A/N: So... I'm almost sad, that this is the final chap to this little story. Your support was really heart-warming, thanks for that.
As always, thanks to Debbie and Guest06 for leaving reviews. I enjoyed them!
And a last special thanks to my beta 'Linguam' for her efforts to make this readable. THANK YOU!
THANK YOU VERY MUCH to everyone who followed, favorited or read this story. I'll be back soon -hopefully- with the sequel to 'More than Battered'. (If I can stop watching season 3... *g*)
Several days later….
Porthos and Aramis had been ordered to guard duty at the palace for two nights straight, for causing another brawl with the Red Guards. That left Athos and d'Artagnan alone in their favourite tavern, sharing a meal and some bottles of wine and mostly sitting silently side by side, content with each other's company.
D'Artagnan's wounds were healed at last, only a few scars remaining, and he had reassumed his duty just a few days after Constance's visit at the garrison. Treville, sharing the concern of his trusted quartet regarding their youngest, had not yet assigned them to palace duty again, to make sure the king finally forgot about his liking for the Gascon. Luckily, the negotiations with the German duke had distracted the monarch enough not to enquire the whereabouts of his favourite musketeer. And Constance had let them know that she had spoken with the queen and that, after her first astonishment, her majesty had finally understood what she'd been doing. So, if the quartet was to return back to the palace, it would most likely be as it had always been before.
Whether their plans had worked out, however, was still to be proven.
Now, after finishing the meal, the Gascon was watching Athos from the corner of his eye, easily recognizing the heavy silence that surrounded the man. Although the swordsman hadn't said a word after their encounter in the forest, d'Artagnan guessed that the return of his wife was troubling him deeply. After all, Athos had sworn to kill her should she ever show her face in Paris again. But now the king had granted her clemency for her crimes, so his hands were bound.
Who knows, the younger silently wondered, maybe he's secretly relieved… I'm rather sure he still loves her, somehow…
He really wished for his brother to speak to him, to share his burden, but Athos most likely never would. So he would simply stay at his side and provide silent, unobtrusive support. And make sure that Athos got home safe after drowning his sorrows.
Having prepared himself for a rather long night, d'Artagnan noticed with obvious surprise when the former 'comte' rose just after having finished the second bottle.
"What?" Athos asked, standing and waiting, and founding himself eyed critically by his young friend.
"Nothing," d'Artagnan hurried to say, rising as well.
Athos tilted his head, an ironic smirk tugging at one corner of his mouth. "Thanks to your company, I do not feel the need to drink tonight. That is what you're wondering about, isn't it, d'Artagnan?"
"Uuh…" the younger made an unintelligible noise, before a broad smile enlightened his face.
Athos' smirk morphed into a more natural smile, his heart warmed by the simple acceptance he got from his youngest brother. He would never say it aloud, but the boy's presence was really good for him, although the pup was sometimes driving him mad with his recklessness. The Gascon's loyalty and steadfastness and the fact that he had never judged him, not after he had blurted out his darkest secret in his presence, and not even after he'd shot him, were still almost unbelievable from his point of view and yet… It was comforting and relieving, and making him feel better, worthier. He was grateful for it. But that he never would tell anyone.
"Well then, back to the garrison, I guess?" d'Artagnan said, jolting Athos out of his thoughts.
"Yes. But maybe not straightaway, I'd like to take a walk through the night, if you don't mind." The former 'comte' knew he needn't explain himself, for he was sure that d'Artagnan sensed what was bothering him.
And the Gascon didn't disappoint him. "As you wish…"
Walking the silent, Parisian streets, d'Artagnan took the opportunity to ask about the one, simple statement Athos had made that afternoon when they all had sat at their table. 'You're anything but ordinary.' The words were still echoing in his mind and after his first joy about them, the last days he had started to think about what his mentor could have meant.
"Athos…" he hesitated, pondering how to continue.
With a sigh, the addressed stopped and turned to look at him.
Seeing the older man's guarded expression, d'Artagnan immediately knew that his mentor was expecting to be questioned about his wife. Deciding to cut it short, the young musketeer simply said what was on his mind.
"Do you really deem me extraordinary?"
His insecurity and the disbelief must have been audible, for his mentor just huffed and shook his head somewhat exasperatedly.
"Do I indeed have to repeat myself?" the swordsman asked rhetorically, sighing once more when his young friend only looked at him.
"You are brave, d'Artagnan, and steadfast. Loyal to your king and even more to us, your brothers. Honourable, kind and big-hearted and intelligent. You defy injustice and unfairness. You stormed into our lives like a whirlwind and found your place in our midst, in our hearts, as if you'd been the missing piece we never missed. Not before we met you. Never before has a man, as young as you, made it into the musketeers, with no experience in battle or soldiering at least. And although your recklessness, your stubbornness and your temper sometimes – no," he corrected himself with a smirk, "...most times drive me mad, yes… You are extraordinary. And you will make a great musketeer one day."
Athos looked at his little brother, who at this moment seemed once more incredibly young in his baffled astonishment, and smiled more openly than ever. When d'Artagnan didn't say anything but continued staring at him, seemingly trying to grasp the meaning of his words, he gripped the younger man's shoulder and squeezed it.
That brought the boy back to himself and his stunned expression morphed into one of pure delight and pride.
"Don't make me regret telling you that," the swordsman spoke drily, but still with a small grin adorning his face.
The Gascon shook his head, unable to wipe the proud grin completely from his face and still speechless.
"Well then, I guess we better keep going. In case you didn't notice, d'Artagnan, it's raining. And as much as I like the solitude the rain provides, I would prefer not to get soaked to the skin."
Despite Athos' complaining, they had walked in a rather slow pace towards the garrison, each man in his own thoughts. Though d'Artagnan was still stunned, he had stayed silent and allowed Athos to let his mind wander. He knew his older brother had opted for the longer way home because he needed some time to think, but didn't want to be alone with his thoughts. Most likely the older was rattled by the turn of events, his over-protectiveness as clear an indication as his taciturnity, but the swordsman would deal with it the way he always did… silent and to himself.
When they finally reached the garrison, they were both almost soaked through. Their coats were heavy with rain, their leathers jarring from humidity and d'Artagnan's hair dripping wet, as was Athos' hat. So they headed straight for the kitchen, where a fire was always kept burning, just in case it suddenly might be needed. After doffing their coats and placing them over some chairs, the Gascon stoked the fire until it was burning brightly again. Meanwhile, Athos had gone through Serge's stock and found a small rest of spiced wine, which he placed near the fire to heat up.
D'Artagnan pushed a bench as close to the fire as possible and seated himself on it, stretching his legs and arms towards the pleasant warmth. Now that he was out of the wet and cold he felt the chill spreading through his bones. Unable to suppress a shiver, he smiled nevertheless, remembering Athos' honest answer to his question. Those few words, he would never forget, and he would do everything in his might to never make Athos regret saying them. He would make him proud.
"Drink this," Athos' voice demanded, while he pushed a mug with steaming wine into his hands.
Then the older took his place right beside him, so close that their thighs and shoulders were pressed together, and grabbed his own mug to warm his hands. For a while, they simply sat there, staring into the flames and again each in his own thoughts, neither of them caring about the silence between them, which was only interrupted by the sizzling and crackling of the burning wood.
"You need a hat," the swordsman stated a bit later, taking in d'Artagnan's still dripping hair.
The youth looked up, saw his brother's smirk and simply shook his head like a wet dog, sending water drops flying through the room.
"Hey," Athos protested, quickly shuffling away from the younger man, but barely suppressing a laugh.
Rising, he went back to Serge's stock and, after a brief search through the cupboards, he found what he'd been looking for. Returning to the fireplace, he tossed a towel over to his brother, before refilling both their mugs with the rest of the wine.
"Thanks." The Gascon's voice was muffled under the linen that he was rubbing his hair dry with.
As soon as d'Artagnan was done, the former 'comte' handed him his mug again.
"Well," Athos began after another silent round of sipping spiced wine and staring into the fire, "it can't be long till we're back on palace duty."
"Mmh… Then we'll see if my absence has done the trick," the younger said.
"You know what he's like," Athos continued, deliberately not using a name or title. "Skittish and giddy, with the attention span of a child. He has surely forgotten what's happened already."
D'Artagnan looked at him, somewhat shocked about the way the older man was speaking of their ruler. If someone else would overhear talk like this, the swordsman would be arrested for treason. No matter that most people at court were thinking the same or that every word was true.
"You're particularly blunt tonight," the Gascon stated. "Where does it come from?"
His older brother merely shrugged, but didn't answer. Instead he emptied the rest of his wine in one gulp and resumed staring into the flames.
Knowing that he wouldn't get an answer, d'Artagnan emptied his mug as well and sat silently at his oldest brother's side. It would last a bit longer till their leathers were halfway dry, so that they could undress more easily before climbing into their beds. If Athos wasn't up to talking any more, he would be content with sitting here, bearing him company and get warm again.
They had just departed for the night, the Gascon already heading for his room, when there was a strangled noise at the gates, a muffled thud of a body collapsing to the ground. Immediately alert, Athos turned on his heels and caught a glimpse of a big, hooded figure, quickly crossing the yard and hurrying up to Treville's office.
Following the intruder, he was joined by d'Artagnan, who of course had also noticed that something was amiss. The two musketeers silently took the stairs and saw the man entering their Captain's room. After sharing a quick look, both nodded simultaneously and then d'Artagnan went right to enter the office through one of the windows, whilst Athos took the second, secret door, leading directly into Treville's sleeping quarters.
The room was dimly lit and for merely a second the swordsman froze when he saw the man holding his Captain hostage, a blade pressed against his throat.
"I … warn you, I'm a desperate man. If you resist, I will kill you… I want an audience with your king. And I have no time to waste," he heard the dark-skinned man say.
Crossing the room in absolute silence, he noticed d'Artagnan joining him from the other side. Aiming at the intruder, Athos cocked his gun. "Drop it!"
The man froze and then there was the sound of d'Artagnan cocking his pistol as well.
"Do as he says… or we will kill you, where you stand!" The Gascon's voice was low and threatening and finally the assailant released the Captain and moved back.
Treville rose from his chair and quickly brought a safe distance between him and his uninvited guest. "I know you," he said, taking a closer look at the big, dark skinned man, guarded closely by his musketeers, "…you're in the Spanish army."
Turning, he nodded to Athos and d'Artagnan, in some sort of introduction. "This is General Tarík Al Aman…"
Well, and the following you all know, don't you? So this is…