"I'm sorry, mon ami," Aramis murmured for what seemed like the tenth time. "I'm almost done."
"It's fine, Aramis," D'Artagnan reassured him again.
Aramis was quite aware that his constant apologizing was odd, but he couldn't help the impulse. The sight of the deserter smashing the metal pommel of his sword against D'Artagnan's head continued to loop through his mind even as his needle pulled his finest thread through the edges of the gash on his friend's forehead.
The stab wound in D'Artagnan leg had thankfully not been as bad as he'd feared. The flesh around it looked angry from the abuse it had suffered, but the puncture itself appeared clean. Aramis had forced D'Artagnan to endure another debridement to be certain it remained so. After sewing and bandaging the wound, he'd turned his attention to his friend's head. Upon gently washing away the dried blood, Aramis had discovered a short, deep laceration with ugly, jagged edges amongst the purple bruises on D'Artagnan's face. The sight of it had drawn a whistle from Porthos and a frown from Aramis. He'd insisted on stitching it closed. "For Constance's sake, if nothing else," Aramis had reasoned. He meticulously placed stitches that were as small and neat as he could possibly manage, forcing his shaking fingers steady. He was determined that this would be one thing on this mission that he would do perfectly.
Pulling the needle through skin one last time, Aramis tied off the thread and snipped off the loose ends. "Finished," he announced quietly, wiping away the reminaing specks of blood and wrapping a length of clean linen around the Gascon's head. "How is the pain?"
"Not bad at all," D'Artagnan said.
Aramis hummed skeptically. "I believe I have some willowbark in one of my pouches," he said. "Some tea will help. Athos? Do you need some?" He moved to stand from his seat on the bed but stopped when D'Artagnan's hand shot out and grabbed onto his wrist.
"If you are done, what I need is for you to let D'Artagnan to examine your side," Athos said firmly.
"D'Artagnan should be resting. I will see to it myself." The angle of the cut on his ribs would make it difficult, but Aramis was certain he could manage.
"You will do no such thing," Athos countered even as D'Artagnan began to unfasten Aramis' doublet. The mattress dipped as Athos sat by him and the captain snagged Aramis' hands as they tried to brush off D'Artagnan's interference. Concerned blue eyes looked into his own. "Do not fight us on this, brother."
Brother. Aramis could tell that exhaustion was beginning to affect him. There was no other reason as to why such a simple request would cause his eyes to sting. After a moment, he blinked heavily and relented, allowing tense muscles to relax. There were incessant tremors running through his muscles, but couldn't dredge up the energy to stop them. Aramis allowed D'Artagnan to remove his belts and his leathers. He was keenly aware of Porthos' dark eyes on him, watching in silent judgement.
Athos moved to pull Aramis' doublet off when the motion jarred his shoulder. The movement caught Aramis off guard and he couldn't prevent a pained cry from escaping. He twisted away from Athos' grip and hunched over, clutching his left arm to his side.
"What is it?" Athos' eyes widened in alarm.
"My shoulder." The words were a strained whisper. He gestured towards his chest. "Collarbone." He breathed slowly and deeply, forcing down the aching throb as quickly as he could.
He felt D'Artagnan shift next to him. "May I?"
Aramis nodded as he straightened up. He pressed his mouth into a pinched line, embarrassed by his overreaction. The Gascon delicately ran his fingers over the line of Aramis' shoulder, applying gentle pressure as he went along. Aramis bit back a groan and D'Artagnan winced in sympathy when the bone gave under his touch. "Definitely broken. There's not much I can do for it, I'm afraid."
D'Artagnan pursed his lips, his face thoughtful. "We can place it in a sling. Was it the fall?"
The marksman nodded.
"Why didn't you say something about it?" Porthos' voice rumbled through the small room. Aramis glanced up at the big Musketeer. He hadn't moved from his spot since lighting the fire, distancing himself from the three other Musketeers.
Aramis grimaced. "To what end?"
D'Artagnan and Athos resumed divesting Aramis of his doublet, moving more slowly in order to avoid jostling his arm. D'Artagnan hissed in displeasure when a scarlet-dyed bandage was revealed underneath the markman's stiff shirt.
"You told me this had stopped bleeding," D'Artagnan said. Aramis closed his eyes against the Gascon's accusatory tone.
"I told you I thought it had. It was a bit difficult to know for certain."
A loud disbelieving huff came from Porthos' general direction, and Athos raised an eyebrow at Aramis. "This is a considerable amount of blood."
"It likely looks worse than it is," Aramis muttered under his breath.
"Somehow, I doubt that," Athos disagreed. Aramis held still as D'Artagnan carefully cut away the soiled bandage with his dagger. The Gascon made a frustrated noise as he probed the edges of the long slash; a gleam of white bone shined through the red maw of the clotted wound.
"This is not a trivial wound, Aramis. It should have been stitched up immediately." Aramis sighed internally at D'Artagnan's scolding tone. "Is there anything else I should know about before I begin?"
"His leg," Athos replied quickly before Aramis could think. The two other Musketeers pulled off his boots to expose a blood-soaked stocking.
Athos and D'Artagnan jumped when an ear-splitting clang of metal burst through the air as Porthos furiously kicked over an iron stand holding fireplace tools. The implements scattered across the wooden floor as the big man stomped out of the room without a glance or a word to the other Musketeers. Regret and dismay flooded through Aramis as he watched Porthos go. Despite the years and distance that had separated them during the war, Porthos had never seemed further from Aramis than he did at that moment.
"He's worried," D'Artagnan said softly, glancing up at the former monk after Porthos left the room.
"I'm not so sure that was worry," Aramis replied, closing his eyes. He was suddenly tired, more tired than he'd been in a very long time. All his remaining strength drained from him as he leaned forward, digging his elbows into his knees. He felt as if he'd been stripped bare, both literally and figuratively, and been found wanting.
A light hand landed on the back of his neck and gave him a gentle squeeze. "He'll come around," Athos said quietly. "D'Artagnan is right. He's forgotten what it's like to see you like this. We all have."
Although he knew that Athos meant his words to be a comfort, they left Aramis feeling cold. It was as if he had forgotten to move forward with passing time, and that he was still trying to live the life he'd led four years ago while the others had moved on without him. Since his return to Paris, he'd been scrambling to find his place in this new era and thus far, his brothers hadn't shown much inclination to help him find his way. Aramis did not blame them; they were simply...busy. What were you expecting? he asked himself wearily. Aramis found that he honestly did not know the answer.
He tuned out the other two Musketeers as they resumed treating his wounds, lost in the mire of his own thoughts. The alcohol-soaked cloth that D'Artagnan pressed against his ribs caught him by surprise, and the harsh, acid burn of it overwhelmed him, wrenching out an agonized gasp and then...
Athos sat stretched out in his chair, one leg extended in an effort to relieve some of the strain on the shallow wound above his hip. Between the tight stitches that Aramis had placed and the healing paste that the old herbalist had smeared on his skin, it had already begun to knit, forming a thin pink line under a neat row of black thread. He took a sip of the tea that the town healer had left behind the previous night, trying to ease the ache that still echoed through his head. Athos found that the cooler temperature of the liquid did nothing to improve the foul taste.
The captain idly flipped through a deck of cards he'd found in one of Porthos' bags as he kept a watchful eye on the still figure laid out on the bed before him. Aramis had stirred a couple of times since passing out, and had eventually fallen into a restless sleep. The markman was still pale in the bright morning sunlight, but to Athos' relief, he looked much healthier than he had the night before.
Aramis' presence was a problem. No, Athos immediately corrected himself. Not a problem. Never that. More of a conundrum. Athos was genuinely thrilled to have his brother back with them. He'd missed Aramis terribly, and had often longed for the buoying support of the marksman's optimism during the darkest days of war. He'd overheard the conversation between Aramis and Porthos in Douai, and while he'd disagreed with the spiteful spirit in which the words were said, Athos had to admit Porthos was right. They'd learned to live without Aramis, for better or for worse.
And now that Aramis was back, Athos, Porthos and D'Artagnan were supposed to reshuffle to make room for their newly returned brother, but it was slowly dawning on Athos that they weren't doing so very quickly or very well. When D'Artagnan had quite literally stormed into their lives, he'd fallen in with them with a natural ease. It stood to reason that it should have been even easier for Aramis to integrate himself back into their brotherhood, but that did not appear to be the case.
It wasn't clear to the captain why that was, but Athos suspected that part of it had to do with a large Musketeer who was still stung by a rejection that occured four years past. Although, that is too convenient an explanation, Athos thought. Perhaps we expect too much effort from Aramis, and not enough from ourselves. From myself. He was the captain, after all, and Aramis was one of his oldest, dearest friends.
Before he could muse further, noise from the narrow bed caught his attention. Brown eyes slowly blinked open as Aramis stifled a groan.
"Porthos?" Aramis' voice was a painfully dry croak.
"Ah." The marksman carefully maneuvered himself upright, his hand hovering over his bandaged ribs. The captain reached over to grab a second cup that had been left for Aramis and handed it over once the other man was settled. "Thank you, mon ami."
Aramis took a small sip to wet his throat and Athos had to stifle a smile when a look of absolute disgust passed over his face. "So this is what it has come to? You're trying to poison me on my sickbed?" he asked weakly.
Athos raised an amused eyebrow. "Hardly. It's the healer woman's concoction. I was told it would relieve pain and help you regain your strength."
The marksman peered down at the cup with revulsion. "It seems more likely to speed me to my death. None of my brews has ever been this bad."
"I beg to differ," Athos muttered. "I can remember quite a few that have been worse. Finish it, Aramis. You need the liquid."
The marksman hurriedly gulped down the rest and tilted his head back against the wall with his eyes closed. "How are your wounds?"
"They are healing."
Aramis made a satisfied sound. "And D'Artagnan?" His eyes flew open in distress. "Where is he?" When the marksman predictably tried to get up, Athos leaned over and gently pressed a hand against his friend's chest.
"Peace, Aramis," Athos said. "D'Artagnan is doing well. He is resting, as you should be. Porthos procured another room last night. I think it is safe to say that we will never be welcome at this inn again."
Aramis smiled. "Porthos' particular brand of charm can be a bit overwhelming."
Athos nodded in agreement. "Especially when it's forced upon you in the middle of the night." He considered Aramis with an appraising eye. His brother looked oddly muted, and Athos was certain that it had to do with more than his physical wounds.
"It wasn't your fault."
"Pardon?" The marksman gave Athos a wary look.
"What happened to D'Artagnan was not your fault."
Aramis frowned. "I don't agree. I don't think Porthos would either."
The captain sighed. "There is only so much you can control in a fight. Even the best skill sometimes isn't enough to prevent bad outcomes."
"Perhaps," Aramis said quietly. "But this should have been preventable. It was an easy shot, Athos. I shouldn't have missed. I wouldn't have, four years ago."
"Then we will ensure that it doesn't happen again," the captain reassured him. "If we can transform green farmboys into fine Musketeers, then surely we can help one of the best regain his form."
"I'm sure D'Artagnan will appreciate that he's still referred to as a 'green farmboy'," Aramis said, hiding the tremor of emotion that ran through him behind a grin. He took a deep, careful breath. "I'm sorry, Athos."
The captain shook his head. "There is no need to apologize to me. You made the best decisions you could. We may not fully understand them, but we will respect them." Athos understood that Aramis was no longer talking about their current mission. He knew better than perhaps anyone that even the most rational choices could go astray. He hadn't necessarily agreed with Aramis' decision to stay cloistered, but it wasn't his place to tell his brother what to do, especially in a matter so deeply personal. He trusted Aramis enough to know that the vow must have been of tremendous importance if it held him back from joining them during the war. He also understood the need for atonement. "You and I, we are very alike in some respects," Athos continued. "We have both made mistakes for which others have paid the price. Porthos, and even D'Artagnan...they don't have such burdens to carry. At least, not as heavy as the ones we bear."
Aramis nodded knowingly. Athos suspected that Aramis had already come to the same conclusions. "It can be difficult to understand," the marksman said quietly. He was about to sit back when something caught his eye. "Are those my pistols?"
Athos turned to see what Aramis was looking at. Two elegant weapons sat on a dresser by the door, bundled in a piece of clean cloth.
"They are." Athos got up out of his chair before Aramis could move to retrieve the guns. He handed them to the marksman, who received them reverently and then unshrouded them.
Aramis had always treated his custom pistols with great respect. Athos knew what his brother would be seeing, and knew that he would be very pleased. The intricate firing mechanisms had been meticulously cleaned, and the barrels had been wiped to remove any trace of gunpowder residue that may have clung to them. The wooden stock had been polished to a high gloss and both guns gleamed with a thin coat of protective oil. It was obvious that they'd been lavished with close, careful attention.
"Did you clean these for me?"
Athos shook his head. "Porthos claimed to be terribly bored by watching D'Artagnan sleep," he said casually. "It's understandable. The boy sleeps like the dead."
Aramis' eyebrows shot up. "Porthos hates cleaning his weapons."
Athos tilted his head speculatively. "Perhaps, but he loves his brothers more." It pained him to have to make the point out loud. Once upon a time, it would have been tacitly understood and accepted.
The marksman inhaled sharply. He stared down at the pistols in his lap and turned them over in his hands, admiring their glossy sheen. Athos waited patiently as Aramis sat in silence that stretched several minutes. "I will have to thank him for his great sacrifice," he finally murmured. "My guns look like new."
"I'm sure he will appreciate it, but there's no need," Athos said. "I know things may be different than they were, but don't ever question your place with us."
"Thank you, mon ami," Aramis said. "No matter how well I know, it is still good to hear." There was a pause, and then a small, genuine smile touched his lips as some of the merriment that constantly used to peek out of the marksman's eyes made a shy reappearance. "So, when are we leaving? I believe I have some catching up to do."
Athos rolled his eyes. He knew things would not be easy - for them, they rarely were - but he was encouraged. Despite the friction between them, Athos knew that Porthos' big heart and Aramis' forgiving nature would eventually see them through. Despite all the changes between them, Athos had faith that the dependable core of each of Musketeer would remain true, and that they would remain brothers, in whatever form, until the end.
Ta da! We have made it through. Apologies for the lame ending - I struggled with it a bit and then decided it wasn't going to get any better. Thank you to everyone who read and reviewed, especially to the guest reviewers to whom I couldn't reply. Until next time!