Title: One for All
Fandom: The Musketeers, BBC
Characters/Pairings: d'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, Aramis, Treville - GEN
Disclaimer: Nothing you recognize is mine. Including the odd movie line; I like to work quotes in here and there if I can.
Summary: Soldiers follow orders, no matter where they lead. Even if they lead to death. d'Artagnan discovers how far he is willing to go to save his brothers. Set sometime after d'Artagnan receives his commission (post 1.09, Knight Takes a Queen).
Author's Note: This is my first story in this fandom; I loved Dumas' Three Musketeers when I was young and have recently been smitten with the BBC show. I typically write in the Supernatural fandom, but that hiatus has been long and I felt a tug toward something a bit different. I was drawn to the brotherhood and heroism of these characters and, quite honestly, craved an outlet after being writing-dormant for about two months. I've tried to tell this story through the eyes of five different men, and it was an interesting exercise as I feel I'm still getting acquainted with them. If anyone seems OOC, I apologize.
I also hope you can forgive language not quite authentic to the 17th century as I honestly couldn't get the cadence down. But I think a story of brotherhood can surpass linguistic accuracy. *smile* Enjoy!
(Cross-posted to AO3 and LiveJournal)
"Life is a storm. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes."
It was dark. He knew that much. He could feel it clinging to him like wet sheets, weighing him down in a suffocating embrace.
He crawled toward consciousness in stages, first aware of a low thrum of pain at the side of his face, then of something hard and cold beneath him, and finally the pungent smell of death that seemed to wrap around him. It was that unmistakable, sickeningly sweet stench – like rotten fruit soaking in sulfur – that snapped his eyes open.
Instinct bade him stifle the groan that he could feel building as he rolled carefully to his back, the pain along his jaw line slipping like knife blades up to his temple and settling at the back of his skull. Unable to help himself, he reached to press a hand against the pain – and realized he was chained.
The gasp escaped before he could catch it and he felt panic begin to take root inside a corner of his mind darker than this room, which he tried very hard to never examine. Lifting both hands, he quickly surmised that his wrists were shackled, a length of chain between them roughly as long as his chest, and another length anchoring him to the floor.
He brought his head up a little too quickly at the sound of his friend's voice, his head spinning as he replied, "Aramis?"
"Oh, thank God," Aramis exhaled and Porthos could practically feel his friend's relief permeate the black.
"Athos?" he croaked, voice catching in his dry throat.
Grunting, Porthos pushed himself up to his side, bracing his elbow on the stone floor and took stock. Aside from a head that seemed to be made of cracked glass, he was intact. Drawing his legs up, he was relieved to find his ankles unfettered, but the chain that bound his wrists to the floor was too short for him to stand. He was able to find a wall, however, and gingerly leaned against it, the smell of decay much stronger now.
"How badly are you injured?" Aramis asked, his voice slipping across the shadows.
"Feel like someone used my head for target practice," Porthos grumbled. "But other than that, 'm fine."
"I saw you go down," Aramis informed him. "In truth, I thought you were—"
The choked sound that cut off his friend's sentence gripped Porthos' heart like a vice.
"I'm good, Aramis," he reassured as best he could without reaching out.
Aramis was a very tactile man. Touch grounded him, reminded him, and comforted him. The Spaniard marksman would never admit to such, but Porthos had fought by his side long enough to know that Aramis wouldn't be convinced until he could examine Porthos himself.
"Really," he continued. "You lot trussed up as well?"
He heard two sets of chains rattle, one directly across from him, and one off to his right. Near as he could tell, they were in a cellar of some kind – based on the cold, damp stone beneath him, and the near-impermeable darkness. He had no idea how long he'd been out, nor what time of the day it was.
"You see anything?" he asked.
"There were torches in here earlier," Athos murmured, his baritone heavy in the suffocating dark. "They removed them when they brought the water."
"There's water?" Porthos felt his body suddenly straining forward, as if by movement he could miraculously see.
"Just to your right, toward the center of the room."
Scooting forward carefully so that he didn't lose the direction of the wall, Porthos inched his hands out until he felt the rough edges of a bucket and a cool metal handle of a ladle. He drank greedily, trying to remember what events had transpired that landed them in such a state. Thirst momentarily quenched, he edged back to the wall.
"It's just us, yeah?"
"And some poor bastard who apparently died of lead poisoning," Aramis sighed.
"How in the bloody hell—"
"There's a hole the size of a musket ball in his forehead," Athos explained.
"What about Grantaire? Lesgle?" Porthos asked after the other Musketeers who'd accompanied them on this mission.
"Grantaire rode off when the second wave hit," Aramis replied in a tone so bitter it didn't fit his voice. "I didn't see Lesgle."
Porthos was quiet a moment. "The whelp didn't make it, did he?"
"He fell from his horse. Started running," Aramis began.
"They were on him in minutes," Athos practically growled. "He never stood a chance."
The quiet was broken only by their combined shallow breathing.
"We have never failed quite so spectacularly," Aramis admitted.
"We're not dead," Athos said softly, as if trying to convince himself.
Aramis scoffed. "If you're suggesting that gives us an advantage, I'm not sure I like our odds."
Porthos swallowed. Aramis was edging too close to despondent for his liking. He was accustomed to Athos' penchant for melancholy, but Aramis was their light; perhaps he didn't always burn brightly, but he was a steady light in a world of sparks. Darkness of the spirit was not something Porthos could abide; he depended on his friends – his brothers – to keep him balanced. If they, the strongest and bravest men he knew, were cracking, things were dire indeed.
"So," he barked out, adjusting his legs to find a semi-comfortable position against the stone beneath him, "how long do we wait around?"
His friends were silent a moment and then he heard Aramis chuckle. He grinned in the dark, picturing the man's wide smile as he ruefully conceded that no matter how bleak the situation, they had always found a way out. Now should be no different.
"Ah, too bad d'Artagnan isn't here," Aramis sighed wistfully. "That boy's become a wonder at slipping bonds. We could've been free by now."
"I don't want him anywhere near this," Athos practically growled, the tone feral enough to raise the hairs on the back of Porthos' neck. "Our fate is our own; we escape and live or we submit and die, and he will be free of it."
Aramis quieted at that, which made Porthos frown. Athos was protective of the youngest of their regiment, that was no secret, but it was important to give Aramis hope if they were going to get out of this. If thinking of the Gascon gave Aramis some peace, Porthos would be damned if he'd take that from him.
"He'd only be underfoot, as always," Porthos grumbled good-naturedly. "Probably knock over our only water bucket, twitching in his sleep."
Athos huffed, but it was soft and full of concession; Porthos could tell the older Musketeer knew what he was attempting to do.
"He is a restless sleeper," Aramis agreed. "Going to have to break himself of that habit if he's to go out on many more patrols."
"Nightmares," Athos murmured.
"Wassat?" Porthos inquired.
Athos took a breath and Porthos heard him shifting in the dark. "He has nightmares. It is apparently a prerequisite to being a Musketeer," he continued, his tone subdued and introspective.
They grew quiet once more and Porthos leaned forward to reach his aching head with his shackled hand. He could feel drying blood matting the hair on one side of his head.
"How long 've we been down here, then?"
"Just under a day," Aramis answered. Porthos blinked in silent surprise. He'd been out cold for more than a day? "Now you see why I thought you were dead, my friend?"
"Them blokes, the ones what ambushed us," Porthos asked, "you think they were after the boy?"
"Unless there is suddenly a high demand for a ransom on Musketeers, yes," Athos replied.
"They weren't Red Guards," Porthos remembered, images from their skirmish returning to him in bits of memory. "Wore…black."
"They were soldiers from Le Mans," Aramis revealed.
"You recognized them?" Athos inquired.
"Their pauldron," Aramis replied. "I fought alongside one as a new recruit…years ago."
"But…Le Mans is of Maine…and under the King's rule," Porthos protested.
Aramis' chains rattled in what Porthos could only assume was a shrug. "I didn't say it made sense."
The silence was like another presence in the dark, slinking cloying arms around Porthos and drawing him back into a suffocating grip.
"You sure this other's dead, then?" he asked, desperate for noise. Sound, of any kind.
"Your nose can surely prove our words," Athos grumbled.
"Then I say we start planning our escape."
Aramis described their prison from what he was able to remember during the time the torches were burning. Three walls they each were chained near, and a large opened space that led to some sort of corridor. There seemed to be only one way in and out, but without weapons or means of breaking their chains – and with the knowledge that Porthos was certainly not ambulatory while unconscious – they hadn't bothered to make the attempt.
"And then there is Athos' hand," Aramis concluded.
"What happened to your hand?"
"One of our captors felt it necessary to teach me a lesson," Athos replied.
"He stomped on it after disarming Athos," Aramis replied. "It's broken."
"Damn," Porthos growled.
"No matter," Athos said almost casually, though the underlying worry and pain painted his words in vibrant colors. "I can use a sword just as well with my other hand. Unfortunately, that does us no good while we're chained to this floor."
"I'm workin' on that," Porthos replied.
"They'll return with the torches," Aramis predicted. "They're trying to addle our sense of time. If we were to attempt an escape, it would be best if we could see."
Porthos began to feel around the base of where his chain was fixed to the floor. There was a square metal plate with two large bolts at opposite corners. He began to work at them, trying to loosen their grip into the stone. He told the other what he was doing and soon heard the clink of metal and shifting of bodies telling him they were giving it a go.
"You alright, Aramis?" Porthos asked quietly after a few moments of working.
"Other than the obvious, I assume you mean."
"You're not hiding a hurt, are you?" He knew of Athos' broken hand, but Aramis had said nothing of his own injuries.
"My dear Porthos, even if I were, what difference would it make to our situation?"
Porthos sighed. "It would make a difference to me."
Aramis was quiet a moment. "A few bruises and a damaged ego. Nothing that won't heal with time, wine, and the arms of a willing woman."
Porthos heard Athos cough briefly and didn't know if it was due to the damp or covering up something Aramis was glossing over.
"Good. 'Cause when we get out of here? If you can't keep up?" Porthos turned his face in the direction he knew Aramis to be sitting. "I'll leave you behind. Don't think I won't."
"I would expect nothing less. Musketeer motto and all," Aramis quipped.
"Will you two stop flirting and get on with this escape idea?" Athos grumbled, the sound of his boot thudding against the base of the chain punctuating his words.
Aramis sighed. "What I wouldn't give for a hammer and a chisel."
"What I wouldn't give for a pistol," Porthos muttered, feeling the lack of weight at his waist where his weapons usually rested comfortably.
"While we're wishing, what of you, Athos?" Aramis asked.
At first Porthos didn't think Athos would reply. Oft times, he and Aramis engaged in inane banter to keep their minds from their misery; Athos typically sat brooding, just enough apart from them they couldn't organically draw him into the conversation, but the darkness seemed to erase all pretense and destroy all walls. Athos was powerless to hide within it.
"What I wouldn't give not to be found," Athos replied sullenly.
"Well, that's cheery," Aramis returned. "Remind me not to ask your opinion the next time I see a falling star."
"What worries you, Athos?" Porthos inquired, pausing in his attempts to loosen the bolts.
"d'Artagnan," Athos replied.
"The boy's far from here," Aramis reminded him. "Treville sent him east, with that dispatch—"
"I know where he is," Athos broke in. "What worries me is what he'll do."
"When he finds out about us, you mean," Porthos replied.
"He's a Musketeer, Athos." Aramis' voice was hard. "He's a soldier, trained in battle strategy and combat tactics."
"He's a boy." Athos spat the word like it burned his mouth. "Untested, untried. He's no older than—" He broke off, something stealing his breath.
"He's not much younger than me when I was commissioned," Porthos reminded him. Though it was nearly a decade ago, he remembered clearly feeling the rush of finally belonging somewhere, feeling the connection of brotherhood.
"Yes, but you had Aramis and myself," Athos argued. "Who does d'Artagnan have?"
"Us," replied Porthos, as if the answer should be obvious.
"Come to think of it," Aramis said, shifting his chains in the dark. "We're pretty much all that boy has."
"Exactly," Athos replied, clinking his chains against the stones forcibly. "That is exactly what worries me."
Porthos didn't reply, but had he been pressed he would have confessed to hoping the lad got wind of their predicament and headed west toward Mortagne. The bolts weren't getting any looser, his head was aching exponentially, and he had just spied the dim light of a torch headed their way. d'Artagnan may be bullheaded and impetuous, but he was a good man to have in a fight.
And a fight was what they were facing if they had any hope of escape.
One of the things he hadn't counted on when he was first commissioned, d'Artagnan now realized, was that there were dues to be paid regardless of who claimed the most of his time. Being friends with three of Treville's best Musketeers did not preclude him from – as he saw it – becoming a glorified messenger, intent on delivering the King's missives to his compatriots to the east.
This latest trip was the fourth such errand he'd run in as many weeks, pulling him away from his friends, the garrison, and their missions. He'd been able to keep honing his skills and training – most recently with Aramis to sharpen his musket skill – but each time they were sent on a mission while he was away, d'Artagnan couldn't help but feel a pang of longing. And a worry of somehow…missing out.
Upon finally returning to the garrison, he led his horse to the stable, taking a moment to pull the gear from the animal's sweaty back and rubbing him down with a bit of burlap before offering him grain and water. It had been a long, muddy ride and d'Artagnan had pushed harder than was really necessary in his haste to arrive home. It wasn't so much that he couldn't handle the lone missions.
It was that he didn't want to.
Since losing his father, solitude had been something he'd abhorred. He'd linger in the common yard of the garrison long after most had retired, or follow Athos or Porthos to the tavern, even if he didn't match them drink for drink. It was easy enough to write his company off to keeping a close watch to make sure his friends made it home safely; Athos often lost himself to dark thoughts and troubled memories two bottles in, while Porthos had a tendency to look for a mark that would just as soon shoot him if they lost too many card games to the roguish man.
Aramis was the only one who seemed to recognize d'Artagnan's habits. Soon after he was assigned a room at the garrison, leaving the company of Madam Boniceaux, he'd noticed the Spaniard's eyes on him at different times, carefully watching. One cold evening, waiting for Athos to emerge from Treville's office, d'Artagnan asked Aramis about his observations.
"Is it that you don't trust me, or…?"
"Nonsense, lad." Aramis had seemed truly surprised by d'Artagnan's worry and doubt.
"I see you watching me, Aramis. I feel like you're waiting for me to do something wrong."
Aramis had sighed, pulled off his hat and frowned down at the brim as he turned it in his hands until the feather flared upright in the night wind.
"I know what it is to feel as though you've lost everything," the older man confessed quietly, not meeting d'Artagnan's eyes. "I know that emptiness. That…loneliness." He looked up and d'Artagnan saw shadows dancing in his friend's dark eyes. "And I know what it's like to find your purpose here, in these men. Our brothers."
d'Artagnan swallowed, nodding.
"You'll find your cadence," Aramis predicted. "Just as you've steadily improved your sword fighting, you'll improve your balance among us." He'd settled his hat once more on his thick hair, clapping a hand on d'Artagnan's shoulder, a corner of his mouth pulling up in a wry smile. "And perhaps one day, if you're among the fortunate, you'll find that you don't so much mind being alone."
Though he wasn't convinced he'd ever be comfortable with it, d'Artagnan had found the lone missions to be slightly more bearable the more he'd been asked to complete. He'd managed to develop paths and tricks, ways of evading discovery and avoiding the Cardinal's Red Guard, who seemed destined to plague his very existence. He'd become adept at scaling trees to sight out forward paths and building fires low in trenches to stay warm without being detected.
Each time, he'd returned home to a garrison of brothers, three of whom welcomed him with raucous laughter and open arms. Aramis was right: within their company lay his purpose. He'd found room in the world to breathe once more, and he planned to do everything in his power to honor this place they'd made for him among them.
Trudging from the stables toward Treville's office with his report, d'Artagnan beat at the mud drying in clumps on his breeches, trying to make himself look a bit less road-weary before he stood in front of the Captain. The night was thick, stars hanging low enough he imagined he could reach out and touch a few of them if he wished. There was something pressing about him in the dark, a strange anticipation that had nothing to do with his mission. He paused at the foot of the stairs leading up to Treville's office.
It was the quiet, he realized. The silence was screaming at him.
Taking the stairs two at a time, d'Artagnan peered into the shadows of the balcony, hoping to see a familiar set of shoulders, or a scarf-covered head. Something indicating his friends were waiting, watching. He pushed through the door to find another Musketeer standing in front of Treville's desk – a man he knew only by name, not by reputation: Grantaire.
Treville looked up at his entrance and the lines on his face told d'Artagnan whatever Grantaire was reporting was not good. Treville waved him inside and d'Artagnan took up a post just to the left of the nearest window, his eyes leveled on Grantaire's profile.
"And you're sure?" Treville asked the other Musketeer. "There could be no doubt?"
"If I could have returned with them, Sir, I assure you I would have," Grantaire replied, causing d'Artagnan's brows to meet at the bridge of his nose, his eyes shooting to Treville in search of answers.
Treville sighed, as if the weight of a thousand souls were pressing him into the Earth and he had no shields left. "The King must be informed. Get cleaned up. It's nearing dawn. You'll accompany me at first light."
"Sir," Grantaire nodded, then flitted a battered, broken expression toward d'Artagnan before exiting the room.
d'Artagnan stepped forward, his jaw tight, his shoulders tense, eyes never leaving Treville's face.
"You may want to take a seat," Treville said quietly.
"Tell me." He thought he did well to keep the tremor from his voice.
"Grantaire and Lesgle were with Porthos, Aramis, and Athos," Treville began. "They were to escort the King's young cousin from Paris back to his home in Mortagne."
d'Artagnan nodded, calculating quickly from the maps Athos had made him memorize. Mortagne was in Perche, roughly a three-day round trip.
"They left day before yesterday," Treville continued, as if trying to play out the events in his mind as he slowly recalled Grantaire's story. "Before they reached Mortagne, however…." He paused, swallowing. "They were ambushed. More than a dozen men by Grantaire's count. The boy was…slaughtered."
"What?" d'Artagnan gasped. "But…why?"
"Men from Le Mans." Treville rubbed his face, his voice now pitched toward the surface of his desk. "There has always been bad blood there, but never…not the sort, I thought, that would lead to such violence."
d'Artagnan had begun to grow very cold. "What of our men?"
Treville did not look up. "Grantaire saw Porthos go down. No one could have survived the blow, he said. He escaped to bring word back, but said he turned back at the crest of the hill and saw the attackers go after Lesgle, and could find no sign of Athos and Aramis."
Without realizing it, d'Artagnan had backed away from Treville's desk. A strange sensation began at his fingers, spreading slowly up his arms and then wrapping around his chest as if his blood had suddenly forgotten how to flow through his body. Treville had looked up at his silence and d'Artagnan saw his Captain lean forward, worry etched in every line of his face.
"No," d'Artagnan shook his head. "I don't believe it."
"Grantaire is an honorable soldier," Treville argued. "He brought word back—"
"He left them," d'Artagnan growled, his voice echoing in the hollow of his chest where his heart once beat. "I see no honor in that."
"He did the only thing he could," Treville stated, his tone offering no quarter. "I will hear no more about it."
"I should have been with them," d'Artagnan lamented his voice strangled with a myriad of emotions – fear, anger…loss.
"And in all likelihood, you would have been lost along with them and I would be down four of my best men," Treville barked.
d'Artagnan shook his head, unaware that his hands visibly trembled. "You don't know that."
"This is an act of war against one of the King's family," Treville spelled out for him. "We will assemble the men—"
"That will take too long," d'Artagnan interrupted once more. He took a breath, drawing himself up, banishing the numbing weakness he could feel threatening to overwhelm him. "Permission to go after them, Sir."
"I'll be faster on my own than a regiment of Musketeers," he argued, uncaring that he had not allowed his Captain to finish a sentence yet. "I can get there, find out what happened to our men, bring definitive word back."
"And fight off a dozen men?" Treville countered.
"I won't need to fight anyone if they never see me."
"And what if you find our men, captured?"
"I will breathe once again," d'Artagnan said honestly.
Treville leveled softer eyes on him, his voice dropping an octave. "And if they're dead?"
d'Artagnan looked away, his throat working around the lump of emotion pressing at the base, cutting off his voice, his air. It took him several moments to gather control; when he did, he looked back at the Captain, unable to keep the emotion from swimming up to his eyes, blurring his vision. He said nothing.
"You're exhausted," Treville pointed out. "I cannot condone a singular rescue mission, let alone send the youngest in our garrison out when he's quite visibly dead on his feet."
"No, d'Artagnan," Treville cut him off. "You are alone, inexperienced, and I'm willing to bet you haven't slept or eaten since yesterday."
Unable to argue that point, d'Artagnan kept quiet, grief and rage generating a hurricane inside of him. Treville stood up and d'Artagnan clasped his trembling hands behind his back, keeping them from his Captain's sight. He watched as Treville turned to a pull open a draw in his desk and withdraw a cloth sack the size of a large melon. He set it on his desk, then drew his pistol, examining the barrel.
"It would be completely irresponsible of me as your Captain to send you out without rest or sufficient weaponry. You have only what you can carry, after all."
Frowning, d'Artagnan watched as Treville set his pistol next to the sack and joined it with gunpowder and lead balls before looking up.
"Now, I must go tell the King that his young cousin has been, in all likelihood, murdered and discuss terms of a military strike upon French soil. I will be gone for some time."
d'Artagnan brought his chin up, his eyes clearing.
"I expect you will require a good deal of rest after your long ride and receiving this news."
"Yes, Sir," d'Artagnan replied.
Treville nodded, grabbed his hat and put a hand on the door. Before pulling it to him, however, he paused, and in a voice almost too low for d'Artagnan to hear said, "Rest well, d'Artagnan."
"I will, Sir," d'Artagnan promised.
The moment Treville left, d'Artagnan took a slow, trembling breath. He would not believe them dead. It simply could not be possible. Striding across to the desk, he gathered the extra weapon Treville had left him and opened the cloth sack. It must have been the Captain's dinner: cheese, bread, and wine, enough for two meals if he stretched it. As he turned to leave, d'Artagnan's eyes caught on the paper lying beneath the sack.
He quickly picked out the words de Courtilz and Mortagne. The orders. He had a path and a purpose, all he needed now was transportation. Heading back to the stables at a sprint, he glanced at the mount who'd brought him safely home, then dismissed the idea. He needed fresh legs. Leading out Athos' reserve stallion, he saddled and bridled the large black horse quickly, pulling his cloak from his saddle bag and fastening it around him.
Tucking Treville's pistol into his saddle bag, he ate as he rode, needing his strength to stay awake until he had to rest the horse. The sun rose at his back, warming him quickly and the light as it edged the horizon in brilliant gold brought him a renewed alertness. The weariness of his limbs seemed to retreat as he felt his body move with the gait of the large horse, the ground disappearing steadily beneath them.
He'd been too late to save his father, too late to save his home. Just over two decades on this Earth and he'd spent the majority of them being too late. Even his finding Constance – the unmitigated love of his life, married to another – had been too late. If it was in his power this time, he would not be too late. With a certainty born in the fire of battle and brotherhood, d'Artagnan knew he would rather die a Musketeer, fighting for his brothers, than live one moment with the false security of generous protection.
If his father had lived that night, he would have been back on his farm in Lupiac. He would have never known these men, never known the comfort of brotherhood nor the everlasting yearn to belong, to make them proud. He would never have known what he was capable of, how his body could become a weapon.
He would also have never known the constant ache that was loss, even months later, even when enough events had transpired that one would think he would be over it.
Resting the horse several miles outside of Paris, d'Artagnan leaned low in the saddle, his cheek against the rough hairs of the animal's black mane, and paused to catch his breath. He wondered for a moment if he father could see him now, if he would be proud of him, approve of the choice he made…or if he would be shaking his head and thinking him a stubborn hothead for choosing the life of a soldier rather than returning to his farm.
Logic stated that nearly two days without sleep meant exhaustion, but for the moment he felt exhilarated, energized. The knowledge that he may be his friend's only salvation spurred him forward.
The morning light rushed through him, erasing the aches and pains riding for hours naturally wrought. The food Treville had provided still filled his belly and once the horse was no longer winded, d'Artagnan kicked him into a canter, keeping a steady pace toward Mortagne, his eyes open for where the ambush could have taken place.
It was late in the evening when he reached the village. Stopping to feed and water the horse, he stepped into the nearest tavern, eyes on alert, keenly aware that there was no one to watch his back. He'd been unsure, at first, how to take the instant protective nature his friends had shown him. They each in their own way had stood by his side, or stepped in front to shield him.
Porthos was more obvious about it; a bulldog of a man with a heart made of spun glass who had not once hesitated to act as an impenetrable wall between d'Artagnan and danger. Aramis was smooth and subtle, always watching, clever words barely disguising threats of maiming if d'Artagnan was even breathed upon wrong.
And then there was Athos. The man was a mystery to d'Artagnan, and yet he had become the most important to him in such a brief span of time. There was something almost familiar about the guarded silence Athos clung to like armor; he both kept d'Artagnan away and clung to him, a dichotomy d'Artagnan saw in himself at times.
Even Athos' way of protecting was a contrast in wills – scolding him for taking chances and speaking his praises to the Captain in almost one breath. When d'Artagnan looked to him for approval or assurance, the man replied with an enigmatic smile that both hid every thought and exposed every emotion, depending on how closely he looked.
In truth, the young man from Gascony could no longer imagine his life without any of the three and he had no idea what he would do if Grantaire's report was accurate.
The barkeep at the tavern remembered seeing the men two days prior. He primarily recalled Aramis, he said, nodding toward a pretty red-headed waitress currently smiling at an older gentleman as she poured him more wine.
"Ah, yes," d'Artagnan smiled. "I see why."
"Barely said a word to 'er, 'e did," the barkeep muttered. "Jus'…stared an' she went all…weak in the knees, iffn' ya know what I mean."
"Yes, I think I get the picture," d'Artagnan nodded at the man, laying a coin on the counter and thanking him for his time.
"You won't be wanting a room?" the barkeep called. "It'll be getting dark out there. Bandits, ya know."
d'Artagnan tilted his head in question. The man had uttered the word as if he were speaking of the boogieman.
"Trousseau's men," the man replied. "While back they was soldiers. Ain't nothin' soldierly 'bout 'em these days."
"Where are they from, these…bandits?"
"Mostly Le Mans, but they ain't with Comte de Courtilz. Jus' on their own, near as can tell. Though they took 'is old 'ouse from 'im."
"And they've been…raiding?"
The barkeep shrugged his thin shoulders so expressively d'Artagnan thought he could have been Parisian. "Raidin', sure. Stealin', murderin', rapin'…whatever they wants, whenever they wants."
d'Artagnan lifted his chin. "And no one has been able to stop them?"
The barkeep looked at him and d'Artagnan saw something dark slip through the cloudy, rheumatic eyes. The man pulled his lips back in a grimace, exposing several gaps in his yellowed teeth. "E'en a dog'll learn, it gets beat down 'nough."
Frowning, d'Artagnan looked toward the door. "Where does this…Trousseau…live?"
"The old de Courtilz manor," the barkeep answered immediately, gesturing toward the west. "But you can't be thinkin' you'll go there alone!"
"I have friends who may be held prisoner there," d'Artagnan answered. "I have to help them."
"Lad, if Trousseau 'as your friends," the barkeep shook his head sadly, "they're likely no longer for this world."
"So people keep telling me," d'Artagnan muttered, leaning a hand on the bar as a wave of uncertainty hit him, making the room slip sideways for a moment.
"It's to your own death you'll be going," the barkeep warned, drawing the eyes of the red-headed girl and several of the patrons. "Barely on your feet, y'ar."
"I'm fine," d'Artagnan replied, drawing himself up to his full height. "But my friends might not be. If I don't help them…," he looked around the room, "no one will." He nodded once more to the barkeep and headed for the door.
Adrenaline fueling him, and with a rested mount, he headed toward the manor. Finding it wouldn't be hard; the problem would come when he tried to get in. The large stone structure became visible in the dying light of the sun as he crested the next hill. There were no walls surrounding the structure, simply a thick wooded lot the ended several yards away from the entrance. d'Artagnan could see several horses milling in a make-shift corral off to the west of the home. His own mount snorted softly and tossed his head in recognition.
Not wanting to alert anyone inside the manor of his arrival, he made his way through the thicket of trees and tied his mount well outside the edge of the grounds. He selected a taller tree, scaling it quickly to see if he could judge the number of men guarding the perimeter.
He saw two men at the front entrance, both lounging and talking over a small fire. The growing darkness obscured his sight too much to find many others, but he had seen an open window on the west side of the building, illuminated by soft candlelight. It was as good an entrance as any, especially since he didn't know where his friends might be held. The trick was, it was on the second floor.
Taking a breath, then exhaling slowly, working to release the tension that wanted to make his muscle tight and uncooperative, d'Artagnan dropped from the tree and checked his weapons. His pistol was holstered, his sword in its scabbard and his short sword at his back. He tucked Treville's pistol at his back as well, crossing it with his short sword. The extra weight felt awkward, but he would rather have it than need it. Running in a low crouch so that his motion wouldn't be caught by a wandering eye, d'Artagnan stuck to the tree line as long as he could, breaking at the last minute to plaster himself against the stone of the building, beneath the opened window.
He held his breath, listening to the low murmurs of the guards at the front, waiting for the moment he could attempt to scale the wall at his back. His eyes had grown accustomed as possible to the dark, but though the light of the rising moon helped him see his immediate surroundings, the shadows in his periphery still taunted him.
The sudden appearance of a man around the side of the manor nearly had him choking on his captured breath. His hand was at his pistol before he registered who it was he was seeing.
"Lesgle?" he whispered.
The other Musketeer pulled up short, shock registering plainly on his pale face, even in the gathering night.
"d'Artagnan?" he whispered back. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Turning from the cover of shadows, d'Artagnan stepped forward. "Looking for you. Grantaire said you were dead!"
Lesgle darted a furtive look past d'Artagnan's shoulder and the young man could see dirt and blood smeared across the other's features. Lesgle appeared disheveled and weary, but unharmed. It gave d'Artagnan hope his friends could be in a similar state.
"I very nearly was," Lesgle replied, gripping d'Artagnan's arm and pulling him back against the cover of the manor. "I managed to get Benoît away from—"
"Wait," d'Artagnan put a hand to Lesgle' chest. "The King's cousin is alive?"
Lesgle nodded. "For now," he replied, nodding up to the opened window. "They want ransom."
"What about the others?" d'Artagnan asked anxiously, his heart in his throat.
Lesgle shook his head. "I did not see. I barely made it out…."
d'Artagnan nodded. "Go."
Lesgle frowned. "Leave you?"
"I'm going after the others."
"d'Artagnan, you cannot—"
"If you wish to help me rescue them, by all means," d'Artagnan whispered urgently. "Otherwise, it is your duty to return to Paris and stop Treville from starting a Civil War."
If possible, Lesgle paled further. "What?"
d'Artagnan gripped the soldier's coat, pulling him close and dropped his voice low. "Grantaire reported that the King's cousin was slaughtered by men of Le Mans. What other possible outcome could there be?"
"No, that's not what—" Lesgle closed his mouth tightly, stopping himself.
d'Artagnan frowned, then pushed the other man from him. "Go," he repeated. "Before you are discovered."
Without another word, Lesgle stumbled away, barely bothering to nod his thanks. d'Artagnan waited until he could no longer see the silver of Lesgle sword hilt in the moonlight, then turned to face the wall. His cloak swirled at his knees with his turn and he considered for a moment removing it, but then knew the likelihood of being able to return to this spot and retrieve it was slim and he had so little in the way of protection as it was, he would need it later.
Ignoring the lingering weariness of his over-taxed body, and the way his vision momentarily swam as he looked up to the opened window, d'Artagnan began to climb. He'd climbed before – trees, walls separating fields, rafters in barn lofts – but this was a new challenge. He was able to find finger and toe holds in the uneven surface of the stone wall, but the lack of any angle was excruciating.
Slowly, agonizingly inch after inch, he pulled himself up, careful not to jostle his sword against the stone, his arms, back, and legs trembling from the effort of keeping his grip. After what seemed like years, he reached the ledge of the opened window, shakily pulling his head level so as to peer inside.
The room was devoid of people, furnished with one small bed, a table, and a chair, a melting candle burning at the far end. The door to the room was partially opened, but the space beyond was too dark for d'Artagnan to detect a threat. Left without much choice, he heaved his slim body up to the windowsill, rolling over the edge and falling inside. As quiet as his ascent had been, he was unable to keep his weapons from clattering against each other and the floor as he landed.
Holding completely still for a moment, his dark hair falling across his eyes and obstructing his field of vision, d'Artagnan listened intently to see if his entrance had been heard. When no raised voices or hurried feet caught his ear, he shifted to his feet, brushing his hair from his eyes. Before he could move forward to the opened door, however, a hand shot out from under the bed, grabbing his ankle.
No one – especially not the three he sought to rescue – would ever know how very close he came to screeching like a maiden in that moment.
Flinching back in surprise and shock, d'Artagnan drew his sword, staring at the outstretched arm with wide eyes. As he watched, a boy of about twelve edged out from beneath the bed. It took d'Artagnan several moments to get his heart rate back under control as he took in the dark curls and wide brown eyes of the King's young cousin.
The boy nodded, emerging further until he was sitting on his bed, one hand wrapped around his mid-section. d'Artagnan could detect no blood or obvious wound, but the boy was pale and a bruise ghosted one cheekbone.
"My name is d'Artagnan. I'm with the King's Musketeers." He shifted his cape to expose his pauldron. "Are you injured?"
"Fell off my horse," Benoît replied. "Trying to run." He glanced to the side, a frown pursing his lips. "Like a coward."
d'Artagnan sheathed his sword and crouched down to the boy's level. "Have they harmed you in any way?"
Benoît shook his head. "Put a bag over my head, took me up here." He nodded toward the opened door. "Doesn't shut all the way; they like to be able to come by anytime and look at me."
"Did you see any of the others?" d'Artagnan asked, putting a hand on the boy's arm. "The soldiers who were with you?"
Benoît nodded. "One of them helped get me in here."
"They said something about a cellar once," Benoît shrugged. "I was too scared to…." He looked away again.
d'Artagnan squeezed the boy's shoulder for reassurance. "You did fine, Benoît. I'm going to get you out of here, okay?" Benoît nodded, his dark eyes looking hopeful for the first time since d'Artagnan dropped into the room. "But I need you to stay where you are for a bit longer. I have to find my friends."
"And you'll come back?"
"I swear to you," d'Artagnan replied. "I will not desert you." He stood and pulled out Treville's pistol. "Take this. Hide it under the pillow, or under the bed. Use it only if you have no other choice. Do you understand?"
Benoît nodded, then looked up at d'Artagnan once more. "They are bad men," he said softly. His eyes shifted to the fleur-de-lis on d'Artagnan's pauldron. "They have no honor."
d'Artagnan tilted his head, eyes softening as he regarded Benoît more closely. "Your father has taught you of a soldier's honor?"
"My father is a great man," Benoît replied with conviction. "And I want nothing more than to be home with him." His chin trembled and eyes filled with tears before he looked down.
d'Artagnan felt his heart seize painfully in his chest at the boy's words, feeling them just as acutely. He put a hand on Benoît's head. "You will," he promised softly.
Moving away from Benoît's side, he stepped to the opened door, peering out from the candlelight-filled room into the dark of the hallway beyond. He saw no one, but that didn't mean they weren't close. He pulled the hood of his cloak up and covered his dark hair, keeping his face deep in the shadows, hoping the olive tone of his skin would aid the darkness in shielding him. Glancing back at Benoît, d'Artagnan nodded as the boy slipped the pistol beneath his pillow, then he stepped out into the hall.
He knew the pain of losing his family, watching his father die. He was not willing to damn that boy to a similar fate any more than he was willing to lose the men who had become brothers to him, filling a hole in him that had been so deep he'd felt he could disappear inside it.
His hands shook slightly as he slipped them inside his cloak to rest on his belt. From anxiousness or exhaustion, he couldn't be sure, but trembling hands could get him killed. He took a moment to close his eyes and clench his hands into fists, seeking an anchor, a way to move forward with what he knew he had to do.
He thought of Athos, of his friend's seemingly unending patience. A surface of tranquility skimming a soul of rage and fire. d'Artagnan needed that tranquility now.
With a steadying breath, he moved forward in the shadows.
He was convinced they were being subjected to a slow form of torture, the kind only visited upon the righteous by the damned.
Flexing his broken hand as much as the damage would allow, he tried to keep it at shoulder level, as Aramis had instructed to help with the swelling, but it was nearly impossible to do so and also continue to work on freeing himself. Mostly the ache was a dull roar in the back of his mind – a constant discomfort that wouldn't leave him be.
Just as it seemed he had pushed the pain to the back of his mind, he would jar his hand or the manacles would shift and press against the snapped bones and a stream of low obscenities spilled from his lips the likes of which he hadn't uttered in ages. After Trousseau had left, the other two had bade him take a break and rest; even from their vantage points they could see the way the appendage pained him.
The low growl he'd utter once in a while was a fairly good indication as well.
"Think I liked it better in the dark," Porthos muttered, his newly-split lip adding to the gathering array of colors decorating his swarthy features. "Least then we didn't have to look at 'im."
Athos followed his friend's nod toward the corpse slowly rotting against the wall between Aramis and Porthos like a specter bent on keeping the friends apart. The man had been a laborer of some kind, if his clothes were any indication. Athos and his men had not been stripped of their uniforms when captured. Merely relieved of their weapons. Had this man been a solider or guard, Athos presumed, he would have still been wearing something to identify him as such.
Which meant Trousseau's men had bound and killed one of villagers, and that injustice simply added fuel to an already high-burning hatred for their captors.
Aramis, for his part, seemed to take the presence of the body in stride, barely sparing it a passing glance when Trousseau had kicked it close enough to him the head fell to rest on his shoulder. He'd simply shrugged it off, never taking his eyes from their captor's scarred face.
"You don't have to look at him now," Athos pointed out mildly.
He knew if he could rile Porthos up enough, get him angry enough, he'd sufficiently distract him from the pain and hopelessness of their situation.
"Easy for you to say," Porthos grumbled. "You ain't sharin' a wall wi' 'im."
When provoked or exhausted, Athos had noticed, Porthos' syntax seemed to regress to his days growing up in the Court of Miracles. His friend was clearly both at the moment. He slid his eyes over as Aramis sighed. The Spaniard had avoided Trousseau's fist and boot, unlike Porthos and himself, but Athos was afraid – as was, apparently, Aramis – that the only reason the younger man had been spared thus far was that he was being saved for something worse.
"Try the ladle again, Porthos," Aramis cajoled. "You were making progress a moment ago."
Tearing his dark eyes from their morbid cell mate, Porthos picked up the water dipper once more and began wedging it beneath the bolts he'd managed to loosen quite a bit. As Athos watched, Porthos unconsciously touched the tip of his tongue to the cut on his lip, his brows pulling together in a silent wince.
Shortly after Porthos had awakened, two of Trousseau's men came down the hall and stood in the wide opening across from them, staring out with blank expressions, not replying to a single one of their accusations or questions.
This had lasted several minutes until a tall, blonde man wearing a black pauldron crossed by three slash marks entered the room, followed several other men, all carrying torches. A heavy scar ran across the blonde's left eye, turning the orb a milky white. He'd solicitously introduced himself as Trousseau, informed him that they would all die, but only when he willed it, and then slammed his boot into Athos' ribs with enough force to drive the air from his body.
The pain in his ribs had been sharp, but it was nothing compared to the liquid lightening that had shot through his hand and down his arm as he'd fallen to his side. His vision had gone white and he heard himself swearing to visit wicked harm on everyone from Trousseau's mother to his neighbor's dog.
When Porthos had instinctively protested Athos' treatment, Trousseau backhanded him, which triggered Aramis to implore his friend to be still. Athos knew Aramis was already worried about Porthos' head injury – more impacts to his face or head were dangerous. Trousseau had crossed to where Aramis sat, his eyes still on Porthos, and grabbed the marksman's thick hair, jerking Aramis' head back. Athos' skin had crawled watching the blonde man rake his eye over Aramis' features. He'd released Aramis' head, but Aramis didn't look away.
The fury in his dark eyes had matched the flames of the torches that now lit the room as if it were daylight.
Without another word – and ignoring their shouts and demands to know what of their fellow Musketeers and their charge, young Benoît – Trousseau left, nodding to his men. The torches had been placed around the open room, lending enough light to their predicament that Athos could see it was quite dismal. Even if they did loosen the chains from the floor, there seemed to be only one way out – the corridor just past the wide, opened doorway. With their hands still manacled, he knew they'd not be able to fight their way very far.
The longer they stayed in this tomb, the closer they came to belonging there.
Athos cradled his arm, slumping against the wall as he watched his friends. Porthos had sagged a bit, the water dipper hanging loose in his hands, his bruised face wearily resting against his arms, back bowed in the very picture of defeat. Aramis continued to work on his loosening bolt, his own fingers nicked and bleeding from his efforts, his face tight with lines of determination.
Athos had said before that he wanted d'Artagnan to have no part in this, to stay far away, but in truth he was devastated at the thought that he'd never see the young man again. If he'd known this mission would be his last, there were many things he would have said to d'Artagnan before the lad had departed for the east. Things he thought every day, but never vocalized.
Such as how impressed he was that d'Artagnan hadn't let himself be defeated by loss – and the boy truly had lost everything that typically defined a man. A lesser person would have found themselves despondent in the gutter, but the boy had a fire and fight in him the likes of which Athos hadn't seen in a long, long time. He battled through the bruises and exhaustion, absorbed every word the three taught him about fighting and battle strategy, and openly offered his heart as payment.
He was young, reckless, and often times quite stubborn, but Athos had been speaking the truth to his Captain when he'd said that d'Artagnan had it in him to be the best of them. He had the heart of a Musketeer and while he looked on them with open gratitude, Athos knew it was himself, Porthos, and Aramis who were grateful the hothead from Lupiac in Gascony had found his way into their garrison and their lives.
The fact that they, too, would be leaving d'Artagnan alone wounded Athos' heart more than the idea of simply no longer being alive. There were times he, in fact, welcomed the idea of death. Of no longer facing the constant fight, the constant search for absolution.
Listening now as Aramis implored a slumped Porthos to have faith, that God had not abandoned them, that they hadn't fought and survived this long only to perish in a rat hole beneath the home of a sadist, Athos wondered at those words. Had they truly done enough good in the world to erase all the bad they'd been party to?
Had he been forgiven for murder? Attempted murder, true, but he'd fully intended on killing his wife as punishment for the death of his brother. And what of his failure there? He hadn't been able to protect Thomas. It was his duty to keep his family safe and when his brother needed him most, he'd been looking the other way. Had his life as a Musketeer, protecting the King, protecting his brothers, been enough to atone for such an absolute sin?
Snapping his eyes up, he looked at Aramis in confusion. He hadn't realized he'd slipped down the wall, his shoulder now resting on the cold, damp stones of the basement floor. Both Porthos and Aramis were staring at him, worry coloring their expressions.
"Are you with us?"
"Yes," Athos replied, pushing himself carefully upright, bringing himself back to the present. It was clear from the looks on his friend's faces that they'd been trying to get his attention for several moments. "Yes, I'm good, Aramis."
"That is a matter of opinion." Aramis' half smile was still infectious, even in this hell. "Your mercurial moods are truly a mystery to navigate, my friend."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Athos deadpanned. "I'm as steady as the tides."
"Keep that hand up," Aramis reminded him. "Until I am able to set it correctly, you need to try to keep the swelling down."
"Do not tell me I won't be setting your bones, Athos," Aramis warned him, his voice growing uncharacteristically hard. "Do not, because that will mean one of two things. Either we died together as brothers…," Aramis narrowed his eyes, his lips rolling against his teeth briefly, "or these maniacs returned and carried out their plans for me."
Porthos growled, low in his chest, his dark eyes alight with fear and rage. It was a feral sound of warning and protection and had the hairs on the back of Athos' neck standing on end.
Aramis kept his eyes on Athos. "You know of which I speak," he said. "There is a reason they've kept me intact thus far."
"I won't allow that to happen," Athos promised, leveling his gaze on Aramis, feeling the promise resonate in his heart. "I swear to you, Aramis."
"Then do not give in. Not now. Not ever." His voice was fire in Athos' heart and had the strength to pull him away from the wall, his broken hand nearly forgotten. "I've seen what happens to a Musketeer who's given in," Aramis reminded him. "I could not bear it if I saw that in you, my friend."
Athos felt his brows tightening over the bridge of his nose as he regarded his friends. They had fought side-by-side, for nearly a decade, becoming inseparable in life and practically unbeatable – save for now – in battle. He trusted these men with his life, his honor, his legacy, and yet he'd not been able to voluntarily share with them his own truth.
He'd known of Porthos' past, his arduous journey to the ranks of the Musketeers from an orphaned beginning. He'd known of the ghosts of Savoy that still haunted Aramis, visiting him in his sleep, keeping him from being able to draw a comfortable breath alone. He owed these men his faith, even if he lacked it in himself.
Athos nodded once to Aramis, opening his mouth to reply, but froze when he saw Porthos' expression shift from worry to guarded, his eyes on the hall. From his position, Porthos was the only one of them who could see the direction their captors would come from. Athos shook off the depressive state, banishing his melancholy thoughts and felt his body tense, readying for a fight.
They weren't going to allow themselves to be beaten like dogs. They were soldiers. The King's goddamn Musketeers. There was no outcome that would not end in a fight – if necessary, to the death.
Three of Trousseau's men stepped into the room, but Athos kept his eyes on Porthos. The other man pressed two fingers to the ground indicating there were two additional men in the corridor. Hearing chains rattle, Athos turned his attention to Aramis, surprised when he saw his friend backing up to the wall, away from the men who'd entered.
That was when he realized that the men hadn't even bothered to look at either him or Porthos: they had eyes only for Aramis. Athos felt his heart drop.
"No!" he shouted, rattling his chains against the ground. "Aramis, no!"
Aramis' back was to the wall, his eyes taking on a dangerous glint, his manacled hands lifting, as if to ward them off. "I see Trousseau sent his prettiest down to fetch me." His voice slipped like silk through the candle-bright air.
Porthos picked up the thread. "Don't know what you're lookin' at, there. Surprised this one didn't see the inside of a bag an' the bottom of a river 'fore 'is first birthday!"
Athos shot a look at Porthos who shrugged in return. However, the men didn't turn their attention from Aramis. They'd clearly been given orders and it didn't appear Trousseau was one to suffer discord among his troops.
And then Athos saw the keys.
Crouching down, the biggest of the three unlocked the chain that tethered Aramis to the floor, leaving his hands manacled. As he grabbed Aramis' shirt to haul him up, Athos saw Porthos draw back in surprise, a third finger joining his other two in his count of their enemies still lingering in the corridor.
Six. Unfettered, it would be a fair match for the three of them, even wounded and weary as they were. Chained like animals, there wasn't much they were going to be able to do to keep Aramis with them and away from Trousseau.
Aramis planted his feet, unwilling to simply follow their captors from the ambiguous safety of their dungeon. Athos began to push to his feet, knowing he wouldn't be able to fully stand, when he heard the distinct shhnnk of metal leaving a scabbard and a near-silent oonnfff as metal slipped into a body. The six men in the room froze, then turned as one to the broad opening that led to the hallway.
Athos blinked in shock as a body fell into the opening, the other man backing away, his sword raised. A third figure emerged, a cloak covering his shoulders, a hood shadowing his face, his sword crossed with the raised blade of Trousseau's man. The men in the room watched, stunned for various reasons, as the cloaked figured battled the Le Mans soldier, moving with a casualness that spoke of training and confidence.
As Athos watched, though, he began to feel a tightening around his heart, a coldness in his gut. He knew those moves, those parries and thrusts. He'd taught them to—
The cloaked swordsman was knocked back against a wall and his hood slipped, exposing a shock of thick, dark hair, brown eyes catching the light from the torches, and a focused expression that spoke of only one intent: death. Athos felt the air leave his body, his legs going weak for a moment as d'Artagnan pushed his opponent back, attacking once again. He didn't once look at the others, his eyes only for the man currently trying to run him through.
Athos looked over at Porthos, then at Aramis and saw similar expressions of astonishment etched in their faces. He heard d'Artagnan gasp, then his opponent grunt with effort and saw the boy reach for his short sword, pulling out the second blade as he parried once more, dodging and feinting until he was able to get in close and bury his blade in the other man's belly.
Silently d'Artagnan pushed the dead man off the sword and turned toward the other three in the room.
No…. Athos couldn't breathe.
He was tethered on his knees, unable to stand, unable to move, unable to help, protect. He was forced to watch as two of the soldiers rushed d'Artagnan at once. Porthos roared, but was as helpless as Athos. Aramis took advantage of the third soldier's distraction and, quick as a lightning flash, wrapped his chains around the man's neck, tightening his grip and pulling the beast back against him toward the wall, keeping him from d'Artagnan.
Athos shot his gaze back to his young protégé, willing him to be strong, fast, and lethal. The first blow knocked his short sword from his grip and Athos saw the young man was beginning to wear down. One of the men grabbed at his cloak, pulling him up short and momentarily choking him until d'Artagnan cut the cloak free, launching his wiry frame toward the other.
He crossed swords, the sound of metal on metal loud in the cloistered room. Fighting two swords at once was challenging even for the most skilled and Athos strained against his chains as much as he could, helpless to interfere. When d'Artagnan's sword was knocked from his grip, Athos felt his mouth go dry.
The Gascon landed several punches before he was grabbed once again in a choke hold and Athos watched as d'Artagnan's much larger opponent pushed him toward the wall to crash his head against the stone. With reflexes quicker than Athos gave him credit for, d'Artagnan planted a foot against the wall, arresting his forward motion and then ran up the wall, flipping himself over the head of his attacker.
"I taught 'im that one!" Porthos declared proudly, eyes having never left his young friend.
Athos didn't have time to be impressed, however, as he saw the other man pull his pistol.
"d'Artagnan!" He shouted a warning.
Turning instinctively, d'Artagnan grabbed the man who'd tried to crush him, wrapping his arm around the man's neck as he rotated. When he faced the pistol-wielding soldier, it was with the man's compatriot used as an effective shield. The lead ball meant for d'Artagnan buried itself into the soldier's chest and d'Artagnan dropped the body, ducking low when the remaining man lunged for him.
Athos looked across at Porthos, a silent question in his eyes.
"Didn't teach 'im that one," Porthos replied, eyebrows up high enough they were practically buried in his hairline.
d'Artagnan stood, seemingly weaponless, facing the last unencumbered Le Mans soldier. His breath hammered audibly through parted lips, sweat causing his long hair to cling to his face making him look younger than he truly was. Aramis had managed to keep the last solider away from the fight, but Athos could see he was trembling from the effort, the awkward position of his chains causing him to weaken.
Hold on, Aramis, Athos pleaded silently. Just a bit longer…give him a chance.
"I'm gonna split your gullet, boy," the last soldier standing growled, shifting a wicked-looking knife with a short, curved blade from one hand to the other as he stared d'Artagnan down. "Your friends are gonna wear your guts like jewelry before they die."
"Strange last words," d'Artagnan remarked in a low, dangerous voice. "But, I'll take it."
In that moment several things happened very fast. And Athos' heart froze in his chest.
The soldier charged d'Artagnan just as the man Aramis was restraining worked his way free, slamming Aramis back against the wall. Athos watched from his knees, trapped in a fog of disbelief as d'Artagnan pulled his pistol, his movement slowed with battle fatigue, the range between himself and the charging man decreasing by the second. D'Artagnan's pistol went off as his attacker's blade made contact with his side tearing a ragged scream from his lips.
Athos watched the last soldier circle around behind Porthos, slamming the big Musketeer forward to his stomach in his haste to reach d'Artagnan. The younger man had fallen to a knee, his harsh cry of pain still echoing from the impact of the knife, and turned to see the last Le Mans solider upon him. Athos saw that d'Artagnan had nothing left; it reflected in his eyes as he stared at the attacker.
Athos shouted as Aramis rolled, coming up with a short sword in his hand. He threw the blade with amazing accuracy for a man still manacled, catching the large soldier in the neck. As he fell, the attacker's momentum caught d'Artagnan and they collapsed in a heavy tangle of limbs.
For several moments no one moved. Even those who hadn't been engaged in combat were breathing hard. Athos stared with burning eyes at the slumped figure clad in dark brown leather, his pauldron still a bit too shiny, a hand pressed tightly to his side.
"d'Artagnan?" Porthos called, his voice rough.
Then Athos saw him lift his head, pushing his dark hair from his eyes with a bloody hand, and he felt his heart beat once more.
"I knew I'd find you," d'Artagnan panted with a weary smile.
Aramis huffed out a rough, broken laugh, and in moment Porthos followed. Athos was voiceless; he couldn't have said a word if his life depended on it. He simply filled his eyes with the image of d'Artagnan – covered in blood and clearly exhausted – breathing and alive.
"What are you doing here, lad?" Porthos finally asked.
"I drew the short straw," d'Artagnan grunted as he pushed the last body off his legs, fishing around on the soldier's belt until he found what he was looking for. Holding up a ring of keys, he grinned and Athos felt the light of it hit his heart. "Care to share what happened?"
d'Artagnan pushed himself to his feet and Athos detected a slight waver to his stance, but he gathered his balance and moved over first to Aramis who was able to meet him halfway as he was no longer tethered to the floor.
"Oh, the usual," Aramis sighed in a put-upon, bored tone. "Soldiers arrived and shooting started and they tried to kill us and Porthos was knocked unconscious and Athos was shouting...it was quite exciting."
Once Aramis was free, d'Artagnan turned to Porthos.
"Where's Treville?" the dark-skinned Musketeer asked.
"Back at the garrison," d'Artagnan replied.
"You're not saying he sent you alone?" Athos burst out, finally able to put voice to one of the myriad of emotions he'd felt slap him senseless.
d'Artagnan glanced over his shoulder and in that look Athos caught a glimpse of the true fear and desperation that the young Gascon had felt over the last day.
"Not exactly," he replied. "Grantaire made it back to the garrison, brought word that Benoît had been slaughtered and everyone else was dead."
"And you, what, just took off? Came after us without any sort of plan or back-up?" Athos demanded, unable to stop himself. He was grateful and relieved and terrified and humbled and impressed and it all came out as anger.
"Not exactly," d'Artagnan replied again, this time moving to unlock Athos' chains.
"Mind his right hand," Aramis cautioned.
Athos caught the frown of concern that folded the young man's features as he gently removed the chains.
"He didn't send me after you," d'Artagnan explained, "but he didn't exactly stop me from going, either."
"Ah, a classic, I'm going to go water my horse for a few hours, oh, my did I leave the plans out in the open order." Aramis nodded, rubbing his wrists.
"Something like that."
"And you…you just snuck in and found us, then took out," Porthos glanced around, "five soldiers on your own?"
"Four!" Aramis instantly protested. "I get points for that mad bastard," he nodded at the man he'd stabbed.
Porthos slid a side-long, incredulous glance at his friend. "Fine. Four soldiers. On his bloody own."
Athos watched as d'Artagnan's color paled considerably.
"Yes, I…yeah. I guess so."
His dark eyes bounced between the three of them worriedly, as if waiting for a reprimand. When Porthos belted out a delighted laugh, Athos saw d'Artagnan flinch in surprise before his face relaxed into a sunny smile and his shoulders released their tension just a bit.
"Damn, lad, you have been paying attention," Porthos laughed, moving in close and pulling d'Artagnan against his side.
Not to be outdone, Aramis closed ranks, pulling Athos with him and in moments the four of them stood in the room, surrounded by dead bodies, arms wrapped around each other's shoulder's in a moment of gratitude and relief. Athos was the first to step back.
"You're injured," he said, nodding toward d'Artagnan's side.
He could see a slash through the boy's shirt, beneath the leather of his jacket, but it was hard to see how bad the wound truly was as blood and dirt smeared so much of d'Artagnan's lean frame.
"It's okay," d'Artagnan waved him off, instinctively covering the wound with his hand. "We've got bigger problems."
"We're free of chains," Aramis exclaimed, lifting his hands high. "No problem is insurmountable."
"There are at least a dozen men between us and the door," d'Artagnan told them.
"Oh." Aramis dropped his arms.
"And Benoît is alive."
"What?" Athos looked at him in shock. "The King's cousin is alive?"
d'Artagnan nodded. "I sent Lesgle back to Paris to inform Treville and stop him from starting a Civil War?"
"Hang on, Lesgle is alive?" Porthos exclaimed.
"Next time lead with that," Aramis advised, pointing his fingers casually toward the boy.
"So sorry," d'Artagnan remarked with a raised brow. "I stupidly thought saving your lives was more important."
Aramis grinned and clapped a hand on d'Artagnan's shoulder. "Now you know better."
"So," Porthos said, bending over and picking up one of the swords dropped by the dead Le Mans soldiers. "All we have to do is get Benoît, get through a dozen soldiers, and get back to Paris. On foot."
"We've been in worse spots," Aramis replied.
"Name one," Athos challenged.
Aramis opened his mouth, but then closed it again with a frown.
"Benoît is in a second floor room on the west side of the manor," d'Artagnan informed them. "And he has a pistol."
"How do you know this?" Athos demanded.
"Because I snuck in through his window and gave it to him. It's Treville's."
"You…climbed in through a second floor window…?"
d'Artagnan shrugged. "It was the only way I could find to get in without being seen."
He then turned and gathered his swords and pistol, tugging his cloak out from under a body as the other three stared at him.
"He's a reckless fool," Athos said in affectionate wonder, thinking d'Artagnan's entrance into the manor house wasn't unlike his access to their hearts. He'd basically scaled the walls and rolled inside.
"Yeah, but he's our reckless fool," Porthos grinned, moving through the bodies to grab weapons. "Oi," he drew Athos' and Aramis' attention. "Grab their cloaks. I got an idea."
Aramis looked over at Athos. "Am I the only one who gets a bit worried when he says that?"
They left the cellar, d'Artagnan in the lead with Athos close behind. Watching as d'Artagnan kept his hand pressed tightly to his side, Athos frowned. He knew the boy was hurting, but while understandably slowed by weariness, he didn't seem to be hampered by pain, so Athos said nothing.
As they moved along the corridor, he adjusted the grip of the unfamiliar sword in his left hand and held his broken hand close to him, chewing on the inside of his cheek to keep from making a sound when the bones were jostled. Along the way, they passed a case of muskets, clearly intended to be used by the guards who'd gone down into the cellar after the prisoners. Aramis took two, as did Porthos.
Both d'Artagnan and Athos waved off, Athos because he wouldn't be able to hold a sword and a musket with one hand and he was stronger with the sword. It was only then that the others detected how affected d'Artagnan was by his wound: the boy hadn't moved his left hand from his side.
At the end of the hall, a light from another corridor lit the corner and d'Artagnan turned to face them, his eyes alight with adrenalin and success. He pointed wordlessly to the opposite corner and Athos saw a staircase tucked into an alcove. Porthos moved up toward d'Artagnan and they leaned their heads in close.
"Trousseau's men are gathered in a courtyard over there," d'Artagnan pointed. "It's an interior courtyard that leads to the front entrance."
"There isn't a back door?" Porthos asked.
"Not that I was able to find, though if you want to take time to look…."
Athos shook his head and d'Artagnan continued. "Benoît is in a room more or less above them, to the west of the courtyard, just inside the balcony. That's the closest staircase, but we'll have to cross the courtyard, or figure out a way to scale back down the wall from the boy's window."
Aramis glanced at Athos. "With that hand, he won't be able to climb down a rope," he said. "Or scale a wall."
"I think I can decide that for myself," Athos countered, though he knew Aramis' words to be true, and at this point he doubted if d'Artagnan would be able to provide a repeat performance of his daring entrance.
"There are horses outside, in a corral," d'Artagnan continued and then he looked at Athos. "And I brought August."
Athos blinked. "Where did you leave him?"
"Tied to a tree."
"He's probably half-way back to Paris by now," Aramis sighed.
"Leave it," Porthos interjected. "We'll worry about that later. Here's what I'm thinking."
The plan, as it turned out, was as simple as it was deadly and would have worked perfectly had they not been betrayed. And if there was one thing Athos was unable to abide, it was betrayal.
He had to hand it to his friend: there were times they collectively underestimated Porthos.
So often he was relegated to being the muscle simply due to the mere fact that he was just so damn good at what he did, but the man had a keen mind for tactical maneuvers and this one was just one example. Following d'Artagnan's directions from his scout of the building in his hunt to find them, Porthos had positioned himself and Aramis in an upper room with a window opened out to the courtyard.
Athos and d'Artagnan were to go after Benoît, then circle around to the other side, making their escape under the cover fire and distraction Porthos and Aramis would provide. Then, Porthos declared, he and Aramis would simply climb out one of the windows and circle around to the horses. The only catch had been when d'Artagnan mentioned Trousseau's continued reign of terror upon the local village.
"I'll just have to aim well, then," Aramis had smirked.
The young Gascon had been right: below them were roughly thirteen men, and Aramis had no problem finding Trousseau by his pale hair amidst the sea of black uniforms. He crouched at the window, four loaded muskets within arm's reach, Porthos at his side, eyes on the door, protecting his back.
"How's the head?" Aramis asked in a low whisper.
"Hard," Porthos replied. "I'll be fine, Aramis."
Aramis glanced to the side. The bruise around Porthos' eye was growing and would be quite nasty for some time, but he couldn't see any visible swelling, which reassured him. If – no, he mentally corrected himself, when – they got out of this, he was going to petition Treville for a week's holiday for all.
"d'Artagnan," Porthos muttered, shaking his head slowly with a small grin reshaping his goatee. "That boy is a wonder."
"Athos is right," Aramis said, almost reluctantly. "He leads with his heart. It's going to get him into trouble one day."
"You'd know a thing or two about that." Porthos remarked casually, catching Aramis' eye with a side glance.
"That is entirely different," Aramis argued. "I'm in complete control of my heart."
"Mmmhmm." Porthos reached out and lifted the exposed rosary Aramis wore around his neck.
Frowning, Aramis tucked the ornate cross back inside his shirt, readjusting his stance once more. With a shallow breath, he turned the conversation back toward d'Artagnan, needing the focus off of him, and, more specifically, his oft wayward love affairs.
"He did become a bit more…desperately reckless after Constance—"
"Shattered his heart like a dropped wine bottle?"
Porthos sighed and craned his neck to look into the courtyard. "Women. Can't trust the lot of them."
"Too bad they're such fascinating creatures, eh?"
Porthos grinned and Aramis refocused his attention on the courtyard. The most dangerous part of this plan was going to be Athos and d'Artagnan walking Benoît through the chaos he was about to create. He needed to be on his guard. His eyes skimmed the soldiers lounging, drinking, or sleeping in various areas of the courtyard.
There were ledges and stairs, a dry fountain in the center, and what could have at one time been a hanging garden off to the side the marble side providing an overhang that several man sat upon, their feet hanging free. Aramis never lost sight of Trousseau. If at all possible, he would make sure that madman did not leave this place.
Then motion caught his eye and he shifted position, his change in demeanor drawing Porthos' attention.
A man moved from the entrance to the manor through the men and straight to Trousseau. His cloak was off and his hat clutched in his hand. If the candle light hadn't caught his pauldron, Aramis might have thought his eyes were playing tricks on him, but there was no mistaking it.
"Fuck me," Porthos whispered angrily. "Lesgle."
"Being completely overpowered in that ambush makes a bit more sense now," Aramis growled, coming up to one knee as he sighted down his barrel at Trousseau.
"Oi, Aramis," Porthos whispered, nodding to his right.
The timing couldn't have been worse. Moving from the back of the courtyard, their uniforms and faces covered by the black cloaks stolen from Le Mans' dead men, were Athos, d'Artagnan, and Benoît.
"We're on," Aramis muttered.
He aimed, but before he could take the first shot, Lesgle turned, following whatever instructions Trousseau had given him, and in that moment spied their men. He called out a warning and Aramis saw Athos draw his sword left-handed.
The man next to Trousseau went down and Porthos handed Aramis the next loaded musket as Aramis continued to fire. It was nearly impossible to keep track of their friends on his own; he was dependent upon Porthos calling out directions as if he were the center point of a time piece and their enemy the minutes.
He saw d'Artagnan battling a man who was clearly overpowering him. Aramis took the shot, felling the man, and saw d'Artagnan stagger slightly before looking up at his window and delivering a salute of thanks. He continued to fire as Porthos continued to load the weapons. He'd cut the opposition in half, d'Artagnan and Athos working through the others when Porthos called out a warning.
They'd been discovered.
Three men broke through their door, meeting Porthos' sword head on…quite literally. The big Musketeer took out the first man through the door and Aramis divided his attention between the final three rounds he could fire and his friend combating two men with only his fists. When the muskets were empty, Aramis stood, grabbed Porthos by his high-necked collar, and hauled him out through the window.
They landed on a shallow ledge, rolled to their bellies, and hung from their fingers for a moment before dropping to the ground.
"Left m'sword up there," Porthos panted.
"No matter," Aramis replied, kicking up a discarded sword from one of the dead soldiers of Le Mans.
Porthos grabbed it and they worked their way through the melee, seeking their friends. Aramis found Athos first, near the dry fountain, just under the hanging garden. He'd kept Benoît close to his right side, his left arm trembling slightly from unfamiliar exertion, but still battling. Aramis used his short sword and took out Athos' opponent, earning a tired nod of thanks. Porthos joined them, covering Athos' back and tucking the young boy behind him.
"Where's d'Artagnan?" Athos asked, winded.
Before Aramis could reply, two of the men who'd discovered their perch charged them from a side entrance. He and Porthos brought up their swords, but before they could engage, d'Artagnan dropped down on the men from the hanging garden like an avenging angel. His short sword ended any thoughts of attack by one of the men and he knocked the other off-balance enough that Porthos was able to finish him.
"There he is," Aramis remarked with a grin, though he eyed their young friend carefully.
d'Artagnan was definitely flagging. Despite the grin that lit his eyes, there were lines of pain he could no longer hide and he was listing pretty severely to the side as he stood. Glancing around, Aramis saw roughly five more men, including, unfortunately, Trousseau, still on their feet. Now was as good a time as any.
Raising his sword in on guard, he demanded of Trousseau, "Where's Lesgle?"
He sensed Athos and d'Artagnan look at him in surprise, but he ignored them, his eyes on Trousseau. The blonde man made his way forward, a smirk twisting his scarred features.
"You want revenge? I want ransom. Let's discuss a trade." He nodded at Benoît still tucked behind Porthos.
The four men pulled in close, backing Benoît to the dry fountain.
"Come now," Aramis replied, sure to keep his voice even despite the rage and disgust he couldn't help feel surge forward. "Surely you don't think we would go through all this trouble just to hand him over to you now?"
"You were betrayed by one of your own," Trousseau reminded. "A Musketeer can't just let that go."
"The life of this boy is worth more than revenge," Aramis replied. "And Lesgle will have to answer to God."
"Not quite yet," Aramis heard and turned as he felt Porthos jerk and cry out.
Behind them, standing in the dry fountain, Lesgle had managed to get a strong grip on Benoît after cracking Porthos on the back of the head, sending the larger man to his knees. d'Artagnan bent down to grab Porthos, helping the man to his feet as Athos faced Lesgle. Aramis turned sideways, not wanting to part his attention from Trousseau.
"I gave you a chance," d'Artagnan said, his voice breathless with the gut-punch of betrayal. "You were free, headed back to Paris."
Lesgle shook his head. "Did you not wonder why I was free, d'Artagnan? Did you think I'd just escaped?"
Helplessly, d'Artagnan nodded and Aramis saw the young man mentally kicking himself for not thinking that one through.
"Why?" Athos demanded.
"Why, Athos? Because we live like dogs, barely above the wretched on the streets, for what? Honor?" Lesgle scoffed. "Honor costs more these days."
He began to back away, pulling Benoît with him. Trousseau moved closer and Aramis leveled his sword. He'd lost track of the other men who were still standing, still threats, but until they were in his line of sight, they couldn't matter. One danger at a time.
"So you would betray your brothers and risk Civil War…for money?" Athos spat, clearly unable to fathom such treachery.
Lesgle faltered for a moment. "I never intended for there to be war," he confessed. "Grantaire…."
"He wasn't supposed to have survived, was he?" Porthos realized.
Lesgle pulled hard on Benoît, causing the young boy to whimper in fear, the first sound Aramis had heard from him since the whole thing started. It made his blood heat with fury and he felt the others tense in reaction.
"Benoît," d'Artagnan said suddenly, and Aramis saw the young Musketeer move forward, closer to Lesgle, his eyes on the boy. "You still have what I gave you?"
Benoît nodded shakily.
"You remember what I told you?"
Benoît nodded again.
"What is this?" Lesgle demanded, shaking Benoît in his grip slightly. "What is he saying to you?"
Aramis felt Trousseau's sword slowly cross his own, almost as if the blonde man was teasing him. He didn't engage, however, seemingly more interested to see how the standoff with Lesgle would proceed. Aramis kept his stance solid, trying to see both Trousseau and d'Artagnan at once.
"Now!" d'Artagnan suddenly barked, rushing Lesgle and Benoît.
Aramis couldn't help himself; he turned to see d'Artagnan grab for Lesgle and miss, his motion giving Benoît the chance he needed to twist out of Lesgle's grasp. With a vicious swing, Lesgle crashed the hilt of his sword against d'Artagnan's head and Aramis saw the young man drop like a stone.
"d'Artagnan!" Athos cried, his voice bleeding with denial as he lunged for Lesgle, hampered by the youth being used as a sheild.
And then, Aramis he felt the pressure of Trousseau's sword against his own blade.
He turned as if in slow motion, knowing he was going to be too late to defend himself, but before he could parry, Porthos surged forward, his wounded head forgotten, a short sword in his hand. Aramis staggered back as Porthos drove the point of his sword under Trousseau's ribs, piercing his lung.
"You will not touch him," Porthos growled, shoving the man to the ground as Trousseau gagged on his own blood.
He turned and Aramis gave his friend a shaky, grateful nod, just as a shot rang out. Aramis and Porthos rotated and saw Benoît holding Treville's pistol in two hands, his eyes squeezed closed and smoke wafting from the barrel as Lesgle stood frozen with his sword raised over a prone d'Artagnan. Lesgle staggered, grabbing at his bleeding side, and looked at Benoît in shock.
Athos stepped forward, once more pulling the boy behind his back, and raised his sword point to Lesgle's throat.
"Aramis is right," Athos said, his voice so cold that Aramis had to suppress a shiver. "You will have to face God. But first, you answer to me."
With that, Athos flicked the blade, opening Lesgle's throat and sending the man toppling backward to paint the interior of the dry fountain with his blood. The three weary Musketeers looked at each other, then turned as one to face the remaining men of Le Mans.
The former soldiers turned and made for the front door and escape; the Musketeers, lacking the strength to do anything about it, let them go. Aramis saw, though, that just as the men stepped through the door, they were halted by something and slowly backed up.
Frowning, he exchanged confused looks with Porthos, then saw to his surprise more than a dozen men from the village filing in with all manner of weaponry. The former soldiers dropped their swords and went to their knees without a word. At that, the Musketeers knew their fight was over. Aramis dropped his sword and immediately turned to find d'Artagnan.
He heard Athos murmuring to Benoît; he couldn't detect the words, but the tone sounded comforting. Dimly he was aware of someone passing the young boy water and sitting him on the edge of the fountain to rest and gather his bearings, but Aramis' sole focus was on their fallen brother.
He turned d'Artagnan over, wincing as he did so to see the gash across the young man's forehead, blood smearing across his already gritty face.
"Is he alive?" Athos asked in a broken voice.
"He is," Aramis assured him, pulling d'Artagnan's cloak away and parting his leather jacket. "But this is going to require needlework," he said, exposing a deep, four-inch gash, still leaking blood, on d'Artagnan's side. "Reckless fool," Aramis said with affection, pushing d'Artagnan's dark hair away from his dirt-streaked face. "Why didn't you tell us?"
"Can you handle it?" Porthos asked, and Aramis realized he was eyeing him worriedly.
"I can, but not here," he looked around. He balled up the edge of d'Artagnan's torn shirt and pressed it to the still-bleeding wound. "Can you carry him outside? Maybe one of our erstwhile rescuers has supplies."
Porthos crouched down, slipping an arm beneath the young man's knees and another under his arms. Aramis helped Porthos lift him, adjusting d'Artagnan's head on Porthos' shoulder so that it didn't hang awkwardly.
"You got him?" Aramis asked.
"He's a lot heavier than 'e looks," Porthos grunted. "Think we're building too much muscle on 'im."
"Doesn't help that you've had your brain knocked around but good," Aramis murmured, watching d'Artagnan closely for signs of waking and Porthos for signs of weakening. He glanced at Athos. "Bring Benoît."
Athos nodded saying nothing in return and Aramis decided at once he didn't like a pale, compliant Athos.
They were going to need help if they were going to make it back to Paris in time to stop Treville from making a very big mistake. Stumbling forward, they started toward the entrance and were halted by a man Aramis recognized from the tavern where they'd taken food. The gaping, yellowed grin wasn't one he was likely to forget anytime soon.
"We are in your debt, sir," Aramis said, offering the man a brief bow.
"We knew 'at boy was gonna get 'iself killed, if 'e didn't have 'elp."
The men looked toward Benoît, frowning in confusion.
"Not 'at boy," the barkeep corrected them, pointing to Benoît, "'at boy." He pointed at d'Artagnan cradled in Porthos' arms. "'e ain't dead, is 'e?"
Aramis shook his head. "He's not, but he needs care." He glanced at Athos and Porthos. "As do my friends. Is there somewhere we can take him?"
The barkeep looked around, his cloudy eyes finally falling on Trousseau's body. Aramis saw the thin shoulders visibly relax. "Monsieur, ya can 'ave whatever we 'ave to give ya."
They followed the barkeep outside and as Aramis drew a breath of clean, pre-dawn air, he felt a renewed strength infuse his tired body. The barkeep began calling to people and shouting instructions. Someone handed him a lantern and he lifted it high, leading the men over to a wagon. Aramis stared around in surprise; it was as if the entire village had decided to come assist on the raid, bringing not only weapons but supplies and provisions. They'd planned on before and after, as it were.
A man Aramis didn't recognize laid a tarp on the ground next to the wagon. Athos guided Benoît to sit at the edge of the tarp, allowing the young boy to keep hold of Treville's now-empty pistol as it seemed to keep him calm. Porthos placed d'Artagnan as gently as he could upon the tarp. Aramis shrugged out of his jacket and pauldron and began to remove d'Artagnan's gear as well until the young man's chest was exposed.
"It is worrisome that he hasn't yet woken," Athos said, kneeling at d'Artagnan's head.
"The body only works if it's regularly rested and fueled," Aramis said, using the pan of hot water that had appeared at his elbow as if by magic to clean the knife wound and then the gash on d'Artagnan's forehead. "He probably didn't pause between returning from his mission to searching for us."
"And, knowing him," Porthos interjected, "he pushed himself to return in record time."
"In short," Aramis looked up at Athos, "he's exhausted."
"And bleeding all over the place," Athos interjected.
"Yes, well," Aramis pressed the cloth he'd used to clean d'Artagnan's wound against the cut, wincing in sympathy as d'Artagnan moaned a bit, then looked at a man who lingered nearby waiting for instructions. "I just need a needle, a bit of thread, and if possible…." He listed out several herbs that he could blend into a poultice to help ward off infection. The man nodded and vanished into the thinning shadows.
"While we wait," he looked to his other friends. "Wash. And Athos? Remove your jacket. I need to set your hand."
"d'Artagnan first," Athos grumbled.
"Yes, yes, of course," Aramis murmured, laying his hand on the young man's chest to reassure himself he was still breathing.
"Athos," Porthos spoke up. "We have to warn Treville."
"Yes, I know. If we can locate a horse—"
"No," Aramis spoke up sharply, surprising even himself. Porthos looked at him in surprise. "You are not riding anywhere, either of you." He looked down at d'Artagnan. "Not without us."
"Aramis—" Athos began.
Aramis shook his head once, stopping Athos' protest. He wasn't willing to hear another word. He'd held on to control this long because he hadn't been weakened by physical pain, but he could feel it slipping. The world swam around him and sound blurred and the only thing grounding him was the beat of a heart beneath the warm skin under his hand. d'Artagnan needed him – he would in all likelihood bleed to death without Aramis' help – and because of that, Aramis knew he could hang on.
But not if they left him behind.
He drew a ragged breath, unable to lift his eyes from d'Artagnan's sweaty face. "Your hand is broken, Athos. You need it set and you need to be careful as you ride. And Porthos, you've had multiple head wounds. You need to be checked for concussion. You need me and I can't leave…," his voice failed him, choking off and slipping between the cracks of his control. He smoothed d'Artagnan's hair back with his free hand. "I can't leave him."
He felt Porthos pull him close, pressing the side of his face against his shoulder, his large hand rubbing the crown of Aramis' head affectionately before he muttered something about him being an fool as well. Athos reached over and gripped his wrist. And Aramis relaxed.
They hadn't needed to speak the promise that they would stay safe, stay with him. He wouldn't have to, as he'd once advised d'Artagnan, find a way to be okay with being alone. Not this time, anyway.
Aramis straightened from Porthos' embrace, clearing his throat and dragging a hand down his face to banish any outward sign of escaping emotion. d'Artagnan stirred slightly when he removed his hand, but didn't wake. Athos called out to one of the men who'd been helping them with supplies.
"We need someone to make a ride to Paris and find Captain Treville of the King's Musketeers," Athos said. "It's crucial that this person be honorable and swift. France depends on this message going through."
"Paris is less than a day's ride from here," the man replied.
Athos nodded. "We need them to get there as quickly as possible. I'll draft the missive."
The man nodded, then whistled, beckoning two others over to him. As Athos handled the message, Aramis received the medicinal materials he'd asked for. Looking up at Porthos, he instructed him to hold d'Artagnan down.
"Last thing I want is for him to wake from the pain and thrash about, causing more damage."
Porthos nodded and positioned himself at d'Artagnan's head, pulling the young man's shoulders up into his lap. Aramis cleaned the needle with the alcohol provided by the villager – a decent brand of Scotch, if his nose was anything to go by – and, after shooting a warning glance to Porthos, poured a generous amount over the wound on d'Artagnan's side.
As predicted, the pain brought d'Artagnan around with a harsh, ragged cry that sent Benoît scurrying away and summoned Athos to his side immediately. d'Artagnan looked around, wild and panicked, clearly disoriented, until Athos caught one hand and Porthos began a low rumble of reassuring words.
"You're safe, lad. We're here, don't fight. All is well, I promise you."
"Benoît?" d'Artagnan croaked.
Aramis remembered the last thing the young man would have seen was Lesgle gripping Benoît as a shield.
"He's fine, d'Artagnan, he's safe," Porthos reassured him. "You did well, lad."
"Athos?" d'Artagnan called, his eyes still rolling a bit wildly, trying to find his solid ground.
Aramis saw Athos tighten his grip on d'Artagnan's hand, leaning forward. "I'm here, d'Artagnan. Relax. We're all here, alive, because of you."
Aramis watched as d'Artagnan's dark eyes finally settled on Athos' face. He recognized the look: d'Artagnan had found his anchor. He willed Athos to erase the worried lines from the boy's face as he readied his needled.
"Everyone?" d'Artagnan gasped, his body tensing as pain climbed through it.
"Everyone," Athos reassured him. "I'm very proud of you, d'Artagnan."
With those words of praise, Aramis saw d'Artagnan relax slightly, allowing Porthos to hold him steady.
"Take heart, d'Artagnan," Aramis said lightly. "You require only half the stitches I placed in Porthos most recently."
"Lucky me," d'Artagnan grumbled, his voice weakening.
Aramis began stitching, never tearing his eyes from his work but feeling every flinch and gasp as d'Artagnan stubbornly refused to simply pass out. Instead he began to swear as the bruised and battered skin was pulled together and resealed.
"Holy Mary Mother of—ah! Good Christ that hurts!"
"Swears like a good Catholic," Porthos smiled, tightening his hold.
d'Artagnan's back bowed at one point in an instinctive move to get away from the pain and Aramis had to stop, listening as the swearing grew both more breathless and more colorful.
"I do believe he's been spending too much time with Athos," Aramis remarked.
"I could just punch 'im," Porthos offered.
"Don't you dare!" Aramis and Athos exclaimed in unison.
Porthos looked wounded. "Didn't mean anything by it," he remarked. "'s what you lot do to me."
"Yes, well, you tend to be much more of a baby about all of this," Aramis remarked, returning to his needlework as d'Artagnan gasped out a helpless laugh.
When his side was stitched and bandaged, Aramis moved to d'Artagnan's forehead. He frowned when he saw the younger man visibly trembling, his hands shaking as they rested on his chest, his jaw shuddering as if he were cold. Resting his hand on d'Artagnan's shoulder he felt the warmth there and knew it wasn't from being chilled.
"There's no shame in succumbing, d'Artagnan," Aramis told him quietly.
d'Artagnan shook his head once. "I can manage it."
"You're exhausted and in pain," Aramis countered. "Your body is warning you; it will shut down on its own if you don't allow it rest."
d'Artagnan simply looked at him, hair clinging to his face in sweaty strands, dark eyes swimming with an unnamed emotion. Porthos gently smoothed the hair from his face and let Aramis work. The gash was shallower and not as long. Rather than subject d'Artagnan to more needles, Aramis pressed a bandage to it and wrapped it around his head, the white standing out in stark contrast to d'Artagnan's dark hair.
Porthos continued to hold d'Artagnan's head and shoulders, submitting to Aramis' examination of his bruises and the knot on the back of his head.
"Not much I'll be able to do for you," Aramis sighed. "Just make sure you rest and don't hit your head again." He lifted a brow. "For a while anyway."
Bandaging Athos turned out to be easier than he'd anticipated. The man was stoic by nature, and stubborn to a fault. Though pale and sweaty in reaction to the manipulation of the bones in his hand, Athos didn't say a word as Aramis wrapped the appendage tightly, then fashioned a sling to keep the hand upright and close to Athos' chest.
"I think he's finally done-in," Porthos reported as he eased out from beneath d'Artagnan's pliant head and covered the young man's bare chest with a cloak. "Still shakin' like a leaf in a thunderstorm, though."
"He needs rest," Aramis looked around as dawn crept across the sky, turning the world a fine, light-grey and slowly making the lanterns ineffective.
"Porthos," Athos implored. "Keep an eye on him. And, Aramis? Get some rest. You look ready to collapse."
"Where are you going?" Aramis asked.
Athos looked at Benoît. "We need to get some food and water."
It would have been easy, Aramis supposed, to have asked the people of the village to take them back to the tavern, give them beds, but once the riders left for Paris with word that Benoît lived, the villagers who'd initiated the rebellion were joined by those who wished to celebrate the victory and soon there were make-shift tents and fires and food being shared on the grounds of the old de Courtilz manor.
Aramis joined Porthos and Athos in the first meal they'd had in over two days, consuming every bit of meat, bread, and cheese the villagers offered them. Athos even tempered his consumption of wine, instead working to make sure d'Artagnan took water, though he was barely awake. As they ate and rested, the world woke up around them.
Unwilling to further trouble the villagers at least until daylight was fully upon them, the men relaxed next to the wagon. Aramis sat closest to d'Artagnan, eyes on the middle distance, thinking of Lesgle and what would have caused the man to go to such great lengths for money, and was the first alerted when d'Artagnan began to twitch restlessly in his sleep. Porthos was stretched out on d'Artagnan's other side, on top of the tarp, and Athos was leaning against one of the trees, both seemingly dead to the world.
Aramis frowned as he smoothed d'Artagnan's hair from his face, feeling warmth there but not yet enough to be alarmed.
"Couldn't stop them," d'Artagnan murmured, his face pulling into a frown beneath the bandage.
"d'Artagnan," Aramis whispered, gently shaking his young friend's shoulder.
d'Artagnan turned his head almost impatiently, muttering something else that Aramis was unable to catch. Gently patting his young friend's face, he called d'Artagnan's name once more. With a gasp and a start, d'Artagnan opened his eyes, staring blankly at Aramis.
"It's Aramis," he said, trying to draw recognition into the young man's eyes.
d'Artagnan blinked at him, uncomprehending, a moment, then frowned and looked around. "Where're we?" he asked, his voice rough and edgy.
"Just outside the Courtilz manor," Aramis reminded him, resting the flat of his hand against d'Artagnan's forehead. "Big battle, saving the King's cousin, you were a hero…."
d'Artagnan's lips quirked as he relaxed into restored memory. "It's coming back to me."
"There he is," Aramis smiled at him. "You were dreaming."
d'Artagnan's eyes clouded once more. "Sorry."
"Don't apologize, d'Artagnan," Aramis implored. "Not one of us here can say he hasn't suffered the same."
d'Artagnan nodded, then started to push himself up.
"Wait, what are you doing?"
"Sitting up," d'Artagnan gasped, his face pale. "Don't like feeling—" He broke off with a pained wince, grimacing a bit as he pressed the flat of his hand to his side.
"Please," d'Artagnan almost begged.
Sighing, Aramis grasped the boy's shoulders and eased him upright, the cloak falling to his lap and exposing his bare chest and bandages. Once up, Aramis had to help maneuver him around until he was leaning against the side of the wagon as holding himself up was clearly beyond his strength at the moment.
Aramis watched as d'Artagnan looked around. "It's morning."
"I'll add astute observation skills to your growing list of talents."
"That was a long night," d'Artagnan commented, leaning his head back and closing his eyes.
"Indeed," Aramis agreed, happy to remain in companionable silence if that's what his friend needed.
When d'Artagnan next spoke, however, his voice was so low and broken Aramis found himself leaning closer so as not to miss anything.
"I didn't…when my father died, I didn't even know he'd been wounded at first."
Aramis waited for the young man to continue, recognizing the need to vocally clear away the cobwebs from a dream. He'd been there himself on more than one occasion.
d'Artagnan took a shaky breath. "I was angry at not having caught the men who'd attacked us. At having failed. The last words I ever said to my father were, I couldn't stop them. It wasn't until he fell next to me that I saw the blood and I—" Aramis watched as d'Artagnan closed his eyes, his throat bobbing as he swallowed. "I was so focused on…on justice I was too late to do anything to protect him."
Aramis knew well that telling d'Artagnan his father's death was not his fault would do little to assuage the boy's grief and guilt. So he chose another tactic.
"You were not too late for us," Aramis informed him. "In fact, you could not have been more on time with your arrival here."
d'Artagnan smiled, then spoke again after a moment. "So…how long do you want to wait around?"
Porthos chuckled, startling Aramis. He hadn't realized the man was awake. "Now you sound like me."
"We could wait the day," Athos said, clearly also awake, and listening. "Ride out tomorrow morning. Give you time to rest."
Aramis shook his head. These two were clearly skilled at playing 'possum when there was information to be had. He would need to watch that in the future.
"I can rest at home," d'Artagnan stated.
Before Aramis could point out that they hadn't secured horses, the gap-toothed barkeep ambled up, a large bundle in his arms. Porthos scrambled up and relieved him of the load, setting it on the ground and opening it up. Their weapons. And Aramis' hat.
"Found these over by the 'orses," the barkeep informed them. "Figured they'd be yours."
"Thank you, my good man," Aramis replied with a smile, clapping his hat jauntily on his head. "Thank you very much indeed."
"Also found a big black 'orse yonder," the barkeep said, jerking his chin in the direction of the woods. "'ad 'imself a fancy saddle."
d'Artagnan slid hooded, tired eyes to Athos. "August."
"We can spare three other 'orses, when ya wanna 'ead out."
"We thank you for it," Athos said, standing and following the man to the corral.
Aramis nudged Porthos with his foot and nodded toward Athos, indicating the big man should follow. Looking over at Benoît sleeping at the edge of the tarp, Aramis sighed. It felt strange to call this a win, but they were returning home with everyone alive. That had to mean something.
"Benoît's father will have to come to Paris for him," Aramis mused. "I can't imagine the lad will be up for another adventure quite so soon."
"Saved my life," d'Artagnan murmured softly.
"I believe he was merely returning the favor," Aramis replied, handing d'Artagnan the leftover breakfast and making him eat as they waited for the horses to arrive.
Once saddled, all weapons on board, and Benoît awake, Aramis helped d'Artagnan pull on a clean shirt and his brown leather jacket. Easing the young man to his feet, Aramis stayed close as d'Artagnan wavered, less steady than even he thought he'd be. There was no way he'd sit a horse for the ride to Paris; however with five riders and four horses among them, it seemed to work out perfectly.
"I'll take him with me," Athos immediately offered, atop August. "My horse is the strongest mount here."
"Yes, but you've only one hand at the moment," Aramis reminded him, "and you'll need that to ride, not keep him from falling."
"I can keep myself from falling," d'Artagnan protested.
"You can barely keep your feet, lad," Porthos observed as d'Artagnan swayed against Aramis.
"I'll take him," Aramis decided. "I want to keep an eye on his fever."
He didn't miss Athos' sharp glance and knew the man was about to suggest they wait it out when d'Artagnan reached for the saddle of Aramis' horse. He could barely get his foot in the stirrup; it took both Aramis and Porthos to get him astride and once there, he went extremely white.
Aramis mounted quickly, using his arms as a brace to support his wounded friend. d'Artagnan sagged against him for a moment, then pulled himself as upright as he could, declaring that he was ready to ride.
"You'll tell me if you need to stop, yes?" Aramis asked.
"Of course," d'Artagnan muttered, the lie clear as the daylight now dancing over the tents spread around the manor grounds.
Porthos set Benoît on his horse, then mounted. Aramis nodded to Athos.
It was to be a long ride home.
Commitment to the life of a Musketeer sometimes meant great sacrifice. All too often, men went without home and hearth, without a women, without children, the justification for this seen in the security of King and country, in the lives of their brothers. For Captain Treville, however, sacrifice also meant the lives of those men within the brotherhood.
Each time he sent them out on a mission – in groups or alone – he knew in his heart it could be the last time he'd see them. There were dangers on the road that no amount of training could protect the men, and some nefarious acts that no amount of honor could spare them from. When he saw them ride back into the garrison alive – if not always whole – a part of him was able to breathe once more.
Since the moment Grantaire stepped into his office with word on his lips that four of his men were dead, Treville hadn't slept. Sharing the news with the King that his young cousin was reported dead as well had been one of the hardest moment of his long career as a soldier.
But what had come next was worse.
He'd been ordered to prepare his troops for battle – on French soil – and a soldier follows orders. No matter that he'd sent the youngest in his regiment on a suicide mission after a blind hope. No matter that they were six men down. No matter that his heart had stopped beating several nights ago and he was now a walking shell of a man, learning once more how to move forward with the death of his men on his conscience.
The King had cried. War was demanded. There was nothing for it.
The afternoon they were preparing to ride toward Mortagne, three men thundered into the garrison, calling to speak to Captain Treville of the Musketeers. When they'd handed him the missive, he'd been relieved, but when he inquired why Athos himself hadn't brought it, he'd been alarmed. Sending three of his men to the King and Cardinal to report the news, he rallied four other men to come with him and they had ridden toward Mortagne anyway.
This time, however, it was not for war. It was for rescue.
They met up with the returning Musketeers and their young royal charge as the day thinned and the hour stretched toward evening. He saw Benoît and his heart beat once more. Porthos' imposing figure came next followed closely by Athos, though it was clear his Lieutenant was wounded by the way he held his right arm close to his chest.
Last he saw Aramis – the feather in his hat bouncing jauntily with the gait of his horse, belying the drawn expression of the man beneath it – with d'Artagnan held in front of him, limp in his arms. Calling for the men with him to halt, Treville waited until the battered group reached them.
"Report," Treville demanded instinctively, though what he'd wanted to say was much different.
Athos pushed his mount forward, though Treville couldn't keep his eyes from straying to the worrisome figure of d'Artagnan, unconscious against Aramis, head handing low enough that his long hair covered his eyes.
"The villain Trousseau is dead. His…," Athos faltered.
"Bandits," Porthos supplied.
"His bandits have either been killed or captured," Athos continued. "And Lesgle is among them."
Treville brought his chin up, having not anticipated this news. "You're saying Lesgle is a traitor?"
"I'm saying he betrayed the Musketeers, orchestrated the kidnapping of the King's cousin, and was party to the near-murder of four other Musketeers."
"You have proof of this?" Treville inquired.
"Yes," Benoît spoke up, surprising all men present. "I can tell the King."
Treville's nod of assent was more like a bow of respect.
He looked at d'Artagnan. "Will he live?"
"No one has faith in my skills anymore," Aramis sighed. Athos cleared his throat, and Aramis addressed Treville once more, "He needs rest and time to heal. He was wounded during his efforts to rescue us, and while serious, they are not mortal."
Treville felt a pain cut through him, looking at d'Artagnan's young face. The boy was barely past twenty years and he had sent him up against monsters with nothing more than a pistol and some bread.
"He should never have been allowed to leave the garrison," Treville voiced his assessment.
"Sir, if I may," Athos countered. "d'Artagnan saved us. If it hadn't been for him, we would not be here before you."
Treville lifted his chin once more, unsure if his Lieutenant was covering for the young soldier or speaking in earnest.
"It's true, Captain," Porthos chimed in. "He defeated five of Trousseau's men—"
"Four," Aramis corrected with a tilt of his head.
Porthos sighed. "Four of Trousseau's men to rescue us from chains."
"After he found me," Benoît supplied, pulling Treville's own pistol from his cloak. "And provided me with a pistol to protect myself."
"And then was key in working with us to overcome a dozen of Trousseau's men in our efforts to get Benoît free," Aramis concluded. "In short, we are quite grateful to you, Captain, for ensuring he did leave the garrison."
Treville slid his eyes across the five riders, his heart filled with pride at their report. "As you say," he nodded. "My only regret is that d'Artagnan isn't able to hear your words."
"We can always repeat them when he wakes," Aramis smiled. "But if it's not too much trouble, the longer we linger here, the warmer he grows and I—"
Treville held up a hand. "Say no more." He turned to the four riders with him. "Head to Mortagne, help them clean up from the battle and bring Lesgle's body back with you. Traitor or not, he was a Musketeer and is our responsibility."
The men nodded, each tipping their hats to the exhausted riders, and took off down the road. Treville turned and rode ahead of the group, bringing Benoît up to his side and talking with the young boy about his experiences on the ride back to Paris.
It was night when they returned to the garrison and Treville encouraged the men to seek food, rest, and what medical help they required as he returned Benoît to the King. By the time the formalities had been seen to, and his pistol had been, reluctantly, returned, it was nearing midnight. He knew where he'd find his men, however.
He knocked on the door of Athos' room in the garrison and smiled when Porthos opened to let him in.
"How is he?"
The big man had changed from his heavy studded jacket into a simple shirt and breeches. "He's taken a fever, but Aramis is hopeful that rest will cure him of it."
Porthos stepped back and allowed Treville to enter the small room, which should have felt crowded with five men inside, but for some reason simply felt like home. Aramis and Athos were now dressed similarly to Porthos and it was clear that they'd each washed a bit of the dirt and blood that had littered their uniforms and faces earlier.
d'Artagnan lay on Athos' narrow bed, sheets pulled up to his waist, his chest bare save for the bandage that Aramis was re-wrapping. The bandage that had been wrapped around his head earlier had been removed and his hair stuck to his forehead in sweaty strands. Athos sat on a backwards-turned chair in the corner of the small room, and looked across at him, not standing as he might when they met in official capacity.
"How was he when you told him about us?" Athos asked, his right hand bound with thicker bandages and once more close to his chest.
"He was, understandably, distraught," Treville replied.
"Had he eaten? Rested?" Aramis asked, sitting on the floor next to d'Artagnan's bed.
Treville glanced down, shaking his head. "I do not know. Though I doubt it. He manages to complete his solitary rides in half the time it takes everyone else."
"'Cause he wants to get back 'ere," Porthos murmured. "To us."
Treville nodded. "Yes, I believe so."
"He has proven his value to this regiment, Captain," Athos stated.
"Athos, you know, as I do, the sacrifice being a Musketeer requires." Treville stared at the man, knowing more about the darkness that plagued his Lieutenant than Athos would ever realize. "Are you ready to sentence him to such a life?"
"Yes," Athos replied without pause. "And moreover, he's ready for it."
"He's the best of us, Captain," Porthos said quietly, and Treville saw Aramis nod in agreement.
"Let him be the soldier you trust each of us to be," Aramis implored, his voice a low rumble, weariness dancing around every syllable.
Treville looked at them, each in turn meeting his eyes unflinchingly. He then gazed on the restless figure of d'Artagnan, the young man's face pulled into a frown of pain. He sighed, letting his worry and heartbreak at the thought of their deaths escape with his exhale.
"You're all exhausted," he said. "Go rest. I'll sit with d'Artagnan."
"Sir, I—" Aramis began to protest.
"That's an order, Aramis," Treville replied. "One of you can relieve me in the morning. Athos, you can take d'Artagnan's quarters as you've given yours up for the time being."
Reluctantly, they nodded, each rising and slowly moving toward the door. Aramis gave him instructions about keeping d'Artagnan cool, making sure he took water, and coming to get him if the wound bled or fever spiked. Treville practically pushed the man through the door; he'd cared for wounded soldiers many times before.
Pulling the chair Athos had vacated up next to d'Artagnan's side, Treville sat, leaning forward so that his elbows rested on his knees.
"How much of that did you hear?"
d'Artagnan's eyes opened to slits. "How did you know I was awake?" he asked, his voice sounding like crushed glass.
Wincing in sympathy, Treville poured some water and eased the boy's head up slightly, helping him drink. "You looked to be in too much pain to be sleeping."
Laying back, eyes closed once more, d'Artagnan confessed, "I heard you come in."
"Their pride is earned, d'Artagnan," Treville told him. "You did well."
"Managed to get myself injured," he muttered, fever and weariness allowing the young man to address his Captain with more casualness than Treville had heard when they spoke in official capacity. Treville decided to follow suit for the moment.
"Soldiers rarely walk from a battlefield unscathed," Treville informed him. "Whether it's a wound that can be stitched or bandaged, or one that no one ever sees, we all carry the scars of battle."
He watched as d'Artagnan blinked slowly at him, eyes cloudy with pain.
"My father," d'Artagnan began, then paused as his side pained him enough to capture his breath. Treville watched the young man press a hand to his side, then relax as it passed. "He said that to be a soldier was to lose yourself."
"You father was a…farmer, correct?"
d'Artagnan nodded, running the tip of his tongue over his dry lips. The lack of fight and stubbornness he'd come to expect from the young Gascon told Treville just how weary his soldier truly was. Treville helped him drink once more, then took a cloth and wet it, gently smoothing d'Artagnan's hair from his face, and cooling the fever he felt burning there. He talked as he did this, not wanting d'Artagnan to feel self-conscious at having his Captain care for him in such a way.
"Farmers bring life; it is precious to them, as they have it in their power to create and sustain it. And through that power, they can keep others alive and thriving."
d'Artagnan blinked hard, forcing his eyes to stay open, clearly needing to hear his Captain's words.
"Soldiers protect life, but in doing so, at times have to destroy it. Each time you take a life – even when there is no other choice, or when death is deserved – it chips away a piece of you. So, in a way, your father was right."
"How do you get it back?" d'Artagnan asked in a rough, achingly young voice.
"You don't, I'm afraid," Treville sighed, cooling the cloth once more and placing it on d'Artagnan's forehead. "You learn to live without it, or you fill the hole with something else."
"Like…brothers," d'Artagnan whispered.
Treville watched as the boy surrendered his fight, eyes fluttering closed, body relaxing into the bed.
"Exactly," he whispered back, leaning back in his chair and watching the young soldier sleep.
d'Artagnan stirred twice more during Treville's watch, both times with a murmured dream that pulled his brow low, puckering the gash on his forehead, and causing Treville to quiet him with cool clothes and reassuring words. When the door to the room opened just as dawn's light graced the opened window, Treville was unsurprised to find Athos, rather than Aramis, step inside.
"Aramis needs rest," Athos explained. "He didn't sleep once while we were captured."
Treville stood. "I'm taking you all off of rotation for at least a week." He glanced at d'Artagnan. "Maybe two for some." He touched Athos' bound hand. "It will heal?"
Athos nodded. "Aramis seems unconcerned." He graced Treville with a rare, half-smile. "And I trust him."
"As do I," Treville smiled in return. "He's been restless, but sleeping," he said nodding toward d'Artagnan who was once more shifting in the bed. "His fever is down, though."
Athos nodded and moved further into the room, then paused and put a hand on Treville's arm to stop him from leaving.
"Thank you, Captain," Athos said, the sincerity of the words a balm on Treville's calloused heart.
"The job of a Captain is more than drafting orders, you know," Treville informed him. "If not for the man beside us, who would we be?"
Athos nodded, his lips almost teased to a smile, then turned and sat in the chair next to d'Artagnan. Treville saw the young man stir, eyes blinking open, clouded with confusion as he worked to focus on the figure next to him.
"Good morning," Athos greeted, his voice strong and sure, drawing instant clarity into the young man's eyes. "Still in my bed, I see."
There was something powerful about the sound of the human voice, Treville thought as he lingered in the doorway. The emotion caught in that sound could cut through the chaos and drive one forward, a near-tangible reminder that no one is alone in the madness. Athos' good morning was to d'Artagnan I see you, I know you, I am watching out for you. His Lieutenant may not acknowledge it, but he had a powerful voice. Treville had seen its effect. His voice demanded attention and insisted on action. It compelled men to listen and to believe even when everything inside of them was screaming denial.
"'s good to see you," d'Artagnan rasped, his smile like a hand grasping the rope that pulled him to safety.
It was painfully evident to Treville, if not yet to Athos, that d'Artagnan's wounded spirit had anchored itself in Athos, finding the reassurance there that he'd lost when his father had been murdered.
"It's good to see you, too," Athos replied, and with that, Treville took his leave.
He remained true to his word, keeping the four off of rotation for some time. Aramis had insisted on d'Artagnan staying in bed for another day before the lad was up and moving slowly across the courtyard to join his friends at the table for breakfast. Unnoticed above them, Treville was able to stand outside his office, leaning against the balcony, and listen to their gentle banter.
That first day, they were careful with d'Artagnan, Porthos ultimately assisting the boy up the stairs to his own quarters with one of d'Artagnan's arms flung across his shoulders when it was clear he was wearing down. After that, though, Treville watched as they each pushed at each other, slowly at first, testing limits and boundaries, not looking to hurt, but to strengthen.
Athos' hand took longer than d'Artagnan's side to get to a point where he could move it without the tale-tell flash of pain crossing his features. Porthos was often times forced to sit suddenly as his head would pain him unexpectedly. And Aramis…well, that surprised Treville.
Aramis' scars were less from this particular battle than they were from times before; scars from his past left raw and bleeding. He seemed unable to relax unless at least one of the other three were near him. He kept a wary and watchful eye on d'Artagnan as if expecting the lad to keel over at any moment.
It was Athos who kept Aramis grounded. Athos with his stoic expressions, dry humor, and stubborn determination pushed at Aramis to re-engage in a soldier's life. He began to enforce training sessions one week after their return, setting up targets that they each could hit blindfolded, but Treville saw it for what it was: rebuilding confidence.
Once d'Artagnan was able to move without tearing open his stitches or going white from pain, Aramis began working with him on his sword skills once more and Treville was impressed with what he saw. Porthos worked with the other recruits, getting his strength back by tossing the unsuspecting men over his shoulder – or head, depending on the man – and wrestling with whoever was fool enough to take his challenge.
Athos had become quite adept at throwing knives and wielding his sword with his left hand, but the day Treville saw him grip a sword with his right, he knew it was time to get them back into the fight. The four men were sitting at the table, laughing about some tale Porthos had just finished when Treville called them up to his office from his balcony.
"There is a man in Nice who is in possession of some sensitive material pertaining to the treaty with Austria," he said the moment they'd entered the office.
Aramis' eyebrows bounced. "What sort of…sensitive material?"
Treville forced himself to frown, though he'd known to expect that question. "That is none of your concern. Your orders are to collect the man and return him to Paris – unharmed – as quickly as possible."
He handed the orders to Athos who took them with a nod as Porthos squared his stance and waited for their game plan.
"Sir, if I may," d'Artagnan said, clearing his throat. "What of my orders?"
"Did I give the impression this was a selective mission?" Treville replied, purposely gruff.
d'Artagnan shook his head, glancing quickly askance at Athos.
"You are a Musketeer, d'Artagnan," Treville continued, standing and leaning his fists on his desk. "Your orders are to protect King and country," he narrowed his eyes, "and watch the backs of your brothers. Because without you, they seem to get themselves into a great deal of trouble."
Aramis and Athos grinned, looking at d'Artagnan.
"Get into more trouble with him, you ask me," Porthos muttered good-naturedly.
"Nobody asked you," d'Artagnan returned, his smile lighting up his face.
"Go on, then," Treville waved them from the office. "These missions don't complete themselves."
He watched as the four filed from the room, Athos resting a hand on d'Artagnan's shoulder, his only sign of congratulations. Treville wasn't certain how it had happened; new recruits came and left every day. Some made it into the regiment, some washed out, each one giving it their all in the time they were present. But something different had occurred the day d'Artagnan arrived. Something subtle yet vital had slipped into his ranks, and into three of his best men.
He sat at his desk for some time after they'd left, listening to the life outside of his opened window, the garrison living and breathing with the lives of the men under his charge. Men he had to be willing send to their deaths, if necessary. Men he respected and admired. Men he depended upon to do what was right, no matter the cost. They were soldiers, and soldiers follow orders, even to their death. But there were times, he knew, that his men had defied death. When their hearts beat stronger because they beat for each other.
Before, they had a bond. Now, they had a heartbeat.
And Treville suspected that would be their salvation.
A/N: I thank you for taking time to read. Would love to hear from you if you enjoyed. Or even if you didn't. One learns best from one's peers, after all. I'll leave it to you all if I should write more in this fandom.
As a note, the names of the additional Musketeers, Grantaire and Lesgle, were borrowed from another of my favorite novels about French revolutionaries and brotherhood, Les Miserables. The cities and counties mentioned were actual cities and counties in France in the 17th century, but beyond that, everything about them and their populace is totally fiction.