A/N Last chapter, my friends, and an extra-long one. I hope you enjoyed the story.
The Musketeers - Alpha One
Though it was still raining, the storm had moved on, leaving a trail of violence and destruction behind it. By a sheer miracle, the cabin had thwarted Mother Nature's attempt to pulverize it; the loss of several roof shingles, the lean-to and front patio was a small price to pay for the shelter and security the little dwelling had provided.
The surrounding trees bore their own battle scars. Some had been violently uprooted, others scorched and shattered by lightning, while the grand old patriarchs - whose massive boles had been tried in a hundred storms - waved solemnly above them, unscathed and erect in their majesty.
Using infrared technology and night vision goggles, the Forces Spéciales pilot landed the Caiman in the clearing in front of the cabin. Running at a crouch beneath the spinning rotors, Porthos met the crew and assisted them to carry their gear inside. Two of the non-medical personnel had been assigned to stay at the cabin overnight until a second chopper could return the following day for the bodies of the kidnappers.
With considerable effort, Aramis had managed to remain conscious long enough to brief the fight surgeon of d'Artagnan's condition and penicillin allergy. The doctor immediately set up an IV of type O positive blood, piggy-backing pain medication and Bactrim for d'Artagnan whose fever had again started to rise.
Through heavy lids, the marksman had scrutinized the doctor's every move, making certain d'Artagnan was in capable hands before finally submitting to his own infusion of pain meds and antibiotics. The stubborn medic was asleep within minutes, not even stirring when he and d'Artagnan were strapped to a gurney and transported to the chopper.
With their two younger teammates safely aboard and Forces Spéciales agreeing to secure their equipment until they could collect it, Porthos lifted a blanket-wrapped Julien onto his hip and he and Athos joined the others on the chopper for the flight home.
In the MICU waiting room, Constance was anxiously wringing her hands; desperately clinging onto logic and hope when despair was doing its best to distract her. Looking up, she watched as Treville and Jacques Moreau paced the floor at opposite sides of the room, both lost in their own thoughts.
Moments ago, they had received word that the Forces Spéciales chopper had touched down on the rooftop helipad and a team of medical staff had rushed to help transport the patients. As Lemay had surgical privileges at this hospital, he had already headed for the scrub room to prepare for surgery.
Several long moments later, the elevator door opened and d'Artagnan was wheeled quickly passed them. With professional haste, he was rushed straight into the triage area. Constance had barely caught a glimpse him, save for the dark hair and an oxygen mask that hid most of the Gascon's features.
The second elevator arrived and another gurney was wheeled into view. Though there was no oxygen mask to obscure his face, Aramis appeared to be unconscious. More medical staff appeared, milling around for a moment before guiding the gurney through the swinging doors clearly marked "staff only." The doors had not quite stilled when a young voice called out.
Constance, Treville and Moreau turned as Athos and Porthos alighted from the elevator, the boy perched on the larger man's hip. Wriggling to be released, Porthos gently placed Julien on the floor and watched as the boy ran down the corridor and into his father's waiting arms. Both wept unabashed as they kissed and hugged each other for several minutes.
Moreau rose to his feet, lifting the boy with him and, without hiding his emotion, he turned to address the Musketeers.
"I…I don't know how to thank you," he said. "There are no words that adequately express what it means to have my son safely returned to me."
"The pleasure is ours," Athos told him with a small nod of the head.
"Julien's one tough kid," Porthos added with a wink to the child that made the boy giggle. "The doc examined him on the chopper and deemed him good to go."
"He has some rope lacerations on his wrists and ankles but his lungs are clear and his breathing appears normal," Athos added. "However, should you have any concerns, the flight surgeon has recommended that you have him examined by your personal physician immediately."
"Of course," Moreau replied before turning to address Treville.
"Captain, it would be my honour to pay for any medical costs your men will incur," he said.
"The gesture is appreciated, of course, but not at all necessary," Treville replied.
"I must insist. It is the least I can do. I will call the hospital tomorrow and make the arrangements."
"As you wish," Treville responded with a nod of his head.
Julien snuggled against his father.
"Can we go home now, Papa?" he asked, suppressing a yawn.
"Of course, mon fils," Moreau said giving the boy a gentle squeeze.
Moreau paused to shake hands with the three men before gallantly placing a chaste kiss on Constance's knuckles. They watched as father and son walked to the end of the corridor and pressed the button to call the elevator. Julien titled his head back to speak with his father, who smiled and nodded his head. He placed his son of the floor and, turning on his heel, the little boy rushed back down the corridor, almost tripping as he reached Porthos who plucked him into the air before he fell.
"Whoa there, crazy legs," Porthos chuckled as the boy wrapped his skinny arms around the large man's neck and squeezed for all he was worth.
Leaning back, Julien placed a dimpled hand either side of Porthos' face.
"Thank you for saving me," he said earnestly.
Porthos swallowed the large lump in his throat.
"You're most welcome," he said with a hint of emotion. "You look after your Papa, yeah?"
"I will," the boy said before leaning dangerously toward Athos.
The lead agent moved quickly to prevent the child from toppling on his head and Constance stifled a giggle as Athos held him like he was holding a baby rattle snake.
"Thank you, Monsieur Athos," Julien said. "I hope Monsieur Aramis and d'Artagnan get well quickly."
With a smile that looked more like a grimace, Athos patted the boy's back as Julien wrapped him in a huge hug and then returned to his father.
Turning for one final wave, the two entered the elevator and were gone.
Constance turned concerned eyes to Athos and Porthos.
"How are they?" she asked.
Porthos smiled wearily and shook his head.
"Slept like babes all the way 'ere – not a murmur out of either of 'em," he told her.
"Which likely had more to do with the powerful pain medication than their condition," Athos drawled.
"They're young and strong and in good hands," Treville said. "You got them back here…that's all that matters."
Constance eyed the two bedraggled men in front of her and her eyes softened as, not for the first time, she marvelled at the closeness of these men. The hours of tension and emotional turmoil at the cabin, had taken its toll and both Athos and Porthos were beyond exhausted.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, sit down before you fall down, the pair of you," she said without rancour.
No sooner had the agents made use of the hard-plastic chairs when the swinging doors to the triage department opened and a scrub nurse walked in their direction.
"You're here for Agents d'Herblay and d'Artagnan?" she asked.
"Yes, we are," Treville replied on their behalf. "How are they?"
"They're being prepped for surgery right now."
"Any idea of how long the surgery will take?" Treville asked.
"If there are no complications, they'll be at least an hour in theatre and you can expect another hour or so in recovery," she said holding the clipboards aloft. "However, we will be needing their personal information for our records?"
With a weary sigh, Athos reached out to take them from her but Constance swiped them from his grasp.
"Best I take care of those," she told the nurse. "This lot can hardly keep their eyes open."
"You can leave the forms at the nurse's station when you're finished," the nurse smiled. "I'll be sure to let you know when you can see them."
As the nurse disappeared back into the triage area, Constance took a seat on a nearby couch and commenced filling in the admission forms.
"Would it do any good to tell you to go home and rest?" Treville asked.
He watched as his agents straightened their shoulders and opened their mouths to protest before he waved them silent.
"There's a patisserie across the road that opens all night. Go. Get some fresh air and eat something."
When neither man moved the captain scowled and his voice took on an edgy tone.
"Do I need to make it an order?" he demanded.
"No, Sir," Athos said, grabbing his larger teammate by the arm and pulling him toward the elevators before Porthos could say something he'd later regret.
Treville shook his head as he watched them go. He knew these men well - he knew the strong bond they shared with Aramis and were quickly forging with d'Artagnan. The captain would bet his house that the two agents would arrive at the patisserie; buy their food to go and scoff a pastry on the way back. They would return within twenty minutes and insist they had followed his orders to the letter. The captain chuckled quietly.
'Damn them,' he thought. 'They'd be right.'
Having returned to the hospital with coffee, baguettes and pastries for all, Athos and Porthos now sat opposite Constance and Treville, waiting for news of their younger teammates.
Constance had attempted to establish an up-tempo conversation that had petered away to silence as their concern and impatience grew. After what seemed like an eternity, the young scrub nurse returned with news that both men were out of surgery and Doctor Lemay would join them shortly with more information.
Lemay made an appearance twenty minutes later, still dressed in his scrubs. He looked tired but gave a reassuring smile as he approached them.
"Doc?" Porthos said, rising quickly. "How are they?"
"They are going to be fine," Lemay told them. "My colleague, Doctor Dupre, operated on Aramis' thigh – he's one of Paris' finest orthopaedic surgeons. The bullet did considerable damage to the flexor muscle but he managed to repair it. Aramis will need to use crutches for several weeks and will need to undertake physiotherapy to strengthen the leg but, with care, he should recover fully."
"When can we see 'im?" Porthos asked anxiously.
"He'll be moved to a private room in just a few moments. He has a fever but, if that resolves itself in the next few hours, and provided he can be trusted to stay off that leg, he can go home tomorrow."
Porthos and Athos exchanged a glance, both knowing that keeping their stubborn marksman off that leg was going to take some doing.
"D'Artagnan?" Athos asked.
"I performed another peritoneal lavage and we've given him another unit of whole blood to counter any toxins that have entered his bloodstream," the doctor said. "He's still running a very high temperature and he'll have a drain in for several days but we're confident of him making a full recovery. He's a very lucky young man. If his appendix had not been removed when they were, he would most certainly have succumbed to sepsis."
"Can we see him?" Athos and Constance said simultaneously.
"I'll make arrangements for you to see him once they have him settled in the high dependency ward. Don't expect too much from him though, he's still a very sick young man."
Shaking hands with the doctor, Treville turned to face the others.
"Now that I've attended the sick, it's time to attend the able-bodied," he said, checking his watch. "The morning shift starts in two hours and I've a meeting with the president."
"Yes, Sir," Athos said.
"Alpha One is off rotation until further notice. Keep me informed of any developments. I'll try to come by later."
The captain turned to Constance and saw the pleading look in her eyes.
"I'm sure I can muddle through without you for a day or two," he said, giving her a quick wink. She smiled bashfully in reply as the captain made his way to the elevators.
Athos and Constance were guided to the doorway of d'Artagnan's glass-walled cubicle in the high dependency ward. The lights were muted and Constance took a shuddering breath, startled by the amount of complex and intricate equipment.
D'Artagnan's pale face was partially hidden beneath an oxygen mask and a network of wires and tubes ran from various IV's to his body.
"I know it looks overwhelming," Lemay said, "but try not to let the hardware worry you. Preliminary testing on his kidneys and liver showed no damage – the dialysis machine is here only in case of emergency."
Moving to stand beside the bed, Constance stroked d'Artagnan's cheek, feeling the heat of the fever coming from him in waves.
"He's so warm," she said, her voice thick with emotion.
"Fever is the body's way of fighting infection," he said. "We've placed cooling pads underneath him and he's receiving large doses of Bactrim."
"The oxygen?" Athos asked.
"Precautionary," the doctor replied. "His lungs looked clear on the x-rays but with the combination of morphine chloroform and the anaesthesia, we'd like to ensure they stay clear. In fact, we could probably switch him from the mask to the nasal trumpets in an hour or so."
Lemay swiped the chart hanging from the end of d'Artagnan's bed and perused the latest notations.
"All in all, he's doing very well. Aramis did a remarkable job removing his appendix and ridding the wound of the majority of the infection."
"He'll be greatly relieved to hear that," Athos replied.
"D'Artagnan should sleep for several hours and the nurses will be in regularly to check his condition. He's in very good hands," Lemay said. "I don't suppose I could persuade you both to go home and get some rest?"
Raising one eyebrow, Athos replied with a determined look.
"I thought not," the doctor sighed, moving toward the door. "Well, if you've no objections, I'll like to check on Aramis before adjourning to the doctor's lounge. Have the nurses page me if you've any concerns."
"Thank you, Doctor," Constance said watching him leave.
Overwhelmed with fatigue and the emotion, Constance closed her eyes against the swell of tears that, despite the barrier, tracked a trail of mascara down her cheeks.
"He's going to be fine," Athos said.
"I know…I…I'm sorry," she said, rifling through her purse and producing a handkerchief. "I don't know what's got into me."
"I think you might," he said with a mischievous glint in his eye that caused the young woman's face to colour with the heat of a blush.
Constance huffed a laugh and rolled her eyes.
"First the captain and now you," she said. "Here I was thinking I'd been doing such a great job keeping things on a professional level."
"Mmm…not so much," he drawled.
"You're one to talk," she glared back. "You think I didn't notice you strutting around like a peacock when d'Artagnan cracked that decryption code for the Maison case? Admit it, Athos, just like Aramis and Porthos, d'Artagnan has gotten under your skin."
"Like three gigantic parasites," Athos replied, failing to keep the humour from his voice.
Constance slapped him playfully on the arm.
"You're not fooling me, Monsieur de la Fere," she grinned.
He pulled her in for a one-armed hug.
"Likewise, Madame Bonacieux," he replied before they continued their vigil over their unconscious friend.
Doctor Lemay checked the chart at the end of Aramis' bed. Seemingly content with the marksman's progress he gave Porthos a reassuring nod.
"He's doing well," the doctor said. "He has a slight infection, though his fever is higher than we'd like. I'll have the nurses administer something for that."
"Shouldn't he be wakin' up by now?" the larger man said with a frown.
"He will in his own time," Lemay replied, watching Aramis' eyelids twitch furiously from the movement underneath. "Though, I must say he appears to be having quite a vivid dream."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
Lemay met the Musketeers concerned gaze.
"When we brought 'im back from there, his dreams tormented 'im for weeks…months even. He'd wake up screaming for Michel or Christophe, even…even Marsac," Porthos said, almost spitting the last name. He took a deep breath remembering the sickening rush of fear that had surged through him each time Aramis woke from a nightmare and had turned those desperate, empty eyes to his, begging mutely for help. "Savoy nearly broke 'im; should 'ave broken 'im…but we got 'im back. He shouldn't 'ave to go through this again."
"None of you should," Lemay replied. "Do the nightmares still come?"
Porthos narrowed his eyes suspiciously and remained silent. As MASCAT's chief medical officer, Lemay had the power to pull any agent from active duty if he deemed him unfit. Aramis had worked too hard on his recertification to be sidelined now.
"I'm asking not as his physician but as a friend," Lemay told him.
Porthos sighed audibly and rested his hand on Aramis' shoulder; pleased when the younger man settled a little.
"Now and then," he admitted with a shrug. "An assignment gone bad or when he's sick…sometimes he just gets lost in his 'ead, you know?"
"I understand," Lemay said. "One can't reasonably expect to survive such horrors without forever bearing the scars."
"You think he'll go dark side on us again?"
The doctor pursed his lips and considered his words carefully.
"I am not a psychiatrist but I believe Aramis has two things in his favour," he said. "One – the outcome is completely different; he saved d'Artagnan's life."
"And the other?"
"He has you and Athos to ensure it doesn't happen again."
Porthos chuckled softly.
"Yes he 'as," he said.
D'Artagnan stirred restlessly as the fierce pounding of a headache and the sharp twinge of traumatized abdominal muscles urged him from sleep. He could hear a voice calling his name but he was in no great hurry to open his eyes and come away from the dark comfort he found himself in.
The voice was persistent, gruff yet gentle in equal measures, and it drew him away from the void and closer to awareness. Heavy eyelids fluttered open to reveal slithers of dark brown irises before closing against the harsh light. He tried again - blinking owlishly as he struggled to focus on his surroundings. Not fully cognizant, his bleary eyes darted around the room searching for something, or someone, to lock onto.
Athos stepped forward into d'Artagnan's line of sight. He saw the fear and confusion in the younger man's eyes but when the haze of his panic lifted and dark eyes focussed on green, they reflected a measure of trust reserved for no other.
"Try not to move. You're in the hospital and you're going to be fine," the lead agent said, watching as the Gascon's tongue flicked over his dry lips.
Reaching for the cup of ice chips the nurse had left earlier, Athos handed it to d'Artagnan. The younger man took a small mouthful, savouring the coolness in his dry throat.
"How are you feeling?" Athos asked.
"Like I've been gutted like a fish," d'Artagnan grimaced.
"I'm quite certain Aramis would take exception to such a harsh critique of his efforts," he said dryly. "Particularly as he saved your life."
D'Artagnan tried to sit up, hissing as he aggravated his incision.
"Where is he? Is he alright?"
"He's fine. His surgery went well and Porthos is with him down the hall."
"I want to see him," d'Artagnan said. "I need…I need to thank him."
"In due time. For the moment, you both need your rest."
D'Artagnan nodded sleepily, his eyelids growing heavier after each blink. He was almost asleep when he heard footsteps and recognised another familiar voice.
"They didn't have latte so I got you a hot tea, I hope that's alright?"
Constance stopped abruptly, still holding the cup out to Athos and staring at the young man in the bed who was blinking back at her like he'd seen an apparition.
"Constance," d'Artagnan rasped. "You…you came to see me?"
The young woman floundered, searching for a reply.
"I came to see Aramis," she said, noting the hurt that flickered in the young man's eyes. "And you, of course…that is…I came to see Aramis and you. It's part of my job, you know, as Captain Treville's personal assistant."
"Oh," he said, looking crestfallen. "Well, thank you for coming. I hope it wasn't too inconvenient."
"Not at all," she smiled warmly and watched as d'Artagnan's eyes closed and he drifted back to sleep.
She grimaced as she met Athos' questioning gaze.
"I know!" she replied to the unspoken question. "But it just didn't feel like the right time."
"In my experience, there rarely is a right time," he said walking to the door. "I'd like to check on Aramis, will you stay with d'Artagnan?"
"Of course I will," she replied.
She watched Athos leave before walking to the head of the bed and gently carding her fingers through the sleeping man's hair.
"I'm not going anywhere," she whispered.
Porthos had dragged a chair closer to the bed and resigned himself to keeping watch over his injured friend. He scrubbed his hands over his goatee and wondered how many nights since Savoy, had Aramis twisted awake in the grip of some nightmare. Three years on, the nightmares were becoming much less frequent but when the younger man was sick or injured and too tired to evade the memories that circled like vultures, the nightmares would return.
In his sleep, Aramis' mind was allowed free rein and it took advantage of that freedom to create dark and twisted dreams of Savoy. The marksman heard himself pleading with Michel and Christophe to stay alive – begging for forgiveness for not possessing the skill to save them - or beseeching Marsac to return and not abandon them. He felt the frigid air freeze his lungs and the frozen ground bite deeply into his flesh and bones; he smelled the acrid stench of death with every inhalation and he heard the insidious whispers of his own mind…whispers of hopelessness, of grief and failure.
Porthos continued to watch helplessly as Aramis struggled restlessly against the confines of the heavy blankets. The marksman's breath stuttered out in staccato bursts, his eyes still moving wildly under closed lids.
Strips of morning sun filtered through the slats of the Venetian blinds, as exhaustion foiled Porthos' best intentions; his eyes slipped closed and sleep pulled him under.
That's how Athos found them – as he had so many times before - the larger man asleep in the chair by Aramis' bed, his large hand on the marksman's shoulder, giving and receiving comfort through touch. The lead agent took a seat on the other side of the bed - his presence the only support he could give them – until he, too, succumbed to sleep.
They had no idea how long they'd slept before Aramis sat bolt upright beside them yelling d'Artagnan's name. Gasping desperately for air, the younger man worked to pull oxygen into his lungs. The bed dipped on either side of him, then a voice in his ear commanded.
"Aramis, wake up," Athos said. "Look at me! It's just a dream, you need to wake up!"
Wide brown eyes met his, still heavy with sleep and revealing a naked pain in their depths. The team leader's heart lurched in sympathetic reaction.
Aramis felt a hand on his back, not moving, just grounding him as the world slowly and painfully came back into focus and he managed a hitching breath.
"You back with us?" Porthos asked, receiving a tentative nod in reply.
A glass was thrust into his hand with the order to drink and, as he managed to comply, the liquid soothed his dry throat. The bedhead was raised and, cautiously, he sunk back against the pillows; straightening his legs and hissing as he jostled his heavily wrapped thigh.
"Where's d'Artagnan?" he asked urgently.
"He's sleeping, just a few doors down," Athos told him.
"He…he was there. At…at Savoy," Aramis uttered, his eyes overbright in his ashen face. "I…I couldn't save him."
"He wasn't at Savoy, Mis," Porthos assured him. "But you did save 'im. He's gonna be just fine."
Aramis frowned as his confused mind tried to sift reality from fiction.
"I need to see him," Aramis said, throwing the blankets back and trying to ease his injured leg over the side of the bed.
"Whoa," Porthos said, placing a restraining hand on the younger man's arm. "You ain't goin' anywhere till the doc says you can get outta bed."
Aramis shrugged free from the larger man's hold and defiantly took his weight on both legs. He took a small step, gritting his teeth to keep from crying out as Athos blocked his intended path.
"Don't be stupid," the lead agent said. "You can scarcely stand let alone walk."
"Then help me," Aramis said. "Get me some crutches or a wheelchair."
"I will not aid you in this foolishness," Athos said.
"Then I'll crawl if I have to," Aramis hissed. "I need to see d'Artagnan with my own eyes."
"What the devil is going on in here?" Treville said from the doorway. "I can hear your voices from down the corridor!"
The three agents had sense enough to look chagrined by the reprimand, each mumbling an apology. With his hands on his hips and piercing blue eyes bright with anger, Treville pointed at Aramis.
"You, get your arse back into that bed before I have Lemay sedate you for a week!"
Aramis' objection died on his lips as he saw the fierce intent in the captain's eyes.
Treville then turned his attention to Porthos and Athos.
"You two have been here all night. Go home, get some rest and unless you want Aramis going home bare-arsed tonight, get him some clothes. I don't want to see you for at least four hours. Have I made myself clear?"
"Yes, Sir," the older Musketeers replied together.
Giving Aramis twin "don't do anything stupid" looks, Athos and Porthos left the room and headed for their respective apartments, leaving Treville and Aramis alone.
Treville reached out a steadying arm and helped Aramis back into the bed. The younger man's forehead was beaded in sweat from pain and exertion and he squirmed under the captain's scrutiny.
Grabbing a nearby chair Treville flipped it around and straddled it, crossing his arms over the back.
"You want to tell me what that was all about?" he asked.
"Not really, Sir, no."
Aramis had hoped to let the matter drop but Treville had other ideas.
"You wanted to see d'Artagnan?"
"I wanted to be certain he was recovering well."
The captain frowned.
"Did Porthos and Athos not tell you of d'Artagnan's condition?"
"They said he was going to be fine."
"But you didn't believe them?"
"No, Sir, I…I just needed to see for myself."
Treville watched his young agent intently, saw him trying to marshal the emotions churning inside him.
"Aramis, talk to me," the captain asked quietly.
"I assure you, Captain, it was nothing…just a senseless dream."
"Don't do that, son," he said. "You think I don't know what this is? You think I don't know PTSD when I see it? This whole thing with d'Artagnan's appendicitis has brought those fears to the surface."
The knot in Aramis' chest tightened until he could barely breathe and his head dropped suddenly, as if the burden of shame had made it too heavy to hold up.
"Aramis," he said gently. "Look at me, son. Do you think you're the only one who has ever felt the crushing weight of PTSD?"
The younger man shook his head.
"I carry my own guilt from Savoy and I, too, am visited by occasional nightmares."
"You, Sir?" Aramis uttered incredulously.
Treville's eyes dimmed with recall and after several slow minutes of silence, he finally gave voice to his memories.
"As a commanding officer, every time you lose a man you lose a small part of yourself. Though you do everything in your power to avoid it, you tell yourself that losing men in battle is the price we pay for our freedom – you keep telling yourself that until you believe it."
The captain paused, taking a deep breath. He didn't make a habit of putting his emotions on display but long acquaintance had taught Aramis to recognize the signs.
"I never expected to lose men at Savoy," Treville continued. "I sent twenty-two young men to a damn training camp on home soil – I had every right to believe that they would all return safely at the end of that week. But only you came home, Aramis, and even then there were times we thought we'd never really get you back. If you think I don't feel the weight of their loss, every single day…then you don't know me at all."
Aramis stared at his hands swallowing convulsively around the lump in his throat.
"The magnitude of what we lost that day can never be fully measured," the captain said. "If I've learned anything over the years, it's that those who lost their lives in the service of our country, deserve to be honoured; the past deserves to be studied and remembered but living needs to be done in the present. Life moves on, son, and the best anyone can hope for is to learn how to live in the company of those memories...what we can't fix must be endured."
The young Musketeer looked deep into his captain's eye, searching there for the answers he so desperately needed.
"I've tried. How can I learn to live with those memories?"
"I wish I had the answers you seek. I wish I could end your torment," Treville said with genuine regret. "But true grief is personal…only you can find your own closure…your own peace."
Deepening the intensity of his gaze, he communicated to the younger man through their visual connection what he could not say out loud:
'You can do this, Aramis. I'll be right here with you.'
Looking and feeling more refreshed, Athos and Porthos alighted from the hospital elevator, each carrying an overnight bag from Aramis and d'Artagnan's respective apartments.
From the inception of the MASCAT, the Alpha One teammates had kept spare keys to each other's apartments, in case of emergencies, and a packed overnight bag in the wardrobe of their master bedrooms.
Popping their heads into Aramis' room they grew alarmed to find a nurse's aid changing the linen of the bed and their marksman conspicuous by his absence.
"I beg your pardon, Mademoiselle," Athos said. "We are looking for our friend, Aramis d'Herblay. This is his room."
"This was his room, Monsieur," she replied. "He discharged himself about a few hours ago."
Athos slanted a look at the larger man's steely expression.
"I'll kill 'im," Porthos growled as they hurried for d'Artagnan's room.
Constance was quietly reading when the two Musketeers rushed through the door.
"Where the 'ell is he?" Porthos asked.
"Shhhh!" Constance whispered tersely, rising to her feet and glancing worriedly toward d'Artagnan's sleeping form. "What's the matter with you? This is a hospital, you can't be…wait…where's who?"
"It appears Aramis has discharged himself," Athos said. We thought he might be here with d'Artagnan."
"He hasn't been here," Constance said. "When the captain left, he said that Aramis was sleeping and would visit with d'Artagnan later."
"Then we gotta problem," Porthos said. "Cause he's not 'ere and he's not at his 'ome."
"We have another problem," Athos said. "You have his pants."
"I'm still gonna kill 'im" Porthos fumed as Athos negotiated the mid–afternoon traffic.
"Not if I get to him first," Athos replied.
"What the 'ell was he thinkin'? Signing 'imself out and leavin' the hospital in nothin' but a set of borrowed scrubs?"
"We should be thankful he changed out of the gown," Athos quipped.
"This ain't funny," Porthos hissed.
"No, it's not but Treville gave us a good idea where he thought Aramis might be headed. If he's correct, this could be the start of something good."
"Yeah, maybe," the larger man conceded. "But why now? He's never been near the place before."
"Perhaps he's ready now."
"Maybe," Porthos said thoughtfully. "But I still say we 'ave him fitted for one of those GPS implants."
They parked the car at their destination and found Treville waiting by the ornate gateway.
"Is he 'ere?" Porthos asked worriedly.
"He is," the captain replied. "The curator said he arrived by cab about two hours ago. He's just been sitting there ever since."
"If you don't mind me asking, Sir," Athos said. "How did you know he'd be here?"
Treville gave an uncharacteristic shrug.
"Lucky guess," he said, looking fondly in Aramis' direction.
"We've got 'im now, Sir," Porthos said.
"Get him back to the hospital," Treville said, turning for the parking lot. "I want him checked by Lemay once more before you take him home…that's an order."
They walked shoulder to shoulder along the narrow, gravelled path, lined with immaculately kept ornamental trees and hedges that had fared surprisingly well during the recent storm. There was absolute stillness – not even a gentle breeze to stir the grass or the leaves. It looked like any other privately-owned, walled park with exception of the small chapel in the far corner and two rows of ten, white marble headstones, each engraved with the fleur de lis and the names of those lost at Savoy.
They didn't see him at first and we starting to get concerned when they spotted the dark headed man sitting on the grass between Michel and Christophe's resting place. Sensing their quiet approach, Aramis wiped his eyes with his sleeve and took a few deep breaths to calm himself.
There wasn't much they could do for him but wait. They could demand he talk to them – tell them how he was feeling - but they had learned long ago and from bitter experience that would only result in the younger man placing an almost impenetrable defensive wall between them.
They could sit him down, throw an arm around his shoulders and repeat meaningless platitudes but their friendship was based on honesty and trust. As difficult as it was, they did what they had always done – they watched and they waited. Waited for the younger man to think himself to a standstill and push his stubbornness aside long enough to realise he didn't have to do this alone.
After a moment, he lifted his crucifix to his lips and made a sign of the cross.
"Rest in God's grace, my friends," he whispered.
Saying it aloud hurt and ripped open the still-raw pain of loss. But, with sudden clarity, he realised that it was not his friends' forgiveness he sought - he needed to forgive himself. He had tried, with everything he had in him, to save the lives of his friends but their injuries were too great. He had always accepted that in his head but finally, finally, his heart was ready to accept it, too. A crushing weight was lifted and the insidious guilt that had lived within him as a malignancy for three years, was vanquished.
He felt Porthos' hand press against his back while Athos gently squeezed the nape of his neck and the heat and weight of them were his undoing. He turned his face away when he felt his control slipping again. A strangled sob escaped before the gates opened and he wept openly, knowing his friends would understand. In the first weeks after Savoy, they had seen him in his weakest moments, at his most unprotected and humiliatingly vulnerable. He should have felt ashamed in their presence but instead he felt bolstered and comforted as he wept like he had never wept before.
They gave him time to regain his composure - not speaking and not judging - just providing him with their solid support, as always. He cleared his throat and turned back to face his friends, his reddened eyes hollowed by fatigue and pain. He was completely spent and shivering so violently that they could hear his teeth chatter.
"I'm ready," he whispered.
"You do realise you're sitting on wet grass all this time, yeah?" Porthos asked, removing his jacket and placing it around the younger man's shoulders.
"That fact did not escape me," Aramis shivered.
"And yet, you continued to sit here," Athos said.
"Getting down was the easy part," Aramis admitted. "But I've been sitting here for quite a while and...I don't believe I can get up."
"And you're tellin' us this now?" Porthos growled. "Are you insane?"
"Perhaps…but that's a discussion for another time. Right now, I'd appreciate a hand up."
Aramis was cold, his muscles had stiffened from being in one place for too long and by the look of the lines etched into his too pale face, he was well-overdue for his pain medication. Getting the marksman to his feet proved more difficult than expected as Aramis swayed alarming. The younger man bit his lips to trap any moans or grunts and deny them life as they lowered him to a nearby bench to catch his breath, while Porthos went back for the injured man's crutches.
"Perhaps you could tell us how you'd planned to get home from here?" Athos asked.
"I knew you'd find me," Aramis said with absolute certainty.
"Of all the boneheaded…" Porthos swallowed the rest of the sentence.
"Admit it, brother, you wouldn't want me any other way." The younger man's cocky reply was met with a withering gaze. "Well, perhaps you would…but we all know that's not going to happen."
"Try another idiotic stunt like this and we won't bother looking for you next time," Athos threatened. "Are we clear?"
"Crystal," Aramis said with a smug grin that told both men he wasn't buying their protests.
The older Musketeers exchanged a grin, relieved to see the younger man's sense of humour coming to the fore. Despite his attempt at nonchalance, they all knew the horrors of Savoy would forever linger in Aramis' mind, waiting for a chance to strike. But they, too, would be waiting, with whatever support he needed to prevail.
Handing Aramis his crutches, they lifted him to his feet; walking either side of him as they made their way slowly to the parking lot. The marksman stopped for a moment, glancing back at the graves of his friends. He took a deep breath and acknowledged the step he'd taken today - he still had quite a distance to travel to leave his perdition behind but he knew, without doubt, his brothers would be by his side every step of the way.
It was mid-afternoon when d'Artagnan's fever broke and, though his temperature was still on the high side, Lemay had decided that the younger man was doing well enough to be moved from the high dependency ward into a private room.
Having no family of his own, the young Gascon had expected to wake alone in his room. He was a little overwhelmed and deeply touched to find Athos and Constance sitting by his bed when he woke.
Strong pain medication had clouded his brain in a thick fog and he was struggling to follow the polite conversation going on around him.
"You need your rest," Athos said, noticing the younger man was struggling to keep his eyes open. "Would you like us to leave?"
"No!" d'Artagnan said, a little too quickly. "Please, stay."
"Clear a path," Porthos' voice called from the corridor. "Invalid comin' through."
D'Artagnan's face lit up at his friends' arrival. Sitting regally in a wheelchair, Aramis' left leg was elevated to keep the pressure off his wounded thigh. The marksman grimaced as his larger friend manoeuvred the wheelchair into the doorframe before successfully entering the room.
"There you are," Constance said, leaning in to give Aramis a quick peck on the cheek. "We've been wondering what was keeping you."
"Lemay wanted to run some tests before he released 'im." Porthos said with a chuckle.
"I assure you, he made up some of those tests to punish me for signing out AMA," Aramis replied, before stage whispering, "he's a little pissed."
"Then perhaps you'll do as you're told next time instead of disappearing without a word to anyone," Constance scolded lightly.
"Tell me, Madame, where would be the fun in that?"
"I assume the good doctor has officially released you?" Athos said.
"As a matter of fact, I have now been released on my own recognizance," Aramis replied, causing Porthos to cough loudly. "Or, rather, I've been released on Porthos' recognizance."
"The doc put me in charge so no funny business, yeah?" the larger man told him.
The marksman placed his hands over his heart.
"Porthos, you wound me," he said with feigned offence.
"And the wheels?" Athos asked.
"Just until he's off the pain meds," Porthos explained. "You know 'ow he gets…one pain killer and 'e's got the coordination of a newborn colt."
Aramis met d'Artagnan's gaze for the first time since they left the cabin and he smiled with genuine happiness.
"It is good to see you, my friend," he told the younger man. "I'm told Lemay has predicted a full recovery."
"Thanks to you," d'Artagnan replied, his eyes dropping to his hands before finding Aramis' again. "Aramis…about your leg…I'm so sorry."
"You apologized before…twice, I believe…and each time it was duly accepted."
"Still, if it wasn't for me, this-"
Aramis cut him off with a wave of his hand.
"If it wasn't for you, I would be dead," Aramis told him. "A wise man once told me that the past deserves to be studied and remembered but living needs to be done in the present."
"Well, you're both here now and that's all that matters," Constance said, producing a bottle and some plastic cups. "And we're celebrating the end of d'Artagnan's probationary period."
Athos reached for the bottle and examined the label.
"Sparkling cider," he drawled. "I see we've spared no expense."
Constance playfully slapped the lead agent's arm.
"You know d'Artagnan and Aramis are on pain killers. Stop your moaning and help me pour the drinks."
Waiting until everyone had a cup, Athos raised his cider in a toast.
"To the newest member of Alpha One," he said. "And then there were four."
D'Artagnan quickly blinked the excess moisture from his eyes as a strong sense of gratitude overwhelmed him. These people, with their quirky idiosyncrasies and humour, had welcomed him into their lives, sharing their friendship, their staunch loyalty and their strong sense of family.
"We should have a real celebration," Aramis said. "I distinctly remember Porthos offering to pick up the cheque the next time we went out."
"Oy, that was only d'Artagnan and me, not the lot of you," Porthos blustered.
"Where we go one, we go all," Athos added dryly.
"Not so fast you lot," Constance said. "Some of you have still got some healing to do."
"Nonsense," Aramis replied. "We'll be back to active duty before you know it."
"The doc's got you on the sticks for at least four weeks," Porthos remarked.
The marksman eyes lit up at the challenge.
"Ten euro says I'm off them in two."
"You'll do as you're told and follow the doctor's instructions," Athos told him.
"But I hate light duties, it's boring. I miss active duty – the excitement, the noise…the danger."
"It's only been a day," Porthos chuckled. "Besides, this time you'll 'ave d'Artagnan to keep you company."
"That's true," Aramis brightened.
Athos looked at his newest agent.
"A word of warning; Aramis is a master of having the newer agents complete his paperwork."
"Not to mention, 'is fetching and carrying," Porthos added. "He 'ad Bonnett runnin' all over Paris doing 'is personal errands."
"I consider it my duty to teach those less experienced, the importance of following orders," Aramis said.
"You mean your breakfast order, lunch order…"
"Orders are orders, are they not?" Aramis said. "Besides, it helps break the monotony."
They heard a small gasp as Constance checked her watch.
"Oh my, is that the time? I'm having dinner with some girlfriends and I completely lost track of the time."
D'Artagnan tried to hide his disappointment as he watched the young woman reach for her purse.
"I'll see you in the morning," she told him.
"You don't have to," he said with a forlorn sigh. "I mean, I know it's your job to look in on me but I'm fine. You don't need to bother."
Constance reached across and gently squeezed the young man's fingers.
"I'm not working tomorrow," she smiled. "And, I'd really like to spend the day with you."
Lost for words, d'Artagnan just stared as the young woman gathered her things and left for her appointment. She smiled as she passed Treville who was standing unnoticed in the doorway, watching the interaction of his agents.
The room fell strangely quiet until Aramis broke the silence.
"I'm telling you, Porthos, acquiring appendicitis to woo the affections of a beautiful woman is nothing short of genius," he said. "Although, it must be said, sacrificing an organ does seem a tad extreme, wouldn't you agree?"
"I would," the larger man nodded. "And what about that "deer in the 'eadlights" reaction we just saw? Worked like a charm. Constance never knew what 'it her."
D'Artagnan huffed a laugh, then grimace as it aggravated his incision. Exchanging a glance with Athos, he shrugged, and sunk back against his pillows, grinning in contentment as Aramis and Porthos continued their banter under the lead agent's watchful eye.
Treville's lips formed a smile. In his many years as a soldier he'd known and experienced the loyalty and friendships formed between comrades in arms. In their line of work, the stress they faced either tore people apart or united them together for life.
Athos, Porthos and Aramis shared one of the strongest bonds that Treville had ever seen. But d'Artagnan's arrival had brought a new fibre to their thread of trust; strengthening that bond and drawing him further into the safe harbour they were so freely offering.
Each member of Alpha One was an integral part of the whole - far greater than the individual. Their mutual bond was forged by shared conflicts and strengthened by adversity…it made them more than just friends, it made them brothers.
A/N Thank you, so much, for your wonderful support. This was so much fun to write. I have a few more story ideas and I'm thinking of, perhaps, making it into a series but I'm not quite sure. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Gabby