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Musketeers fic: Fear to Tread (1/2)

December 8th, 2017 (08:49 pm)
grateful

feeling: grateful

Title: Fear to Tread

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: Preseries spec, based off what we know of Savoy in the show. No beta. Fills my phobias square for hc_bingo.

Summary: All the men Treville sent to Savoy. And Aramis is the only one who is returning. Fortune is either very kind. Or very, very cruel.



-o-

Aramis doesn’t see it coming.

He’s awaken, not by the sound of screams or metal on metal. No, that would be too easy. Instead, he’s torn from his slumber by the sound of flesh breaking.

It’s a sound he knows, of course. He knows it because he hears it in his prayers, when he asks for absolution for those who have fallen by his hand.

And the smell.

Fresh blood, hot droplets melting the packed snow on the ground.

The nightmare, for once, does not stalk his dreams.

He lives it, cold and visceral.

God, he thinks, he prays.

Deliver me this night.

-o-

God works in mysterious ways. That is what they say, and Aramis is not so conceited as to deny it. He believes in the divine in the little things; he counts it as God when he sees a woman smile, when men come home from war. You just have to know where to find it.

That night, he works in cold hard metal and iron rounds.

Maybe it’s not so mysterious, as Aramis does what he can to tear through their attackers.

A blow lands hard against his head, sending him spinning.

He’s always had trouble sorting good from evil when it counted.

-o-

For this, Aramis falls.

Because he is not strong enough, he is not fast enough. Because he is one and they are many. Because it is night and he has lost his bearings. Because he trips over the bodies of his friends, his compatriots, his brothers.

Because he lacks in faith. Because his good deeds are not enough to outweigh his penance. Because the Lord has measured him and found him wanted.

For this, for everything.

Aramis falls.

-o-

Hell, he’s been told, is fire.

It’s not true, though.

Aramis’ hell is ice, freezing through his skin and settling in his brain. Slowing his heart to a meager thump in his chest.

He’s too cold, even to scream for mercy.

There’s a torture in that, frozen to death, the cries for mercy like ice in the throat to choke you.

Hell is for sinners.

Aramis fears he’s finally come home.

-o-

That’s too easy, of course.

Aramis’ sins are great and many. He can not expect this kind of escape.

Instead, he wakes with a pounding headache and blurry vision. He struggles, blinking to focus. He’s confused at first, at what happened to the snow.

It’s been lost in the melee.

And sodden with blood.

Violently, he wretches, a movement so sudden that it nearly eclipses his consciousness. He flops forward, and he gets a mouth full of snow that tastes like copper. That just makes him gag again, and he’s too disoriented to right himself.

He chokes, then. Sputtering in confusion while his consciousness ebbs. It figures, probably. That Aramis would survive a battle just to drown in his own vomit.

It’s like him, to aim high and land so low.

Ah, well.

He’d care if he were still alive.

-o-

Someone drags him onto his back, yanking him forcibly across the ground to a clearing. He falls back, blinking up in confusion at the patches of sky he sees through the trees.

Heaven, he thinks for a moment.

But then Marsac stands above him, and he’s speaking. Aramis can see that much, but his senses are not registering. It takes him a moment, a long moment, before he understands what Marsac is telling him.

“They’re dead, all of them,” he says, like it’s an apology. “I saw it, from the trees. I was going to help, but there were too many of them…”

Marsac looks away, and Aramis tries to turn his head. All he can see are the bodies of his friends, piled on top of each other.

“I saw it,” Marsac says again, like it’s God’s singular revelation. He folds a blanket over Aramis stiffly. “I saw it.”

Marsac is a man looking for salvation, for redemption, for absolution. Aramis should know; he’s exactly the same.

“I saw them all die,” Marsac says now, and his eyes are hollow when he looks at Aramis. “I can’t watch you die, too.”

Aramis struggles to find his voice, but the words escape him. There are no words for this. Even the Bible says that sometimes the spirit intercedes, prays the prayers that man is too broken to formulate.

The spirit has left this place, though.

And God sure as hell isn’t listening.

Marsac walks away, which is a great sin indeed.

From the ground, dumbfounded, Aramis lets him.

It’s probably the greater sin, all things considered.

-o-

He tries to move, to resituate himself, but his strength has left him. He manages to half sit up, but the position is awkward and uncomfortable. After several more minutes of unsuccessfully maneuvers, he falls back to the ground, exhausted.

Lying there, he tells himself that this is the difference between life and death. If he wants to live, he has to move. He has to try.

Forlornly, his eyes follow after Marsac, but there’s nothing left of him. He sees the others, dead on the ground. There’s nothing much left of them, either.

Choking on a sob, he closes his eyes.

Aramis has tried.

Mostly, though, he has failed.

-o-

The day lengthens and the shadows grow. The light fades and snow starts to fall again. It covers the ground, covers the others. Covers up the blood until the entire world is awash in white.

It’s almost beautiful, Aramis thinks from his spot on the ground. Marsac has pulled him to relative safety, cushioned him in a thicket that keeps him from the worst of the snow. It’s probably the only thing that’s kept him alive this long in the weather.

Funny how apt it seems. The sins of the world washed away, but Aramis’ are still raw and laid bare.

For this, he’ll die.

For this.

Aramis will die.

-o-

He tries several more times to right himself, but the change in position causes his head to spin. One time, he almost makes it to his knees before the crushing blackness sends him back down to the ground. When he tries to roll onto his back, his stomach turns violently, and he finds himself retching. The motion unsettles him further, and the lancing pain in his head is crippling. Cowed on his side, he’s breathless and powerless.

There’s nothing he can do.

Nothing he can do but wait.

Nothing he can do but hope.

-o-

He sleeps and wakes in turns he cannot track. His consciousness is stubborn, even as his senses deaden and his coherency leaves him. It is his own shuddering that keeps him awake, the chattering of his teeth the sound that anchors him to consciousness.

They’ll come, he tells himself.

The bodies of his friends, his brothers, are mounds of white. Gone, like they were never there at all.

But Aramis is still here.

Dogged against the cold, he forces himself to inhale.

He’s still here.

-o-

He can’t see them anymore. The others.

They’re gone, just like Marsac.

Lost in a blanket of white.

He blinks, feeling the fading tremors as they start to die out. The protection of the thicket isn’t enough. Nothing is ever enough for Aramis.

His breath is a puff of smoke against the ground. From his position on the ground, he cannot see if the stars are out. It’s not snowing anymore, but the damage is done.

Aramis feels tears freeze to his eyelashes.

The damage is done.

-o-

In desperation, he rallies himself. Hurt and cold and terrified as he is, Aramis is vain. He does not wish to die.

With nothing else to do and no ability to move, he counts the dead. It’s no easy task, given the weather and the fuzziness of his vision, but he scours the scene for each lump of white, counting them each in turn until the bodies blur together. He tries to remember each of them, tries to make out their identity from their shape on the ground. In his mind, he catalogues their names and memorizes the position in which they died. He commits that to memory, commits it to the last bits of awareness he can cling to as the night wears on.

Everything else, it’s slipping away. He cannot quite recall where his horse is; he does not know how long it’s been since Marsac left. He doesn’t remember who would be on patrol, or how many days it takes to ride from Savoy to Paris, in case a rescue should be mounted.

They’d come for him, if they knew.

It’s a cruel word, sharper than a blade, more piercing than a bullet.

The regiment is dead, and Marsac is gone. For all Aramis knows, the others are at the garrison, warming themselves by the fire. Porthos is eating a second helping of stew, and Athos is nursing a whole bottle of wine.

He misses them, but that’s hardly fair. He shouldn’t miss the living, not when he’s surrounded by the dead. He has to wonder, though, if they’re the luckier ones.

They cannot miss what they are not alive to covet.

They cannot fear what they are already dead to.

They cannot feel the tendrils of hope extinguish one by one.

Until nothing is left but darkness.

-o-

He doesn’t die, of course.

Not yet, not so easy.

The slow thump of his heart is like a countdown, and he feels each one tick another second off his life with a finality he cannot fight. He knows he should move; he knows he should do something to warm himself.

It seems futile, though.

All he can think, all he can conclude is that this must be God’s will. This must be his punishment; this must be his penance. God has seen him and found him wanting. He must die for every virgin he’s taken, every widow he’s fleeced, every heart he’s left behind. He must die for the men he’s slain and the orders he’s followed.

He must die for the orders he’s neglected.

The others, death was swift.

For him, he needs time to realize the depths of his depravity. He needs to feel his passions as they die inside him, bit by bit until there’s nothing left of him.

It’s his chance to make amends.

His chance for atonement.

He swallows, trying to lick his numb lips.

With his dwindling reserves, he struggles to find his voice in wooden lungs. He breathes the words, feeling their sparse heat dissipate the second they leave his mouth.

If this is the end, if this is all there is, if this is all he has, there is only one thing left for him.

One last prayer.

Before the end arrives.

Our Father, who art in Heaven.

His shuddering stops, his heart slows.

He closes his eyes.

Hallowed be your name.

He cannot feel it now. He cannot feel his arms or legs, even his body. When he opens his eyes, there’s nothing to see except the glow of light shining through the trees.

Aramis lays himself bear, ready to face his judgement.

Your will be done.

There are no tears left to cry, no promises left to give. No regrets left to feel.

On Earth as it is in Heaven.

-o-

The light grows larger, and he feels it prickle on his skin. A steady hum envelopes him, and he blinks his eyes hazily.

Instead of his heavenly father, however, he sees Porthos and Athos.

Faintly, he smiles.

Maybe this is heaven after all.

-o-

They warm him by the fire and wrap him in blankets. Athos removes his gloves, put his own hands over Aramis’ and rubs life back into the deadened extremities. At night, Porthos presses against his back, Athos at his front, as if that will be enough.

Aramis cannot sleep, not like that. He can hear the pounding of their hearts, louder, more insistent than his own. He does not know what to make of that.

He stares up at the stars and wishes there were tears to spare.

He already knows there are none.

-o-

Athos makes a stew in the morning, and Porthos has to hold him up enough for bites to be ladled in his mouth. It’s a strange sort of thing, and Aramis wonders if he should help. The feeling is starting to return to his arms and legs, and the heat has made him realize that he’s still alive.

All the same, he does not answer their questions. When they wrap the frostbitten flesh on his toes and fingers, he does not tell them about the pinpricks of sensation no matter how many times they ask. Part of him suspects that they may not be real.

The rest of him knows, however, that he doesn’t deserve them if they are.

-o-

It takes some work to get him on a horse, and though he is conscious, he does not help. He remembers how, of course, but there is no impetus to act.

No impetus to leave.

No impetus at all.

-o-

Since he will not grip the reins, Porthos slides on the saddle beside him with Athos at the lead. They have cleaned up the camp as best they can, collecting what they can carry of the weapons and ammunitions. The bodies have been moved and lined up, covered in cloths left over from the destroyed tents.

All the men Treville sent to Savoy.

And Aramis is the only one who is returning.

Fortune is either very kind.

Or very, very cruel.

-o-

They ride hard, camping for the night. Athos checks his bandages while Porthos builds a raging fire. It’s strangely quiet between them. The questions the others can’t bring themselves to ask.

The answer Aramis does not wish to know.

-o-

It only occurs to Aramis in the morning, when he wakes between his friends again, that he has be rescued. He’s been saved, despite the odds. This is his recovery.

The thought of it almost makes him laugh, half hysterically, because it doesn’t make any sense, not any of it.

Because the closer they get to Paris, the surer Aramis is that he will never actually leave Savoy.

-o-

“Come,” Athos persists that night. They have stopped, a few miles shy of Paris. They could have ridden on, made it, but they say they are worried how Aramis will fare without some heat. “You must eat.”

Athos is holding a spoon, a bowl of steaming stew in the other hand. He implores Aramis to take it.

“You need your strength to recover,” he continues, sparing a worried glance toward Porthos.

The larger man merely looks away, uncomfortable.

Aramis stares at the spoon dumbly.

“Aramis,” Athos says again, trying to catch his attention. “Please.”

They have not stopped for heat, Aramis knows. They have stopped because Aramis has not said a word, and the first place they must report is the garrison. It’s bad enough to report that the entire regiment is dead.

It’s harder still when the only survivor will say nothing.

“Aramis,” Athos says. “We are worried about you.”

At that, Aramis looks up, eyes dragging slowly to Athos’ face. They have been kind, his friends. Not to ask too many questions; not to press too hard. They don’t need Aramis to tell them what happened, not when they saw it for themselves, not when they still see it written in his eyes.

They have stopped not to keep Aramis warm; they have stopped to keep him quiet. To allow him one more night where he can exist between reality and uncertainty. One more night before is forced to reconcile the fact that Savoy is miles behind them.

And Aramis is both scared and desperate to go back again.

-o-

It is likely that Aramis eats the dinner, but he remembers nothing of it. It is possible that he listened to his friends prattle on the whole night, though he remembers not a word. He doesn’t remember being tucked into bed or the bandages on his fingers and toes being changed, but when he finds himself staring up at the sky, he realizes all that must have occurred.

The fact is, it just seems funny. To do all these mundane things. These necessary things. To live and breathe and eat and talk while other people lay dead. He’s never thought of it like that, about people being gone. For the first time in his life, the promise of an afterlife brings him no comfort.

For Heaven and Hell exist right here, on this Earth.

Aramis knows.

For he is living Hell right now.

-o-

He’s already awake when the others rouse, but he does not sit up until they pull him into a sitting position. He allows himself to be manhandled in this way, and he does not resist when they feed and dress him. Athos checks the bandage around his head, and Porthos holds his damaged fingers to the fire before covering them again.

Porthos, to his credit, tries to smile. “They’re not so bad,” he says. “I’ve seen worse.”

It’s not quite a lie, in that Porthos has probably seen worse. He just doesn’t say it’s been on corpses.

“No matter,” Athos tells them as he gathers up the rest of camp. “We’ll get you back to the garrison before lunch. Let the doctor look you over.”

Porthos is still sitting close to him, staring at him desperately. “If you’re up to it, that is,” he says, nudging him gently. “I mean, you just have to say the word….”

The sentiment seems foreign to Aramis. Though sensation has come back to his body, he doesn’t know what any of it means. He doesn’t understand how he’s sitting here. He should still be asleep in his tent, waiting for morning in Savoy.

He hears it, the sound of cutting flesh, the agony of the screams as his fellow soldiers fall to the ground. He can see their bodies, collecting in the snow. He can hear them as the settle into stillness, never to awake again.

“Aramis?” Porthos asks, leaning closer to look in his face.

Aramis startles, blinking at him in surprise. He tries to ground himself, but it’s all off kilter. Say the word, Porthos says, but there are no words.

Just the silence.

So much silence.

-o-

Porthos sits him in front of the saddle while Athos loads up the gear on his own horse. Vacantly, he watches as Athos leads them into the city, the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves a steady cadence against the stone.

Inside, Paris is alive with energy. People are going to market; workers are scurrying off to earn their daily keep. He can smell fresh bread at the bakery, and a pair of children make snowball in the powder.

It’s a normal day in Paris. People are happy, going about their lives as though nothing is different.

That’s a jarring sensation, to see the living.

When all Aramis feels is the dead.

-o-

Athos leads them quickly, making no stops and keeping the horses at a good clip. Aramis figures this is on his account, and he would tell them not to make a fuss, but he doesn’t know how.

Everything seems like a fuss to him anymore.

Even the effort of saving him.

When Aramis knows, for a fact, he should have been left to die.

-o-

At the garrison, he is vaguely aware that people are staring at him. He hears the whispers, as though he’s some kind of oddity to study. This might make Aramis uncomfortable in other contexts.

As it is, he does not know how to care.

Instead, he lets Porthos slide him off into Athos’ waiting grasp. His legs threaten to give way, but Athos catches him, propping him up long enough for Porthos to stomp heavily into the slush next to him. Together, they lift him up, carrying him past the captain’s office and straight to the common room.

It’s used for injuries and routine aid. The medical supplies are stowed there, and there’s a few cots along one wall. Many men have had their lives saved there.

They deposit Aramis on the first cot, standing back and looking at him as if in relief.

Funny, Aramis realizes dimly. They think they’ve saved him.

They haven’t really a clue.

-o-

The doctor must have been on his way, or Aramis truly has lost all sense of time. He lays down by command, and when he opens his eyes, the wizened old man is peerly at him intently through his spectacles.

“A survivor, eh?” the doctor asks. He’s older than Aramis has thought about before. Twice his age. Three musketeers together in Savoy would barely equal his years.

“The only one we found, unfortunately,” Athos tells him in hushed tones.

The doctor makes a face, almost a sympathetic wince. “How long was he in the cold?” he asks, reaching for the bindings on his fingers.

“Best we can tell, a day and a half,” Athos answers.

“Rest of the lot were frozen solid,” Porthos murmurs. “We found him in a thicket, though. Enough to protect him a little.”

“Probably just enough to keep him alive,” the doctors says, lifting Aramis’ blackened fingers to the light. He looks at Aramis purposefully. “Can you move them?”

Aramis stares back at him, not sure how to answer.

“What about feeling?” the doctor asks, folding his fingers experimentally.

Aramis looks from the doctor to his fingers. Somewhere, he feels a burning sensation, but it hardly makes sense to him. None of this makes sense.

Chewing his lip, the doctor went to his feet next. “Oh, these got the worst of it for sure,” he says with a shake of his head. “He’ll lose the pinkies for sure, maybe another.”

Porthos leans forward with new concern. “But he’ll be okay, right? He’ll be able to soldier again?”

The doctor folds the blankets back over Aramis’ feet. “Pinkie toes are not as important as most people think they are,” he says, offering Aramis a kind smile. “You’ll learn to balance again in no time. I once knew a Musketeer to lose three on each foot and he was back on duty within a month!”

It’s clear that this is meant to be reassuring.

Aramis just can’t quite figure out how.

Athos steps in, pointing to the bandage around Aramis’ head. “And what of the head injury?”

The doctor unfurls the bandage, getting on his feet to pluck through the matted hair on Aramis’ skull. He mutters something under his breath, adjusts his glasses and peers more deeply. His ruddy fingers probe into his scalp, and Aramis would flinch if he remembered how.

“Well, he took quite a hit,” the doctor says, sitting back a bit. “But it’s closed up pretty well by now. How are his wits?”

Porthos actually pales. There’s a strained look on Athos’ face. They look at each other, but they don’t look at Aramis this time. They can’t.

The doctor seems to understand. “Ah,” he says, patting Aramis gently on the shoulder. “Well, let him rest, give him time, and we’ll see what happens.”

Aramis wonders what it matters, what’s going to happen.

Because everything has already happened.

This is just the aftermath.

-o-

They start a fire -- a large one -- and pull his cot close. When he’s settled on the pillows, they heap blankets atop and offer hot broth as sustenance. In all of this, there is surprisingly little to do, and Aramis watches as his friends settle down nearby.

Athos takes a position by the door. It’s not clear if his position is overtly tactical or merely subconscious. Probably both. No doubt, he has better things to do; no doubt, he’s more sober than he’d like.

Porthos settles himself closer, in a chair on the opposite side of the fire. The way he sits back, slouches down, staring at the flames suggest a permanence that is hard for Aramis to fully understand.

They have better things to do, Aramis knows. They have training and reports. They have card games and women. All the same, they show no signs of leaving. Aramis wonders if this is because they’re worried about him, what has happened to him, what is going to happen.

He wants to tell them it’s not necessary. Moreover, it’s not worth it.

The words evade him, though. Along with everything else. Thawed and warmed as he is, he feels as frozen as ever.

Naturally, that’s ironic. Frozen when he’s staring fire face to face. It’s entrancing to watch it. He studies the flickering flame as it consumes the wood. The more it devours, the more Aramis wonder if it would burn him up, too.

The thought provokes him, and he turns it over in his mind. He wonders about the skin melting off his bones and the smell of his own cooking flesh. It’s not pleasant, but then, Aramis knows there is no pleasant way to die.

Besides, fire would be a nice change of pace.

It’s even possible that it finally burn away the frost that’s taken hold deep inside of him, that for one last moment, he’d feel alive once more.

That’s tempting for him. To trade a lifetime for a moment.

It all ends the same way.

-o-

Strange at it is, the experience is somewhat peaceful. Athos and Porthos are worried about him, but it is clear they know nothing about what to do with him. That’s fine by Aramis; he’s not sure what to do with himself either.

In fact, he prefers to be silent. He doesn’t like reminders that he’s still alive.

Sometimes, if he closes his eyes, he can even pretend like he’s still back in Savoy.

But then Treville comes through the door.

Eyes open, Aramis stares at him. His breathing catches, and he feels his heart stutter like it had in the cold, dead of night. His captain only comes to him for two reasons: to issue orders or demand answers.

There are no orders Aramis understands now, and there are no answers he could possibly give.

The panic drives him, and he tenses. He thinks to flee, but he seems to have forgotten how to move. For the love of God, he can’t even remember how to exist.

“It’s still early,” Athos says, getting to his feet. He’s standing in that way, positioning himself between Treville and Aramis. His hand rests on his sword, even if he has no intention of using it. “The doctor wants to give him time to recover.”

Porthos gets to his feet as well, holding himself taller than normal. “He needs rest.”

Treville, however, is not a man to be deterred. He easily sidesteps the two musketeers, until Aramis is in his line of sight again. “I’m not here to exhaust him,” he says. “But we still have some matters to discuss.”

“You’ve gotten our preliminary report,” Athos tells Treville in a hushed tone. “What good--”

“For the men who died,” Treville says back tersely. He looks to Athos, then to Porthos. “This isn’t just about him.”

“Maybe it should be,” Porthos says, indignant. “Since he’s the only one who came back.”

Treville does not flinch. “I believe that is my decision to make.”

“All of this was your decision,” Athos says.

Treville turns to him, lifting his chin. “Is there something you’d like to say to me, Athos?”

Athos shrugs, expression muted. “No, sir,” he says. He’s being diffident; disrespectful without being obvious. It seems like rather a lot of nuance, and Aramis can’t totally see the point.

Treville can ask his questions.

Treville can give his explanations.

None of it matters to Aramis.

Any more than it matters to those who did not come back.

“Good,” Treville says, the words thick. He steps all the way around Athos, skirting past Porthos. At Aramis’ bed, he hesitates. He takes a deep breath and reaches for a nearby chair. When he positions it close to the bed, he sits down and looks Aramis in the eye.

For a long moment, that’s all he does. Eye to eye, Treville is studying him.

“Aramis,” Treville says finally. He pauses, gathering a breath. It’s the first time Aramis has ever seen him look so unsure. Apologetic. “What happened?”

A simple question, at least. Treville’s voice is quiet and even. He’s trying, tough facades aside, he’s trying.

The problem is, Aramis doesn’t know how to try. He doesn’t know how to even start. How does he explain the way no one saw the attack coming? How does he talk about the way half the regiment was dead before he even stumbled out of his bedding? How does it put it into words how quickly they fell? How can he describe the way the snow covered the blood?

What words could possibly explain the long hours? What explanation could he give to illustrate his own inability to move or to act? What description could they use to adequately describe the horror of lives cut short -- for nothing?

Aramis’ words are frozen, lodged deep inside him. They’re all dead, and Aramis is not. He fought, but he failed. He watched them die, hoping for release enough to join them. When that was denied to him, he was left with the inevitable reality that his life has been spared and he can’t figure out why.

God tells him all things happen for a reason.

But there is no reason for this.

There is no reason.

Aramis blinks, and Treville looks away. For a moment, he hangs his head in what appears to be resignation. It’s not common to see doubt in the eyes of a man like Treville, but Aramis believes he has this day.

All the questions, from any side, can be answered in the silence.

It’s possible that someday Aramis will have questions. He may even have answers someday.

But not today.

That’s the only thing Treville came here to learn, even if it’s the last lesson he wishes to accept. If Savoy is about anything, however, it’s that you don’t get to pick and choose. He might feel sorry for Treville, but Aramis’ compassion is still frozen to the ground in Savoy.

Hat in his hands, Treville gets to his feet again with a slow, resolved breath. “Make sure the doctor stays close”

Porthos huffs. “That’s what we were trying to tell you--”

Treville doesn’t let him finish. “Provide assurance that all care will be paid for, and use your judgment to provide enough food and bedding until he is recovered.”

“With all due respect--” Athos starts in.

But Treville is insistent now. “You two are to be given a leave.”

Athos’ mouth hangs open. “But our duty--”

Treville turns on him sharply. “Is to Aramis now,” he says. “Do you both understand?”

Aramis can’t see the look that passes between them, but it seems to be more than sufficient. Athos backs up a step, and Porthos ducks his head. With that, Treville turns on his heel and storms out the door.

In his wake, Athos and Porthos exchange wary looks.

They understand, between the two of them.

That’s for the best, because Aramis doesn’t.

Aramis doesn’t understand any of this at all.

-o-

After so much, Aramis cannot deny his body sleep. When his stomach growls, he begrudgingly accepts the need to eat. Day by day, his fingers and toes start to heal. He’s getting stronger. He can feel his vitality returning.

He hates it, though. Every moment of it. He hates the growing clarity of his reality, and the growing listlessness in his bones. His body is betraying him by seeking to live.

Somewhere, on the dirt in Savoy, Aramis wonders if his brothers have been buried yet. He wonders if the thaw has reached them, allowing their bodies to rot. If a week has passed, they would be hard to identify now, their features lost to the inevitability of death.

His life returns, while theirs ebbs further and further away.

It is enough to leave Aramis sick.

-o-

That’s not the worst of it, though.

It is true, his waking thoughts are no fit companion. His doubts, his guilt, his regrets still haunt him. He spends his days in self loathing, hating every sign of recovery that the others denote with pride.

As bad as it that is, it is worse when he sleeps.

The dreams, he can no longer remember. But he wakes up with a raw throat and cold sweat soaked through his bandages. His friends are about him, tending to him with a promptness that Aramis cannot deter.

“You’re safe,” they tell him. “We found you.”

For the love of God, Aramis wishes that they were right. He wants to believe them, more than anything.

The truth is, unpalatable though it may be, that he’s not sure if there was anything left of him worth finding.

-o-

The doctor is pleased at his progress, but removes his two pinkie toes. “It’ll be nothing but a minor inconvenience,” the doctor assures him. He’s been well wetted with the only pain medication a musketeer ever needs. The alcohol is dense and in good supplies. He doesn’t feel a thing when both toes are lopped clean off.

“You’ll hardly miss them, once you get back on your feet,” the doctor chirps, almost cheerful.

Dazed from the drink, Aramis has no reply. But as he watches the doctor fold the black stubs into a towel, handing them to Porthos for disposal, he can’t help but feel envious.

How is it fair for only his toes to be granted this reprieve.

While the rest of him is condemned to keep on breathing.

-o-

He allows himself to be dressed and coddled. He permits himself to be fed and moved. When the dreams terrorize him, he does not resist their comfort. He was a proud man once, a vain one. But his dignity is still in Savoy.

Along with his resolve, his purpose, his faith and everything else good he might have harbored.

In many ways, he suspects that he’s dead already.

It’s just taking his body a while to figure it out.

-o-

The routine seems endless, but Aramis starts to notice the changes. He notices how it’s easier to get his balance. He notices how he starts to finish the full bowl of broth and how his stomach grumbles keenly for a second. He notices how he stays awake longer, and how his fingers flex without pain.

One day, it doesn’t hurt at all.

The next, he doesn’t feel weak.

It’s only then, when his own change is visible, that he realizes just how much time has passed. The weather has warmed up considerably outside, and Athos’ beard has grown long and full while the thick curls are widening on Porthos’ head.

It’s been weeks, Aramis realizes. Maybe months.

All this time he’s been here, alive.

He’s thought often about his brothers, who are not here, but he has neglected the two that have not left. They’ve stayed with him, unwavering. They have not complained, and they have not flinched through any of it.

Aramis left his faith in Savoy.

But he’s starting to think he’s found a small piece of it, right here in Paris.

He’s not sure what to do with that.

He probably has no choice but to find out.

-o-

He goes over the words in his head, time and again. He thinks about them when he’s eating; he contemplates them in the long hours of the afternoon when all he knows to do is stare out the window. In his mind, he hears himself saying them, but his tongue doesn’t quite know how to work just yet.

It’s a matter of time, perhaps. A matter of resolve. Maybe he will do it for those who cannot. Maybe he will do it for those who are still living.

Maybe he’ll just do it.

After all this, Aramis should know better than to fight the fickleness of fate. God works in mysterious ways much of the time, and who is Aramis to know?

Who is Aramis at all?

When Athos hands him the bowl for lunch, he takes it. Steadily, he lowers it, and lifts the spoon with his other hand. He stares at the bowl, the food inside. He watched Athos make it, and he knows Porthos went out to buy the ingredients earlier that day. They did this for him. They’re here for him. Whether he wants their mercy and attention or not, he cannot deny their sacrifice anymore than the sacrifice of every man who is buried in Savoy.

Licking his lips, he swallows. Furrowing his brow, he fights back the stinging in his eyes as he looks up at Athos. “Thank you,” he says.

The words are strange and stilted, and his voice is uneven with disuse. It’s more of a croak than anything, but Athos hears him all the same.

From the table, Porthos looks so surprised that his mouth actually hangs open.

Athos, for his part, keeps steady. With a small, real smile, he inclines his head. “You’re welcome.”

Part of him hates this concession he’s made, but it feels overwhelmingly like relief. Like the spark of something, bright and deep, etching away at the ice he’s carried since Savoy.

It feels like maybe he’s survived this mess after all.

-o-

The words are first.

Self sufficiency comes next.

He has fed himself for a week now, but he’s still been mostly prompted to perform all basic tasks. He’s sitting there, considering how long it will be before Porthos remembers to take him to relieve himself, when he recalls something foreign indeed.

Porthos doesn’t have to remember.

Aramis remembers.

Better still, Aramis has a need and he is perfectly capable of fulfilling it himself. It’s a simple sort of revelation, but it strikes him as odd. He’s been reluctant to admit he’s alive all this time, but the fact is becoming painstakingly obvious to deny.

He glances at Porthos, grinding his teeth together in anticipation.

All these weeks, he’s been nothing but a burden. He can do this -- for them.

Wetting his lips, he pushes up from the bed. His head injury has fully healed so he no longer gets dizzy, and the strength has long since returned to his legs. The motion is still so unusual to him, however, that he finds himself halting, inhaling sharply as he gets his wits around what he’s doing.

From the chair across the room, Porthos startles. He half-stumbles to his feet, and he’s already across the room, grabbing Aramis by the arm, looking frantically into his face. “Aramis? Are you okay?”

It’s all so much over so little that Aramis almost wants to laugh. It’s not funny, of course. That they’ve been reduced to this is hard to explain. Still, it seems like a lifetime since he was a competent soldier. For the first time since Savoy, he wonders if he can become that man again.

Not now, however.

Baby steps.

He smiles feebly. “Just thought I’d go relieve myself.”

Porthos stares at him, as though he’s expecting something more. Aramis is not the only one who has lived in limbo since Savoy. Porthos looks absolutely vexed, and his fingers are still tight on Aramis’ forearm. “By yourself?”

It’s like he’s talking to a child; it’s the way you coddle someone, protect them. Aramis has spent weeks wondering if he’s actually alive, and Porthos has been terrified he won’t be. It’s something he hasn’t thought about: how his friends would have felt if they’d found him dead with the rest. Better for him, maybe.

Not for them.

Aramis’ smile strengthens. He lifts one shoulder diffidently. “Why not?”

Porthos is too dumbfounded to actually be incredulous. He exhales after a moment, and his fingers loosen and fall away. He tips his head to the side with a furrow of his brow. “Why not.”

-o-

Within several days, Aramis has taken up all basic tasks for himself once more. He is fully mobile now, not just physically but emotionally. It still feels strange, but since he has no apparent choice in the matter of his own heartbeat, it seems unnecessary to burden his friends even more than he already has.

If this is the punishment of survival, then he will endure it.

-o-

Enduring is strangely akin to living. The more he does, the more natural it seems. There are days when he eats without thinking of the last meal he shared with his brothers. Sometimes, when he attends to the mess of his hair, he does not contemplate the haircuts his fellow soldiers will never have again.

Life is, simply put, returning to normal.

Aramis wants that to feel ironic, but every day that passes, it just doesn’t.

It just doesn’t.

-o-

If Aramis forgets, he has plenty of reminders.

All he has to do is close his eyes.

And he knows that he’ll wake up screaming.

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