Sometimes, among the bandages and candlelight, there is banter and there is angst. This is a series of fly-on-the-wall conversations between those who find themselves within the four walls of the Infirmary.
1 - THE SPANIARD
Athos and Aramis:
Cloying heat, sweat and the smell of blood.
Questions and screams.
Darkness and shadows.
Movement - arms that encircle him; the sway of a wagon.
Silence and soft murmurings.
The smell of tincture and salve and candlewax.
Gentle hands and hands that tear at his skin.
Fingers trace the symbol on his forehead. He does not believe in such ceremony and turns his head away.
When he opens his eyes, he finds he is staring at his arm, which lies next to his face on the pillow. He curls his hand into a tight fist; unable yet to distinguish between anger and relief.
Lying on his side with his other arm resting on his hip seems to be the most comfortable position.
Lying on his back is not an option.
"You must stay awake now, Athos," a voice insists. "It has been too long."
The voice seems far away and he ignores it.
Awake ... when all he has prayed for, for days, is sleep.
A hand takes hold of his jaw and fingers squeeze painfully; making him gasp. His eyes spring open, expecting to see The Spaniard.
Surprisingly, it is not the man whose company he has kept for the past six days.
"Stay awake now," his new tormentor persists.
Awake ... when the man who now looks at him with kind eyes is obviously the one who has drugged him into sleep.
For his own good, no doubt; he remembers the pain. He had welcomed oblivion.
"Do you know me?" the voice returns, more gentle; now that he has gotten his attention.
"You are the medic," Athos replies through cracked, sore lips.
Aramis frowns; but then he sees the faint glint in his brother's eye; waiting for a reaction.
There he is.
Aramis shakes his head and smiles, leaning forward to gently drip water into the parched mouth.
"The medic," he muses to himself as he continues the steady drip over the next half hour.
How had that happened?
Because there had been no alternative, he knew; and his once-uncomplicated interest had turned to stark necessity. It was a burden, and it was a joy. It twisted his gut and it flipped his stomach. Sometimes brutal, occasionally gentle but when he saw the trust in their eyes; it made his heart soar and his eyes fill.
Medic. He would not pass that mantle over now unless he had no choice. Unless their lives hung by a thread too thin for even his delicate fingers to hold. Fingers that would then wring themselves until the joints screamed. Until their screaming stopped; and they lived on.
There has been no time to pass the mantle this time, but Athos lives on.
Despite The Spaniard.
"Now, tell me what hurts. The Captain wants a full report."
Athos cracked an eye open with effort and looked at him.
"I see you are considering my request. Don't be stubborn. He was with us when we found you. He is not a fool."
"How did you find me?"
"He gave you up," Aramis replied, tightly. "We were close. He made sure we saw him and then he rode off. It was the only building and he left it open."
"I don't understand it," Aramis continued, watching Athos carefully.
Athos did not answer; offering no enlightenment.
Aramis usually knew when not to pursue but he could not help himself. It had been ... curious.
However, he tried a different question.
"How did you find yourself in his company?" he ventured, wringing out the cloth.
"I fell into his trap. It was most ingenious."
"You admired him?"
"What then? He obviously made an impact; in more ways than one."
Athos huffed, acknowledging the attempt at humour without a smile.
"I do not know. I will think on it."
"Do you want soup, or something to chew?"
Athos knows the tone. All business - not to be deterred.
For a long moment, he thinks and then realises an answer is required.
"I do not think my stomach would welcome either."
"When did you last eat?"
Athos considers; staring at the wall.
"I remember a full moon through a very small window."
Aramis knew the window he spoke of; the only light in the black hellhole they finally found him in.
"That was four days ago, Athos," Aramis says; his voice trailing off.
The statement hung in the air between them; one of them concerned, the other not so; all things considered.
"So," Aramis says a few moments later, when he has composed himself. "Soup or chew?"
Athos closes his eyes, wanting to be left in peace.
He lays in this enforced position with his hand over his eyes, either because of the unaccustomed light or to shut out any unwelcome presence. This morning, in wakefulness, his hand has unconsciously pushed its way up, revealing a bruise that Aramis had not seen yesterday. He puts his own hand there, pushing the swordsman's hand gently aside, to take a closer look. New bruises seem to darken his pale skin by the hour though, so he shouldn't have been surprised.
"I'll bring you that soup."
"I did not make my preference known."
"Something with vegetables!" Aramis continues brightly, realising he is still holding his friend's hair back from his forehead.
"Not onion," Aramis hears, bringing him out of his ruminations. He looks down.
"I do not care for onion soup."
He removes his hand and smiles softly; turning to go.
"Shallot, then," Aramis says wickedly; escaping quickly through the door - followed by an angry growl.
As Aramis makes his way down the short corridor, his shoulders slowly straighten and his recent heavy footsteps become lighter as his heart lifts. Slowly, a smile spreads across his face and as he steps outside into the sunshine, the medic greets everyone he meets.
By the time he reaches the kitchen, he is Aramis again.
"Are you in pain?" the familiar voice asks, drifting in; bringing him back through the haze and to more pain.
"Good. Can you sit up a little?"
Athos groans inwardly. He had asked for that.
"If you help, I will endeavour to do so."
By necessity, he has to open his eyes and his tormentor swims into view; stirring soup.
Putting the bowl down, he offers an arm, which Athos is obliged to grasp. He is gently levered up and a pillow is tossed behind him. It is excruciating, but technically it works remarkably well and the window opposite comes into view, though the shutters are closed; the light still being too much to deal with.
"Soup, with Serge's compliments," came the overly cheerful voice that grates and he grudgingly opens his mouth; immensely irritated that he lacks the strength to even hold the damned spoon on his own.
Oh, but that first spoonful! He knows he will never forget the taste. It floods his senses; the flavour enhanced by starvation.
He manages three spoonfuls.
"It's onion. Sorry," Aramis sighs regretfully. "I know it's not your preference, but it's all Serge had. He's making you something else for later."
"I have changed my mind on it. It is ... commendable."
That seems to please Aramis and his playful mood continues.
"Did you have servants who did this for you?" he asks idly, stirring the cooling soup.
That earns him a glare, as intended. And no response, as expected.
His tormentor persists.
"You must have had help with all your finery, though? All those buttons and frills?"
"The shoes," Athos murmurs, surprising Aramis, who nearly drops the spoon. "Mustn't forget the damned buckled shoes."
Athos watches him, before deciding to offer more.
"When I first put on the Musketeer jacket and felt it mould to my body, I thought it the most wonderful garment I had ever worn."
"More than the brocades?" his medic taunts.
"And the velvet," Athos replies, sleepily.
"He was very patient," he suddenly says, catching Aramis unawares and darkening the mood somewhat.
"Hmm. I think I infuriated him."
Aramis snorts; and receives a raised eyebrow in response.
Aramis composes himself and raises the spoon once more.
Once he was allowed to sleep, he was overwhelmed with exhaustion; allowing himself to be manhandled and manoeuvred. Only then did some semblance of calm permeate his thoughts as he was left to his own devices; waiting for that which he had so longed for.
Aramis had cleared his path, leaving him warm; his thirst quenched and his stomach full.
The creak of the chair told him he was not alone. Other sounds that reached his ears were equally familiar and comforting as life went on around him and he began to feel a part of it once more. The smell of lavender on his pillow and the light touch on his cheek were all he needed, and he finally gave himself permission to sleep.
"He was a strange type of soldier."
"Why do you say that?" Aramis responded.
"He knew his wine."
"He taunted you?"
"And the whipping?" Aramis asked gently.
"I taunted him."
"Your hands are too cold," Athos complained.
"And you are too hot."
"What a pair we are."
"You challenge me, brother," Aramis whispered, the threaded needle sinking into flayed flesh; some of his previous endeavours broken free.
"You like to learn," a whispered response, ground out through clenched jaws.
"You give me plenty of practise ..."
"I am pleased to be of service."
"How did you pass the time?"
"He was very inventive. It focussed my mind."
Aramis had washed his face when they first laid him on the table. He had seen the tear tracks that traced down from the corner of his eyes into his beard.
He had washed them quickly away; feeling his own eyes sting.
"I have often wondered, what is the purpose of the rat?"
Aramis paused, caught unawares by the sudden question.
He considered a moment, before replying.
"All God's creatures have a purpose, mon ami."
"Perhaps you could ask Him the next time you converse."
"Why do you ask?"
"No reason. I have had occasion to study them of late and the answer eludes me."
Athos did not look at him, having strayed into territory he regretted and not wishing to invite further comment.
He felt a warm hand on his shoulder, which nearly undid him.
"Stop you're damned fussing."
"You don't mean that."
"You can be incredibly annoying."
"Then I will leave you in your bed with your mood and find a more congenial companion."
"You said everyone was out."
"Treville is in his office. And I believe His Eminence is in residence today.
There was a brief silence.
"Sit," Athos growled.
Aramis smiled to himself and did as he was told.
Later, when the sun had set and the shadows lengthened.
"He was persistent," Athos said, quietly, watching as the candle was lit and the flame leapt to attention.
"He realised you would give him nothing," Aramis said; firm in his belief in his dear friend.
"In the end, perhaps," Athos replied, remembering when he could no longer look up at the small window; when he could only see the floor.
Until he could see that no longer.
The rope around his neck was so short his forehead was only inches from the stone floor. Caught unaware while he was still on his knees, he had been forced down into that position and now his legs were numb and the unnatural position made his once-honed muscles scream. His bare feet scraped as he was pulled and pushed. His bound hands were now jammed against his chest, making breathing difficult.
When he felt the remnants of his shirt torn from him and the first lash across his back, he was almost relieved; fearing he would be left in this painful, impossible position. But it was for another purpose, it seemed.
As the punishment continued, he kept his forehead pressed to the floor. Any sudden movement would have led to his strangulation. The occasional crack of his head against the iron ring securing the rope only served as a welcomed distraction.
When it was over, he became aware that he was gasping in the stale air he was trying to push from his lungs; his face now pushed against the cold, wet floor. Wet from sweat and tears and the blood from the lip he appeared to have bitten through.
Boots drummed slowly past his ear and he caught a glimpse of well-kept black leather.
Again fearing he would be left in this position, he shifted back to ease his aching hips, only to feel pain that pushed a silent scream from his lungs and the rope bite against the skin of his throat.
Sometime later, the rope was pulled free of its tether. The boot rested briefly, caressing his shoulder, until he was kicked sharply, sending him onto his side, still curled in on himself; his bound, numb hands tight against his chest.
He was almost grateful.
Finally, the question Aramis knew would come.
"Where is Porthos?"
Aramis paused from folding linens, holding them to his chest.
"The short answer is - he's out."
"And the long answer?"
Aramis sighed and sat heavily on the bed, smoothing the linen now lying neatly across his lap.
"He waited until you showed signs of waking, and then he set out to track your Spaniard down."
The moment stretched, as Aramis watched his friend process his words; unsure of his response. His relationship with his tormentor had been complex and Porthos was their cherished friend.
Finally, Athos spoke one word.
Aramis relaxed and made to stand.
"And he is not my Spaniard."
"He let you live," Aramis said, but did not fully understand.
"He gave me a choice; to live or to die."
"What? What did he see in you to offer you that?"
"Something in himself, perhaps."
"A noble end for him? When your rescue was in sight?" Aramis said in disgust, pulling the blanket tighter; his head down so that Athos could not see his face.
"I did not know you were so close," Athos replied quietly. "And the choice was for both of us."
"A pact?!" Aramis whispered, incredulously; his voice having left him.
But Athos just stared past him.
"And you believe he would have honoured your choice, if you had chosen death? Would we have found two corpses, Athos?!"
Athos turned his eyes on him and Aramis saw his question answered.
"You did admire him," Aramis said then.
"As one admires a predator. There is a skill in it."
Aramis shivered; seeing in his mind's eye The Spaniard watching them from the hill and then riding away.
"He did not win, Aramis," Athos murmured.
He spoke with his eyes closed, so Aramis could not read him.
"How so? You chose to live," Aramis said quietly. "And in doing so, you allowed him to live."
Athos opened his eyes and looked at him.
"But I had brought out the worst in him. He will have to live with that."
Aramis held his gaze and finally he nodded, some semblance of understanding settling on him.
"Then let us hope Porthos doesn't find him," he said quietly.
Aramis took his hand.
"Too close, brother," he said, softly. "It was much too close."
"I knew you would come," Athos answered, "I just did not know what you would find."
"We should lift you up; you cannot lay on your side forever. I'll open the shutters and you can stare at the rooftops of Paris."
"We are on the ground floor and a wall encircles us."
"Use your imagination."
"You are always telling me I have none."
"Then I will teach you."
Sitting next to Athos, his legs stretched out on the blankets, Aramis leaned in close; indicating the window in front of them and waving his arm theatrically.
"The rooftop there on the right, with the red tiles, is the home of Madame Beauchene. She maintains it well, as she maintains herself," he winked.
"The one to the left with the small chimney; there resides the beautiful Madame Charbonneau. Those tiles are very slippery; you have to hook your fingers underneath to get a good grip," he whispered conspiratorially, demonstrating the action in intricate detail.
"Ah, and that one in the distance ..."
He chatted on happily; Athos side-glancing him occasionally and rolling his eyes when Aramis looked down at him.
The view of the blank wall would never be the same again.
A/N: If you would like to be a fly on the wall once more, there will be more infirmary talk coming soon.