Hi everyone! I know, it's been a while. That's what happens when you get an idea for a story, plot it out, start writing it and then get another idea for a story, plot that one out, start writing it, and then get another idea for a story, start writing that… and then, you guessed it, get yet another idea. So, since I was writing four different stories at the same time, I decided to actually finish one if for no other reason than to keep my amazing beta, Sharlot, from going absolutely batty trying to follow my flittering chapters. So, it's just a one-shot, but an actual complete story. I'm so proud. Ha! Now back to working on the other three. I swear I'll finish them… if another idea doesn't jump up and grab my attention…
Once a Musketeer…
Athos leaned forward on the railing, intent on the battle unfolding in the courtyard below. He couldn't help the smile that lifted his lips as the recruits were defeated one by one by the lone figure standing in the center, armed with two swords and a fierce determination.
"I can't believe Aramis agreed to this."
The Captain grunted in agreement to d'Artagnan's comment. The Gascon stood beside him, hands gripping the worn wood, jerking back and forth as the combatants volleyed below. Athos doubted the younger man even realized he was moving, so caught up in the tableau, unconsciously darting to and fro as if he could aid the target of the recruits' attacks from afar.
"It isn't as if he doesn't need the practice," Athos reasoned, shifting as d'Artagnan bumped his shoulder just as Aramis ducked an awkward swing from one of his opponents. "Four years in a monastery would tarnish the skills of any man."
Agreeing to aid in the training of the recruits, Aramis had not uttered a word of resistance when Porthos had ordered the recruits to go after him en masse. He'd simply sighed, picked up his swords and took his stance in the center of the yard. Athos wasn't sure if the former monk considered it his punishment for his four-year absence or if he was merely attempting to prove to his old friend he was still qualified to wear the pauldron Treville had presented him upon their return to Paris.
Whatever the reason, he'd acquiesced to Porthos' demands, motioning for the lads to attack, fending them off with ease and grace as if he'd never been away. Since it was a learning experience for the recruits, Athos had yet to interfere, but he knew Aramis' patience would not hold out forever and he stood ready to intercede on the marksman's behalf if need be.
Two of the recruits finally decided to attack in unison, one coming at their target from the front, the other from behind. Aramis met the parry from the first, sidestepping and pivoting to avoid the strike from the rear before raising both swords in an elegant arc, catching his opponent's rapier between them and twisting it from his grip. D'Artagnan clapped energetically at the unexpected maneuver and the corner of Athos' mouth rose in appreciation of the move. The marksman had always been as graceful as a cat, and the Captain was glad to see his elegance and ease of movement undiminished by the time away from battle.
Catching Porthos' eye from where he stood at the edge of the courtyard, Athos offered a shrug and a smile. The big man simply shook his head in return, as if unimpressed with their friend's show of competence. Athos sighed in resignation. So it was punishment then.
Aramis continued below, instructing the recruits in their formations and attacks even as he parried their attempts. The young men paid rapt attention to the seasoned soldier, seemingly unconcerned where he'd spent the last four years. Aramis was still a gifted swordsman, as both Athos and Porthos had found out when they'd forced him into sparring with them earlier that week. Though Porthos especially had taken a bit too much delight in facing off against his old friend, Aramis had not let their doubt in his abilities dampen his resolve. He defended himself admirably against their orchestrated attacks, even going so far as to goad them on with a smile and teasing remarks about their newly minted status as war heroes.
Athos had been impressed with the marksman's resiliency. Porthos, on the other hand, had become even more annoyed. The Captain didn't know how to mend the trough between his two oldest friends, but he prayed Porthos' compassion and deep affection for the ex-monk would eventually overshadow his resentment while Aramis' understanding and forgiving nature would hold strong until that happened.
Even now Aramis seemed to accept Porthos' conditions with no alacrity. The big man had no direct dominion over the marksman; his insistence that Aramis train alongside the recruits without authority. But Aramis had agreed without rancor to his old friend's demands and Athos' respect for the marksman had impossibly increased.
Laughter from below brought Athos' attention back to the training group and he smiled as Aramis reach out with a grin to help one of the hapless recruits from the ground. Sweat poured off the marksman, his shirt sticking to his back, his dark hair plastered against his head.
"It's hardly fair Aramis gets to have all the fun," the Gascon remarked. He glanced at Athos before pushing off from the railing and heading to the stairs. The rest of the men chuckled and clapped as d'Artagnan made his way to the courtyard and entered the circle, clasping a hand on Aramis' sweat-stained shoulder.
"I think Aramis has had enough for the day," the young Musketeer announced, grinning broadly at the recruits. He drew his own sword from its scabbard, twirling in a circle before crouching in his stance. "How about I take over for a while?"
Aramis glanced toward Porthos who shook his head and walked away without a word. Pushing his damp hair back from his face as he ceded the ring of recruits to d'Artagnan, his eyes widened in surprise when he caught Athos watching from above. The Captain shrugged and motioned for his friend to join him.
As they both leaned against the rail watching d'Artagnan instruct the young recruits, Athos could feel frustration wafting off the marksman like a living thing.
"You did well," he offered. "It's obvious you kept in practice at the monastery."
Aramis snorted a laugh. "To the Abbot's constant disappointment," he admitted. "Like I said, it was the obedience I had a problem with. It was difficult for me to simply go about my days in prayer and quiet thought. I needed…" he sighed. "I needed to do something. So after I'd done every single chore I could think of, I would head out into the fields and run through some movements – nothing really strenuous, just enough to take the edge off my need for…"
"Anything to offset the monotony. I think that's why the Abbot placed the children in my charge."
"To keep you occupied," Athos guessed. It was a solid plan, one Athos silently applauded.
"Precisely. With the children to focus on, my mind did not wander so much to what I had given up." He smiled fondly, his eyes still following the action below. "If it wasn't for them, I doubt I would've been able to remain no matter my convictions. Caring for them gave me a purpose as important as any I'd had in Paris."
"Yet you left anyway." Athos firmly believed Aramis would've rode with them to war had they been able to speak with him when they'd gone to Duai before deploying for the front. Obviously the Abbot had felt the same, which, the Captain suspected, is why the man had not allowed them access to their beleaguered friend at the time.
"I finally realized that no matter how much I wished for my life to belong to God, it was already promised elsewhere."
"I, for one, am glad," Athos admitted. "I honestly could not see you happy living out your days as a monk."
"Nor could I," Aramis grinned. "Though I strove to, I never once felt the peace I'd hoped to find, the peace I feel inside these walls." His eyes roamed the garrison, finally falling upon Porthos as he exited the armory with one of the recruits. "Though I fear your delight at my return is not entirely shared."
"He wants you here," Athos assured the marksman, following his gaze. "He missed you – as did we all – but Porthos allowed his sorrow to turn to anger."
"He believes I am not fit to wear the uniform again. I fear he see's me as no more experienced than these recruits he's training."
"He knows better. It will simply take time for him to see it and allow his better sense to overcome his resentment."
"I pray you're right, my friend." Aramis grinned, pushing against Athos' shoulder with his own. "Or should I address you as Captain now?"
"We were friends long before I was your Captain, Aramis. I expect nothing to have changed between us. Unlike the Abbot, I have always been aware of your resistance to obedience. "
Aramis laughed aloud and clasped a hand to the Captain's back. "And I have always respected your insight. I'm happy to see some things have remained the same." He glanced back toward Porthos, his smile fading into something more melancholy. "I simply wish more things had."
"Give him time. He will not disappoint you, Aramis."
"I fear it is I who have already disappointed him."
Athos turned and motioned for the marksman to follow him into his office. "Perhaps a bit of distance will give our friend some perspective." He held out a piece of parchment, the Royal seal broken. "There is a mission to retrieve a contract about a day's ride south. Perhaps it would do you and Porthos good to spend some time alone? Away from the confines of Paris? It would give you a chance to talk things through."
Aramis tilted his head in consideration before slowly shaking it back and forth. "No. I don't want to force him into accepting my return before he is ready. I'm afraid it could do more harm than good."
Athos' eyes narrowed as he studied his friend. He understood Aramis feeling the need to allow Porthos to regain the trust and balance that had always existed between them in his own time, but he also suspected the fear that Porthos' censure becoming out and out resentment contributed to Aramis' hesitation.
"He will come around, Aramis," the Captain assured again. "But I can understand your reticence to force the issue. " He paused, considering the alternatives. "I will leave it up to you then. Take whomever you chose to accompany you."
Aramis grinned. "An interesting style of command, Captain."
"I reserve my intellect for more important matters."
The comment elicited a heartfelt laugh as hoped. "Then, if it pleases the Captain, I will ask d'Artagnan to accompany me."
Athos nodded. "I fear it is Madame d'Artagnan who may take exception to your choice, but seeing as how you will return in two days time, perhaps she will not force you to grovel too much."
Aramis rubbed his chin, his eyes dancing with mirth. "It's been a long time since I've been slapped by a consummate professional such as Constance. Is it strange that I've missed it?"
"I'm sure she'll be more than willing to reacquaint you with the process," Athos responded, pleased to see the familiar shine of mischief in his friend's face. He waved a hand toward the door. "Go. Just don't come running to me when she gives you what you deserve."
Aramis bowed, tucking the parchment into the blue sash adorning his waist. "As you wish, Captain."
As it turned out, it wasn't Constance who took issue with d'Artagnan accompanying Aramis on the mission; Porthos stormed into the Captain's office without bothering to knock.
"Are you mad? You know he's not ready to ride out alone."
Athos slowly placed his quill upon the requisition forms he'd been painstakingly compiling and leaned back in his chair, eyeing Porthos through narrowed eyes.
"Please, Porthos. Do come in and take a seat."
The sarcasm of the Captain's tone was obviously lost on the big Musketeer as he dragged a chair back and leaned his fisted hands on the edge of the desk.
"Aramis isn't ready and you know it."
"I know nothing of the kind," Athos stated, a hard edge creeping into his voice. He'd been prepared to acquiesce to Aramis' wishes and allow Porthos to get over his anger in his own time, but he would not allow the situation to fester further despite his conviction the big man's better sense would eventually prevail. "And the last time I checked, I was the Captain and I decided who was assigned to missions, not you."
Porthos looked as if he was about to argue then suddenly grunted in frustration and dropped down onto the chair behind him.
"He's not ready," he reiterated at a much lower volume.
Athos sighed and leaned forward, his hands clasped before him on the desk. "It is a simple retrieval mission, one Aramis has been on hundreds of times. He was a soldier much longer than he was a monk, Porthos. Why is it so difficult for you to trust him? To see that he belongs back among us?"
"I do trust 'im," Porthos mumbled. "I just don't want 'im to get hurt, that's all."
So that was the root of his current resistance. "He'll be with d'Artagnan," Athos assured. "Don't tell me you've lost faith in him as well?"
Porthos huffed and shook his head. "Course not. The whelp has proven himself these last four years many times over."
"And Aramis has proven himself far longer," the Captain pointed out. "You saw how he performed at the monastery. You must get past this… resentment, Porthos, or are you trying to push him away for good?"
"No!" the answer was instantaneous and definite. "But…" he shook his head again and leaned forward, burying his face in his hands.
The big man sighed and dropped his hands, meeting Athos' eyes. "What if him being back gets 'im killed?"
"Is that what all this training is about? Pushing Aramis to either prove he's still as skilled as before or give up and return to the life of a monk?"
"He'll be alive either way."
Athos closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Porthos, Aramis spent four years trying to determine where he belonged. He finally concluded it was here, with us, in Paris, fighting for the good of the country. Do you think the decision to return with us was an easy one? He has always turned to God in times of turmoil – you know this – but he has always been able to recover his true path, and that path will always lead him back to us."
Porthos slouched in the chair and nodded slowly. "You're right. It's just I've never feared for him – in a fight anyway. In all the time I've known him, I've never been afraid he may make the wrong decision, or hesitate at the exact wrong moment…" He shrugged, a sad, defeated little gesture. "I know it seems like it, but I'm not trying to punish him. I just can't seem to trust in him to have our backs like before."
"I will tell you what I told Aramis earlier. He will not disappoint you. It is not in his nature."
Porthos huffed again, this time in reluctant acceptance. "Yeah. I get it. They'll be fine. D'Artagnan will see to it."
It was obvious Porthos wasn't quite ready to let go of his fears just yet, but Athos would count this as a step forward. Perhaps when Aramis and d'Artagnan returned safely, they could truly return to the brotherhood they'd once known.
"I'm surprised you asked me to accompany you," d'Artagnan struck up a conversation as soon as they were outside the walls of the city.
"I'm more surprised Constance agreed to let you go," Aramis countered.
The younger man snorted a laugh. "She wasn't happy about it, but understood."
Aramis turned, his brows creased in question. "Understood what exactly?"
"That you needed me to come." D'Artagnan didn't meet his gaze, his expression far more knowing than Aramis could remember it being before the war. It was becoming apparent the brash young man he'd known was gone, replaced by the confident, insightful soldier who now rode beside him.
"Athos instructed me to chose someone to accompany me." Aramis shrugged as if the choice had been made without much thought. "With Porthos busy with the recruits and most of them not yet ready to step out on their own, you seemed the logical option."
"I'm flattered." D'Artagnan teased. "But both Constance and I understood why you'd be hesitant to ask Porthos – recruit training or no."
Aramis sighed. He should've known the Gascon would've picked up on the tension between them – it wasn't as if Porthos was making a secret about his feelings towards his return.
"Porthos cornered me before we left and ordered me to keep a close eye on you."
D'Artagnan could empathize with the marksman's sigh of frustration. "Give him time, Aramis. He'll come around."
"Now you sound like Athos."
D'Artagnan grinned. "Then see? Two wise men can't be wrong."
It was Aramis' turn to chuckle. "I don't see where wisdom is involved, but I take your point, my friend. Thank you." Even though his heart still ached for Porthos' trust and acceptance, knowing at least two of his brothers were happy to have him back made the wait bearable. "I know I let you all down by leaving, but I promise to do everything in my power to show you all –"
D'Artagnan held up a hand. "Stop right there, Aramis. Believe me, I know how difficult it is being on the outside, needing to prove yourself, but you have nothing to prove. Not to me, to Athos or Porthos, to anyone." He brought his horse to a halt and leaned forward on the pommel of his saddle, eyeing the marksman calmly. "These last four years… we've…" He took a deep breath, his eyes slipping closed for a moment before once again finding Aramis'. "We've changed – all of us – it was inevitable. But who we are, what we are together, remains exactly the same. Porthos is hurting and he's lashing out trying to hurt you in return. I doubt he means it, but until he works through everything he's feeling –"
"He will hide behind his anger," Aramis finished for him. "I know. I've known Porthos longer than anyone. And if I'm being completely honest, I knew what my leaving would do to him." He shrugged helplessly. "Yet I left anyway. I believed my commitment to God was stronger than any commitment I'd made to him, to you. I am sorry, d'Artagnan. I believe God knew all along I belonged here, I just wasn't ready to hear him."
D'Artagnan smiled warmly. "We're just glad to have you back, Aramis. It wasn't the same without you. We were like a chair with only three legs, always off balance. Porthos especially."
Aramis chest tightened at the comparison. "I too felt the loss all those years, my friend." Not wanting to get too bogged down in emotion on such a lovely day, he leaned forward with a grin, patting his companion on his pauldroned shoulder. "My skills as a carpenter have always been in question, but let's hope I am consummate enough to repair that chair."
D'Artagnan nodded with a grin and they spurred their mounts down the road.
The ride to the Comte's estate was uneventful and d'Artagnan was pleased to see his friend begin to relax as they fell into a familiar camaraderie. He and Aramis had been paired on missions quite a few times in his early days as a Musketeer and he'd always found the man's company entertaining. Even now, his stories of the children who had been in his charge at the monastery, their resilience and spirit despite the tragedies they'd endured, made the time fly by.
He felt a familiar closeness with Aramis and it was easy to forget the time spent apart. The horrors of war, always so present in his thoughts since their return to Paris, faded into the background as the ex-monk wove a humorous tale of Luc's search for his boot, unaware of the treachery of the younger children to keep it from him. By the time they reached the gates of the estate, the young Musketeer's sides ached from laughing.
The Comte proved gracious, eager to accommodate and hand over the signed contracts, making a fortune in the sale of a herd of fine horses to the crown. What the King needed with more horses was beyond d'Artagnan's understanding and after seeing the need for grain and other supplies within the walls of the city first hand, d'Artagnan couldn't help but be irritated by the excessive expenditure. But it was not his place to criticize, so he kept his peace, bowing to the Comte and thanking him on behalf of the King. Louis had always been a frivolous ruler, not one to put the wellbeing of his citizens before his own desires. After four years of war, d'Artagnan had hoped the man would have grown up a bit, but sometimes people did not change even when everything surrounding them demanded it.
"I'm sure Minister Treville has the challenges confronting the city well in hand," Aramis deduced the source of his companion's frown as he tucked the contract into his doublet. "Despite the King's lack of judgment, Treville would not allow him to put Paris in jeopardy."
D'Artagnan couldn't hide his grin; grateful his friend was still able to read him as well as before.
Aramis returned it with a pat on the younger man's back. "If we push through, we should be able to make it back to Paris soon after nightfall. Perhaps Constance would be inclined to make us a batch of her delicious spice cakes if I returned her husband sooner than expected."
"I believe that would be only fair," D'Artagnan heartily agreed.
As the sun began to disappear behind the trees in the distance, they were well over halfway through their journey, having only stopped to water and rest the horses for a few moments, looking forward to returning to the garrison before expected. D'Artagnan suspected his friend's haste was due more to proving himself capable to Porthos than the promise of Constance's baking, but he kept his suspicions to himself, knowing the marksman would never openly admit to such an insecurity.
They had just turned onto a path leading toward the river when the peaceful evening was shattered by the battle cry of men pouring from the surrounding trees. There were four that d'Artagnan could see, each brandishing an axe or dagger as they rushed the Musketeers. Remembering Porthos' admonishment to watch out for Aramis should there be trouble, the Gascon made the mistake of turning to locate his companion instead of immediately facing the threat. The movement cost him as one of the men moved close enough to grab the bridle of his horse and yank the animal's head, spooking the big gelding into rearing. Desperately grabbing for the pommel of the saddle, d'Artagnan's grip slipped from the rough leather and he fell backward, the sky and ground abruptly changing positions in his spinning vision.
He landed hard on his shoulder, striking the side of his head on the hard packed dirt of the road.
He heard Aramis' call through the ringing in his ears and rolled, narrowly avoiding an ax that embedded itself in the ground right where his head used to be. He forced himself to his feet, breathing heavily through his nose, blinking to clear his vision as he fumbled his sword from its sheath.
The clanging of metal brought his attention to the three men fighting on the road. Aramis was still mounted, using his feet and sword to keep the two attackers at bay. There was another lying in the dirt, struggling to rise, which left one unaccounted for. Turning in a slow circle, d'Artagnan raised his sword just in time to parry a thrust from the fourth bandit.
The man was using a stained blade, shorter than a sword but longer and thicker than a dagger. No doubt forged from scraps for just such a purpose, the weapon was inelegant but formidable and d'Artagnan found himself scrambling backwards as the man wielded it like a club.
"Give us the papers and we'll let you live," the bandit sneered through clenched teeth.
D'Artagnan shook his head, immediately regretting it as the dull ache ratcheted up a notch. "We are King's Musketeers," he warned through gritted teeth. "You would be wise to surrender before things get out of hand."
His opponent laughed. "It seems it would be wiser for you to surrender, Musketeer. You are outnumbered and we aim to see those contracts destroyed before they ever make it back to the palace."
D'Artagnan frowned. It was unusual for anyone to know exactly what they carried on these missions. The fact this man seemed to know about the contracts they held was troublesome, only slightly less so than why he was so adamant to keep them from being delivered to the King. As if reading his mind, the man provided the answer.
"The King must learn that the people are more important than his amusement," the bandit revealed. "If he won't listen to our voices, perhaps he will listen to our swords."
A scream of pain sounded from behind him and he flinched. The bandit took advantage and charged but d'Artagnan was better trained, and his skill saved him from being skewered by the man's weapon. Still reeling from the fall, d'Artagnan side-stepped, swinging around to keep the man in front on him. As the young Musketeer crouched in readiness, the man lowered his weapon and smiled malevolently.
Before he could react, d'Artagnan heard the sound of a pistol firing and felt something barrel into his side. He went down – hard. His head bounced off the ground for the second time in minutes and he gasped, barely registering the sound of fighting around him.
After a few moments – or hours, he really couldn't tell – he realized there was silence. He opened his eyes, groaning as the fading sunlight stabbed into his brain.
"Easy, my friend," Aramis' voice soothed. "You've got quite a bump on that hard head of yours." The marksman sounded strained, but his tone was gentle and comforting nonetheless.
"Wha…. Ar'mis? What hap'n'd…" he managed to breathe the words out before clamping his mouth shut against the threat of bile that rose in his throat.
"Shhhh. Just remain calm, d'Artagnan. Our attackers have been dealt with. I just need to gather the horses and we'll be on our way back to Paris."
Wanting to help and not just lie there like an invalid, d'Artagnan made the attempt to move, gasping as pain flared in his side. He wrapped an arm around his torso, breathing harshly through his nose as he fought the agony the simple movement had wrought.
"What did I just say?" Though the words themselves were chastising, d'Artagnan couldn't fail to notice the fond exasperation in Aramis' tone. It was, he suddenly realized, a tone he had greatly missed. "Stay."
Grunting objectionably at the order, d'Artagnan settled back onto the ground, reluctantly acquiescing to the authority in his friend's voice. Turning his head, he forced his eyes open, squinting to follow Aramis as he moved back across the road to gather the two horses standing amongst the unmoving bodies of their attackers. He snorted through his nose at the sight of the four men lying about, knowing he had taken exactly none of them. At least he'd be able to put Porthos' concerns to rest when they returned.
Aramis was walking stiffly, favoring his side, but he was up and moving which was more than d'Artagnan could say for himself. He let his mind drift as he watched his friend gather the reins and turn back to the side of the road. Constance was not going to be happy with him when he returned. She may even be upset with Aramis until he had the chance to explain it was the marksman who had saved him and not the other way around.
He may have drifted off for a moment or two, relaxing into the cool grass despite the pounding in his head and side. He suddenly felt a hand on his forehead, opening his eyes to encounter Aramis' pinched, concerned expression.
"Can you ride?"
D'Artagnan took a deep breath, realizing the pain in his side had dulled to a throbbing ache. Unfortunately, that was more than he could say for his head. Lifting it only inches made his brain feel as if it was sloshing against the inside of his skull and he couldn't stop the moan that escaped his lips.
"I will take that as a no."
D'Artagnan heard Aramis shift and then his hands were under him, lifting up beneath his armpits.
"You can sit behind me," the marksman grunted with the effort of pulling the younger man to his feet. "I don't know about you, but a nice warm cot in the garrison sounds much better than the cold hard ground surrounded by dead men."
D'Artagnan couldn't argue with his logic and made an effort to take some of his own weight as he got his feet beneath him. He would've pitched back onto his face if not for the strong hold Aramis had on his arms. They shuffled the short distance to the horses and after some grunts and colorful curses managed to get him situated behind the saddle.
After that, d'Artagnan remembered very little about their return to Paris. He simply held on to Aramis, trying not to throw up or fall off the horse as they made their way home.
Porthos hung the bridle on the post, wearily wiping the sweat from his brow. It had been a long day in the saddle, escorting the King on a hunting trip into the forests north of Fontainebleau. The trip had been cut short by the King's health, the monarch claiming fatigue only hours in. The journey back had been slow, Louis complaining of headaches and ordering the coaches to ramble on at a snail's pace to ease his discomfort. At least they hadn't had to stand around all day in the sun waiting while the King managed to miss every single thing he shot at.
It was times like that he found himself missing the excitement of the war. Although the serenity of the forest was much preferred over the chaos of the battlefield, he was finding it difficult to realign himself with the more sedate and disciplined duties. The fighting hadn't been pleasant, but it had made him feel alive, and the closeness with his brothers had been the one thing he'd held onto to keep himself from giving completely into his animalistic urges.
Of course, not all of his brothers had been there to contribute to that closeness.
He growled, shaking himself from the too-familiar anger that threatened to overtake him.
Aramis had returned and had been welcomed back with open arms – at least by the others it would seem. But Porthos was still having a hard time finding a balance between the relief and joy of having his friend back by his side and the years of bitterness his leaving had invoked. He'd admitted to Athos it was mostly fear for the former monk that fueled his actions of late, but if he was honest, the spark of resentment was still alive, stoking a fire that he knew should have already died.
It wasn't fair. To any of them, least of all Aramis who, as Athos and d'Artagnan had pointed out, was struggling to find his place within their new arrangement. That the three of them had increased their understanding of each other in the trenches they'd shared was only normal, but the new bonds they'd forged had been between the three of them, leaving Aramis on the outside, now unsure of his welcome within the group he'd always held fast to so strongly.
In some ways, Porthos wanted to forget the last four years so they could resume the close friendship that had meant so much to both of them, but he was finding it difficult to do so. He didn't want to punish his friend for a decision he made out of fear and self-loathing, but he couldn't quite forgive him either. Aramis had always been the cornerstone of their brotherhood. Without him, they'd been forced to shore up their crumbling foundation and stand on their own. Without him.
Porthos was surprised at how hard it had become to trust that cornerstone to hold them up once again.
The sound of a horse plodding along caught his attention as he latched the door to the stable. It had been dark for hours and he knew of no one expected back at the garrison until tomorrow, so it was with great surprise and alarm that he recognized Aramis' horse as it stopped only paces inside the gate.
His alarm notched up as he noticed d'Artagnan slumped against Aramis' back, his own mount following behind, reins tethered to Aramis' saddle.
"Athos!" he bellowed as he jumped forward, catching d'Artagnan as he began to slide from the horse.
Aramis tried to catch the younger man, grimacing as he twisted, but Porthos' attention was on the barely conscious Gascon in his arms.
"What happened?" he asked gruffly, glaring momentarily at the marksman before returning his attention to d'Artagnan.
This is exactly what he'd been afraid of. He'd known Aramis was not ready, but Athos had wanted to give him the chance to prove himself and it would seem d'Artagnan had paid the price.
"We were attacked. D'Artagnan struck his head."
The quiet of the garrison was shattered as footsteps rapidly approached, voices speaking over others in a cacophony.
Athos' declaration finally rang out quieting the others.
"Brujon, send for the physician," the Captain ordered. "Everyone else, make way."
He ushered Porthos through the crowd of recruits, leading the way to the door of the infirmary.
A gasp made them pause, only to find Constance standing on the stairs clad in nothing but her sleeping gown and robe.
'D'Artagnan?" One hand clutched at her chest while the other wrapped around the railing to steady herself.
"He's alive," Porthos assured her before continuing on into the infirmary.
Athos waited for her and escorted her in, looking back to find Aramis slowly stepping down from the horse. His disappointment surprised him. He'd thought Porthos concerns unwarranted, but now… perhaps he'd been wrong. Perhaps four years was too long to hold onto one's instincts. He would have to address this situation as soon as possible and he didn't relish the confrontation he knew lay ahead.
As soon as the physician arrived – none too pleased at being roused from his bed so late at night – both Athos and Porthos had been ushered from the room, leaving Constance and the doctor to look after the wounded Musketeer. D'Artagnan had not regained full consciousness before they'd been banished, remaining half aware, calling for Aramis in his confused state.
Porthos had wanted to question the marksman immediately, but Constance had shooed them away, pulling Aramis into the room and firmly closing the door behind them.
That had been hours ago.
They had worn a path in the dirt in front of the infirmary door, silently pacing as the sun began to climb above the horizon.
"I told you he wasn't ready," Porthos finally grunted as light began to spill across the courtyard.
Athos sighed, running a hand down his face, weary. He didn't want to admit it, but perhaps Porthos had been right. It didn't make sense with what the marksman had shown them since his return, and he'd wait to hear the details from both of the Musketeers before making any decisions, but he couldn't help feeling his confidence in Aramis slip. He hated it, feeling as if the sudden doubts were somehow a betrayal. But he was the captain and he could not put his men in danger simply because of his feelings of loyalty to one old friend.
It was obvious Porthos felt the same. "This should never have happened –"
Before the big Musketeer could continue, the door to the infirmary opened and Constance stepped out, wiping her hands on a blood stained towel.
Both men jumped toward her, making the diminutive women take a step backward toward the door.
"How is he?" Porthos immediately inquired.
Regaining her composure, Constance smiled at them wearily. "The physician took a bullet from his side, but there doesn't seem to be any sign of infection. The ball kept the wound from bleeding much and it was bandaged the best they could. It could've been much worse."
Porthos sighed in relief, dropping down onto a barrel situated a few paces from the door. He nodded, but his eyes remained clouded, his face a mix of anger and relief. "Don't worry, Constance. D'Artagnan is a tough one. He'll be fine."
Constance frowned, looking from one to the other as if they were speaking something other than French. "Of course he will. His ribs are bruised but not broken. And he'll have a headache from the blows to the head, but he's conscious and talking now. He should be up and around tomorrow."
It was the Musketeers' turn to frown, exchanging their own looks of confusion.
"I thought you said the physician took a bullet out of him." He didn't recall seeing any blood when they'd rushed the Gascon into the infirmary, but Athos' tired mind couldn't understand how Constance could be so dismissive of her husband's injury.
As if suddenly understanding their confusion, Constance shook her head. "Not d'Artagnan. Aramis."
Porthos started, nearly toppling from his perch.
"Aramis?" He glanced at Athos who merely shrugged in return, unable to follow Constance's explanation any better than he had. "Aramis was fine." It was obvious they were missing something crucial, but the worry and strain of the long night had muddled his thinking and he returned his gaze to Constance hoping for clarification.
"If you call having a lead ball lodged in your back fine…," Constance paused, huffing a laugh at the incredulous expression on their faces. "We were fairly surprised as well," she continued. "He didn't say a word until after the doctor had examined d'Artagnan. Then, when he stood to leave the room, he just," she waved a hand in the air. "Passed out."
"Aramis was shot?" It was taking a moment for them to catch up.
"Yes," she repeated slowly as if speaking to a couple of dimwitted children. "Aramis was shot. It wasn't deep, and like I said, he managed to wrap his sash around it tight enough to keep the worst of the bleeding controlled." She placed a hand on her hip and glanced from one to the other pointedly. "According to d'Artagnan, it was Aramis who saved him, fighting off four men to do it."
Constance had been witness to Porthos' treatment of the ex-monk, never interfering but stoically supporting him since their return. She watched them now, her expression smug and more than a little reproachful.
"Perhaps you would like to go and check on your friends?"
Porthos opened his mouth to speak, but Athos quickly cut him off with a shake of his head. Constance was right to chastise them. They had misjudged their friend. Despite their time apart, they should've known Aramis would be the one man who kept true to himself. It had been that unmitigated discerning nature that had taken him down the path away from them, and it had been that same cognizance that had brought him back.
"Thank you, Madame," Athos bowed, contrite. "We would like nothing more."
Constance moved aside and they stepped into the room.
The doctor was just pulling a blanket up over a sleeping Aramis when they entered, d'Artagnan slumped in the chair on the far side of the bed. The young Musketeer's eyes were glassy, reflecting the light from the glowing lanterns crowded around the room as he watched the sleeping man intently.
The physician looked up as they approached, nodding his head toward the Gascon as Constance moved to stand at his shoulder.
"Perhaps you could order that one back to his bed," he intoned wearily. "He has a concussion and needs to rest."
Athos nodded, his eyes trained on Aramis' still form as well. "Of course. We will see that he does."
The physician followed the Captain's gaze, smiling at the concern he could read on the Musketeer's face. "He'll be fine," he said, unconsciously echoing Aramis' normal claim. "The ball did not penetrate deeply. It went in his side at an angle and lodged against the muscle in his lower back." He moved to pack up his bag as he continued his narrative. "He was lucky it didn't hit anything vital. He'll be sore for a good while, but he should be up and around soon." He picked up his cape and reached for the door.
"I'll have someone escort you home," Athos tendered, but the offer was waved away.
"I can find my way, Captain. Keep them both quiet today and I'll be back to check on them tomorrow." He opened the door, squinting at the morning sunlight that flooded through the doorway. "Ah, it seems tomorrow has already arrived." He turned back with a grin. "Send for me if you need me."
With a squeeze to d'Artagnan's shoulder, Constance quietly followed the physician out the door, leaving the four Musketeers alone in the silent room. Porthos leaned against the wall, unsure what to think.
He'd assumed it was Aramis that would be vulnerable, but now… from what Constance had said… maybe…
"You were wrong." D'Artagnan's soft voice floated in the silence. "We were wrong."
Athos pulled a chair from against the wall and placed it on the opposite side of the bed from the Gascon. He leaned forward, throwing a glance back at Porthos before focusing on the younger man.
"D'Artagnan? What happened?"
The Gascon took a deep breath and pulled his arms tight around his torso. His shoulders slumped in exhaustion. "We were attacked. Apparently there are factions here in Paris who took exception to the King spending his coin on horses instead of feeding his people." He glanced up, his brows darting up in a familiar gesture of resignation. He turned his glassy gaze to Porthos. "There were four men. I remembered what you'd said, what I promised. I tried to…" He shook his head, swallowing hard as his eyes narrowed in pain. "I guess one of them took me by surprise, knocked me from my horse. I must have hit my head because everything gets a bit… confusing after that."
His eyes settled back on Aramis. "I remember hearing swords clashing, fighting… then a gunshot. I was thrown to the ground but… I thought I was hit – the pain in my side was so intense, but Aramis said it was merely bruised ribs." D'Artagnan chuckled, pulling in on himself even further. "He even apologized like it was his fault." He shrugged and let out a long breath. "He fought them all. Every last one of them. To protect me."
He raised his eyes to Athos, pride and awe showing in his face. "We were wrong to think he wasn't ready. That he wasn't the same. He did exactly what he's always done to save us both."
D'Artagnan held out a hand, a bloody, crumpled parchment held tight in his fist. "He even managed to carry out the mission." He shrugged as Athos leaned across and took the stained contract from his grip. A smile tugged at his lips. "Maybe we shouldn't tell him about the blood."
Athos snorted a laugh. "I concur. I doubt Aramis would be happy about presenting the contracts in anything less than pristine condition." He tucked the crumpled paper into his own doublet. "I will present it to Treville. He can deal with it however he sees fit."
"So let me get this straight," Porthos finally stepped forward, arms across his chest, brow furrowed in confusion. "You're sayin' that after four years in a monastery, Aramis managed to fight off four men and get you back home all the while being wounded himself? And you never knew?"
D'Artagnan looked like he might take offense for a moment, but suddenly laughed, nodding his head at the summation. "That's exactly what I'm saying, Porthos. We don't need to worry about Aramis. He hasn't changed."
"Perhaps it is the three of us who have changed," Athos offered.
Before either of them could respond, Constance returned and headed straight over to d'Artagnan, tugging him up from the chair.
"Come on, you. I think you'll rest better in your own bed."
D'Artagnan opened his mouth to complain, but a raised eyebrow from his wife cowed his reaction. Slowly he shuffled to the door under Constance's watchful gaze. He turned as he stepped through the opening, glancing back at Aramis' still form before giving the others a stern look. "You will let me know when he wakes," he ordered rather than requested. "Now that I can think clearly, I need to thank him for what he did."
"He knows," Athos assured him. The Captain pushed himself from his chair and joined the younger Musketeer at the door. "Like you said, Aramis seems to be the least changed of all of us." He turned to speak over his shoulder, once more glancing at the sleeping form on the cot. "I'll return as soon as I speak to Treville," he announced before laying a hand on d'Artagnan's shoulder and helping Constance drag the young man out into the early morning light.
Porthos silently crossed the room and dropped into the chair Athos had just vacated. He rubbed a hand across his neck then dropped his elbows onto his thighs, sighing wearily as his own exhaustion crept up on him.
It only took a moment for Aramis' eyes to flutter open, a grin lifting a corner of his lips.
Porthos' grunted in amusement. "You been awake the whole time?"
The marksman let his head roll back and forth across the pillow beneath it. "No." His speech was pinched and his hand wandered to his side where the bullet was recently removed. "Came in on the last part."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"D'Artagnan was saying such lovely things. Painting quite a heroic picture. I didn't have the heart to interrupt."
"How considerate of you."
"I try." Aramis opened his eyes fully and shifted on the bed, glancing at Porthos as the big man leaned across and fidgeted with the blanket covering him.
"You could've said something," the big man chastised. "Given d'Artagnan some kind of relief." He didn't mean it to sound as defensive as he suspected it did.
Aramis watched him a moment, his dark eyes assessing. "You've become quite protective of our young Gascon."
Porthos wasn't sure if it was an accusation or simply an observation. Before the war, he would've known exactly what was going on inside his old friend's mind, but now… he really wasn't sure of anything.
"We fought together," he responded quietly. "Him and Athos… they were all I had to rely on, to lean on. I guess we all held each other up." He shrugged. "I'll protect him with my dying breath."
This time the accusation was impossible to ignore. While it was true the war had brought the three of them closer together, it wasn't as if all those years Aramis had fought by his side had been erased. Obviously his silence was answer enough.
"Of course." Aramis' voice was soft, hushed. "You learned to live without me."
Porthos winced as the words he'd spoken to the marksman back at the monastery in Douai pierced the silence.
"We didn't have a choice."
Aramis merely grunted and closed his eyes, schooling his expression, once again unreadable. Porthos knew those words had hurt. He'd meant them to. He'd been nursing a deeper hurt those four long years, so he'd lashed out at the cause of his pain. He'd regretted it almost as soon as he'd said it, but pride and anger had been stronger than his regret. Maybe they still were. He noticed the shock and confusion his rejection had elicited then, but he'd just forced himself not to care, believing their reunion to be only temporary.
Once the Spanish arms dealers had been dealt with, he had not allowed himself to hope Aramis would return with them to Paris. But when he'd walked out of the sanctuary with Athos and said his goodbyes to the children, Porthos had felt such a profound sense of relief he'd nearly toppled over right there in the courtyard. Thank goodness his horse had taken his weight at the time.
But even that sudden relief had not been enough to allow him to let his anger and resentment go. And a new fear that Aramis would prove a liability had taken hold. While Athos and d'Artagnan had welcomed their wayward fourth back with open arms, he'd let his fears and darker emotions take hold, keeping Aramis at arm's length, protecting himself from having to deal with losing him again.
"I'm fine, Porthos. You do not need to stay. I'm sure you have other, more important things that need your attention.""
Aramis voice was clipped and Porthos knew some of his thoughts must have shown on his face.
"I've no place else to be."
Porthos settled back onto the chair, his hands clasped before him, his face marred with a heavy frown. "I… I truly believed you weren't ready. That you'd… lost something. That you couldn't –"
The dark brows rose in reluctant concurrence. "Yeah. I guess." He shrugged, deciding to come clean, hoping his old friend still possessed the insight he'd always been known for. "I couldn't face losing you again, 'Mis. I was barely able to handle it the first time. I know I couldn't do it again." He let his gaze meet the familiar brown eyes, seeing only love and acceptance where there should be censure and disappointment. "I'm sorry. For how I've treated you, for how I've acted. I never meant –"
Aramis reached a hand from under the blanket and grasped his friend's clasped fists. "We all must heal at our own pace, my friend. Your heart wasn't ready to let go of the those feelings. I can't say that I blame you."
"I was trying to punish you."
Porthos shook his head, incredulous. "And you're just all right with that?"
Aramis sighed, shifting again to find a more comfortable position on the thin mattress. "Although it was never my intent, in your mind, I betrayed you. I turned my back on the one thing you hold most dear; trust." He turned his head so that he could meet Porthos' eyes. "I knew you, of all people, would not understand why I had to leave, but that didn't change the fact that I truly did have to go. It was a war I fought in my own heart, Porthos. I knew if I stayed, I would not be able to keep my distance from them…" He didn't need to mention any names; Porthos was well aware of who had splintered his friend's loyalties. "My weakness would've been the end of all of us. For you, Athos and d'Artagnan would never turn your backs on me – I knew this – leaving me with the task of turning mine on you."
He squeezed Porthos' hands before releasing them. "I'm sorry, my old friend. I truly am. But it was only the distance that made my return possible. I can see things with much more clarity now. I cannot promise to always act as you would like, I can only promise you that I will never do anything to endanger any of you if I can possibly help it."
Porthos considered his friend's words, finding that the promise was something he could live with. "Then I s'pose I really can't ask for anything more."
And it was true. Although his liaison with the Queen had endangered them all, Porthos knew Aramis would never consciously allow harm to come to anyone he loved if he could prevent it. He finally understood what had driven his friend to the choice he had been forced to make. Aramis had turned his back on everything he loved so that everyone he cared for could carry on. He didn't do it out of spite or selfish intent but for the sake of love.
How could anyone be angry with that?
"I am sorry, 'Mis. And I do trust you. To have my back as well as Athos' and d'Artagnan's. You have nothing to prove to me. You never really did."
Aramis smiled, his eyes soft, grateful. "Thank you, Porthos. I vow to live up to the trust and forgiveness you've shown me."
Porthos returned the grin. "I know you will. Now get some sleep, or Constance will have my hide for keeping you up."
Aramis obediently closed his eyes.
The chair creaked as Porthos' settled back once again. A comfortable quiet filled the room, the muffled sounds of the awakening garrison filtering through the closed door creating a familiar, soothing backdrop.
"I really am fine," Aramis muttered sleepily after a few moments. "You don't have to stay."
Porthos shrugged and crossed his arms on his chest, putting his feet up on the edge of the bed, careful not to jostle his wounded friend. "Got nothin' better to do. Now shut up and sleep."
As he watched Aramis drift off, Porthos felt a sense of peace wash over him, as if they'd finally, truly come home.