Athos stood alone in the trophy room. He held the brass key in his hand. No one had yet opened the vault's door – his brothers' felt it was not their place to intrude.
The key was heavy; the weight of it made it feel as though he were literally weighing his options. Athos wondered what he might find in this vault – what had his grandfather treasured enough to secure in his private safe? Or what did he fear?
There was a knock on the door. Athos looked up to see Aramis standing in the doorway.
"Have you decided if you will open it?" Aramis asked with a soft smile. "We were wondering if you might want some company or need our support. We're here in any instance – or could not be if you prefer to do this alone," he said.
Athos shook his head smirking slightly. Again, he should have known. His brothers would obviously be aware of the apprehension he might have to opening this thing. He would never truly be able to communicate his appreciation of their support for him. Wordlessly, he cocked his head and gestured for his brothers to enter.
"Was this your idea?" Athos asked Aramis as the three men filtered in and shut the door behind them.
"Partly; we all wanted to be here for you. Somehow I was the chosen mouthpiece to ask though," he said with a shrug.
"Mouthpiece or sacrifice?" Porthos asked.
"Definitely the sacrifice," said D'Artagnan with a grin.
"I thought we already spoke about you trying to improve your self-preservation?" said Athos smirking.
"Yes, yes, you're all very comical. I'll remember this the next time I'm stitching one of you up, shall I?" he said, his eyes flashing in that dangerous combination that Aramis had mastered – part mischief, part daring, part humour.
"Well, let's end this, shall we?" said Athos
Athos stepped back in front of the heavy door. Quietly, he inhaled deeply, then plunged the key into the lock and turned it.
The lock clicked open with an ominous thud as the bolts to the vault withdrew. He reached forward with a steady hand and grasped the handle and pulled and gasped, his hand flying to his chest as pain flared through his body.
His brothers were at his side in a moment, Aramis helping to steady his breathing.
"I'm alright…the door gave a little resistance that I wasn't expecting…my recent altercation making itself known," he said gasping.
"Allow me," said Porthos, as he stepped forward. He too grasped the handled and even with his great strength, the door resisted. Grunting under the strain, Porthos slowly was able to inch the door forward. Once there was some space available, D'Artagnan wedged his own shoulder into the void and pushed as Porthos pulled, until the door finally cooperated and swung open suddenly, causing both men to stumble slightly, Porthos managing to catch D'Artagnan before he fell.
The door opened the large vault, the size of a small closet. There was a large chest that sat in its midst. Books and items wrapped in protective material lined shelves at the back. Slowly Athos stepped forward, grabbed a bundle and stepped out.
"I'll pull this out for you," said Porthos, bending to pull the chest from the floor. He settled it on the table nearby. Aramis and D'Artagnan took the remaining small bundles from the shelves and with a nod from Athos, they began to sort through them. Porthos got to work on opening the trunk.
"Wow Athos, are these still all yours?" D'Artagnan gushed as he sorted through the studies and sketches from the portfolio he was sifting through. Athos grinned and nodded.
"Athos, they are really quite good. You should consider taking this up again," he replied.
"Yes," nodded Aramis, "Especially since you're not as committed to your former pastime of getting exceptionally drunk," he said with a grin to which Athos cocked an eyebrow in challenge and grinned back.
"True," he said, "But I still need to be available to aid your escape from balcony or window ledges and passing angry husbands." They all chuckled at the familiar banter and turned back to the treasures they examined.
"This appears to be Thomas' sheet music," Aramis said softly, passing a leather-bound book to Athos. Athos eyes widened as he held the book like gold. "What have you found?"
"The notice of my birth," he grinned sheepishly, passing the paper to Aramis.
"Renard d'Athos, Comte de la Fere, is proud to announce the birth of Olivier. First-born son to his son, Guillaume d'Athos and Antoinette, nee du Bretons. Le 4 janvier. Dieu soit loué," Aramis read. "It looks like all of this stuff belonged to you or your brother. They were his prized possessions," he said with a smile. Athos grinned back.
"Got it!" Porthos shouted excitedly as the trunk clicked open.
"Finally," said D'Artagnan with a grin and an exaggerated eye-roll. Porthos grinned back triumphantly and deftly mussed the Gascon's hair, which had him instantly regretting his cheek. The musketeers peered into the depths of the trunk.
"Is that…?" Porthos asked with another huge grin. Athos nodded.
"I had always wanted to be a soldier," he said as D'Artagnan pulled a child's set of armour from the chest.
"It almost fits you," teased Aramis.
"He may still grow into it," replied Porthos as the two men grinned mischievously at their younger brother who harrumphed and pouted. Athos rolled his eyes, but couldn't fight the wide grin on his lips at his unfortunate brother's expense.
"What else is in there?" D'Artagnan asked.
Two boxes remained in the bottom of the trunk. Athos gingerly lifted the first one.
An ornate "T" was written on its surface. Carefully, Athos opened the box. A highly polished wooden case lay within. Inside that was the most beautiful violin any of them had ever seen at Louis' court. The instrument nearly emitted light from its brilliantly polished wood, untarnished by time. A folded note lay on top of it.
Athos picked up the note, "Apparently this was a gift for when Thomas came of age. Unfortunately, my Grandfather died before either of us reached that milestone. He never was able to give it to him…" he said and passed the note to his brothers. "Thomas, Always follow your heart to whatever end. Happy Birthday"
The musketeers were silent as Athos withdrew the final package with the ornate "O" on its lid.
"Athos," Aramis whispered, "Would you like to be alone?"
The swordsman stared at the box; his eyes glistened with a torrent of emotion.
"Athos?" Aramis asked again, gently reaching out a hand to Athos' elbow.
He shook the threatening tears away as he shook his head. "No," he said. "I'd like to have all my brothers here with me," he said as his hand gently brushed the strings of the violin. His brothers said nothing, but drew slightly closer.
Tentatively Athos lifted the white box's lid. A long black case was inside, a white note folded on its top. Athos read the note and his eyes filled with tears. He laid the note on the table for his brothers to read.
"Olivier, my joy, happy birthday. I am proud of the man you are, and of the one I know you will continue to be. Always remember that you are, and deserve to be, loved."
"Truer words were never spoken," said Porthos to which Athos gave a small laugh and wiped at his eyes.
"My grandfather was always a man of few words, but they were always the most poignant ones," he said. Aramis placed a hand gently on his shoulder and D'Artagnan gave his arm a quick squeeze.
Athos placed his hands at either end of the case and lifted the lid. A velvet cloth covered something inside. Athos pulled it back and the musketeers all drew in a breath. Inside the case was a beautifully crafted rapier. The blade and the handle were decorated in the same way that his grandfather's dagger was – there was no doubt that this was part of the set. The family motto encircled the grip.
Another small note had fluttered to the ground when the cloth had been withdrawn. Aramis bent and handed it to Athos. "May this only be used to defend what is right, what is just and those you love, and to protect you when I cannot."
The musketeers stayed on at the lodge for an extra day at Aramis' insistence – a day Athos relished as he and his brothers spent much of it riding through the rich woods that encircled the property and helping John and Maurice with whatever minor duties they had to maintain the residence. Their final night was spent dining well and drinking late where they told tall tales and Athos rested comfortably and even laughed at some of Aramis or Porthos' more ludicrous tales – though it was often hard to tell how much of their stories were exaggeration, emphasis or evidence.
They bid farewell to Maurice, Sophie and the rest of the staff the next morning. Sophie enveloped both Porthos and D'Artagnan in a tight embrace before turning to Aramis and a planting a kiss on the surprised marksman with a mischievous wink. A startled Aramis beamed at her, bowed and blushed as his brothers roared their laughter.
Maurice took Athos' hand and shook it firmly.
"I can never thank you enough for all your kindness throughout the years. I'm sorry if we've been too much of a bother," he said shyly.
Rising to her tip toes, Sophie placed a soft kiss on his brow. "You are never a bother to us, Olivier...Athos," she said, and the musketeers beamed.
Athos smiled, and with a bow, he kissed the back of her hand. Swearing that they would try to visit, the musketeers mounted their horses and rode out towards Paris.
"Are we to take the Noble Road home?" D'Artagnan asked.
"I would like to stop into Pinon before we return to Paris," replied Athos causing D'Artagnan to smirk – a gesture quickly stifled by a stern look from Athos, none of which was missed by Aramis.
"Quite right," Aramis said. "I'm sure there's much that needs to be taken care of at the inn?" he asked innocently, giving D'Artagnan the subtlest of knowing winks, earning him a glare from Athos as well.
The quartet paused as the decrepit manor came into view once more.
"Did you want to stop in?" Porthos asked.
Athos shook his head. "There really is nothing for me here, but dark memories. I'd rather close the book on this place once and for all. This entire episode has had me reflecting on my past life, and I've decided to let go of what I can of the dark times and remember the few brief moments of sunshine that punctuated it."
"That's good of you. An' hard to do," said Porthos.
Athos nodded. "Again, and perhaps I may still be feverish, but I find myself once more adhering to the wise advice that I'm sure must be Aramis'," he said with a grin and spurred his horse forward so he couldn't hear the marksman's witty response, though the smirks on both faces knew that one would be coming.
They rode through the village of Pinon and stopped in at the inn for lunch. The musketeers updated Genn and her father about the events that transpired at the lodge. Athos's eyes widened as Aramis dramatically recounted Athos' duel with Felix, his cheeks reddening slightly at the appraising gaze he caught from Genn's pretty eyes.
As the others mounted their horses to leave, Genn stood with Athos on the porch.
Bowing, Athos kissed Genn's hand.
"I hope to see you again soon," he said to her.
"I'd like that very much," she said. "Preferably without needing a madman, or battle, or a fire to draw you here," she said as she pulled him close and kissed his lips.
He said nothing, but smiled at her, one of his genuine smiles, and she blushed. Releasing him, he mounted his horse and led his brothers back to Paris.
They had only ridden a full three minutes away from the town, three goofy grins and glances exchanging in rapid fire behind their brother before Aramis spurred his horse to ride alongside Athos.
"So…Genn seems well," he said coyly.
"Aramis…" Athos warned.
"I know, I know, self-preservation, sacrifice, yes yes," he said, "But things seem much brighter for our next return journey to this region than they did when we first set out," he said with a grin.
"Yes," agreed Athos with a grin of his own. "Much brighter," he said as he pushed his horse into a canter towards Paris, his brothers meeting his gait with a laugh.
A/N: Thanks so much for reading and sticking with this one over the weeks! I hope you've enjoyed it! It's a happy little ending for Athos just in time for Christmas.
As always, thank you so much for your incredibly encouraging reviews, PMs and general feedback throughout this adventure. Cheers!