D'Artagnan put his elbows on the desk, rubbing his eyes tiredly. The recently restored garrison was all but asleep. He heard nothing but the sound of pounding rain and his brain screaming at him to go rest. Finally, he finished the paperwork which he would tomorrow deliver to Aramis. It had been a little over a year since he became captain, with his friend taking the position of the First Minister. Strange as their new work arrangements were, at least they stayed close, seeing each other daily. Admittedly, giving each other updates and reports or coming up with improved strategies was somewhat less engaging than their past adventures. Still, he couldn't be more grateful that he had at least one of his brothers close by. He wondered how Porthos was doing on the battlefront, without any of them to share war sorrows with. And his heart ached each time he thought about Athos, his mentor and best friend, who he hadn't heard from for the last four months. Not only did he miss him terribly. There was also this feeling he couldn't shake off, an inexplicable knot in his stomach that made him suspect that the older man didn't find the peace and quiet he wandered off to.
D'Artagnan sighed loudly, running his hand through his dark hair. Perhaps he was just going a little paranoid, after everything they had been through? In any case, there was nothing he could do. He arranged the papers on the table and got up, ready to call it a day. Just when his fingers touched the doorknob, he heard a horse outside. Why would someone come here in the middle of a rainy night? he wondered, hoping that he wasn't about to find out that one of his men got hurt on a mission.
Without thinking twice, he grabbed a candle and rushed outside to meet the arriver. As soon as he was at the top of the stairs, he froze. He would recognize the man anywhere, even if his posture didn't look nearly as composed as usual, and his face was almost invisible beneath his cloak's hood.
D'Artagnan came back to his senses when he saw the person clumsily sliding down his horse side, after which he swayed and fell to his knees. In a matter of seconds, the captain was crouching in front of the newcomer, worry plastered all over his face.
"Athos…" d'Artagnan whispered, putting his hands on his friend's cheeks and looking into his eyes, the back of his mind registering the heat under his palms.
He wanted to ask where he was hurt, if he needed to go to the infirmary, whether there was a need to call for a doctor or if he should just send for Aramis. But the words got stuck in his throat. D'Artagnan had seen his mentor in different states of mind, with varying degrees of sadness, grief, guilt, desperation. When his house got burned. When he found out his wife was back in Paris. When Sylvie got kidnapped. Never before had Athos looked so utterly broken and lost, eyes almost devoid of his trademark pride and strength, instead seemingly pleading for someone or something to save him from the anguish that was tearing him apart.
The younger man felt the lump in his throat grow. He used one of his hands to brush wet locks out of his friend's face, which gave him a better look at his swollen eye and an unpleasant cut near the hairline. Still not finding the right words, d'Artagnan tried to put all of the love and unconditional support for his brother into his gaze.
Upon seeing his warm, kind brown eyes, Athos cracked even further. Out of the four of them, he was the most reserved one, seldom asking for any kind of help, much less seeking consolation. But he hadn't been himself for months. For months, he had been entirely alone with a burden that he was unable to carry, consumed by despair while having to always watch his back and fighting the strong urge to just give in, to at least find peace in death if it was impossible in life.
And so, he did something that would dumbfound d'Artagnan, if only he were less terrified for his mentor. He fell forward onto the younger man, almost making him lose balance and clinging onto him with his last bits of strength. The Gascon's jacket stifled the sob that wrecked Athos's body.
Even though d'Artagnan was aware that given his friend's condition, they should get inside as quick as possible, he knew better than to ignore a rare plea for help. Not minding the rain and mud, he sank to his knees and put one arm around his friend's back, steadying him, and another on the back of his head.
"It's alright, I've got you, brother. I'm here, I've got you," the captain soothed into his mentor's ear, finally finding his voice. He felt Athos trembling harder under his hold and squeezed him tighter.
Athos didn't know how long they stayed in the embrace. A while after he calmed down, feeling drained and dizzy, d'Artagnan pulled away and slowly led the older man to sit on the stairs.
"Wait here for a few minutes, okay? I will take care of your horse, and we will go to my rooms," the captain said in a gentle voice, gripping his friend's shoulders.
"But Constance… I don't-" Athos protested weakly.
"Hush. You are family," d'Artagnan cut in, taking off his jacket, which was much drier than anything his friend wore, and throwing it over the latter's back. He was reluctant to leave, even for a moment, but there was no other choice.
Athos felt as if he was sitting on the stairs for a very long time. Seeing d'Artagnan was the first spark of hope since his world crumbled. He managed to briefly shake off some of the pain and tiredness. Now, it was coming back and, leaning heavily against the handrail, he was tempted to let his eyelids close.
"Athos! Stay with me for a little longer. You will rest soon," d'Artagnan was at his side again, pulling him up.
With the Gascon supporting most of his mentor's weight, murmuring words of encouragement whenever the latter seemed to forget about putting one foot in front of another, they eventually made it to their destination, d'Artagnan's guest room. After sitting his drenched, injured friend on a chair, the younger man, once again, kneeled in front of him.
"Athos, I need you to tell me how badly you are hurt. Should I send for a doctor or just Aramis?"
"Aramis… but tomorrow. It's not bad. No need to wake him," the older man replied.
D'Artagnan wanted to protest, but he saw his friend fidgeting with his soaked cloak and realized that it was probably hard enough for Athos to be that vulnerable in front of one person. He decided to assess the injuries and only send for someone if they were beyond the skills he learned from the marksman.
"Fine. I will wake Constance and tell her to bring anything we might need. Don't fall asleep yet, please," he said softly.
Before leaving, he helped Athos out of his cloak and enveloped him in a blanket, putting a cup of water in his hands.
When d'Artagnan came back, he found his friend with his head in his hands, shivering from cold and exhaustion. The cup must have slipped from his hands, as it was lying at his feet.
"I'm sorry, d'Artagnan, for barging in like that… I shouldn't have…" the older man muttered into the floor.
"Have you even heard what I've said before? We are brothers, you should never apologize for that. In fact, I'm glad you came, I would never want you to be alone when you are hurt. And neither would Aramis," the captain sighed.
Without another word, d'Artagnan approached Athos again, took off his shoes, and started undressing him. The process was by no means pleasant, as blood, sweat, pus, and dirt made the fabrics stick to the wounds in many places, especially those where the clothes were less wet. The older man seemed relatively indifferent to the pain, leaving it to his former protege to wince in sympathy and wonder what his friend went through to make him barely notice when someone was tearing out his flesh.
Just after the Gascon finished and guided Athos to the bed, there was a soft knock, and the door opened slightly.
"Hey, I don't want to disturb you, so I'm leaving everything here," Constance said quietly, slipping in a tray with things her husband asked for and putting it on the table next to the door. "Feel better, Athos."
"Thank you, Constance," both men answered in unison, though the guest's voice was hoarse and barely audible.
When the door closed again, d'Artagnan picked up a bowl of water and a cloth and began carefully washing Athos's battered body. He was pleasantly surprised to find out that while the number of bruises and wounds made him cringe, especially with many of them not exactly clean, they were superficial enough not to pose any real danger. Outside of cruelly bruised ribs and a stab wound in the thigh, which possibly damaged the muscle, he spotted no severe injuries. Thankfully, the latter seemed older and, being properly stitched, appeared to be healing astonishingly well, given the patient's overall condition and evident lack of proper rest.
D'Artagnan concluded that the fever and the sickly shade of Athos's skin, as well as large bags under his eyes, were results of exhaustion, malnutrition and being exposed to cold and rain, more than of any specific injury. Still, he wasn't sure if it was good or bad. His friend seemed to be in no mental state to fight the sickness, whatever the cause. The younger man grimly noted that Athos lost so much weight, he was barely heavier than him anymore.
"I have to clean some of those," d'Artagnan warned, taking a bottle of brandy that Constance brought. "We have a pain draught, though it's not very strong. Do you want it?"
Athos shook his head, not opening his eyes.
Save the occasional gasps, he remained almost unmoved through the following two hours, during which d'Artagnan was cleaning his wounds, poking at his bones, bandaging his ribs, changing his position and doing several other potentially painful things. That, understandably, made the Gascon even more worried.
"I don't remember you as such a good patient," he remarked sadly, as he wiped the sweat off his friend's face and pulled the blankets up to his torso. "Do you think you will be able to drink a bit of broth? Your body needs it."
Athos, feeling anything but hungry, was about to refuse. But it didn't make any difference to him. His friends, however long he hadn't seen them, were the only good thing left in his life. D'Artagnan just gave him a tiny ray of hope, he didn't need to upset him any further. So, hesitantly, he nodded.
The younger man beamed at him, raising his friend's head and bringing the cup with broth to his lips. Athos shot him an annoyed "I could do it myself" look, which made the captain smirk. "That's more like you."
A few minutes later, d'Artagnan readjusted the pillows and blankets and moved the chair closer to the bed. After sitting down, he wetted a fresh cloth and lightly pressed it to his friend's forehead. "Try to sleep now, Athos."
"Could you bring me something from my bag? A ring on a chainlet, it's in the pocket," the older man whispered, quickly turning his eyes away after.
When d'Artagnan was rummaging through the bag, Athos spoke again, his voice strained. He was grateful that his friend didn't ask any questions, but somehow, it made him feel that he wanted to tell him everything.
"Thank you, d'Artagnan. I haven't been around anyone… who gave the slightest damn since the day Sylvie died."
The Gascon grabbed the ring and was near the bed in a heartbeat, his eyes welling up with tears of grief and compassion. He perched on the edge, took Athos's hand and wrapped his mentor's calloused fingers around the ring. Then, he held it in his own two hands. Of course, he realized that his friend's state had something to do with Sylvie. But he prayed it was something… less definite.
"You know," Athos murmured in a barely audible voice, "when dreaming about the day our child will be born, one of the things I always thought about was writing to you and telling you everything, even inviting you to visit…"
D'Artagnan made an attempt to smile, but it didn't work. Absentmindedly, he started to rub circles on the older man's hand with his thumb.
"… But I couldn't bring myself to write to you about… about what happened. It was nearly time, we were… so happy. And one day, just like that, she was gone… n-not gone, killed. T-they were killed. B-because of me. And I… I had to… I w-went… T-hey made me…" Athos remained calm until the last part, during which he broke down. As a few tears escaped his eyes, his face grew even paler, and he started gasping for breath.
"Shhh, Athos, breathe," d'Artagnan soothed, laying one hand on the older man's chest. "Just breathe. You will tell me later. Now, rest."
It took a while for Athos to calm down, but eventually, he let his eyelids close. His friend hoped that tiredness would catch up with him quickly. However, it seemed like the emotions he stirred were too strong. From time to time, his eyes fluttered open, and he looked around anxiously. He also kept tossing despite his aching body.
D'Artagnan resumed his place on the chair, swallowing the tears of his own. How was it fair that his best friend, the person who did so much for him, saved so many lives, had to endure so much suffering? The younger man wetted the cloth again and carefully put it back on his mentor's forehead. Then, he moved his hand a little further up, calmingly stroking his former captain's hair.
"I'm so sorry, Athos. About what happened and that you were on your own for so long. But you aren't anymore. Please, sleep. I will stay with you," the Gascon assured quietly.
Athos opened his mouth to say that d'Artagnan could go to his room as he would be fine. But he knew that, for once, he wouldn't. Not after spending so many nights trying to stay alert at all times, not after being kidnapped with nobody looking for him, and a big part of him wishing for death to come. And more than anything, not while being haunted by the faces of his lost loved ones, every night for the last four months. So, he closed his mouth and instead opened his eyes one last time, trying to express how grateful he was. Then, he finally allowed the brotherly touch and comforting words to lull him to sleep.
A few hours later, the sky already turned grey, allowing some light to sip into the room. D'Artagnan walked to the window and pulled the curtains, worried that Athos's sleep would be disturbed. As tired as he felt back in the office, he forgot all about it the minute he saw his friend in need. While watching over him, he couldn't stop thinking about how himself and Aramis were enjoying a relatively easy life in Paris, eating dinners with the queen and teaching youngsters, when one of their brothers was on the battlefront, and another lost almost everything. The idea to split up seemed sensible at the time, but he wasn't so sure anymore. He also wondered who would want to hurt Athos so mercilessly, assuming it really was about him.
Soon, he found out that the daylight wasn't needed to interrupt his mentor's rest. The latter started trashing, hands tightly gripping the blanket. He was sweating even more profusely than before.
"Sylvie! No! Please! Anne!" his anguished screams made Constance shot up in bed and broke d'Artagnan's heart, even if he was also confused as to why his friend was having nightmares about Milady de Winter.
"Athos! Athos! Wake up!" the younger man repeated several times, shaking his mentor by the shoulders.
Initially, there was no reaction, but eventually, he was met with a pair of green eyes, clouded by confusion and pain.
"Hey. You are safe, at the garrison. You came earlier in the night, remember?" d'Artagnan explained with a concerned smile, still grasping his friend's shoulders.
Athos nodded and turned his head away. Suddenly, his body convulsed, and his face turned slightly greenish. He put a hand on his stomach. D'Artagnan didn't need more signals. He helped his friend sit up, supporting him from the side and put an empty bowl in his lap. As his mentor purged, tremors running through his body, the younger man kept him in a steady but gentle grip, his other hand holding a cool rug to the back of his patient's neck.
When Athos was finished, d'Artagnan temporarily put the bowl on the chair, letting the former captain sag against his chest. It was worrisome that the nightmares could have such a strong physical impact, as they could disrupt the healing process. D'Artagnan pushed the thought aside and used the cloth to wipe his friend's face. After he put it away, he felt Athos grabbing his hand.
"I'm here, brother. What is it?" the Gascon asked softly.
"I'd like… I need to tell you now, at least some of it," Athos declared in a tired, slightly hazed voice.
"I'm listening, then," d'Artagnan replied, readjusting his hold on his mentor and squeezing his hand reassuringly. He didn't think it was a good idea, but he realized that the decision shouldn't be his to make.
Athos took in a shaky breath. "One evening, I… I went to the tavern with a few villagers. I didn't even want to, I preferred to spend my time with Sylvie. But it was the fifth time they asked, and I didn't want to offend them," the older musketeer paused to gather his strength.
"I… I don't think it was one of t-them. But… s-someone drugged me," Athos buried his face deeper in d'Artagnan's chest, forcing the younger man to drop his head so he could hear. "The next thing I remember… I-I was back in our h-house, chained to the pillar. And they tortured her, beat her… until sh-she died," a soft whimper escaped Athos's lips as he took another minute to compose himself, while terrified d'Artagnan started moving his hand up and down his friend's bruised back, cautious not to hurt him.
"I-I saw every s-second of it. I wanted to close my eyes, so, so badly. But it would be l-like leaving her all alone. And I k-kicked and pulled, and t-tried everything. Really, d'Artagnan, I t-tried. B-but I couldn't g-get free," Athos took a longer break, his breathing irregular, shame and sadness burning under his eyelids and making his lips dry.
The younger man felt tears streaming down his face. How could anyone be so vicious? Why would anyone hate Athos, a good, honorable man, so much? He held his friend tighter, though still tenderly enough not to cause him pain.
"Of course. I know you did everything. And I'm sure she knew it, too," d'Artagnan whispered and kissed the top of his friend's head.
"Thank you, but that's not all," Athos argued, his voice steadier. "After they were done, they knocked me out…. And freed me. I don't remember if I mentioned it in my letters, probably not, but Anne moved to our village not long after us, mostly to bug me.
"She did seem to get the message after a few months. Still, my first thought was that she was to blame. I went to her house, we argued. I don't even know why, I could see in her eyes that she had nothing to do with it," Athos admitted.
Unknowingly to him, d'Artagnan frowned. If Milady wasn't responsible, there was only one reason to scream her name. The Gascon felt the chill going down his spine.
"Then, she actually tried to comfort me… But it felt wrong coming from her. Or maybe I wasn't ready to be comforted. I pushed her away, she got up. Next I know…" Athos gulped loudly, „She fell to the floor, dead. An arrow went through the window, straight to her heart. With a letter attached."
There was a rather long silence, through which d'Artagnan waited patiently, rubbing his friend's arms and back, and silently mourning Athos's loss.
"It was for me. It said that losing everyone I love and everything I care about is what I deserve and that they are not finished with me yet. You know, I was over Anne, but as insufferable as she was, I did care about her.
"To this day, I don't have the slightest idea who is behind this. The only thing I can be certain of is that the only two women I ever loved are dead because of me. And… my child, b-before he or she c-could even see the w-world," the older man stuttered again at the end.
"I wanted to die, I was sure it was what I deserved. I was following a false lead when they caught me. How I wished they would kill me, but they only humiliated me. I thought I should just finish it myself… But then I remembered you, Aramis, and Porthos. I know we parted ways, but you are still my family, I couldn't… couldn't abandon you like that. I did not want to involve you either, I am sorry, but-" his rant made him run out of breath, which was now coming in irregular gasps.
Not releasing his mentor from his embrace, d'Artagnan lowered his head even further, so his mouth was almost next to his friend's ear. "Thank heavens you came, Athos. None of this is your fault, and I will make sure to repeat it until you believe me. It makes me sick that someone made you, a good man, my dearest friend and my brother, go through that."
Athos looked up to meet d'Artagnan's eyes. He attempted to thank him but coughed instead. With a worried sigh, the younger man put a hand to his mentor's forehead.
„You wore yourself out, your fever is up. Try to get some more sleep, I will be here if the nightmares come back," d'Artagnan assured, seeing Athos's reluctance at the mention of rest. "You are home now, we will take care of you. Like you always took care of us."
At his friend's gentle words, Athos obeyed and closed his eyes. Instead of lowering him back onto the pillows, d'Artagnan pulled one of the blankets up to the older man's neck and started carefully rocking him back and forth. It was almost unfathomable that with all those people who cared about Athos, he wasn't consoled even once after Sylvie and Anne died. Four months without a kind word or gesture to soothe his grief and pain. No wonder that for the first time since they met, his mentor actually sought those. And d'Artagnan, battling the images of Sylvie and Anne dying, as well as those of distraught Athos wandering around France, vowed to himself to give the older man all the comfort he could. And so, he rocked his friend to sleep, murmuring consoling nonsense into his ear.
Several hours passed. The rain was pounding outside again, its sound lulling d'Artagnan to light slumber. Sometime before, Constance quietly brought him breakfast. Before leaving, she perched on the bed and gave Athos a quick kiss on the forehead, ignoring the squeeze she felt in her chest upon remembering his screams from last night.
She wanted to ask her husband if he thought Athos would ever be alright, after losing his family so abruptly, when he thought that he was getting them to safety. But she bit her tongue. There would be time for questions later. Instead, Constance gave her husband a warm hug, knowing that if one of The Inseparables got hurt, others were hurting too. Even if they got separated for a bit. Then, she told him to find her if any of them needed anything and glanced one last time at the two friends. At the moment, Athos's head was laying on d'Artagnan's lap, a cloth pressed to his pale, bruised face. She sighed and left the room to attend to her daily tasks.
Eventually, the Gascon was brutally awakened from his nap by none other than Aramis charging into his rooms.
"d'Artagnan! I would gladly overlook a rare incident of you ignoring your duties and let you two lovebirds have a nice morning together. However, I have news that can't wait!"
There was a sound of someone getting smacked with a dishtowel, followed by Constance's hushed murmur. Seconds later, Aramis run into the room, instantly falling to his knees next to the bed. He noticed a pair of sleepy green eyes staring at him.
"Welcome home, Athos. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you," the First Minister said softly, grabbing his friend's hand and bringing it to his lips.
"Don't worry about it. I'm glad to see you, Aramis," the older man replied hoarsely, trying to raise himself to give his friend a hug. Aramis quickly gathered him in his arms, subconsciously taking account of his injuries.
"What's the big news, then?" Athos croaked tiredly, as the medic wordlessly moved to examine the injured man.
"Oh, yes! Porthos is coming home, too," Aramis beamed. Seeing his former captain's worried expression, he added, "Relax, he isn't hurt. He discovered several traitors within their ranks and requested an investigation and trials."
"When?" d'Artagnan asked cheerfully. Traitors were not a great cause to celebrate, but he couldn't help feeling exhilarated by the news of another brother coming home.
"In two weeks."
After Aramis finished his examination, concluding that their youngest brother indeed picked some skills from him and did a solid job with assessing and treating the injuries, they got some more broth and water into their patient, and helped him use the chamber pot. Soon, it turned out that Athos needed more sleep, as his eyes became unfocused, he started slurring and overall, sounding and looking more and more confused.
"Rest, mon ami. We won't leave your side," Aramis smiled at him as he tucked him in.
Athos returned the smile, his head next to d'Artagnan's thigh, touching it slightly. "You dn't ve to, I know you ve things t-to do," he mumbled, even though he really wanted them to stay.
The Gascon chuckled, running his fingers through his friend's greasy locks again. "Do not insult us, Athos. We know our priorities."
"What happened, d'Artagnan? And why on earth didn't you send for me?" Aramis inquired quietly, as soon as he knew Athos was asleep. For some reason, he chose to stay on the floor, holding onto his injured friend's wrist, his fancy clothing sweeping his younger brother's floor.
"I'm sorry, Aramis, I wanted to. He asked me to wait until today. The state he was in yesterday, I think he wanted as few people to see him as possible. I heard his horse thanks to staying late to finish your report, so I pretty much stumbled upon him," d'Artagnan explained in a hushed voice.
"Right, of course, I understand. You took good care of him," the minister admitted, his lips curving into a reassuring smile.
He realized that what his friend said was part truth, part courtesy. Each member of their little group was likely to hide his pain, whether physical or emotional, until it grew so unbearable that it could only explode dangerously. After all, they were soldiers. So, he didn't need convincing to believe that Athos didn't want to share his dark hour with more people than necessary, and even one witness was hard to swallow.
However, Aramis also knew that it wasn't accurate that d'Artagnan just happened to appear on his way. The reason why Athos came to the garrison, not the palace, was more than a sheer force of habit. He must have been seeking their youngest brother, as Porthos would surely come banging on Aramis' door, no matter how hard it would be to get through the guards in the palace. They would all give their lives for each other, each trusting any of the four as much as they trusted themselves, or more. They were all connected by inexplicable bond, which seemed to go deeper than blood, deeper than battles fought together or shared griefs and joys; stronger than anything that could be put into words.
Yet still, the connection between Athos and d'Artagnan, like the one between Aramis and Porthos, went one step further. And that was alright. In fact, it all worked out perfectly, as long as they all stuck together. Soon, they were to reunite, and the minister prayed that between the four of them, they would be able to solve whatever was going on.
"You do realize you only answered one of my questions?" Aramis added with a smirk, pulling his left knee to his chest and resting his elbow on it.
The comment was partially intended to lighten up the mood, but d'Artagnan's face fell. "I don't really know how he got injured. I don't think it all happened at once, the stab wound is older," Aramis nodded, signaling he noticed that much. "But there are other things… It's not such a good idea to talk about them now, with him sleeping here. But he went through hell, Aramis. I can't even begin to imagine… The point is, we have to help him."
d'Artagnan looked down at his best friend's sleeping form, once again bringing the cloth to his radiating forehead. Thankfully, the fever didn't seem dangerously high.
"Of course, we will do whatever it takes. You know that," Aramis nudged the Gascon's leg with his right shoe. Seeing that it was impossible to cheer him up, he grew more serious himself, sensing and fearing what it meant. "Just tell me one thing… Sylvie?"
d'Artagnan bit his lip and shook his head.
"The baby?" the minister asked hopefully, but the look on the younger man's face was enough of an answer.
Aramis gulped and shifted himself, bringing his forehead to the hand he was holding. "So unfair… he lost so many people already," he murmured, to which d'Artagnan could only nod, trying not to tear up again at the sight of tears in his friend's eyes.
A few moments passed, after which Aramis jumped to his feet.
"Where are you going?" d'Artagnan asked, confused.
"Well, someone has to excuse us from work for the next few days. France can wait… Mind you, considering that we are in the middle of the war, it's only a figure of speech. But I will have our paperwork brought here and tell everyone to pass all the urgent matters through Constance. Will she be okay with that?" the minister replied, brushing off his clothes.
"I think so, though it would be best to let her know," the captain suggested. "And thank you."
Aramis grinned at him. "I will be back in a few minutes. As soon as I find someone capable of spreading the news through the garrison and the palace."
The younger man chuckled, wondering if it was just his impression or had his friend's head grown bigger.
Before disappearing behind the door, Aramis stuck his head back in and whispered, "And d'Artagnan? Try not to worry too much. I don't know the whole story, but I know he will get through it. We will, together."
Not too big, then, the Gascon thought, feeling the warmth of his friend's words melt some of his anxiety.