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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Musketeers fic: Weak Links (1/1)

November 29th, 2017 (08:54 pm)
aggravated

feeling: aggravated

Title: Weak Links

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: Set in early S3, after Aramis rejoins the fold. No beta. Fills my hallucinations square for hc_bingo.

Summary: And to think, Aramis left them. And here they are, unwavering.



-o-

It’s the sting of the blade as it slices through his skin. He’s flayed, like a knife through parchment, and it’s unsettling the way his own insides slip against the metal.

The shock of it is numbing, at least for the moment. Wide eyed, he stares up at his attacker, wondering how he missed this. He knows, of course. It’s a fight -- isn’t it always? -- and they’re outnumbered badly -- as they are wont to be -- and Aramis can’t be perfect -- he’s never, ever been perfect.

That shock ends with a sharp, sluicing pain as the sword is pulled clean and the blood starts to well up, warm and thick, spreading down his stomach. He’s got a sword in one hand and a gun in the other, and it doesn’t do him a bit of good now, does it?

He hits his knees, struggling to catch his breath.

The man looms over him, sword poised for a more piercing blow. The first one had been chance, an exploitation of Aramis’ distraction while trying to cover his friends. He’d managed to deflect, but not enough.

His breathing staggers, and he can feel the blood as it soaks into the waist of his pants.

The sword swings, down toward the exposed flesh of his neck, across the vulnerable area across his chest, and that’s that.

With all he has, he manages to exhale.

That’s that.

-o-

The man falls, though. His own eyes go wide, and blood blossoms around the point of sword, which has been thrust through his chest, all the way. He’s dead before he hits the ground, as Athos stands in his place, his sword coated with red.

“Thank you,” Aramis hears himself saying, and it’s a stupid thing to say, but he’s a stupid man sometimes. A lot of the time.

Athos look at him in concern. “Aramis, that wound--”

The sound of gunfire, the cacophony of metal on metal. The fight’s not over, not for Athos.

Athos promptly slays another man, charging up from the side. Grunting, he steps over the body and pushes Aramis to the ground. “Play dead,” he orders.

Aramis flops on his back, staring up at the sky swirling above him. “May not have to pretend,” he murmurs.

Athos can’t hear him, already pulled back into the fray.

It’s just as well, Aramis says to himself as a cold wash of pain sweeps over his body.

His eyes flutter closed.

Aramis, after all, is not a man who does things in half-measures.

-o-

Darkness, he thinks, should be an escape.

Few things in Aramis’ life turn out how he thinks they should be, though.

-o-

He wakes up to blinding pain, blinding light. Blinding. He inhales sharply, trying to get his bearings, but everything hurts, everything.

“Careful now,” Porthos says, and the voice is strong and clear in his ear. The world is muddled, but Porthos is a solid anchor. Strong enough that Aramis stops fighting, just for a moment, and takes pains to focus his gaze.


Above him, Porthos smiles. But the smile is forced, and it doesn’t crinkle around his eyes the way it’s supposed to. Instead, there’s a vacant quality to the whole thing. Porthos is looking at him, but looking through him all at the same time. There’s an edge to his expression, one Aramis recognizes from the more difficult moments between them. It’s his look in battle; the look when things go from bad to worse.

Porthos is scared.

The revelation is heady, and Aramis feels like he might pass out again. He doesn’t, though, because Porthos is holding him, propping him up, keeping him close.

He realizes the truth rather belatedly.

Porthos is scared for him.

“Just easy,” Porthos tells him, the wetness in his eyes glinting against the sunlight.

Aramis does not want to deny him that, but he scarcely knows how to comply. He scarcely knows anything, except…

“Steady now,” Athos says a split second before he takes the frayed ends of Aramis’ shirt and rips them open.

Aramis startles badly. He looks up in time to see Athos, face full of determination, as he finishes the deed. He’s about to ask what the hell is going on when he sees D’Artagnan frantically ripping a piece of cloth to shreds.

“Should we boil some water?” D’Artagnan asks, laying the strips out on the ground next to Athos.

Athos shakes his head tersely, picking up the first one. “No time,” he mutters.

D’Artagnan doesn’t look at him, almost on purpose. It’s a subtle thing, but Aramis can sense it. He knows it, because D’Artagnan is open, less measured most of the time. But now, he’s closed himself off. “But infection--”

“Won’t matter if he bleeds to death first,” Athos says unsympathetically. “Now, lift him up--”

Porthos moves to comply, and Aramis remembers himself. He remembers who he is, what he’s done. He remembers that he’s been stabbed, but that he’s a musketeer.

He tries to push himself free, but Porthos holds him tighter. Athos curses under his breath, and D’Artagnan moves until he’s holding down Aramis’ feet.

“But--” Aramis starts. “I need to--”

He’s not sure what he intends to say. He needs to get up? He needs to leave? He needs to tell them that he’s okay? He needs to tell them that he’s sorry? He needs to start all this over, do this right?

He needs.

It’s that need that stops him, stops him dead and cold. Because he’s always got needs. He needs a warm bed and a hot meal. He needs a beautiful woman and a prayer on his lips. He needs a battle to fight and friends to gird him.

Those aren’t needs, though.

Not really.

Not like this.

Because he needs, more than anything else, to stop bleeding.

He remembers, of course, with increased clarity, that he’s been stabbed, and he can feel the pain, but when he looks down and sees the blood, the sheer amount of it as it coats his chest, he realizes what the actual difference between need and want is.

It’s something he’s chosen to forget, he thinks; something he’s put out of his mind after Savoy. That’s how he’s able to go on, able to keep fighting battles with no thought of consequence. It’s easier to pretend like he’s impenetrable, like he can handle anything.

But so help him God, he’s bleeding out.

He’s seen dead men bleed less.

His own heart skips a beat, and he shakes his head. This time, when he fights, it’s with absolute purpose. He needs to get out of this, he needs to get away. It’s not rational, but nothing about this is rational. It’s a crazy thing, to believe he can outrun the blood. It’s stupid, even, to think that he can fight his way from this injury.

That’s what Aramis does, after all. He fights until he finds a corner he cannot abide, and then he fights in the opposite direction. He’s a man who will not be satisfied because he doesn’t have a clue what it means to get what you need instead of what you want.

It all aligns this time.

Want, need.

“No,” he says, feeling panic rise up in his throat. “Please -- no--”

He’s not sure what he’s pleading for, but it matters not. Athos does not listen, and Porthos is unrelenting. Even D’Artagnan holds steady.

God, Aramis sobs to himself. He really is the weak link.

“Now,” Athos says, winding the first bandage around him. He looks at him, straight in the eye, so there is no way to misunderstand. “This may hurt.”

Aramis’ eyes widen.

He shakes his head and opens his mouth to speak, but no one is listening.

Bracing himself, he wonders if God has abandoned him, too.

Athos pulls the bandage, pressing it down hard. Pain erupts like fire, spreading through his chest and radiating down his arms and up his neck. He feels it, tingling in his legs with a tenacity that leaves him dull.

That’s not the end of it, though. Nothing can be easy. Athos winds another bandage, tighter than the first, and Aramis feels the tears as they streak down his face, and he feels his body bucking against the unyielding hold of those he calls friends.

When Athos laces a third bandage on top of the others, he cannot stop the scream as it is ripped from his throat.

This time, like most of the times that count, Aramis loses the fight.

Darkness takes him again.

-o-

The reprieve is a punishment in itself. In truth, Aramis cannot decide which it is. Sometimes, if he’s honest, he craves for oblivion. Sometimes, he envies how Athos finds it so easily at the bottom of a bottle. He wishes he could find it in the pounding of his fists like Porthos. And God, help him, he wishes he could be so satisfied as D’Artagnan in the arms of the lovely Constance.

But that’s not Aramis.

No, Aramis yearns for that which he cannot have, and when he comes close to getting what he covets, he determines that it is not enough for him after all.

He is not a man who knows satisfaction.

Darkness or light.

Awareness or oblivion.

Life or death.

Maybe it’s easier if he just lets fate decide.

-o-

Fate, unfortunately, is not known for its kindness.

He is forced back to consciousness by the pounding of his own heart, and he feels it throb in his chest, echoing in his ears.

No, that’s not it, though.

It’s the sound of hoof-beats, sounding against the trodden ground.

The realization does not provide much clarity, and for a long, painful moment, all he can do is stare at the ground beneath him. He doesn’t remember mounting, however.

He remembers being stabbed, though. Bandaged, too.

And the pain…

He cringes, unable to stop a small whine from escaping his lips.

From behind him, arms hold him tighter. “Not much longer now,” Porthos whispers in his ear. “We’ll stop soon, you have my word on that.”

Aramis believes him, because Porthos is many things, but he’s not a liar. His truthfulness is a virtue, one Aramis will spend his life praying for but never attaining.

“You just keep fighting,” Porthos says, and it’s something between an order and a request. Aramis wants to oblige him, he does, but Aramis’ word is circumspect.

The horse hits a harsh bump, jarring him. The pain deafens him, and he feels himself slipping.

It’s just as well, he decides. In Porthos’ arms, he’s safe for now.

If he dies, it’ll be in his own time.

And his own damn fault.

-o-

He’s not moving anymore.

That’s what he realizes next.

At first, he thinks that should be a reprieve, but the cold is barren and cold, and he feels alone. Or maybe he’s just contrary; give him the thing he asks for, and Aramis will want something different without haste.

They’re not riding anymore, and he’s in a bed he doesn’t recognize. The room around him is barren and unknown, but that really is a lesser concern at the moment.

Gritting his teeth, his stomach roils with pain as he turns his head to the side. At least this time he has a marginally valid excuse.

The bed aside, there’s no position that will make him comfortable. He can feel the split skin, the severed blood vessels, all of it, no matter how he tries to lay. Movement makes him nauseous, but staying still amplifies the pain, and with his clothes stripped away, he feels the chill as it raises the hairs on his skin.

For a moment, this is his singular, complete reality. He is too preoccupied with his own feelings to notice anything else.

Then, he hears voices.

“He’s been through enough,” Porthos says, and his voice is low and dangerous. It’s the conviction that scares other people, but Aramis has always taken comfort that it has never been directed at him. “That ride was hard on him.”

“But none of us are any good as a medic,” D’Artagnan reasons. He’s trying to sound calm and collected, and he almost pulls it off. Almost. “Unless you think you can stitch him up.”

He can almost see the challenge in the tone of his voice, and he imagines the younger man has crossed his arms over his chest. Ever defiant, their D’Artagnan. Athos fights to forget; Porthos fights to remember. D’Artagnan fights because he sees a cause in everything.

It’s heartening to think this time it’s him.

“It’s a sword wound, which means there’s no bullet at least,” Athos says with a long, even voice. He’s tired, as their captain. He’s tired. Aramis feels like some of that is his fault. “We can mend our clothes; mending skin is no different.”

“Except that it’s Aramis,” Porthos growls.

“And we don’t know how deep it is,” D’Artagnan adds. “What if it’s damaged something inside?”

“Then chances are that he’s dead no matter what we do,” Athos replies.

There’s nothing heartening in that assertion. Aramis cringes, feeling shakier than before.

“Well, what about a doctor?” Porthos says.

“We’re at least a week from Paris,” Athos tells him.

Porthos lets out a short, incredulous noise. “So?”

“So,” Athos returns, adding enough inflection to make his point. “How many doctors do you think we’ll find this far out? You know the scarcity of such resources, and we’re still a half day’s ride from anything resembling a village. We are lucky we even found shelter; I cannot imagine we can hope for more.”

“There has to be something,” D’Artagnan implores him, and Aramis is grateful for that.

Grateful, but it’s not enough.

Not for him, certainly.

Not for them.

“We cannot resign him to death,” Porthos hisses.

“I’m not,” Athos says, and Aramis can feel their eyes on him now, even as his own breathing hitches and he squeezes his eyes shut against the pain. “I’m resigning us all to hope.”

God help them all, if Athos is the one counting on something like hope.

Aramis wants to cry, but finds himself too weak, too pained, too far removed.

Consciousness drifts from him again.

God help them all.

-o-

There is no rest, not for the weary. Not for the wicked. Not even for the righteous.

Aramis is not sure if he is wicked or righteous, but he is weary.

He groans, trying to shift away, but a hand holds him gently in place.

“Stop now,” Athos orders him, but his voice is quiet.

Aramis cracks open his eyes with what seems like a monumental effort.

Athos does not smile, but he tilts his head. “Figures you’d wake up now.”

Aramis squints, too tired to be apologetic. He tips his head down, trying to get a better look. His vision swims, but it’s impossible to miss the swaths of red down his front.

“It’s actually doing better,” Athos tells him, removing a soiled bandaged.

From the corner of his eye, he sees D’Artagnan move into view. He holds out a fresh scrap of fabric to Athos and tries to smile at Aramis. “The bleeding has slowed considerably.”

Aramis mutes his next groan, but his face still twists as Athos nods to Porthos. On his other side, the larger man leans over, sitting him up.

“Just for a minute is all,” Porthos murmurs while Athos winds the bandage around.

A minute feels like a lifetime, and Aramis feels hot tears streak down his face before he is laid back down.

“You’re always looking for a reason to take a vacation,” D’Artagnan tells him with a smile that is too big not to be forced. “The place is a little rustic, but it is scenic -- and there’s no one around to give us orders.”


Aramis appreciates the effort, but it’s hard to reply when Athos is pressing firmly down on the open wound on his chest. Still, for D’Artagnan sakes, he breathes through the pain, grits his teeth and looks back at him.

“I should apologize, then,” he says, finding the words like stones on his tongue.

This answer distresses D’Artagnan. “No, I--”

“More time away--” he starts and falters, as Athos ties something off. He grimaces, swallowing against the rise of bile in his throat. “Time away from Constance.”

D’Artagnan appears startled, but he recovers well enough. “We’ve both learned that the best things are worth waiting for,” he says. “And she is worth the wait, I swear she is.”

Aramis manages a smile this time, even as adjusts another bandage on top. “That’s good,” he says, struggling to keep his eyes open. “You deserve that. You do.”

Because D’Artagnan is young, and more than that, he is good. He is good in a way that Aramis has prayed for and fasted for; good in a way he simply is not capable. It is not an easy thing, to seek piety all the days of your life only to be surrounded by righteous men who live and breathe such piety. They think him to be the one whom God favors, but the reserve is true. He is the one God has rejected, which is why he has to work harder than they do.

Which is why he probably deserves this.

“Hey,” Porthos says, tapping his cheek sharply. “Stay awake.”

Blinking dazedly, Aramis realizes that the bandage is complete. Athos is washing his hands in a basin at the table, and D’Artagnan is perched anxiously on the chair.

“Oh,” Aramis says, feeling dumber than usual. “I’m rather tired.”

“It’s okay,” D’Artagnan assures him. “I was just telling you that happiness is something we all deserve, all of us.”

Aramis takes a moment to focus on his breathing, in and out, gauging his way through the pain. It’s a tenuous thing, but he rallies his strength long enough to look back at their youngest compatriot. “I’m quite convinced otherwise -- I’m afraid,” he says, trying to keep the words from falling over each other haltingly. He braces himself with a struggling breath. “But I’m the type who wants what I don’t have. It’s my -- my nature.”

“It makes you tenacious,” D’Artagnan offers, resting a hand on his arm.

Aramis looks at him, appreciative of the effort. “Honestly, it’s exhausting.”

“Eh,” Porthos says, poking him from the other side. “Well, stick it out, one more time, you hear?”

Aramis nods, a slow, small movement that drains him more than it should. “I’ll do what I can.”

Athos crosses over, standing at the foot of his bed. “That is all we ask for.”

Aramis feels his facades flicker, fading faster than his strength. It’s just as well; he doesn’t have the heart -- much less the energy -- to tell them that this time it may not be enough.

-o-

They let him sleep after that, but sleep is too kind of a word. Aramis suffers instead, slipping in and out of consciousness without fully conceding to either. The pain follows him irregardless, and his dreams are hesitantly lucid, no matter if his eyes are open or closed.

He could call out, and he knows it. And he is sure, with enough effort, he could form the words for comfort. He also knows, without a doubt, that it would be granted to him.

That is probably why, then, he refuses to utter a word.

For as long as the hours are, all he can think are the long hours he left them alone while at the monastery. No matter how good his reasons, it stills eats at him -- all the times he wasn’t there. While they often operate as if nothing has changed, when they talk of places he’s never been, battles he didn’t fight, memories he does not share, it hurts.

He squeezes his eyes shut against the onslaught of pain as it wears him down to the bone.

It hurts.

-o-

When they rouse him for dinner, he wants to be grateful.

Instead, he is merely cold.

He is shivering so badly that he can scarcely sit upright. The chattering of his teeth echoes in his head, and the tremors that rack his body continually jar his wound. His attempts to feed himself are feeble at best, and most of the broth ends up down his chin instead of in his mouth.

With effort, he tries to smile and assure them he is fine. “I think maybe you were right, Athos,” he quips, but the words are weak. “With aim like this, I am clearly still out of practice.”

Athos reaches over, taking the bowl from Aramis decidedly.

“No, I’m fine--” Aramis starts to protest.

But Athos stares him down, wordlessly handing off his helping to Porthos for what appears to be safekeeping.

“You’re hardly fine,” D’Artagnan tells him quietly, holding out a small cloth.

Aramis takes it, blotting his chin dry, and trying not to show just how much the simple movement hurts. “Relatively speaking,” he says, forcing himself to smile. “I imagine we’ve all been worse.”

“That’s hardly reassuring,” Athos tells him, pushing him back down to the pillows.

Aramis wants to comply -- God help him, he does -- but his pride is not quite that broken. “I’ve been sleeping all afternoon,” he objects.

“And you are still barely able to keep your eyes open,” Athos tells him pointedly. “Now lay down so we can check your bandage or I shall let you suffer from your own stupidity all the way to your grave.”

It’s a hollow threat, but Athos has the gravitas to make it convincing nonetheless. Even so, it is not the threat that cows Aramis.

No, it is the fact that his friends are here to make the threat at all.

He would say nothing ill of his brothers at the monastery; indeed, he had been happy there, in his own way. He had found solidarity with the others in prayer and fasting, but calling them brother did not make them so.

Not when Aramis knew what brothers truly were.

And to think, he left them.

And here they are, unwavering.

He lies down without another word.

Athos promptly peels the bandages back, throwing the soil layers to the side while D’Artagnan hands him fresh on. Porthos hovers, the bowl of broth still in hand, watching.

From his position on the bed, it’s hard to see the wound clearly.

He doesn’t need to see it, though.

Not when he has a clear and unobstructed view of their faces. That’s when it hits him with more force, more precision than the blade. This is bad.

He feels the blood drain out of his face and he flushes with chills.

This is very bad.

D’Artagnan blanches, managing to look like a child once again. Porthos, for his part, looks downright furious, mouth clenched in what can only be described as poorly restrained rage. It is Athos, however, with his face completely neutral that betrays them the worst. Athos is trying too hard to be indifferent, and it shows.

Aramis shivers violently, his stomach lurching.

Feeling besotted, he tries to laugh, forcing himself to raise his head as he quips. “The bleeding has slowed, has it not?”

Athos holds himself with remarkable calm. “Considerably,” he agrees, dabbing at the wound gently.

Aramis holds back his wince; he’s half numb to feel it anyway.

“Unfortunately, it’s also red,” he continues, and his tone sounds like he’s listing off the dinner menu. He accepts a wet cloth, washing it with some care. “Inflamed.”

The water feels like ice against his skin, and he holds back a hiss of pain as the air seems to crackle along the exposed planes of his chest. Biting his lip, he lifts his head higher, trying to clear his vision enough to take in the extent of the damage.

He’s not a squeamish man, not given his profession, and he’s always been the steadiest one when it comes to blood and gore. All the same, he feels the bottom of his stomach drop out and he fears he may be sick.

Inflamed is an understatement. The wound is red and puckered, and the discoloration has extended to the surrounding skin. There are no signs of it in the blood, at least, which means Aramis isn’t laboring under a death sentence just yet.

Still, he drops his head back, suddenly feeling parched. He blinks dully up at the ceiling, giving voice to the fear not even Athos will quite speak. “Infection.”

This time, Athos can’t quite stop himself. He jars ever so slightly, eyes flickering to Aramis before he can no longer hold his gaze. “It’s early to tell.”

“It’s early,” Aramis agrees, swallowing hard against the lump that’s solidifying in his throat. “But it’s impossible to miss.”

“You just got stabbed,” Porthos says, barely containing his growl. “It’s not going to look pretty.”

“And the bleeding’s stopped,” D’Artagnan reminds them all with a gesture. “That’s good news.”

Aramis looks at them each sympathetically before he catches Athos’ eye once more. This time, he wills the other man to stay steady, if not for him, then for them. This is something they can’t overlooked; they can’t underplay it. Aramis has seen too many men succumb to infection to pretend like it’s nothing.

No, if he’s dying, then he must bear himself strong enough to face it.

Strong enough to fight it, if he can.

Strong enough to brace the others, if he can’t.

“It’s still infection,” Aramis tells them. He nods his head. “The chills; the malaise. I have a fever, don’t I?”

Athos sighs heavily. “I can feel it on you, all the way from here.”

It’s like being stabbed, all over again. There’s no blood this time.

The devastation, however, is even more pronounced.

Wetting his lips, he tries to smile. He’s missed so many moments with these men, too many. If he is to miss the rest, then he will make the most of these, fleeting as they may be. “Well, then,” he says, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice even as it sluices through his veins. “It’s going to be a long night.”

-o-

Aramis tries, to his own account. He sincerely does. He eats the broth that D’Artagnan gives him. He drinks the water that Porthos tips to his lips. He even turns his head so Athos can smooth his brow with tepid water. They are doing these things for him, he knows, and while the efforts are intended to save his life, Aramis obliges to save part of theirs.

That’s what he fears the most, after all. That, if his life is snuffed out, theirs should go on. He’s selfish in that way, regretting the moments he will not share with them. He hates to think of it, all the memories he won’t be a part of. That all he’ll be is a memory in the end.

He has surrendered himself, however. He does not live for his own entertainment, but he seeks to fulfill his promise to the Lord his God. Survival is not just to his benefit, but to theirs. Because he knows what leaving them once did to them.

So he tries, he does. He tries to sit up; he tries to answer their questions. He tries to tell them jokes and make them smile. He tries not to show how much it hurts; he tries not to show how badly his strength is waning. He grits his teeth and fists his fingers, for them.

He wants to live for them.

More than anything.

It’s never been in doubt, however, that he’s willing to die for them too, should the need arise.

That account has never been called due, but God has every right to call him on his promises.

So, Aramis tries, he does.

He just never fully accounted for his own capacity for failure.

Some things, at least, never change.

-o-

As the night takes hold, so does his fever. It settles deep within his bones, and he feels it burning from the tip of his toes to the top of his head. The sweat has drenched his hair, and he’s shivering so badly that the whole earth seems to be trembling beneath him.

When he blinks, he sees the dauphin run past him, giggling. He stops and calls for his father, but when Aramis reaches out, the King sweeps in and takes his place. The boy doesn’t look at him twice.

Anne does, however. She lingers, long enough to trace a delicate finger down the flush of his red cheeks. She smiles, kissing him once. He leans into her touch, but that’s when she pulls away. For all the women he’s used, he has no right to begrudge her. He was her dalliance, her refuge. The only thing he could expect was to be turned away.

The inevitability does not make it easier. The faces that welcome him loved him well, this is true. Women whose names he scarcely remembers, except for the time he told them goodbye.
They haunt him now, for the things he took from them.

Isabelle leans forward and kisses him tenderly on the forehead.

There are many ways to kill a person, and Aramis does not even need a sword or a gun.

Beyond the women, he sees the others, too. He sees the soldiers he’s felled in battle; the criminals he’s slaughtered in the streets. He sees the assassins, the revolutionaries, the insurrectionists, all of them. Aramis did not crave their blood, this is true, but it hardly makes a difference.

They’re still dead, after all.

The baby’s cry he never heard; the father’s pride he squandered. The mother’s love he left behind, until it’s just him, bowed on his knees at the altar in the abbey, praying for redemption.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

Except Aramis is always in want. He burns with hunger, desires for the things he does not have. He is like a child, always wanting the thing just beyond his reach.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

But Aramis is afraid.

Aramis is terrified.

Because he’s sought heaven all these years.

And now, he is face to face with hell.

He can feel the flames, but they’re not coming from outside, but within. This is hardly surprising; Aramis has always been his own worst enemy, his own destruction. He prays so ardently because he knows he’s already condemn inside.

All these years, he’s tried to outrun it.

There’s nowhere to run now.

-o-

Time has lost all meaning.

Aramis tosses; he turns. He mumbles for relief and cries for reprieve. Thrashing, he tries to free himself, and when his strength fails him, he sobs wretchedly.

He’s sorry.

God help him, he’s so, so sorry.

-o-

Coherency is sudden, violent and surprising. He gasps, gulping for air. It invigorates his senses, overwhelming him momentarily, until the pain takes hold once more.

The pain is a universal constant. He carries it with him most of the time, burrowed deep into the recesses of his soul. The sword that pierced him merely found what was already there.

What will always be there.

“Easy, now,” Porthos coaches, holding him steady by the shoulder. “Just take it easy.”

With effort, he manages to look up. Porthos’ visage is above him, tired and worn, even for the way they’ve had to live over the last year. It looks so real that Aramis has to question its validity, or if this is another fevered dream.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Porthos muses quietly as he plucks a lukewarm cloth from Aramis’ brow.

“I worry I have,” Aramis says, surprised by how breathy his voice sounds. He sounds like a fraction of himself, diminishing by the minute. Feels it, too. “I’ve seen lots of things.”

Porthos almost smiles, a terse, rueful expression. “I bet you have,” he says. “I’m still not convinced you’re all there this time. Do you know who I am?”

“Porthos,” Aramis says.

Porthos looks pleased.

Aramis shrugs half heartedly, trying to reposition himself to get more comfortable. “Though that could be a lucky guess,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of people left in my life.”

“Hey,” Porthos says, feigning offense. He folds a fresh cloth over in his hands. “I see your failed sense of humor is intact. Can’t be all that bad, though.”

Aramis fails to find a comfortable position. Apparently, having an infected stab wounds makes concepts such as comfort impossible to attain. “The look on your face,” he says, shaking his head tautly. “Somehow I fear it’s worse.”

Something flickers in Porthos’ expression, though he pulls it back in quickly. “The night was long, sure,” he says. “But you’re coherent now. That’s a good sign.”

The bar seems fairly low, but Aramis does not feel it is his point to contradict. Honestly, it’s never his place. He’s used up most of his credibility with his antics over the years, and the fact that his friends have stuck by them is a testament to their loyalty and no virtue of his own.

That’s depressing, if accurate, and Aramis turns his dull eyes away. The sunlight is just coming through the window. He wonders if he should try joking again; maybe some banter. Porthos likes that sort of thing; it might be reassuring.

It doesn’t change things, though.

It doesn’t change the infection.

It doesn’t change the blood loss.

It doesn’t change the war or the king’s impending death or the three years Aramis spent away while his friends put their lives on the line.

All of this, and he’s still the same screw up he’s always been.

“I’m sorry,” he says finally, the words faint. “I never meant to cause such trouble.”

Porthos scoots closer on his chair, placing the fresh cloth on Aramis’ brow. Lukewarm as it is, it feels like ice on him, and he’s torn between relief and agony. “We’ve all been here,” Porthos says, folding it again so the water does not run into his eyes. “Usually, our positions are reversed.”

Aramis doesn’t want that, though. He wants to be one of them again, to be worthy of them. He still feels like a burden, like maybe they’d all have been better off if he’d died with his brethren in Savoy. “I hate to be the one holding us up.”

Porthos leans forward, more purposefully now. “This is part of the job,” he says. “Goes with the territory. It’s not your fault.”

Fault. The word almost hurts to hear. He’s prayed and prayed and prayed, but nothing ever feels like absolution. That’s probably his fault, too. He manages a wan smiles. “It feels like it sometimes.”

“People swing a lot of blades at us,” Porthos reminds him. “Every now and then, they’re going to be on target. No matter how good we are. So no. Not your fault.”

It’s so definitive that Aramis has neither the strength nor the heart to contradict him. Still, it’s easy to see that there’s more than that here. It’s written all over Porthos’ face, in the set of his shoulders. “It’s not your fault either,” Aramis reminds him with as much vigor as he can muster.

Porthos, despite himself, half startles. Realizing he can’t hide, he chuckles, the faintest hint of blush rising in his cheeks. “I know.”

Aramis wets his lips, trying to keep his eyes open. “Do you?”

“Of course I do,” he says, straightening himself defensively.

“You’ve always been too soft with me, ever since Savoy,” Aramis says. “Which wasn’t your fault, either. I’ve made choices, Porthos. Stupid choices. I carry that, not you.”

“But we’re a team,” Porthos says.

“And I left,” Aramis counters.

Porthos’ shoulders fall.

Tiredly, Aramis sighs. “No matter what happens, you can’t blame yourself, not for my choices.”

In his jaw, Porthos’ tightens a muscle. “All for one, and one for all,” he says. “We have to take that as it is, all of it, or it means nothing.”

That is it, isn’t it? That simple fact dictates so much of what they do.

It’s why Aramis’ departure felt so much like betrayal.

It’s why he doesn’t deserve to be back with them.

It’s why he’s not scared of this. Not because he thinks he won’t die, but because he thinks he probably should. Away or not, he’s more trouble than he’s worth. The weak link.

Porthos lets out a breath and reaches up, taking the cloth again. “We can talk about it later,” he says, even though they both know they won’t. “As it is, this is the longest conversation we’ve had since we made it here.”

“Probably one of the few I’ll remember, too,” Aramis says.

“It’s good, though,” Porthos tells him. “Maybe the fever’s finally broken.”

Porthos is so earnest; he’s so hopeful. Aramis has to smile. “Maybe.”

There’s no point not to offer the assurance; what is one more lie? What’s one more let down? Aramis may be an adequate medic and a good shot, but he’s best at disappointing the ones who trust in him most.

He settles back down, swallowing hard against the lump in his throat. It’s still nice to think, if only for Porthos’ benefit, that things are going to get better now.

But Aramis knows from experience: life is rarely that kind.

And it is never that easy.

-o-

The day rises.

So does the fever.

Aramis makes it through breakfast with the best intentions, but he can barely be roused for lunch. In the afternoon, when the fever deepens its grip on him, he feels his control slip away tenuously.

He’s fighting, of course.

Aramis was born to fight; it’s his God-given gift, if you can call it that. And Aramis does; he does.

But he is not a young man anymore. He is not as pure, not as good, not as focused. The years have gotten the better of him, and he’s softened around the edges. Where he should be sure, he finds uncertainty. Where he strives for clarity, he finds only frustration. His impetuous behavior has always gotten the better of him, and he’s a contrary soul.

It’s not even his fault, then. Not really. When they tell him to keep fighting, to hold on, to just stay with him, he lets go a little more.

He’s tired, after all. Ever since coming back from the monastery, his appetites have decreased. Women don’t draw him in; food does not seem so gluttonous. One cup of wine will do, and he favors a warm bed above all other comforts.

He’s just so damn tired.

Tired of fighting, not the countless enemies who come against the crown. Not the Spanish, not the ruffians. Not even the Red Guard.

He’s tired of fighting himself. It was always a losing proposition.

That’s what it is to be a soldier looking for a cause to fight for.

Looking for a cause to die for.

Funny, he’s had it all along. It’s had many names over the years, many faces: Treville, the King, Anne, the dauphin.

Athos, D’Artagnan.

Porthos.

His prayers are his last resort, the last thing keeping him afloat.

He closes his eyes against the pain and cold. Forgive me, Father.

His entire being oscillates, and he’s fading faster than before.

The spirit is willing.

This is why he came back; to make things right. To make things better.

But Porthos can’t cry, and D’Artagnan can’t sit still. Athos holds his hand in silent benediction.

But the body is so, so weak.

-o-

The fever has burned through, leaving the scorched remains of his soul in its wake. He is raw and brutalized, and he can scarcely feel it when the others change his bandage. They care for him as best they can, changing the cloth upon his head, spilling water into his mouth, keeping him clean, but it’s a losing battle.

He wonders if they know that, if they can feel the flames just as pressing as he can.

He wonders if that’s why they fight harder still.

He wonders if that will be what breaks them.

It’s hardly fair for men who make the right choices.

But they probably should know by now, not to pin their hopes on a fool like Aramis.

When the fires of hell return for Aramis, he just prays they are not burned in the crossfire.

-o-

The night comes without warning, and the darkness seems deep enough to consume him whole. He holds on by the scantest threads: Athos’ calm voice, D’Artagnan’s fingers on his wrist, Porthos’ palm laid bare upon his forehead.

In the tenuous hours of the night, he dares to hope that the flames are receding. He can feel the shift, small at first, but then spreading like a sickness he cannot hope to control. It deadens him, starting with his toes. And he tingles for a brilliant second before the ice takes hold.

For a blessed moment, it feels like a reprieve. He thinks, maybe, just maybe, he has seen himself through the worst of this trial.

It is, then, no surprise that he is wrong.

The ice hardens and he feels the dead weight hanging on his body, more powerful, more inescapable than anything he’s ever felt before.

It is no reprieve.

He knows this without a doubt, for he has been here before.

-o-

The woods are cold. The show from the night before has frozen, turning from a magical powder into an icy coffin. The bodies of his brothers, the Musketeers who fell, are encased in it. Even the blood has been covered in a way that almost makes the scene look peaceful.

Almost.

But Savoy is never peaceful.

Aramis feels his breath hitch in his chest, and he staggers. Holding a hand to the bleeding wound on his chest, his reality swirls and he feels like he’s going to be sick. It’s a surreal thing, to walk among them. To walk from corpse to corpse, remembering the men they had been. He still knows their names. Picard had been engaged to be married in a month, when the snow thawed. St. Pierre had been proud to be a new father. Lucien had only been with the regiment for a month; Savoy was his first mission.

And last.

He steps through the battlefield, noting the guns still filled with powder, swords still in their sheaths. The fire has burned out hours ago, and even Marsac’s footprints are nothing but faint impressions on the snowy ground.

Stumbling now, his strength has nearly left him. He hits the ground on hands and knees, breathing fast as he looks up through his hair at the last body in front of him.

What he sees would take his breath, if he had any left to spare.

For he is staring face to face with himself.

He is younger -- he practically looks like a child. The messy wound on his head has left his hair matted, but it’s hard to see the full extent of the damage with the snow. It has covered him; Marsac left him in a thicket as as means of protection, but it’s hardly enough to ward off the worst of the weather.

It’s hardly enough.

Shaking, Aramis lifts out his hand. He’s trembling as he reaches forward, brushing away the frozen tendrils for a closer look.

He thinks he should be surprised; he thinks it should be shocking.

But when he stares into his own, dead eyes, he thinks it’s really about damn time.

All these years, he’s been avoiding fate, fighting against the inevitability of its hold. It’s entirely possible that he was not supposed to survive that day, that he died on the battlefield that day just like everyone else.

It caught up to Marsac, in the end.

It will catch up to him.

Back here, though, he wonders if there’s a point in resisting. What end is he hoping for? What purpose does he hope to fulfill?

Can he honestly say he’s doing God’s work? Can he proudly stand on his accomplishments with no notice of his sins? How many hearts must he break? How many lies will he tell? How many times will he risk his friends? How many second chances will he squander for his own foolishness?

Of all the men who died at Savoy, he’s live.

Now, he thinks with some relief, he’ll finally die.

The least among them still.

-o-

Somewhere, Athos calls him.

Weak as he is, Aramis has no strength left to open his eyes. He can’t be sure this isn’t another delusion, but the pull is real and pressing. He feels the strong, calloused fingers, intertwined with his own, holding as tight as anything.

The feeling is perfect, such a far cry from the hells he’s known. It’s constant and strong and reassuring and steady. It is love.

How he has sought such things. He has looked for it in the arms of women all over France. He has sought it in the arms of the queen herself. Because Aramis does not want to be alone.

He clutches his faith like a rosary, going over the familiar prayers as he might find God’s unwavering presence once more. But he cannot find him, and his faith is as weak as he is.

“Hush,” Athos soothes, the voice close to his ear. “You must stay strong for us.”

It’s silly to even ask; Aramis is destined to disappoint. Athos knows that, better than the rest.

Still, he holds tighter, holds faster. “We’re still here, Aramis,” Athos promises. “No matter how far you try to go, we’re still here. We’re always going to be here.”

Aramis does not deserve it.

Like most things in his life, however, it is not entirely his choice anymore.

-o-

This time, when he slips away, there is only darkness.

The heat is gone; the cold has abated. There is no flame; there is no ice.

There’s nothing.

It is terrifying in its own way, in the way that Hell is nothing but separation from the Lord.

But it is reassuring in another, for with nothing to hold onto, for once he has nothing to lose.

If this is fate, then Aramis is ready for it. Surrender is nothing more than accepting an outcome you have no control over. It’s no easy thing, trusting your life to the wits and wills around him. But if you work hard, if you pick right, the right people are in line to make the choice.

Either way, surrender is the only option.

And in surrender, there is peace.

No matter the hell that surrounds him, that is peace.

-o-

For one night, Aramis dreams of eternity. He dreams of flayed skin on his chest and the cold stretches of Savoy. He dreams of his son calling another man father, and Anne sleeping in another man’s bed. He dreams of the women he’s led to the grave, and he dreams of those he has managed to save.

He dreams of what it means to be alone, contemplating his purpose to God.

Mostly, though, he dreams of what it is to be flanked on all sides.

In the dark, in the light.

In the cacophony, in the silence.

In the fire, in the cold.

These hallucinations plague him, threatening to overtake him.

But Aramis is never truly alone.

-o-

Then, Aramis wakes.

It is a strange thing, being alive. It comes to him with more weight than perhaps it should for a man who has survived so much. For as much as he fears death, and for as much as he probably deserves to die, Aramis’ fate is not his own.

Closing his eyes for a moment, he swallows, nodding a prayer to God.

Opening his eyes again, he has to squint to see through the sunlight as it floods through the windows. The scene before him is quiet, and it takes him several long moments to realize why.

It’s not because they have left, his friends. Indeed, they have not gone anywhere. Porthos is asleep at his feet, his whole body leaned forward at the base of Aramis’ bed. D’Artagnan has propped himself up in a chair, and his gun is nearby. He’s supposed to be on watch, no doubt, but the long night has claimed him as well. Athos is by his bedside, and Aramis wiggles his fingers, which are still locked in Athos’ unyielding grip.

There is a stack of towels nearby, and a dirty pile has been started by the door. The fire is still burning low, and the basins of cool water almost fill the room. Dishes of food and water are strewn about, clearly in a haste to provide him care and little else. They have spared nothing to take care of him.

He’s not alone.

This is, most likely, he only saving grace. It is the gift God has given him, undeserving as he is. For Aramis has the faith, but not the patience. Aramis has the belief, but not the foresight. Aramis has the persistence but not the clear mission in mind.

In truth, Aramis would have been dead many years ago. He would make a poor soldier, a selfish lover and a feeble friend. But they make him better.

They make him whole.

Shifting slightly, he manages a look down at his wounded body. The bandage is shoddily done, and it is stained red. He can still see the inflamed skin poking out from behind it, but he knows that this time, it is receding. All the same, recovery will be long. Longer than he has the fortitude to manage at this point in his life. There’s no way he’s up for it, any of it.

His eyes flicker to the others again. Porthos starts to snore, and D’Artagnan snuffles in his sleep. Athos’ expression tightens for a moment reflexively, his fingers tightening around Aramis once more.

But with them, Aramis suspects, he may just prevail yet.