushing to his feet, and reaching down to help Luca up. The boy stepped close enough to be Athos' shadow and d'Artagnan smiled wanly as Athos rested his hand on Luca's shoulder as though it was the most natural thing in the world. "There are still men out there willing to kill for ownership of this land."
"He's not on the immediate grounds," d'Artagnan heard Aramis say, standing to his left. "Perhaps he—"
The shot came from the north of the house and slammed into Aramis mid-sentence, knocking him off his feet so that he landed in a heap next to d'Artagnan.
"Shit!" Athos growled. "Porthos! Get those men into the house and lay down cover fire!"
As Athos shouted orders, d'Artagnan crawled toward Aramis, supported by only his left arm. The marksman was conscious, gasping for breath as though he'd fallen from a great height, and quite pale.
"Gérard, you watch his back. If Porthos dies, you die, understood?" Athos continued shouting.
"Understood," le Main replied.
Hands shaking, d'Artagnan tried to part Aramis' leather doublet to find the wound, but it was difficult as he could barely move his right arm.
"Where, Aramis?" he whispered, his voice wavering. He couldn't seem to keep his eyes focused and shook his head roughly.
"It's a graze," Aramis finally said, having caught his breath. "Knocked the wind from me."
Another bullet thunked into the ground, this time narrowly missing Philippe. d'Artagnan heard his cousin yelp in surprise having clearly thought himself exempt from the line of fire.
"I can't…I can't see it," d'Artagnan gasped, unable to control his hands well enough to unfasten Aramis' layers of leather.
"d'Artagnan, we need to find cover. Where?" Athos barked.
d'Artagnan looked up at him and saw his mentor clearly for the first time since spying him on the edge of the tree line. The cuts that surrounded Athos' left eye startled him and d'Artagnan gaped for a moment, until another bullet splintered what was left of the ground well cover.
"They are beginning to anger me, Athos," Aramis growled.
"Brother, I'm already there," Athos replied. "d'Artagnan! Focus." d'Artagnan blinked, hard, fighting to do as ordered. He was beginning to shiver as the storm grew closer. "We need cover."
"The root cellar," d'Artagnan told him. He nodded toward the knoll to the south. "Just there."
"Take Luca," Athos ordered. "I'll help Aramis. You," he seared Philippe with his eyes, slicing the ropes from his hands with the tip of his rapier, "lead the way. And do not doubt for one moment that we will kill you where you stand should you turn on us."
Philippe's gulp was audible as he stood and headed toward the cellar, in full view of anyone firing from the North. d'Artagnan couldn't begin to imagine the terror Luca had to be feeling, unable to hear anything that was happening, but the boy held himself together admirably. He moved close to d'Artagnan as Athos leaned down to help Aramis to his feet. d'Artagnan flinched when he heard Porthos and le Main fire toward the North, providing them with as much cover as possible as they made their way to the cellar.
Just as Philippe threw back the cellar door, the skies opened, the warning call of the thunder finally releasing its payload. d'Artagnan felt the rain soak through his hair and run down his back, the water stinging the cut there. Clenching his teeth against the pain, he hurried Luca forward, practically pushing the boy down the stairs. He didn't blame him for resisting; the smell of the dead dog was still overpowering.
Philippe grabbed the canine corpse and threw it out into the rain, pulling the door shut behind him. d'Artagnan stood, shivering, next to Luca as voices came at him from the dark.
"There must be a lantern around here somewhere," Athos muttered.
"It's a root cellar," Philippe pointed out. "What use would there be?"
"Ah, a volunteer," Aramis noted a little too cheerfully. "Find one, or we shoot you."
"You can't see to shoot me," Philippe grumbled.
d'Artagnan heard the roll-click of a harquebus being cocked, followed by Athos' too-calm voice claiming, "We don't need to see."
Luca moved closer to him, his hand reaching up d'Artagnan's bare chest, patting at his throat, then feeling for his mouth. The darkness had to be even more terrifying for him, d'Artagnan knew.
"It's okay, Luca," he said against the boys fingers. "You're doing fantastic."
"Aramis," Athos called. "How badly are you bleeding?"
"The bullet grazed my ribs," Aramis said, and from proximity, d'Artagnan could tell the man was sitting on the ground. "If I can bandage it, I'll be fine."
"I found a lantern!"
"What are you waiting for, a royal summons? Light the damn thing!" Aramis growled.
d'Artagnan heard the shink of a flint and within moments the cloistered space of the root cellar was illuminated. He blinked in the sudden light, looking around, and for a strange, overwhelming moment was reminded viciously of his mother. Her jars on the shelves, her handwriting on the labels, her way of organizing by color rather than use. He took a staggering step backwards, but was steadied by Luca.
"Send out the boy!" Aimon d'Artagnan's voice was shockingly close. d'Artagnan saw instant fear for the safety of their friends still outside reflected in the lines that framed Athos' eyes.
"Father!" Philippe called.
"Your boy will not be harmed if you leave now," Athos shouted in return.
"That's not the boy I'm after," Aimon called back.
"Where's Porthos?" d'Artagnan said out loud, unable to stop himself. He couldn't seem to keep his body still and felt Luca's hands brace him both from the front and back.
"Porthos is fine," Athos snapped, daring any of them to say otherwise. "The man is both stubborn and clever; never forget that."
d'Artagnan nodded silently, though Athos had turned from him to check on Philippe's location.
Whatever words d'Artagnan was going to say slipped from his grasp as a wave of agony spilled from the wound on his head and coated his back once more in fire. He shivered in reaction, closing his eyes in a backwards fight for consciousness.
"d'Artagnan!" The sound of his name in Athos' voice was a hook for his attention, demanding he open his eyes at once and square up. He was a Musketeer now; he must act like one.
"Help Aramis," Athos ordered.
d'Artagnan could see something coloring his friend's expression; he couldn't tell what it was – worry? anger? – but it turned Athos' blue eyes dark and brought his lips into a thin line.
Aramis had wrestled open his jacket and d'Artagnan could see the red stain on his friend's shirt. The sight was like a bucket of cold water over him and he immediately sank to his knees next to Aramis. He started to reach for Aramis' shirt, but his right arm refused to cooperate.
"I'm sorry, I can't…." He swallowed. "Tell me what to do."
Aramis was watching him, his pale skin turning his eyes dark and secretive. "Just breathe, d'Artagnan. I'll walk you through it."
d'Artagnan nodded. Behind him, he registered Athos shouting back toward Aimon, Philippe having slumped, dejected into the corner after hearing that his father wasn't interesting in bargaining for his freedom. Luca flanked Aramis and kept his eyes on d'Artagnan, awaiting instructions.
"In my weapons belt, you'll find a packet of gunpowder, see it?" Aramis instructed him, one hand holding his side, the other braced against the leg of the table holding a small collection of preserves.
d'Artagnan was momentarily unable to tear his eyes from the blood that spilled over Aramis fingers. There was too much, he feared.
"The graze feels too wide for needlework. You're going to have to cauterize it."
"Without a fire?" d'Artagnan asked. "How—"
"I'll walk you through it," Aramis said again, his voice going tight as a wave of pain shuddered through him. He breathed shallowly. "I've d-done it before; was alone then."
d'Artagnan looked at his friend, catching Aramis eyes. Pain having eliminated any sort of filter or caution, he simply spoke words as they swam to the surface of his mind. "You're not alone anymore, Aramis."
A look of profound gratitude slid across Aramis' expression and d'Artagnan had the impression he said something very important, but was unable to bear up under the gravity of the words.
"When you're done," Aramis was saying, "I'll need you to wrap it tightly. I can feel at least one broken rib. d'Artagnan, you hearing me?"
His voice sounded strange, as though he was speaking into a cup, all the sound captured and flung back at him. He could feel flames at his back, the muscles in his shoulder stretched until they were too tight, both freezing and burning at once. His head echoed a staccato rhythm with his heartbeat and the effect was nauseating.
"I know you're hurting—"
"I'm here, Aramis."
Though a part of him wasn't. A part of him had retreated back to that tree line, remembering the cool shade and smell of cedar and pine, and the feel of the branches as they swayed in the wind, the higher he climbed. He listened to Aramis' words, following the orders with a sort of detachment, and every so often the room around him seemed to fade into a gray mist before snapping back into sharp focus.
As Aramis talked, his voice growing tighter with staccato bursts of breath punctuating his sentences, d'Artagnan managed to expose the wound, cleaning it as best he could with the cloth Aramis kept tucked inside his sleeve to clear the sight of his musket. Carefully, his trembling hands complicating matters a bit, he spread the gunpowder along the edge of the wound, wincing as Aramis hissed at the contact.
"This is the hardest part, and then you're done," Aramis told him, his face almost grey with pain. "You're doing fine, d'Artagnan, just keep focus."
Nodding, d'Artagnan reached for the lantern, lighting a sliver of wood from the bench, then held the miniature torch steady a moment. He met Aramis' dark eyes.
Aramis nodded. Before either of them could stop him, Luca reached out and grabbed Aramis' free hand, holding it tightly. d'Artagnan took advantage of Aramis' surprised distraction to light the gunpowder. It flashed hot and bright and d'Artagnan fell back as Aramis screamed, his back arching in reaction. Luca held on and Athos moved closer, away from his protective spot at the door, anxiously checking to make sure their friend was in one piece.
d'Artagnan thought for sure Aramis would have passed out after that, but as the smell of blood and burning flesh cleared, d'Artagnan saw the marksman's eyes blinking up at him. He was white as a sheet, sweating, and panting hard, but conscious.
"G-good job." Aramis slowly released his hold on the bench leg. "We'll m-make a medic of you yet."
"I'll pass, thanks," d'Artagnan managed to reply, finding it increasingly difficult to keep the root cellar steady in his vision. The floor kept wanting to rock alarmingly to and fro. He had to finish bandaging Aramis before it decided to toss him off completely.
Taking the only cloth they had left, he folded a patch over the now-sealed wound. He looked around for something to bind Aramis' ribs with, coming up empty.
"You," Athos looked at Philippe. "Give d'Artagnan your coat and tear a piece of your tunic for a bandage."
"Am I to dance next?" Philippe muttered sullenly.
"If we wish it," Athos snapped. "You found no fault in stripping d'Artagnan of his coat and shirt before witnessing his being whipped for information."
Philippe had the grace to avert his eyes.
"Clothes. Now," Athos demanded.
d'Artagnan took the jacket gratefully. He was still shivering and the motion wreaked havoc on his wounded back. He slipped it on, somewhat unsurprised that it fit him so perfectly, then took the strip of cloth Philippe handed him and leaned over to bind Aramis' ribs. That was his first mistake.
"Whoa," he muttered as the world tipped viciously.
"Easy, d'Artagnan," Aramis soothed, reaching up with a trembling hand to brace d'Artagnan and keep him from collapsing on top of him. "Just sit."
"Your side—" He tried once more to reach for Aramis and his world grayed out. A low hum of what sounded like voices echoed in his head, but he was lost, floating in a place reserved only for oblivion. Shaking his head, he forced himself to remain conscious, his entire body rebelling against the idea.
"Breathe," he heard, low and steady, like a heartbeat of sound. "Just breathe, d'Artagnan."
It was Aramis, holding him upright, keeping him steady despite the pain of his own wound. Blinking himself back aware, d'Artagnan shifted so that he was slumped against the bench, holding his own weight. Luca took the cloth from d'Artagnan's limp hand, then turned and eased it beneath Aramis' back, wrapping it tight enough that Aramis grunted when the knot was tied.
"Thank you, Luca," Aramis said, when the boy looked to him for approval. He rolled to his undamaged side, shoving himself upright against the bench. "Your turn d'Artagnan."
"I can't lift my arm," d'Artagnan told him, pulling away before Aramis could reach for him.
"Yes, well, having a half-grown boy hang from it hardly did those damaged muscles any good," Aramis muttered, using both hands to leverage himself into sitting position before he bent forward, an arm wrapped around his middle. "Though I'm exceedingly grateful for your reflexes."
d'Artagnan felt the room closing in around him, the memory of Luca perched atop his attacker illuminated as though it were happening before his eyes once more. "He was going to kill him…to save me," he murmured. "There was no…hesitation. No fear. He just…," he swallowed, looking over to where Luca was staring at him curiously, unable to see well enough in the lantern light to pick up the words, "…he just acted."
Aramis looked toward Athos, then back down at the ground. "He saved your life, d'Artagnan."
"He never should have been there…I should have seen that man, kept Luca safe," d'Artagnan felt himself on the edge of babbling, panic and shock surging up inside him, threatening to overrun his lack of filter.
"d'Artagnan, you are not to blame," Athos said, not taking his eyes from the knothole in the cellar door where he kept watch. "Luca acted on instinct. He knew what he was doing."
"He would have stabbed that man, Athos," d'Artagnan protested, pulling further away from Aramis' weak reach. His shivering was increasing, and not from the cold. He could feel the blood from his back soak into his borrowed coat and the damn world kept insisting on slipping sideways. If he could just stay balanced, maybe he could get through this hellish day.
"He's done it before, d'Artagnan," Aramis informed him quietly.
d'Artagnan looked up in surprise, then over at Luca who seemed to have finally caught up with the conversation. d'Artagnan shook his head once in denial, but then watched as Luca reached up, his fingers caked with dirt and blood, and touched at the scar on his neck.
"No," d'Artagnan breathed, feeling a surge of something almost like grief tremble through him. "He didn't."
"Your suspicions were correct, just skewed toward the wrong innocent," Aramis told him. "Talia informed Porthos and Athos when they tracked me to her home in search of us."
d'Artagnan shuddered. He wanted to pull Luca close and comfort him. He wanted to hide him and protect him. And he wanted to put a sword in his hand and train him so that no one dare think of harming him again.
"It's on us," d'Artagnan whispered. "What he had to do."
"Yes," Athos replied as though he had already decided that fact and was glad that others had finally caught up.
"As I said," Aramis sighed. "War makes its own soldiers."
As Luca started across the shallow space at him, blue eyes reflecting enigmatically in the lantern light, d'Artagnan felt his chest grow tight. He reached up with his left hand and made the motion Luca had taught him that meant thank you.
He wanted to say sorry. He wanted to say we failed you, but then Luca smiled, dipping his head in a slight nod, and d'Artagnan's heart clenched.
"Athos?" Aramis called, his voice tense and breathless with pain.
"No movement," Athos replied.
"He's well-hidden," Athos replied, glancing to the side at his wounded friends. d'Artagnan heard the words his mentor refused to say, and his head swam at the possibility.
"How is it you're all here?"
"I made you a promise," Aramis replied.
d'Artagnan looked "But…Athos? Porthos?"
"We had cause to worry that you were riding into a trap," Athos replied, not taking his eyes from the knothole in the door he'd been peering out of, watching for movement on the outside. "Treville sent us after you with instructions to return you safely to the garrison." He glanced at d'Artagnan. "We'll get it partly right at least."
"I am sorry I couldn't prevent you from being harmed," Aramis said, regret turning his voice heavy. He reached once more for d'Artagnan, but stopped when the Gascon spoke.
"The harm already happened," d'Artagnan said, blinking at the ground. "There's nothing left…and still he fights for it."
"The land," Philippe spoke up. "The land is left."
Aramis studied the young man for a moment. "You were in Toulouse. Working the Thibaut place."
Philippe brought his chin up. "I was."
"You warned him about me," d'Artagnan remembered. "All of this…it's because you told him I was coming."
"He was on his way," Philippe said in his defense. "He was searching for the papers."
"Who rightfully owns the land?" Athos asked d'Artagnan.
"I don't know," d'Artagnan muttered, leaning to the left to brace himself on the bench leg. He was so dizzy. And the air was too close in the cellar. "I hid his journal in a break in the western wall of the house."
"Surely he left it to you," Aramis said, grunting as he managed to get to his knees before he had to pause and catch his breath.
"Perhaps not," d'Artagnan muttered. "Never wanted to be a farmer."
"Did your father know that?" Athos asked. At d'Artagnan's silence, he continued, "Inheritance is often more about what the father wanted than the son."
"Charles!" Aimon d'Artagnan's voice grated menacingly through the splatter of rain on the wood of the cellar door.
d'Artagnan started at his name, bringing his head up too swiftly. He wasn't able to stifle the groan as pain sluiced down his neck from the lump on the side of his head. Through blurring vision, he saw Athos ready his weapon, staring out through the knothole.
"I have Gérard, Charles."
d'Artagnan looked to Athos to confirm it. Athos nodded without looking his way. Aramis pushed fully to his feet, grabbing the barrel of his harquebus and hurriedly reloading it. Philippe and Luca stood as well. Only d'Artagnan remained on the ground.
"I will kill him, Charles."
"He has the barrel of a gun beneath your man's chin," Athos reported. "There appears to have been a struggle as le Main is already bleeding a bit."
"Do you see Porthos?" Aramis asked.
Athos shook his head once.
"All I want are the documents."
Philippe's voice rang out. "It's in the-!"
Aramis pointed his harquebus at Philippe silencing him.
"Let me go out there," d'Artagnan said, speaking only to Athos.
"You must think I'm mad." Athos snorted.
"If he has been able to get Gérard, it means Porthos was overpowered," d'Artagnan reasoned. "In which case, we're trapped here."
Athos didn't reply. Using the bench as leverage, d'Artagnan managed to push to his feet, his right arm hanging limp and useless at his side. Once upright, he found it increasingly difficult to focus his eyes, but stubbornly stood his ground.
"It's nothing but a ruined house and gutted crops," d'Artagnan said. "Let me trade it for our lives."
"You can barely stand," Athos argued.
d'Artagnan reached for Philippe, resting his left arm on his cousin's shoulders. "I'll have help and a bargaining chip."
"You're doing this to save Gérard?" Philippe asked, dumbfounded. "Who is he to you?"
"Family," d'Artagnan replied.
"But…he betrayed us," Philippe argued. "He told the bandits where to attack! They destroyed your home because of him!"
d'Artagnan didn't miss the way Athos lurched toward Philippe, as if to stop him from speaking, then close his eyes in regret.
"There are all kinds of reasons people do things," d'Artagnan replied, drawing a look of shock from Athos. "And Gérard cared for me when I had no one. I'm not letting my uncle kill him."
Aramis looked at Athos. "We have to find Porthos," he said by way of supporting d'Artagnan's argument.
Athos slid his eyes to d'Artagnan, the bruising around the left one illuminating the blue until it practically glowed from the shadows at him. d'Artagnan saw Athos frown, then look to the side as though he didn't approve of what he saw. But then, with a sigh, the older man nodded.
Athos pushed the cellar door open and stepped to the side so that d'Artagnan and Philippe could pass. As they did, he reached out and gently grabbed d'Artagnan's wrist, though he was unable to say whatever words hung, heavy and silent, in his eyes.
"I know," d'Artagnan said quietly.
Athos' frown was fierce and fragile as he nodded, allowing them to step out into the rain.
Chapter 10: Day Seven: The Farm
Day Seven: The Farm
Athos stepped into the opened doorway, his back to the earthen wall, his harquebus trained on Philippe's back as the young Gascon stood between them and the threat. Watching as the rain quickly soaked d'Artagnan, bowing him even further as the weight of water pulled him down, Athos bit into his bottom lip, forcing himself to stay still until the opportune moment. They had Luca to consider, and for all his bravado, Aramis was weakening quickly.
"He wants to make a trade," Athos heard Philippe call out over the rain. "The documents for Gérard."
The rain began to taper, finally, from a downpour to a steady fall that made it easier to hear and see what transpired across the way. Athos hated to tear his eyes from d'Artagnan's bowed figure, but he was compelled to search the ground for any sign of Porthos. When he finally saw him, he felt his heart stuttered just as it had the moment the scaffolding tumbled, covering the big man in a chaos of noise and damage.
Porthos stood behind where Aimon d'Artagnan had positioned himself with Gérard, just inside the North wall of the ruined house, his hands behind his head, a cut re-opened on his forehead and blood trailing down the side of his face, mingling with the rain. One of the men who'd previously been captured was holding the sharpened edge of Porthos' own schiavona at his throat, but the big man's dangerous eyes were on d'Artagnan.
Athos heard shuffling behind him and saw Aramis moving into position next to him, the barrel of his harquebus dipping as he fought to keep it upright. The man was gray, sweat running down his face, his eyes the shade just before black. Athos watched as he gripped the harquebus with two hands to still the tremble and steady the barrel.
"I'm fine, Athos."
Athos leveled his gaze on the other man for a moment.
"I'm mostly fine," Aramis amended. Athos' eyebrow arched a bit higher. "I'll be fine once we're all safe," Aramis concluded.
"You'll warn me before you pass out, I assume?" Athos asked dryly, letting his sarcasm cover his concern.
"'course. What do you take me for?" Aramis replied narrowing his focus to the four men facing off on the far side of the ground well. "This won't end well."
"If it ends with d'Artagnan alive, I'll take the win," Athos replied.
"Where are the papers?" Aimon growled over the sound of the slowing rain.
As Athos watched, d'Artagnan pushed his wet hair from his eyes with a clumsy swipe of his right hand. He couldn't see the lad's face, but by the set of his shoulders, Athos knew he was barely hanging on. The grip he kept on his cousin's arm attested to that and drew the look of superiority from his uncle. Athos felt his lip flinch upward in a snarl.
He wasn't a killer, but he wanted to see Aimon d'Artagnan in the ground after what he'd caused here.
"They're in the house," d'Artagnan replied, his naturally low voice losing its softness and turning into a thing with edges that could slice, just from the pain of existing.
"You lie," Aimon spat. "We've torn that place apart."
"He tucked them in a wall," Philippe spoke up and Athos leveled his weapon once more. "He'll tell you which one as soon as you let Gérard go."
Athos and Aramis exchanged a quick look. Philippe knew exactly where the papers were; he'd heard d'Artagnan expose the location. What was the young man's plan?
"And Porthos," d'Artagnan spoke up.
Aramis shifted at that, breathing out a prayer. Athos shot a glance at Porthos and saw the swarthy man had not taken his eyes off of d'Artagnan. Athos felt Luca join them on the steps, still tucked out of sight, but closer to the opening, his shoulder against Athos' hip.
"What's to stop you from taking us out once your friends are free?" Aimon snarled.
"Father, look at him," Philippe implored. "He's barely on his feet."
"It's an act," Aimon huffed, pressing the barrel of the gun deeper beneath le Main's chin. "His father was a charlatan, too. Liars, all of them."
"Let my friends go, and you can have the papers," d'Artagnan said, his voice still not losing the dull, pained tone that held Athos' heart in its grip. "Though I cannot promise you'll like what they say."
"Tell me where!" Aimon bellowed.
The rain stopped abruptly as though his shout had startled the Heavens. d'Artagnan remained silent, still. Aimon cocked the weapon he held on le Main. Aramis used his forearm as a brace to sight along the barrel of his harquebus. d'Artagnan released Philippe's arm, before anyone could make an irrevocable choice, and stepped closer to his uncle.
"You could have done things so differently," d'Artagnan said, his voice like silk over the blade of tension. "I don't pretend to know why you chose the path you did, but it's led to so much pain...," he swayed a bit, then stepped forward once more. "I don't understand why you don't just…make another choice."
"I don't have to explain myself to you," Aimon growled, "and you're killing him." Aimon shoved the pistol harder into Gerard's throat.
d'Artagnan staggered forward another step, tilting his head slightly as though he couldn't quite figure out what he was seeing.
"What is he doing?" Aramis hissed between clenched teeth.
"Negotiating?" Athos tried very hard to not make it sound like a question.
"My father would have loved to share this land with you," d'Artagnan was saying. "Why didn't you let him?"
"You don't know what you're talking about," Aimon snapped, pushing le Main to the ground and leveling his harquebus squarely at d'Artagnan's chest.
At that range, Athos knew only a misfire would save the lad now. Without pausing to think, he charged from the cover of the cellar, hoping instinct would keep Aramis where he was, covering Luca – and their backs.
"Father, no!" Philippe shouted, staying both Aimon's hand and Athos' charge. "This has gone far enough. Why would you even want a land so saturated with blood? Our family's blood?"
le Main, Athos saw, had pulled himself well out of reach and was edging back toward the house, still on the ground so as not to draw unwanted attention to his motion. d'Artagnan held still, the barrel of his uncle's weapon inches from his sternum. Athos shot his gaze up to Porthos and caught the man's eye. He nodded once and received a slow blink in return.
Philippe stormed around the hulking figure of his father, heading directly for the North wall of the house.
"What are you doing, boy?" Aimon demanded.
"Ending this!" Philippe spat.
The weather seemed to approve; the heavy storm clouds parted as though fingers dug deep and ripped them open to reveal a sliver of blue sky above the ruins of the d'Artagnan farm. Philippe searched within the broken edge of the wall for only a moment before finding the crevasse d'Artagnan had used to hide his father's journal. He held it up as he returned to his father.
"This was worth all this…this death?" Philippe demanded. "Charles was ready to give his life for that man—a man not even blood! And you…, Father, you were going to kill your own nephew."
Aimon snarled at his son, snatching the journal from his hand while keeping the harquebus pointed at d'Artagnan. His split attention worried Athos even more and he began to slowly edge around the ground well, working to get closer. He felt rather than saw Aramis reposition himself as well.
"Where is it?" Aimon muttered, then threw the book at d'Artagnan who barely managed to catch it before it fell to the wet earth. "Find it!"
"Let Porthos go," d'Artagnan demanded.
"Find it!" Aimon shouted, his face red with anger, a vein popping out on his forehead.
"Let. Him. Go." d'Artagnan matched his tone, drawing strength from some well Athos didn't realize existed within his young friend.
After a moment, Aimon tipped his head in the direction of Porthos' captor and the schiavona dropped from Porthos' neck. The big man immediately moved toward Athos, bending to collect his discarded harquebus on the way. Now there was nothing stopping d'Artagnan from putting an end to all of this and walking away.
As Athos watched his friend open his father's journal, a figure in white moving toward the men caught his eye. He'd been so focused on d'Artagnan, he'd forgotten about Anne, about how she tended to appear just as his attention was needed elsewhere. She'd been lurking, as though waiting for the opportune moment. Athos shook his head, trying to banish her. Needing her gone.
This image of Anne, though, was a persistent nail driven into his haunted mind.
He watched as she moved around d'Artagnan, a slim finger tracing the line of the lad's shoulders, then moved toward him on the wet grass, her white dress dry. He didn't realize he'd lowered his weapon, nor that he'd taken an involuntary step back until he heard Porthos hiss his name.
"Stay in the fight," Porthos urged him, his words barely audible. "Nothing else matters, yeah?"
"It's Anne…." Athos breathed, taking another step back.
Porthos growled at him through clenched teeth. "No. It. Ain't. d'Artagnan needs you, Athos."
Athos blinked his eyes, tilting his head to look around the image of Anne, focusing on d'Artagnan, willing her away.
"Gérard," d'Artagnan was saying, and something in his tone alerted Athos to the fact that the young Musketeer was not calling for his old friend, but rather coming to a realization. d'Artagnan rocked a bit back on his heels, shifted his shoulders, then looked up from the journal he held balanced in one hand, staring at his uncle. "He left it to Gérard."
"That's not possible," Aimon whispered, grabbing the journal from d'Artagnan and at last dropping the harquebus.
Athos felt Porthos echo his exhale of relief as the weapon was no longer pointed at d'Artagnan, and they watched Gérard gain his feet using the wall of the ruined house.
"It's not possible!" Aimon growled, spittle flying from his lips as he continued to flip through the journal, looking for an amendment, a mistake. He looked up at d'Artagnan, fire in his eyes, pointing back at Gérard. "He burned us out! He destroyed everything that mattered to Alexandre!"
d'Artagnan tipped his chin up in that familiar gesture of defiance that in the past had always put Athos on guard.
"Not everything," he said quietly.
He glanced down, then over at Athos, a small, accepting smile turning up the edges of his mouth. Athos nodded toward him once, frowning when Anne moved into his line of sight, blocking d'Artagnan from his view.
"Gérard owns the land, Uncle. I suggest you get off his property…or offer him a fair price," d'Artagnan stated, staggering back a step as his balance seemed to desert him.
"This was you," Aimon snarled at d'Artagnan, shoving the point of the book into the young Musketeer's chest. "You poisoned my brother against me."
"I assure you, Uncle, I did nothing of the kind," d'Artagnan replied. "Although, as all I know of you is pain and death, I probably would have if given the chance."
Aimon lunged at d'Artagnan but before he could make contact, Philippe grabbed his arm.
"Father! Enough!" He jerked Aimon around to face him, away from d'Artagnan. "Enough."
A wordless growl of pure rage echoed from Aimon and he backhanded Philippe hard enough the young Gascon landed flat on his back in surprise. Aimon moved in to slam his fist against Philippe's face when the barrel of a harquebus – Aimon's own weapon – was suddenly thrust into his face.
"Don't," le Main said curtly, then cocked the weapon. "Please."
Philippe crab-crawled away from his father, climbing to his feet behind le Main, his tongue darting out to the corner of his mouth to dab at the cut left there by his father's hand.
"I don't have a home anymore," d'Artagnan said quietly, "but I know who my family is. Can you say the same, Uncle?"
Aimon simply stood, breathing hard, staring at the ground where Philippe once lay. The men he'd rallied to his cause began to drift away, seeing the turn of the tide and not wanting to face four angry Musketeers. Athos peered around Anne, who stood stubbornly in front of him, challenging him to look at her with those sea green eyes that had always bewitched him.
d'Artagnan turned away from his uncle and made his way directly toward Athos. He was listing a bit to the right, but moving with determination. Athos gaped as he watched Anne stubbornly refuse to move, and d'Artagnan approach, unknowingly toward her.
Before Athos could call out a warning, d'Artagnan walked right into Anne – or would have had she been real. As it was, the lad effectively dispersed her, scattering her likeness, her scent, her smirk, everything that had made the image real to Athos. She was gone and d'Artagnan was there, standing before him, staring with dark eyes full of an emotion Athos knew all-too well.
Philippe's shout startled Athos, causing him to realize he'd completely lowered his weapon watching d'Artagnan approach. He blinked in confused surprise as d'Artagnan's body jerked seconds before Porthos' and Aramis' weapons fired, both shots slamming into Aimon d'Artagnan and felling him – but the shots had come too late to stop him from visiting one last moment of damage onto his nephew.
Athos dropped his harquebus and reached instinctively for d'Artagnan as the young Musketeer's knees buckled and he toppled forward.
"Ath-Athos," d'Artagnan managed, the grief in his eyes almost overwhelming.
Athos went to his knees, still confused, as d'Artagnan fell limply in his arms, his eyes rolling white before closing. Only then did he see the small dagger protruding from the back of d'Artagnan's left shoulder. He gasped, looking over to where Aramis now stood over the body of Aimon d'Artagnan.
The marksman looked up, shaking his head, and Athos felt the ground tremble beneath him with the force of Philippe's wail. He knew that sound; his heart had made it when he'd found Thomas dead by his wife's hand. He looked away from where Philippe gathered up the body of his father and down to the knife in d'Artagnan's back.
"Aramis!" Athos heard the panic in his voice as he called for his friend.
"I'm here." The voice was at his elbow; how the wounded medic had moved so fast, Athos didn't know, but right now he was glad for it. "Is he alive?"
Athos leaned close, pulling d'Artagnan's face to his. "He's breathing."
"Do not remove the knife," Aramis instructed. "It will bleed too much. We need someplace safe to mend him."
"One of the serf homes," le Main stated, also suddenly much closer than Athos had realized. He was either losing time or everything was happening very quickly. He felt dizzy from it all, the only thing keeping him grounded was the weight of d'Artagnan's body in his arms. "The one at the far end of the North field wasn't as damaged by the fire."
"Excellent," Aramis exclaimed, stepping in to take charge where Athos was suddenly unable. "You and Porthos take the horses. I'll need my saddle bags—"
"No," Porthos broke in. "You take the 'orses; I'll carry d'Artagnan." Athos heard Aramis begin to protest, but Porthos shut him down. "You don't think I saw you shot?"
"You ignored me once, Aramis," Porthos said in a low, dangerous voice. "Remember 'ow that turned out?"
"Right," Aramis muttered. "Be careful with him. Don't jar the knife."
Muttering something Athos couldn't understand under his breath, Porthos rolled d'Artagnan's limp body into his arms, careful to avoid the blade. Athos heard the young Musketeer cry out softly as Porthos pushed to his feet, d'Artagnan's arms legs and left arm swinging free as Porthos held him in a cradle position. It would be hard for the big man to hold him that way long, but Athos could see no other way of transporting the young man without hurting him further.
"What about him?" le Main asked, glancing back over his shoulder to where Philippe sat next to his father's body, weeping.
"May God have mercy on his soul," Aramis muttered, crossing himself. "When we know d'Artagnan will live we can worry about his cousin."
Athos followed Porthos, having somehow found himself bearing all of their weapons except Porthos' schiavona. Luca stayed as close as Athos' shadow, his blue eyes never leaving d'Artagnan's face where the young man's head hung down over Porthos' arms. The walk was sober and silent except for d'Artagnan's ragged breathing.
The serf home was a small cabin with a bed, table, hearth, and chair. The South wall had been charred by the fire that took the field, but other than that, it was basically intact. A few yards outside the front entrance was a pump that remained undamaged by the fire. Porthos laid d'Artagnan carefully on the bed, face down, then followed Aramis' instructions to fetch water and find bandages. le Main built a fire in the stone fireplace and put water on to boil. Luca tucked himself into a corner near the bed, staying as close as possible to d'Artagnan, watching everyone move with wide, scared eyes.
Athos simply stood off to the side, staring. He felt detached, as though someone had cut loose his moorings and set him adrift inside his own mind. Testing himself, he tried to conjure Anne, the wholeness of her, the texture the scent. She remained stubbornly absent. It was as though d'Artagnan had replaced her, eradicating her hold on him. He wanted to be grateful, but….
"Athos, I need you," Aramis called. "Bring that lantern."
When Athos approached, he realized that Aramis had managed to cut free the borrowed coat from d'Artagnan's back, revealing the ugly mark of the whip, but hadn't removed the blade. His lip curled into a snarl and he felt his fingers curl into his fist, anger clenching it tight.
"The blade seems to have missed his lungs," Aramis was saying as he bent over d'Artagnan. "He wouldn't be breathing this easily if it had punctured anything vital."
Athos glanced at d'Artagnan's face, smeared with dirt and blood, the lines there tracing the path of his pain. His lips were slightly parted, and his breathing was audible, but constant.
"I can't tell how badly it's damaged muscle; we'll just have to hope." Aramis exhaled wearily, pressing the back of his hand against his mouth for a moment. "When I pull this out, it will bleed quite a bit. I need you to put pressure on the wound immediately."
"Whatever you need, Aramis," Athos intoned, noting that the medic was sitting perched on the edge of the bunk, curled over his own wound quite a bit.
Aramis looked up at him. "Are you with me?"
He'd asked the same of d'Artagnan, Athos remembered, but for completely different reasons.
"I am here," Athos replied, meeting his eyes squarely and tamping down on the sensation that his heart was loose inside his chest, getting caught on his rib cage and tearing. "I'm here."
Aramis nodded once, then took a breath. He handed Athos a clean, folded cloth from his saddle bag, then wrapped his fingers around the hilt of the blade. Athos leaned close, ready, and with one last shaking exhale, Aramis pulled the knife out of d'Artagnan's shoulder.
Athos had been prepared to stem the blood flow. He had not been prepared for d'Artagnan's reflexive scream of pain. It tore from the young man as though it had been attached to the blade, clawing its way to the surface and wrecking d'Artagnan's voice along the way. Aramis immediately began to speak to the young Gascon, though Athos wasn't entirely sure d'Artagnan could hear or understand him.
"Easy, d'Artagnan," Aramis crooned. "You're safe, we have you."
d'Artagnan whimpered slightly, a sound that broke Athos' heart, but didn't respond further, his eyes still closed.
"That's a good deal of blood," Athos said, worriedly.
"Press hard, Athos."
d'Artagnan groaned piteously at the pain even his unconscious brain registered, but Athos kept pressure on the wound and waited as Aramis called for hot water to clean out the whip mark along the lad's back as well as the knife wound. When Athos pulled the cloth away, he saw that the knife had left a two-inch gash paralleling an older cut, one given to him from another who'd had a hand in destroying d'Artagnan's home and past: LeBarge.
"The knife wound will require needlework," Aramis muttered. "There isn't much I can do for the lash mark aside from binding it."
"We are here to help you," Athos assured him.
He watched as Aramis applied the curved needle to d'Artagnan's skin, the lad shivering involuntarily with the touch. Once he'd pulled d'Artagnan's skin back together, Aramis applied a poultice of herbs he instructed Porthos assemble, bandaging the wounds as best he could. Athos helped to ease d'Artagnan over, supporting him with blankets found in the trunk at the foot of the bed so that he did not lay directly on his back, and tried to get water into the lad.
d'Artagnan roused enough to swallow several sips of water, then faded once more, his face tense.
"Can you not give him something for the pain?" le Main asked, staring at the man who'd once been the boy he'd raised.
"Not until he wakes," Aramis said tiredly. "We now have to worry about infection."
With Porthos' help, Aramis stood from the bed and made his way to the chair next to the fire. As Aramis instructed Porthos how to check his own cauterized wound, Athos slid down the wall next to d'Artagnan's bed, drawing up his knees and resting his arms across them.
"Athos," Aramis called him. "I need to look at the cuts on your face."
"Tired," Athos muttered, letting his head drop back against the wall.
"Leave it," Athos pleaded – for it was a plea, not an order. "The garrison physician has already seen to it."
Luca appeared from where he'd been lurking in the shadows, watching everything, and sat next to Athos, between the older man and d'Artagnan's bed. He tipped his head to the side, resting it against the thin mattress so that his blond hair blended with d'Artagnan's black against the pillow.
"What must he think of all this?" le Main said quietly, staring at Luca.
No one in the room had an answer for him. The sat quietly, Aramis in the chair by the fire, Porthos on the floor next to him, Athos and Luca close to d'Artagnan, all staring into the middle distance, the aftermath of battle thick in the air. Though bleeding from a wound on his forehead, le Main appeared to be the only one among them not suffering from some level of shock, which in and of itself impressed Athos. The man had, after all, just inherited a devastated farm and witnessed his enemy gunned down.
"I'll find us some food," le Main offered.
"Bring in water as well," Athos ordered.
le Main nodded, and before leaving the small house, returned with a bucket of fresh water. In the wake of his departure, Porthos began moving stiffly around the small room to collect the weapons Athos had carried in. Athos watched as the man slumped against the stone heart and began to clean and re-load the weapons.
"Porthos," he said quietly. "Rest."
"Need to be ready if them tossers come back."
"No one is returning," Athos stated. "It's over."
"It's never over, Athos," Porthos muttered, something like regret in his voice. "You know that."
"You need rest," Athos pressed. "You had a building come down on you two days ago, if you'll recall."
That brought Aramis' head up from where he'd been lying back on the chair. "What's this?"
"Weren't no building," Porthos grumbled. "Was just a scaffolding. In the Court."
"It fell on you?" Aramis clarified.
"I'm fine, don't worry." Porthos lifted a hand. "Weren't like I was shot."
Athos heard d'Artagnan moan a bit and turned to him, but before he could move, he saw Luca reach up and grasp d'Artagnan's hand were it lay against the blankets. Athos knew the boy couldn't have heard the sound of misery that slipped from d'Artagnan's lips, but it didn't seem to matter; he knew what was needed. d'Artagnan unconsciously gripped Luca's smaller hand, settling with the knowledge that he wasn't alone in his nightmare of pain.
"I think she's gone," he said suddenly, belatedly realizing the words were out loud. He blinked, swallowed, then looked over toward Porthos. "Anne. She…was there, during the battle."
Aramis, for his part, said nothing though he was staring with open curiosity. He seemed to feel the bubble of protection Athos had put around himself, around his words, and simply sat very still and watched. Porthos, however, slowly set down the harquebus he'd been cleaning and directed his full attention toward Athos.
"She stood in front of me, as real as you," Athos continued, unable to stem the flow of words once they began. "And then d'Artagnan simply…walked through her. And she was gone."
Porthos remained quiet.
"She has haunted me for so long and now…I don't know if I can be without her." The last of his words were said as a confession. Athos almost wanted Aramis to offer him absolution.
"She betrayed you," Porthos said into the heavy quiet that followed Athos' words. "Left you feelin'…alone. But, Athos," Porthos leaned forward. "You're never alone. Not anymore. 'Cause of us."
Athos stared at Porthos' bruised face, the big man's eyes pinning him with his honest intensity.
"Sometime we forget," Porthos continued. "We get lost. I thought I was alone. 'bout got myself killed for it, too. 'Til you showed up in the Court. Saved my ass."
"d'Artagnan said that to me in the cellar," Aramis chimed in thoughtfully. "Said I was never alone in battle. And you're right, Porthos. Somehow along the way," he glanced over at Athos, "I forgot that."
"Did you hear what he told Aimon?" Athos asked. "He called us family."
"Always said 'e was a sharp lad," Porthos half-grinned.
"We almost let him face this alone…," Athos tapered off, glancing over at d'Artagnan's sweaty face. "We cannot lose him now."
"Not while there is breath in my body," Aramis vowed.
"What happens now?" Porthos wondered aloud, his eyes on Luca.
"We can't keep Luca from his mother much longer," Athos said, also looking at the boy, his eyes softening as he watched Luca drift off to sleep, his hand in d'Artagnan's. "As soon as d'Artagnan is able to ride, we must return to Toulouse. We can gather our strength there."
"And what of d'Artagnan's farm?" Aramis inquired.
"Not 'is anymore," Porthos reminded them.
They sat quietly, once more lost in their own thoughts, until Athos said, "I'm almost glad it belongs to le Main."
He saw the same reflexive half-smile tug at the corner of both Aramis' and Porthos' mouths.
"Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him," Aramis quoted, then glanced away from the fire to take in the room. "Proverbs."
"In 'is defense…'e was trying to burn out Aimon," Porthos offered.
"He perpetuated the destruction of d'Artagnan's home. His…memories." Athos flopped a hand on his thigh in an encompassing gesture. "Everything."
"Can't see their faces…." d'Artagnan's mutter startled Athos and he looked over quickly, seeing that Luca had woken and lifted his head from the bed as d'Artagnan stirred restlessly.
Athos pushed away from the wall and moved to sit at the edge of the bed. d'Artagnan had shifted against the blankets folded at his back, lines of pain hollowing out his face, his dark hair stuck to his forehead and cheeks with sweat. Athos pressed the backs of his fingers against the young man's cheek and drew back his hand sharply.
"He's burning up."
"We need to—mmm."
Athos looked over abruptly at the low hum of pain that cut off whatever Aramis had started to say. The marksman had begun to rise from the chair, but by his chalky complexion indicated he had clearly thought better of it. Porthos was crouched in front of Aramis, his hands bracing the other man's arms, keeping him in the chair.
"Stay there," Athos ordered. "I can't have you passing out on us. You can instruct us from where you sit."
d'Artagnan stirred, the moan escaping through dry lips shifting to a growl as he put pressure on his back, "Gonna burn for this…fuckin' kill you…."
"Lad has a wicked mouth," Porthos remarked, moving toward Aramis' saddle bags.
"I'd blame you," Athos commented, gathering up the bits of cloth he found in the trunk at the foot of the bed, "were it not for the fact that he's worse."
"I'll 'ave to try 'arder, then," Porthos lifted the bucket of fresh water and filled the wash basin and pitcher. He motioned to Luca, moving the boy gently aside and indicating he should stay near Aramis. "Need to cool 'im down," he remarked, taking Luca's place by d'Artagnan's bed.
Aramis walked Athos through preparing herbs to mix into willow bark tea, helping with both the pain and the onset of infection. As it brewed, Aramis showed Luca how to prepare a new poultice for d'Artagnan's back. Porthos wiped a cool cloth over d'Artagnan's sweaty face, soothing him with nonsense as the young Gascon swore viciously at his nightmares.
"No prizes guessing who's on the other side of this wrath," Porthos muttered. "Still see that whip come down when I close my eyes."
The others didn't respond, but Athos knew both he and Aramis could relate – Aramis most of all. Just as the tea was heated, le Main returned, a brace of rabbits over his shoulder. Athos watched as the older man took in the scene with a sweeping gaze, then moved to the table at the far end of the small room. He attempted to catch Luca's attention.
"He reads lips," Aramis told him.
"Thought he could help with the rabbits," le Main suggested. "Keep his hands busy."
Aramis motioned to Luca and relayed the message. With Luca occupied, Aramis tried once more to rise from the chair, sucking in air and grimacing as he gained his feet. Pressing the flat of his hand against his bandaged side, he began to shuffle toward the bed.
"So it's like this, is it?" Porthos grumbled, grabbing the back of the chair and shoving it over next to the bed. He collected Aramis by the elbow and guided him into the chair. "Only reason I want you up again before dawn is if nature demands," he ordered, pointing a finger at their medic.
Aramis' brows danced upwards on his forehead, but before he could retort d'Artagnan gasped, his eyes flying open, wide and unseeing.
"We have to go!" he cried out, his voice raspy and low, desperation dripping from each word. He thrust out his left hand, reaching for someone, but winced and draw it back as the pain caught up to him. "Papa, he's here!"
Athos moved quickly when he heard d'Artagnan call for his father. He leaned over the young man, catching d'Artagnan's reaching left hand in his right and smoothing his dark hair from his face. "It's fine, d'Artagnan. There are only friends here."
d'Artagnan sought his eyes and Athos felt his heart flinch at the unabashed fear he saw captured in that gaze. "It's the man…the one without a face…he'll hurt us, we have to go!"
"His uncle," le Main spoke up from across the room.
Athos barely spared a glance over his shoulder. His whole focus was on d'Artagnan, trying to calm the racing breath, wild eyes, and trembling hands. Pushing d'Artagnan's damp hair from his face once more, he asked, "d'Artagnan, do you know who I am?"
d'Artagnan's chin trembled and Athos felt his throat close as the dark eyes pooled with tears. "I tried, I swear I tried. I couldn't save you."
"I know," Athos murmured, tightening his grip on the fever-hot hand. "You did everything you could."
"I should have listened," d'Artagnan confessed in a voice so raw it didn't hold weight. "I should have…." Blinking, he sagged against the pillow, the tears running out of the corners of his eyes.
"d'Artagnan," Athos called, tapping his cheek. "I need you to drink this for me." Porthos held out a mug of the medicinal tea and Athos took it carefully, not wanting to spill. d'Artagnan's gaze was unfocused, staring, it seemed, at something over Athos' shoulder. "Charles," he said softly, drawing the young man's eyes. "Drink this. Please."
Porthos moved to help position d'Artagnan's head up and Athos rested the edge of the mug on the young man's lips. Between the two of them they were able to get nearly the whole amount into him before he succumbed once more.
Porthos slumped against the wall. "If the bastard weren't dead, I'd kill 'im all over again."
"We need to change the poultice," Aramis spoke up, having remained quiet during the entire fevered dream. "He should sleep for a good bit after that."
Wearily, Athos nodded. With a gentle grip, Porthos helped ease d'Artagnan to his belly, exposing the bandage on his back, already seeped-through with a brown stain of blood. Athos peeled the poultice away, cleaning the wound according to Aramis' instructions, then reapplied the bandage. They left d'Artagnan lying face down to ease the pressure on his right shoulder. Athos did not envy the lad's recovery time.
By the time they finished tending to d'Artagnan, le Main and Luca had finished preparing the rabbit and they sat around the room in various posts, eating the first meal most of them had had in over a day. Athos sighed, lamenting the lack of wine. Porthos commented that he had to agree; after this week, he was willing to lose himself in a bottle or two.
"However did you manage to pull a scaffolding down on top of yourself?" Aramis asked suddenly.
"Didn't pull it down," Porthos grumbled, licking grease from his fingers. "Was shoved through the support beams."
"Oh, that's much better," Aramis commented, shaking his head.
"It was a mistake," Porthos sighed. "Thought I could go home again." He shrugged. "Guess I forgot where that was."
"You thought you were helping a friend," Athos stated in his defense. "You'd do it again in a second. Even if it might get you killed."
"Guess I just need to make sure you lot are with me," Porthos shrugged, a rueful smile tipping up the corners of his mouth.
"That where you got—" Aramis gestured to the cuts around Athos' eye.
Athos nodded. "Courtesy of a set of chains."
Aramis winced. "That'll do it."
Athos glanced over at d'Artagnan; the lad's face was turned their way, his left arm hanging off the bed. Luca had climbed onto the bed without anyone noticing and was sitting against the wall, his legs stretched over d'Artagnan's ankles.
"Think he'll regret his decision to return?" Aramis asked, following Athos' gaze.
Athos exchanged a quick look with Porthos. "No," he replied. "He had to find somewhere to hide this inside him or be haunted by it."
Deciding to call it a night, Athos secured the door, then told the men to rest. If d'Artagnan was able to stand in the morning, they would ride for Toulouse. He settled in on the floor next to the head of d'Artagnan's bed, watching as Porthos and le Main rested against either side of the hearth, Aramis in the chair.
It took him a moment to realize that the voice was d'Artagnan's.
"You w'r right."
"What about this time?"
"I had to…." d'Artagnan's dark eyes reflected dully in the dying firelight. "I had to see."
"I know you did," Athos replied, resting his hand on the top of d'Artagnan's head. "Sleep, d'Artagnan. We'll be here when you wake."
Chapter 11: Day Eight and beyond: The Journey Home
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.