A/N: The final chapter! Thank you to everyone who's commented, favourited, followed or just read and loved in secret! Hope to see you around for another story! :)
Two days later, back in his usual spot between Aramis and Porthos, Athos snaps to attention at morning muster. Treville, walking past him, grazes him with his penetrating blue gaze, and no one but Athos perceives the tiny nod of approval the captain gives him.
Athos' wounded arm is strapped to his chest, mostly to humor Aramis, but Athos insisted on reporting for duty. After reconciling with Treville, put to shame by the captain's paternal mixture of strictness and clemency, he's determined to earn back his place in the regiment, and he's not going to accomplish that by hiding in the infirmary. His fellow-soldiers are casting him sideway glances, some of them kind, but most of them resentful. He hears some muttering behind his back that Treville silences with a glare.
To his left, Aramis manages a twofold expression between contentment and vigilance. The Spaniard, by nature, has never been able to hold a grudge for long, and he'd accepted Athos' apology with his usual grace while stitching up his arm. He'd given Athos a speech about his self-destructive behaviour and then moved on to lecturing him on his wound and how he was supposed to, for once, give it a chance to heal properly. Reproachful fussing: if that is all Athos will have to bear as punishment from Aramis, he'll happily take it.
To his right, Porthos stares straight ahead, still clearly furious. Only reluctantly, he'd accepted Athos' apology and then given him a hard slap to his shoulder that had made Aramis wince in alarm, afraid for his needlework. Unlike Aramis, the streetfighter was not going to let him get away lightly. His anger wasn't about what had happened between Athos and Anne. Porthos, with his big heart, would never judge Athos for making mistakes in the name of love, even if that love was poisoned. But Porthos had fought his way into the Musketeers through hunger, poverty and discrimination, fought harder than Athos to get where he is now, and he is less forgiving about Athos almost throwing it all away so thoughtlessly. Porthos will make him work to earn a full pardon, and that is what Athos will do.
Next to Porthos, d'Artagnan is utterly failing at hiding his happiness. He's been back on duty for a week now, and he's bounced back with full and captivating force. The new gash on his forehead, neatly sewn shut by Aramis, only serves to make him look more adventurous. The Gascon's joy at being unleashed again is written all over him, from his dancing eyes to his puffed-out chest, and a twinkling side-glance tells Athos that his return plays a part in the lad's elation.
"Sword practice!" Treville shouts. "One-on-one. Rotate pairings at my command! Pay attention to your steps! I've seen negligent footwork recently. We are musketeers, gentlemen, not the Red Guard. Allez!"
"You should sit this one out," Aramis whispers at Athos, nodding at his bound arm.
Athos shakes his head. "I'm fine," he replies firmly. And, for Aramis' benefit, he adds: "I'll be careful."
Treville himself pairs them up, and Athos finds himself facing Porthos. Provocatively rotating his sword in his hand, the big musketeer squints sternly at Athos.
"Yo' sure yo' ready for this?"
"Ready when you are."
Athos was right: Porthos does NOT let him get away lightly.
The attack is fierce, a succession of blows that wouldn't really hurt Athos but definitely mark him if they hit home. Athos, fighting one-handed, grits his teeth and digs his heels into the ground, his wrist protesting painfully as he blocks the blows. His balance, too, is a little off with his arm strapped to his chest. But he's sober and still fast and lithe, and, paying close attention to where he places his feet, he manages to evade more of Porthos' attacks than having to parry them. He ducks and twirls, technique over brute force, letting Porthos tire himself out.
And making him angrier than ever.
But anger is a bad instructor, and when Porthos thrusts again, with too much force and little accuracy, Athos swiftly steps aside, only leaving his foot in his opponent's path. With a grunt, Porthos trips and falls, catching himself on one knee and hand. Athos slips behind him, his blade flashing as he gently slides it across Porthos' shoulder and places it against his neck.
Porthos freezes in surprise. The angry scowl on his face deepens. Two other musketeers, fighting next to them, have stopped and are looking on with interest, and with a little fear.
Carefully, Athos withdraws his blade and sheathes it. Then he extends his good arm to the kneeling musketeer.
"Take my hand, brother," he offers.
For a prolonged heartbeat, Athos is afraid that Porthos will bat his hand away. And indeed, his friend squints darkly at him. The moment stretches into painful seconds. But then Porthos huffs and grabs Athos' gloved hand, and as he rises to his feet, his face softens into a smirk.
"Thought all that wine would've slowed ya down," he grumbles good-naturedly. "Or at least that wound." He dusts himself off. "'suppose it didn't!"
Athos clucks his tongue and smirks back. Relief floods him.
"Never underestimate your opponent," he says pleasantly. "Not even when he's a one-armed drunk."
Porthos huffs again and shakes his head. His lips split into a grin, his teeth flashing white in his dark, dusty face. One of the on-looking musketeers chuckles, even if the other one shakes his head in resentment. Small steps.
"Another round?" Athos raises his eyebrows in question.
Porthos nods and raises his sword, giving him a friendly glare. "Betcha! And I will kick yo' sorry arse all 'cross the garrison this time."
However, before they can re-engage, Treville appears beside them.
"Athos," he says gravely. "A word?"
They step aside, the captain motioning Athos out of earshot from the rest of the men.
"I received word about Milady de Winter," he starts, face remaining neutral.
Athos' stomach lurches.
"A woman of her description was seen crossing the border to Spain. Which, as you are aware, means she's out of France's jurisdiction."
Athos inhales sharply. "You can't be certain it is her."
"She left two bodies behind. And a witness saw the scar on her neck."
Unconsciously, Athos reaches for his own neck, feeling his throat tighten. It's phantom pain. His wounds have healed without a trace.
"Are you terminating the search?" he asks hoarsely.
Treville nods. "For now, yes. We cannot afford to have so many men looking for her when we need them elsewhere. Not when, in all likelihood, she's left the country. But we will keep circulating her portrait, and the garrison commanders across the south-west are advised to stay alert."
The captain's face softens, and he briefly touches Athos' good arm.
"That's all I can do for now, son. I'm sorry."
Swallowing, Athos lowers his eyes and gives a brief nod.
Guilt returns with a vengeance, and Treville's gentleness only deepens it. As Athos returns to his comrades, the day's brightness suddenly feels muted. Clouds gather in Athos' mind, and he fights to push them back. His throat still feels tight.
"Ah, here he comes to surrender!"
Face bright, d'Artagnan turns away from a glowering and heavily breathing Aramis to challenge Athos.
"Or do you think you can beat me?"
Despite himself, Athos has to smile. A trail of dirt, evidence of numerous shoulder-rolls, decorates the Gascon's shirt and buttocks. His hair is dripping with sweat, and he has a fresh nick on his cheek, but he is grinning triumphantly, eyes sparkling. Cockily, d'Artagnan twirls his dagger in his left hand, pointing at Athos with the sword in his right.
"Huh? Wanna give it a try?"
There is such joy in the lad's face, it's catching. Only a few weeks ago, he was near death, in terrible pain, feeling guilty about having been duped by Milady. And now here he is, fully recovered, once again ready to take the world by storm. Trial by fire, in d'Artagnan's case, happened in the most literal sense, and he's passed the test with flying colours. The lad, too, was badly burned, and perhaps Athos should learn to take his scorch marks with the same grace as the young musketeer, with the same readiness to forgive himself and move on.
"Not so smug, young friend," Athos replies warningly, drawing his sword. "It remains to be seen who will surrender to whom in the end."
To his left, he hears Porthos laugh and sees Aramis roll his eyes in amusement.
And then they cross blades, Athos and d'Artagnan, metal hissing enticingly against metal, and as they throw themselves into a wild duel, the sky above the garrison brightens, plunging both men into sunlight.