Chapter 15

Author's Note: I'M NOT DEAD (unlike some other characters in this story…)! Seriously though. Sorry. Good news: this is the last chapter so you will no longer have to deal with my atrocious updating skills from now on. Again: so sorry.

When Athos' head drops and his tight shoulders release their tension, time stops. Porthos can feel the muscles under his fingers relax, he can see the slump of Athos' body and everything just stops. Because this cannot be happening. They cannot have come this far, travelled this far, gone through this much just to lose d'Artagnan now.

No. No.

Porthos knows death. He has been surrounded by it for as long as he can remember; he remembers his mother succumbing to a fever, remembers the corpses that decorated the Court when the snow melted each year. They were emaciated, blue from cold and rotting sweetly in the emerging spring sun. Death is something that has been part of his life for so long that he had almost dreamed that he was immune to it. That it couldn't reach him, touch him, where it hurt most.

Apparently, it still can. But this time, he won't rest in it, won't let it be.

"No." Porthos hears himself whisper, "No, Athos."

He falls to his knees next to Athos, reaches out to d'Artagnan as if he can bring him back with the touch of his hand. Then it's Athos' hand on his shoulder, turning him away from their Gascon. It's all wrong, there's relief on Athos' face. Joy.

"He's alive." Athos says disbelievingly, then louder, "Porthos, he's alive!"

It takes two stutters for Porthos' heart to restart, for time to rerun its unstoppable course. He doesn't think he's ever seen Athos' this giddy, this relieved. Behind them, feet start moving and Porthos would recognise those steps anywhere. Aramis. The Spaniard stands behind them, staring down at d'Artagnan's still form. Porthos looks up at him, can't hold back the grin at the knowledge that they're complete. Together. Inseparable even by death.

"Mon dieu, Athos. You really know how to frighten a man." Aramis breathes, "For a moment there I mistook your relief for defeat."

Lost for words, Athos simply shakes his head. So, Porthos speaks for him.

"We should have known he would be too stubborn to die."

They all chuckle, though the sound borders on hysterical and more than one tear shines in their eyes. Suddenly, Chassroi turns around with a gurgle to stare at d'Artagnan's still body, a grin twisting his bloody lips. The dangerous look Porthos sends the lord's way almost makes him miss the small twitch of d'Artagnan's finger.

He sees it, though. And so do Athos and Aramis. It's enough to snap them out of their relief-filled daze.

Athos is clasping d'Artagnan's face, calling his name, while Aramis steps carefully around the three of them to gain better access to their wounded friend. If he manages to kick Chassroi twice while doing so, no one says anything of it.

With hesitant fingers, Aramis tugs away the gauntlet that hides d'Artagnan's frame. The white undergarments that Athos gave d'Artagnan are stained red with blood and for a moment Aramis fears that they were too late after all. Perhaps Chassroi still managed to get in a good shot. Perhaps d'Artagnan is bleeding out right under their noses and they don't even realise it.

The blood seems to be coming from the longer cuts, shallow and painful but not deadly. Aramis clenches his jaw when he pulls the shirts back further; d'Artagnan's entire chest is a canvas of red's and blues. Older bruises have purpled or turned to a poisonous green, but what worries Aramis is the burn wounds that litter some parts of the skin as well. Next to the blackened burns, the hot redness of infection is creeping in.

"What is it?" Athos asks at the frown that appears on his friend's face while assessing d'Artagnan.

Aramis shakes his head in disapproval, as his fingers brush lightly over the burns, "Some of the wounds seem to have been cauterised…"

"I think he enjoyed doing that…" groans a voice from the ground.

The three musketeers whip their heads towards d'Artagnan's face fast enough to break their necks. Even Porthos stops his business of attempting to stare Chassroi to death to appraise his young friend.

"D'Artagnan!" Aramis exclaims. The Gascon's grin is enough to light a flame of hope in all their hearts.

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Constance holds herself together. When Treville lets his eyes slide in her direction apologetically, she ignores him. When the Queen's hand curls around hers, she grips it in support. When the dauphin in thrust into her hands, she holds the child carefully, sways back and forth to soothe his cries.

She holds herself together. For as long as she can. Even when she hears of d'Artagnan's capture, and fear swallows her heart until there is nothing left of what she really wants to believe. Even then, she remains outwardly calm.

Then later, when she's alone with the Queen, she falls apart. She may pretend she doesn't love d'Artagnan, but her heart will never truly believe her, no matter what she says. And when Anne stands next to her, her own demons clearly visible on her face, Constance realises she can be honest. She can break down.

They hold each other close, lost in despair for the Musketeers that have so easily captured their hearts. The dauphin lies between them, staring up at them with big eyes. The world must still hold so much wonder for the child; so much hope. He doesn't know that his mother is despairing for a father he will never know, and Constance feels strangely grateful for that fact.

Being in love with a soldier is one thing, having one for a father is another. Then again, what just happened in the throne room has certainly shown that there is danger in having a King as a father, too.

"This is exactly why I can't be with him you know." Constance says dryly, "I couldn't spend my life worrying every day if he'll come home."

Anne shakes her head, smile curling her lips as he gently strokes the dauphin's cheek before she looks up at her friend, "I don't think it matters if you're with him or not, you'll worry anyway. Besides, we both know there's a different reason that you're not with d'Artagnan."

Constance says nothing, simply takes time to pull herself back together. She pastes a smile back on her face (it's something she's become quite proficient at over the past year) and pulls herself out of the Queen's embrace.

"They'll come back. I'm sure of it." she reassures her friend. Anne smiles as well, straightening back into a queen.

"Of course." Anne says quietly, "Now where has Marguerite gotten to?"

And so the women do what is expected of them; they pull themselves together. They pretend. The two are no longer friends, only a Queen and her confidante.

Constance hates every moment.

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It takes a long time to get moving. Even then, it's more of a graceful dragging than an actual walk. After all, in his state, the Gascon isn't exactly the strongest walker (not that he will ever admit it, stubborn idiot). Porthos and Aramis each have one of his arms slung over their shoulder. Athos is stumbling forward in front of them, adamantly ignoring the excruciating pain in his knee.

"You really shouldn't be walking on that knee, you know." Aramis pants from under d'Artagnan's arm, "You'll only make it worse."

"Are you offering to carry me?" Athos grunts through teeth gritted in pain, "I must say I wouldn't decline the offer."

Aramis frowns at Athos words. If the man is willing to admit to pain at all, then the actual pain must be through the roof. He hides it behind a smile though, unwilling to worry Porthos and d'Artagnan.

"I'm afraid my arm is slightly indisposed at the moment. Besides you're a heavy man to carry."

Porthos shoots in, "Must be all the wine weighing his blood down."

The sound of a musket cocking can be heard from behind the bushes in front of them. That little click is enough to bring the four musketeers to a standstill. Those capable of holding weapons – Porthos and Athos – slowly bring up their sword and harquebus respectively, waiting anxiously who will step out from behind the underbrush. Aramis wishes fervently that he still had use of both arms.

For a moment there's only the rustle of small branches and the crackle of dead leaves under several feet. Then, as suddenly as the cocking of the musket, someone steps out from the hiding place, weapon still held high and ready. It's a woman, red hair camouflaging her in the setting autumn sun.

"Who are you?" she asks, not entirely unkindly. She doesn't seem aggressive, merely careful. And really, with a lord like Chassroi in the area, the Musketeers can understand the sentiment.

Athos, as usual, takes charge, "My name is Athos. These are Porthos, d'Artagnan and Aramis. We're Musketeers."

The woman lets her eyes slide from Athos to the trio behind him. Her eyes linger on d'Artagnan, his form hanging weakly between Aramis and Porthos. He's still standing – stubborn to the very last – but he no longer possesses the strength to keep up his head; it droops, staring doggedly at the ground. Aramis feels his fingers twitch protectively tighter around the Gascon's waist and he can see Porthos push down the urge to step in front of them as a protection from the prying eyes.

"What's wrong with him?" the woman asks, almost worried.

When Athos answers, his voice is tight with hidden emotion, "He was tortured for information he did not possess. He's in urgent need of care."

The woman nods, lowering her musket and signing something to someone still hidden in the underbrush. To the Musketeers she says, "You can lay him down if you wish. We'll make sure help is on its way."

For a moment, as Aramis makes to lower his friend to the ground, he thinks he can hear d'Artagnan mutter a disgruntled, "Not that urgent." about being laid on the cold forest floor. Then he decides he must have imagined it, because the Gascon barely looks capable of speaking in his current state.

"No." Athos tells Aramis and Porthos sharply before turning back to the woman, "I think all of us could do with a bed and some warmth."

The woman nods understandingly and beckons them forwards. Though Athos is right, Aramis can't help but scold him, "I think your knee could really do with some rest, Athos."

"My knee can wait." Athos murmurs, then shoots d'Artagnan a look that clearly says but he can't.

The musketeers are led into a village that lies snugly between the balding trees. The grand total of two streets that the place possesses are streaked with mud and the population of pigs seems to exceed that of humans. Still, like any half-decent French village, there is an inn. In there, the musketeers find warmth and kindness. Within no time there is a fire going, food and wine gracing the nearby tables. D'Artagnan lies to the side, on the first table they reached when they entered.

It takes only a few minutes for the door to open again, this time with medical assistance in tow. The three Musketeers smile when they see who the medical assistance is.

"Melanie!" Aramis exclaims in relief, "I was hoping it would be you."

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Chateau Rouge is all but empty. There are a few guards manning the gates and pacing the walls, but it seems to be more for show than for anything else. The courtyard within looks deserted, weapons and rubble lie around like they were left in a hurry. Even the halls of the castle, the places that are usually filled with a flurry of activity, stand cold and bare.

A feeling of unease creeps up Captain Treville's spine. Something in this castle is very, very wrong. He orders his men – half a garrison of volunteers – to spread out in search of their colleagues. He sets out for the dungeons himself, Petit and Vasser in tow. If there are dead or mangled bodies to be found, he needs to be the one to find them. He owes that to his men.

The dungeons, too, seem to be deserted. Some look like they have recently been occupied, though, with bandages and water littering the ground. Then, when they have gone as deep down as they can, they find a cell that stills their heart. It's a torture cell, plain and simple. There are instruments lining the walls and chains hanging from the ceiling. Some of the knives as still red with rusty blood.

In the corner lies a shirt that the Musketeers recognise all too well.

"D'Artagnan…" Petit whispers in horror as he moves towards the shirt. Dark stains become evident as he picks it up to get a better look.

Vasser pales as he moves closer, looking at Treville for guidance. Treville clenches his jaw.

"He's not here anymore." The Captain says, stating the obvious, "He must have escaped."

Petit and Vasser nod, but they also share a look that is much darker. Both of them hear the unspoken second explanation for their friends' absence. They may have escaped, or they may be lying in a hole, six feet under the ground.

Feet thunder down the corridor and the Musketeers reach for their weapons, ready to tackle whoever comes careening around the door. It turns out to be Moreau, panting and clutching at his still wounded arm. The man spares barely a look at the room before he turns to his Captain. Before he can even utter a single word, Vasser is scolding him.

"You shouldn't be running like that, Moreau."

Moreau ignores him.

"In the kitchen," he pants, "Woman in the kitchen says they escaped. Reckons she helped them find the way…"

Treville is striding out of the cell before the sentence is even finished, "Take me to her."

The woman turns out the be the head of the kitchen. She has a distinct hand shaped bruise on her cheek, and is brandishing a large wooden spoon like a weapon, ordering the cooks and servants around.

"Four of 'em, yeah?" she asks, "They said they were musketeers. Melanie had warned me they might be coming, mind you. So I gave them some food for the road. They looked about done for, you know."

"Where were they headed?" Treville asks in return.

"They were asking after the village, so that way I suppose. But you're too late, you know. Chassroi went after them with more than half is guard, the bastard." The woman adds darkly.

"He went after them?" Petit breathes, looking about ready to do the same.

"Oui. Wasn't too happy that I let them out." She pointed at the bruise in her face in way of an explanation.

"He did that to you?" comes Vasser's angry voice, "I'm liking this man less and less every time I meet him."

"Would have smacked him over the head a long time ago if he didn't pay so well. High time someone gave him the trouble those four men are giving him." she said.

Treville takes a moment to appreciate that even outnumbered and wounded, his men still manage give a powerful lord a run for his money. A moment later, he realises that they don't stand a chance against the small army that the man must have had gathered within these walls. He orders his men out, and adds one last order to Petit, Moreau and Vasser.

"You four, stay at the back. I do not want any more injuries from you."

"I'm not injured." Petit points out.

"No, you need to keep them in check." Treville mutters, then adds as an afterthought, "And make sure DuPont doesn't do anything stupid, like trying to stand on his broken leg. Again."

Petit nods grimly and the Musketeers set out.

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After Melanie has taken care of all four of them, she leaves them behind with strict orders of sleep and bedrest. Then she lays one last hand on d'Artagnan's sweaty head.

"My daughter is his age, you know." She murmurs to Athos, who is sat at the side of the Gascon's bed with his leg propped up, "He reminds me a lot of her. Just as stubborn."

"I had a brother like d'Artagnan, once. Thomas was his name." Athos answers morosely, "Stubbornness did little to help him."

"I'm sorry about your brother." Melanie smiles sadly, "But d'Artagnan will pull through, I'm sure of it. He was much worse the last time I saw him, and he managed to survive another round with Chassroi. It takes a special kind of person to get through something like that twice. This boy strikes me as exactly that kind of person."

Athos smiles, too. Though the words feel empty in the face of d'Artagnan's pain, they do manage to alleviate some of the worry in Athos' heart.

"Thank you." The says, truly grateful, "For everything. I don't know how we can ever repay you."

"You have ridded us of a monster by killing Chassroi. That is payment enough." Melanie answers seriously, then smiles cheekily, "Though, I would appreciate it if I didn't have to come back to save your lives a third time."

With a laugh, Melanie grabs her bag of herbs and walks to the door.

Athos sits by d'Artagnan, hand running absentmindedly through his long hair. Once again, Athos cannot help but see his late brother in the Gascon. Sometimes it's easy to forget how young d'Artagnan really is but right now, with his face void of pain or worry, he actually looks his age. That line of thinking is exactly what got them into this situation; one full of danger and animosity. D'Artagnan may be young; but he is not a child. Nor is he naïve or unqualified.

As soon as Athos had realised that d'Artagnan was starting to mean something to him – that losing him would affect him more than the loss of another – he had started seeing similarities between the Gascon and Thomas. The leap wasn't all too difficult to make. Both were young, presumptuous, spirited and smart. Both threw themselves headfirst into everything, no matter the damage to body or soul. Both had somehow placed their trust in the most unlikely person; in him.

It had killed Thomas. Athos' greatest fear is that one day it will kill d'Artagnan, too.

For the first time (and too late, unfortunately), Athos realises that he has compared d'Artagnan and Thomas too much. He loved Thomas, and he loves d'Artagnan, but they are not the same man and he does not care for them for the same reasons.

D'Artagnan has a streak of independence that Thomas never had. Though their characters are similar, they were raised so absolutely differently that they've turned into completely different men. D'Artagnan, despite his youth, is not naïve. Raised on a farm, surrounded by poverty and people who struggled every day to make ends meet, he has had a less rosy view from the world from the get go. Not to mention the deeply moral father who tried to make the world a better and more equal place until his dying breath.

D'Artagnan is the legacy of that man, a product of his own childhood.

Perhaps it was difficult to see d'Artagnan's hardships through the scarring of his own soul. Perhaps Athos saw only what he wanted to see; another Thomas, another chance at brotherhood. Now, with the boy's defences down so thoroughly, Athos can see d'Artagnan's iron core. This Gascon will not go down easily. Why would he? He is a musketeer, after all.

And musketeers don't die easily.

From behind Athos, Aramis gasps his way out of a dream. Wild eyes glance around the room for a moment before falling on d'Artagnan's peaceful form. Aramis relaxes, dropping back onto the mattress with something like a smile on his face.

No, d'Artagnan won't die easily. Even if he wants to, his friends will never let him.

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The forest floor is littered with corpses and groaning men. Purple sashes decorate their bodies and in the middle, on top of a velvet purple cloak, face frozen forever in agony, lies Chassroi. Treville moves over him, weapon at the ready and feels for a pulse. There is none. He looks around again, assessing the forest-turned-battlefield.

It may as well have been a note saying: Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d'Artagnan were here.

No one else could have managed to win a fight against these odds. But if they won, then where are they now? Champoir, one of the younger musketeers, disturbs Treville's musings.

"I've found a trail, sir. Looks like it could be them." the man says, motioning to the left.

"How do you know it's them?" Treville asks, but he's already moving in that direction, motioning for the rest of his men to follow.

"Well, there's enough damage to the roots and twigs for about four men, and…." Champoir swallows, "And there's blood, sir."

Treville nods stiffly, grabbing his horse by the reins with slightly more force than necessary. He nods to Champoir.

"You lead, the rest will follow."

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Porthos sleeps like the dead. Literally. He lies completely still, with none of his usual snoring or twisting of the sheets. There's just his immobile body and the deep, even breathing to show that he's still alive. It's so different from how Porthos usually is, that Aramis stares in wonder. For a moment he contemplates poking Porthos in the side (his ticklishness is the man's greatest weakness in Aramis' opinion) but then thinks better of it.

After almost a week of little to no care for his concussion, Porthos can really use the sleep. So, Aramis turns to his other friends instead. Athos is sitting at d'Artagnan's bedside, frowning so deeply that it looks like he's trying to will d'Artagnan awake. Looking at the Gascon himself is a lot more painful. It's difficult to miss the pale skin and the multitude of wounds that grace the boy's torso.

"He hasn't woken yet?" Aramis asks. Athos startles, head snapping up like a whip. He shakes his head.

"That's to be expected, you know." Aramis consoles, "How is your knee doing?"

"Fine." Athos bites out. So, Aramis fetches cold water and to cool Athos' leg again. He knows that the knee has had too much strain. Falling right onto it when he saw d'Artagnan's lying in the dirt can't have done it much good, nor has the journey here.

"You shouldn't worry so much, Athos. Melanie said d'Artagnan was recovering." Ignoring Athos' grunt as he lays a newly cold cloth on the man's knee, Aramis continues, "Besides, he's not going to let a little fever keep him down."

With a frown, Athos relays his true worries to Aramis, "Everyone keeps telling me that. But what he went through, Aramis… He will not just spring back from that."

"He has shown himself to be more resilient than we give him credit for."

"No, he has shown us that he is capable of hiding away his pain and worries. That he can shove down his grief and his nightmares so we can't see it. But he still blames himself for his father's death, Aramis. All this time he has been dealing with that pain, that guilt, and we did not see it…" Frustration and guilt ooze from the comte's words.

"A father's death always weighs heavy on the heart, Athos. We helped him get through that, and we will help him get through this." Aramis says.

"No, Aramis, you don't understand." Athos says, then in a sudden burst of honesty "I… I do not think I can be trusted with something like this. Look at the last time I got drunk, I nearly broke our brotherhood with my words. I nearly broke d'Artagnan. I'm not to be trusted when I drink too much, Aramis. Not with this."

For a few moments there is nothing but the soft breathing of their sleeping friends and the soft sound of water drops falling onto the ground. Aramis frowns. It's disconcerting to see his usually stoic friend so open and raw.

"What exactly did you tell d'Artagnan that night?" the Spaniard asks carefully.

Athos looks away, eyes held firmly on the young Gascon next to him. He wants nothing more than to relieve himself of the burden of his guilt. He wants to tell Aramis and make him understand what a monster Athos is. At the same time, he doesn't think he can bear the way Aramis will look at him when he does say it.

"Among other things, I told him that he had caused his father's death." Athos says softly. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Aramis' hands still on the compress he's making. The water drips faster, louder, "It was a badly formulated phrase, but d'Artagnan believed it."

The silence from Aramis is louder than anything he could have said.

"d'Artagnan always believes everything I say. What will I say the next time? What will my treacherous tongue blame him of the next time?" Athos despairs, then adds softly, "I will not be his downfall, Aramis. I can't be."

A large intake of breath from Aramis before he speaks, "Then perhaps you should pour yourself fewer glasses, my friend."

At the look of surprise on Athos' face, Aramis cocks his head to the side with a grim smile.

"I think we all know that d'Artagnan was in no way responsible for his father's death. If you insinuated such a thing, it must have been due to intoxication and confusion. A slip of the tongue, as you just put it. It was not the first time, that night. Both Porthos and I have had our fair share of heartache and anger over your drunken words. We know to pay your drunken ramblings no heed because they often make little sense. D'Artagnan did not know this, but he will in the future."

"Are you telling me I'm not to blame for this? That my actions weren't terrible?"

"Your actions were terrible, but if you want to put the blame somewhere, put it on the alcohol that distorts your words and turns you into a lesser man than you are." Aramis answers, adding another line when he sees Athos is about to argue, "Wine is the way you cope with your demons, Athos, don't let it create any more."

A grunt from the corner alerts them both to Porthos' wakeful state. The large man grimaces in pain, then shoots Athos a look that sticks halfway between anger and grief. Athos pales considerably when he realises Porthos must have heard at least the tail end of the conversation.

"How long have you been awake?" he snaps, fear morphing to anger.

By way of answer, Porthos raises his hand and gives a vague wave. "Long enough," then he points at Aramis, "What I think our silver-tongued friend is trying to tell you in a long, artfully pleasing way, is this."

Porthos sits up straighter, leans towards Athos and says in his deep, hoarse voice, "You are forgiven."

When Aramis nods in agreement and Athos shakes his head vehemently, ready to argue for the sake of his own fears and the injustice towards d'Artagnan, Porthos continues.

"I have to warn you, though; we'll be monitoring your drinks again from now on." There's a smirk on his face as he says it, youthful glee at the prospect of having power over Athos. Aramis truly laughs for the first time in days and even Athos manages to crack half a smile.

Then Porthos face suddenly turns serious, his tone hard, "Oh. Another thing. You say something like that to d'Artagnan again, you'll have my fist up your nose."

Athos grimaces, "I'll hold you to that."

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An arrow snicks right past Treville's cheek, burying itself in a tree behind him. He's instantly alert, weapons ready, eyes scanning the skeletal underbrush until he catches movement to the right. The other Musketeers follow his example almost without realising it, ever vigilant to the danger that took their colleagues from them.

"Who goes there?" Treville yells at the bushes in which he thinks he can see people hiding.

It takes a few seconds for the answer to come and when it does, the voice is surprisingly feminine, "I could ask you the same."

"My name is Treville. I am Captain of the King's Musketeers and I am looking for four of my men." The underbrush whispers quietly, as the Captain speaks and he decides to add a plea "Perhaps you can help us?"

A red-head appears between the trees and beckons them, "Follow me."

They do.

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On the way to the village, the musketeers are informed of the dire condition of their friends, and that they're staying at the inn. The inn, itself, isn't so much an inn as a glorified house that allows other to stay and eat in the living room. It's small, shabby and lies snugly between its neighbouring houses.

But, Treville thinks, if he finds his four best men inside, even just semi-alive, it will turn out to be the most beautiful place he has ever laid eyes on. Motioning for his men to stay back, he reaches for the door. The red haired woman who led them here smiles encouragingly.

Treville pushes. The door opens.

To the left of the room, by a raging fire, sit three dishevelled men. They're gathered around a fourth, lying on the bed, eyes closed breathing deeply in sleep. For the first time since his departure from Paris, Treville dares to breathe again.

Ever alert, Porthos is the first to turn his head towards the door.

"Captain!" he exclaims with a grin, "Took you long enough."

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When d'Artagnan wakes up, he's staring at a dark ceiling where spiders crawl between the wooden beams. They weave intricate white patterns and remind the Gascon that he truly has no idea where he is. Flames flicker over the walls. He has little recollection of the past few days (weeks?).

In fact, the last thing he remembers clearly is a dying soldier toppling over onto him. He remembers, vaguely, that he woke up. He remembers the mix of relief and worry on his brothers' faces. The walk that followed was gruelling. His legs wouldn't support him and the arms that had supported him for far too long this past week were slung painfully over two pairs of shoulders.

Shadows walked the forest. Familiar figures with familiar faces. Dead figures, laughing in the haunting breeze. Voices whispered with every falling leaf, a whip cracked with every broken twig under their feet. When the wind howled and the branches shook, d'Artagnan heard Chassroi.

"I'm not done with you yet," the dead lord breathed, "You and your friends will never be rid of me."

D'Artagnan never had the strength to reply. Too much energy went into the dragging of his feet and the in- and exhale of his lungs. Now, in the safety of this warm place he doesn't remember entering, the Gascon allows himself a reply.

"I killed you." He murmurs into the room, "You're never coming back."

Flames crackle in the fireplace. For a moment d'Artagnan thinks he hears them whisper, hears him whisper, "I don't have to come back, I'm already in your head."

Then the moment is broken by Treville's rusty voice and his large calloused hand on d'Artagnan's shoulder. It all echoes in the dark, "D'Artagnan? Are you awake?"

The Gascon decides that his confused, "Captain? What are you doing here?" is enough of an answer. All he gets in return is a chuckle before he feels his tired eyes slide shut.

What follows is three days of bedrest for d'Artagnan, a reunion with Petit, Moreau, DuPont and Vasser, lots of complaining from Athos about his inability to walk and many, many compliments and words of gratitude from those around him. D'Artagnan finds it all very embarrassing.

When Melanie finally gives them all permission to get on their horses and ride back to Paris, d'Artagnan has a long awaited reunion with his lovely yellow horse; Buttercup. The horse whinnies softly into his hair, and he doesn't stop smiling for a full day.

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Paris dooms up from a distance, the sun setting on its walls and sliding lazily over the sprawling outer edges of the city. There's a distinct chill in the air, a fine fog already forming low on the ground. It'll be cold tonight. Porthos feels his heart lift at the sight. He's home. Finally. He can't wait for his warm bed and the pillow that will be so kind to his still vaguely aching head.

D'Artagnan winces slightly as his horse comes to a standstill, the motion jerking him forward and pulling at every aching piece of his body. His fever has gone down, but Porthos can't help but notice that the Gascon still shrinks into his coat every few minutes, hungry for a scrap of warmth.

"There she is," Porthos tells d'Artagnan with a smile, "Our beautiful Paris…"

"I suppose we'll have to see the king before we get to sleep?" d'Artagnan answers darkly. The glee he felt when he was finally allowed to leave his bed a few days ago has all but disappeared, drowned by pain.

"Ah, but the palace holds something very enticing, doesn't it?" Aramis says from behind them, smirking, "I believe the queen's new confidante will be enchanted by your presence."

With a grimace, d'Artagnan shakes his head, "She won't be. We need distance, she said so herself."

"Well, mon ami, I will let you in on a little secret about the fairer sex." Aramis moves his horse between that of Porthos and d'Artagnan, nearly losing his balance due to his one incapacitated arm, "Women never say what they really mean."

D'Artagnan snorts and shakes his head, "I'll keep that in mind."

CBB SREETEKSUM EHT

The throne room is full, guards standing on all sides, Musketeers at the ready in case of any threat. Louis, already paranoid after the death of his father and the myriad of failed coups he has been privy to in his short life, is not taking any chances. Rochefort stands to the side, arms behind his back, scrutinising the people around him with madly intelligent eyes.

Treville enters first, eight musketeers in tow. They all look a bit worse for the wear. Both Porthos and Petit, the two largest of the group, seem to have come off lightly; a little bruising around he face but not much more. DuPont and Athos are both limping, one using wooden crutched to keep the strain from his set leg and the other leaning heavily on Porthos, refusing to look weaker than he is. Anne notices the sling that keeps up Aramis' arm and he heavy bruising around his neck. She sees the pale faces of Vasser and Moreau, bandages peaking from between their clothes.

And d'Artagnan… Anne wraps an arm tightly around Constance's shoulders at the sight of him. Face drawn, eyes tight with pain, the movements of his body as he steps forward are stiff. His one hand is firmly bandaged, his face looks swollen and bruised and when he moves and he arches away from the leather that touches his back. Away from some kind of pain that neither Queen nor confidante can place.

The sound that comes out when Constance swallows back her fear breaks Anne's royal heart. She clutches her friend that much closer. By this time, the Musketeers have made their way in front of the throne. They bow reverently, to the degree that their various injuries allow.

"Your Majesty," Treville greets, "I'm glad to inform you that our mission was a success. There were no Musketeer casualties."

Louis nods, standing and straightening his clothes importantly.

"It's good to hear that some of my guard are still competent. I owe all of you my sincerest gratitude for saving my life and that of my family. You have all served your King and you country well. Like true Musketeers, you were willing to give your life for me. I hope I will be seeing much more of you." The King states. Anne knows for a fact that the man came up with this speech yesterday and spent hours learning it by heart.

The Musketeers all bow again, words of thanks spilling over their lips at their King's gratitude.

Louis adds one more thing, "Of course, I'm excited to hear all about what happened over the past few weeks."

"And you will, Your Majesty," Treville answers, "However, I believe some rest would do these brave men well."

Anne nods gently towards her husband, "He's right, Louis. After their ordeal and their journey, they must be exhausted."

It is agreed that the Musketeers will return back to the garrison for some well-earned rest and that they will return the following day to tell their harrowing tale. The Musketeers themselves don't look to eager at prospect, probably reluctant to relive last few perilous weeks. They agree, though. After all, one can hardly refuse the king.

"Your Majesty," Constance says carefully, "Would you excuse me for a moment? There is something I would very much like to ask the Musketeers before they leave."

Anne smiles and nods her friend away.

CBB SREETEKSUM EHT

Eight Musketeers stand behind the door to the throne room, waiting for their Captain to accompany them home. They stare into nothing, wincing when they move their tired limbs too quickly. There's little conversation between them. If anything had to be said, it has been said over the past few days of each other's company.

Apologies have been made between Porthos, Aramis and d'Artagnan. Athos has been repeatedly reassured that he is truly forgiven. The other four, who were mostly bystanders in the whole argument, give each other knowing looks when they find that the Inseparables have once again proved to be truly inseparable.

Petit is just suggesting that they go out for dinner and a drink before they go to sleep when the doors to the throne room open. It's not Treville who comes out, however.

It's Constance.

She doesn't even utter a single word. She just throws herself at d'Artagnan with tears in her eyes, gripping his body like it's made of spun glass, so afraid of hurting him more. The Gascon pulls her closer, grips her tightly and ignores the pangs of pain that her warm hands ignite. He can live with those. He can revel in those if it means he's being held by Constance.

Burying his nose in her hair, he inhales her scent. For a while, he thought he would never be able to do this again. For a moment, he lets himself forget the past few weeks. The past few months even. He's never felt more at home. After a minute or two, Athos coughs subtly into his knuckle. The two love birds separate momentarily, shooting the comte a questioning look. His gaze is not on them, though.

"Hello again, Captain." He says calmly, "I suggest we wait for d'Artagnan outside?"

The Captain, who has apparently just left the throne room, only to find his newest recruit in a tight embrace with the Queen's married confidante, simply smiles and waves his men forward. For a moment d'Artagnan thinks the man winks as he passes. But that can't be right.

Once they're alone again, d'Artagnan turns back to Constance and brushes her hair lightly out of her face. He wants to kiss her, but he knows he can't. Not now. Not ever. It wouldn't be fair. But he doesn't know what to say either, so he simply waits for her rapid-fire tongue.

"I wasn't worried, you know." Constance says, hands still tight on d'Artagnan's shoulders, "I didn't really miss you. I hardly even realised you were gone. Not that I ever really notice whether you're around, mind you."

"You don't?" d'Artagnan says with a smile.

Constance shakes her head and d'Artagnan's smile grows into a grin.

"So, you weren't worried, you didn't miss me, you don't notice whether I'm around or not?"

"Exactly."

"And suppose you don't love me?" d'Artagnan asks cheekily, hope plastered all over his face. Constance slaps at his head half-heartedly, her sweet smile almost hidden by her blush.

At that moment, d'Artagnan resolves to tell Aramis that he is right. Women never say what they mean.

CBB SREETEKSUM EHT

On Petit's suggestion, the eight Musketeers that started the journey to the south find themselves in an inn, eating big humps of meat and sharing a bottle of wine. Soon their ways part, the Inseparables delving deeper into their bottles as their more sensible friends head for their beds. With what they've been through, four remaining Musketeers know they will need some alcohol to get to sleep.

Not two hours later, when the night is still relatively young, and the streets are filled with those who have not yet decided whether it is evening or night, the Musketeers leave their inn. Athos is not quite drunk, but the warm food and the company of his friends has loosened his lips and the tight grip on his heart. He basks in their warmth, relishes in the Gascon he very nearly lost.

"You are the best of all of us, d'Artagnan." Athos says as he parts ways with his friends, patting the Gascon's cheek very uncharacteristically. The honesty serves them all well, he knows.

"I know." D'Artagnan says sarcastically, "I'll remind you of that when I convince you to train with me tomorrow morning."

Athos makes a face and d'Artagnan wanders back to the garrison between Porthos and Aramis' lurching and singing forms. The moon shines down like a beacon as the garrison looms up at the end of the long Parisian street. There's a warm bed waiting for him there, and though he wishes Constance were it in, looking from afar will have to be good enough for now.

Because d'Artagnan is in love. He's in love with Paris and it's cobbled little alleys, he's in love with the brightly shining moon and the stars he had thought he would never see again. He's in love with the new home that he's made in the garrison, he's in love with the family that will fight its way back to him no matter the costs.

He's in love with the beautiful, red-haired draper's wife who worried so terribly when he was gone and the wine that has made his memories murky and his heart light.

For the first time in weeks, d'Artagnan sleeps dreamlessly. Why shouldn't he?

His heart is light and full of hope. He's home.

The End.

Author's Note 2.0: Well, that was it for this adventure! I hope you enjoyed it (and that the ending was satisfactory). Thank you all so much for reading, following and reviewing. It means the world to me.