The journey from the Duke of Lebron's estate, back to the Palace had been quiet. King Louis was in a good mood, despite the long hours of travel in the carriage, over bumpy roads. Even the fact that the Red Guard were travelling along with the Musketeers to protect the King, hadn't created any real issues.

Despite all that, Athos felt uneasy as darkness fell and they still had five hours before they reached the Palace. At the moment they were pulled off the road to allow the King to rest and partake of a quick repast before continuing on their way. As he paced up and down the road, eyes searching the shadowy darkness, Athos could not shake off the sense of unease. He was about to share his concerns with his Musketeer brothers when all hell broke loose.

A dozen or so men came racing towards them on horse back, swords and pistols drawn.

"Protect the King!" Athos shouted, before launching himself towards the oncoming attacker, prepared to defend his King.

Musketeers and Red Guards alike joined Athos, while D'Artagnan herded Louis into the carriage and the driver took off, pushing the horses into a gallop to make good their escape. The sound of gunshot and the clang of sword upon sword filled the night air, as the attackers were slowly beaten down until only one was left standing.

Athos stood before the other man, eyes blazing. "Who are you and why have you attacked the King's party?" he demanded.

"Death to King Louis!" the man snarled, only to gurgle on his own blood a moment later as Athos' sword pierced his heart.

"Speaking of the King, " Aramis interjected, after making the sign of the cross over the dead man. "I hope he got off safely."

Porthos snorted. "Of course he's safe, the pup was with him." He had faith in D'Artagnan's ability to protect the King.

As did Athos. However, that did not mean that he wasn't concerned about them both. "Let's go and check upon the youngling and our King, shall we?" he proposed.

"We shall," Aramis agreed, and soon the trio were mounted and on their way. They rode a fair distance before finding the Royal Carriage in front of a broken down stone lodging. Leaving their mounts out front the three Musketeers made to enter, only to find their way blocked by D'Artagnan, who had his sword raised and ready to do battle.

"Easy, pup, it's us!" Porthos announced, stepping into a sliver of moonlight so the young man could see his face.

D'Artagnan heaved a sigh of relief, dropping his sword arm. "Are you all well?" His brothers safety was D'Artagnan's first concern, and he studied them all searching for signs of injury.

Athos clapped the boy on the shoulder. "We're fine, but the same cannot be said about the attackers. All dead." He gestured to the lodging. "I take it the King is safely inside?"

"He is," D'Artagnan confirmed. "Along with the carriage driver. Come inside, King Louis has been waiting anxiously." With that D'Artagnan turned and led the way.

"There you are!" Louis exclaimed, as soon as he saw the three Musketeers. "You killed those marauders?"

Athos nodded. "We did, your highness."

Louis clapped his hands with glee. "I hope they suffered horrible deaths!" he enthused.

"Painful enough," Aramis allowed. "Are you well, my liege?"

"Perfectly fine, thanks to D'Artagnan," Louis confirmed. "When that madman threw his blade at me, young D'Artagnan stepped in front of me. He protected me as I knew he would."

Athos was about to comment on the fact that D'Artagnan was well trained indeed, when the true meaning of the King's words hit him like a slap in the face. "D'Artagnan stepped in front of the blade that was being thrown at you, my liege?"

Louis nodded. "Yes, yes, and it didn't even slow him down. He pushed me into the carriage then slayed the man effortlessly before we drove off."

"D'Artagnan!" It was Porthos who shouted the boy's name and leaped forward to catch him as he fell, even as Athos and Aramis turned in their direction. The gentle giant of a Musketeer lifted the boy, dark eyes wide with fear as he asked, "Where shall I lay him down?"

"Over here!" Aramis was already directing Porthos to a nearby corner of the room that was fairly well lit by a trio of torches. He swept off his coat and laid it down on the stone floor, before gesturing at Porthos to lay D'Artagnan down upon it. Once that was done he bade his big friend, "Fetch my pouch in the saddle bag." It contained the things he would need to care for their youngest.

Athos hovered beside them, eyes locked on D'Artagnan's pale face. "What can I do?"

Aramis didn't hesitate to reply. "I need clean cloths, water and spirits."

"I have them!" Athos rushed to his own horse, quickly retrieving an extra shirt, a skin of water and a flask of strong rum. Moments later he was back, setting everything down next to Aramis who was unrolling the items from his medicinal pouch. He watched as Porthos made short work of unlacing D'Artagnan's leathers and ripping open his shirt. He was as surprised as the others to discover that the boy had stuffed a rag against the wound in an attempt to staunch the bleeding.

"You taught him well, Aramis," Porthos stated, proudly.

Their medic nodded, eyes and hands roving over their youngest. "He did well indeed and a good thing, for the wound is deep." Reaching for the flask of Rum, Aramis ordered his brothers, "Hold the boy well, this is going to sting."

Athos moved behind D'Artagnan, leaning back against the wall before easing the boy up so he could cradle the slender body against his chest, before gripped D'Artagnan's wrists in each hand so he could pin him. He watched Porthos shift to hold the long legs. "Do it," Athos ordered, wincing as Aramis poured the Rum over the wound.

D'Artagnan's body seized up for a heart-stopping moment before a ragged cry tore from his throat. He then went limp for a bare second before he bucked and trembled as the fire in his side ravaged his flesh.

"It's all right," Athos whispered in an attempt to soothe the boy, even as he held him firm. "I've got you. You're all right."

"Athos," D'Artagnan whimpered, the tautness of his body easing slightly as trembling overtook him. "Hurts..."

The confession made Athos' cold heart ache. "It will pass," he stated, easing his grip as D'Artagnan's struggles ceased and the slender body slumped into him. "You'll be fine as soon as Aramis is finished giving you another scar." Athos smoothed soft strands of dark hair off the boy's sweaty forhead, eyes locked on Aramis' steady hand as he sewed the wound closed with neat stitches.

D'Artagnan looked as if he would argue, but instead his eyelids fluttered and closed as he slipped into unconsciousness. He didn't hear Athos' gasp of concern or feel the strong arms that held him tight as if fearful that he would slip away.

"Aramis, how is he?" Athos demanded, hearing the fear that colored his voice.

"He's lost a lot of blood and is already feverish," Aramis replied, looking grim. "There's only so much I can do for him here and he's too weak to move."

Porthos wasn't about to accept that they could lose their youngest. "The whelp is young and strong, he can fight this easy."

Aramis smiled and nodded, but could not hide the concern that shimmered in his eyes. "D'Artagnan is young and strong and a fighter, no doubt, but tonight he must fight to cling to life."

"Then that's what he shall do," Athos interjected. He watched as Aramis gently bound D'Artagnan's wound, then he shifted into a more comfortable position for both himself and the boy. "Porthos, could we borrow your cloak as a blanket? D'Artagnan is shivering."

"Of course!" Porthos whipped off his cloak and draped it over the boy, before turning to Aramis. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Patting the giant on the shoulder, Aramis replied, "You can pray, my friend. Other than that it's up to D'Artagnan."

Athos studied his friends. "I need the two of you to keep watch over the King, he looks to be in shock." From the moment the moment D'Artagnan had collapsed, King Louis had turned white before sinking to the ground with his eyes locked on the young Musketeer.

"Call me if you need me," Aramis requested, before he and Porthos pulled King Louis to his feet and took him a fair distance away to settle him down for the remainder of the night.

"It's just you and me now, D'Artagnan," Athos said softly. He paused to chuckle softly as he overheard King Louis tell Aramis to order D'Artagnan to be well immediately. "By order of the King you must get better, whelp," Athos continued. "No other outcome is acceptable, to any of us."

Stirring slightly, D'Artagnan's eyes fluttered open as a quiet moan escaped him. "Athos," he whispered.

Voice husky with emotion, Athos replied, "I'm here, whelp, and I'm not going anywhere. So I need you to sleep and heal."

"I...I feel...strangely," D'Artagnan whispered.

"Strangely?" Athos echoed, not liking the way that sounded.

D'Artagnan hummed as if in agreement before releasing a breathy sigh. "Am I floating, Athos?" he queried.

Athos wondered if he'd heard the boy correctly, but he answered anyway. "No, pup, you're not floating. You're secure in my embrace."

"Don't let go, Athos, promise you won't let go," D'Artagnan begged, suddenly sounding impossibly young and fearful.

"I won't let go," Athos promised, feel a wave of his own fear wash over him as the boy went limp in his arms. "Aramis!" he shouted. "I need you!"

Aramis was kneeling beside them a heartbeat later. He pressed the back of one hand to D'Artagnan's forehead and tutted, before pressing his palm to the whelp's chest. A moment later he exhaled a sigh of relief. "He's breathing, but his fever is rising."

Athos took a moment to breathe because, for a moment, his own heart had stuttered in his chest. "D'Artagnan said he felt strangely, like he was floating."

"What does that mean?" It was Porthos who asked the question, for he had come running over with Aramis.

"It means we need to cool him down immediately!" Aramis hissed. "His fever is such that it's as if it's melting him from the inside out. His body cannot withstand it for long."

Athos pushed back the fear that Aramis' words brought him and made himself think of a way to fix D'Artagnan. "The horse trough, can we soak him in there?"

Aramis nodded. "That just might work, the air is chill enough to make the water cold, but we'll need to keep him warm once we bring him back in or he'll get sicker. Porthos, help Athos strip D'Artagnan down then put him in the trough while I fetch blankets and cloaks."

They did as he bid, Athos fingers feeling useless to the point that Porthos was the one who effenciently stripped the boy down to his braes then lifted him into his mighty arms before striding out into the night. Athos nearly faltered as he rose to his feet, legs feeling numb and ungangly for a moment, but then he followed and reached the trough in time to help Porthos hold their youngest.

The cold water brought an instant reaction from D'Artagnan and he struggled, hard, against them for a time, begging them to let him go and nearly breaking Athos' heart in the process. But it was only when D'Artagnan shook so hard that his teeth chatter, did Aramis deem they could remove him from the trough and bring him back inside.

Porthos lifted the boy back into his arms, pausing only long enough for Athos to drape his cloak over him. Then they were back inside, Aramis leading them over to wear he had started a fire that gave off a fair amount of heat. Aramis had also created a makeshift pallet and he gestured Porthos over to it, grabbing a blanket and using it to dry D'Artagnan off before they laid him down again.

"Is he better?" Athos asked, even as he knelt down beside their youngest brother, layering the shivering form in blankets and cloaks.

"He's definitely cooler," Aramis replied, after pressing his cheek to D'Artagnan's forehead. "But he's not out of the woods yet." As much as Aramis wanted to reassure his brother's he refused to give them false hope. Because D'Artagnan was weak from blood loss, his body would be hard put to fight off the fever and infection.

Not what Athos wanted to hear, and he was about to say as much when the King made a sudden appearance beside them.

Looking sad and anxious, Louis asked, "Is there anything I can do to help? Anything at all." D'Artagnan was quite his favorite Musketeer and he did not want to lose him.

"Without proper medicines there isn't much any of us can do but wait, I'm afraid," Aramis replied.

"Maybe this can help in some way," Louis countered, yanking off the chain he was wearing. Attached to it was a small vial with a lumpy object inside it." He held it out to Aramis.

Who took it gingerly at first, but upon closer inspection he felt hope rise inside him. "Where did you get this, your highness? If I may ask."

Louis shrugged. "The Duke's dotty sister. Crazy as a loon she is but one must be polite and all. So I accepted her trinket with good grace. She believes she's a gypsy and that the root thing inside the vial is powerful magic that can save lives."

"She's right," Aramis stated, popping the cork out of the vial and dumping the root into his palm for the other's to observe. "This root, when crushed and pulped can be chewed or put into a tea, depending on the strength you require. It tastes bitter and nasty, but it do wonders to fight off fever and infections."

"Are you for certain?" Athos wanted to believe it to be so, but it seemed too miraculous a circumstance to put his faith in. Not when D'Artagnan's life was at stake.

Aramis was already pulling a small piece of polished leather, that he had coated with a hard substance so that he could use it to mix up powders and such when out in the field, out of his pocket. He set it on a flat surfaced stone, found a smaller stone, then he smashed the root into pulp before separating a tiny bit. "I need to put this on D'Artagnan's tongue so it absorbs into him as quickly as possible."

Athos helped his friend make that happen and then he locked his eyes on the boy's face. D'Artagnan was so still and ashen nJUBF Athos fear that he might be beyond saving. He voiced his fears out loud.

"Give it a bit of time, this will work." Aramis patted Athos on the shoulder. "Sit with him and let me know if you need me. I'm going to clean up my supplies and save what's left of the root. If Treville allows it, I might take a trip back to visit the Duke's sister in the next few days."

"Forget Treville," King Louis countered, smiling and feeling a bit pleased with himself for being able to help D'Artagnan. If only the boy would hurry and wake up now. "You have my permission to go back, and you may insist on taking all of the root that you need."

Aramis sketched a bow. "My thanks, your Highness. I will do so." In truth he would charm the woman into showing him where she found the root, but that was a plan he could keep to himself.

Porthos was perched next to Athos, eyes on D'Artagnan as well, and he didn't like how the boy was shivering. "Do we have more blankets? He looks cold."

"He'll be fine," Aramis replied. "That's the medicine at work." Certain that D'Artagnan would get better, Aramis whistled softly to himself as he neatly repacked his supplies.

The vigil over D'Artagnan lasted until dawn, when Aramis stirred from his light, cramped, doze at the sound of his name. Painfully stretching his neck, he gasped when he realized the boy was sitting up and staring at him. "D'Artagnan!" Athos' shout roused the others and they all moved to surround the lad.

"How are you feeling?" Athos asked.

"Why am I all but naked?" D'Artagnan countered, figuring his question was more important.

Athos snorted, feeling almost dizzy with relief. Their little brother was better and acting like his old self. "What do you remember?" Athos prompted.

D'Artagnan was silent for a long moment before replying. "The fight and getting stabbed." He shifted in Aramis' direction, pointing a shaky finger at his friend. "You stitched me up and it hurt."

"That I did," Aramis allowed. He moved closer and pressed the back of one hand to D'Artagnan's cheek. "Damp and cool, the fever broke."

"You tried to drown me." D'Artagnan blasted that accusation in Porthos' direction.

The big Musketeer laughed instead of taking offense. "Aramis made me do it," he stated, letting his friend take the fall for that particular action.

Athos was glad he wasn't being accused, since he had helped. "Are you ready to go home, lad?"

"I am." Shifting aside the layers of blankets and cloaks that were draped over him, D'Artagnan attempted to rise, only to find his legs were as shaky as a newborn foals. "What's wrong with me?" he demanded, ever and always irritated with any form of weakness in himself.

"Let's get you dressed, shall we?" Athos offered, helping D'Artagnan to rise and do just that without making a big deal out of it. He knew the lad was filled with pride, as were they all, so Athos filled him in as he helped D'Artagnan lace this and tug on that. "You lost a lot of blood and it seemed at one point we might lose you."

King Louis appeared, right on cue, to boast, "But I saved you."

D'Artagnan frowned. "You saved me?" he echoed.

"I did, with my root." Louis was grinning from ear to ear with happiness as seeing D'Artagnan on his feet. Albeit a bit wobbly. "You will ride in the carriage with me and I'll tell you the whole story. It's quite a wonderful story and I'm a bit of a hero in it, if I do say so myself."

"So it seems," D'Artagnan muttered, feeling so confused that he didn't even protest when Porthos lifted him off his feet and carried him out to said carriage. He soon found himself settled inside with the King and Athos, whom Louis had insisted must ride with them as well.

It was D'Artagnan's good fortune that he fell asleep within minutes of the telling, leaving Athos to oooooh and ahhhhhh at the appropriate moments.

There were moments where he drifted in soft shadows, and sometimes there were voices and whispers and the comfort of warm hands. Then the familiar sound of a stuttering snore brought D'Artagnan to full awareness and he was surprised to find himself in Athos' lodgings, with the man himself stretched out in a chair beside him.

"Why am I in your bed?" D'Artagnan queried.

"You're resting," Athos replied, offering a mug of sweet water. "Rest some more."

D'Artagnan allowed himself to relax against the pillows behind him. "I had strange dreams."

Athos shook his head as he reclaimed his chair. "Not dreams, but we'll rehash events when you wake up again."

"I'm not tired," D'Artagnan insisted, only to drift off into shadows once more. This time there were no dreams, just the sound of Athos's humming and the sense of being safe and home.

THE END