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Musketeers fic: No Doubts (2/2)

December 18th, 2016 (06:01 pm)
bored

feeling: bored

Continued from PART ONE.



-o-

Athos had rode hard all night.

He rides relentlessly now.

The reins are clutched in his hands, and he has one arm wrapped around Aramis, pulling him close. The cold being what it is, the direness of Aramis’ condition being so plain, it is only possible to describe it as a death grip.

Athos can only hope it is an expression, and not the truth.

His consciousness ebbing as the cold eclipses him. He’s not sure he’s even breathing now, and he can no longer distinguish one pain from another.

It matters not, though.

What matters is getting home, getting Aramis to the doctor.

Himself, he is slipping, but the thing that grounds him even when all else is failing is that Aramis is slipping faster, more precipitously. Though the rest of him is numb, Athos is keenly aware of that much. In the oppressive cold, Aramis’ head bobs forward and his body is lax. For all that Athos feels like he is dying, he worries that Aramis already has.

Athos rides harder still.

-o-

He knows the way to the garrison by instinct, which is probably how he ends up there with so little of his awareness still intact. He brings the horse to a lurching stop, and when he tries to dismount, he nearly falls, almost bringing Aramis down on top of him.

Porthos and D’Artagnan are waiting for them, though, and while they fumble to catch Athos, he shakes his head, almost drunkenly. “Get him to the doctor,” he orders over his thick tongue. “Get him now.”

They scarcely need to be told twice. Working together, they disentangle Aramis from Athos, Porthos taking the Spaniard by the armpits while D’Artagnan struggles to extract his feet from the mess. Porthos mutters something cross before hoisting Aramis up, pulling the cold, bleeding body against him and turning sharply for the doctor.

In that glimpse, Aramis is lifeless, his head tipped back and face colorless. One of his arms is folded over his chest, but the other dangles freely while Porthos charges away with all due haste.

It takes a moment for Athos to realize that D’Artagnan is frozen in place.

When he looks at the boy, he can see that his stomach is churning.

D’Artagnan is smart, strong and capable. He has the heart of a Musketeers.

Mostly, though, he has heart.

With a dead hand, Athos pats D’Artagnan on the shoulder. “Come,” he says, gently enough, but it’s still an order. “Get me up.”

D’Artagnan flinches, quite visibly, but he takes Athos’ outstretched hand, helping him to his feet. It is no easy task, and Athos fears he will fall again, but he wills himself forward. This is not the time and place for his own illness. There is enough to worry about with Athos’ cold.

All the same, Athos feels like he’s teetering. He steadies himself on D’Artagnan, taking a breath that feels like a knife in his chest. “Let’s go,” he says, putting aside his pain as best he can. “And see if the doctor needs any assistance.”

D’Artagnan nods his head, just slightly. “He just looked…”

Athos sighs. “In this cold, we all look a little that way,” he cajoles. “We got him back; we’ve done what we can.”

“And if it’s not enough?” D’Artagnan asks, the words hollow between them.

“It always has been before,” Athos reminds him. “Our doubts will do him no good, but our belief? Very well could.”

Resolve hardening, D’Artagnan draws his lips closed, his brow furrowed.

Athos pats him again, using the touch to lean heavily in and keep himself upright. “Now, come,” he says, nodding forward. “Our job is not yet finished. We don’t quit while the mission is still unfinished.”

D’Artagnan tips his head forward in asset, moving forward toward the doctor’s work room. Athos follows, each step nearly bringing tears to his exhausted eyes. He will not surrender to his body’s weakness, though. Not yet. Not when the mission is unfinished. Not when his men are still unaccounted for.

Not yet.

-o-

It is not a long walk to Lemay’s office, Athos knows this much, but it feels as long as the trail. Every step is tantamount to torture, leaving his head spinning and his chest aching. For this, he wants to arrive as quickly as possible.

For Aramis, he’s not so sure he ever wants to arrive. He can offer words of comfort to D’Artagnan, but Athos is no fool. He knows the effects of blood loss alone are enough to kill, and the wound has been untreated for nearly a day now. If the blood loss has not already done its job, a fever is not likely to be far behind to finish the job.

He cannot speak this, though, not to D’Artagnan. He scarcely wants to believe it himself, even if he is powerless against it. If it were left to him, he would find his way to the nearest barstool, but this is most decidedly not about him.

Sluggish as he feels, the world is brought into acute focus when they arrive at the doctor’s. Lemay is engaged in a flurry of activity, fully engaged in his element. It is a thing to behold, this much is true, and Athos might appreciate the man’s dedication more were it not for the grisly truth of it.

For as self possessed and capable as Lemay is, it is Aramis who lies on his table. His coat and shirt have been stripped away, and the blood slicked across his abdomen is stark against the sallow color of his skin. His eyes are closed, and his face is slack; the only indication that he is alive is Lemay’s continued action to save him.

In the bustle, Athos catches sight of the wound. The puckered skin is not unfamiliar to Athos -- he has seen more than his share of battle, both big and small -- but it still turns his stomach. For this is not some nameless opponent; this is not even a mere ally.

This is Aramis, one of his own. His friend.

“Normally I’d recommend one of you to hold him down,” Lemay says while he lays out his tools. They are cleaned and sharpened, and the light from the window glints off of them. “But I daresay he’s not likely to wake up in this state, no matter how much it hurts.”

“So you can get it?” Porthos asks, nearly demands. Standing on the side, he is leaning close to Aramis, one hand protectively on the pale, exposed skin of his upper shoulder.

Lemay is professional, and he’s given bad news before. Still, Athos can see his face twist with a certain kind of sympathy.

It’s pity.

It’s the sallow acknowledgement that he can get the ball out, but that the very process could kill Aramis. It’s the untenable truth that he does not expect Aramis to survive this.


D’Artagnan steps forward, closing in on the other side. “He’s going to be okay,” he says, so plaintively it hurts. “We rode all night to get him here.”

“To give him a fighting chance,” Porthos says, more vehemently now. “So fight.”

Pausing, Lemay presses his lips together. “Gentlemen, do not misunderstand me,” he says. “It is my intention to do everything that I possibly can for Aramis. But I merely want you to be prepared--”

It’s a gentle way of saying it, but it still hits like a sack of bricks. D’Artagnan visibly pales, and Porthos’ eyes flash with anger. Athos can understand it -- he sympathizes with it, he truly does -- but he’s also aware of the bigger picture. Porthos wants to threaten; D’Artagnan wants to hover; but the good doctor needs to work. If Aramis is to have any chance at all, Athos must act now.

This is why he rode all night, his own illness be damned.

This is why he will pull his men away now, the fear in his own gut notwithstanding.

“Come,” he says, laying a hand on D’Artagnan. His voice is thick and gruff, but concerned as they are with Aramis, no one seems to notice. “We need to let the doctor work.”

“I’m staying,” Porthos says, drawing himself up to full height and crossing his arms over his chest.

Athos offers a kind smile. “You would only be in the way,” he says. “I know you only want what is best for Aramis.”

This is the right approach, naturally. There is a reason that Athos serves as the defacto leader of the group. For where they are all smart and strong, Athos is cunning. It is a tactic he uses most in battle, but he will use it wherever it is called for.

Even among his friends.

Sensing his opening, Athos continues. “I’m sure Doctor Lemay will come for us the moment he has news.”

Lemay nods earnest. “Certainly,” he says. “You have my word.”

Porthos gives Aramis a lingering look, even as D’Artagnan allows himself to be moved to the door. His own head throbbing, Athos locks eyes with Porthos, holding the gaze long enough to make his point.

His jaw working, Porthos steps away, brushing by D’Artagnan as he all but charges from the room in a flush of emotion.

At the door, it is Athos who stays back. He has to swallow hard over the roughness of his throat, but he makes sure that Lemay can hear him. “You know what he means to us.”

Lemay offers the faintest of smiles in return. “I don’t believe in resigning anyone to death,” he says. “Hope is, at times, even more powerful than medicine.”

“Leave the hope to us,” Athos says. “We’re trusting you with the medicine.”

Lemay picks up one of the tools now, and Athos cannot let himself watch as he presses against the tender flesh of Aramis’ abdomen. Laid bare on the table, Aramis doesn’t even flinch. The lines of his face are lax, and it Athos feels his chest ache with new vigor. Aramis is brash and impulsive, and there are times when Athos thinks he is more trouble than he is worth. But he fits, somehow, so perfectly with all the rest.

Losing one would destroy them all.

The emotion rushes to his head and he turns hard to leave, refusing to accept that this is the last time he will see his friend alive.

-o-

He finds the others in the garrison. D’Artagnan is huddled in a chair, staring out the window while Porthos paces, long angry strides across the deserted room.

Athos is tempting to sit down as well, but the closest chair is all the way across the room. He is not sure he can make it that far; moreover, he suspects if he sits down, he may never get up again.

Also, the room is spinning badly now and Athos feels like his chest is still going to explode. He had hoped that being inside would make things better, but the receding numbness is only giving him full scope of just how horrible he feels.

“He’s got to be okay,” D’Artagnan says, not looking up. He’s not speaking to anyone in particular.

“He’s an idiot, that’s what he is,” Porthos grumbles, making a sharp turn to head back in the other direction. “Always preening and talking, and for what? To end up with a ball of lead in his gut?”

“But he’ll be okay,” D’Artagnan repeats, the hope tepid and desperate.

“If he’s not, I’ll kill him,” Porthos says, shaking his head tersely. “I’ll string him up myself, I will.”

It’s hitting them, each in their own ways. The Musketeers, they’re better as men of action. Given something to do, they can rise to any occasion.

Without orders, though; without a cause.

They can twist in the wind, the same as anyone else.

He watches as Porthos curls his hand into a fist. D’Artagnan rubs a weary hand over his face.

Worse than anyone else.

With effort, Athos clears his throat. The movement hurts, burning like fire up the inside of his gullet. All the same, he forces his leaden feet to stride forward, crossing through Porthos’ path and standing in D’Artagnan’s line of vision.

“This is a job we all understand; he know the risks,” he says, looking at them each in turn. “Even Aramis.”

Porthos pauses in his strides, long enough to sneer. “You say that like it makes a bit of difference to Aramis; he’s lying back there more dead than alive.”

“I know it makes no difference to Aramis,” Athos says. “But it makes a difference to us.”

D’Artagnan looks up at him, the long strands of his stringy hair falling away from his boyish features.

“To despair is to surrender already,” he says, as emphatically as possible. “And we cannot do that, not while Aramis is still giving his lifeblood to the cause.”

“Then what would you have us do?” D’Artagnan asks stiffly.

His head is a mess; his breathing is strained; but this is so abundantly clear. “We wait with hope,” he says. “And make ourselves strong even when we feel weak because we know our brother needs us.”

This is the only answer he has.

It is the only answer he needs.

D’Artagnan looks outside again, and Porthos starts up his pacing. Even Athos makes his way to the wall, leaning himself up against it to ready himself for the task to come.

They survived the mission; they endured the long ride home.

Now, Athos decides, they will prevail to wait.

-o-

Patience, they say, is a virtue. Despite his position as a Musketeer, Athos does not consider himself to be an especially virtuous man. The ability to wait, however, is not so much a virtue as one might say. In Athos’ experience, it is an inevitability. The virtue comes in how you pass the time.

Porthos is full of nervous energy as the daylight starts to wane. He can scarcely keep still, wearing a track across the wooden slat floor. D’Artagnan takes the opposite approach, pulling in on himself and sitting withdrawn on the chair. In the hours that have passed, the youngest member of their team has hardly moved a muscle.

Were it his wait alone, Athos would not stay there. He would not provide the anchor Porthos needed or the humanity D’Artagnan missed. Nay, under other circumstances, he would not face this wait sober, but this is most decidedly not about him.

He knows how little he can do to save Aramis by this point; he can, however, help the others.

And that is all he endeavors to do.

-o-

A simple task, in theory.

Athos finds it much more difficult in its application.

When the daylight starts to fade, a chill creeps into the room, even as the fire burns. Athos prods the wood, adding branches when it seems appropriate, but it hardly makes a difference for the cold that has settled deep in his bones.

Though he makes small talk with the others with smiles and quips, it is a chore just to hold himself upright. As a consequence, he sits as erect as possible. This both alleviates the pressure in his lungs and keeps him uncomfortable enough to keep his eyes open.

When the urge to cough is too strong, he swallows hard and grits his teeth. The pounding between his ears is almost impossible to ignore, and he tries to massage the bridge of his nose for minimal relief. There is nothing he can do about the rise of fever in his cheeks, and he can only hope that the answer will come before he collapses completely.

Of course, he assures himself that this is a good thing. If Aramis had not survived, they wouldn’t be waiting this long. Lemay is no soldier, but neither is he a coward. He would not leave them to wait unnecessarily. No, the wait meant that Aramis is still alive. He’s holding on, which is what Athos must do in turn.

Hold on.

The rest of the world can wait. Treville can wait with his report to the king, and the king can have his questions answered tomorrow. His own body can be put off, for as much as he crave the comfort of his bed or the restoring value of a warm cup of broth, he will not leave his men. They need him more than he needs himself.

This is the only resolve he has left.

It is, ultimately, the only resolve he will ever need.

-o-

It is dark by the time Lemay comes. In the flickering firelight, the shadows are deep, but they all spring to their feet anyway. The surge of adrenaline gets Athos on his feet, but his vision darkens precariously and for a minute, he fears he has pushed himself too far.

Struggling to keep his feet, he braces himself against the wall, blinking in desperation toward Lemay in an effort to cover his own dwindling health. He fights for the vestiges of his consciousness, and in the dim light, he can see the blood that stains Lemay’s clothes.

There is a lot of blood.

There is too much blood.

He lifts his weary eyes to Lemay’s face, and he sees the tired lines, the regretful incline of his head as he pauses to take a deep breath.

When Lemay lifts his gaze to Athos’, it is more than he can take. He has waited; he has persevered; and for this? To be told that it is all for naught?

Athos has been holding himself together on duty and hope; he has pinned this team together on the strength of his belief in them. If they have lost Aramis; they have lost everything.

For as strong as Athos tries to be, he is a mere mortal. He’s never been as strong as D’Artagnan believes or as cunning as Porthos seems to think. He’s never been as immovably decided in his judgment as Aramis would have others believe.

He’s a man, and he is weak.

Weaker than the rest.

He has held out this long for the sake of his men, but if Aramis is gone, if they have failed, then it is all for nothing.

It is all for nothing.

The question is choked out in his throat; the tears burn in his clouded eyes. The cold that has crept through his veins expands, freezing the very chambers of his heart until it pounds like stone in his hollow chest. The pressure in his head all but explodes and Athos finally gives up.

As he crashes to the floor, he can only think that this is the eventuality.

This is the end.

This is.

And nothing more.

-o-

The coldness overtakes him, wears him down, but it is the fire that consumes him.

It burns with a ferocity he cannot explain, and he has no choice but to stand idle while it rages. As it blazes, Athos is helpless against it. He can only watch while it burns.

The halls of his family’s estate are ablaze, the timbers sparking in the night with a relentless intensity. It takes his heirlooms, every last piece of his inheritance. The memory of his parents, the happy thoughts of a childhood gone by, are eradicated before he can scarcely realize what is happening.

He sees it come for his brother first, taking him quickly and wordlessly with the efficiently of an assassin. There is no time for him to cry out before he is gone, taken from this world as though he were never in it at all.

Milady screams vexations, but her wrath only fuels the flames. Her beauty is refined momentarily, and she shines like silver as the fire rages on. He reaches for her, for not even the fire can burn away his love for her, but the embers are too hot to hold, even for a second.

D’Artagnan is too scared to move as the flames catch on his clothes. Porthos fights, slashing his sword, but it does no good against the burning waves. Even Aramis falls short, closing his eyes as if he accepts this. They are the last to stand of the Musketeers, perhaps, but their talk of heroism and duty means nothing now. They are returned to dust, just like the rest of Athos’ life.

It burns everything he has ever loved. He is gutted and scorched, but not dead yet. In desperation, he beckons the flames closer, in need of any kind of reprieve.

But as the world falls to ash around him, he realizes there is no reprieve to be had. The flames encroach upon him and lick against the tenderness of his tired flesh, but they will not devour him so easily.

No, they take their time, first burning the screams from his throat and the aching from his head. The weariness is ignited in his very being, and the pain is ripped from his tired bones. The flames burn him, piece by piece, taking the whole of who he is. It consumes everything he is, turning his honor, his hope, his love -- all of it to ash.

The agony makes him wish for death, but it remains elusive.

For when the fire consumes all in its wake, his bones are added to the fire and he watches his world succumb again.

-o-

Athos prays for the darkness. In his greatness need, he calls back for the cold.

There is no answer, though.

For he is alone, now.

He is alone.

That, he decides, is a fate far worse than death.

-o-

This is the truth about fire, however.

Though it devours, though it destroys, it is not the end. The ash makes the ground fertile, and the world has always known what to do with a blank canvas.

The fire thaws the world’s potential.

And gives birth to life.

-o-

When Athos opens his eyes, it is a fresh, new world. The air is warm; the sun is bright through the windows, and Athos is, against the odds, very much alive.

He takes a moment to revel in that.

Of course, that’s when he remembers.

The cold, the illness. Porthos and D’Artagnan in the small room, waiting. Aramis, laid bare on Lemay’s table. That hesitation in the doctor’s eye that told him everything he didn’t want to hear.

In the second it takes to blink, Athos is flushed with cold, and his breath catches in his chest. Before he can stop himself, he’s coughing, the sound thick and loud, resounding in his ears as he tries -- and somewhat succeeds -- to clear his chest.

“Hey, now,” Porthos says. “Easy.”

It’s somewhat of a relief to hear a familiar voice, but the relief is short-lived at best. He’s not sure he can look up, not just for his physical weakness but his emotional failings, too. He’s not sure he can look at Porthos knowing that Aramis is dead.

His eyes are watering, and the pain builds behind his eyes.

“You’re supposed to drink something,” D’Artagnan coaches, and he sounds patient, like a parent with a small child. “Here.”

A cup appears before him, and weak as he is, he can hardly grab it. Still, it’s harder still to refuse it, and with trembling fingers he brings it to his lips. The tepid water is unexpectedly refreshing, a salve on his raw and swollen throat. Meekly, he lowers the cup again, allowing D’Artagnan to take it readily.

“That was a stupid thing you did,” Porthos says, looking down at him over the edge of his nose. “Almost dying like that.”

Athos, somehow, is not surprised by this. All the same, he cannot feasibly acknowledge it without more information.

“You did have us very worried,” D’Artagnan agrees. He draws himself down to his seat with a small, measured smile.

It is then that Athos notices the subtle things he missed before. The growth of the beard on D’Artagnan’s face; the circles under Porthos’ eyes. They are still wearing the same, sodden clothes from the trail.

With a frown, he rallies enough strength to speak. “How many days has it been?”

“Three,” D’Artagnan reports. “You spent most of them lost to fever.”

“Your breathing was bad, too,” Porthos reports. His lips are laid in a grim line. “The doctor says you’re lucky; first two days were touch and go.”

“We never left, though,” D’Artagnan tells him, as if to encourage him. “We knew if anyone could make it through, it would have to be you.”

Porthos snorts, leaning back in his seat wearily. “Not that you made it easy on us,” he says. “Cold compresses, ice baths -- I daresay, you owe us.”

Athos does not know whether to be embarrassed or grateful. In the end, though, he’s merely guilty. For all that his team did to keep him alive, he did not return the favor.

“You scared us, Athos,” D’Artagnan adds, somewhat gently. “You need to make sure you take care of yourself as much as you take care of us.”

With a huff, Porthos sits forward again. “Why didn’t you tell us you were feeling so poorly? You must have been burning with fever the whole way back? And you didn’t say a word!”

Athos presses his mouth into a regretful smile. “That far out on the road, it wouldn’t have made much difference; there was nothing you could do,” he says, and that much is the truth. Then, he offers a small shrug and swallows over the garbled feeling in his throat. “Besides, I had other priorities at the time, for whatever good that did.”

Porthos appears incredulous. “What good? Do you really doubt that, man?”

Frowning, Athos isn’t quite sure what to say.

“You did plenty of good,” D’Artagnan tells him. “The doctor says if you’d been any slower…”

He trails off, but it is not a statement of desolation. In fact, Athos realizes, there is no grief. They are tired, worn and weary -- but not broken.

Besides, if they had been at his side for three days, who had tended to the funeral?

It is then that he understands that he’s missed more than he thought, that these three days have not played out the way he thought. He looks from Porthos to D’Artagnan, then finally he cranes his head enough to see another cot in the room. Tired as he is, it takes him a moment to see, longer still to understand.

For on the cot, tucked into the covers, is Aramis.

Still pale, eyes closed, but his chest rises and falls.

“You know how to save a life,” D’Artagnan tells him, starting to smile again.

Porthos all but rolls his eyes. “Just not your own, apparently.”

The reprimands are perhaps well deserved. Athos cannot be sure; not when he is so transfixed with the obvious fact he almost dares not to let himself believe. “So he’s -- he’s okay?”

D’Artagnan sits back, giving Aramis a long look. “It was a near thing,” he admits. “But he’s fared better than you these last three days. He’s weak and sleeps often, but there’s no sign of infection.”

“Doctor says that the cold probably saved his life, slowed down his blood,” Porthos says.

D’Artagnan looks down at his hands. “It did the opposite for you, I’m afraid,” he says. He looks up again, somewhat resolved. “You should have told us.”

“Ah,” Athos says, shaking his head. He’s sore, down to every fiber of his being, but it is tolerable. He can only imagine how poorly he felt before; it is probably for the best that the fever held him in its grip so firmly. “It would not have made any difference. My condition would not have been better by staying out in the cold longer, and Aramis needed help as fast as possible.”

“Figures you’d say that,” Porthos says with a dismissive smirk.

D’Artagnan at least tries to be diplomatic. “The frantic pace did not do you any favors; you needed rest and food,” he says. “If we’d known, we could have split up, taken care of you and Aramis at the same time.”

Athos sighs. “It would have been an unnecessary distraction--”

“Unnecessary for you, maybe,” Porthos says with a foul grunt. “You think you’re the only one around here that can take care of things?”

“You say it’s all for one,” D’Artagnan points out. “That includes all of us, even you.”

“Besides, did you think about how Aramis would feel?” Porthos asks. “How he’d feel if you died to save his life?”

“How any of us would feel,” D’Artagnan amends quietly.

In truth, he has not. Athos is a man who knows how to focus on the big picture; he is capable of grand plans. In this, he is often singularly possessed, and while he knows he can rely on his brothers, he often fails to remember what that means exactly.

He can rely on them, not just for the mission. Not just in their duty, but in everything.

His eyes flit from D’Artagnan to Porthos and finally to Aramis. He would like to say that the cold clouded his judgement, that the fever compromised his intellect. He’d like very much to blame fire and ice for his predicament, and abdicate his own responsibility over a bottle of ale.

This is not how it is, however.

Aramis is alive; Porthos is steaming mad; D’Artagnan is a doting like a mother hen. The cold can freeze out his heart and soul, and the fire can burn away everything he loves, but this still remains.

They still remain.

The Musketeers.

He smiles, ever faint, but ever sure. “My apologies,” he says. “It was my mistake.”

Porthos does not hide his bemused contempt as he guffaws, noisily resettling himself in his chair. “One you will surely make again, of that I have no doubt.”

On the cot nearby, Aramis shifts before settling back into sleep.

D’Artagnan, for his part, smiles again. “And one we will be here to fix for you when you do.”

The cold has melted; the fire has faded. Athos has survived, but not by his own devices. There was a time when that might have mattered to him, but the life he sees for himself now, while not what he had ever planned, suits him better than it ought.

He returns the smile warmly, letting himself relax for what feels like the first time in days. Weeks. Years. “Of that, I have no doubt,” he says. “No doubt at all.”