Summary: A much needed addition to episode 8, set after Aramis is rescued from Grimaud's clutches.
AN: Huge thank you to Jackfan2, who, in the middle of posting her new story (Brother's Keeper, which you should most DEFINATELY check out), still found the time to help me with this. All remaining mistakes are mine and mine alone. Enjoy!
The bell tower of Notre Dame loomed over the horizon like a mirage of a cool water pond to a man lost in the desert. The more they walked towards it, the farther away it seemed to be, mocking them with its reassuring presence and promise of rest.
Aramis had no idea how long ago they had started their ride back to Paris, but he was fairly certain that he would not be able to sit atop of his horse for much longer.
At first, he could feel nothing but anger.
Anger for Grimaud's crude interference in the Queen's quest for peace, a concept still so fragile between the two countries that it could not tolerate such provocations without falling apart. Anne had been so hopeful that she could appeal to her brother's sense of family and honor that it would break her heart to know that petty vengeance and greed had tarnish all of her efforts. Their efforts.
Anger at himself, for having missed all the signs that something was amiss and allowing himself to be captured. Lord! How could he have been so blind? Ambassador Perez was a man given to consistency and unchangeability when dealing with secrecy; the presence of strange men at their usual encounters was not something that he would ever initiate or condone, which was why he was always accompanied by the same four soldiers. Soldiers who, unlike the one who had lured Aramis into such an obvious trap, actually understood and spoke Spanish.
Above all, Aramis was angry at his friends, for failing to end things when they had the chance. They were soldiers, their lives expendable in the service of the betterment of France and its people, their spilled blood nothing but the seeding for a safer future. Had it been any of the others being used as a shield by Grimaud, Aramis was certain that Porthos would have not hesitated to shoot, to grasp the chance of purging the world of such a foul creature, even if it happened at the expense of another's life. But that was a soldier's courtesy that the tall man no longer extended to Aramis, and that angered him as well.
Now, hours later -how many had it been, really?- all that Aramis felt was cold and numbness, the hot burning fire of his anger having spent itself until there was nothing left but dying embers and smoke. Even breathing was becoming a arduous enough task.
"... -ell us, Aramis?"
The sound of his name startled Aramis from his wandering thoughts and he jolted in the saddle. He unconsciously straightened, instantly regretting the action as it sent pain radiating up and down his spine, hitting his neck and legs with the force of a thousand needles. He lowered his head to hide behind the curtain of his hair and bit his lip, effectively preventing a pained gasp from escaping his mouth. "Wha—what?" he rasped out eventually, his voice betraying his distress in a way that turned to dust all of his efforts to keep it hidden.
Five years ago, the breathless quality of his words and the way he avoided looking at the others, would have alerted his friends that something was wrong. But back then, he had been their equal, their brother. He didn't feel as such any longer.
Now, Porthos merely offered a scowl at his inattentiveness before looking away, clearly annoyed at having to repeat himself. "I asked wha' you and Grimaud talked about, if there was anything useful t' us."
Aramis grimaced as he remembered. How many hours had he been hanging from that wooden beam. Ten? Twelve? A day? More? He could not remember for certain, time flowing like a coiled rope instead of a straight line. "Not much," he offered, unconsciously flexing his hands. It had been hours since he'd lost all feeling in his fingers, the digits nothing more than pieces of cold metal, hanging inside his gloves like loose coins. "He is too cold hearted to let anything slip by, that much I know for sure. Not one given to make mistakes due to his emotions, for he has none."
"What makes you say that?"
Like some skittish foal, Aramis gasped faintly, nearly toppling sideways as his numb hands failed to grasp the reins at the first try. Athos voice had come from right beside him, too close for comfort.
Unlike Porthos, who had spoken to him over his shoulder as he rode ahead, Athos had stopped his horse until he was riding side by side with Aramis, a maneuver that he had, apparently missed.
"Are you well?" the older man asked, not having missed Aramis' less than graceful fumble. "We could take some rest, if you must."
The hint of honest concern in the Captain's voice hurt even deeper than Porthos' refusal to shoot Grimaud when he'd had his chance. It felt embarrassing, demeaning in a way that Aramis had felt all too often during his initial years as a soldier.
Aramis looked at the cart behind them, to the group of Spanish prisoners huddled at the back, probably confused as to why they were being hauled around back and forth, and then towards the remaining escort of cadets that followed behind it. He wondered what those men thought of him and of his actions, if they thought him worthy of their time and the blood that had been spilt, or if they shared the same opinion as the war veterans riding ahead.
He was still a soldier, just like Athos, Porthos and d'Artagnan. Four years of trying to be a monk had not changed that. But, unlike them, Aramis had not suffered through a gruesome war for those years, had not cried and bled by their side in that time -even if he had done so before, more times than he could count- and that, it would seem, had rendered him less experienced and reliable than the cadets trailing behind them. How could he share his aches and pains, how could he confess that his only attempt of escaping his captor had failed? How could he tell them what Grimaud had done to insure that there would not be a second attempt?
How could he do any of that without painting himself weaker and less reliable than what his friends already thought him to be?
"I am fine," he replied curtly, casting a fleeting glance towards Athos to assure him of the veracity of his words. "Merely eager to return home," he added, his voice softer and his words at last sincere.
Although his eyes remained fixed on the road ahead, Aramis could still feel the weight of Athos' gaze upon him, accessing, judging him. There was a frown brewing in there, Aramis could feel it, like a river running faster and more turbulent before reaching a waterfall. Did Athos blame him for what happened? Was he assuming that his love for the Queen was the only reason why Aramis had taken such risks? Did he believe him to be a fool?
"And Grimaud?" Athos asked again, finally tearing his eyes away. "Do you truly believe that there is no weakness we can explore?"
Aramis could not repress the shudder that coursed through his body, knowing that the others would probably mistaken it for fear when it was nothing but repulsion. He could not help it; his skin felt branded by the assassin's breath, hot against his cheek as Grimaud hid behind him; he could still hear the man's dispassionate words as he reminded Aramis that his promise to the Queen was to deliver her Musketeer alive, not unharmed. There had been no anger or even lust for violence in his words, merely practicality. Like a dagger, cold and deadly, emotionlessness as only inanimate objects can be. "I believe he has no soul," Aramis finally said.
Even the most exquisite piece of art in all the halls and rooms of the Louvre could not surpass the beauty of the familiar archway of the garrison's main entry. No other soul could feel that more keenly in that moment than Aramis.
It was with a sigh of relief that the marksman crossed into the courtyard, grateful that he had made it that far without becoming an embarrassment. His shoulders were screaming in pain, feeling almost as if they had been pulled out of place, even though Aramis was very much aware that the joints were merely sore from the strain of supporting his weight for so long. His hands, numb as they were, still obeyed his commands, albeit stiffly. His head and ribs felt tender and bruised from where he had been hit, but he was fairly sure that no bone had been fractured.
It was his left leg, the one where Grimaud had pummeled his knee until the joint had all but slid out of place, that had Aramis concerned. On top of his horse, it was all he could do to ignore the throbbing pain, pulsing with every fall of horse hoof on ground, with every beat of his own heart.
Aramis had no doubt that, the second he traded his saddle for solid ground, that leg would give out on him and he would fall gracelessly to the floor. A part of him half expected Porthos to be by his side, making sure that Aramis could dismount safely, offering a solid arm in support, shoving him gently in the direction of the nearest physician to make sure that the clamminess that clung to his skin was due only to tiredness and nothing more life threatening.
Looking around, Aramis could tell that such would not be the case. Athos was already half way up the steps leading to his office, while d'Artagnan and Porthos had sought a place at the nearest table and were already quenching their thirst.
He licked his lips, trying and failing to remember the last time he'd had anything to drink. There was probably a skin of water still attached to his saddle, but he had not thought to reach it before. Instead, Aramis looked down. The ground seemed impossibly far.
"Wan'me t'fetch ya a stool, sir?"
Aramis looked at the boy holding his horse steady, patiently waiting for him to dismount. A stool, like small children and weak men. "No, I can manage, thank you," he offered with a polite smile that probably came out as a grimace. Looking once more at the ground, Aramis decided that perhaps it would be wiser to delay his descent for as long as he could. "I'll take care of the horse, do not worry yourself," he offered, pulling at the reins. "It has been a very long day and he will respond better to my hand than another's."
It was almost the honest truth, Aramis told himself. For as long as he had been in Grimaud's hands, his poor horse had been left with no food and barely any water, strapped outside those ruins. The animal was jittery and as tired as his rider, in need of a comforting hand to ease his troubles.
The stables were, mercifully, devoid of people once the others' horses had been seen to, which left Aramis free of spying eyes as he heaved himself off his saddle. As he had predicted, his left leg refused to take on any sort of weigh, his body unbalanced the second the right leg left the stirrup.
Falling helplessly backwards, Aramis had but time for a fleeting moment of panic as he realized that his numb arms would be too slow and weak to catch his fall in time. As his head hit one of the poles, however, that no longer was motive for concern, for the Musketeer's whole world had turned black and devoid of motion and thought. The welcoming arms of unconsciousness felt, for a few seconds, like bliss.
Constance had run out of excuses to keep her mind busy. She had already organized the pantry –twice- and looked over the list of supplies for the next few weeks, seen to mending the clothes of five different Musketeers, put the fear of God in two cadets and almost reduced another to tears.
What she really wanted to be doing was to go find Marcheaux and use a rusty knife to peel the skin off his back, as he had done to Sylvie.
It was her own fault that this had happened, she could not help to think, despite what everyone had said. Had it not been for her accursed idea of bettering the Queen's image, none of the following mess would have come to pass and Sylvie would have been spared such a public horror and pain.
But then again, Marcheaux was a rat amongst men... were it not this, he would find something else to show his true colors. Constance just wished that it had not been this.
"Beg yer pardon, Madam'," a voice, too old to be any of the recruits, called out to her in the middle of the courtyard. "If ya could spare a momen'?"
Serge. Constance recognized him as soon as the man stepped out from the shadows. Since taking over the task of organizing of the garrison's supplies, she and Serge had spent many days, heads bent over lists of food and materials too long and with too few coins to get them, trying to come up with new and inventive ways to keep that many mouths fed. It was strange to hear him speak with such uncertainty and ceremony.
"Serge! Something the matter, my friend?"
The cook's face was grim set and frowning, a look that he reserved for rotten potatoes and pantry thieves. "I need yer help with somethin'."
Intrigued by the man's sudden need for secrecy, Constance followed him inside the building. After a few turns, she realized that he was leading her towards his private rooms. "Serge... what is this about? You sure you don't want me to fetch the Captain?"
Athos had barely left Sylvie's side since he and the others had brought her back, senseless in his arms. Neither really wanted to disturb him over a trifle thing, but more and more Constance was getting the impression that, whatever had gotten Serge into such a jitter, was anything but a trifle.
Four years was a long time and once he had gotten over the fact that Constance dispensed any of the formalities usually bespoken to someone in charge of the garrison, Serge had become quite chatty. He had been with the Musketeers since the very first day and he had stories to tell about everyone who had passed through there. Good ones and bad ones.
During his years, the old soldier had seen some of worst and the best that mankind had to offer. So, when Serge reached for the door of his rooms and Constance saw the tremble in his hand as he pushed it open, she knew that she had to brace herself for whatever lay beyond.
The sight of Aramis, sleeping in the old man's cot, was not what she had expected. At all. "What's he doing here?"
The cook fumbled with the dirty apron wrapped around his waist. Now that she looked more carefully, Constance could see that some of the dirt was actually dry blood. "Found 'im by the stables, his horse laying by his side, like som' lost puppy. Thought them were both dead, I did," the old man said with a sniff.
Concern flushed through her chest, constricting her lungs and trapping the air inside. "But why is he here?" she asked, sitting by the Musketeer's side. The smell of sweat, blood and sickness that had been present as soon as she had entered the room, was stronger now that she was closer to him. It felt unnatural to watch him so unguarded, his eyes closed and oblivious to the conversation taking place at his bedside.
She had seen Athos and the others around the garrison, before they went to the palace and the whole mishap with Sylvie came to be. Surely they had taken the time, before that, to assure themselves that Aramis was well enough to be left alone, had they not? Had something happened to him after that? Had he fallen asleep in the stables?
There was a dark, ugly bruise on the left side of his forehead, the skin unbroken. Which did nothing to explain the blood stain on the pillow under his head or the heat she could feel under the covers, where her hand laid over his left leg.
"He wouldn' wake up and his head was all bloody...'tis was closer," Serge explained. "I couldn't find any of t'others, so..."
Athos' whereabouts were no mystery, but she had failed to see either d'Artagnan or Porthos after they had left the Captain's rooms to afford Sylvie and Athos some privacy. Had not one of them cared for where or how Aramis was fairing?
Constance had heard about the Queen's letters and what Aramis had been doing, behind everyone's backs, when he was captured. She had seen the concern in their eyes as they were forced to deal with the matter of the Spanish prisoners, rather than leave immediately in search of their friend.
But she had also seen their disapproval of his actions, the betrayal at having being left in the dark about something as important as a peace treaty. Still, it seemed hardly coherent that, once rescued, Athos and the others had chosen to ignore their friend's obvious injuries, serious enough that he had lost his senses, just because they did not agreed with his actions.
"Can you fetch me some clean bandages and fresh water?" she asked, deciding that she might as well take advantage of Aramis unnatural sleep to at least attend his wounds. Afterwards she would deal with the likes of her husband and his friends.
Before her union with d'Artagnan, the thought of undressing any of his friends had never crossed her mind, either for pleasure or with the purpose of providing aid. As far as pleasure went, her heart had eyes for d'Artagnan alone and as for aid... she had imagined that there would never be the need to do so, for the four of them had always been there for each other.
Even now, as her fingers moved deftly over clasps and buttons, it felt odd that she was the one doing it.
D'Artagnan had mentioned something about Aramis having been in Grimaud's hands, rather than the Spanish as they had first assumed, but no details of what had happened in the time he had been missing had been shared with her. The story of what had truly happened, however, was fairly easy to read in poor man's bruised and broken skin.
Both his shoulders had a sickly purple tinge to them, matching almost to the exact shade the dark bruise that covered most of his ribs on the left side. Gently running her fingers over the tender flesh, Constance was relieved to find nothing but solid bone beneath her touch, instead of the loathsome fluttering feeling of broken ribs. "Here," she instructed the older man as soon as he returned, his arms full with the necessary items, "help me hold him up, so I can wrap his ribs."
With a gentleness that she had thought the garrison's cook unable to demonstrate, Serge slipped behind Aramis and pulled him up, large hands holding the young man under his armpits. Despite the care, his touch was still painful enough to elicit a reaction from the otherwise unresponsive Musketeer, even if it was merely a pained whimper.
"He never was 'un t'ask fer help, this lad," Serge whispered, eyes downcast and his chin grazing the dark mop of hair in front of him. His gaze was fixed on the finger-shaped bruises on Aramis' pale arms.
"He hardly ever seems capable to shut up," Constance added without bite, a sad smile on her lips as she hurried to finish her task. Over the years, she could not help but grow a little bit fond of the mouthy Musketeer and to see him so silent now made her heart ache. "You mean to tell me that 'help' is the one word he can't say?"
"You didn't met 'im before, Madam'" Serge went on, his eyes taking in the distant look of someone gazing into the past. "Proud to a fault, this one was... until life took care of humblin' him almost to t' grave."
Constance looked at the cook as she tied the loose ends of the bandage around Aramis' chest. D'Artagnan had told her all about his brothers, the trust amongst the five of them solid enough that the young man knew that they would not hold it against him to share their secrets with his wife. She knew about Athos and Milady; she knew about Porthos' upbringing in the less favorable parts of Paris and she knew about the massacre from which Aramis had escaped barely alive. "He's still plenty proud," she voiced, assuming that pride had been the reason why the stubborn Musketeer had kept silent about his injuries.
Having finished with the ribs and knowing that there wasn't much she could do for a head wound that had already stopped bleeding or his bruised shoulders, Constance argued with herself over invading further more the unconscious Musketeer's privacy or leave him be as he was and ignore her own conscience.
It was a short lived battle, for her conscience had always been a very vocal one. Covering Aramis' chest with the thin blanket that Serge kept on his bed, she set about pulling the other end of bed linens up, uncovering Aramis' legs.
The garrison's cook, in his urge to fetch aid, had laid the Musketeer down without even removing his boots, making a sore mess of the bed linens. Refraining from making a comment on that, Constance moved her hand over the young man's legs, searching for the source of heat she had felt before. Before she could reach any improper areas, her fingers easily located the swollen area around his left knee. It didn't feel like the bone was broken, but she needed to have a closer look. "Help me with these," she told Serge once again, nodding towards the long boots. "Carefully," she cautioned, her hand resting gently on the swollen joint.
However, not all the care in the world could have stopped the scream of pain that tore itself from Aramis' lips as Serge pulled on his leg. The boot come off with a sickening pop that had come neither from the footwear or the foot.
"Oh, god Lord above!" the older man gasped, dropping both foot and boot in the same frightened movement. "Did I break his leg? I sometimes forget me own strength..."
Constance knew exactly where the sound had come from and the precise moment it had occurred, having felt something underneath her fingers slid back into place. Not a woman given to easy hysteria and fragility in the face of such common things as disease and injury, she forced back the bitter taste of bile rising up her throat at the realization that Serge had just –unwillingly- popped Aramis' dislocated knee back into its rightful place.
Taking deep breathes to control her nausea, Constance laid a comforting hand over the older man' shoulder. To her surprise, she could hear him quietly sobbing. "You didn't break his leg, Serge," she assured him. "In fact, I believe he has you to thank for regaining use of that leg at all," she added with a gentle smile.
Serge wiped his eyes with a rough gesture, nodding at her words. "I'll go fetch some cold water, t'help with that swelling," he said, excusing himself.
Constance sighed, knowing what she had to do next even as she reached for the blade at the small of her back. There was no way that she was going about removing Aramis' breeches, no matter how much she cared for the insufferable man, so ripping the pant up would have to do.
"'tis not pride that keeps 'im from asking for aid, ya know," Serge said from the door, where he had paused on his way out. "Not anymore, anyways."
Constance looked up, curious. "What is it then?"
"Fear," the older man said, a sad smile on his lips. "Fear t' be seen as lesser than t' others, weaker... Fear t' be seen as a failure, as an imposter amongst heroes," he went on, closing his eyes before crossing himself. "Came back escorted by twenty dead men, our Aramis did... and ever since then, I think he's been waiting t' be called a fake fer t' beatin' heart inside his chest."
Her first reaction was to scoff at cook's words, to call the man out for his foolishness and for being so deeply wrong about a Musketeer that he'd know for far longer than she ever did. No one doomed to spend more than five minutes with Aramis could ever think that the man even knew the meaning of the word 'fear', nor that he would ever think himself anything other than efficient and bloody perfect.
Serge had already turned away and left when understanding finally dawned on Constance's face. He was right, she knew that. The young woman had seen it before, even though she, like all others, chose to turn a blind eye whenever a crack appeared in Aramis' carefully constructed facade.
Before the war, before Aramis had left it all behind to become a monk, Constance could see that same insecurity and fear on occasion. It usually occurred whenever one of the others asked him if he was tired, or even if he required a moment to catch his breath after spending days locked inside a prison cell with the ever present threat of a horrible death looming over his head. Every time they asked, Aramis would deflect, saying that he was fine, rushing ahead in front of all the others.
Rochefort had nearly bested him on account of Aramis' inability to recognize his own limits. For many months, every time Constance would close her eyes, she could see that terrifying moment when Rochefort had gained the upper hand and nearly killed the Musketeer before she had rushed to his aid. Her nightmares had been plagued with images of herself, dying right after Rochefort killed Aramis, both of them nothing but cold corpses, left to rot and unable to do anything as that vile man did as he pleased with the Queen.
She knew that such mishap had not happened on account of the Comte being a more skilled swordsman than Aramis –after all, the young man could hold his own against Athos, and everyone knew that Athos was the best swordsman in the whole of France- but merely because the stubborn Musketeer had been just too tired and weak to show his usual prowess.
"Serge has it al' wrong."
Constance nearly jumped at the sound of words being spoken in the otherwise silent room, not having realized the moment when Aramis' senses returned to him. His eyes were open, but there was a glassy quality to them that made her wonder of how much he was truly aware.
"Be quiet, you," she said, covering for her surprise with the command. It was silly to think that he could tell what kind of thoughts had been inside her head, but still she could not help but feeling caught red-handed. "Your head has more goose eggs in it than the garrison's geese' nest and you gave poor Serge a proper scare with that leg of yours."
Brown eyes blinked sluggishly at her and Constance cursed herself for running her mouth on a man who was probably too exhausted and confused to spell his own name. His left hand, resting by his side, moved to a side pocket on his breeches, looking for something that wasn't there.
"Geese? We have geese?" he asked owlishly, moving his arms with every intention to heave himself up. "Geese are nice...swans are t' vicious ones," he added in a bout of nonsense that probably made all the sense in his addled mind. "Bastards took m' rosary...I must go."
Constance, having seen the condition of his arms, made no move to stop him. She knew that there would be no need, for the limbs had surely grown stiff with the bruising and impossible to move. Still, if it was just the rosary that he wanted, she could help with that. After all, she was pretty certain that no geese had come in to steal it from Aramis' pocket.
Upon his return to the garrison, one of the things that Constance had noticed almost immediately was that the Musketeer had exchanged the embellished crucifix that the Queen had gifted him, for one made of simple wood and metal, more befitting of a monk than the flirtatious man he had once been.
Her eyes searched the floor and the bed clothes, thinking that it must have fallen from his pocket at some point, but it was nowhere to be found.
To Aramis' credit, he did try his best to rise, pushing against the thin mattress until sweat beaded his forehead. "M'arms don't work," he concluded, more confused than frightened by the prospect. "Was it t' geese as well? I told you they're vicious..."
Constance would have laughed at the droopiness of the injured Musketeer, but she had seen too many blows to the head start amusing like so, only to quickly turn sad and deadly. "Why is Serge wrong?" she asked instead, hoping that the conversation would exhaust Aramis back into slumber and he would give up his futile attempts of escaping.
Big, unfocused eyes, framed by long lashes, looked in her direction. Although she knew Aramis to be older than d'Artagnan by a handful of years, in moments like those she found it hard to believe.
"Who's sayin' Serge's wrong?" he asked with an offended frown. "Serge is a vet...a veteran... a mighty warrior... he's never, ever wrong," Aramis protested, his eyes slipping closed midway through. "Except when he over-salts t' lamb..." he added, eyes popping back up in an effort to keep awake. "Then he's wrong. He's very, very wrong..."
Constance did smile then, unable to help it. Her fingers moved on their own volition as she brushed an errant lock of sweaty hair away from his bruised forehead. His eyes closed with such a content smile that it made Constance's heart ache. "You should rest now."
"'tis not fear," he whispered against her wrist, his eyes remaining closed. "Nor pride or... even childish e-ego...'tis certainty," he went on, licking at dry lips, "tha' one day...no matter wha' I do, they will see...see me for who I truly am...a sham," he rambled, a faint smile dancing on his lips as his hand curled around the strings of his shirt over his chest, fingers tracing the straight linen in search of something. "A sham of a man I am...a sham of t' man I was...a sham of t' man I should'v-"
As he drifted off, Constance removed her hand from his hair, as if the touch of his words was enough to burn her. At once she felt ashamed for taking advantage of the man's fragile state of mind that had allowed for such confession to escape his lips and, at the same time, horrified that he would think so low of himself.
Aramis was right... Serge was never, ever wrong.
d'Artagnan woke alone in his bed. An occurrence that in itself was neither surprising nor a novelty, for his duties often force him to work well into the night, while Constance' commitments pulled her from the comfort of their bed before the crack of dawn on most days.
The novelty lay in the fact that her side of the bed remained untouched, the linens undisturbed and the mattress cold and unused. "Constance?"
Getting no reply, the last remnants of sleepiness fled the young man's mind, quickly replaced by a deep sense of concern.
Jumping from their bed, d'Artagnan quickly pulled on his clothes and exited their quarters, eager to discover the whereabouts of his wife. After what had happened to Sylvie the previous day, all that his mind could conjure up were images that cruelly replaced the poor refugee woman with those of Constance.
He was still pulling the last clasps on his doublet when he pushed open the door to Athos' rooms. The older man lay slumped by the side of the occupied bed, one hand beneath his head serving as a makeshift pillow, the other curled around Sylvie's fingers. His eyes opened and he turned his head towards the door, taking in the intruder's disheveled appearance with an unamused glance.
His presence given away by the door hinges, d'Artagnan flushed with embarrassment as he realized that he hadn't even knocked. He had been certain that he would find Constance behind those doors and had not been prepared for the intimacy of the scene before him. "Forgive the intrusion," he apologized, having the grace of keeping his voice low enough not to disturb the injured woman. "How fairs Sylvie?"
Athos rubbed a hand across his face, long fingers continuing their path until they became tangled in his hair. He looked tired and utterly depleted of energy and d'Artagnan could not help but feel guilt at having spent a restful night in his own bed while his friend slept on a hard chair.
"Still no fever," Athos simply said, as if the absence of bad news were the best news he could summon up at that point. "Constance is not here," he went on, reading the younger man like an open book. "I haven't seen her since yesterday."
d'Artagnan bit his lip and gave him a short nod, knowing that his roaming eyes and the flush to his skin had betrayed his true intentions. "Do you require anything? I could stay for a bit, while you rest..."
Despite his love for his brothers and the recently acquired fondness for the refugee woman who had stood by their side so many times, enough to called her a friend, both Musketeers knew that d'Artagnan's offer was born out of nothing more than politeness. His heart and mind were somewhere else.
Athos shook his head, a gentle smile on his eyes. "Go search for your wife and give that heart of yours some peace," he said, resuming his position, his face inches from the sleeping woman's. "We'll be fine."
That was one order that d'Artagnan wasted no time obeying, slowing down only to carefully close the door behind his back. As he raced down the steps from the Captain's rooms, he spotted Porthos, sitting at their usual table, a cup in his hand and a plate of cheese and bread in front of him.
His mind set that Constance was surely in danger and somewhere in the city, the young man rushed to his companion's side, eager to enlist his aid in searching for his missing wife. "Porthos!" he called out, gaining the tall man's attention.
"Have ya seen Serge?"
"Did you see Constance?"
The questions came out at the same time, both giving a shrug for an answer, for neither had any idea on the whereabouts of the two missing people. "There was nothin' but old cheese and stale bread in the kitchen," Porthos complained, even as he wolfed down a piece of said 'old' cheese. "Isn't Constance with Sylvie?"
d'Artagnan shook his head, leaning against the table. His worry was leaving him out of breath and feeling weak at the knees. After witnessing so much horror and violence, it had become nearly impossible for him to imagine any viable scenario for his wife's mysterious disappearance that didn't involved pain, blood and death. "She didn't spent the night in our bed, Porthos..."
It was a testament of the level of trust and faith in Constance's honor that neither of them thought for one second that the reason for such absence was in any way voluntary on her part. Although Constance had been unfaithful in her previous marriage, the abysmal difference between her devoted love for d'Artagnan and the way she had barely been able to stand the presence of monsieur Bonacieux, meant that there were no room for doubts about whether or not she had spent the night warming the bed of another.
"Well, come on then," Porthos voiced, pushing the bench back as he got to his feet. "We must find 'er!"
d'Artagnan let out a sigh of relief. In life, as in battle, his brother had his back.
"Found 'er," Porthos announced almost in the same breath, as he looked over the top of d'Artagnan's bent head, a hint of mirth in his tone as he sat back down. "She doesn't look all tha' happy, mate..."
The young man turned around, the smile slipping from his lips as he took in his wife sour demeanor. Porthos was right. She looked downright furious. "Const-"
"Don't you Constance me!" she let out as soon as she reached the table. "And you can wipe that smirk right off your face, monsieur, because this concerns you as well," she growled, raging eyes landing on Porthos' figure for a fleeting moment.
D'Artagnan blinked, absolutely at a loss as to what either of them could have possibly done to incur Constance's wrath. Looking more closely at his wife's tired appearance, he could now see the dark bruises under her eyes and the crumpled aspect to her clothes that spoke of a night spent in them.
"Is this about Sylvie?" he inquired, for that was the only reason he could think of for the woman's discontent. As he had already admitted to himself, it had not been fair that Athos had spent the night alone caring for the wounded woman while he –and apparently Porthos as well- rested in their beds. "Athos said that-"
"Can you tell me where Aramis is?" Constance asked, looking around him to direct the question at Porthos as well. "Can either of you?"
The apparently unrelated question left the Musketeers baffled. Last d'Artagnan had seen of the former monk had been...well, Aramis had rode back with them to the garrison, of that he was certain, but after that... So much had happened that d'Artagnan couldn't really tell when he had last seen him. "In his rooms, perhaps?" he ventured, only to earn a sharp fist on his shoulder from Constance.
"He probably went to report to t' Queen 'bout wha' happen'," Porthos offered, leaning back with an air of finality. "Must've forgotten to come back," he added with a smirk.
The smile that took over Constance's lips was a frightening thing to behold. The only creature that d'Artagnan had ever seen to offer a similar expression had been a snake, right before it swallowed down a whole rabbit. He looked sharply at Porthos, trying to warn his friend of the danger he was in, but the tall Musketeer was already beyond help.
"Oh, and you know this for a certainty, don't you?" she asked, fake sweetness lacing her voice. "Because, being the concerned friend that you are, you saw him do all of this before filling your belly with wine and food and retiring to your comfortable, warm bed, did you?"
Porthos had the grace to look embarrassed at Constance words, a sure sign that, like d'Artagnan, he had not laid eyes on the marksman since the day before. They had just assumed that he had been well enough to attend his duties and had simply retired to rest before they had returned from the palace. He had looked rather tired, now that d'Artagnan thought about it...
From the blatant disappointment and anger in her words, d'Artagnan could easily see that such had not been the case. "You know something," he stated, a sense of failure and bitter concern taking over his words.
"I know that he deserves better friends than you lot, that's what I know," Constance hissed. "Fetch him some clean clothes from his rooms," she said to d'Artagnan, before turning her attention to Porthos. "And once the two of you gather that he's not there nor with the Queen, see if the carpenter can bring about a stick, sturdy and long enough to help 'im walk."
"Constance, tell us wha' happen'" Porthos pleaded, the fraternal connection that he had always shared with their absent friend finally awakened. "Oi! Now ya got me all worried..."
"Now?" Constance said with a sigh, her eyes turning sad and crestfallen. "You should've been worried yesterday, when he needed you...now I just need you two to bring those things and meet me at Serge's rooms, alright?"
Porthos' stomach was doing weird noises and refusing to sit quietly inside his belly. He wanted to blame it on the stale bread and old cheese, but he knew better than to call his upset insides anything other than what it was. Guilt.
As he made his way towards Serge's private quarters, Porthos could not help but recall Aramis' exhausted features as he had stumbled away from his captors, yelling in fury at his friends for not having taken the shot that would have –most likely- killed him as well.
At the time, Porthos had seen nothing but red, the fiery color of rage eclipsing all else from view. How dared Aramis question his actions and decisions in battle?
Had he been there when Porthos had been forced to put a musket ball inside Pierre's brain, when the man had lost both his legs to a cannon ball and there was nothing else to be done? No, he had not!
Had he been there when they had retrieved Louis' mangled body from the enemy's camp, guts slipping through the fingers clutched around his belly and his mind so utterly lost, his screams so bloody loud that only a blade through his heart had managed to quieten him before he gave up their location to the advancing troop of Spanish soldiers? No, he had not!
No, he had not... he had been safe and sound, hiding behind the skirts of his God and brewing brandy in the cellars of some monastery. So, how could Aramis demand that Porthos fired his pistol straight at his chest, in hopes that the ball would have strength enough to hit the villain hiding behind his friend, after claiming Aramis' life?
And then there was the whole business of plotting some half-baked peace treaty with the Queen and going off on his own to meet with Spanish envoys, something that, given who they were and the past that they shared together, even a child would not think twice of calling it treason.
Up until Aramis' emotional explosion upon his rescue, Porthos had been perfectly convinced that the only reason why his friend had done such a reckless thing was because he had been, once more, thinking with his cock instead of his brain.
After hearing the passion in his voice as he defended his reasons and talked about all that war had made them lose, all the sorrow and pain that it brought to the heart of Men... Porthos could see that Aramis' actions were dictated neither by lust nor logic, merely by the love in his heart. And that was something that Porthos had not been ready to see.
It was easy to understand that he spoke not only of the orphans that war made, or the of the wastefulness of lives or even of the atrocities committed in the heat of the battle. He was talking about Porthos, Athos and d'Artagnan as well, his brothers.
The same brothers that war had changed to such a degree that they no longer could see eye to eye; that violence and loss had driven so far apart that not one of them had realized that Aramis had been injured and in need of their support.
The fact that Aramis was in the cook's room instead of his own or one of his brothers, told everything there was to know about how much they had failed him.
Porthos' hand paused at the door, unsure if he had the right to enter that room at all.
"Maybe we should knock?" d'Artagnan, coming to a stand behind him, suggested with a whisper. In his face, Porthos could see the same doubts and shame he felt in his heart.
There was a time when there had been enough confidence and trust in between them that Porthos knew with a doubt that his presence would be welcomed at all times, that Aramis' door would always opened to his company. This time, he knocked before slowly pushing the door open.
"Come!" Aramis' called out, his voice muffled by his hair, head bent down as he struggled to pull his boot on. "Constance, I already told you that I feel fin-"
The rest of the sentence died in his lips as he raised his head up too fast, alerted by the sound of heavy boots that could have never belonged to the petite woman. Color drained from his face and his body, sitting on the edge of the bed, tilted dangerously forward, heading straight for the floor.
"Whoa, there!" Porthos let out, rushing to his friend's aid. The muscle beneath his touch was tensed and coiled and the larger man could not tell if that was because he had unwillingly touched some source of ache in his friend's body or because Aramis did not wished to be touched. By him.
"Maybe you shouldn't be getting up so soon..." d'Artagnan voiced, exchanging a worried look over Aramis' bent head. In the corner, slumped over a large chair, Serge let out a mighty snore and resumed his sleeping, otherwise unbothered by the sudden commotion in his room.
Truth was, in between the three of them, the only one who had any idea about a single one of the ailments afflicting Aramis at that point, was the snoring man. Other than the bruising around his wrists, something that Porthos' had merely glimpsed as Athos' released Aramis from his chains, and the obvious welt on his head that was plain for all to see, neither had an inkling over what had transpired in the almost two days that Aramis had spent as a prisoner. To Grimaud, of all people.
"I am well," Aramis rushed to say, pushing away in one fell sweep both Porthos' support and d'Artagnan's concern. "Just a touch dizzy from moving too fast... nothing a bit of fresh air won't heal," he added with a smile.
Porthos averted his gaze from that painful and poor imitation of Aramis' usually carefree and warm smiles and chose to gaze upon the rest of his friend instead. The marksman was still wearing the same clothes from when he had been rescued. The shirt was mostly in tatters and looking more brown than white at that point, and his breeches supported a tear that left uncovered most of his left leg. Peeking beneath the ripped cloth, Porthos' could see the tell-tale whiteness of a bandage.
That, at least, explained madame d'Artagnan's request for a walking stick. "Constance told us t' bring ya these," Porthos said, offering the clean clothes as a peace offering. "She thought tha'..."
She thought that gathering the three of them inside the same room would clear some of the mess that they had created, Porthos could see that now. That cunning woman...
"As I had told her, repetitively, there was no need," Aramis let out, a hint of annoyance under his polite words. "I am well enough to return to my rooms and go about my duties. What I need is to report to Treville and the Queen, explain..."
He stopped, seemingly at lost over what explanation he could offer. Instead, he picked up his discarded boot and resumed his attempt to get it on. The footwear lined with his right bare foot well enough, but Aramis' fingers seemed to be struggling with the actual motion of grasping the edge of the boot and pulling up.
"Piece of rubbish!" Aramis let out as he finally gave up, throwing the boot away in a rare surge of violence and vexation. The leather piece struck the wall beside Porthos' leg before flopping to the floor like a dead fish. Aramis' face was red up to the tip of his ears and, right before he managed to hide his expression behind that insufferable amount of hair, Porthos could have sworn that he had seen a hint of wetness in his eyes.
"Maybe we should..." d'Artagnan whispered, looking, for all of his courage, like he wanted nothing more than to run away. Despite the war and all the horrors he had been through, there was still a young boy from Gascony somewhere in there, one that still got teary-eyed and could not easily deal with witnessing the suffering of his loved ones.
Porthos bend down to pick up the discarded footwear, wordlessly holding it against his chest. "These boots have seen better days, ya know?" he offered casually, ignoring the fact that Aramis' shoulders were faintly trembling. "Maybe 'is time we... mend 'em a bit."
Aramis took a deep breath, struggling to compose himself. "Some holes just can't be fixed, Porthos," he offered, his voice tired and raspy, face studying his own toes as he refused to meet his friends' eyes. "And, sometimes, the foot simply no longer fits the boot."
Porthos' breath caught in his chest, fearing for the true meaning of Aramis' words. Had they truly failed him so thoroughly that he would simply cast away all of their years of friendship and brotherly love? 'Isn't tha' wha' ya've done to 'im?' his conscience asked back.
"Ya can just ask for new boots, ya know tha', right?" Serge cut in, apparently awake enough to offer such sage advice. "'s not like t' Cap'ain 's going t' deny ya them."
"We thought you were asleep," d'Artagnan offered, covertly wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
"And I thought ya lot were too busy to take proper care of 'im," the cook let out with a huff, clearly not having enjoyed a night sitting in a chair rather than his bed. "Tha's not the Musketeers' way, ya know? The poor lad was out cold, down at t' stables, like som' street dog!"
The rebuke was meant for the two standing Musketeers, but the one sitting down ducked his head in shame just as well. "That's...I merely stumbled, Serge, nothing more to it," Aramis offered, raising red, tired eyes to look at the older man. "Just a clumsy mishap... won't happen again, if I can help it."
"Bollocks!" the cook let out, getting to his feet with a heavy limp. Sleeping on his ass had done no favors to his bum leg. "And make sure ya take care of that leg now... there's only room fer one cripple in this garrison and 'tis already taken!" he offered, making his way out, mumbling something about cooking idiots for lunch.
The silence that was left in his wake felt like a heavy blanket, trapping the heat inside and making them sweat.
"You could've told us," d'Artagnan said, moving to sit by Aramis' side on the bed. "We would've helped."
Aramis let out a mirthless laugh, casting a sideways glance at the young man. "Yes, do help the clumsy monk –oh, pardonne moi- the would-be-monk, who thought himself a soldier and ended up needing rescue from his plight!" he vented, his chest heaving in barely contained fury. "Who-who tripped over his own legs and ended clubbing himself senseless under his own horse, apparently!"
"Aramis..." Porthos called out, no longer able to withstand the pain in his friend's voice. Was that what the marksman thought of them? That they found him weak, less able than them? "Do ya remember tha' first time Treville had t' post our orders in writing, rather than telling us personally, because he didn't had t' time to do it t' usual way?"
Twin sets of brown eyes looked at him in confusion, as both Aramis and d'Artagnan got utterly lost in his trail of thought. "Do ya remember tha', remember wha' happen then?"
Aramis scowled at him, recognition finally dawning in his gaze. "This is not the same thing...it was not your fault that the chance to learn how to read had never crossed your path before. Besides, it was something easily corrected."
"Aye, tha' it was," Porthos agreed. "But instead of mockin' my lacking in education or makin' a fuss over the matter, you simply came over my t' rooms tha' night, carryin' a book under yer arm and taught me," the big man said, fondness at the memory in his tone.
"His point," d'Artagnan cut in, "is that there is no judgment or favors amongst brothers, or else I and many others, would find ourselves deeply in your debt for all the lessons in sharp shooting that you've freely given over the years."
"Or t' stitches..."
"Or the bottles of wine whenever I was feeling morose about Constance..."
"Or tha' one time with the tha' woman from la Rue des Chambres...
"Fine!" Aramis cut in, a smile gracing his weary features. "I believe you gentlemen have made your point very, very clear!"
Porthos let out the grin that was begging to escape his lips, laying a gentle hand over Aramis' unbandaged knee. "T' point is tha'," he said, sobering up, "as far as I'm concerned, ya won't be needing no new boots... ever!" he vouched with a warm smile. "And yes, we're a lil' bit rougher on the edges, a lil' bit less gentlemanly in our ways, but we're still yer brothers..." he said, pausing to gauge Aramis' response. "If ya allows us back inside."
d'Artagnan cleared his throat, giving a confused look first to Porthos and then at Aramis. Shaking his head as if the action would dislodge all the nonsense he had heard and put some order into events, he grabbed Aramis' hand, a familiar gesture that both knew was not allowed to many.
Beneath his fingers, as Porthos well knew, he could feel the same callous and roughness of hands used to fight and take lives. It was a trait that they all shared. "I don't care much for hidden meanings and double entendres," d'Artagnan started, sending an annoyed glance towards Porthos, "but I do know, in my heart, that you are like a brother to me, one that I take for granted far too often... and for that I ask your forgiveness."
The injured man was listening, albeit looking somewhat unconvinced and still unable to meet their eyes. Deep down, Porthos knew that this was his fault. Upon their unexpected reunion, every word he had spoken at the monastery had been like a sharp blade, intended to cut and wound as deeply as only words ever could. "Aramis, I'm aware of wha' I said before, 'bout us learning t' live without ya," he confessed with a wince.
Even now, he could still see the same look of sadness and betrayal shadowing Aramis' face, just as it had been when they had been reunited. Porthos hung his head in shame. "I was bein' a brat," he confessed. "You'd hurt me and I wanted to hurt you back... them were just childish, empty words, Aramis...Aye, there were days when I wished for nothin' more than t' have ya watchin' my back in battle, but we never saw ya as any lesser of a man because ya weren't there...if anything, yer being safe and alive made us feel like we were immortals, like death couldn't touch us."
Aramis did looked up at that, confused and hurt eyes searching Porthos' for the meaning of his words. "I don't follow."
"As long as you were alive, there would always be someone to remember us, to tell stories about our adventures, about who we were and the sort of mischief and adversities we had faced and overcome," the Gascon explained, knowing fully well what Porthos was referring too.
In the darkest hours of their nights spent at the battle front, uncertain if the following day would find them alive or dead, the topic had come up more than once. That knowledge that, no matter what happened, one of them would remain behind and make sure that their memories would not be forgotten. It had given them hope and made them feel invincible in a time when hope had been a hard commodity to come by. It had kept them alive.
To arrive at that monastery in Douai and discover that telling stories about them had been exactly what Aramis had been doing all of those years...it had been at the same time humbling and a overwhelming joy. To realize that, even at a distance, Aramis' heart had still been so close to theirs.
"Had I known we would be getting this maudlin," a voice broke from the door, "I would've brought more wine."
Porthos snorted, not one bit surprised to find Athos at the door, holding a bottle and four cups.
"Sylvie?" d'Artagnan asked, even though they knew fully well that the older man would have not left her side had she taken a turn for the worse.
"Resting peacefully, guarded by your wife," Athos offered, finally stepping inside the room.
"She told ya t' bring that here?" Porthos asked, knowing that Constance' gentle-hearted meddling would have not been complete without bringing Athos presence into the fold.
Athos raised an eyebrow, looking slightly offended at the idea that he required anyone's prodding to add wine to any sort of gathering. "The wine was my idea," he clarified, setting both the bottle and the glasses on top of Serge's bed. "This, she asked me to bring," the Captain added, producing a string of small wooden beads from his pocket, a silver cross dangling from the end. "Something about yours being nowhere to be found...?"
Aramis ran a hand over his hair, ducking his head self-consciously. "Grimaud burned mine, said I had no use for it there," he told them. "After I tried...tried to escape, he wasn't happy with the use I did find for my rosary, and he held it against the fire until there was nothing left," the Musketeer offered with a sad smile.
"What use was tha'?" Porthos asked in curiosity, not at all surprised that his friend had almost gotten away on his own.
"Used it as a lock-pick," Aramis whispered with a wince. "The Abbott would have not approve...at all."
Porthos gave out a hearty laugh, resisting the urge clap his friend's back as he'd caught on the cautious way Aramis was moving his arms. "Well, he might've not," he offered, "but we certainly do!"
"Yes," Athos agreed with a rare smile of his own. "However, do refrain from using this one for activities not approved by the Holy Church," he went on, his smile widening. "I'm sure we can find you a proper lock-pick somewhere..."
Aramis frowned, looking up at Athos. "Please do not say it is some sort of family heirloom or relic," he said, refusing to accept the rosary. "I cannot...I can easily pick one later, from one of the churches or maybe t..."
"Not a relic," Athos assured him, holding the injured man's hand and placing the string of beads in his palm. "But a family heirloom of sorts...do you not recognize it, Aramis?"
Porthos recognized it a mere second before a surprised gasp escaped Aramis' lips. Shortly after Athos had told them about Milady and who she truly had been, he, Aramis and d'Artagnan noticed that Athos had stopped wearing the long chain and locket that usually could be found around his neck.
At the time, and after some deliberation over the matter, they had settled for offering a silver cross to their grieving friend, not because any of them found Athos to be particularly religious but to remind him that he had friends to help him bear the weight of his troubles.
The meaning behind Athos' re-gifting of the rosary to Aramis this time around, was not lost on any of the four men.
Whatever cross Aramis found himself carrying, he would not have to do it alone. His brothers were there to share the load.
Eyes slowly filling with emotional tears, Aramis grabbed the rosary, holding it high as the light caught the silver on the cross. "Had I known such was the fate of this piece, I would have pushed for us buying a golden one," he said wetly before looking up to meet their gazes. Wordlessly, Aramis extended his hand, fist wrapped around his gift.
One by one, the others placed their hands over his. There was no need for words then, the sentiment and implicit vow both as clear as if they had shouted it from the top of Paris' tallest building.
To any looking around, similar expressions of love and devotion danced in three sets of brown eyes and a blue one, all at once rimmed with unshed tears and filled with joy.
Yes, the sentiment and vow had always been there. They had just needed, it would seem, a certain meddling someone to remind them of that.