A/N: This is it, guys! The eighteenth and final chapter to this story. I hope you had as much fun reading it as I had writing it and that you find this installment satisfactory. ;)
Also, I'd love to end this story with 150 reviews (or perhaps even more?). Can we get there? Maybe? Please? All you silent followers out there, young and old readers, critics and flatterers, new friends and loyal reviewers, please leave your opinion on the chapter or the whole story down below and make my dream come true!
Thank you so much for taking the time to read "I dare you to move"!
The sound of harsh voices caused him to rise from sleep. For a while, d'Artagnan just lay there with his eyes closed, making sense of things. The room was cold, filled with fresh air as if someone had opened all the windows recently to let in the night. In contrast, he was in bed, tucked in well and feeling warm and mostly comfortable. As to what had happened... he wasn't entirely sure. Although foggy, he remembered being ambushed and, with perfect clarity, the moment he had recognized Athos as his attacker. Or had it been him that had attacked Athos? Was he going truly mad?
"'Tis was madness from the beginning", Porthos said, somewhere off to d'Artagnan's right, seemingly agreeing with the boy, who couldn't suppress a wince at the angry words. When he continued, things took a different turn, however. "Should'na have done that."
"It was a good plan. The only plan, the only choice we had", Aramis argued back and although d'Artagnan still suspected they were talking about him, he was clearly missing some context. Meanwhile, heavy footsteps announced that Porthos was coming over to his bedside. Unwilling to be discovered and sheltered from events yet, d'Artagnan evened his breathing and relaxed his features into a semblance of sleep. He nearly jerked in surprise when he felt the big, calloused, warm hand of the man caress his brow.
"Look at him. He's exhausted after all we put him through. When he wakes up, he's gonna hate us. I... " The fingers lingered on his left temple. "Should'na have hit him that hard. Shoul'na have hit him at all."
"You had to", Aramis said and d'Artagnan could almost see him placing a supportive hand on Porthos. At the mention of the blow to his face, the young musketeer felt it, the dull throbbing of the injury. However, he also notices immediately that it hurt a lot less that a full-on hit from the giant, which meant the violence last evening had been a measured, controlled thing.
"Easy for you to say", a third voice intoned grimly from further away. D'Artagnan heard glass clinking and imagined Athos filling another cup with wine, his preferred method of coping. Wishing he could get up and slap away the drink before it could reach his lips, d'Artagnan tensed but resigned himself to wait. Aramis had no such inhibitions.
"What are you suggesting?", he asked the swordsman, voice carefully flat.
"You sure had no problem torturing the boy", Athos said, equally devoid of emotion even though d'Artagnan knew that the exact opposite had to be the case if the normally even tempered man was verbally skewering Aramis with his sword. Aramis, protective and caring Aramis, gasped as if hit.
"Of course it wasn't easy. None of this has been easy! Confrontational therapy isn't pleasant, that's why it's a measure of last resort. But it had to be done. Dr. Lemay said..."
"I don't care what he said!", Athos exploded, chair scraping back as he supposedly rose to his feet. "d'Artagnan is our brother. He was in need of our help and what did we give him? More pain, more trauma, more betrayal!"
As he heard Athos approach Aramis with murder on his mind, d'Artagnan decided it was high time he prevented Athos from doing something he'd certainly regret later. Snapping his eyes open, d'Artagnan sat himself up, earning himself a surprised expression from Porthos, who was standing next to him close to the bed.
"Athos." His voice was smaller, more hoarse than d'Artagnan had anticipated, but the quiet word froze the two furious men as effectively as one of Treville's barked commands. Both Aramis and Athos turned to stare their youngest member with varying degrees of astonishment, guilt and warmth.
"Hey there", Porthos remarked, kindly helping him rest against the heardboard.
"How much did you hear?", Athos inquired sharply, although his stance had lost some of its momentum. He still looked pale with anger, shaking slightly.
"Look, d'Artagnan, we're... I am sorry about what happened last night", Aramis corrected himself with a sidelong glance at his steaming friend. "It must have been a terrible experience."
"Wasn't fun", the Gascon admitted, prompting Athos' mood to become even darker.
"You still did the right thing, though. I think I'm better now", he added quickly, unable to fully explain the feeling of steadiness in his chest like he was finally grounded, anchored in reality. At Athos' disbelieving snort, d'Artagnan bristled, glaring at his mentor.
"You think I'm lying. Fine. Test me. Aramis, come here and snap your fingers or something. I promise I shall be absolutely fine."
"d'Artagnan...", Athos warned lowly, almost like a growl. Aramis looked at each of them, torn between Athos' cold fury and the beseeching expression on d'Artagnan's face.
"I don't think that's a good idea...", he said apologetically, only to be overruled by Porthos, who had grabbed the musk parfum and sprayed it right at d'Artagnan's face in a practical manner, then snapped his fingers loudly.
To the underprepared d'Artagnan, the sound felt like thunderclap, making him wince visibly. Gritting his teeth, the Gascon withstood the urge to let himself drift and focused his slanted eyes directly on Athos. After a few deep breaths, he didn't pretended to be unaffected entirely, shrugging as non-chalantly as he could manage. "Phew, that was more intense than I thought. But, really, I'm alright. See? I'm good, no throwing punches and behaving erratically."
Aramis sighed, sitting back down on a chair at the table to rake a hand through his hair. "Thank God it's finally over", he said, perhaps a bit prematurely. After all, Athos was anything but pacified. Deciding to give teacher and student some room, Aramis and Porthos went out for some early breakfast, leaving a bone-tired d'Artagnan with an unreadable Athos.
"So it was you who stayed with me? Who... made sure I got better?", d'Artagnan asked in a serious manner, not enjoying the silence but hesitating on the phrasing. Athos simply nodded.
"Thank you." He had meant it, but Athos obviously wasn't ready to accept his gratitude. Instead, he turned away from d'Artagnan's gaze that pleaded peace and left the room with wide steps akin to an escape. D'Artagnan looked after his slightly swaying form, concern knotting in his gut. This discussion was far from over yet.
When d'Artagnan woke again, he knew that some time had passed. For one, his thoughts were clear and a lot lighter now that there was balmy sunlight to fuel them. Secondly, his stomach was growling.
"Seems like Sleeping Beauty is gracing us with her presence!", Aramis quipped happily. d'Artagnan cracked open one eye to spot the Spaniard lounging at the table and flip him off. When that didn't yield a satisfactory outcome, he cleared his throat and asked whether he'd ever get rid of that bothersome title.
"After bein' kissed awake like a true princess, not likely", Porthos commented. Confused and a little bit disconcerted, d'Artagnan rose to his elbows, noticing yet another fresh bandage around his damaged fingers.
"Wait, what? Which one of you... oh. Constance. In the alley. Alright, I remember", he said hastily as Aramis began to rise, clearly wanting to check for a concussion. d'Artagnan was certain he didn't have one, though. His muscles were pleasantly sore like after a long day of training, but apart from that, he actually felt good. As he marvelled at that realization and leaned back into his mountain of soft pillows, he noticed that another bed had been brought into the room and Athos was occupying it, his face flat against a pillow. Sylvie was sitting on the edge, running her hand through Athos' hair with a reassuring smile in d'Artagnan's direction.
"What happened?", d'Artagnan asked, fearful of the answer. Had he hurt his mentor? He couldn't remember anything but a few glancing blows, but his recollection of last night's events was patchy at best. "Did I do this?"
"Nope", Aramis replied cheerfully, "that idiot developed a fever due to the infection in his chest wound. He must have forgotten to mention that to us in his ever so wise ways."
"Hey, I heard that", complained a voice from the bed. Although the body in it hadn't moved an inch, it had most certainly been Athos. d'Artagnan smirked at him. Busted!
"Did you really allow Sylvie to pet you while you were awake?", he teased, completely relaxed for the first time since the fateful mission had started. Athos somehow managed a careless shrug lying down. "So what? It's nice."
"Well, thank you", Sylvie said, looking pleased to have tamed the untamable Athos of the Musketeers, if only for a little while. She informed him that Constance had just left to freshen up and wouldn't be back for a while, so d'Artagnan banked his disappointment at not seeing the red-haired beauty. As long as she was coming back, he could be patient.
"So when are we expected back at the Garrisson?", he asked, focusing on other things. Porthos smirked, obviously this had been a topic of discussion before.
"Aramis went to Treville yesterday and requested three days leave to fix you. And when he went back with that split lip of his today, the Capt'n noticed and ordered us all on a week of vacation."
"That's great news", d'Artagnan said happily, "We'll have plenty of time together and get back to par."
"Are you mad?", Athos interjected, "A week in the company of Aramis and we'll return speaking Spanish. Or worse, wearing ridiculous light blue hats like him!"
"What's wrong with my hat?"
"It's the lastest fashion."
"It gets muddy all the time and then you insist on having it cleaned at the next Inn."
"It suits my complexion."
"It's not even rainproof."
"But it's a hit with the ladies."
"Hah! There's the real reason revealed", Porthos cut in. d'Artagnan closed his eyes, enjoying Sylvie's laughter and the easy conversation of his friends. Most of all, he relished the feeling of having his mind back to himself. His curiosity grew rapidly when Aramis pulled a letter out of his jacket pocket that was adressed to them all. Saying he'd received it from their Captain today, the Spaniard began to read.
"The Lady Lemaigre invites us all to stay at her place if we ever return to the area again. Apparently, she is quite grateful, as is the comte. They're thinking about uniting their properties with a tie of marriage. One of the Lady's nieces is very fond of the comte", Aramis told them. D'Artagnan smiled, at least the mission had not only borne bad fruit but also a happy ending for two noble families.
"Good for them", Porthos echoed his thoughts.
They ate in companionable silence, the teasing reduced to a minimum in order to feast on fresh bread, fine venison, a variety of vegetables – and pastries. A shame Constance was absent, d'Artagnan mused as another sudden thought struck him.
"Who hit Aramis?", he wanted to know, interrupting a less than important discussion about the stupidity of the Red Guard. As if that wasn't an established fact already. Aramis touched two fingers to his lips, ghosting over the small cut. "Oh, that. We decided that a little improvisation was in order when you didn't fight Athos on your own. It had to be believable and we thought that a little blood might make all the difference. Pushing your protective instincts and all that."
"So you let someone punch you in the face, just on the small chance that it would help me?", d'Artagnan asked, unsure how to feel about Aramis' devotion to the cause. Next to him, Porthos sniggered, causing d'Artagnan to rise from his dark thoughts. "Naw, he had that one coming for a long time."
"Enjoyed that, did you?", Aramis asked good-naturedly, raising an eyebrow at Porthos' unabashed grin. They sniped at each other for another few minutes while d'Artagnan's gaze was slowly but surely drawn to Athos' coughing frame. Unlinke d'Artagnan, Athos hadn't been allowed out of bed for lunch and might need to stay there for a few days until nurse Aramis decided otherwise.
After Sylvie had left and Porthos began to clear away the dishes, Aramis checked on Athos first, placing a cool strip of cloth on Athos' forehead and ordering him to stay exactly where he was. The fact that the swordsman didn't argue alarmed d'Artagnan, but their medic wasn't worried too much, stating that they'd caught the fever just in time before it got dangerously high.
"Are you alright?", Aramis asked instead, settling next to the Gason in a mirror image of Sylvie on Athos' bed before the meal. His brown eyes were warm with happiness and d'Artagnan swallowed at the sudden lump in his throat. His emotions were still hightened and as he pulled the sharpshooter into a hug, he would blame it all on the drugs if someone caught the moisture in his eyes. d'Artagnan smiled as he felt Aramis hug him back just as tightly and then, after a long moment, clap him on the back twice in appreciation.
"Glad to have you back. For a moment, yesterday, I thought... well, let's not dwell on the past." Although Aramis smile was forced the first instance, it soon became genuine when he saw the boy's efforts to contain a mighty yawn. "It's alright, d'Artagnan. Your body will need some time to recuperate. Rest. And you", he pointed at Athos accusingly, "Stay."
Silence reigned when Aramis left the room. But it wasn't the uncomfortable, cold silence of before but rather a kinder, warmer sort. "Athos? You okay?", d'Artagnan inquired after a while.
"I'm afraid to move. Aramis will have my head on a pike if I misbehave", Athos confessed, light-hearted for once. d'Artagnan laughed. "I'm almost sorry I slept this long and missed Aramis finding out about your fever. It must have been quite the show."
"It was", Athos allowed, deliberately not elaborating, d'Artagnan suspected. For a few minutes just their breathing filled the space between them until the Gascon took heart and addressed his mentor once more. "I am sorry if I hurt you." This caused Athos to sit up sharply, the cloth falling into his lap. Astonished blue eyes looked at him.
"Yes, I know I-"
"d'Artagnan! We drugged you, dragged you out of bed in the middle of the night and then I went and beat you. You were acting in self-defense. What ever would lead you to believe you had to apologize?"
"No. It is me who should beg your forgiveness."
"You?", d'Artagnan was equally surprised to hear the words come out of Athos' mouth. That man never retracted, always so certain of himself and his actions. Only one thing would prompt him to utter those words and d'Artagnan knew exactly what was going on here. Athos, being the man that he was, was blaming himself for everything bad that had happened. Now d'Artagnan was forced to agree with their medic.
"Aramis was right, you are an idiot", he told Athos in clear terms, causing the accused to lift an eyebrow.
"You were pushing me past my limits and saved my sorry ass in the process."
"I deliberately tortured you, d'Artagnan", Athos emphasized again, obviously trying to make d'Artagnan understand. And the youth understood exactly, so he borrowed a term from Porthos.
"Rubbish! I received worse in training" Needing to drive his point home, he got up and stalked over to the swordsman, grasping him by both shoulders. "You are the reason I am standing here before you today, whole and sane. My mind is my own, Athos, and you accomplished that. Thank you, brother."
"You're not blaming me?" The older musketeer still seemed to struggle with the concept of forgiveness.
"No! No, no, three times no! Not for leaving me at the barn, not for finishing the mission first, not for pulling me back from living a nightmare." And with that, finally, d'Artagnan could see the guilt clear from Athos' expression. His eyes seemed less haunted than before and his posture eased, the tensed muscles in his back no longer holding him up rigidly.
"And if you dare have a bad conscience about it ever again, I will tell Aramis that you moved and he will go raving mad", d'Artagnan teased, causing his mentor to quickly put the cloth back on and lie down. d'Artagnan, too, felt exhaustion coming over him and went back to his own bed.
"You wouldn't." Athos actually looked a tiny bit concerned and d'Artagnan wasn't above using all means possible. "Yes, I would!"
"Seems I have no choice in the matter", Athos stated quietly and thoughfully after d'Artagnan had made himself comfortable. The boy nodded, grinning in a tired but entirely satisfied manner. "Exactly."
"Why does everyone insist on bossing me around as soon as I'm sick?", Athos mused without much seriousness. Nevertheless, d'Artagnan replied honestly. "Because that's what we do. We take care of each other."
"All for one", Aramis and Porthos concurred from the doorway, prompting d'Artagnan and Athos to smile contentedly.