Disclaimer – I have never been to Prague but now I really want to see some of the locations the folks who do own the boys have chosen to use.
Set immediately after the ending of Sleight of Hand.
"Well I don't know about you gentlemen," Aramis was the first to break the silence as he sheathed his sword and looked without pity at Vadim's dead body. "But I could do with a drink."
"Think we could get Treville to pay?" Porthos wondered. "It was his idea after all and we need to celebrate d'Artagnan's first mission with the regiment."
"I'm still not actually a Musketeer." d'Artagnan felt compelled to point out.
"It's only a matter of time," Porthos spoke up, adding with a grin. "Presuming you live that long."
"You have fought for us and bled for us," Aramis allowed patted his shoulder. "That is good enough for me."
Athos's opened his mouth to speak, then his brow furrowed slightly as he took in the boy's greying complexion, the beads of sweat on his brow and the dried blood on his forehead and was reminded of a very important fact.
"We found blood in the wine cellar."
"It's nothing," d'Artagnan brushed his concern aside. "A glancing blow, I've had worse injuries in practice."
"Is that so?"
Athos wasn't agreeing. Now the adrenalin was swiftly wearing off the younger man looked utterly spent.
"You sure you're alright?" Porthos asked in his turn. "You ain't looking so good."
"I'm fine." d'Artagnan repeated, even as his vision began to dance with black spots and he swayed suddenly. And then there was the unspeakable pain that until now circumstances had forced to the back of his mind but now demanded to be recognised.
"Of course you are," Aramis murmured, his firm hand catching d'Artagnan under the arm, stopping him from falling face first in the mud. Steering him towards the small boat pulled up onto the shore he sat the young Gascon on its prow. "Let's just take a look at you, shall we?"
Aramis' deft fingers were quick to find the small cut sat upon a sizable bump on d'Artagnan's forehead. Despite his gentle touch the Gascon could not help but yelp at the sudden pain and put a hand to his head, causing his sleeve to ride up and reveal the red raw marks and mottled bruising on his wrists.
"Those will need tending." Aramis observed. "Are there any other injuries we should know about?"
"And don't even think about trying to fool us." Porthos warned. "Cos we won't be happy."
D'Artaganon looked up at the concerned faces of the two Musketeers. Behind them and a little to the left Athos' expression was unreadable. Torn between not wanting to reveal his inadequacies and his reluctance to lie to these men, d'Artagnan took refuge in a general truth.
"I have a few bruises."
Porthos snorted loudly at that, causing Athos to raise a brow in enquiry
"Aramis and I have seen his idea of "a few bruises" when we was trying to clear your name," the Musketeer explained himself. "It ain't pretty."
Athos frowned at that particular revelation. He was already thinking through the need to get d'Artagnan somewhere his wounds could be seen to, inform Treville of Vadim's demise, arrange for the removal of the body and then see that they all had the food, rest and companionship they all sorely needed after such a night when his attention was caught by quite another matter.
"What happened to your boots?"
To d'Artagnan's utter mortification all three men stared down at his ruined boots as Aramis lifted up a foot to inspect it more closely. The boots had already been well worn, the sole almost paper thin, and creased with age. With the farm doing so badly making do had become something of a necessity. Now the leather was burnt and charred in places. In a few areas the sole had actually burnt through, revealing patches of reddened and blistered flesh.
"I think I may need a new pair." d'Artagnan tried to joke.
"Porthos, bring d'Artagnan's horse around if you would." Athos' voice was dangerously quiet.
Porthos nodded sharply and left without word.
"I can walk," d'Artagnan protested, stung at the implication that he was some helpless invalid. Although, in truth going up against Vadim, fighting loss of blood, lack of any real nourishment, the fear he had felt when he thought he might die in that cellar and then on top of the pain of his injuries realizing that Vadim had known what he was all long and might have killed him at any moment, had taken more out of him than he imagined. "I just … need a minute."
"Take your time," Aramis counselled kindly. "You have done more than your part. Vadim is dead. The danger is past. There is no sense in making injuries worse than they must be."
Athos said nothing.
D'Artagnan ducked his head in shame. As the smoke from the explosion had cleared, the first thing he had seen was the Musketeer, his eyes lit with relief as he realized the young Gascon did indeed live. The economy of his words merely Athos' way for d'Artagnan had had no trouble hearing the quiet pride behind the simple statement.
"So, you are alive."
But now Athos knew the full story. D'Artagnan might have killed Vadim but he had not managed to avoid being taken prisoner, his carelessness and lack of experience had gained him a collection of injuries, which could only call into question his ability to fight along side the Musketeers and to cap it all, he had utterly naive in his belief that Vadim trusted him.
"We could take him back to his lodgings ..?" Aramis voice cut into his thoughts.
Looking up d'Artagnan realized that Porthos had returned, bringing the horses. And now they were debating over what to do with him.
"Not his lodgings," Athos decided. Explanations and apologies would be required before d'Artagnan was welcomed back into his former lodgings and they did not have time for that right now. "Until Treville can speak with the King he is still a wanted man. His reception is likely to be less than cordial."
"He can't come to any of our lodging then," Aramis realized. "Those are the first places the Red Guard will look for him."
"We could take a room at a tavern." Porthos suggested. "They'll turn a blind eye to just about anything if there's enough coin in it."
"Too dangerous," Athos shook his head. "The circumstances of this mission could prove an embarrassment to the King if events became widely known. Trevile will require complete discretion."
"What about the garrison then?"
"Not there, I need space to work and after than he's going to need quiet and rest." Aramis vetoed that. But then he smiled. "However, I might know a place we can use."
The house that he led them too was a modest but well-kept residence in a prosperous part of the city. The servant who answered the door, obviously recognised Aramis and, after falling into a brief conversation, let them in without any questions asked.
"The house is ours for as long as is needed. The servants will fetch anything we require." Aramis reported. "There is a day bed in the parlour. It will be easier than carrying him upstairs."
"Er, where are we exactly?" Porthos wanted to know as they bore d'Artagnan inside. "Quite this much lace doesn't seem like anyone you might know."
"The house belongs to a widow of my acquaintance," Athos surprised then. "Her daughter has just welcomed her first child and she has gone to offer her assistance."
"You spending time with Grandmothers now?" Porthos smirked.
"It just so happens that the Grand Dame in question has a young, rather beautiful and extremely bored companion whom I have come to know quite well."
Despite d'Artagnan's protests that he would dirty the furniture they got him settled on the day bed. The musketeers responding to Aramis' requests for water, rags, and wine and herbs to douse him with the smooth efficiently of men who had performed similar tasks more times than they could count in much less comfortable circumstances.
"Here," Athos held a pewter goblet in his line of sight. "Drink this. It will help with the pain."
They all pretended not to notice how d'Artangon's hand shook slightly as he reached out to take the goblet. He took a cautious drink, only to screw up his face and almost gag.
"Drink it," Athos insisted. "All of it."
"Have you tasted this?" d'Artangnon balked.
"More times than I care to remember," Athos met his gaze steadily, giving no quarter. "Now drink it."
D'Artangnon screwed up his face, but did as he was bid. If the Musketeer could stomach this foul brew he did not want to be seen to be acting like some whining school boy. Finishing it he held out the empty vessel for the other man to take. The slight nod of approval he gained in return did a little to restore his wounded pride.
Aramis' careful hands made quick work of tending to his abused wrists and battered torso. Athos jaw clenched tightly as he took in the red and black mottling and damaged ribs that d'Artagnan had dismissed as a few bruises.
"Athos?" Aramis looked up.
D'Artagnan felt the older Musketeer sigh as he settled on the bed behind him. Pulling him in gently Athos used his body to brace the younger man, wrapping his arms gently around his battered torso, so as to put the least possible pressure on his bruises.
"This is going to hurt." Aramis looked apologetically at d'Artagnan as he pulled out his knife. "Trust me, it is the best way."
As Porthos took up a position on his left side, bending over to anchor his leg in place d'Artagnan realised what was coming. By now his feet would have swelled and the edges of the charred leather stuck to his flesh, making it impossible to simply remove his boots. Aramis intended to cut them away, but would still need to deal with the fragments welded to his skin.
"Do it," He managed, finding a smile from somewhere to reassure the other man. "Just try not to actually take my foot off."
What followed was pure agony. As Aramis set to work d'Artagnan tried to concentrate on the soft rise and fall of Athos breathing. The warmth of his body, providing comfort against d'Artagnan's increasingly fevered chills and the strength of his arms around him, helping him to endure.
As Aramis tended a particularly sore spot d'Artagnan could not help the cry of pain that was ripped from his throat as he tried to jerk away from the pain. Dimly he heard Aramis's apologies and felt Porthos taking a tighter grip on his leg.
"Courage," Athos voice spoke impossibly gently in his ear, even as his arms tightened fractionally around him. "It will be over soon."
"Athos," Aramis' tone was sharp with worry. "There are some pieces of stone inside the wounds. If I do not cut them out the infection might well cost him his foot."
"It's alright," d'Artagnan summoned his courage, determined to make Athos proud. "Do what you must."
"I could punch im?" Porthos offered. "Put him right out."
"That won't be necessary." Athos shook his head. Holding d'Artagnan just a little closer, he whispered soft words of encouragement into his ear. As soon as Aramis put his knife to the wounds, d'Artagnan's back arched as he grimaced in a split second of agony and then went utterly and blissfully limp as all consciousness fled.
"He was already at his limits," Aramis observed gravely as he set about working as swiftly as possible before the boy stirred. "I'm surprised he endured so long."
"He's a fighter, that's for sure." Porthos agreed.
"He is too proud and stubborn for his own good," Athos frowned, one hand resting lighting on d'Artagnan's head as he unconsciously stroked the sweat soaked hair. "He should have told us he was injured."
"Perhaps, you could postpone the lecture until the patient is back on his feet?" Aramis suggested lightly as he finally finished. "Or at least conscious so he might benefit from it?"
"I'll get some blankets," Porthos decided to find comfort in action. "Then we can take turns to keep watch."
Aramis kept a concerned eye on Athos as he washed his hands and tided away the debris of his impromptu surgery. Cleaning his equipment and putting it carefully away against the time it would be needed again. The man's face held an expression Aramis was all too familiar with.
"It's not your fault you know." He ventured, keeping his eyes on his task. "He wanted to be the one to do this and we all agreed to it."
"He wanted to impress me," Athos pointed out. "To prove I was not wrong to put my faith in him."
"Vadim is dead, d'Artagnan lives," Aramis reminded him. "We have suffered worse outcomes."
"He is just a boy," Athos protested.
In their short acquaintance d'Artagnan had wormed his way into his heart. The younger man's raw courage, fervent honour, loyalty to his King, country and companions, had impressed Athos beyond measure. Furthermore, the raw vulnerability he sometimes caught in his recently orphaned companion's eyes had brought out all of his protective instincts.
"I should have done more to discourage his ambitions," Athos rebuked himself. "Then he would not have been in such danger."
"I rather imagine he can find trouble without your help," Aramis observed dryly. "Better perhaps that he has friends like us to watch over him."
Athos almost smiled at the irony of that for it was he who owned d'Artagnan a debt of gratitude for saving his life. It was true that the young Gascon had a rash, impulsive, streak that daily seemed to threaten to turn his hair grey, but the boy was a responsibility that Athos could not now imagine ever walking away from.
"You should get some rest," Porthos returned, pressing a blanket upon him. The compassion in his eyes suggesting he had heard at least part of the conversation. "He'll need you when he wakes up."
Over the next few hours the three men took turns watching over the young Gascon as he tossed and turned in a restless sleep. Doing whatever they could to keep him comfortable.
"How is he?" Aramis asked, as he woke to relieve Porthos.
"Not good. His fever is rising," Porthos worried. "He keeps trying to talk of his father."
Porthos was not surprised when Athos looked swiftly at Athos, checking that the Musketer was still sleeping. d'Artagnan had done his duty in avenging his beloved father by killing Gaudet. Trying to support the proud and independent young man through the necessary steps of morning his loss had been another story altogether. In the end it had been the usually stoic Athos who had finally breached the walls the young man had built around his emotions, although he has refused to say exactly how.
"I'll see if I can get him to eat something," Aramis decided. "It will help keep up his strength."
A couple of hours later it was Athos who stirred and sat up. His eyes going first to the restless figure on the day bed and then to his fellow Musketeer.
"Only for the worse," Aramis worried. "The wounds are infected. The cold and wet of the cellars has got into bones. His breathing is ragged and his fever rising."
"What happened to your eye?" Athos wondered.
"Our patient didn't much care for the soup." Aramis quipped, touching his bruises and swollen eye with a rueful smile.
"At least there is still some fight in him yet." Athos approved.
"He's young and fit. But there is almost nothing of him. His body doesn't have the energy to keep this up this fight much longer," Aramis warned gravely. "If the fever doesn't break he could well be dead by morning."
"Get some sleep. I'll sit with him."
Looking down at the very sick young man, tossing restlessly Athos settled on the edge of the bed, gently lifting d'Artagnan's head to rest on his thigh. He began to slide a hand through the dark, sweat matted locks, feeling a surge of satisfaction as the younger man's movements gradually stilled under his touch. Long, dark, lashes, fluttered against his pale face, before those deep brown eyes focused on him.
Lost in a sea of fever and pain, d'Artagnan had begun to feel himself slipping away, memories of his long dead mother, his murdered father, and the older brother who had never had time for him dancing in his head.
Now he wondered how the very presence of this man had so quickly come to mean safely and security. For a moment he had simply allowed himself to enjoy the comfort of his touch. Truth be told he did not have the strength to do anything else right now.
"Hurts," he rasped quietly.
Athos had to swallow hard at the level of trust in such a frank admission. That such a proud young man would let him see him so vulnerable was the greatest of privileges. Resting one hand on d'Artagnan's fevered brow, he felt his heart contract as the younger man leant into his touch.
d'Artagnan felt his head being cupped in one large hand, as his dry lips were guided towards a cup of cooled beef broth. Trusting implicitly in the hands that held him, d'Artagnan sipped obediently at the nourishing liquid until he fell back exhausted.
"I'm sorry. I know I'm a disappointment to you," d'Artagnan looked away.
Athos hesitated. He knew that Aramis would be furious if he took the boy to task when he was barely able to say his own name. But part of him worried that the proud young man would not have the strength to fight off this fever if he continued to believe he had failed his friends.
"No more of that," Athos chided. "You did well. You kept yourself alive despite great odds. And you disposed of Vadim. Nobody could have asked more of you."
"I made mistakes," d'Artagnan admitted. "If I had been less careless Vadim would never have imprisoned me in the first place."
"No one could have expected what Vadim had planned," Athos excused him. "Although, you might have mentioned being tied to barrels of gunpower." He added dryly.
"Treville had the cellars searched?" d'Artagnan winced. "I managed to escape. I hoped you would not need to discover what a fool I had been to be captured."
"And that was your only fault," Athos fixed him with a stern look. "It was your duty to speak up about your injuries."
"In truth I barely felt a thing until after I killed Vadim," d'Artagnan tried. "The mission was all but over."
"Indeed, if you overlook the part where you went up against a dangerous killer, weak from hunger and loss of blood, barely recovered from your brush with death, with serious burns on your feet." Athos corrected. "Putting your life at risk. When any one of us might have easily despatched him in your stead."
"I was the one he tried to kill," d'Artagnan insisted trying to raise his head to better make his point, only to wince as the incautious movement sent wave of pain through him. "It was my fight."
"It was our fight." Athos corrected. "That is what it means to be a Musketeer. Do you think it is just words when we speak of brotherhood? Or that any one of us would have stood by idly if we had known you were hurting?"
"I've been an idiot, haven't I?" d'Artagnan gave a bashful smile.
"Yes." Athos assured him baldly although his lips quirked in a smile as he cuffed the boy very gently. "Now go to sleep. That's an order by the way. Something you need to get used to following."
"Yes sir." d'Artagnan obediently settled down.
Afterwards they would tell him he had slept for fourteen hours. At first d'Artagnan thought it was one of Aramis and Porthos jests. Or something to do with the black eye Aramis suddenly seemed to be sporting, but refused to discuss. Only when he realised just quite how hungry he was did he begin to believe it.
"You're lucky Athos is so fond of you," Aramis pointed out, when d'Artagnan has summoned the courage to apologise to the other two as well for not revealing the extent of his injuries. "Plus youth does have some privileges."
"If either of us had kept an injury from him during a mission there would have been hell to pay," Porthos agreed. "Are you going to eat that roll?"
"Help yourself." d'Artagnan was still busy marvelling over the fact that Athos was fond of him. "Where is Athos by the way?"
"With Treville," Porthos spoke around mouthfuls of roll. "Arranging your pardon, if you keep on improving a few more days of rest and you should be fit enough to go home."
"Ah, about that," d'Artagnan looked pointedly at his bare feet. "I'm going to need some new boots."
"Already taken care of," Aramis collected up his now empty tray. "The cobbler used your old boots to gauge the size so they should fit perfectly once the swelling goes down."
"What should?" d'Artgnon called to his retreating back.
"These," Porthos grinned, as he dropped a pair of boots into d'Artagnan's lap and then followed Aramis out of the room before d'Artagnan could react.
They were, quite simply, the finest boots d'Artagnan had ever seen, made of the best quality leather, buffed to a beautiful shine, held together with careful, meticulous, stitches, with a sole made to last.
There was no way he could ever afford such quality.
Reluctantly, he realized that he would have to refuse the generous gift. He appreciated the sentiment but his father had brought him up never to be beholden to any man in matters of money and these were far more than his actions deserved. Reluctantly he went to put them aside.
"You don't like them?"
D'Artagnan looked up to see Athos standing in the doorway, a faint furrow marring his forehead.
"They're beautiful," d'Artagnan could not deny it. "It's just .. I cannot accept."
"Aramis will be dismayed," Athos came closer. "He tends to get rather maudlin when his offerings are rejected. Porthos on the other hand, will most likely go easy on you, due to your recent infirmity, at least until you are quite fully recovered, although, you are a braver man than I to throw Treville's generosity in his face."
"Treville?" d'Artagnan paused. "He had a part in this?"
"We all had an equal part."
"And you?" d'Artagnan asked boldly, secure in his growing bond with the older man. "How would you feel if I refused them?"
"My feelings in the matter are of no account," Athos eyed him sternly. "Given that you are going to accept the gift as no more than your due and not disappoint any of your friends."
"Friends?" d'Artagnan smiled tentatively. He liked the sound of that. "Well, in that case, I would be honored to accept."