So, we come to the last chapter, which is a long one, but there is much to be said. I hope you have enjoyed this sequel. Many thanks for the reviews and messages, and to those I cannot thank personally.
CHAPTER FORTY ONE
In the pre-dawn silence, Athos opened his eyes.
At first he thought he was alone in the room but then he saw the still figure of Aramis at the end of the bed, looking out of the window, his back to him.
Feeling himself being watched, Aramis turned his head and looked at him. He turned fully and leant back on the windowsill, watching as Athos slowly blinked himself awake. It took a little while, and in that time, Aramis assessed him. Athos's eyes flicked around the room and when he finally raised his hand to swipe at the nasal tube, Aramis was ready. He moved forward and took hold of his hand, gently pulling it away.
"Easy," he said. "Be still, just get your bearings."
Athos looked up at him and frowned, but did not struggle.
His face softened and Aramis smiled, still holding his hand.
"Hey," he murmured.
"Hey," Athos managed.
Aramis sank down onto the chair Nkosi had used throughout the night, until Porthos had steered her out for food and a rest. She had tried to resist of course, but Porthos had threatened to tip her over his shoulder and carry her out. She had looked to Aramis for help but he had shrugged, and she was left with little choice. That was only an hour ago. She would be very put out when she found out that Athos had indeed woken up while she was gone.
Treville had taken Anne back to the hotel, with a promise to let her know when Athos was awake and well enough to hear what she had to say. He had not yet returned. She had looked troubled, and Aramis suspected that Treville was offering her some sort of support.
"Do you remember what happened?" Aramis asked, gently.
Athos looked blank, but Aramis could see flashes of realisation flick begin to across his face.
"You brought me back," he finally ventured. "You brought us both back."
"And what a journey that was," Aramis agreed. "You shaved a few years from my life, my friend," he added. "And not for the first time."
Athos licked his lips and frowned.
"Sorry," he murmured.
"I suppose you want an update," Aramis smiled, running his hand thoughtfully through his beard.
Athos lifted his head and looked around, wincing at the sudden dull pain in his side.
"Easy," Aramis repeated quickly, resting a hand firmly on his shoulder to keep him still.
"Can I sit up?" Athos managed, his voice wrecked from the endotracheal tube that had been lodged in his throat during his surgery.
"No," Aramis said bluntly. "Major trauma, Athos. You know the drill."
Athos sighed and stared blankly at the ceiling but they both knew that he was not in a position to argue.
"d'Artagnan?" he asked after a few moments, becoming a little agitated as his thoughts started to clear.
"He's good," Aramis assured him. "Porthos has been keeping him in his bed. He wants to visit."
"And," he added, "Your ladies are somewhere around. No doubt they will both want to be in here now you are awake."
"Advisable?" Athos asked, sceptically.
Aramis laughed at the first sign of Athos's sardonic humour.
"More so now than when they first met," he replied. "It's a long, complicated story."
Athos was looking tired now, and Aramis patted his hand and stood;
"Let me get you free of all this equipment and make you comfortable, and then, if you wish, Porthos can fill you in. He had quite an adventure after I brought you and d'Artagnan back here."
Athos raised his hand, and Aramis stopped and took hold; looking at him fondly;
"It's good to see you, Athos," he said.
"You, too, Aramis." Athos said.
A little later, with Athos now propped up on a few more pillows and the end of the bed slightly raised, as a minor concession by Aramis, Porthos opened the door and stuck his head in.
Nothing was said, they just looked at each other for a beat, before Athos raised his hand and waved him in with a smile.
Porthos took a deep breath and came forward.
He leant over and kissed Athos on the forehead.
"You run to the edge of the wire, Athos," he growled. "And then you jump off."
Athos looked at him, carefully judging his mood.
"Well, to be fair," he replied. "I didn't start it."
Porthos suddenly started to laugh. It started off as a low rumble and then his shoulders shook and tears leaked from his eyes.
Athos watched him in amusement.
"Only you could make a clash with a murderous gun-totin' Russian criminal sound like an argument in the playground."
Porthos stopped laughing then and wiped his eyes.
"d'Artagnan nailed Koslov," he said, proudly.
"So I understand," Athos smirked.
"You saw him do it?"
Athos slowly nodded. Over the last half hour, his thoughts had cleared considerably, although there were still gaps.
"It was over very fast," he replied. "I tripped the trap door. Wasn't sure I'd got it right, but he stood on it, rather than walk over it and it didn't bear his weight. Aramis tells me he was impaled on the fence. I didn't know he was dead then. I fully expected him to start shooting from beneath me."
"Must 'ave been a moment."
"Now who's the Master of Understatement!" Athos smiled.
"Touche," Porthos smiled back. "Glad you're back, mate."
"So am I," Athos murmured, before he asked more questions;
"Well, that's a tale for Nkosi to tell you. Her brother's 'ave been amazin'."
"And Anne?" Athos asked, cautiously.
"She's here," Porthos nodded, carefully. "Got somethin' to tell you."
"Yeah. Give her a hearin' Athos. She played her part too."
Athos remembered the shock of seeing Anne, as flashes of her sudden appearance in the Delta came to him. And then, of her giving him the gun. For years, he had tried to consign her to the back of his mind, but recently, since news had reached hm of her release, it had felt as if she was in every shadow. Then, he remembered her handing him the gun and the confusion that had caused. He could not remember their conversation though.
Perhaps he needed to hear it again, if that was what she wanted.
"Alright," Athos agreed. He desperately wanted to see Nkosi but he was growing tired now. Porthos picked up on that instantly and squeezed his hand.
"Enough now," he said, his voice a low rumble and pleasantly soothing. "Rest up. We'll all be here when you wake up."
He plucked at the hospital gown Athos was wearing, and chuckled.
"I'll bring you some t shirts," he said. "And then, Aramis says you've got a protein shake to look forward to."
He laughed again at the grimace that particular piece of information elicited.
They weren't all there when he woke up. Just d'Artagnan, sitting on a chair, crutches propped up beside him and his leg on a low stool. Sensing someone to his right, Athos turned his head. The last time he remembered seeing him was when he had pushed him up onto the roof of the tree house.
"You look better," Athos said, his voice still hoarse.
d'Artagnan raised his eyebrow and smirked. "So do you," he smiled. "How do you feel?"
Athos thought for a moment.
"Too soon to tell," Athos grunted, "I don't think the truck has rolled off me yet."
d'Artagnan broke into a wide grin. "I know what you mean."
"It was one hell of a trip, though," Athos said, watching him; assessing him.
When d'Artagnan didn't reply, he reached out and put his hand on his arm and d'Artagnan looked up at him plaintively;
"I'm sorry," he said, locking eyes with Athos.
"Why?" Athos asked, squeezing his arm.
"I distracted you."
"On the tree house walkway. We were talking and I asked you what you were thinking, and we took our eye off the ball."
Athos thought for a moments, before remembering he had been thinking about Nkosi.
"I don't accept your apology," Athos said flatly.
d'Artagnan hung his head.
"Because," Athos continued, "an apology is not needed. We were both at fault. We knew Koslov was nearby. Should have been more careful."
d'Artagnan lifted his head and stared at Athos.
"It was just so good to be back in the Delta," d'Artagnan sighed. "For a moment, it seemed … normal, to be in the tree house, talking about our lives."
"And here we are," Athos smiled. "Back to normality."
"Yes," d'Artagnan replied softly. "Thank you, Athos."
"For everything," d'Artagnan replied, fiercely. "For putting my shoulder back, for getting us to the San people. For explaining about them and making our stay so interesting, and … wonderful. For knowing what to do. For your company. For distracting Koslov ..."
Athos held up his hand.
"Enough," he said. "Do you not think you did the same for me?"
"But I couldn't have survived without you, Athos," d'Artagnan replied.
"Yes, you could. We worked together and survived Koslov last year, and now we've survived him again. And he is dead. We are alike, d'Artagnan. More than you know."
d'Artagnan did not look convinced. In fact, he looked incredulous.
Athos smiled, wearily.
"Believe me, d'Artagnan. You acquitted yourself magnificently," he said.
Seeing Athos was sincere, d'Artagnan beamed at him.
Only to groan when Athos added, "For a vet."
The least taxing visit was from Musket, led in by Porthos. Musket was overjoyed to be reunited with his master, and it took all of Porthos's strength to hold him back. In the end, he was allowed to put his front paws on the bed, as Porthos kept his hand on the collar that Rach had made for him.
Musket had always made strange sounds, having no feedback due to his deafness, but he excelled himself during his visit. Porthos told Athos the part his dog had played in their adventure and as Athos listened, he could see that Porthos seemed to have formed a genuine liking for the animal. It made him heart soar to see his two best friends in tune at last. After a few minutes, Porthos took him out, but the dog's tail was swishing from side to side as he went and Porthos was grinning from ear to ear.
"Sorry about the plane."
Treville let a slow smile spread across his face.
"So you should be," he growled.
"It was all I could think of," Athos added.
"You could have killed yourself."
"I did consider that."
"But you made a calculated decision."
"No," Athos said, pursing his lips. "I just pointed the stick down and closed my eyes."
Treville had stayed with Anne at the hotel, and had returned when Porthos phoned to say Athos was awake and was expecting her visit at some point. Treville had duly brought her back with him. He had spent the best part of an hour persuading her not to leave and finally, she had agreed to return with him.
"Give him some credit, Anne," Treville had said. "He may surprise you."
She had huffed at that and had made a sarcastic comment and he had rounded on her and told her that Athos had been in a prison of his own making until they had set up Heshima. She had totally blind sided him and he had lost everything he had held dear.
"You owe each other this final meeting," he had said. "After this, you never have to see each other again, but thereafter, there will be no more guilt, or doubt. No more recriminations. And from what Porthos tells me, you have begun that journey, Anne. You were part of their team. Don't turn away now. You and he are both as stubborn as each other, but you cannot deny you helped to save Athos and d'Artagnan. You need to explain that, at least. Not only to Athos, but to yourself."
"I, for one," he added, "have seen a change in you since your return."
She had looked at him sharply.
"And don't give me that look," he had said, "I like the change. It suits you."
And so, although she had glared at him, she had swept past him and out to the truck.
Behind her, he had shaken his head and smiled broadly.
It still took all her courage to walk into the room.
"Hello, Athos," she said.
"Hello, Anne," he had replied, softly.
There was a lot to explain. She had previously briefly told Athos about her connection to Koslov when they had met in the Delta, but there had not been time to elaborate. Before she told him of her innocence, she therefore wanted to straighten a few things out.
"Porthos told me Michelin was murdered in her apartment. Koslov killed Michelin, Athos. She was the only person who believed me," Anne said. "He put her in an impossible position, and then he killed her."
"What impossible position?" Athos asked.
"He forced her to submit false DNA of my innocence, so the Parole Board would free me."
"So what is the problem? Apart from fraud," he asked, not understanding why she would object.
"She left a note. It was sent to her solicitors after her death. She implicated Koslov and admitted that the DNA submitted to the Parole Board was false, but she had obtained a new sample and asked for it to be analysed. She had obtained it from a lipstick during one of our meetings."
Athos frowned, his face a mask of confusion.
"I am innocent Athos. I did not kill Thomas. My DNA proves it. Thank God for scientific advancement," she laughed, without humour.
Athos was staring at her.
"I don't understand."
"It's simple, dear husband. Thomas was not a nice man. He ran with some very violent people. One of them must have killed him. I was the unfortunate one who found him. All set up of course, to incriminate me. I handled the gun, but my DNA was nowhere near the trigger. And neither, it seemed were my fingerprints. Innocent on both accounts."
"Why did your barrister help Koslov get you out?"
"The original evidence was strong," she shrugged. "They would not have let me go and he needed me. He didn't know I knew as little as I did, of course. Michelin had a misdemeanour in her past. She was very young and just starting out at the time but if it had come to light, she would have been discredited. Koslov exploited that fact and made her help him. Because she believed me and she was getting me out, I suppose it did not seem such a bad thing to do. It's not as if I'm a killer after all.
"She was obviously frightened of him though. Perhaps she realised he would kill her and so she left instructions to be sent in ample time for him to show his hand. In other words, she waited until he had killed her."
"I perhaps did deserve some of my sentence. I did some dodgy things," she added. "But I never hurt anyone. Not like they charged me with."
"My God," Athos groaned.
"I spent a lot of time hating you, Athos," she said. "I don't know what I was expecting when I came here. I don't know what I wanted. But, I didn't think I would be jealous of you. You've made a new life. I want to do that. Somewhere. You have friends who care for you. Very much. I doubt I will ever have that. Don't neglect them, as you did me. Don't ever take them for granted," she said.
Athos was staring at her with those damned eyes, and she was faltering. She had one more thing to say.
"Don't neglect her, Athos. You'll be legally free of me soon. Give her everything."
He still didn't speak, but he tilted his head. It was his promise.
"What will you do now?" he finally managed to ask.
"I have plans," she answered.
"So do I," he conceded.
He reached out his hand. She stared at it. She lifted her head and looked at him. There would always be something between them but it belonged in a different time and a different place. They were different people now, barely on the same level. They both knew that. So, for one brief, last moment, they connected as she took his hand.
Finally, finally, he had Nkosi to himself.
She had been there, but he had so many others to reconnect to, so much to clear up and after seeing Anne, he had been lost in thought. Nkosi had been the first one he had seen when he had first woken up, and that had been their moment. She had been in the background since, deferring to Aramis over his care and Porthos, who had needed to be reassured that his friend was well.
There was an awkwardness between them. They had fallen out over his revelation that he and Anne had not divorced, and then been torn apart by the drama that had slowly unfolded. Now, their eyes met but no words were spoken, still.
Anne had gone, after telling them her news. Porthos and Treville had both been privy to her revelation, but she and Aramis had been shocked. Porthos had suggested she give Athos time to absorb what Anne had told him, and she had, until d'Artagnan had told her that it was she they were talking about when they had been caught out by Koslov. Athos's last thoughts before engaging with Koslov had been about her. He had then told her time was short, and he had asked her gently what her mother would say.
It was then that she had remembered what her mother had told her when she was a little girl;
"To love at first sight is a wonder, daughter; to live in that love is truly a blessing."
She had kissed d'Artagnan and headed straight to Athos.
Only to find him asleep.
Undeterred, she had sat down and started to sing a song. It was her way of coping and she loved to sing.
After a while, a quiet, oh so familiar voice interrupted her;
"That is not the sad song you sang to me last year," Athos whispered.
"You remember that?" she asked, wide eyes searching his face.
"I do," he replied. "I remember I pretended to be asleep," he replied.
She laughed. "Why?"
"I did not want to embarrass you," he said. "And you seemed so sad."
"I thought you were dying," Nkosi whispered.
"Well, then, a sad song was probably appropriate. My apologies."
He reached out his hand.
She looked at it.
His arm began to shake and he began to drop his hand, but she suddenly seized it in both of hers.
"Athos," she breathed. "Oba said I have been foolish."
"He is a very wise man," Athos smiled, aiming for humour. "He will make an excellent elder one day."
She looked down.
"But he is wrong in this," he added. "You were not foolish. You were right, and I am sorry I did not tell you the full story about my marriage."
He looked at their intertwined fingers.
"I had shut it from my mind," he began to explain.
"I knew how much it hurt you," Nkosi interrupted. "I heard your dreams last year. We thought we were losing you. We should have known you would bury this deeply. My father has a saying, ..."
It was Athos's turn to her …
"And what do you say?" he asked, gazing into her beautiful eyes.
"I say … I love you, Athos," she replied.
"That is the best saying I have ever heard," he smiled.
Later that day:
d'Artagnan came barrelling into his room in a wheelchair.
"Freedom!" he shouted.
"Is that the one I used last year?" Athos said.
"Aramis kept it, despite you wanting to throw it in the lake," d'Artagnan replied with glee.
"Well, I suppose such things are useful sometimes," Athos conceded, watching d'Artagnan run it in circles and dip it backward, balanced on its wheels.
"Though I doubt they are meant to do those kinds of maneouvre," he added.
d'Artagnan dropped the chair back down to the ground again and wheeled himself across, resting his elbows on the arms and leaning forward.
"So, Anne has gone, then?" he asked.
"This morning. Porthos took her to the airport. Luckily, we have the use of a hired plane and a pilot until the insurance pays out."
"I never really got to know her, but Porthos said she was nice," d'Artagnan ventured.
"Did he?" Athos said, surprised by that statement.
"Hated her at first," d'Artagnan said, "But he said she came through in the end."
"Yes, she did," Athos replied, thoughtfully. "When I met her in the Delta, she warned me about Koslov and Naaji working together, and I turned back."
"Why did you go off like that?" d'Artagnan asked.
"I told you," Athos said. "I wanted to draw him away from you. Plus, I wanted to be the one to finish him. For Treville. This is his dream."
"I kind of like it here too," d'Artagnan said, whirling around again.
"Even after all we have been through? You could have had a nice quiet time on Kruger."
Athos was lying quietly, watching him in amusement.
"Compared to this? I would have died of boredom!" d'Artagnan cried. "I wish I'd known you and Porthos when you were soldiers," he suddenly said.
"It's not a glamorous life, d'Artagnan," Athos replied, "It's hard work. We have seen some dreadful things. We have seen the worst of humanity. But also, I suppose, the best. People do surprise you when they are in the worst of conditions."
"I can believe that," he said. "Rach came through too. You were right about him."
"He just needed a little patient handling. Nyack did that, and now he is reconciled with all his family, including Nkosi."
"So, now we are no longer in any danger," d'Artagnan said, "Where do we go from here?"
"Much of the same," Athos replied. "You may come to find it boring."
"There is one thing ..." d'Artagnan said, ducking his head.
"Out with it," Athos growled.
"I would like to learn to fly."
Athos smiled. "We'll have to ask Porthos. He is next in line."
"I already did," d'Artagnan smirked. "He hates the idea. Says he never wants to go up in a plane again."
"Very well then," Athos laughed. "Treville has already said he would like another pilot trained up, as long as it doesn't interfere with your other work?"
d'Artagnan spun around. "It won't, I promise."
"Don't promise me, I am not your boss. Promise Treville," Athos said.
d'Artagnan did not need telling twice. He headed out, pushing himself through the door. "I'll do it now!" he shouted from halfway down the corridor.
New York City:
Robert McCauley walked up to his front door.
It was opened by his wife, who smiled.
Strange how a relationship can flourish once all the tension has gone; once the thought of debts and addiction have been addressed.
McCauley had put his second chance to good use. Treville had arranged for his debts to be paid off, and in return, McCauley had entered rehab for his gambling addiction. His house was secure and his marriage, though still a work in progress, had not disintegrated.
The fact he had owned up to his problems and called Treville to tell him about The Arab was of continuing surprise to him, but it had given him hope that perhaps, deep down, he was the man he once was. His friendship with Treville had always been important to him and he would now ensure he honoured Treville's faith in him by pulling himself through this. He had found the trace of the altered surveillance report as well, and that had now been rectified.
As his children joined their mother at the door, he felt the weight he had carried drop away.
The thought of the Arab confronting him at his own door was the stuff of bad dreams. Perhaps, they would sell this house when this was over. But for now, there was a very fine aroma emanating from the kitchen, and he was ready to sit down with his family and enjoy a quiet dinner with them.
Four Months Later:
"And that, my love, is the Champs-Elysees," Athos said, as they stepped from the elevator at the top of the Eiffel Tower and he pointed out the famous wide avenue below. In fact, all of Paris was laid out beneath them, in every direction, as far as the eye could see.
"It is beautiful," Nkosi gasped at the view below, clinging tightly onto his hand as the spring breeze blew through her hair.
"Better than the tree house?" he whispered.
"No, as beautiful as this is, there are no lagoons, no elephants, or zebra," she looked at him from beneath her dark lashes. "And no white rhino."
Oblivious of the throng of tourists around them, he drew her slowly in and kissed her.
For a moment, they could have been anywhere; it did not matter. What mattered was they were together and Africa was their home.
It had been amazing, showing her Paris. She had laughed and squealed and been reduced to tears of joy. This city could do that. Athos had not lost his love of France, but his heart now lay in the African savannah.
She understood a little more about her complicated man now and hopefully, they had finally swept away his past. Africa awaited them tomorrow. They would board their plane and fly back to Heshima, to her family and to his; joined together in friendship.
Unknown to Nkosi, there was a special ceremony awaiting them.
In a conspiratorial phone call that morning, Porthos had assured him everything was in place. All that remained was for him to give her the diamond ring he had in his pocket when their plane touched down on African soil. For it would be in Africa that he would propose marriage.
The diamond itself had been cut from one that Nyack had given to him along with his blessing, when Athos had explained his plan and formerly asked for his daughter's hand. It had previously been owned by Nkosi's mother, Jayne. Athos had had it cut and polished to his own design. It was, therefore a precious gift, given in love, to a much-loved young woman.
The Tswana were looking forward to the celebrations. They had an outfit ready for her, the one her mother wore to her marriage to her father. Of course, Athos would also offer her another ceremony of her own choosing, but he believed she would be very happy with what they all had planned.
A traditional African wedding.
Now that he was free at last.
In more ways than one.
The prison van pulled into the Matrosskaya Tishina prison in the Sokolniki District of Moscow on a cold February morning.
Yaroslav Krupin looked up from the inside of the van at the high grey stone walls.
Only three people had been able to successfully escape from this foreboding facility. The last was a man who dug a hole in the ceiling of his cell. He had dug it with a metal spoon, climbing up onto the roof and over the perimeter fence.
The Authorities blamed the non-observant and corrupt guards for his escape, as he had escaped using civilian clothing and mountaineering equipment, bought from a guard.
If the guards in his African prison had bothered, they would have seen a newspaper clipping from 2013 tacked on to his wall. He had been careful to take it down when he was transferred.
The man who escaped had been one of his men from several years before. It was he who sent Krupin the cutting.
As Krupin looked up at the walls, he smiled. They did not phase him.
Thank you for staying with me on this journey. It got us through most of the UK winter, didn't it!
Believe it or not, the prison break-out is a true story. The escapee was quickly recaptured.
Kwaheri, my friends.