A/N: Anyone else given up on this story yet? Anyone still here and actually interested? I've really been struggling with a certain section of this story (which makes up the next 2-3 chapters). But most of the delay has to do with RL and personal issues (2017 has been a hell of a year). But...here is a real update.
And to prove that I do, in fact, have a plan for this crazy story...this is the chapter where a tiny mistake that Aramis made way back in chapter one comes back to haunt him.
As their captivity wore on, Cordero grew more and more restless. Aramis watched from a distance as he shifted around, moving to check on a few of his men, and then resettled back in his chosen spot against a tree before inevitably growing restless and repeating the whole sequence again. He glanced about the camp, and Aramis was fairly certain that he was counting their guards, tracking the musketeers' movements and calculating how many men he would need to overpower their captors. The answer seemed to be too many.
Though Cordero avoided him studiously, Aramis could see the combination of tension and helpless inactivity wearing on the lieutenant. It was understandable, of course, but worrisome. An anxious man was an unpredictable one. And Cordero had never been terribly predictable to start with.
It was nearing dusk when a call went up through the camp. The guards turned away, orders were quickly exchanged, and the camp jolted to life. Something was happening.
Aramis shot a glance at Cordero only to see him frozen in place, muscles tense. He'd gathered his feet up under him, poised in a low crouch, ready to spring.
Eyes widening in realization, Aramis took in his stance, the slackness to the ropes around his wrists that spoke of methodical, painful action as he'd worked to loosen his bonds. The pieces fit together and hit Aramis with a jolt of surprise. Cordero had been waiting for this. Well, not this exactly, but for any distraction that might serve as an opportunity.
He was going to make a break for it.
As if feeling his second officer's gaze, Cordero turned towards him, their eyes locking. For one moment, Aramis saw Cordero's uncertainty as he must have weighed his loyalty to his men against his need to escape and report to his superiors. Aramis stared back in shock, then nodded pointedly toward the Spanish soldiers huddled around them, warily watching their captors with barely disguised fear written across their faces.
Cordero shook his head and looked away, searching the trees at the edge of the French camp for the clearest line of escape. Aramis opened his mouth to say something—to stop him, to call for help, to…Aramis didn't know what.
But before he could say anything, he heard the heavy tread of soldiers approaching and a rough laugh, triumphant and echoing with congratulations. He knew that laugh.
"I told you we'd find him, didn't I?" The voice of a bragging musketeer. The voice of Aramis's best friend, exalting in a victory, so familiar that it ached. Aramis turned to look, straining to see past the guards and musketeers gathered about. And then he saw Porthos dragging a man who was bound and gagged, a black eye forming on the side of his face. D'Artagnan was at Porthos's side and they'd attracted a small crowd. Marcoux was the one offering his congratulations. Porthos clapped him on the back and then grabbed his newfound friend with the black eye. "Better put this one away for safekeeping." He laughed again, manhandling the prisoner as he moved through the crowd, brushing people aside and taking a deliberate path straight past the Spanish prisoners. It was a show of strength, purposefully gloating to their Spanish captives that they had apprehended another of their co-conspirators.
Aramis stared at the bound man, taking in the well-made clothes paired with the dark hair and eyes. He'd never seen the man before, but he looked well-off, perhaps a merchant or a landowner. He could have been Spanish, given his coloring, although the clothing was more traditionally French in style. Perhaps to disguise any connections with Spain. Living this close to the border, the man would have had to be careful to maintain all outward appearances of being solely devoted to France. God knew how quick people were to make assumptions, even before the war. Aramis had experienced that himself enough times, even as a born and bred Frenchman.
As they dragged him along, clearly parading their newest acquisition, Porthos briefly glanced across the Spanish prisoners, his gaze catching for one nearly imperceptible second on Aramis.
Aramis felt his breath catch as he caught the silent message in Porthos's gaze.
This was their French informant, the one who'd been passing intelligence to Cordero. They'd found him. They'd actually found him.
His eyes darted back to Cordero, finding him still positioned at the opposite end of the prisoner's camp, frozen in his crouched position. But the distraction he'd hoped to use to his advantage had now backfired. His escape had been cut off, guards now swarming about the group as Porthos's little display attracted attention from the other musketeers who had gathered about the prisoners in a way that felt even more threatening.
But Cordero didn't seem to notice the lost change of escape. His eyes were locked on Porthos and the bound man he held fast in his grip. Cordero's jaw tightened and then, as Porthos moved away, presumably to present his prize before the captain, Cordero swung round to lock eyes with Aramis.
For a moment, neither of them moved, simply stared at one another, both understanding what their companions could not—that this changed everything. Then Cordero's gaze darkened and he lunged.
In just a few quick strides he'd moved to land in front of Aramis, his hands suddenly free as he drew back and punched Aramis square in the face. Head snapping to the side, Aramis reeled as Cordero threw a second punch from his back foot, putting his full weight behind it. It hit like a hammer to the side of his head and Aramis gasped, raising loosely bound hands to shield himself. He felt two sharp strikes to his midsection as the world erupted into shouting, a mix of sharp French commands combined with shocked exclamations, both Spanish and French, and the sound of Cordero spitting and cursing. The yelling battered at him, as the ringing in his ears cleared enough for Aramis to realize the blows had ceased, though a pair of hands now restrained him.
"You lying bastard, Renato," Cordero snarled, still swearing in Spanish. "This is down to you. I don't know how, but somehow it's you."
"Get him out of here!" d'Artagnan called. "Separate the prisoners. And re-bind him! How did he even get free in the first place?" Aramis heard a vague muttering of answers from their guards, but d'Artagnan cut them off. "It doesn't matter. Do whatever it takes. Tie them hand and foot if you have to! I want these men secured."
There were a chorus of "yes, sirs," and Aramis had to suppress a hysterical laugh at the way the guards leapt to do d'Artagnan's bidding. It looked like their apprentice musketeer was all grown up. He bit his tongue to stop the playful teasing that jumped to his lips.
A gasp of pain sent those thoughts skittering away as others guards yanked him upright, grabbing at his arms and feet to secure him, then retying his hands before shoving him back to the ground. Aramis didn't resist, just let himself collapse back onto the ground and focused on breathing.
Only later, when the blurriness in his vision subsided and his breathing evened out did Aramis understand what Cordero's outburst had cost them all. All of the prisoners were now rebound with ropes around both wrists and ankles. Aramis tugged on his wrists only to meet sharp resistance. He looked down to find a length of rope stretching from his bound wrists and secured to a nearby tree, tethering him in place at one end of the prisoners' confined corner of the camp. At the opposite end of this space, sat Cordero, similarly bound and tied to another tree. Even at the maximum length allowed by their respective ropes, they would be kept far away from one another. A glance around showed the others were not tethered, but their guards had been doubled.
Aramis tugged at his ropes again, feeling the bite even through the rough bandages hidden beneath his bonds. The tugging was futile, and Aramis felt like an unruly dog who'd been leashed.
He snorted softly. Athos and Porthos had once said that they should put him on a leash to curb his restless tendency to wander off on his own. It had been a joke then, a response to finding Aramis wandering into the garrison late for morning muster after a lingering morning in his mistress's bed. The joke had been accompanied by a hearty laugh (Porthos) and a wry snort (Athos). It was, Aramis realized, rather less funny now.
Again, he scanned the prisoners and their downcast faces before turning his attention back to Cordero. The lieutenant bled from a fresh cut above his eye, one more bruise to join his already impressive collection. And he glared at Aramis with thinly veiled hatred.
"Well, that could have gone better." D'Artagnan grimaced as he and Porthos emerged from the tent where he had just stowed Aubertin, keeping him secure and out of sight until they learned more.
"Eh, I don't know. If keeping the lieutenant and his men off guard was the goal, then I'd say we're doing just fine."
"Yeah, but Porthos, you saw the way he reacted as soon as he saw Aubertin."
"I did, yeah."
"And it confirmed everything we thought we knew. This guy was his informant, and now he knows that their whole mission is screwed. We've caught them red-handed."
"And he also knows that Aramis is involved."
Porthos blew out a long breath. "Yeah. It sure looked that way."
"Maybe not," Marcoux piped up. Porthos and d'Artagnan both turned to him, wearing mirrored expressions of doubt and curiosity.
"Well, the two of them have been at each other's throats for days. Cordero may suspect, but there's no way he can be certain. All he does know is that Aramis…er, Renato doesn't trust him and he doesn't trust Renato."
"You don't really believe that, do you?" d'Artagnan asked.
Marcoux just shrugged. "You haven't seen them as much as I have. Trust me. Those prisoners are confused and they're scared. Even the lieutenant."
"Yeah. But I'm not sure that 'paranoid and desperate' is exactly what we should be aiming for here," Porthos said. "A desperate man is an unpredictable one."
"Well, let's just hope that Cordero's desperation continues to play into our hands," Marcoux said.
"And that Aubertin gives us the information we need to get Aramis out of this mess," d'Artagnan added.
It was the next morning when Athos finally had time to confer with the others over a slightly soggy camp breakfast. Athos had spent much of the previous night with their new acquisition, and while Aubertin had been reluctant, he was no seasoned soldier. He hadn't spilled all his secrets, of course, but he'd revealed enough.
He lived near the border of French and Spanish territory, and it was clear he'd been making quite a profit from his precarious existence, earning Spanish gold in exchange for French secrets, gathering gossip from friends, neighbors, or soldiers stationed nearby, and then selling it to the Spanish. He seemed to be a mere opportunist, but Athos suspected there may be more to it than that. It was possible that he wasn't acting alone. After all, there may be other disillusioned civilians looking to make a profit from the war. If Aubertin had a network of his own, a disparate group of informants and spies, scattered across the surrounding countryside, then this operation could be spread throughout the whole province. But even if that were the case, without Aubertin to serve as the focal point for their intelligence network, Cordero's raids would never have been this successful.
"Do you think it will be enough?" d'Artagnan asked over breakfast, as Athos shared when he'd learned.
Athos shrugged. "It will certainly disrupt the Spanish stream of information, at least for the time being. Besides, he implied that Cordero is the mastermind behind the raids. Without Aubertin to supply information and Cordero to coordinate the attacks, their strategy will fall apart. At least until they build a new network of informants. Either way, it will keep our troops safe for now."
"And buy Aramis his freedom?" Porthos asked.
Athos shrugged again.
"I wish you wouldn't say it like that," d'Artagnan mumbled. "It makes Aramis sound like a slave."
"He might as well be."
"We all are, in a way." Athos stood and stretched.
A commotion outside drew their attention to the tent flap just before an out-of-breath soldier rushed in.
"Sorry, captain," he said, between harsh breaths. "Didn't mean to…interrupt." He glanced at each of them. "But we just heard…" he waved one hand behind him, gasping.
"Speak up, man," Porthos chided.
"Sorry," the young soldier apologized again. "Our lookouts just reported riders, heading this way."
"Spanish?" Athos asked. Porthos and d'Artagnan were already rising from their seats, reaching for discarded sword belts and buckling them deftly.
"No, captain. French. An emissary from Paris with full guard."
D'Artagnan looked at Athos, one eyebrow raised. "Tréville's messenger?"
Athos nodded. "Likely. He should have received my message a few days ago."
"No, sirs," the soldier interrupted. Three sets of eyes turned to stare at him. "Sorry, I mean, yes sirs, but it isn't…" He took another breath. "I mean to say it's not a messenger. It's the first minister himself."
D'Artagnan's hand slipped off the belt he'd been in the process of buckling. Porthos stopped and stared at the soldier intently. "You're sure?" The soldier nodded.
"Well," Athos said drily. "This should make for some interesting conversation."
He ignored the dark look that crossed Porthos's face as he strode out into the camp, ready to meet Tréville as soon as he arrived.
Aramis leaned back on the ground, eyes closed as he tried to block out the world around him.
"What if they come back for us?" Ramón whispered from somewhere nearby.
"They seem awfully busy at the moment," Garza replied.
Aramis ignored them, not even cracking one eyelid.
Another restless night, tied and bound, with no news from his musketeer friends and only tense silence from his Spanish comrades, had left him fed up and out of patience. Porthos's mission seemed to have been a success, and yet he'd not even had the decency to tell Aramis the outcome of his mission—a mission he'd only been able to accomplish based on information Aramis had supplied.
Though he wouldn't admit it out loud, Aramis was sulking.
He watched the patterns of light and shadow shift behind his eyelids with the shafts of sunlight filtering through the trees. He could almost imagine he was somewhere peaceful—laying in a field of fresh grass under a sunny sky, perhaps—were it not for the shouts of musketeers and the sound of horses.
"I'm telling you, something's going on." Matías this time, voice tight with worry.
"Just don't attract attention," Graza hissed.
"But what if—"
But now that they'd disturbed his peaceful imaginings, Aramis realized there were other sounds. That wasn't just a few horses neighing or stamping their feet. It was the sound of riders. How many? Half a dozen or more, if he had to guess. And those musketeers weren't just calling friendly greetings and casual orders to one another. There was surprise and a fission of anxiety tinging those voices. It almost reminded him of the way young soldiers would call out in surprise when their commanding officer caught them unawares…
Aramis's eyes snapped open and he sat up suddenly.
No. It couldn't be.
His Spanish comrades were sitting nearby, but no one paid him any heed, all eyes focused on the musketeers bustling hurriedly about camp.
There was no doubt about it now. This was not the normal buzz of camp activity.
Two musketeers, Bernard and another who Aramis did not know, stood guard nearest to the prisoners. Both shifted uncomfortably, until Bernard reached out to snag a passing officer.
"What's going on?" Bernard whispered. He spoke French, but the prisoners strained to listen regardless, though only Aramis could possibly understand. Aramis cast a glance over his shoulder to examine the other half of their Spanish party. Cordero was also straining to hear, his loyal followers crowded around him.
"Stay where you are," the other musketeer told Bernard. "You've not been relieved of your station."
"But what's going on? Why is everyone else…?"
"Stay there, and stay quiet," the musketeer said, voice low and firm.
"It's the first minister," the musketeer hissed.
"What? Here?" Bernard exclaimed. "Morbleau!"
"Exactly. Who knows what we've done to attract his attention. So be on your best behavior—all of you!"
Aramis had to choke back his own curse. He looked quickly between the musketeers as they straightened themselves to attention and then to the prisoners gathered around. He saw Garza, Francis, and Beltrán staring at the musketeers, obviously sensing the crackling tension throughout the camp. Vicente glanced between the musketeers and Cordero, as if hoping his lieutenant would give him some form of guidance. Ramón avoided all eye contact, looking down, clenching his hands to keep them from shaking.
But Matías ignored the musketeers, staring at Aramis with an unreadable expression. He opened his mouth as if to say something, then snapped it closed, eyes wide and jaw tight. Aramis met his eyes for a moment, raising an eyebrow in silent question.
"You…" Matías broke off, shaking his head. His frown deepened before his gaze returned to Aramis, hesitantly. "What did they say?" he whispered, voice tight.
"An official just arrived. I think…" Aramis paused and looked away.
"What?" Matías demanded.
"I think they said it was a minister…from Paris."
The other prisoners exchanged nervous glances.
"But if that's true…" Garza said slowly, "why would he be here?"
"Intelligence. He thinks someone here has it. That's the only reason a senior war minister would be out in the field."
Almost as if they were one being, the Spanish soldiers all shifted to glance at Cordero. And sure enough, two guards were already moving towards him, hauling the lieutenant away. Cordero cast a single backwards glance at Aramis, jaw tight and eyes accusatory.
Aramis felt his shoulders tense, and he knew he wouldn't need to feign nervousness when it was his turn to be taken away. This was not an interrogation he was looking forward to.
"So what happens now?" Garza asked in a small voice, his youthful bravado falling away.
Aramis swallowed the lump in his throat as he stared off in the direction Cordero had been taken. "I don't know. But I suspect we'll find out soon enough."
He turned back to face the others and found Matías still staring at him, lips pressed tightly together and his expression guarded. Aramis raised an eyebrow again, but Matías merely turned away with a frown, refusing to meet his eyes.