A/N: The final chapter is here! For now this is the end of this 'verse. Maybe I'll add something to it like episode tags or a post season three story sometime in the future but that's just a thought at the moment. So THANK YOU everyone for all the kind words, the encouragement and patience.
Thank you all who read, favorite, follow and reviewed this story. Thank you guest reviewers, Debbie, Guest, Jmp, Beeblegirl, Guest and Caroline; thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. AND the people who left me PMs of their reviews during the mysterious case of invisible reviews; THANK YOU SO MUCH for such a sweet gesture; you guys just leave me bewildered with your kindness.
This is a long one even though I didn't want to stretch it out :)
Hope you all enjoy it!
It was swift under his hand.
The taut, alert muscles simply letting go.
He glanced aside and met the blue eyes looking to him. Relief, grief and gratitude churned there as it did in his own chest, in that spot between his lungs before it rose as a lump in his throat. Athos looked down where his fingers were still tangled in the dark curls and Porthos followed his line of sight before he looked up. But the other man did not, and even as the drop trailed down the side of Athos' nose the corner of his lips curled up in a soft smile.
This, this unspoken declaration of trust placed in their hands was far more than any of them had expected to receive when they had ridden out after their friend.
Porthos let his hand rest where it was, on the side of his friend's belly where he had once stabbed him with a broken bottle. He wondered if he could feel the scars beyond the shirt or was it simply that he could not forget the sight of them from the previous night. How many times had this man been the only thing standing between them and death he wondered. Dropping his head back against the wall he closed his eyes against the hot blur in his vision. And tried not to think of what could have happened if they had not seen the proof of what their friend had gone through; tried not to dwell upon the twisting in his gut at the thought that Aramis had suffered in silence and he hadn't shared it, wouldn't have shared it with them. Porthos did his best to wipe out from his memory the defeat he had read in the lines of brother's posture when the man had finally let them see the evidence borne on his skin.
He shook his head slowly.
"We might have never known," he said.
"And he wouldn't have begrudged that," said Athos.
There was just a hint of bitterness in his voice.
Porthos understood that, it was still simmering in him, the anger at the way his friend had been used; and the thought settled as an ache behind his eyes. He pinched the bridge of his nose and caught the moisture at the corners of his eyes. For all his pursuits of beauty his friend had the rare ability to look past blemishes and short comings, it dawned on him that despite of their attitude towards him and what the man had went through, Aramis simply wanted acceptance just as he offered it himself.
"Who are you?"
"My name is Porthos. I'm your son."
"Who told you this nonsense?"
"Captain Treville of the musketeers."
"Treville? It was his treachery that ruined my life."
The man at his side who had been quiet until then steps up.
"That's our captain you're slandering," he says.
A friendly warning, but a warning nonetheless.
"That's my friend Aramis, also of the musketeers." Porthos says.
A grimace pulled at his face at the memory. His friend had defended the honour of their Captain even after he had known of Treville's role in Savoy. And now that he knew that what they had been denying was actually true Porthos had to wonder how his friend had found his peace with their Captain. How had he managed to forgive their Captain and how had he managed to still hold him in such a high regard?
He looked down at the man curled at his side and shook his head. Remembered the first words he had offered to his friend when they had met in Douai. He had felt betrayed and hurt by Aramis' abandonment and he had wanted to hurt him in return. He had wanted the man he called his brother to suffer for the pain he had caused him. And when Marsac had returned, claiming their Captain as a traitor he had wanted Aramis to know his mistake, wanted him to be chastised for siding with that traitor. Porthos winced, regret cutting at his heart for not being there for his brother in that time of loss and confusion...
"Two inches deep that blade went, but you wouldn't know, would you? This one I trussed up during a skirmish we had in Poitiers; stitching that's fine enough for the Queen's chemise."
...This was a man who knew the stories of his wounds as well as Porthos himself did; sometimes Aramis remembered them even more clearly than him. And that was why it was always so hard to forgive this man he realized. Porthos' hand clutched at his friend's shirt, eyes widening as it struck him that this was the difference; it wasn't that it was easy for Aramis to forgive, no, forgiveness was never easy. It was just that his friend was willing to forgive. Aramis forgave readily not easily, and that was why he was here at his side again, willing to take another chance at their brotherhood while his own temper had nearly pushed him away for good. Wincing at the thought Porthos let his head fall back against the wall again and closed his eyes again.
They shot open suddenly when the man curled at his side gasped. Porthos pushed away from the wall just as Aramis jolted up, mouth open in a silent scream.
He was still, too still Porthos realized.
"Aramis?" Athos tried.
"I don't think he's breathing," d'Artagnan's voice wavered a little.
And Porthos saw it then, the hand Aramis was leaning on clawed at the floor while the other clutched his shirt over his chest in a death grip, the chest that was not moving. Fear stuttered his own breath and turned his voice to a whisper.
On his knees and at his friend's side Porthos laid a hand on the man's shoulder.
Aramis flinched violently.
Sucking in a ragged breath he scrambled with his boots slipping against the floor as he backed up against the wall, hitting it with a hard thump as his head swung from side to side. Gasping fast and harsh as his wide eyes, almost completely black, looked from one man to the other. Porthos winced. He glanced at Athos who was moving back slightly, dragging d'Artagnan along with him. The younger man pulled out of his grasp with a frown but stayed where he was crouched at the Captain's side.
"What's wrong with him?" he demanded.
The short shallow breaths hitched at the voice and Porthos' heart skipped a beat, hands curling into fists in an effort to not touch his friend.
"Keep breathin 'Mis. Just keep breathing," his voice was pitched low.
In a prayer and a plea that Porthos wasn't sure if his friend had heard. Yet his gaze never strayed from Aramis, trying to catch the blank dark gaze that was flitting all over the room as the man blinked against the sweat that ran in rivulets down his face and neck; the skin there tinged red. Porthos glanced aside when d'Artagnan reached out but Athos stayed the younger man's hand. The Captain's face was pale and grim as the blue eyes met Porthos' gaze.
"It is fine, it'll pass," Athos said.
There was a trembling note under his words and Porthos wondered if Athos was trying to convince himself.
"What's happening to him?" d'Artagnan asked again.
And looked from them to Aramis who was breathing as if he had run too fast too far.
"He hadn't slept well since Savoy and after nights when he didn't sleep at all –" Porthos said.
"You mean this had happened before?" d'Artagnan asked.
"Four times, and in the mornings he remembered nothing of it," Athos said, eyes never leaving the shaking, sweating man pressed against the wall, "back when the wounds from Savoy were fresh he – that;" his eyes widened abruptly, "isn't good,"
"You think?" Porthos growled.
And backed away a little more; sat back on his haunches eyeing the dagger Aramis had pulled out from where it had been strapped onto his leg. The hand wrapped around the hilt shook and Porthos leaned forwards slightly.
"Aramis? 'Mis c'mon now, look at me," he ducked his head until the dark eyes found his own, "I'm here, you're safe. You don't need that,"
But his friend drew into himself; breathing quick and sharp he pushed back into the wall and brought the hand with the dagger closer to his chest. Porthos' breath dried up in his throat. He swallowed hard as Aramis clutched the dagger close to his heart as if it was the only thing left between him and death; the fingers of his other hand twitched where they were pressed onto the floor. There was fear in the black pools that were his eyes.
"Don't die," he whispered.
Shivered and shook his head as he pressed further into the wall.
"Die don't, don't die,"
"No one's dying Aramis," Athos moved closer.
Aramis started; dropped the dagger and fumbled to grasp it again. Porthos hissed when his brother clutched it from the other end, the blade cutting into the hand holding it tight. It took everything in him to not pull the weapon away and gather his brother close to him, to somehow sooth away the fear that had embedded itself so deep in his friend's mind.
Sitting back Porthos rubbed a hand over his eyes and cleared the sudden blur in his sight, cursed the assignment that wouldn't leave his brother alone even after all these years.
"Dead, dead, don't,"
"Aramis please," d'Artagnan shook his head.
"You're not there Aramis,"
"Don't die," it was soft amidst the gasps.
"This is not Savoy," Athos' voice was firm.
"We're all here and alive 'Mis,"
"Save them –" Aramis shuddered, "have to – safe not not safe not – they –"
Dropping the dagger he suddenly surged to his feet; staggered as he stepped away from the wall at his back and left a bloody imprint of his hand there. Steps lacking his usual smooth grace Aramis moved ahead, his gaze fixed forward and distant, looking past the room and its occupants and time itself. Muttering under his breath he reached out; an arch of crimson drops followed on the floor and Porthos stood after him, caught Athos' gaze that flitted to him and he read the same helpless anger there that he felt in his own heart, the bitter rage for the man who Aramis chased even after all these years.
Aramis stumbled into a chair and Porthos snagged his outstretched arm. The dark gaze shifted to him at the touch and Porthos wished with all his heart to never find that blank frightened look in his friend's eyes again. His eyes closed against the prickle in his sight as Aramis looked away, stared at something only he could see, reaching out to hold the phantom he was chasing. Porthos knew what would come next, that accursed name that had ended these bouts the first four times.
"...thos," Aramis whispered.
Porthos' eyes flew open just as his friend slumped.
He was still staring ahead when Athos caught up with his friend.
Grasped Aramis by the other arm that was reaching for the person Aramis was chasing in his nightmare and braced against the name of the deserter he knew would fall from his friend's lips; the deserter who Aramis was still walking away from him in his mind's eye.
The soft word that the man breathed out hit him like a mace to the chest and trapped his breath between his lungs; Athos nearly let go. He stared wide eyed as Aramis' eyes slipped shut and his friend dropped to the floor, knees hitting the ground in a controlled fall as Porthos' pulled him close with an arm around his shoulders.
Athos blinked rapidly, pulled in a breath as he realized he had gone down with the two of them.
He was on his knees too, hand still holding Aramis by the arm who was limp in Porthos' grasp. The big man had wrapped an arm around his friend's waist, the other around his shoulders as Aramis' head came to rest under his chin; face slack and unawares of the way Porthos clutched at him, oblivious of the feel of Athos' hand where it held on tight to his arm.
"Did he just say –?" d'Artagnan wiped a hand down his face, "that was not about Savoy."
It was not a question.
Athos looked to one of his oldest friends, the burning in his gaze not soothed when he saw the wetness in Porthos' eyes. His fingers curled into the arm they held and he had a feeling if Aramis had not been so deeply asleep he might have winced. Blue eyes fell onto the brother between them, hoping that he would wake in that instance and assure them that what they had seen, what they had heard, what they were thinking was not true.
"What have we done," it left him in a hoarse whisper, "what have we done?"
Athos looked to Porthos again; they had always wanted to clear away the memory of the fear that Savoy had instilled in Aramis, always sought a way to ease the pain of loss that Marsac's abandonment had left in their brother's life. And they had succeeded it seemed, just not the way they had ever dreamed they would. Athos swayed, shoulders dropping as he sat fully on the floor.
Aramis had called for him or Porthos.
He had been afraid for them and he had been chasing after them.
They had replaced his worst fear and his worst loss.
"I didn't think about it like that," he said.
"Neither did I," Porthos' voice was thick, "didn't see what he must've been going through,"
And they wouldn't have seen it if they hadn't found out the truth that night, they wouldn't have imagined it if Aramis had remained in the monastery, Athos was sure of it. They had taken Aramis' decision to leave, be it for a monastery or not, as something he had wanted to do. They hadn't looked beyond the surface.
His hand shifted from the arm to the back of his friend's head, resting there in the dark, sweat damp hair as his own head dipped in a silent apology.
"It's over right? He's sleeping again?" d'Artagnan asked.
"He had been asleep all along," Porthos said.
His chin coming to rest atop the head tucked under it.
"You mean through all that –?" d'Artagnan's eyes widened, "he was sleeping?"
Athos wiped a sleeve over the wetness still clinging to his eyes and let his hand drop to his sleeping friend's shoulder, remembered the first time this had happened and the next one that had brought Treville to them. The man had explained how he had seen it before in some soldiers.
"Sometimes in his sleep the defenses around his mind weaken and the fear he had locked away seeps out," he repeated the words their Captain had said, "It happens to some soldiers who had witnessed too much; especially when they're too worn out."
Or when they are bereft his mind added and it was clear by the way Porthos flinched that he was thinking the same.
Athos looked back at d'Artagnan when the younger man stood up and turned away, walked further into the house without a word. Frowning, Athos wondered if he should follow his friend or let him have his moment of peace. He hadn't missed the shiver that had gone through their youngest as he had stood up to leave. His thoughts came to a halt when d'Artagnan returned with an arm full of white.
"The floor couldn't be comfortable for his back," he shrugged.
Stepped away and dropped the pillows and bedcovers by the wall. Athos turned back to his friends as Porthos stood with an arm about Aramis' waist and the sleeping man's arm around his own shoulder he easily dragged their friend up with him. There wasn't really a need to help, Porthos was the strongest of them after all and it was just three steps away from the nest of pillows that d'Artagnan was setting up. But Athos found himself ducking under Aramis' other arm. Needing the man to somehow understand that he was there, that all of them were there and together, needing Aramis to know that he was not alone.
And from the corner of his mind that he hadn't wanted to shed light upon came the echo of his own voice riding on the wisps of a feverish haze that had long been cleared; his declaration of this man not being his friend, the permission to allow his death – his hand curled into the side of his friend's shirt where he gripped to steady Aramis.
"He is not my friend; you may take his life,"
"What?" Porthos stopped.
"I said that," Athos met the surprised gaze over the man slumped between them, "I said that to our captor," he looked down at the friend they were holding up and felt something hard and spiked sink in his chest, "I said that to his face,"
His knees threatened to give out under him and he was glad that they had reached the beddings d'Artagnan had set out. Extracting himself from the sleeping man he let Porthos settle him down and stepped away, drawing a hand down his face even as his other clutched the edge of the table. There was shivering under his skin, a shake in his fingers. Bile rose at the sour words that he had once said. He couldn't shake them away from his mind, couldn't push them away into the shadows of doubt. He had been staring right at Aramis; he had seen the man and he hadn't believed him there. He had looked him in the face and told him they were not friends, told their enemy that he could claim his brother's life.
There was a distant sound of a chair scraping against the floor before someone grasped his shoulder and guided him down to sit.
He let Porthos settle Aramis onto the beddings and turned his attention to the man in the chair.
Hands still grasping the bowed shoulders from where he stood behind his Captain whose dark head dip slightly and he knew without looking that the gaze fixed upon the table was full of guilt. His grip tightened on reflex, comfort offered and provided without thought or need for explanation. And d'Artagnan glanced back at the man now sleeping like the dead.
"We understand Athos," he said, "And so will Aramis,"
"Makes you wonder how he did what he did without anyone offering him that," Porthos said.
Stilled abruptly in his efforts to pull off Aramis' boot; wide dark eyes glanced up to meet d'Artagnan's as if the big man was surprised by his own thoughts that he had aired. And his words hung around them like an unseen web, soft and cloying, sticking to them and trapping them so that one wrong move could tear everything apart. D'Artagnan pulled in a breath and Porthos looked away; turned back to his task.
"He had friends," d'Artagnan said.
Refused to acknowledge how it sounded like a question.
"But not brothers," Athos' voice was tight, just shy of snapping; "What we met was at the end of the road. But at the beginning? During all that time?"
Blue eyes turned to him and there was a challenge there that d'Artagnan could not meet. He could not believe with all his heart that their brother may have had in anyway, the support that they offered each other; he could not deep down be sure that Aramis had some form of brotherhood to rely upon during all those years. His mind went back to the monastery they had found him in, to the moment when they had sent Aramis out with the children through the tunnels and Porthos' words dipped in contempt echoed back to him.
"Your bothers are waiting,"
But they hadn't had they; d'Artagnan grimaced, his real brother hadn't waited for him. Hadn't wrote back to him; hadn't shared their encounters to entice him back; hadn't asked how he was doing on his own; hadn't spoken his name even in the seclusion of their minds. And d'Artagnan wondered if all this would have been blown wide open years ago had they tried to establish some correspondence with the one who had walked away.
He shook his head, one hand falling away even as the other squeezed the shoulder in its grasp.
"You were tortured and feverish Athos," he said, "I'm sure that Aramis would have known that you were not in your right mind,"
"And I can tell you this," Porthos said from where he was divesting Aramis of his concealed weapons, "He wouldn't hold it against you."
Athos turned around in the chair, argument ready and rehearsed in his mind even as it formed d'Artagnan was sure. He stood straighter suddenly at the unexpected the silence that followed. Craning his neck he traced the older man's line of sight and felt his own eyes widen at the small but veritable pile of throwing daggers in numerous sizes; most still sheathed.
Blinking rapidly he glanced to his Captain and found the man pinching the bridge of his nose.
"How had he not accidently stabbed himself by now?" Athos asked from no one in particular.
Porthos threw one last dagger onto the collection and straightened back to his feet.
"I'm still wondering how he strapped some of them in place," he grinned.
"Why does he even need to carry so many weapons with him," d'Artagnan frowned.
And winced when realization hit in the next breath; a man with no friends and enemies on his path, Aramis was armed to take down the largest number he could on his own because he trusted no one to watch his back.
"I –" he started and stopped.
Looked from one man to the other and the way the others avoided his gaze d'Artagnan knew that they had reached the same conclusion. He cleared his throat and stepped away from Athos; needing something to do lest the silently unraveling secrets drowned him.
"I'll see to that cut then," he said.
And moved to retrieve the supplies he knew would be there in Aramis' saddlebag. Easily found the clean strips of linen wrapped around a bottle that he knew was rubbing alcohol and a shinny needle in a spool of thread. A smile tipped up his lips at the familiarity of it; even after four years at war they hadn't learned the necessity of keeping these supplies at hand and predictably found them stocked in Aramis' saddlebag.
D'Artagnan sat down at his friend's side and setting the items within an arm's reach he carefully picked up the injured hand; grimaced at the still sluggishly bleeding wound that had stained the man's sleeve in shades of red. Glanced up when the brightness around him increased and felt something ease in him at the sight of Athos who had come up to his side with a candle in hand.
"How bad is it?" Porthos asked.
He looked to the man sitting on Aramis' other side before taking up a piece of linen and mopping the blood that had not dried; he knew Porthos would look away. Even after so many battlefields the sight of blood didn't sit well with him.
"Deep," d'Artagnan tipped the wound towards the candle light, "but not as bad. I was expecting it to cut to the bone with the way he was gripping it."
"Small mercies," Athos murmured.
"There's an old scar here, a curved burn like he had grabbed something hot sometime ago," he spoke more to himself and pressed the cloth onto the wound to stop the bleeding completely, "it's faded but the skin must have hardened and prevented more damage,"
The glow around him wavered slightly and looking up d'Artagnan found his Captain's drawn face, eyes staring in the distance and jaw clenched. D'Artagnan silently berated himself for the words he had let slip as the stench of poultice Basile had used on Athos' burn wound drifted in his thoughts.
"Sit down Athos," he said, "Bring that light closer,"
And the Captain obliged, sitting down at his side before he fell down from the force of whatever memories that had assaulted him at the mention of the scar from burning. D'Artagnan lifted the cloth from the wound and dousing it with the contents of the bottle he touched it to the wound, eyes not leaving Aramis' slack face.
Blood stained fingers twitched.
And he was surprised when there was no more response.
"Whoa hey Aramis," Porthos said.
And d'Artagnan pulled his gaze away from Aramis' face to watch the man on his other side grabbing his uninjured hand. The one that had reached for some concealed weapon apparently and was now gripping back the hand preventing his move; the hold wrapped around the back of Porthos' hand at the base of the thumb and stopped just short of pulling that joint out of place.
"You don't need a weapon; we're here," Porthos said and grasped his shoulder too, ignored the strain put on his other hand, "Stand down Aramis there are no enemies around, just d'Artagnan patching you up."
Dark eyes opened at half-mast. D'Artagnan felt his breath stall when their gaze slid his way and lingered like the cool touch of a pistol muzzle against his forehead. Deep sleep lurked at the edges, softened the gaze that was much too alert for someone lying so deceptively still, but it did nothing to dampen the promise of violence there.
"Aramis?" his voice came out in a hushed breath.
Dark eyes still held his, fear and uncertainty flashing there even as the grip around Porthos' thumb eased off and the injured hand curled into a fist. Recognition settled fully in Aramis' gaze that shifted from d'Artagnan to Athos to Porthos before coming back to their youngest; he knew who they were d'Artagnan realized and felt the hesitance still remaining there cut deep. Aramis clearly knew who they were and yet some part of him was unsure, cautious; wary of the pain from their hands.
D'Artagnan swallowed back the rock that appeared in his throat.
"It will hurt," he said, "but I don't want it to,"
And refused to notice how childish the words sounded; how feeble the excuse they offered. His eyes stung when the injured hand opened to allow him access to the wound as if the fact that he didn't want to hurt the man was all the assurance Aramis needed. Blinking to clear the sudden blur in his gaze he watched the dark eyes close and the face turn away; lean into Porthos' touch that had shifted from his shoulder to the side of his face and fall right back to sleep.
D'Artagnan went back to his work and didn't look up, let the silence sooth the raw feeling Aramis' guarded look and tentative acceptance had left him with. They were trying and so was he; but the cracks remained and he wished he could wipe them away like he did the stains of fresh blood that had seeped from the injury he tended. D'Artagnan cleaned the wound and stitched it close without a trace of resistance or awareness from the sleeping man. Setting aside the needle he straightened and felt his muscles protest the hunched posture he had held, wriggled his fingers that were sticky with drying blood and glanced towards the clean linen; reluctant to touch it.
"I can do that," Athos said.
Set down the candle he had been holding up and nudged d'Artagnan aside even as he reached for the strips of cloth to wrap up their youngest's work.
Standing up d'Artagnan took a moment for the blood rushing to his toes to settle before he stepped away. Grabbed a bowl of clean water and washed the blood away from his hands, wondered of the scar his stitches may leave and found himself remembering the scars he had witnessed at an Inn in Paris; the scars that Aramis carried without them knowing about it. And d'Artagnan grimaced at the thoughts of the scars that that they couldn't still see; the ones from the wounds that no needle, thread or bindings could close.
With a shake of his head he set about putting the unused items back in Aramis' saddlebag and putting aside his weapons. He found himself staring at the sealed envelope that had been tossed in the heap of daggers and knew without being told that these were the orders he had come with to this place, the ones Treville had set him for upon his return to the front lines.
"Toss it in the fire," Porthos said.
D'Artagnan looked up and shook his head even though a large part of him wanted to do just that.
"He needs to decide what he wants," he said.
And placed the letter in Aramis's saddlebag before coming back to sit beside Athos. The Captain nodded towards the bandaged hand; a smile touching the corners of lips. D'Artagnan found himself echoing back the sentiment as he pointedly picked up the inured hand and checked the bandages.
"It will do," he smirked even as he approved.
Setting Aramis hand back on his chest he found himself grasping the long calloused fingers; found them chilled despite the warmth of the room. And he remembered the cold mountain wind, the deep snow and a pair of gloves not his own. He had held onto them, even when he had lost a piece he had kept the other one, worn and faded he had brought it back to Paris tucked among his meager belongings. Kept them close as a reminder of the kindness he had received amidst the most brutal years of his life so far. The men he had assumed strangers then had saved his life twice over, but the gloves on his hands were a token of compassion that had stuck with him far more than the courage shown in saving his life.
Taking to his feet he ignored the questioning look that passed between his friends and chose not to notice their raised brows when he came back with one of his riding gloves; putting it over Aramis' hand bindings and all. He nodded to himself; it was a snug fit but he could not help the sense of satisfaction that came over him.
Sitting back he moved away until his back was against one of the chairs and he pulled out the pistol that hung from a belt draped over it. Realized that it was Porthos' but still kept it as he looked from one man to the other.
"I'll take the first watch," he said.
Because they may be relatively secure in this house but if Aramis trusted them to watch his back, d'Artagnan vowed not take it lightly.
Awareness came slowly, the heavy pull of sleep ebbed from his bones and the darkness behind his eyelids faded; the awakening as blankly peaceful as his slumber had been. Breathing in he pressed his face into the padding under his head and stopped short, frowning when he realized it was a pillow under his head. Dark eyes blinked open, squinted against the beams of sunlight that slanted over his head, sliced through the air and brightened the dust into gold.
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes Aramis sat up, looked from the light blanket that fell off him to the man sitting at the table.
Athos smirked at him.
"There is no need to imitate a puppy, we all slept out here," he said.
"There are beds in there you know," Aramis countered.
Stretched and stopped with a wince when his back protested with a twinge. And yet he felt rested in a way he hadn't for years. Smiling a bit at that odd feeling he didn't quite know what to make of he drew a hand through his hair; and lowered it instantly in the next breath. His hand throbbed. His hand that had a glove on hurt with that distinct burn of pulled stitches. Pulling off the rather tight glove Aramis stared at his bandaged hand before looking to Athos with a raised brow.
"You had a nightmare," Athos said, voice deliberately mild, "caught one of your daggers from the wrong end,"
"Did I hurt anyone?"
He nodded even as he flexed his hand to test how bad the wound was beyond the bandage; wasn't really surprised that he had had one of those nightmares, the ones that had according to his friends often led him out of his rooms and the garrison too on occasion. Sleep hadn't been an easy visitor for him after Savoy and a part of him had been glad of its infrequent and fleeting visits during the past years, if only because he was afraid something like this could happen.
Folding up the blanket he pushed to his feet, smoothed out the grimace at the protest of his back as he went over to his saddlebag to get another shirt; tossed it over his shoulder. fingers running over the dried blood on his sleeve that was flaking on his arm beyond the cloth. He nodded towards the main door.
"I'll go get the–"
"Porthos left a bucket from the well in there for you," Athos nodded towards the nearest bedroom, "you can clean up,"
"That's perceptive of him," he changed directions.
"Nothing that you would have noticed before,"
"We were friends then," he said.
Smiled even as he shrugged a shoulder; the presence and camaraderie of those he had yearned to go back to, in the place that he had assumed had sealed his fate otherwise was tripping up his thoughts. Unsure of the ground beneath him he found himself grasping at the door he had just opened.
"And we are not now?" Athos asked.
"Of course we are,"
"But not brothers?"
He couldn't answer that, not yet, not when he didn't understand his place in this new order of things. Too much had changed, there was too much hurt among them on all sides and the distance of four years stretched too wide. He looked over his shoulder, back at the man silently watching him and met the blue eyes head on; refused to lie outright even if he couldn't yet place the truth.
Athos looked away.
And Aramis slipped into the room to wash up, thoughts still scrambling for coherence as he found himself once again tempted to simply revel in the camaraderie offered. When he stepped out again his friend was still there although the nest of beddings had been cleared away. Aramis walked over to Athos and took a place at the table across from him. The sound of clattering pots from somewhere inside the house echoed out and the afternoon light spilled in from the open front door. Aramis looked away from the door from where Porthos' voice filtered in and back to the man on the other side of the table. Athos slid a bowl towards him.
The porridge was still warm.
"You're not eating?" he asked.
"We had breakfast," Athos shrugged, "three times,"
Picking up the spoon Aramis realized he hadn't felt this hungry in years, it seemed as if his stomach was trying to eat itself for the lack of food. With the last night's purging still fresh in his memory he dared a small bite and forced himself to not gulp the porridge down immediately.
"Haven't slept for this long in a while," he said.
"You needed it,"
Aramis shrugged; he still felt exhausted but that had been his natural state for a while. It scared some part of him that he hadn't woken up at the manhandling that would have taken place to sort out the sleeping arrangements. But he pushed it away; assured himself that if he couldn't sleep soundly in the presence of the men he once called his brothers then there was no hope of him ever getting any rest.
A sharp pain knifed up his back and he sat straighter abruptly, his spoon stopping halfway to the bowl of porridge. He waited for the inevitable subsiding, relieved when the pain receded much quickly than it had ever before. He didn't miss the blue eyes watching carefully but ignored them in favor of breakfast. He wasn't surprised when the silence didn't last long.
"Your scars still hurt,"
"What gave you that idea?" he smirked.
"That night on the street, with your friends," Athos gave him a leveled look, "you were in pain,"
Aramis stopped, stared at the porridge before him as he searched for the right words. Because he could say he was fine, it would be lie and they would all know it was one. He could lie and blame it on some other small hurt that would go away on its own and knowing the man at his side it was probably wise to lie simply because the man had an unhealthy habit of shouldering the blame that wasn't his.
"It's your back. The scars still hurt," Athos said, "you were there, you came in after me; got yourself caught so that you could escape with me."
"Whatever happened in there it was not your fault," Aramis said.
"But I was the reason you were there,"
"It was my decision to come after you,"
"– is what matters," Aramis cut him off, "my decision not yours."
And he couldn't help the firmness that seeped into his words; four years of command making the decisiveness in his voice a habit. It was obvious from Athos' raised brows that he had picked up on it and Aramis had a feeling that this would be problem between them in the future if not now. He picked up his spoon and concentrated on his food, reminded himself that he needed to keep faith in his friends that they will not abandon him; that they will work together to somehow find a way out of the mess they were all in.
"So your back?"
"It's not the scars," Aramis said, "at least I think it's not the scars but the time spent on the rack,"
Athos paled slightly.
"The strain?" he asked.
"Is it constant?"
And there was so much guilt in that quiet question that Aramis found himself shaking his head even as he swallowed. Dropping the spoon back in the bowl he pushed it aside and sat forwards, elbows pressed onto the table even as he drew his uninjured hand down his face. He hadn't thought about it much, had hoped the pain would go away if he ignored it but he could not do that anymore, not with the sad blue eyes watching him. He would have to face this not for himself but for Athos; Aramis shook his head again even as he felt a smile touch his lips.
"No," he said, "it comes and goes. If I move wrong or if I practice too hard it flares up. But I think it would get better once the bruising fades."
He saw Athos flinch at that and grimaced at the realization that he had reminded his friend of their recent practice bouts again, something for which the Captain of the Musketeers was obviously feeling guilty.
"It was not your fault Athos, and neither was it Porthos'," he sighed, "you were trying to help me. Make sure I could hold my own. You didn't know."
"It wasn't all that it was," Athos chin rose in defiance although his voice sounded disgusted, "there was anger in there too,"
"And you were entitled to that, you and Porthos and d'Artagnan," he met the dare with an even tone, "I did leave you all. You had every right to be hurt and angry over it."
"And you don't?"
He looked away, to the door, to the floor and finally at the tabletop before him; fingers of his good hand tracing the edge of the bandage wrapped around his other as he shook his head slowly. Each stab of loss that he had felt during his time of shadowing his friends, every cutting reminder of his isolation that he had experienced in that time and every hurt that had blossomed from the words and actions of his friends at his return swirled to the surface. His eyes burned, his vision blurred.
Aramis pulled in a breath and let it go slowly.
Brushed away the wetness he felt on his face and looked up at his friend.
"I don't," he said, "It was my actions that brought us to that point and my decisions that kept you all away and in the dark."
Because he could not forget Marguerite, he could not forget Lemay; he could not forget the haunted look on Constance's face in the shadows of their prison bars. And the sad thing was that he knew if he went back to the same situation he would still fall for the Queen, would unravel the same sequence of events and make the same decisions to contain the consequences of it.
"But we hurt you," Athos said.
"Yes you did," Aramis shrugged a shoulder, "I'll get over it,"
Athos' jaw twitched, eyes narrowing slightly in the sure sign that the man was beyond irritated. But then his gaze softened, Aramis had a feeling that the man had deciphered something and the realization he had had was not a happy one. Athos tipped his head to the side, his studying gaze oddly sad.
"When Marimon threw you out of the window, were you injured?" he asked.
That, Aramis blinked, was not what he was expecting. But the words brought him back to that afternoon shinning bright in his memory and he could still taste the fear for those left inside, the need to get up and move and protect those he loved.
"And I scaled the building to get inside after that, what do you think?"
"Were you injured?"
"I landed on the awning," he shrugged.
"Other than the cuts we could see, were you injured?"
"Were you injured?"
"Why didn't you tell us?"
"You never asked," it came out in as barely more than a whisper.
And he had no idea why his eyes ached suddenly, why the wetness gathered at their corners and Aramis dropped his gaze back to the tabletop. Why his friend insisted upon prodding at those old wounds he couldn't understand but when he looked up it was to find a strange determination in the blue eyes. Athos nodded, breathed out and looked away.
"Just like we didn't ask about Marsac after his death," he nodded again, speaking more to himself than anything else.
"There was a man, dark skinned in Spanish uniform, he said he was there to help me," Athos looked back to him, "he was one of yours?"
A lump rose abruptly in his throat but Aramis couldn't look away, couldn't shy away from the memory of the men who had died under his command. He respected them too much for that. He nodded once, alert and defensive for the men he had lost.
"He didn't make it," Aramis cleared his throat, "him and another, they came with me to that chateau but didn't make it back alive."
The blue eyes widened but when Athos spoke next his voice was even.
"Then I can never thank them for it," he said.
"They were good men," said Aramis.
And as the words left him the weight he didn't know he was carrying in his chest lessened suddenly. Because letting that small knowledge slip out, to have someone else other than him know that those men were there, that he was there, was a validation he hadn't realized he needed.
"I'm sure they were," Athos said.
Aramis crossed his arms on the table and leaned on them, head hanging slightly as he tried to understand why his heart sped up suddenly and squeezed his eyes shut against the abrupt flashes of his time in imprisonment sparked in his mind; the pull of the rack, the cutting tug of the ropes, the stench of that room. Aramis jumped in his skin when a chair moved somewhere near him.
He looked up even as he willed himself to calm down; blinked against the sweat that broke out on his forehead and down his back, looked at Athos who was now standing near him.
"Will you let me see?" Athos asked.
Aramis blinked again, tried to understand the words. Wondering what his friend was asking for and felt everything still in him when he understood the question. He couldn't breathe and he wasn't sure if his heart was beating too fast or not at all. Swallowing against his suddenly dry throat he watched his friend reach out, noticed the slight tremble that went through Athos' hand and clenching his jaw shut against every instinct that told him not to, Aramis tipped his face up and to the side.
Dared not let go the breath the question had locked in his chest as his friend moved closer, fingertips brushing against the one scar that no one could see unless Aramis let them.
"You didn't make a sound. It convinced me you weren't real," Athos said, "I thought I was letting some unfortunate soul suffer for my silence. I didn't know that –"
His touch shifted, moved for the palm of his hand to rest at the back of Aramis' neck. And Aramis breathed out. Refused to acknowledge the words that had settled beneath this one scar making it hurt in ways no other injury could. But Athos waited, silent and still until Aramis gathered his courage to look up at him again.
"I am sorry my friend," Athos said.
Aramis nodded before he looked away.
Because explanations were good and they would come in time, but he was glad that his friend understood they weren't needed here. He just needed to hear, to see, to know that the man he had considered his brother was sorry for the words that had hurt him.
The hand lifted from the back of his neck and settled on top of his head; the weight of it soothing and relieving in a way that made his heart ache and his shoulders drop. Athos didn't pull away and neither did Aramis. He could not find the strength to move away from a gesture that only two people in his life offered him. The first was Treville; a presence that had seen him through in the ways his own father hadn't while growing up and then there was Athos. Aramis wondered if it was an older sibling thing that his friend carried even after years of losing his little brother; this ability to simply melt away the troubles he carried by the warm weight of Athos' hand on his head.
His breath evened and the coiled feeling in his gut loosened, the noise in his mind silenced as it had the first time Athos had found him on the stairs and dropped his hand atop his bowed head. He had no idea how long they stayed that way but Athos finally ruffled his hair and stepped away as footfalls came through from the main door.
Porthos came in smelling of horses. He thumped Aramis on the shoulder on his way, grinning as he went to the far corner of the room and returned with three saddles and Aramis' saddlebag that he dumped on the table.
"I think I should have another breakfast," Porthos said.
"I've just finished cleaning the kitchen," d'Artagnan came through the corridor wringing his wet hands, "you are not getting anything else to eat,"
"I'm telling Constance on you," Porthos told him, a smirk curling on his face, "starving your friend because you had to clean a few bowls,"
As d'Artagnan muttered under his breath and went to look into the pot in the fireplace, Aramis fished out the letter that he spotted in his saddlebag. He looked to their youngest who grinned in triumph at the big man.
"There's no more food left," he announced.
"We should get going then," Athos told them.
His gaze flicked to the letter in Aramis hand and the other two follow his line of sight. Aramis could feel the weight of the three gazes that turned his way as he flipped the letter between his fingers, it was his one chance of leaving all this behind, to leave the bonds that hurt too much to hold on to. And he asked himself if he really wanted that and did he really understand the cost of going back to Paris, if he had in him to face it all again. The silence grew thick around him, heavy on his shoulders as he took to his feet with the letter still in his hand. Aramis rounded the table and tossed the letter in the embers glowing in the fireplace.
The room let go a breath.
"Well this is the last pot I'll clean," d'Artagnan said.
Reached out to pluck the round black pot from the fireplace and grinned at Aramis, offered him a nod before he went back to the kitchen. Aramis turned away from him when he felt a hand on his back; he looked to Athos who was standing behind him.
"We'll get the horses saddled," he said.
Picked up the saddles from the table and headed out. Porthos stood to follow him. Turned around and wrapped Aramis in a quick embrace before he was hurrying out too. Aramis watched him pick up small the sack he was pretty sure filled with the daggers he usually carried under his clothes before the big man walked out of the house. Deciding not to call his friend out on escaping with his weapons Aramis turned back to the letter that lay in the hot soot and smirked lightly. For all the excitement over sending it up in flames the thing wasn't even scorched. With a shake of his head he reached for the fire iron. Poked at the embers until they stirred and the corner of the letter caught a flame.
Standing back he watched the orders that would have likely sent him on ahead to his end in some battlefield. And yet he was thankful that Treville had given them to him when he had asked. Offered him the way out that he had believed he wanted. Aramis watched the letter burn, the wax melt and the paper curl. And even if he knew he was not allowed to know the content, he was not allowed to know the orders if he was not following them he still could not look away.
So he simply stared when Treville's curling writing came into view.
The letter held just a few words for his orders.
And the words said; 'Come home.'
Aramis stared spellbound.
He looked up with a start as his young friend stomped out from the corridor leading to the kitchen. D'Artagnan wiped his hands on his breeches and Aramis looked over his shoulder to where Athos and Porthos were waiting at the threshold.
"Here," d'Artagnan said.
And when he glanced towards the younger man he found a pair of gloves held out to him
"They won't be a perfect fit but they'll keep the reins from pulling at the bandage,"
"I don't –" he stopped short at the pointed look from d'Artagnan and found himself smiling; reached out and took the gloves without anymore protest, "thank you,"
"I owed you a pair," d'Artagnan shrugged.
Looking down at the simple offering that meant more than anything either of them could put into words Aramis let go a breath, glanced at the ashes of his orders in the cooling hearth and realized he would always make the choice he did, the choice he was making again; he would always chose the path that led him to these men. He knew that neither of them could retrieve the lost years between them and no matter how much they wanted his friends had changed and so had he. They would need to find their feet in this changed world and there would be slip ups and mistakes and hurts on the way. But he knew he would always find it was worth it, just as he had believed it when he had returned to Paris with them the first time around. Because they were family, they were his brothers and there was no amount of hurt that could keep him from them. He would hold on to these bonds even if they shredded his hands to the bone.
"You ready?" d'Artagnan asked.
"I am," he said.
And he followed their youngest out to where the rest of his brothers awaited. Aramis didn't look back as he closed the door after him.
You'd think that I'd learn my lesson by now
You'd think that I'd somehow figure out
That if you strike the match you're bound to feel the flame
You think that I'd learn the cost of love
Paid that price long enough
But still I drive myself right through the pain
Yeah, well it turns out I haven't learned a thing
– Daughtry [Learn my Lesson]