The cough was wet, rough and shook them awake.
Darkness clung to the trees, almost tangible in its completeness. Athos shifted upright immediately, turning from the hypnotizing dance of the fire and focusing on d'Artagnan. Aramis sat forward and Porthos grumbled, turning away from where his head had been pillowed on d'Artagnan's legs and curling up once more on the ground. Luca barely stirred.
d'Artagnan coughed again, then groaned, the blankets slipping as he shifted to wrap his arm around his bruised ribs.
"d'Artagnan?" Aramis whispered, turning quickly and resting his hand on the back of the young man's neck.
"Wh-what…?" d'Artagnan rasped, blinking heavy-lidded eyes toward the firelight.
Athos shifted to his knees as Aramis eased d'Artagnan to his back, alleviating the pressure on his ribs.
"Easy," Aramis soothed. "Just breathe, d'Artagnan."
d'Artagnan winced, swallowing roughly, then broke into a fit of coughing once more, curling up around himself. Aramis exchanged a glance with Athos. It didn't take any knowledge of medicine to know that cough was not good. Athos moved to help d'Artagnan sit forward, hearing the liquid rasp of his breath rattling in his lungs. At Aramis' nod, Athos moved around behind d'Artagnan, pulling the lad up against him and giving him something to lean on.
Gasping, spent, d'Artagnan dropped his head back against Athos' shoulder, his eyes squeezed closed.
"I have something in my saddle bag that may help," Aramis said.
Athos nodded, waiting as the night swallowed Aramis completely for a moment before he returned with a pouch and dropped back down next to the fire.
d'Artagnan rolled his head to the side, blinking slowly. "Ar-Aramis?" he called, his low voice like crushed rock against the quiet of the night.
"Yes?" Aramis shot a look at him over his shoulder.
"I am," Aramis said, smiling, this time turning to face him a bit more fully. "And what's more, so are you."
"Here," Athos said, putting a hand on d'Artagnan's arm.
d'Artagnan couldn't turn his head to face him, but reached up and touched his face, dropping his hand again as though it was simply too heavy. "S-saw you hit."
"Aramis had me well in hand," Athos assured him.
"Luca? P-Porthos?" d'Artagnan continued his roll-call, coughing as he spoke.
"They are good, d'Artagnan," Athos said, curling a bit closer to act as a brace while tremors of pain slipped through d'Artagnan once more. "You did well. You held yourself as a true Musketeer."
Aramis continued heating what was left of the water he'd gathered earlier, dividing his attention between d'Artagnan and the fire. Both men saw the young man relax slightly in response to Athos' rare praise. The water heated, Aramis poured a fine green powder into a mug and mixed it with the hot water, nodding to Athos to help him hold d'Artagnan's head still.
"Drink this," Aramis ordered. "It will help."
Eyes still closed, d'Artagnan opened his mouth when Aramis leaned the edge of the mug on his lips and swallowed gingerly as the concoction was poured into him. He gasped when it was finished, keeping his head back against Athos' shoulder. After a moment he blinked his eyes open, staring at Aramis through lashes tented by tears.
"What is it?" Athos asked worriedly, seeing the naked emotion on their young friend's face.
"You're alive," d'Artagnan whispered. "I was afraid…."
Aramis rested a hand on his shoulder. "As were we," he said in return, and Athos saw his friend's chin shake briefly then steady as he was able to bring himself in check. "How do you feel?"
"Terrible," d'Artagnan replied honestly, his eyes beginning to clear. "What happened to me?"
"Do you remember the river?" Athos asked.
d'Artagnan closed his eyes tightly, drawing his bottom lip in and catching it between his teeth before exhaling shakily. "I do now."
"Your body was too cold," Aramis told him. "We thought…," he shook his head. "No matter. You are back." He darted his eyes up to Athos who nodded in understanding.
Now the boy was back. Now they could take a relieved breath. Shifting against Athos, d'Artagnan winced, his arm wrapped around his side instinctively.
"Shall I treat your bruises?" Aramis asked.
"I'd rather you didn't," d'Artagnan muttered. "Hurts bad enough as it is."
"It can wait," Aramis nodded, rubbing a hand through his hair with a sigh, his shoulders bowing with relief and weariness.
"Try to rest," Athos implored both of them. "We will make a plan in the morning."
d'Artagnan sank into sleep shockingly fast, though every few minutes he'd cough again, sounding as though his body was trying to wring whatever was left of the river water from his system. Athos leaned back against the tree acting as their wind break and kept d'Artagnan upright against him, easing the effort of coughing.
Aramis lay down across from Porthos, both of them supporting their heads with bent arms. The night seemed to lag, the river muting any sounds of animals or other predators. Alone with his thoughts, Athos found he had to keep a firm hold of their direction. With a mission to distract him, or when there was nothing but battle chaos around him, it was so simple to convince himself to forget about the past.
But it had been more than forty hours since he'd truly slept and he could feel memories drawing close. His body practically wept from exhaustion, his heartbeat was trapped in his arm, and his friends were lying wounded and weary around him. Not only was it difficult to maintain discipline over his memories, he felt as though he could actually see them once again.
Anne in white, the rope falling around her neck, her green eyes pinned to him with sorrow and accusation. Thomas gasping on the floor of the chalet, blood pooling in his mouth, his dark eyes wide, terrified, and confused. Their voices echoed in his mind, calling his name with such clarity he'd jerk his head toward the sound, willing to believe for a fraction of a second that the voice had not been in his mind, but real, tangible, present.
d'Artagnan coughed roughly, the force of it pulling the young man's body forward slightly, his shoulders and back shaking from the effort. Athos braced his arms, waiting for the fit to subside and d'Artagnan to slump back against him. It didn't seem that the young Gascon was aware that he was actually lying on Athos; he simply sought relief from the pain that cut through him each time his sleep was disturbed. Athos made sure he was covered by blankets when he eased back, keeping him warm as best he could, remembering the strength in him as he'd hauled Athos from the burning house and well away from the flames before releasing him.
Since the night of the fire, he hadn't let himself examine the truth. In fact, he'd attempted to drown it completely.
But Anne was alive. He'd survived five years in this world without her, but it had been a lie. She had survived the hanging and had returned to finish him. Paying him back for the hell he'd put her through, clearly.
And then there was Thomas.
His beloved brother murdered at her hands with nothing but lies to explain why. He'd loved Thomas, more than anyone. Until Anne, his brother had been the only person in his life to see him as he was, not as he was supposed to be. See him plainly and still to look at him with a light in his eyes.
Anne took that from him. Even death could not atone for such a sin.
His thoughts were still on Thomas as the world woke up around him. He blinked burning eyes at the coming day, feeling a strength soak into him that had been sapped during the long night. He was always better in the day; the night exposed his weaknesses too clearly.
As he watched, the sunlight peeled back the cloak of night, spilling pale, gray light over the landscape that surrounded their still-burning fire. The air smelled different at dawn, as if the light made it new. Despite the severity of their situation, he couldn't help but notice the peace around them: the twisted canopy of branches, the moss-covered base of the trees, the velvet cover of grass beneath them.
The symphony of the river simply added to the illusion of serenity; no one would guess the amount of death that had been visited up on this place the day before.
Athos remained still, waiting for his companions to wake. Porthos was first. He came awake abruptly, not quite alert, but working to get there within moments of opening his eyes. Athos heard his sharp inhale and waited until he pushed himself upright on stiff arms before calling his name.
Shifting Luca carefully to the side, Porthos looked around, seeing d'Artagnan sleeping upright against Athos, his young face pulled into a pained frown.
"d'Artagnan?" he asked immediately.
"Woke during the night," Athos told him.
"Thank God," Porthos exhaled, rubbing his face, his eyes still puffy from sleep. "Need a minute," he groaned, gaining his feet and heading off into the trees.
Aramis was next. He said nothing, but turned to help Athos ease d'Artagnan down so that the other man could stand and take care of his morning needs. By the time Athos and Porthos had returned, d'Artagnan was awake, weakly leaning against the tree, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, clutched at his chest with one hand, another covering his legs.
"'s good to see you awake," Porthos grinned.
"I'd say it's good to be awake," d'Artagnan croaked, "if it didn't hurt like hell."
Porthos winced. "Christ, lad, you sound wrecked."
"Do I? Huh." d'Artagnan arched a brow, then coughed roughly, causing all of them to wince.
Aramis woke Luca and the boy lunged at d'Artagnan the moment he saw him awake, Porthos catching him just in time.
"Whoa, now, go easy on 'im," Porthos warned. He set Luca on his feet and he boy crouched carefully next to d'Artagnan, touching his lips with the tips of his fingers.
"I'm better, Luca," d'Artagnan said against the boys fingers.
Luca reached up and tugged at his chin. When d'Artagnan frowned in confusion, he tugged again, his eyes never leaving d'Artagnan's face.
"Father," Aramis translated.
Athos looked over in surprise.
"You spoke of your Father in the night," Aramis explained.
"I did?" d'Artagnan rasped, looking troubled at the thought. "I don't…remember."
"It wasn't much," Aramis assured him. "And…," he looked down at his hands, his brow pulling together. "It hasn't been long since you lost him, d'Artagnan. It should come as no surprise that you'd think of him when in pain."
d'Artagnan looked away, not replying. As Porthos cared for Luca and started retrieving food for a morning meal, Athos studied Aramis. His friend was troubled by something, but it wasn't clear what, and he simply wasn't the type to ask. Porthos would get it from him, eventually. Athos knew he'd simply have to wait, and be ready.
"Where are my pants?" d'Artagnan asked suddenly, the blankets that had been cocooning him through the night, twisted around his legs.
"They should be dry by now," Athos replied. "Along with your jacket. Will you need help?"
"No!" d'Artagnan replied immediately, face coloring slightly with embarrassment.
Athos mused that it wasn't the time inform the lad that he'd been stripped bare in a desperate attempt to warm him. He handed d'Artagnan his clothes and then waited as he worked to extricate himself from the blankets and pull on the pants without actually standing. In moments, though, it was clear d'Artagnan was fighting a losing battle. Sighing, Athos stood, moving over to stand in front of him, and waited until d'Artagnan slumped in defeat.
"Allow me to help you," he said quietly.
d'Artagnan nodded dejectedly. Athos grasped his outstretched hand, then when d'Artagnan wavered while gaining his feet, gripped his opposite wrist.
"Ah!" d'Artagnan gasped. "Mind the arm."
"What happened to your arm?" Aramis frowned.
"The bald man," d'Artagnan started, gripping Athos for support as another coughing fit doubled him for a moment. "The man from the alley," he continued, his voice paper-thin. "He was one of them. Caught me wrong with his sword."
Athos braced d'Artagnan as he laced his breeches, leaving his shirt loose for the moment. Aramis joined them, pulling up d'Artagnan's sleeve to expose the long, shallow cut along his forearm.
"How did I miss this?"
"You had more pressing matters to attend to," Athos said.
"Such as trying to keep me alive," d'Artagnan chimed in, turning his hand so that he grasped Aramis' wrist, tightly. "Thank you, Aramis."
The emotion in his voice was practically a living thing, stepping forward and standing between them, demanding to be recognized. Aramis didn't raise his eyes, and Athos saw Porthos move in from the periphery to join them, putting his hand on Aramis' shoulder. They were once more connected, silent with recognition of the moment.
"We're a brotherhood," Porthos said, his voice falling into the quiet and rippling through each of them. "Equality. Liberty. Fraternity." He dropped his chin so that his eyes met d'Artagnan's squarely. "You're part of us, lad."
d'Artagnan's smile was fragile, his eyes large and hopeful.
"Go with Aramis," Athos ordered, braking the moment when he felt d'Artagnan's grip on his shoulder begin to tremble. "Clean up a bit and then get some food." He helped d'Artagnan pull on his boots.
Aramis slipped d'Artagnan's arm across his shoulder and they headed for a cluster of trees. Luca started to get up to follow, but Porthos put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, easing him back down on the log where he'd been sitting, then rubbed his hair reassuringly. He began putting Luca to work repairing a strap on his pauldron that had been damaged the day prior; after seeing the boy's deft fingers create the folded paper shapes, Athos silently commended Porthos for keeping the boy distracted with a task where he'd shown skill.
"'e's not going to be able to ride, Athos," Porthos stated from the opposite side of the fire. "Not today at least."
"I know," Athos nodded.
He'd been trying to come up with a plan to distract himself from the dark thoughts that waited until night to press close, but his brain was weary and logic, his constant companion, had chosen elsewhere to linger. Porthos seemed to be struggling under the same burden, a soldier's worry rolling from him in waves.
"How many were there?" Porthos asked, rubbing the top of his head with the flat of his hand, his brow furrowed in thought.
Athos sighed, reaching for his harquebus and the cleaning oil he always kept in his saddle bag. "I counted at least seven. Three on the road, four here in the clearing."
"There were five," Porthos corrected.
"One must have gone into the river with d'Artagnan," Athos nodded, rubbing the barrel of his weapon with the oiled cloth.
"Think it was all for the boy?" Porthos asked. Off Athos' nod, he continued, "'as me wonderin' how many went after the other lot."
"Or if any of them did," Athos replied quietly. "How many horses have we left?"
"Three," Porthos replied, looking to where they'd hobbled their mounts.
"Four," came Aramis' voice.
Athos turned to see Aramis leading a horse – not one of theirs, but at this point it hardly mattered – d'Artagnan's arm still draped over his shoulder. Luca noticed the shift in their attention and looked up to see the others approach. Before Porthos could stop him, the boy was on his feet and loping toward Aramis, holding out his hand for the reins.
Aramis smiled, handed the horse over to Luca and rubbed the boy's blond hair affectionately. Porthos helped Luca unsaddle and feed the additional mount as Aramis eased d'Artagnan back down on the bedroll he'd occupied during the night. The young man's face was a frightening shade of grey and there was a sheen of sweat running along his hairline and across his upper lip. It took him several moments to open his eyes after he'd settled.
"I cannot remember ever feeling quite so dreadful," he confessed.
Athos almost offered him a small smile. "You didn't take sick as a child?" he asked, working to distract him as Aramis readied materials, clearly intent on seeing to d'Artagnan's other injuries whether the lad was ready for him to or not.
d'Artagnan shook his head. "Never."
He coughed, hard, a groan of helpless pain slipping out at the end of the fit as he held his ribs tight. He took the mug that Aramis offered without complaint, barely grimacing as he drank whatever herbal concoction the other man had provided him.
"Broke my arm once," he continued.
"How did you manage that?" Aramis inquired.
"Came off a horse. Wasn't supposed to be riding it."
"How old were you?"
"Eleven," d'Artagnan croaked, trying in vain to suppress anther coughing fit.
"Before I became a soldier," Aramis said as he gently lifted d'Artagnan's shirt to expose the mottled collection of bruising crossing his chest, "the worst injury I sustained was gash on my leg." He applied the strong-smelling witch hazel with practiced hands as he spoke, then began to wrap d'Artagnan's ribs, bracing the weakened bone against movement. "Treating that is where I learned how to apply needlework to wounds."
"Surely you didn't mend it yourself?" Athos exclaimed.
Aramis shook his head, his lips tipping up in a secret smile.
"Tell 'im how you got the gash in the first place," Porthos chimed in, having re-joined them.
"Jumping from a window."
"This wouldn't have anything to do with a woman, would it?" d'Artagnan asked.
"Full marks for you," Aramis grinned.
"How old were you?"
"I was eighteen," Aramis replied, his grin widening. "Old enough to know better…too young to care."
Finished with d'Artagnan's ribs, Aramis moved to clean the cuts on his arm and face.
"What of you, Porthos?" d'Artagnan inquired.
"I was a menace," Porthos chuckled.
Athos smiled a bit at that, moving from cleaning his harquebus to Aramis' musket. He could practically hear his father's stern voice repeating, respect your weapon and it will respect you. Pausing a moment, he realized he hadn't thought of his father with such affection in quite some time.
"How so?" d'Artagnan pressed, his voice tight as he worked to direct his attention anywhere other than himself at the moment.
"Well, I wasn't just told how far one rooftop was from another, lad," Porthos tipped his chin forward, eyebrow raised.
"I was a sickly child," Athos replied, remembering. "My mother was always completely certain they were going to lose me to one fever or another."
"And yet, here you are," Aramis said, dropping a blanket around d'Artagnan's shoulders and sitting back, satisfied. "Taking shots to the shoulder and striding confidently forward."
"Indeed," Athos replied, waving Aramis off when the man tried to check his bandage. It hadn't started bleeding again and wasn't paining him unduly. He'd just as soon keep it that way.
"Are you cleaning those to leave them here with me?" d'Artagnan asked suddenly.
Athos looked over at him, taken completely by surprise at the question. d'Artagnan was leaning against the tree, his head canted back, dark eyes studying Athos without expression.
"What are you talkin' about?" Porthos exclaimed. "Nobody's leavin' you."
"It's the only thing that makes sense," d'Artagnan countered, closing his eyes and pulling his lower lip in, his tongue darting to the cut there. "We still have a mission: get Luca to Toulouse. That hasn't changed because of an attack."
"You are in no condition to ride to Toulouse," Aramis argued, his brow furrowed with worry.
d'Artagnan opened his eyes, looking at him. "I know," he replied, his low voice taking on a rough edge that concerned Athos. "Which is why I asked if you were leaving the weapons for me."
"Getting Luca to Toulouse safely is our mission," Athos said, keeping his voice steady and detached. "Three of us have been wounded, and we are down a horse. I am not convinced those are the safest conditions under which to ride."
He saw Aramis tip his chin up. "As the only one of us with any medical training, such as it is, I agree. Porthos should not be riding quite yet with such a head wound."
"And Athos can't be expected to hold a horse and a weapon with that wound on 'is arm, if we're attacked on the road again," Porthos chimed in.
"I know what you're doing," d'Artagnan croaked. "It isn't necessary. I can protect myself."
"There is a truth you need to accept if you're ever to be a Musketeer, d'Artagnan," Athos said, setting the musket down and leaning forward. "We are stronger together than we could ever hope to be apart."
Porthos and Aramis nodded, silently. Luca looked up from his task, his eyes darting between the four men, clearly unsure what was transpiring, but recognizing the tension around him.
"What do you mean…if I am to be a Musketeer?" d'Artagnan asked slowly, the blanket shifted from his shoulders as he snaked an arm around his side.
Athos took a slow, steadying breath. He thought of Thomas, his sunlight, his innocence, his blood spilling on the floor. He thought of Anne, her betrayal, her sorrow, her body falling to the end of a rope. He thought of Porthos and Aramis and the second chance they'd offered him through their unity. And he thought of d'Artagnan, the fire, passion, and pain that bled from him starting the moment they'd met.
Either fight me or die on your knees; I don't care which.
He reached behind him and withdrew his dagger, watching d'Artagnan's eyes widen in surprise.
"My father gave me two things in this life," Athos said, his voice pitched low, his eyes on the blade. "A title and this dagger. I used to imagine, after he died, that I could still feel the heat of his hand on the hilt when I grasped it."
"How-?" d'Artagnan gaped. "The man…the one who took it…he fell in the river with me."
Athos lifted the blade, then shifted his eyes to the riverbank. He could hear the water even if he couldn't see it from this angle. "He pulled it on you, yes?"
"Then he must have dropped it when he fell," Athos replied. "I am quite happy to have it back. Because it reminds me of something."
Porthos and Aramis sat completely still, watching him. He could feel them waiting for him to come to his point, but neither begrudged him the time it took him to settle on the right words. He looked over at d'Artagnan, noting how the lad was sitting forward, the blanket having fallen to the ground behind him.
"It reminds me that we are each more than we seem, and we each have the potential to become more than we are."
d'Artagnan rolled his lower lip against his teeth, his eyes pinned to Athos.
"To become one of the King's Musketeers, you must have more than skill, more than desire," Athos continued, meeting d'Artagnan's eyes. "A recruit must be able to prove a lineage of nobility, which comes with a purse, or have a patron that will sponsor him. Until now, you've had neither."
Athos looked back down at the dagger's hilt, running his thumb over the small stamp of his family crest.
"What you had instead is a passion the likes of which we haven't seen in years," Athos said.
"Or…ever," Aramis offered with a shrug, his expression forced-casual.
"You have exhibited bravery and tenacity that exceeds your years." Athos endeavored to stay his course.
"Not to mention the fact that you're bleedin' stubborn and a bit reckless," Porthos remarked, earning an arched brow from Aramis. He hastened to add, "Which I like!"
d'Artagnan's expression had slipped from impassive to invested with heartbreaking speed. The hope Athos saw lighting the young man's eyes caught him at the throat and made it difficult for him to force the next words into existence. He gripped the hilt of his dagger, feeling the heat there.
"What I am attempting to say is that when we return to Paris," Athos leveled his eyes on d'Artagnan's, "I will inform Treville that I will be your patron and sponsor you as a recruit."
"Athos, I—" d'Artagnan's voice choked off, emotion swimming in his eyes. "I don't know what…. I mean…."
"The words you're looking for are thank you," Aramis said in a stage whisper.
"Th-thank you," d'Artagnan stuttered, the gratitude shimmering from him with such strength Athos knew for certain that if the boy could easily move, he would have crossed the space between them to embrace him. "I won't let you down."
"I believe you," Athos replied. "But I warn you: it will not be easy."
Porthos huffed. "What, because everything so far's been a Sunday stroll for 'im, yeah?"
"He does have a point," Aramis shrugged. "Since he's met us, d'Artagnan's been thrown in prison—"
"Nearly blown to bits—"
"Shot at, twice—"
"Beaten, nearly drown—"
"And practically frozen to death."
Athos watched the interplay between his two closest friends. "Are you through?"
Porthos and Aramis exchanged a glance, shrugging before looking back at him and nodding in unison.
"d'Artagnan," Athos turned to the young man once more, relieved to see he'd managed to get his emotions in hand. "There are rules we must follow that you will be subject to. You must do so without question. Soldiers follow orders," he said gravely, "even if it leads to their death. Do you understand?"
"Good. Because as the highest ranking soldier present, I am ordering us to take a day of rest," Athos continued. "And we will reassess the situation tomorrow, first light."
Porthos and Aramis chimed in immediately with a chorus of Agreed and Yes, sir. d'Artagnan simply nodded, his smile relieved, as he lay back against the tree. They set up a rotation to keep watch and gather more food and firewood.
Athos didn't argue too loudly when Aramis insisted he take the first rest rotation. His head was swimming from exhaustion. Had they pushed on, he was certain it would have been a race between himself and d'Artagnan to see who would keel over first.
d'Artagnan wasn't quite as accommodating when Aramis insisted he rest, but Athos decided he'd let the other man deal with that. He leaned back against one of the logs Porthos had rolled over to the fire circle, tipped his hat over his face, and closed his eyes. Sleep was swift to gather close and he didn't remember one dream.
However, one of his comrades wasn't so lucky.
After an undetermined amount of time, Athos was jarred from sleep by a harsh, ragged cry, cut off abruptly as someone – Aramis, by the sound – interceded to offer solace. Rather than moving his hat and interfering, Athos lay quietly, listening. It had been d'Artagnan, he realized, launching awake from a nightmare.
"You're here," Aramis was saying. "You're safe."
"F-felt so real," d'Artagnan gasped, apologizing in his next breath.
"None of us here can say we haven't survived the same," Aramis told him. "Do you wish to share it?"
"Can't…really remember it," d'Artagnan confessed, his breath stilted as he brought himself under control. "Just impressions. I was…alone. There was…death."
Athos waited for Aramis to reply, offering some sort of compassionate reassurance or validation. But the other man remained silent. It stretched for so long, Athos nearly peaked out from beneath his hat.
"I know what it feels like," Aramis said finally, his voice holding none of the light-hearted, jovial tone Athos normally associated with the marksman, "to suddenly find yourself inexplicably alone. It's difficult," Aramis cleared his throat, "to navigate your way back from that."
d'Artagnan didn't reply at first and Athos wondered if perhaps Aramis' empathy was off-base from d'Artagnan's fear.
"But…it's possible?" d'Artagnan asked, his voice so achingly young and needful of hope Athos nearly caught his breath.
"It's possible," Aramis replied, sounding a bit more like himself. "It's far from easy—"
"I don't need easy," d'Artagnan interrupted. "I just need possible."
"I recognized that in you the day you stormed into the garrison after Athos' head," Aramis replied, a smile evident in his voice. "You will do well in this life, d'Artagnan."
d'Artagnan didn't reply, but Athos felt the lad's relief from behind his closed eyes. He let himself slip back into slumber once more until Porthos shook him awake to eat the evening meal. As he sat up, shoving his hat from his face to his head, he realized they'd allowed him to sleep the entire day. When he asked them why, all he got in return were innocent blinks and non-committal shrugs. d'Artagnan's cough hadn't eased, but Aramis felt that he had plenty of his herbal remedy to get them through one more night.
As they prepared the rabbit Porthos had snared with the rest of the porridge from Athos' pack, d'Artagnan sat next to Luca watching intently as the boy took one of the rolling papers tucked into his vest and folded another swan. d'Artagnan was working to patiently emulate him, earning a sunny smile and a gentle pat on the cheek from Luca as he succeeded in one of the more intricate folds.
"They've been at that most of the afternoon," Porthos told him.
"Is he getting anywhere?" Athos asked dryly.
"He can hear you," d'Artagnan grumbled, and Athos winced at the wet rasp of his voice.
As he watched he realized that d'Artagnan was doing more than connecting with Luca, he was using the concentration required in folding the figures to control his breathing, and therefore his coughing. He lifted his eyebrows in surprise, glancing over at Porthos, who nodded, having recognized the same thing.
"Doubt 'e'll leave the life of a soldier to become an artisan," Porthos replied, "but he ain't bad." They speared the rabbit and hung it over a spit on the fire, Porthos musing, "I knew a boy like Luca when I was young. Most people avoided 'im."
"Why?" d'Artagnan asked, caught by surprise.
"'e was different. People are afraid of different."
"Not everyone," Athos remarked quietly, watching d'Artagnan's dark head bend close to Luca's blond one to observe a particular fold.
"No," Porthos replied, matching Athos' tone. "Not everyone."
The night passed without incident, the three men keeping their rotation. Aramis insisted on checking Athos' arm, repacking it with the poultice mixture. Thankfully, Athos managed to avoid passing out this time.
Athos slept fitfully, having too much rest during the day to sleep so soon again. He found himself wincing inwardly each time he heard d'Artagnan's heavy, rasping cough and peered at the lad as he wrapped an arm around his middle as if in an attempt to keep his ribcage in place. The lines that pain drew on d'Artagnan's young face gave testimony to the crisp whip of agony that cut through him each time the cough rattled his already wounded body.
He would need more than Aramis' herbs to heal from that frigid dunk in the river.
"Paris is closer than Toulouse," Aramis whispered to him from the dark as he prepared to relinquish his watch.
"He will want to see this through," Athos replied.
"I do not want his first mission as a recruit to be his last," Aramis muttered, jabbing a stick at the seemingly perpetual fire.
"Is it that dire?"
Aramis looked over at him, truth turning his eyes dark. "It may be, if we don't get him proper care."
Athos nodded, frowning as he crossed his arms over his chest and waited out the night. No memories visited him this time. No errant voices from his past or nightmarish images of death. The only thing filling his senses throughout the remainder of the night was the image of his friends in various states of restless sleep and the sound of d'Artagnan's rough breath.
When dawn broke for the second time in the clearing, Athos didn't note the newness of the air or the pearled quality of the light. Instead he saw this place for what it was: a trap. They had only selected it for their camp because it was where they'd found d'Artagnan.
There were no easy escape routes; they were up against a wall with the river. It would truly be the last place he would have selected if given a choice and was certainly not where they could continue to keep Luca safe. As soon as everyone woke, Athos knew, they would need to move out, regardless of how strong d'Artagnan was.
As if in direct response to Athos' thoughts, d'Artagnan stirred, pushing himself upright, his motion stiff, his face pulled into tight lines of discomfort. Without a word, and recognizing that Athos was watching him, d'Artagnan pulled on his boots and used the tree as support to help him gain his feet. He didn't reach for his jacket and in the grey of morning looked drawn and thin, standing in only his breeches and torn white shirt.
"I need to walk a bit," d'Artagnan said to him, his jaw set against any protests from Athos.
His eyes were clear and determined. Athos realized then that the lad had actually been awake for some time and had apparently only just worked up the strength to gain his feet. d'Artagnan was young, but he was far from stupid; he clearly recognized that one day's recovery was all he'd be allowed and if he couldn't ride, he put them all in danger.
"Take a weapon," Athos instructed, handing the young man one of his throwing knives.
d'Artagnan nodded, took the blade, and moved away from the camp as though his legs were made of glass. The moment he'd exited the safety of the fire, Athos saw Aramis' head come up. He looked over to Porthos and realized the other man was awake as well, lying with a heavy arm across the still-sleeping Luca.
No one moved. Athos couldn't say how they'd all known to wait, to listen, other than a soldier's intuition. They worked well as a unit. The first warning that d'Artagnan was no longer alone came roughly five minutes after the lad left camp. With a nod to his companions, Athos carefully drew his rapier and stood, moving toward the cluster of trees, keeping the shadows close to him.
From the corner of his eyes, he saw Aramis lift his musket and move over to take Porthos' place near Luca, resting the heavy barrel of the weapon on a raised log. He didn't see where Porthos had gotten off to, but he knew the man was close as he moved through the gloom.
After a moment, he saw d'Artagnan, standing loose-limbed and casual as though he faced dangerous foes daily. Athos stopped, using a tree as his shield, waiting for the opportune moment. Across from d'Artagnan stood three men, all of them roughly Porthos' size, dressed in black, the lower-half of their faces covered. Clearly from the same group who had attacked them the day prior. One held a harquebus on d'Artagnan, the other two had swords drawn.
"It seems you have the advantage," d'Artagnan remarked, his low voice bruising the morning.
He lifted his hands to shoulder-level, exposing the only weapon he'd brought. Part of Athos wanted to see the boy throw the blade and end one of the bandits, but he knew the moment he did so he'd be as good as dead.
"Been watching you lot for a day," said the man with the pistol. "Knew sooner or later one o' you'd be heading off on your own. Our luck it's the weakest of the group."
"What makes you think I'm the weakest?" d'Artagnan asked, his head tilting casually.
"You're joking, right? You've got bruises everywhere!" one of the swordsmen responded.
"You're a perceptive one," d'Artagnan remarked dryly. "Full marks."
"Their own fault we got you," growled the third man. "They been protecting you for a day and then they just let you wander out here alone."
d'Artagnan slowly lowered his hands, tipping his head forward, his voice sliding into a dangerous tone Athos barely recognized. "Who says I'm alone?"
The man with the harquebus brought his head up, looking around.
"Catching me was the last mistake you'll ever make," d'Artagnan continued in that same tone. "I'm far from the weakest; you've yet to see my true weapons. As we speak, three men who are basically little more than trained assassins, are preparing to kill you," d'Artagnan informed them, the confidence in his voice almost enough to tease up a smile on Athos.
The musket blast was deafening against the quiet of the morning. Before anyone could move, the man with the harquebus flew backwards, a hole where his heart used to be. The swordsmen startled, darting to the side, but d'Artagnan didn't blink.
One of the men brought his sword up to press the tip against d'Artagnan's neck, but before the other one could make a move, a shadow seemed to cross the interlocked tree branches above them with unnatural speed, leaping from one tree to the next, then swinging down from the branch directly above the men. It dropped onto the swordsman like a like some sort of avenging angel, the force of the fall enough to render the man unconscious.
Athos chose that moment to step forward, pressing his sword into the neck of the remaining bandit in a mirrored image of his position against d'Artagnan.
"Drop your sword," Athos demanded, his tone deadly serious.
The man complied instantly.
"Porthos," Athos called to the man who had been little more than a shadowy specter until that moment. Porthos straightened from his crouch over the man he'd landed on and turned, his eyes cold. "Tie him up," Athos ordered. "Make it as tight as you like."
Porthos grinned wickedly at the last man and grabbed a leather belt off his unconscious comrade before pulling the man's hands behind him and wrapping the leather around his painfully joined elbows. Once his upper arms were secure, Porthos pulled the cloth from his face, twisted it into a make-shift rope, and used it to tie the man's wrists.
"Aramis!" Athos called. "Is our charge secure?"
"He is," Aramis replied from where he stood guard back at the camp.
Athos looked over at d'Artagnan. "Little more than trained assassins?"
d'Artagnan shrugged, his grin sheepish. "I needed to make you sound dangerous. They already knew you were Musketeers."
Athos tilted his head, conceding that point. He looked over at Porthos. "Seems running across the rooftops of Paris has paid off, my friend."
"When did you see us?" Porthos asked d'Artagnan.
"I didn't," d'Artagnan replied, leveling his eyes on Porthos. "I just knew you'd be there."
"I knew he was bluffing," the bandit growled.
Porthos jerked roughly on the leather strap binding his arms at the elbows. The man gasped.
"What was that?" Porthos asked mildly.
"Nothing," the man wheezed.
"I want the name of the man who sent a dozen men after one small boy," Athos demanded, casually resting the tip of his sword on the underside of the bandit's chin once more.
"I don't work for any one man," the bandit replied, his thin lips trembling as Porthos tightened the strap a bit more. With the position of the binding and the right amount of pressure, Athos knew Porthos could easily dislocate the man's shoulders.
"You're no mercenary," Athos countered, tipping his head in doubt. "Your comrades worked for the Cardinal."
"Ask 'im then," the man grunted.
"Oh, I intend to," Athos replied, untroubled. "I simply wish to know who else I should pursue for prosecution. Unless," he lifted his brows as though curious, "you would prefer to be the one to stand trial—"
"Thibaut!" the man bellowed immediately. "Pierre Thibaut."
Athos exchanged a look with Porthos.
"You're saying the boy's father sent you?" Athos repeated, his tone incredulous.
"Don't know 'bout a father, just the name of the man what gave the orders," the bandit grunted in pain as Porthos tightened the strap.
Athos clenched his jaw. This changed the nature of the game. If Thibaut had sided with the Cardinal to silence his wife's potentially treasonous words and rebellious influence on the King, their work was far from completed by simply delivering Luca to his mother in Toulouse.
He looked at d'Artagnan and saw how the young man held himself painfully still. He looked at Porthos and caught the murderous gleam in his friend's eyes. Finally, he let his gaze rest on the bandit, syphoning all emotion from his eyes.
"Where are your horses?"
"Over that way," the man gasped, nodding to the West. The binding was clearly beginning to strain his arms.
"d'Artagnan," Athos said, calling the young man's attention from where he'd been spearing the bandit with his eyes. "Go sit with Luca. Porthos, walk our friend here to retrieve his horse and bring him back to camp. Aramis! Help me with this body."
"On my way," Aramis replied.
Within minutes, the dead man was disposed of, the unconscious man roused and tied, and the two bandits stripped of their boots, hats, and weapons. They placed one on the back of a horse, his hands tied to the saddle, the other they strapped to the stirrup where he would be forced to run or walk alongside the mount if he didn't want to be dragged.
"You can't just leave us here like this!" the bandit who'd been so quick to give up Thibaut protested.
"Not to worry," Aramis smiled encouragingly at him. "You won't be staying here."
He smacked the rump of the horse and the animal leapt forward, slowing only after the rider was able to ease him back and allow for a slower gait for his loudly complaining companion.
Athos turned back to their camp, noting that d'Artagnan had not been idle as they dealt with the bandits. He and Luca had readied their saddle bags with the cook ware, bedrolls, and medicinal supplies and had doused the fire. Athos saw that the young man was currently sitting on the edge of one log, trying to ease his arms stiffly into his jacket, sweat gathered along his brow.
Not asking him if he needed help – he knew what d'Artagnan's response would be – Athos crossed the clearing to crouch in front of their youngest and help him pull the jacket into place, lacing the doublet as d'Artagnan rested his trembling hands on either side of him.
"I can do this, Athos," d'Artagnan rasped, swallowing hard.
"I know you can," Athos replied.
He stood, offering d'Artagnan a hand and tried not to show any reaction when he felt the tremors shift through his young friend's thin frame. They made their way over to the horses, having secured one more from the last of the bandits. Aramis had saddled d'Artagnan's for him and as Porthos put Luca safely on his usual mount, taking one of the new ones for himself, Aramis helped d'Artagnan climb aboard his horse.
Athos waited, watching as d'Artagnan pressed a hand against his ribs, swallowing again has he worked to keep himself from coughing. He'd gone pale, his lips tight, eyes closed, but he was upright and steady. When he was able to open his eyes again, he looked to Athos and nodded.
"We stay at a walk as long as we can," Athos instructed them. "Eyes up, ears open. They've already sent a dozen men after Luca. If Talia's group has reached Toulouse safely, any bandits who went after her could head our way."
"Toulouse is a day's ride at a canter," Porthos pointed out. "We are already late."
"I'm hoping that will only encourage our men to turn back for us," Athos confessed.
They shifted their riding position. Porthos took point, d'Artagnan riding next to Luca, Aramis on d'Artagnan's other side, Athos covering the rear. For the first part of the morning, it seemed they might have worried for nothing. But then Athos saw d'Artagnan's shoulders begin to sag, his head bowing and snapping upright at irregular intervals, his coughing steadily increasing.
Without being told, Luca moved up to ride parallel with Porthos, and Athos took his place, overtly checking on d'Artagnan. The lad's eyes were hooded; he was barely conscious, though whatever awareness he was able to maintain was focused on the road before them. Athos could see bright spots of fever coloring d'Artagnan's pale face and heard the rattle in his chest as he breathed.
His fierce determination to not be the one holding them back was actually killing him.
Aramis met Athos' eyes over d'Artagnan's head. They were going to have to split up; there was no other choice. d'Artagnan could not keep riding in his condition and they had to get Luca to Toulouse. He hated to make such a call, but he didn't see another choice.
As he opened his mouth, however, he was stopped by Porthos.
"Athos!" the big man called. "Riders comin'."
Athos kicked his mount up alongside Porthos. He could see them in the distance: at least eight men, and what appeared to be a carriage.
"Get Luca and d'Artagnan," he said immediately. "Get them to cover."
Porthos didn't argue. Grabbing Luca's bridle, he turned the boy's horse to the trees, calling to d'Artagnan to follow. Athos didn't turn back, sending a quick prayer skyward that d'Artagnan would follow orders and not insist he could fight.
Aramis joined him and handed him an extra armed harquebus. They moved their mounts to the shade of the trees lining the road, providing them as much cover as possible.
"Ready?" Athos whispered.
"Always," Aramis replied.
Waiting until the lead riders were within firing range, Athos whispered, "Now."
Aramis fired a warning shot wide; the ball buried itself in a nearby tree but had the intended effect on the approaching riders and they pulled to a stop. Athos couldn't see their faces, and saw no distinguishing colors to give them away.
"We are looking for Athos of the King's Musketeers," a voice called.
"You have found him," Athos shouted back. "Identify yourself."
"Athos, it's Bauer!"
Athos looked to Aramis. He didn't clearly recognize Bauer's voice from this distance, but he wasn't going to let him get closer without being sure. "Show me your colors!"
He saw movement and then a flash of pale blue.
"One of you may advance!"
The man who identified himself as Bauer rode forward at a walk. Athos moved from the tree line, but kept his weapon trained on the main, knowing that Aramis had him covered on one side and Porthos on the other. As the man drew closer, Athos felt the tension in his chest begin to ease slightly.
"Bauer," he greeted.
"Athos," Bauer nodded. "We feared you dead."
"It seems we should have been," Athos replied, not moving, not signaling the others to join. Not yet. "After fending off a dozen of the Red Guards disguised as bandits."
Bauer seemed to sag a bit. "It is as we feared," he murmured. "They knew of our plan; they had to have."
"You reached Toulouse?"
Bauer nodded. "Without mishap, and ahead of schedule."
"Talia is safe?"
Bauer arched a brow. "Talia is…a handful."
"Why are you not wearing your colors?" Athos asked, looking beyond Bauer at the seven men accompanying the carriage.
"It was Mathieu's idea," Bauer confessed. "If the bandits had indeed attacked you, he didn't want us to be easily identified as Musketeers until we had apprehended them."
"Clever," Aramis stated, from the trees. His sudden voice caused Bauer to flinch, and Athos waved him forward. "But don't tell Mathieu I said so."
"You all survived, then?" Bauer said, his eyes raking Aramis as though searching for bullet wounds.
"We have one badly wounded," Aramis informed him. "But Luca is well."
"His mother will be very pleased to hear that," Bauer sighed. "May I…?"
Athos lifted his chin in agreement and called to Porthos. "Bring them out."
The other men and carriage began to advance at Bauer's wave, but when Porthos didn't show, Aramis headed to the opposite tree line to search for them. In moments, Athos heard Aramis call his name with urgency and he and Bauer headed to where Porthos had taken the other two for protection.
They found Aramis and Porthos dismounted, d'Artagnan unconscious in Porthos' arms, his bruises standing out starkly against his pale face.
"My God," Bauer breathed. "What did they do to him?"
"Beat him," Aramis replied, from where he crouched next to d'Artagnan. "But the river did the real damage."
"River?" Bauer asked, eyes still pinned to d'Artagnan's fragile-looking figure.
"'e fell into the Châteauroux River," Porthos said, voice gruff with worry, "fighting off one o' them Red Guard bandits."
d'Artagnan coughed, but didn't open his eyes and Athos didn't miss the tight lines on Aramis' face in response to that. He looked up at Athos, his eyes dull with fear and worry. "Athos, he is burning up with fever."
"He needs medicine that we do not have," Athos told Bauer. "And Paris is too far away."
"Let's get him to the carriage," Bauer said immediately.
"Porthos, you have him?" Athos asked.
Porthos started to nod, shifting d'Artagnan in his grasp, but then cried out in pain as the young man's weight pulled at his wound. Athos started to dismount, but Bauer beat him to it.
"Allow me to help," he said, taking d'Artagnan's legs as Porthos held the lad's head and shoulders against him.
They headed from the trees, Athos taking the reins of Porthos and d'Artagnan's horse, Aramis leading Luca forward. When they reached the road, there was a flurry of motion and suddenly Athos saw a bright blonde head streak from the carriage with a cry of relief so piercing he felt his heart shudder at the sound. Talia Thibaut launched herself toward Luca with the strength of a mother's love, pulling the boy from the horse and falling to the ground with him in her lap.
Athos gaped at the fervor Talia showed upon seeing her son, whole and healthy, and then blinked through the wave of emotion that threatened to swamp him as he saw the tears on Luca's face, heard the low moaning sound of the boy's cry as he clutched his mother back, allowing her to rock him and press him close to her. She was saying nothing, too keenly aware that her son wouldn't hear her, but she didn't need to.
Athos felt her love for the boy standing as far away as he was from them.
"She came with you, then?" Athos said, keeping his voice under control as best he could.
"There was no stopping her," Bauer answered, his voice thin and choked as well.
Luca put his hands on his mother's face, arresting her attention, then turned her to face where Porthos and Bauer stood holding d'Artagnan. Talia gasped slightly, then looked back at Luca. Athos watched as the boy touched his cheek and then pressed the same hand over his heart.
"Of course, my boy," Talia said, her words clear as Luca watched her mouth. "We will help them."
"What did 'e say?" Porthos asked.
Talia stood, pulling Luca with her. She clung to his hand and he seemed content to stay pressed against her side.
"Luca," she said, putting her hand to her cheek, "and heart," she covered her heart with the same hand. "He loves you, basically. It's his way of asking me to help his friends."
Athos nodded, swallowing around the lump in his throat. "We would be most appreciative of the use of your carriage."
"Of course," Talia nodded. "I can ride with Luca."
Athos looked to Porthos and Bauer who carried d'Artagnan to the carriage. He saw Mathieu dismount quickly and help them position d'Artagnan inside. Bauer turned to help Talia mount before assisting Luca.
"Aramis," Athos said. "You should ride with d'Artagnan. In case…."
Aramis nodded, grabbing his saddlebag with the most medical supplies and climbing into the carriage as Porthos backed out. Mathieu looked at Athos.
"We will make haste," he said. "I will send two men ahead to ready the physician."
"Thank you," Athos replied. He looked around at the other Musketeers staring solemnly at them. "You should know that he saved us," Athos continued, looking back at Mathieu, but speaking to all of them. "He put his life at risk for the sake of our mission," he glanced at Luca, then back again. "And when we return, I will be sponsoring him as a recruit into the regiment."
He waited for the men to challenge him. These men who'd said d'Artagnan would burn out quickly and fast, that he had too much intensity for the long haul. These men who doubted the boy just as he had.
Mathieu reached out and placed a hand on Athos' shoulder. "We would be proud to have him as a recruit."
Feeling oddly weak from relief, Athos nodded, then waited as the carriage was turned to follow the group toward Toulouse, feeling that there just may be hope for d'Artagnan's survival. They rode the reminder of the day, reaching Toulouse just as the evening fires were lit. Porthos had stayed close to him, the big man uncharacteristically silent on the journey. Both kept their eyes on the carriage, listening for anything from Aramis that would indicate they were needed, that d'Artagnan had worsened.
Talia had thanked them profusely for her son's safety, but even her exuberance had tapered as she saw their eyes on the carriage and felt the weight of their worry. When they breeched the city limits, she and Luca rode ahead, leading the carriage to the physician's location. Athos waited until Aramis and the physician pulled a pale, sweaty, shaking d'Artagnan from the carriage, noting worriedly the lad did not once open his eyes in transit, and then followed Bauer to the stables to care for their weary mounts.
"You said a dozen Red Guard," Bauer reminded him. "You're sure of this?"
"I'm sure that at least four of them were Red Guard," Athos replied. He turned to face his fellow soldier, dropping his voice. "One of them gave up the name of Pierre Thibaut."
Bauer frowned. "Talia's husband?"
Athos nodded tightly. "Is he in Toulouse?"
"No," Bauer shook his head. "When we arrived ahead of schedule, we were told he'd traveled to Austria on business. Talia indicated this is a frequent occurrence. It seems the man has difficulty being around his son."
"Indeed," Athos spat, his jaw tight. "It would seem sending bandits to capture and kill him is not the best parenting tactic, however."
"You have evidence that Thibaut is behind this?"
"If you follow the road back toward Paris, you'll find two bandits who will be able to verify these findings," Athos replied. "And then, there is this." He pulled the evidence he and Aramis had gathered from the bodies. "I believe Thibaut is in league with the Cardinal and the bandits who attacked us were indeed Red Guard."
"We must bring this information to the King," Bauer declared.
"First, we must tell Treville," Athos said, reminding him of the chain of command. "It will be up to him when and how to share it with the King."
"These men nearly killed d'Artagnan," Bauer snapped, pushing forward, close to Athos' face.
Feeling something snap inside of him at the mention of their young friend's name, Athos grabbed Bauer by the shirt front and shoved him back against the wall of a nearby stall.
"I know exactly what they did," Athos growled. "But we are not mercenaries. We are Musketeers. And we swore an oath."
Bauer's eyes darted from Athos' face to the hand clutching his shirt front. Athos gently released him.
"We will tell Treville the moment we return to Paris," Athos said. "Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes," Bauer nodded stiffly. "There are four other Musketeers in Toulouse aside from the seven who accompanied me," he informed Athos, clearing his throat and gaining control of himself once more. "We will leave them to guard Talia and her son when we return to Paris."
"Good idea," Athos nodded, not apologizing for his actions, but stepping back outside of Bauer's personal space. "We will need to have a clear plan before we depart."
"I'll see to the men, then."
Athos lifted his chin, then, after Bauer left, sighed heavily, leaning against the wall a moment to gather himself. He needed all of his strength to do what he had to next. Straightening, he pulled the lines of his jacket tight, set his hat on his head, and crossed to where the carriage was still parked. The door opened quickly to his knock and he was surprised to see Mathieu, Talia, and Luca sitting while Porthos paced the small kitchen.
"Aramis is in there with 'im," Porthos muttered. "Said we needed to wait out 'ere."
"I'm sure they're doing everything they can," Athos said, crossing to his friend and grabbing his arms, forcing Porthos to stand still. "Porthos," he said quietly. "He will be fine."
"'e was burnin' up," Porthos revealed. "'e hung on as long as 'e could when we tucked up into the trees and then he just…," he shook his head. "Didn't make no noise, either. Just went down. I couldn't catch 'im."
Athos swallowed this new information, forcing himself to take a steady breath for Porthos' sake. "He's stubborn; we've all seen it. He will get through this. You'll be running rooftops with him next week."
Porthos looked at him, his dark eyes fragile as he visibly clung to Athos' words. Talia stood, saying she would get them some food, and led Luca from the room. Athos sat next to Mathieu, but Porthos resumed his pacing. After what seemed like hours, but what was probably merely minutes later, Aramis stepped out of the room.
Athos didn't think he'd ever seen his friend look quite so weary.
"He's taken a fever," Aramis stated. "The physician was able to provide medicine to help with that and the pneumonia."
"Pneumonia?" Porthos exclaimed.
"From the chill of the river," Aramis surmised. "I should have seen it earlier, but I…." He sighed heavily and pushed his hand through his tangled hair. "He's young, strong. If he lasts the night, he has a good chance of recovering."
Athos felt the world sway around him at this news.
"If?" Porthos whispered.
"The beating he sustained weakened him," Aramis said, his tired eyes trained on the floorboards. "Significantly."
"Those bastards," Porthos growled dangerously. "If they weren't dead already, I'd kill 'em again."
"I will take three other men and ride back to the garrison," Mathieu announced. Athos had almost forgotten about him. "We will leave four here to accompany you when d'Artagnan is able to ride. Treville will know of this."
"Take Bauer," Athos said woodenly. "He has men to guard Talia and Luca as well, in case Thibaut returns. He must bring the evidence I gave him to Treville."
Mathieu nodded, then clapped a hand on Athos' shoulder. "He'll make it through this, Athos," he said. "You were right; that boy has a desperate will to live."
Athos nodded in thanks, barely registering when the man left. He looked at Aramis. "Same shifts as before," he said. "He is never to be alone."
Aramis nodded, then put a hand on Porthos' shoulder. "Come, my friend. We will eat while Athos keeps watch. You will have your turn."
Athos entered the room and nodded to the physician who was clearing away his medical supplies. d'Artagnan lay in bed, his clothes once more stripped of him, his ribs wrapped in fresh bandages, the white of the linens contrasting sharply with the dark of his skin. His black hair clung to his sweaty face and his brow was furrowed in pain.
Athos listened as the physician gave instructions to keep him cool and when to administer the next dose of medication, then he removed his hat and weapons and sat heavily in the chair next to the bed. He said nothing, though words jumbled inside of him like sand in an hourglass, pouring from his head to his heart and back again.
He simply watched as d'Artagnan struggled, fighting demons only he could see.
Through most of the night, d'Artagnan simply frowned in pain, but there were moments where he would stir restlessly, rapidly whispering words Athos could not understand, could not separate. Whatever it was, though, seemed to cause d'Artagnan significant worry; once, Athos saw a tear slip from the corner of the young man's eye and he felt his heart break at the sight.
The hours passed slowly as he wiped d'Artagnan's face, placing the cool cloth on his forehead, squeezing liquid between his dry lips, and administering the medicine as the physician directed. It was a difficult process, getting d'Artagnan to swallow the medicine. He clearly had no idea where he was, why he was hurting, and struggled against him. Athos was no good at soothing words and encouragement. He nearly gave up and summoned Aramis at one point, but tried one last time to order the boy to be still and swallow the strong-smelling liquid.
He'd positioned himself behind d'Artagnan, holding the lad's head and shoulders up from the pillow, and held the small cup on the edge of d'Artagnan's cracked lips.
"Damn you, d'Artagnan," he growled in spent frustration. "You will hold still and swallow this or I will shove it down your gullet, do you hear me?"
d'Artagnan stilled, his mouth opening slightly, and he allowed Athos to administer the medicine. Athos dropped his head back against the wall, exhausted but relieved. Moving out from behind d'Artagnan, he eased the lad back to the pillows and sank onto the chair once more. He was grateful he didn't have to go through that more than once per shift. He felt a sting in his arm and looked down to see that wrestling the medicine into d'Artagnan had caused his arm to bleed once more.
Aramis was not going to be pleased.
As d'Artagnan slept, twisting fitfully in the linens, he thought how he'd said he'd never been sick as a child. Athos' own sickly childhood had given him the fortitude needed to be comfortable with solitude and to mask his true feelings – about anything – behind a wall of indifference that had fooled almost everyone in his life, save two.
There was so much about d'Artagnan that he didn't know, so much the young man kept hidden, secreted away until trust was able to build bridges or ladders or tunnels to get past his walls. But there was more that was raw and real and out in the open for them all to see if they were to simply look at him.
Simply looking at d'Artagnan now as the fever tore away his defenses and spread naked pain across his face had Athos agreeing with Porthos yet again: he wanted to kill the men who dared do this to one of them, to do this to d'Artagnan, all over again. Death was too great a reward. Sighing, he placed the flat of his hand on d'Artagnan's chest, feeling his heart beating, letting that constant, rapid thrum reassure him, despite the heat of the skin beneath his hand.
When Porthos came in to relieve him, he was almost sorry. He knew it was wise, that he needed to keep up his strength, but he was reluctant to leave. d'Artagnan's fiercely whispered fever dreams had pierced something in his heart and he felt almost compelled to bring the young Gascon through this by his will alone.
He did leave, though. And he slept. And he ate.
It was deep into the hours of following morning when he returned to d'Artagnan's room to relieve Aramis only to find Porthos asleep on the floor at the foot of the bed and Aramis sitting in the chair, bowed over the bed as if in prayer, his head pillowed on folded hands. Athos was about to wake them both when he glanced over at d'Artagnan and staggered to a stop.
"Good morning," d'Artagnan whispered.
Athos blinked. It was such a normal, natural thing to hear him say and yet he realized he'd been truly afraid he'd not hear d'Artagnan say anything again. He settled his stance, finding his balance through a grip on the back of the chair Aramis occupied, and felt his face relax into a relieved smile.
"That it is," he whispered in reply.
d'Artagnan was still pale, his bruises fading to a greenish yellow adding to the sickly shade of his normally dark-toned skin. His voice was still a painful rasp, and probably would be for several days as his body worked to heal from the pneumonia, but his eyes were clear and his wounded lips were pulled into a small smile. Athos was helpless to do anything but reciprocate.
"Are you smiling?" d'Artagnan asked, his brow lifting in surprise.
"I am happy to see you," Athos answered honestly.
He glanced down at Aramis, who hadn't stirred at their voices.
"I didn't want to wake him," d'Artagnan confessed. "He looks…tired."
"How long have you been awake?"
"A little while," d'Artagnan answered, rubbing gingerly at his bruised face. He winced as his fingers brushed over the cut on his cheek.
"How are you feeling?"
"Tired," d'Artagnan answered with a shallow sigh. "Confused. Where are we? It can't be Paris?"
Athos realized the fever must have been coming on for longer than he'd known. "Toulouse," he reminded him. "Luca has been reunited with his mother, Mathieu and Bauer have headed back to update Treville about Thibaut, and you are being treated for pneumonia."
d'Artagnan blinked in surprise, swallowing roughly. "You've…been busy."
Athos reached for the water, easing d'Artagnan's head up slightly, helping the lad drink. The motion stirred Aramis who lifted his head with a start and blinked over at d'Artagnan as though trying to fully comprehend what he was seeing.
"d'Artagnan!" he exclaimed. He pushed to his feet, shoving the chair back and into Athos in his haste, and pressed the flat of his hand against d'Artagnan's face. "Your fever broke!"
His voice woke Porthos who came upright in a noisy tangle of limbs and grunts of effort.
"So it would seem," Athos answered for d'Artagnan.
"Thank God," Aramis breathed, sagging back into the chair, his face in his hands for a moment. "What a long night," he exhaled behind his hands, his muffled voice still exposing his evident emotion.
Porthos struggled to his feet, rubbing his unruly curls with the flat of his hand. "You gave us a right scare, lad."
"'m sorry about that," d'Artagnan croaked.
Aramis lifted his face from his hands, keeping his hands in place, however, as if waiting for his head to fall forward again. "Sorry, he says. Strong enough while unconscious – with pneumonia and cracked ribs – that two men have to hold you down to administer medicine that will ultimately save your life…and you're sorry."
"It took both of you?" Athos asked, surprised, and finally understanding why Porthos had defied orders and stayed in the room during Aramis' shift.
"'e fought me," Porthos argued, pointing an accusatory finger at d'Artagnan, who managed to make himself look small and fragile with simply a blink of surprise. "I thought I was going to…to…break 'im."
"How were you able to…?" Aramis looked at Athos.
Athos shrugged, deciding against telling them he'd nearly called Aramis for help. "I simply ordered him to take the medicine."
"And 'e listened to you."
"Of course," Athos replied, offering no further explanation.
Aramis and Porthos exchanged an incredulous glance.
"I am sorry," d'Artagnan spoke up into the quiet. "I didn't realize I gave you so much trouble. But…in all fairness…it wasn't exactly my fault. I didn't intentionally fall into the river."
"Didn't intentionally…." Aramis sputtered, dropping his face back into his hands. "You are a stubborn, hard-headed, willful—"
"What 'e's sayin' is," Porthos grinned, clapping a hand on Aramis' shoulder, "we're glad to have ya back. Don't scare us like that again."
"And stay away from rivers," Aramis interjected from behind his fingers.
d'Artagnan coughed, nodding. "Good idea."
Aramis pushed to his feet, standing with one hip cocked and his fingers hooked into his weapon's belt. "You gave it a right good effort, though. No one can dare say Charles d'Artagnan is not a fighter."
"Even when it's for 'is own good," Porthos nodded.
"Aramis," Athos said, drawing the man's shadowed, bruised eyes. "You need rest."
"My friend, I…," Aramis shook his head slowly, dropping his gaze to the edge of d'Artagnan's bed.
Porthos and Athos exchanged a glance and Athos reached out to rest a hand on Aramis' shoulder. Whatever had been digging into Aramis since they left the garrison had finally trenched so far the hollowness had begun to echo from the man's normally jovial gaze. It actually hurt to look at him.
"You've done everything you can; he is going to be fine. Rest." Athos turned the last word into an order.
"Athos," d'Artagnan croaked. "What of Thibaut?"
Aramis frowned, looking over at him in concern. Athos took the lead d'Artagnan had so cleverly tossed his way. "The order to come after Talia and Luca apparently came from her husband, Pierre Thibaut," Athos said, drawing Porthos closer with his gaze, knowing the man had heard the same thing. "We have four Musketeers stationed at her house, but neither she nor the boy will leave here until they know d'Artagnan is on the mend."
"We should find them," Porthos nodded, edging Aramis away from the bed with his shoulder. "Make sure all is well."
Aramis nodded distractedly, looking down at d'Artagnan. "Do not even think about rising from this bed unassisted until tomorrow at the earliest."
d'Artagnan nodded meekly.
"And take that medicine," Aramis pointed to the brown vial on the table. "I don't care how bad it smells."
"I promise," d'Artagnan rasped.
Aramis nodded once, looking at Athos, then headed for the door.
"Porthos," Athos whispered, a hand staying Porthos' retreat. "Make sure he eats something. And sleeps."
"I got 'im," Porthos replied, with a small smile in d'Artagnan's direction.
When they'd both left the room, Athos sat down next to d'Artagnan, angling his wounded shoulder away from the young man's keen eyes. He would need to have the physician look at it before too long.
"How soon will we move out?" d'Artagnan asked.
"We won't leave until you're strong enough," Athos promised. "No need to relapse."
d'Artagnan nodded, one hand snaking around his side to hold his ribs steady as he tried to suppress another cough.
"We have an assignment in about two weeks," Athos continued. "It's a bit of a formality, really, but it's necessary and the King has requested his Musketeers."
"So, you'll go," d'Artagnan said, nodding.
"I am going to recommend to Treville that you be the fourth man."
d'Artagnan blinked, pushing up a bit in the bed.
"However, in order to do so, you need to be healed and healthy," Athos said, leveling his eyes on d'Artagnan's. "And, clearly, we'll need to be back in Paris."
"I'll be ready," d'Artagnan replied, managing to leverage himself fully upright, though he was forced to hold his ribs once there.
"That means doing exactly what the physician and Aramis say when it comes to healing," Athos replied.
"I understand," d'Artagnan nodded.
"And no more rooftop sojourns until after the Duke departs," Athos added.
d'Artagnan's mouth pulled up into a half grin and Athos realized he was going to lose that battle. He pushed to his feet.
"I'll see about getting you some food," he said, handing d'Artagnan the mug of water and holding it steady until the lad was able to grip it, forcing his hand to steady. Aramis was right: hope was indeed a powerful healer. "Luca will want to see you. Now that you're awake—"
"Please," d'Artagnan nodded. "Have him bring some of his folding papers."
Athos smiled. Children.
"Athos?" d'Artagnan called as he started to turn toward the door. "Do recruits ever…live at the garrison?"
Athos frowned. "No, I'm sorry, d'Artagnan. Only commissioned Musketeers."
d'Artagnan nodded slowly.
"Are you having difficulty securing lodging with the Bonacieux?"
"No," d'Artagnan shook his head, the shutters in his eyes pulling closed once more. "It's fine; I'll manage it."
Athos narrowed his eyes; he would need to pay more attention to that situation when they returned to Paris.
"Oh, but, Athos?" d'Artagnan caught him once more, his eyes clearly troubled. "There was a letter. A page from a letter. My uncle sent it to my father, care of the palace."
Athos remembered the letter. "Was it troubling news?"
d'Artagnan shook his head. "Merely the typical family quarrels, but…it was written in the language of Gascony which is quite similar to that of Toulouse," he frowned, clearing his throat. "The bald man from the alley – the one who had your dagger – he was threatening to use it to frame me for murder."
There was something else about the letter, Athos could see. It was clear the story of d'Artagnan's family was not a simple one, nor one that he allowed free of his personal barricades. Trust had yet to build that bridge.
"Aramis and I found sufficient evidence on the bodies of the men who attacked you and Porthos to identify them as being of the Red Guard," Athos told him. "I saw no letter, but as no one but our attackers were killed, I feel certain you will not be tried for murder, d'Artagnan."
d'Artagnan sank back against the pillows.
"I'll see to your food now."
Pulling up short once more, Athos nearly smiled this time when he half-turned to the young man.
"Thank you," d'Artagnan said quietly, the sincerity in his voice drawing Athos around fully. "You didn't have to…to trust me, and you did."
"You earned it, d'Artagnan," Athos told him. "You earned Porthos' faith and Aramis' allegiance and my trust." He looked down, unable to meet the young man's eyes as he said the next part. "You pulled me from Hell and you lay your judgment at my feet, allowing me to sweep it away." He stepped forward, meeting d'Artagnan's eyes once more. "You earned our brotherhood. All you have to do now," he half-smiled, "is earn your commission."
d'Artagnan echoed his small smile. "Is that all?"
"I have no doubt you will," Athos said, turning once more. "Because we will be training you."
He exited the room on d'Artagnan's chuckle, waiting for the laugh to dissolve into coughs and breathing a sigh of relief when it didn't. The next few days would be long, but when they returned to Paris, it would not be as a group of soldiers, each broken by something and carrying the shards inside them. They would be returning as brothers, d'Artagnan included among them.
Athos knew they had never been stronger.
A/N: Thanks so much for reading! Hope you felt it worth your time. Next time (if you think there should be a next time), maybe I'll try to go straight for the hurt...
Those of you who've read me in the past may remember that music plays a huge role in my stories – either as part of the story itself, or as part of the creation of it. With these stories, it's difficult to weave music actually into the story, but I do listen as I write.
The majority of this story was written to Zack Hemsey's album "The Way." My favorite tracks were "Facing Demons" and "See What I've Become." I recommend you check it out.