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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Musketeers fic: A Penance Paid (2/3)

December 15th, 2017 (09:04 pm)
crushed

feeling: crushed

Part One
Part Two
Part Three



-o-

There was a time in Athos life when he was cut deep, almost to the bone. Hemorrhaging as he was, he bound the wound tightly to stop the blood. And stop the blood, he did. In the process, he stopped everything else, too.

It saved his life, in the short term.

All these years; all these miles. He’s starting to wonder if it’s the thing that’s killing him instead. He wonders if maybe it’s time to peel back the bandage and to finally assess the damage. He wonders if it’s finally the moment to try stitching things back together.

It could kill him, it’s true.

But he’s a dead man if he doesn’t.

No man gets to choose how he dies.

Athos reflects, however, that a man does get to choose how he lives.

Funny, how that works.

So damn funny.

-o-

That’s besides the point.

All of Athos’ inner ramblings, all his wayward thoughts. None of that is the point. None of his trauma, none of his rational, not a single one of his compunctions.

They’re not the point.

There’s only one point.

And it’s painted out in red all over Athos’ fingers.

“Okay,” he says, moving around toward where Aramis is laid out. “What do we do?”

The doctor is already gathering his tools. “Well, we’ll take off the bandage and I’ll stitch him up, of course,” he says, laying out a gleaming row of metal on the nearby table.

“That sounds easy enough,” D’Artagnan comments, gathering up spare towels.

“Thanks,” the doctor murmurs as he accepts the towels. “If you could, get a clean basin of water--”

“Simple, then,” Porthos says, trying to sound confident.

The doctor shrugs, half wincing. “I suppose fast might be a better description,” he says with a tight smile. “The more we have set up in advance, the better off we are. Once we start this, we’re not stopping, not for anything.”

There’s one exception, naturally.

No one will give it voice.

Athos clears his throat. “Where do you want us?”

The doctor nods toward Aramis’ head. “You can hold him down there, at the shoulders,” he says. “And Porthos, if you could take his legs.”

Porthos has already moved, scooting past the doctor to press both of his palms against Aramis’ ankles. “He’s been out for a while.”

Calm and experienced as the new royal doctor may be, he still makes a small noise in the back of his throat. “This kind of pain has been known to bring some men around,” he muses. “Besides, Aramis does not have a reputation for being...easy to handle.”

“Truer words were never spoken,” Athos quips, and he braces himself first before he can even think of pushing his weight into Aramis’ shoulders. His pale face is unmoving beneath him, and Athos cannot let himself linger.

D’Artagnan comes back around, putting the basin next to the tools. “Is that enough?”

“It’ll have to do,” the doctor says. He pauses, looking at Aramis for a second. His eyes flit to Athos in one last moment of hesitation. “If you’re sure…”

“It’s not a choice now,” Athos tells him sympathetically. “Not really, anyway.”

The doctor smiles faintly. “Okay, then,” he says, fingers poised over the bandage. He uses the scalpel, sliding it under one edge of the soiled fabric. Porthos inhales, holding it. D’Artagnan is practically twitching.

It’s all Athos can do to keep his eyes open.

With an efficient slice, the bandage is removed, and the doctor hastily pulls it away.

The decision is made; the die is cast.

For better or worse, Athos knows there’s no turning back.

-o-

Fast as they are, the blood is faster.

It’s pouring out of the wound now, soaking down onto the surface beneath Aramis’ leg. D’Artagnan actually has to turn away, and Porthos looks gaunt. The doctor does not flinch this time, however. His hands move, fast and careful as he tends to the wound. First, washing it out before quickly taking up his needle and driving it into the torn flesh.

Athos is so enthralled by this that he does not see Aramis wake up.

He feels him, though. His body springing up, slamming into Athos.

And he hears him.

The cry is almost inhuman, and Athos is more stunned by that than he is the force of the blow.

The doctor curses. “Athos! Hold him!”

Athos struggles to get his wits about him, and he presses down -- hard -- using his body weight to push Aramis back to the table. Breathless, he looks past the doctor to Porthos. The bigger man is pushing down on Aramis’ legs so tautly that his knuckles are white.

Below him, Aramis is keening.

“Athos,” the doctor instructs, not even looking up this time while he drives the needle into the raw flesh. “See if you can calm him--”

Careful to maintain the pressure, Athos turns himself, repositioning his body so he can keep Aramis still while still looking at him. It’s better like this, he rationalizes stupidly. This way, they can’t see the blood.

(God help him, he can still smell it.)

Aramis is breathing harshly, his eyes wild. “Athos?” he asks, almost as if he’s not sure.

Athos smiles. “We’re back already,” he says, words as smooth as he can make them. “The doctor’s just fixing your leg.”

Aramis sobs momentarily, nearly hysterical. Then, he collects himself, brow furrowed. “How bad?”

“You don’t remember?” Athos says, and he’s not sure if he’s joking. It’s hardly fair to ask that question, but he needs the distraction. He’s just not sure if he wants the answer to be yes or no.

Aramis shudders. His body goes tense for a moment, but Athos does not let him move. Wetting his lips, Aramis blinks rapidly. “I don’t remember the battle,” he admits. He shakes his head, a tear slipping down his cheek toward his hair. “I don’t remember the battle.”

“It’s not important,” Athos reassures.

“But I should remember,” Aramis says, trying to lift his head up again. He doesn’t make it far and he lets it thump back with a small wail of despair. “I should remember the battle that killed me.”

“Hey,” Athos says, a touch sharper than he would have intended. “You’re not dead.”

Aramis cringes, and Athos knows he can feel every poke of the needle as it binds his skin together. “Not yet.”

“That’s rather pessimistic for you,” Athos chides.

Aramis looks at him soberly. “But I can’t remember the battle.”

“Because it’s not important,” Athos is almost lecturing now.

“But I know why,” he continues. He pauses, pressing his pale, thin lips together. “I know why I’m dying.”

“You don’t remember the battle,” Athos reminds him. “And you’re not dying.”

Aramis isn’t quite listening to him anymore. His eyes drift up, looking at the ceiling. “My body lost the battle today, but my soul lost it a long time ago,” he says, the words no more than whispers now. He almost smiles, but the entire thing looks sad.

“Aramis, that’s enough--”

“That’s penance,” Aramis continues heedlessly. He’s entirely lax now, as though he can’t feel the needle anymore. As if he doesn’t feel the blood. “I begged for penance, and then I abandoned it. Maybe God has finally heard my prayers, decided to call me for account.”

This is hardly the time for it. All the mistakes Aramis has made; all the trouble he has brought to them. Athos has wanted him to understand, to bear that responsibility.

But not like this.

Not like this.

“If this is how God answers prayers, then I would have nothing to do with him,” Athos says stiffly.

Aramis’ gaze tracks slowly toward him, and his eyes are cloudy now. “The lives I have taken, the ones I’ve ruined,” he says. “This is the least I can offer back.”

“And what of us?” Athos demands, feeling his emotions hitch. “What of us?”

Aramis smiles with his last bit of strength. “I don’t remember the battle,” he admits, as if that explains something.

“We’ll talk about it when you’re better,” Athos says as Aramis’ eyes slide closed. “Do you understand?”

His voice has risen; he presses down harder.

“Do you understand?”

Aramis can’t answer him, though.

No one can.

Not when Athos is asking questions that don’t have answers.

At least, not answers Athos wants to hear.

Eyes closed once more, Aramis slips into a terrifying stillness. Athos can still feel his heart, thudding against his ribcage, but it is a scarce comfort.

It is a meager thing.

Athos can remember the battle.

He remembers every battle.

But none of them explain why they’re here, why they’re like this, why.

That’s the question he’s been asking, ever since his life imploded all those years ago. Why him? Why his family? Why his legacy? Why his wife? Why his brother?

Fate doesn’t ask why, it seems.

Instead, it asks, why not?

Athos closes his eyes and breathes a prayer to a God he’s not sure he believes in.

Why not?

-o-

When the doctor is finished, they are all spent.

The doctor himself looks exhausted, and Athos knows he has completed longer procedures than this. Still, watching him, it’s impossible not to see the adrenaline drain out of him when the last stitch is sewn.

Aramis, for his part, has succumb to unconsciousness again, and this time, he does not rouse. His constitution is sickly, to say the least, and the thin sound of his breathing is a meager reassurance. His clammy skin suggests that this fight is not over yet.

Porthos reads that as plainly as Athos does. In fact, it’s very probable he feels it more intensely. Aramis may be the one laid out, but Porthos is the one suffering, and he comports himself with the vestiges of restraint that leave him little energy for anything else.

D’Artagnan looks somewhat green, if Athos is completely honest. These are the moment his youth makes itself known most prominently. For as quickly as D’Artagnan has learned to kill, he still feels weak around death. It’s not a habit that Athos is keen to break him of.

As for himself, it’s impossible to say which front he’s fighting on anymore. After all these years, he’s a soldier at heart, and he suspects it’ll always be that way for him. It’s not an easy thing, though, winning a war. When you’re fighting on too many fronts, you’re left vulnerable.

Athos is vulnerable now.

And the blood on his hands is not the most pressing battle. Indeed, that one is out of his hands. It’s the weight of everything else, the other skirmishes that must be one -- those are the ones Athos must rally himself for now.

For he is the one who must promise the doctor that he’s done everything they could expect of him. He is the one who must stand strong for Porthos when Porthos finds himself caving in. He is the one who must speak gently to D’Artagnan, to make him understand that this is a part of the job they all must embrace.

He is the one who must carry his words to Aramis. Do you understand?

He is the one who must pay the penance.

Because this is not who he intended to be.

-o-

It is the doctor who breaks the silence. “We’ve done what we can for now,” he says, more weary by the second. “We’ll want to stay close, watch for signs of fever. The blood loss will be a hard enough battle, but we have to hope the wound doesn’t get infected.”

“I’ll stay,” Porthos says, almost cutting him off.

“Me, too,” D’Artagnan chimes in, bucking himself up to his full high as if to rally his courage.

They are noble, this lot. Too noble.

That’s why they’ll follow Athos anywhere, even to death.

That’s why it’s up to Athos to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Clearing his throat, he steps forward. “There are still things to be done--”

“I’m not leaving,” Porthos almost growls.

“We should stay,” D’Artagnan says almost simultaneously.

Athos wants to smile, but he has not the strength. “Someone must report to Treville; I’m sure rumors are going to start spreading through the garrison if we don’t head them off now,” he says. “Moreover, Treville will want to send two parties, one back to the site and the other to the king himself to provide a full report.”

“It can wait,” Porthos says.

“And have this be for nothing?” Athos asks. “Because I’d like the risk we took to matter.”

“I’ll go,” D’Artagnan interjects soberly. He’s dutiful, that one. “If Treville needs a report--”

“We can go together,” Athos offers kindly. “And then we can split the difference in the duties as is necessary.”

Porthos has sat himself heavily on a chair, pulled close to Aramis.

Athos nods sympathetically. “You can take the first watch with Aramis,” he says, trying to make it sound like a concession. He knows it is nothing but an eventuality. Porthos will need to leave at some point, but Athos can’t break him off the need yet. It’s not quite despair. Athos must walk the fine line between indulging him and protecting him. “And whoever gets back first can relieve you of your duties.”

Porthos huffs but doesn’t disagree.

Athos turns in a perfunctory fashion to the doctor. “I assume you’ll stay close?”

“I have several other patients, but I will stay as close as I can until we’re confident that Aramis is improving,” he says. “Fortunately, besides you lot, it’s a quiet day in the garrison. I don’t believe anyone else has been otherwise deployed.

“Very good,” Athos says. He looks from Porthos to D’Artagnan, rubbing his hands together. “This will all work out yet. You’ll see.”

They are funny words, spoken with confidence that Athos has no justification for having. Athos has always considered himself a practical man, but he knows these are not practical words. Aramis’ life hangs in the balance, and Athos is offering them nothing but platitudes. That’s not what a soldier would do.

It’s what a friend would do, however.

A brother.

His resolve threatens to slip, just for a moment. Because he remembers this; he remembers what it is to care. How far he’s come just to end up exactly where he started.

A man with connections.

A man with compunction.

If he’s lying to them, it is only by necessity.

Because he’s lying to himself first.

Maybe Aramis is right, maybe this is penance.

He hesitates, patting Aramis on the arm before he turns to leave the room. “You’ll see.”

-o-

D’Artagnan holds his composure well enough until they get outside, but it is only mere seconds before he cannot keep stride with Athos.

He tries -- with all he has -- but Athos walks them only far enough to be out of earshot of the makeshift infirmary before he takes pity on the younger man.

“Are you alright?” Athos asks, even though he knows the answer.

D’Artagnan makes a meager attempt to hide his lack of composure, but his eyes are wet and his voice cracks. Swearing, he ducks his head for a moment.

Athos sighs. “Take your time.”

Lifting his head again, D’Artagnan has found his voice. “It’s embarrassing.”

Athos inclines his head patiently. “It’s fine--”

“No,” D’Artagnan says. “I’m not new to this anymore. I’ve seen things; I’ve done things.” He lets out a breath, shaking his head. “I should be used to this.”

“I hope not,” Athos says.

D’Artagnan gestures at him. “Look at you, though,” he says. “You’re handling it well enough.”

“Am I?” Athos muses.

“Aren’t you?” D’Artagnan asks, nose wrinkling.

Athos shrugs. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he says. “I know how to look the part when it’s required.”

“And now?” D’Artagnan asks, jerking his head back in the direction of where he’s left Aramis. “Now it’s required?”

“Now, more than ever,” Athos says. “Most of the time, I just use the drink to take the edge off, but when there’s real danger of breaking -- that’s when you simply have to keep your wits about you.”

D’Artagnan snorts. “You always make it sound so easy.”

“Not easy,” Athos tells him. “Practical. We do what we have to, just to survive.”

This time, D’Artagnan actually snorts. “Survive?” he presses. “How does any this help us survive? Going on like everything is fine? Pretending like we’ve got it all under control? That’s going to help us?”

Athos endures this with as much grace as he has. It’s not so hard, actually. Athos knows when to take offense. And he knows when the battle must be won on a very particular front. “Look,” he says. “Everyone knows you can kill a man if you run him through the heart, yes?”

D’Artagnan looks confused. “Sure.”

“Right,” Athos says. “They’re right, without question.”

D’Artagnan is shaking his head. “I don’t understand--”

Athos doesn’t let him finish. “There is more than one way to skewer the heart,” he says. “And the worst of them, the most terrifying of them -- doesn’t require a sword at all.”

The words are not intended to be sharp, but there is no avoiding the weight of them. For men who spend as much time together as they do, these conversations are still not easy for them. They are willing to die for each other, after all, but they’ve never been so keen on telling each other how they feel. There’s not always a lot of time for such things in the heat of battle.

That’s part of the reason they probably all find battle to be such a relief sometimes.

But there’s a catch, in things like that. Because if you’re ready to lay down your life for the man next to you, you damn well be better to tell them the things that matter most.

D’Artagnan, for once, is quiet, and Athos can almost feel the uncertainty churning in his gut. Sympathetically, he reaches forward, placing a hand heavily on the younger man’s shoulder. “That’s what makes Musketeers different,” he says. “It’s not the training, it’s not who gives the orders. It’s that we still have our hearts, and we still are willing to lay them on the line.”

Pressing his lips together, D’Artagnan tries to nod. “That makes us weaker, then,” he says. The words are clipped. “Doesn’t it?”

“Sometimes, in some ways,” Athos agrees. “But others might say it makes us stronger when it counts.”

“Yeah,” D’Artagnan says, eyeing him wearily. “And what do you think?”

Athos lets his hand drop. “I think I’m still here,” he says. “Aren’t I?”

D’Artagnan nods this time, his composure visibly collected once more. “Yeah,” he says. “I guess we all are.”

Athos smiles, and there’s some relief that he doesn’t have to say it. They’re all here, after all. Each of them, to a man. Athos, D’Artagnan, Porthos and Aramis. All for one, and one for all.

“Come on,” Athos says, starting toward palace once again. “Let’s get this over with.”

Because they were all still there.

And all Athos could bear to hope was that they would still be when this was all said and done.

-o-

Treville, at least, is measured and controlled. He manages to be sympathetic while still holding them to business, and Athos appreciates that. He imagines that his time as a Musketeer would have been less manageable without this kind of leadership.

With a few efficient minutes of conversation, Treville has D’Artagnan organizing a secondary force to go back and clean up what can be salvaged from the event. He has permission to take as many men as he sees fit, with enough to stay until the job is done. With a hint of gentleness, Treville suggests that D’Artagnan may relieve himself of duty as soon as the operation is set up on site, meaning that the younger man would be home by the end of the day.

This is a great kindness. It means that D’Artagnan shall have his mind preoccupied during the worst of Aramis’ recovery. But it does not keep the young man away so long that he should incur unnecessary guilt.

“It is impressive how you always know just the right order,” Athos remarks as he watches D’Artagnan through the window, talking to the first man he sees.

Treville smiles lightly. “If I always knew the right order, then why do so many of my men come back bleeding -- or don’t come back at all?”

Athos winces sympathetically. “Because the right orders are not always the easy ones.”

Treville sighs. “All the same,” he says, giving a wayward look at Athos. “You do know that if I send D’Artagnan back to the site, I will need you to report to the king.”

Athos chews his lip with a thoughtful nod. “I had rather hoped you could send an alternative envoy.”

“The king is quite insistent,” Treville explains with a hint of apology in his voice. “He wants this matter dealt with discreetly.”

“The amount of carnage to be found--”

“Is not as important as the goods that are directed back to their rightful owners,” Treville finishes for him. “The king will want a first hand account, and there is no one better suited than the captain of the garrison.”

“Somehow I am not surprised,” Athos says. He cocks his head ruefully; it had been an adjustment to play the role of captain. There are still days he feels like he’s just filling Treville’s shoes, but he has to remind himself that it has been years. “I know my duty, after all.”

“Your duty to the king is one thing,” Treville remarks. “I am more impressed by your duty to your men. You were the right choice to take over as captain, no doubt.”

It’s Athos’ turn to scoff. “You speak of the blood your men spill,” he muses, with a vague gesture down at his blood-soaked clothing. “I bear that all the more than you do.”

“With all that, Aramis is still alive,” Treville reminds him. “That has nothing to do with my orders, and everything to do with yours.”

It’s a quiet thing about Treville. Some people would count it all as knowledge and experience. But there’s more to it than that. Athos knows him well enough to see it, to understand. To know it.

Regret.

Athos can’t even imagine what it must be to carry that load, not just of three men. But of a hundred.

“It does give one reason to wonder,” Athos continues quietly. “With so much at stake, why do we do it at all?”

“Loyalty? Honor? Integrity?” Treville asks.

Athos smirks. “For D’Artagnan, maybe,” he says. “But the rest of us?”

“Ah,” Treville says with a long breath out. “I gave up that compunction years ago, when I first took the promotion to captain. It was too hard, sending men out to their deaths. Now, it’s even more removed. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the numbers and little figures represent real men, real lives.”

“Then why do you do it?” Athos presses.

Treville raises one shoulder in a shrug. “I realized, finally, that the men under my command were being asked on every mission to give up their lives, for any cause at all,” he says. “What right did I have to complain about giving the order when they were the ones burdened with carrying it out? We all have our place in this, and each carries its own hardships.”

“And this is what you want?” Athos asks. He gestures around the office. “This is what you’ve always wanted?”

Treville almost smiles, a faint shadow on his lips. “We’re all musketeers for our own reasons, but in my experience, those reasons are often the same.”

“And they are?” Athos prompts.

“We all want a place to belong,” Treville says, looking at Athos knowingly.

“But surely there are easier ways to find that,” Athos says.

Treville doesn’t disagree. “Yet, here we are,” he comments. He pauses for a moment, thoughtful. “Though, if I may offer you some advice, Athos.”

“Am I in a position to refuse it?” Athos quips.

Treville does not indulge the humor. “Nothing in life is a guarantee; nothing in this job is a guarantee,” he says, sitting forward intently now. “The only guarantee I’ve found in this life -- in this job -- is the people we surround ourselves with. Beyond duty, beyond honor -- that loyalty is the only thing we can truly count on when our years are spent.”

Athos wets his lips, flattening his mouth. He can still smell the blood in his nostrils; Aramis’ blood. “Until they’re gone, too.”

The words are wooden, almost hollow in his mouth. He can feel them, thumping with the beat of his heart.

“Well,” Treville allows, and the smile widens imperceptibly on his lips. “That’s a real reason to fight now, isn’t it?”

“Indeed,” Athos says, because there is no way to argue that point. “It is.”

It begets understanding, if only for that moment and if only between the two of them. Athos has much of his career to owe to Treville, and Treville has many of his successes to attribute to Athos’ diligence. In this sense, they are bound, but their brotherhood extends far beyond the duty to the legion.

No, they are men with much in common. For whatever reason they may have joined the musketeers, it is clear that they both stay for the same purpose.

To belong.

Men like them do not always grow old, which makes their years all the more impressive. Athos imagines Treville was much like him once, a man on the cusp of deciding his own fate, asking the question: is it worth it?

Looking at Treville, it’s still not clear what the answer really is, but Athos knows there are worse fates than this.

It is impossible to say, however, if there are better ones.

“Anyway,” Athos says, straightening his tunic. “I should probably change before heading over to the palace.”

“Leave it,” Treville says.

Athos lifts his eyebrows.

“It will give your story ambiance,” Treville advises. “And it will give you all the reason you need to get out of there in the most expedient fashion possible.”

Athos tips his head forward, grateful.

Treville’s orders are not always easy to follow.

But Athos will follow them, captain or not, until the day he stops being a musketeer, without compunction at all.

-o-

For some men, an audience with the king might be a thing of honor or trepidation. It is not that Athos does not appreciate the task being asked of him, and he does hold respect for the king, but he is not a man moved by such things. Maybe once, when he was younger, he might have held such an honor in regard, but he’s held men's lives in his hands.

Talking to a man whose every needs are attended for pales in comparison.

The king, for his part, is quite thorough in his questions, and he needs repeated assurance that the task is well and truly done. He thanks Athos quite copiously for his service, and promises that he will make note of it for the future.

Athos is gracious in this, bowing with as much regality as he sees fit to muster.

There is, however, only one future he is concerned about.

And at the moment, it is not his own.

With that in mind, he is quick to take his leave, and the king is most accommodating. He is nearly out of the inner palace halls when he is stopped by a figure more familiar -- and in some ways, more daunting -- than the king himself.

The queen.

Anne carries herself with composure, and where the king is silly, she is often quite resolved. Between the two royals, Athos would bet on her being the more sound leader.

She does, after all, manage to carry out her own affairs -- quite literally.

In the past, Athos has treated Anne with the respect she is due.

Now, after everything that has happened, there is a different familiarity between them. Athos has saved her life, after all.

And Athos knows the truth.

About Anne. About Aramis.

About the child.

All composure aside, Anne’s face is fraught with emotion.

Athos attempts to bow. “My lady, my apologies--”

She steps forward, taking him by the arm and pulling him into a more secluded hallway. “There’s no time for that,” she says, her words rushed. When she pulls him to a stop, she looks up at him with wide, anxious eyes. Not the eyes of a queen. The eyes of a lover. “Is it true, then?”

“The bandits have been apprehended--”

She is already shaking her head. “Is it true that Aramis has fallen?” she asks, licking her lips as she visibly tries to keep her emotions in check. “I heard them talking--”

She hesitates, eyes flicking to the blood on Athos’ tunic.

Maybe he should have changed his clothes in advance. He hadn’t considered this. All the stress, and he’s slipping.

Inhaling sharply, Anne’s composure threatens to break entirely. “Oh, he can’t be--”

“He’s not, my lady,” Athos tells her quickly. “Aramis still lives.”

Blinking, her expression brightens with hope. “So the rumors are false?”

“Not entirely,” Athos amends. He spares a glance down the hall out of habit. The discretion is for her; it is also for Aramis. “He was wounded on the mission.”

She trembles, words seemingly stuck on her tongue.

“But we got him back here with great haste, and he has been attended to by the doctor at the garrison,” Athos continues. “He has received the best possible care.”

“But his life,” she ventures haltingly. “It still hangs in the balance?”

Athos strives for calmness. She is fraying at the end of herself. If ever he was tempted to think the affair was entirely of Aramis’ doing, he knows better than that when he looks at her. She is not a waif, nor is she easily swayed. She loves Aramis, and for all the trouble, he somehow suspects she’d do it again.

“Everything is being done,” he says solemnly. “You have my word.”

At this, she collects herself, drawing her shoulders up and lifting her chin. It is a fleeting resolve as she tries to smile. “He is a stubborn man.”

“In the best and worst ways,” Athos agrees.

She takes a breath and lets it out, shaking her head. “I’ve feared this day,” she admits. “Ever since I found out I was pregnant and knew the truth about the child.”

She trails off, expression turning sad for a moment.

Her eyes lift to Athos again. “He left for his own penance, you know,” she says. “He hated the idea of it, leaving you and the others behind. Leaving me and the child. But he was insistent. He said that a price had to be paid, and I told him it was silly, but now--”

She falters, her voice breaking entirely this time.

This time, Athos cannot let it pass. “That’s not what this is,” he says.

“The things we’ve done,” Anne says. “The secrets we’ve carried. Most people have suffered far worse than us for their sins.”

“That’s not what this is,” Athos says. “Aramis is a musketeer. He knows the dangers of the job. That’s all this is. That’s all.”

“You speak words, but I can see it in your face that you, too, have doubts,” Anne says. She looks at him knowingly.

It’s hardly fair for her to know that about him when she knows him so little. But she knows Aramis, so it shouldn’t surprise him. They are well suited, no matter how much life is destined to keep them apart. In another life, they could have been happy.

That’s the way it is for everyone, it seems.

There isn’t another life, unfortunately. There’s only this one.

“Perhaps,” Athos concedes. “But I’m speaking from experience. These doubts, these questions of guilt and penance -- it doesn’t make it any better. What difference does it make why? What value is it to place blame? What is done, is done. You cannot undo your actions, nor can I undo mine.”

“And you do not wish to learn from your shortcomings?” she asks.

He gives her a look now, for he is the one to see through her facades this time. “With all due respect,” he says. “It is one thing to know your shortcomings. It is entirely another to seek change for them.”

Anne understands, better than she clearly wants to. “Aramis has tried.”

“All the more reason to stop fretting over penance,” he says. “We don’t just make choices because they are good. We make choices because we have to, and sometimes the heart dictates what it wants, and sometimes, no matter how strong we think we are, we succumb to it.”

For Athos does not know much of penance, but he knows something of regret.

He cannot speak for change, but he can champion the best decisions in the worst situations.

That is the story of Athos’ life. He is not a man of unfeeling logic; he is not a man deadened by the bottle. He is a man who has felt intensely, and he is a man who has sought solace with the same intensity. But if he were a logical man, he would not be here.

If he were a smart man, he would not be here either.

But as a flawed, emotional man, here he is: doing the best he can.

She bites her lip, her brows knitted together. “I keep hoping it will get easier,” she says. “I keep thinking that if I do things right, if I pursue the righteous course, that somehow things will get easier. But, here I am. Can you possibly understand?”

Athos’ face is kind now. “Better than you probably think, my lady,” he says. He tips his head. “I will send word to you if his condition changes.”

“Send word either way,” she beseeches. “Please?”

This time, Athos bows fully. “Who am I to refuse my queen?” he asks.

She rushes forward, clutching his hand for a moment and pecking his cheek gratefully. “I’m glad you will be with him,” she says. “He trusts you completely.”

She’s trying to be kind, of course.

It still feels like a punch to the gut.

It takes all he has to smile. “I’ll send word tomorrow,” he promises.

She nods, grateful, and he watches as she disappears back down the hallways. Penance, he thinks ruefully. She and Aramis seem concerned that this is theirs.

As Athos heads out of the palace, he does not admit that he worries it is his instead.

-o-

Measuring his response to D’Artagnan with something akin to wisdom is an exercise in self control. Presenting a balanced report to Treville is something of his honor. Standing before the king to give full account is a trial in patience. Comforting the queen in this difficult time is a kindness.

This, however.

This is the hardest task yet.

He finds Porthos alone with Aramis, a chair pulled right up to the edge of the table. A blanket has been laid over Aramis’ still form, and it is painfully clear that Porthos has taken some attention to make Aramis more comfortable.

Athos doubts Aramis can appreciate it now, but he suspects it’s just as much for Porthos as anything.

The other man, after all, is a man of action. Standing idle by the bedside of someone he considers a friend is not as demanding in many ways -- unfortunately, not in any of the ways that matter.

When he enters the room, Athos is compelled to apologize, but he resists the temptation. It’s not an apology Porthos wants. It’s not even what he needs right now.

Crossing the floor, he comes to a stop on the other side of Aramis. “How is he?”

It’s a simple question, and frankly, it’s one he can probably discern just by standing there. Aramis shows no signs of consciousness, and his cheeks are sallow. However, his chest is rising and falling in even intervals, and there is no hint of fever in his complexion. It’s no better; it’s no worse.

The question is not for his own gratification.

It’s for Porthos, offering a pittance of control.

Porthos clears his throat, hardly sparing Athos a glance. “No change,” he says. “The doctor tells me that’s a good thing.”

Athos nods vaguely. “Where is the doctor?”

“Looking after a few other patients,” Porthos says, voice quiet. “Shouldn’t be too long.”

All his good intentions, Athos finds himself faltering. It’s been a long day -- too long -- and Porthos will not make this easy. Not like D’Artagnan.

He chews his lip for a moment. “Aramis is strong,” he comments instead, trying not to wince at the shallowness of the comment. It’s a platitude, but it’s all he can think of for now. “He’s survived worse.”

The moment he says it, he regrets it. It’s not that they don’t talk about the missions, both good and bad. And it’s not that they can’t share stories about their scars.

But when it comes to Aramis.

When it comes to worse.

There’s only one thing to remember.

Porthos almost laughs, a taut sound caught in the back of this throat. “Figures the idiot would survive a massacre like Savoy and be felled now,” he says. Finally, he drops his head, rubbing at the back of his neck. He groans a little, looking up to meet Athos’ gaze this time. “I thought we’d be bringing home his corpse that time for sure.”

“And yet, he prevailed, against the odds,” Athos says, trying to sound as reassuring as he can. He looks at Aramis with a faint smile. “He has the tendency to do the unexpected.”

“And the annoying,” Porthos mutters with a gruff snort. “Did you know that the first time I met him, I couldn’t stand to be around him?”

“It was impossible to miss the early friction,” Athos agrees. “But you two made your way of things.”

“Eventually, sure,” Porthos says. “But you don’t know why it changed, do you?”

Athos shrugs, thinking. Those days are still hazy to him. He’d been younger, his traumas more recent. He’d loved the bottle dearly. “Time is a powerful healing agent. It can smooth even the roughest edges.”

Porthos is already shaking his head. “It was Savoy.”

Athos draws a breath, trying to hide the way the reference still makes him cringe. “That changed many men that day.”

“Sure,” Porthos says. “But did you know it was supposed to be me?”

This makes Athos stop, looking at Porthos with a frown. “What?”

“Treville drew my name for that mission,” he says. “But the thought of the cold and the snow and the long ride -- I wanted nothing to do with it.”

“You never told me,” Athos says.

Porthos shrugs. “You had your own concerns.”

“But you didn’t go?” Athos presses.

Porthos tilts his head. “He took me out for a drink the night before I was supposed to go, and I let him buy me a drink. But he was prattling on, you know? The way he does. The more he talked, the more I let him buy me drinks until he couldn’t see straight one way or another. I figured, I was either going to kill him or cheat him. At the time, I thought I was a good guy for picking the latter.”

Athos gives him a scrutinizing look. “You cheated him?”

“Wits and wagers,” Porthos confirms. “Usually, Aramis can take me in those sort sof things, but he didn’t have a lick of sense that night. I made an easy bet that he was too drunk to defend against, and when he lost, I let him pay me by taking my commission the next day.”

“Well,” Athos says with a fond look down at Aramis. “I can’t say that he probably didn’t have it coming.”

“You would think so, wouldn’t you? Smart ass that he is,” Porthos says, shaking his head. He sighs, taking a moment to collect himself. “And he honored it, not a complaint. When he rode off that morning, I just remember thinking how glad I was to finally be rid of him.”

The words falter, hanging in the air between them. It hurts to hear; Athos can only imagine how it feels to speak them.

“And then the word came: a massacre,” Porthos says, eyes on Aramis again. “When we rode out there, when we starting going through the bodies -- I swear, every one I turned over, I thought it would be my own face staring back up at me. It should have been.”

“But Aramis survived,” Athos interjects. He keeps his voice even, but it’s not a point he wants to gloss over. “He didn’t die in Savoy.”

Porthos grunts, looking back to Athos. “But the man we sent out there never came back, not the same as he was,” he says.

“But we got him back,” Athos reminds him. “It may have taken some time--”

“Time,” Porthos says. “Time and patience and watching. I mean, I’m not a religious man, but that? Right there? That’s penance. That was my penance. That I would have to nurse the man back to life who took my place. And I didn’t even like him.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Porthos,” Athos says.

“Yeah?” Porthos says, voice cutting now. “And when did that make ay of us feel any better?”

That’s not a point he can argue, so Athos doesn’t try. Instead, he holds himself steady, keeping his ground on the other side of Aramis. “Whatever debt you owed him, you have paid over the years -- in full,” Athos tells him.

“Oh, I know that,” Porthos says. “If anything, he owes me after all this nonsense he’s put us through.”

It’s another point fairly made, but it’s obscuring something more fundamental. Athos pauses, giving Porthos a wide berth for a moment before he ventures onward. “If that’s the case, then why are you still here?”

“Why, indeed?” Porthos says with a short huff. “Because I stayed close to him after Savoy, as penance if you will. And it took all I had to invest in him, to give him what he needed to recover. And it’s a damned sort of thing, ain’t it? You can’t be invested in someone’s life without actually being invested. God help me, I started to like him.”

“We all did,” Athos says. He remembers it still, the way Savoy broke so many men. The way it brought them together. When so many lives were lost, they were the three left standing. That had mattered then. It matters now.

Porthos almost smiles, but his lips get twisted in the motion. “We’re a tough lot, musketeers,” he continues, glancing toward Aramis again. “You’d think that w’d be the last men in the world to care.”

“Yet we’re the first -- and the most passionate,” Athos consoles. “Trust me. It’s a conundrum I’ve been keenly aware of for some time now.”

Porthos looks up at him, this time with something like hope in his expression. “Then how do you do it?” he asks. “How do you deal with it without letting it drive you mad?”

This time, Athos gathers a long, slow breath. He’s weary, wearier than he even understands. But he can’t go now; not now. “Well,” he says, forcing himself to smile. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”

Porthos is incredulous. “And that’s the answer?”

“The only one I have to give, I’m afraid,” Athos says. He looks at Aramis again. “And probably the only thing that matters. Because it wasn’t a doctor or skill or luck that saved Aramis in Savoy.” He lifts his eyes, looking at Porthos fully. “It was the fact that we stayed. You and I, we stayed when Aramis could not find himself. We were there, and it doesn’t really matter how or why. It just matters that we were.”

Dropping his gaze again, Porthos’ shoulders slump. “I just hope it’s enough this time.”

Athos will not belabor the platitudes; he does not have the strength anyway. “Me, too,” he concedes, eyes on Aramis’ pallid complexion again. He reaches down, resting his hand on the other man’s wrist. “Me, too.”

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