Disclaimer – Never been to Prague. Now I feel the urge to visit in honour of those who chose to film Musketeers in such awesome locations.
AN – Spoilers for Commodities. Now it is d'Artagnan's turn to step up and take care of Athos.
d'Artagnan whistled happily as he made his way towards the Musketeer's garrison. He had finally come to accept that, despite a few admonishing words from Treville about his somewhat rash behavior he had acquitted himself well in his recent endeavors with Vadim and his bond with the three Musketeers had only grown the stronger for it.
"d'Artagnan, care for some breakfast?" Aramis greeted him.
"No, thank you, I ate earlier. I was supposed to spar with Athos. Is he here?"
"He's upstairs with Treville," Porthos sat down, helped himself to a glass of wine and set a second glass in front of d'Artagnan. "Something's afoot."
The three men raised a companionable glass as they waited. It took only moments before Athos came down the stairs, with Captain Treville following close on his heels.
"d'Artagnan." Treville tipped his head on one side. "Here again?"
"Ah," d'Artagnan looked slightly awkward before rising to his feet. He had been here rather frequently of late. "I was just leaving?"
Treville did not answer directly. Looking around at his men, he met Athos' eyes for a long moment as some unspoken conversation passed between them. Then he turned and began to make his way up the stairs. "You have your orders, gentlemen."
"We do?" Aramis looked to Athos.
"We are to journey to Le Harve and apprehend the merchant Bonaire so he can answer for his crimes against France before the King," Athos informed them. "See that the horses are made ready and we'll need supplies for four days or so. d'Artagnan, my apologies our training will have to wait upon our return."
"He could come with us," Aramis suggested. "There is always the chance of an ambush on the road. An extra pair of eyes would be helpful."
"Knowing him, he'll probably be safer coming along," Porthos grinned. "Imagine the trouble he could cause left to his own devices in Paris."
"That is true." Aramis agreed.
"Treville would never approve it, not for the King's business," Athos knew.
"The road to Le Harve can be quite busy at this time of year," Porthos had a glint in his eye. "You never know who you might happen upon along the way."
"Have you ever been to the sea?" Aramis looked pointedly at d'Artagnan. "I hear the air is very bracing."
"A trip to the coast might be just what I need," d'Artagnan caught on. "Something to keep me occupied whilst you gentlemen are otherwise engaged on the King's business. I confess I have never been to Le Harve."
"Athos?" Aramis raised a brow.
Athos kept his expression impassive in the face of three hopeful expressions. He knew that friends would not pursue this enterprise without his full agreement. The boy had impressed them all with his courage and quick thinking, But he was also rather too likely to rush into things and lacked the breadth of skills of a seasoned soldier. Allowance would need to be made for that and Treville would vent his fury on all four of them if it hampered the mission. Yet truth be told he would also much rather have the young man close at hand.
Stepping right up to d'Artagnan he noted with approval the way the Gascon endured his scrutiny without flinching as his dark eyes raked over him. The hopeful grin, however, was pure d'Artagnan.
"You will follow my orders?"
"To the letter," d'Artagnan nodded seriously. "You have my word."
"Very well," Athos clapped him on the shoulder. "Go and get packed we leave in in under an hour."
Truth be told d'Artagnan's promise to obey orders not in the forefront of either of their minds as they sat and watched Athos' home burn. Athos was still somewhat the worst for drink and the effects of having been almost burnt alive by the wife he had supposed long dead at his hand. D'Artagnan was more concerned with the fact that he had apparently just saved Athos' life and trying to understand what on earth had happened to feel any guilt over his decision to return.
"Five years learning how to live in a world without her. What do I do now?"
D'Artagnan was saved from having to answer that by the sound of hoof beats echoing across the ground behind him. Aware of just how dis-orientated Athos presently was, d'Artagnan drew his blade and hovered protectively over his friend as the horses approached.
"Stand and state your business!" He demanded.
"I am Jean de Valcourt," One of the men dismounted and stepped forward, his hands held up in supplication and his brow furrowed with concern. "Valet to the Count. We saw the flames on the horizon and feared the worst."
"Fear not, Valcourt," Finding a strength, d'Artagnan was not sure he would have possessed in such circumstances, Athos somehow rose to his feet and greeted his former manservant. "Only the house is lost."
"My Lord, it is your family home, as it has been for generations," Valcourt looked stricken. "Can we not save it?"
"It is but bricks and mortar, Valcourt," Athos dismissed the idea. "Anything that was worthy in it is long since gone to dust. There is no reason to risk the lives of good men. The flames will burn themselves out in their own time. Go home and see to your wife and children. I'm not your Lord anymore."
"Begging your pardon, my Lord," Valcourt shook his head. "But every family here still relies on the stipend you pay us to tend the lands. And I have not forgotten how you settled the bill with the doctor when my eldest boy was ailing, nor your many other kindnesses. You are still our Lord in every way that matters and we will always stand ready to serve on your account."
"They want to help," d'Artagnan murmured softly. "Let them."
Athos cast him a dark look, but nonetheless d'Artagnan could not help but feel a spark of pride as the Musketeer seemed to heed his counsel. With a soft sigh he squared his shoulders and assumed the mantle of nobility.
"As you wish, set a fire in the lodge. We will need food and wine. And hot water to scrub the smell of smoke from us."
"The lodge, my Lord?" Valcourt frowned. "Surely the Gatehouse or even the Coach house would be more suitable?"
"Those dwellings are occupied. We must return to Paris at first light. No sense in putting a family out into this cold night for the sake of a few hours. Besides, I have been a soldier these last five years., Valcourt I have slept in far worse places."
"As you wish, my Lord," Valcourt bowed deeply.
D'Artagnan stood close by Athos' side as the villagers rode away. From this distance he could see that Athos was holding himself upright by willpower alone. His skin was deathly pale and his hands shook as he fumbled with the water skin. As soon as the villagers were out of sight his knees buckled and he would have fallen but for d'Artagnan's hand on his arm.
"The horses are just over here," He encouraged. "Can you walk?"
"Walk and ride." Athos declared, scrubbing a hand over his face as if to scour away his memories. "The lodge is not far."
"Good," d'Artagnan offered him a smile. "Because I'm not at all sure I could carry you."
True to his word, Athos began putting carefully one foot on front of the other, although he had to lean heavily on d'Artagnan as the adrenalin which had fueled their flight from the flames ebbed. Harsh bouts of coughing from the smoke in his lungs further impeded their progress, as Athos was almost doubled over in his efforts to catch his breath. By the time they reached the horses, d'Artagnan almost wished he had asked Valcourt to stay.
"Sit a moment, whilst I saddle your mount," d'Artagnan lowered him carefully to the ground and passed Athos the water bottle from the other man's saddle bags before setting too in tacking up Athos' dark beast, knowing from experience to keep out of the range of its sharp teeth as he cinched up its girth. "Try and drink as much as you can. It will ease your throat."
"Are you giving me orders now?" Athos asked a little sharply, courtesy of the wine coursing through his veins.
"If it helps you are welcome to think of them as suggestions," d'Artagnan responded mildly. "I'm just trying to help."
"You have courage," Athos observed, still rather drunk and not a little emotional, even as he did as d'Artagnan had "suggested" and drank deeply from the water skin, wiping his mouth afterwards. "And a good heart, you remind me so much of Thomas."
D'Artagnan froze in the action of buckling on Athos' saddlebags and bowed his head. The simple words, so heartfelt in their sentiment brought a lump to his throat and his eyes stung with more than the effects of the smoke. Even if, as seemed more than likely, Athos would not remember this conversation in the morning, d'Artagnan knew it was a sentiment that he would spend the rest of his life striving to live up to.
"d'Artagnan?" Behind him Athos' tone was now sharp with worry. "Are you alright?"
He turned to see the Musketeer sitting up a little straighter and eyeing him with concern. For the second time that evening d'Artagnan marveled at the way Athos could simply put aside his own pain when he was called upon to be strong for others. Looking back at the still burning building he realized for the first time exactly what it had cost Athos to bring Pothos here and have to face the memories of this place in order to save his friend's life and how very honored he was that the intensely private man had let him see his pain.
All at once he was glad Valcourt had not stayed. That it was just the two of them.
"I'm fine, Just a little smoke in my eyes," d'Artagnan offered. "The horses are ready."
Reaching out to help Athos to his feet, he remembered the countless times Athos had helped him up after he had knocked him on his rear in training, dusting him off and cuffing him fondly for his error. Athos had never once required his help before. Despite the circumstances d'Artagnan was glad to be able to give it.
Eying his horse sourly the Musketeer somehow managed to lever himself up to land in the saddle. All at once the abrupt motion turned him a sickly shade of green.
"I don't suppose you ate anything before you started drinking did you?" d'Artagnan winced.
The Lodge was something of a surprise being even smaller than the farm where d'Artagnan had grown up. Given its position in the woods 'Artagnan supposed it must have been used for the estate's Gamekeeper though it had clearly been empty for some time. True to his word Valcourt was waiting for them with a kindly looking woman he supposed was his wife and a young man who looked so like Valcourt he could only be his son.
"My lord, there is a fire in the hearth and candles aplenty," Valcourt spoke with a little bow. "And I have had hot water and food and wine brought up as you requested. There is clean linen and warmed blankets on the bed and if you leave your soiled clothes outside the door my wife will wash your linen and my son will stable your horses and clean your tack and your uniforms. I will stay in case there is anything else you might need."
"You are a good man, Valcourt," d'Artagnan spoke up when he realized Athos was again lost in his own thoughts. "But this is too much trouble. We will manage well enough. There is no need to stay from your hearth. If your son would kindly see to the horses, I will see to everything else and you may take your wife home."
"But you are a guest here, Monsieur. It is not seemly." Valcourt worried.
"d'Artagnan is not my guest, Valcourt," Athos was roused to speak. "He is my friend."
D'Artagnan paid little heed as Athos rallied sufficiently to thank Valcourt and his family, giving them a generous amount of coins for their troubles, before sending them on their way. Having handed the horses over to Valcourt's son he stayed rooted to the spot, as Athos disappeared inside.
The Musketeer had shown him nothing but kindness since his arrival in Paris. Easily forgiving him for challenging him without actual cause, giving selflessly of his meagre spare time to spar with the young Gascon, being instrumental in bringing him into the elite circle of the Musketeers, speaking up for him when he ran afoul of Monsieur Bonacieux, and keeping a solicitous eye on his welfare so that d'Artagnan had ate better and was presently wearing the most serviceable pair of boots he had ever owned. He had swiftly come to see Athos as his friend
It was taking a little longer to accept that a man he so respected and admired could do him the honor of returning the sentiment.
Inside the lodge the two rooms were small but it was warm, and well lit with candles. There were two comfortable chairs and a small serviceable dining table, already laid with food and drink. Through a doorway d'Artagnan could see a bed piled with blankets. Best of all a large tub of warm water and a jug and pot of soap stood sentry near the hearth.
To d'Artagnan's stark dismay Athos was ignoring all of these comforts to stare sightlessly out the window. Although the heavy hand he laid on the frame suggested that he would soon collapse under the weight of his own memories if some remedy was not taken.
"The water's warm." D'Artagnan spoke lightly hoping to elicit some response.
"You go ahead and take your turn," Athos spoke without moving. "And make sure you eat something before you retire."
Deciding to take a leaf out of Athos' book and lead by example d'Artagnan stripping out of his pungent clothes, leaving them on a heap on the floor as he stepped into the tub and used generous handfuls of the soft, lavender scented soap to scrub away the stench of smoke from his skin and hair, before pouring several jugs of water over his head to rinse himself clean.
"Your turn," He announced, once he had dressed in a fresh shirt and breeches.
"Maybe later." Athos still did not move.
"The water will be cold later and if you will insist on returning to Paris stinking like an un swept chimney the whole world will want to know what happened here."
Athos gave him such a venomous look that d'Artagnan worried he might have been a little too impertinent. But apparently his words has struck the right note, because Athos finally pushed away from the window and marched across the room, un tucking his shirt as he went.
d'Artagnan politely turned his back and started piling choice pieces of food on a plate. The sight and smells where whetting his appetite and he really he was really quite hungry. Maybe, if he ate a little Athos might again be persuaded to follow his example in that also.
The cry of physical pain was an unexpected as it was disturbing.
Turning around he saw Athos with his arms frozen above his head as he attempted to use the jug to rise off. The rapidly darkening bruises that marred the Musketeers back and chest, and the raw grazes and thin cuts gently oozing blood, told their own story. D'Artagnan would bet his life that Athos had cracked a rib or two and he knew from recent experience exactly how painful that could be, made much worse with all that coughing.
"Let me help."
D'Artagnan rescued the jug, as Athos, very carefully, lowered his arms, and proceeded to rinse the Musketeers back and shoulders for him.
"You are not my servant, d'Artagnan." Athos objected.
"Of course, not, servants make you uncomfortable," d'Artagnan reminded him, as he worked. "I'm just lending a hand."
Athos said nothing more until he was clean and dry and the two of them were sitting at the small table. Not quite recalling when he had had his last meal d'Artagnan ate hungrily of the some of the most delicious food he had ever tasted whilst Athos merely stared into his wine glass.
"Why did you come back?" Athos asked suddenly.
D'Artgnon paused, mid bite, considering his response.
"I was worried about you," he admitted finally.
"I told you to get Bonaire to Paris," Athos reminded him in the same steady tone. "Bonaire already proved that he attracts trouble. We still have no idea of the intentions of the two men in black and Porthos is injured."
"Porthos wanted me to come back," d'Artagnan defended his actions. "He never wanted to leave you here alone in the first place."
"And how did you persuade Aramis?" Athos enquired.
As he thought it might, that was the question which caused d'Artagnan to flush guiltily. All too aware of the possible consequences of his answer he looked down at his plate as he mumbled an answer.
"What was that?" Athos wasn't sure he could have heard right.
"I reminded him that I wasn't actually a Musketeer," d'Artagnan said defiantly.
"That's true," Athos' voice was dangerously calm. "Yet you gave your word that you would obey my orders, did you not?"
"Technically, I did obey you." d'Artagnan argued, demonstrating that rash courage which both impressed and infuriated Athos by equal turns.
D'Artagnan visibly gulped at the Musketeer's thunderous expression. He had saved Athos' life. The man called him friend. But he was under no illusion that if he could not make a good case for returning in the face of Athos' obvious intent that he should leave with the others then all hopes of a career as a Musketeer fighting at this man's side might be lost. He fully appreciated that it was only Athos' gratitude for his selflessness in rescuing him from the fire and the affection in which he held him that meant he was not answering these questions at the point of a sword.
"You told me to leave. I left," d'Artagnan spoke up bravely. "You told me to see that Bonaire got to Paris. He will be there by now. You told me not to leave Porthos alone with him and I did not for Aramis is with them both."
His words were met with a long silence. D'Artagnan was painfully aware of his own heart hammering in his chest. Athos was hurting both physically and mentally and he still wasn't completely sober. Aramis and Porthos would have sharp words with him about provoking Athos when he was in such a state.
If he lived to survive this.
"Did you think it though that carefully before you acted?" Athos asked at last.
"Yes," d'Artagnan nodded fervently. "And it took every one of those arguments to convince Aramis not to tie me to my horse and drag me to Paris. You have not been yourself since we came to this place. It did not feel right leaving you without a friend to watch your back. But I swear I would never willingly disobey you."
"I see." Athos drained the rest of his wine and headed towards one of the chairs. "If you are finished eating you should get some sleep, we need to be on the road at first light."
"Athos?" d'Artagnan asked, uncertainly, he had no wish to provoke the Musketeer any further but he needed to know where he stood. "You do know you almost died. If I had not been here .."
The mere thought of it closed his throat and made his chest feel like it might explode. It was only weeks since he had lost his father only to find friendship and a sense of family in the Musketeers. Knowing what he did now he could appreciate that there were days that Athos found it difficult to keep on living. But he was not sure what would become of him if this man was also taken from him.
"It's alright, easy now, it's alright."
Dimly d'Artagnan was aware that Athos' voice was speaking quietly in his ear. The Musketeers arms were wrapped around him, his face was pressed up against his broad shoulder and a large hand was stroking the back of his head. And he was shaking violently. for grief for the beloved father he still had not allowed himself to mourn, for the fear that he might not have returned and Athos been lost to them all, for the sheer terror he had felt when he saw his friend lying motionless on the floor that might not have the strength to save him.
"I thought I had lost you." He managed.
"I know," Athos rested his chin on top of d'Artagnan's bowed head feeling a more of little of the ice around his heart crack at the boy's obvious distress at the very idea. If such a good person, could believe in him so absolutely, perhaps he was not yet utterly dammed. "I'm sorry for that"
"Five years learning how to live in a world without her. What do I do now?"
Looking down at the young man, who had given so freely of his trust and loyalty, but was so painfully in need of a guiding hand to achieve his remarkable potential, Athos thought he might actually have found his answer.