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Musketeers fic: No Doubts (1/2)

December 18th, 2016 (05:59 pm)
apathetic

feeling: apathetic

Title: No Doubts

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: I wrote this for penless, who I promised a fic for ages ago. I kept putting this off until I could watch more of the series, but that task got away from me sadly. So I put this together without rewatching, which means my characterization and voices may be really off. Hopefully it’s still a decent read, though. Merry Christmas!

A/N 2: This is woefully unbeta’ed. LOL. So mistakes abound, be warned. This also fills my prompt, hiding an illness.

Summary: The mission is cold; Athos’ faith in it is colder still.



-o-

The weather is cold, and Athos feels poorly when he gets the notice. As much as he would like to stay tucked into a cozy bed all day, Treville has called the matter urgent.

It is no small task to rouse himself and layer his outer garments to provide some vestige of protection against the cold. It does little good; he can still feel the chill deep in his bones. When he breathes, it makes his chest feel uncomfortably tight.

Treville has no apologies for him. Nay, all he has to offer is a mission.

“I would not ask if it were not important,” Treville says, his only means of explanation.

Taking the orders, Athos sighs and shakes his head. “I have no doubt.”

-o-

If he is tough to rouse in this weather, his fellow musketeers are even worse. He has to drag Porthos out of the bar with a tankard in his hand; Aramis is badly underdressed for any temperature. Only D’Artagnan is eager for the task, and Athos finds his enthusiasm unduly exhausting.

“Reconnaissance?” Porthos asks, almost spitting the word as he pulls his hat over his ears. “You’re taking us in the dead cold for reconnaissance?”

They are, indisputably, men of action. They’ve seen war and death and peril and intrigue. When Treville calls them to the highest duties, it is usually with more consequence.

“Anyone could be sent on this mission,” Aramis agrees, still buttoning up his coat. “Why would Treville send us?”

“Why would be balk?” D’Artagnan asks.

Athos smiles, as patiently as he can. Diplomacy is not second nature to him, but he is equipped as needed. Though, he considers this less diplomatic and more a matter of perspective where his comrades are concerned. “The request is from the king himself,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders. “He doesn’t want to accuse his closest allies in the nobility of sending spies without confirmation, and unfortunately, given the sensitive nature of the allies in question, he does not trust anyone within the palace itself.”

“And he wanted Treville to figure it out for him,” Aramis says with a huff.

“And Treville sent us,” Porthos grunts.

“Well, he trusts us,” D’Artagnan reasons. “He knows we can get the job done.”

“Indeed we can,” Athos says, clearing his throat into his hand. It does little to assuage the pressure in his chest or the thickness of his voice. “And we will. We ride by midday. Pack hearty, because the day is only going to get colder.”

Aramis scoffs, and Porthos shakes his head. “And the night colder still,” the big man intones ominously.

D’Artagnan stays by him for a moment, offering a smile. “It’s not so bad,” he says. “You’ll see.”

-o-

As with most things, D’Artagnan is wrong. The ride is miserable, and it only gets worse as the day goes on. Their path is long under the best conditions, but with the cold, the horses are sluggish, and the opportunity for reprieve is minimal. Usually, they are amiable on long rides, but even D’Artagnan finds himself too chilled for idle conversation.

Their destination is a two-day ride, and as eager as Athos is for the warmth of the fire when they break for camp that night, he finds it’s hardly enough. The blazing flame is bright against the deepness of the night, but as the others huddle closer and share stories over the crackling blaze, Athos finds he feels worse still.

The cold has not only settled in his lungs, but it seems to inch to his heart. He feels the pull of it with every breath he takes, weighing him down until he fears he shall not rise again.

It’s so bad that when D’Artagnan volunteers to take first watch, Athos readily complies, mumbling a simple request that they wake him when it’s his turn.

He lays down on his pack, bundling himself tight and is half asleep before he allows himself to realize his own impropriety.

-o-

Athos dreams.

His dreams are often dark, violent and rending, burning through him like fire. They rage like an inferno, consuming everything in their path until nothing but ash is left.

This is why Athos drinks as much as he does.

For oblivion is better than this.

-o-

He wakes to the sound of rustling. It’s only after a long moment that he realizes it’s him.

He’s rustling.

More apt, he’s being rustled.

Squinting, he tries to open his eyes but finds the tasks monumentally more difficult than he thinks it should be. When he does manage to focus, he’s not pleased -- but also not surprised -- to find Aramis over him, watching him with a frown.

“Is there something you wish to tell me?” Aramis asks.

Athos groans, forcing his aching bones to sit up. “What?” he snaps, trying not to show just how horrible this movement feels. He looks around, somewhat bewildered when he realizes that dawn has already broken. “I thought I told you to wake me when it was my turn for watch.”

Aramis raises his eyebrows. Nearby, the fire is still burning, though the flames are lower. Porthos and D’Artagnan are curled up next to each other, faces toward the embers. “If you feel half as bad as you look, then I think you needed the sleep.”

With a harrumph, Athos rubs his hands together experimentally, trying to see how numb they feel in the awakening daylight. “We all needed to rest; the day ahead is long,” he lectures, flexing his fingers. “We cannot afford to have you suffering from exhaustion.”

“Again,” Aramis says. “I’m not sure you’re the one to talk about exhaustion.”

“I’m fine,” Athos grouses, reaching for his pack.

“You’re not fine,” Aramis counters.

“A mild cold, nothing to worry about,” Athos says dismissively, pulling out his breakfast rations. “Nothing to be done for it, either.”

“Except to stay home in bed,” Aramis points out, somewhat incredulous.

“We had a mission, straight from the king,” Athos reminds him.

“And a whole squadron of musketeers,” Athos says.

“But Treville asked me,” Athos replies.

“And was it your duty or your pride that answered on your behalf?” Aramis asks. “For certainly it was not your common sense.”

“Look, I’m well enough to ride,” Athos says, his words clipped now. “We go, check to see if spies are camped out on the northern guardpost, and then we go home. Once we get there, I’ll rest and sleep as much as you desire.”

Aramis is mollified as he settles back to get his own pack. “Just don’t hide it,” he warns with a sage nod. “If it gets worse, Athos, you have to tell me.”

The pressure unfurls, just slightly in Athos’ chest. His next breath comes easier. “I will,” he promises. “You have my word.”

Aramis’ expression brightens as he finds his own rations. “Very well then,” he says cheerily. “I could ask for nothing more.”

-o-

The ride yesterday was long.

Today’s ride is interminable.

It is not even the fact that Athos’ feels terrible that makes it so miserable. It is not even the lack of feeling in his limbs as they cold envelopes them on their lonely journey across the countryside. It’s not even the pounding in his head and the throbbing between his eyes, which threaten to deafen him and blind him at the same time. It’s not even that his lungs feel like they’ve frozen in his chest, two blocks of ice that may very well kill him from the inside out.

It’s that their journey is not even half over yet. It’s that he fears he will be frozen solid by the time his horse drags his petrified corpse back home. It’s just that, for all the times he’s faced death, it’s never been as alluring as it is right now.

A little hellfire, Athos reasons, would be a welcome change right about now.

-o-

Athos tells himself his misery is worthwhile. This is official business, after all.

“I heard it’s true,” Aramis says.

“And I heard it’s all made up,” Porthos says. “Nonsense.”

Aramis shakes his head as they plod on. “If you think about it, it does make a kind of sense,” he says. “The moisture in your mouth can turn into a gas, just like water. Why should it not freeze?”

“Because it’s your tongue,” Porthos argues. “Why haven’t my lips frozen together when we eat from a spoon in winter?”

“I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison,” Aramis says.

“I’ve seen it happen,” D’Artagnan interjects.

Porthos and Aramis look at him, dubious and impressed in equal measures.

“To a boy I knew growing up,” he says. “Got bored doing his chores one winter morning, and made a big fit of it. When he didn’t come home by lunch, we were sent out to find him, and there he was, tongue frozen to the shovel.”

Aramis chuckles gleefully.

Porthos just frowns. “He’s bored so he licks a shovel?” he asks. “How does that even make sense?”

“I never said he was intelligent,” D’Artagnan says. “Just bored.”

“His idiocy proves the point,” Aramis says smugly.

“What point?” Porthos asks. “All it proves is that D’Artagnan grew up among idiots!”

Athos closes his eyes and wills his headache away.

Official business, indeed.

-o-

Their search turns up nothing.

The entire process is especially laborious, and most of the time, Athos has no problem with being thorough, but most of the time, it is not so cold. By the time they sweep the allotted section of woods, section by section, Athos really wishes they would have just found the damn spies to be done with it -- the implications of possible rebellion aside.

“There’s nothing here,” he growls at no one in particular. It just seems unfair to come so far under such conditions to turn up nothing.

From behind, there’s a rustle in the undergrowth as Aramis and Porthos rejoin with him. “No sign of anything unusual from our sweeps either,” Aramis says.

“Not that I can blame them,” Porthos muses. “Not even a spy would be crazy enough to suffer at these temperatures.”

“You know, I think I’ve actually lost feeling in my backside,” Aramis comments. “I could be riding bareback right now, and I wouldn’t even know it.”

“All clear for me, too,” D’Artagnan reports as he comes in from the other direction. “I saw some signs of a camp, but there’s nothing to indicate that it was anything questionable.”

“A camp? This far out?” Porthos asks.

“Could be a local farmer,” Aramis suggests.

Athos closes his eyes, trying to think around his pounding headache. He resists the urge to cough; it only makes him feel worse.

“To be sure, we really should search again,” D’Artagnan says. “If they’re moving while we’re moving--”

“Especially if they’ve been here for a while,” Porthos says.

“My backside is already numb,” Aramis says. “Might as well just--”

“No!” Athos says, more strongly than he intends. With difficulty, he swallows. When he opens his eyes, the others are staring at him. Concern, from Aramis. Confusion from the others. Athos visibly tries to steady himself. “We’ve done our due diligence; we’ve turned up nothing. If we stay any longer, we’ll have to camp here ourselves.”

D’Artagnan tilts his head emphatically. “But the mission--”

“Involves four musketeers coming home,” Athos says with finality. “I hate it, too, coming this far for nothing, but really, this is the best possible news we could deliver. These woods are empty, and a warm fire awaits us back at home.”

He’s convincing enough, not that it takes much. He’s been through too much with these three for them to question him over something like this. They’ve done their duty; now it’s time to go home.

“Come on,” he says, moving his horse toward the edge of the woods. “We can get several miles before nightfall if we hurry.”

Porthos is about to say something snide. D’Artagnan is about to express one last round of righteous reservation. And Aramis is about to warn him of something, eyes widening and face contorting.

Athos sees it, out of the corner of his eye. He sees it, a split second before the rest. He sees it in time to know something horrible is about to happen, but not soon enough to stop it.

He sees it, a mere second before he hears it.

The sound of a musket ball, cracking through the air.

-o-

At the sound, the horses scatter, and Athos instinctively ducks for cover, pulling his own musket at the same time. In truth, he prefers close quarters combat, but he knows how to make do in any circumstance. The key right now is to get out of the line of fire.

And fast.

He does not need to look to know that the others have the same idea. Another blast cracks through the air, and Athos dives the rest of the way to cover behind a particularly large tree. When he gets his bearings, he sees that Aramis has taken up a post not far away, his own gun drawn and ready.

“There’s at least two of them,” he says, peeking around the tree. “Maybe more.”

Athos takes a peek of his own, but doesn’t see much beyond a flurry of movement. “D’Artagnan and Porthos?”

Aramis nods across toward the edge of the woods. “Behind the bramble.”

For a moment, Athos quiets himself, trying to listen for signs of movement beyond the pounding of his own heart in his frozen chest. In the distance, there is a murmur of hushed voices and the underbrush rustles.

“Can you see them?” Athos asks, voice barely a whisper.

Aramis squints, cautiously keeping his position. “They’re moving into position, close to the bramble,” he reports. He winces. “Definitely three of them.”

Athos grits his teeth and holds back on his urge to curse. They outnumber these opponents, but it is clear that they are well matched and currently outmaneuvered. The inherent disadvantage of being surprised is hard enough to swallow; the cumbersome fact that they are separated is even more telling of just how badly Athos has engaged this mission.

For a second, it’s hard to determined what feels worse: the thickness in his lungs or the knowledge that he’s absently led his men into what appears to be an ambush.

“They’re closing on the others,” Aramis reports, looking distressed now. He glances toward Athos, looking for some kind of decision. “Should we--?”

Should they engage? Should they provide a distraction to give Porthos and D’Artagnan better odds? Should Athos have seen this coming? Should he have stayed in bed and never returned Treville’s call?

It’s all too little, too late. All Athos can do now is take a deep breath and move forward.

The deep breath is a bad idea, and he half chokes on a cough.

Time will tell about the rest.

-o-

Terrible as he feels, Athos charges out from his hiding place with all due urgency and no sense of restraint. He does not favor such recklessness on a regular basis, but he’s too cold to do much with nuance right now anyway.

Besides, for as terrible as Athos feels, his faith in his comrades expands tenfold. For where one is weak, the others are strong, and all Athos has to do is take the first step and he has no doubt that the others will get them there by sheer force of will alone.

Aramis is by his side when they charge, neatly running the first man through. The other two take position, though, as Porthos and D’Artagnan come out to bear.

Just like that, their fortunes have changed. Two on four are odds more than enough in their favor, and their assailants have been forced to scramble while the Musketeers take form. D’Artagnan and Porthos have dispatched a second, and Athos parries his own blade at the third.

Athos is gifted with a sword, but the cold has made him sluggish. His accuracy is skewed just enough that his blade thrusts do not land on point. He lands a glancing blow, but his success is thwarted with the man spins, lashing out with a swipe that nearly takes his head off.

The force of it pushes Athos back, and he loses his footing on the cold, hard ground. He goes down hard, landing on his backside with enough force to scatter his wits and loosen his grip on his sword. Dumbfounded as he is just for a moment, it is just enough for him to look up in time to see the killing blow as it descends upon him.

He stares, just aware enough to wonder if he’ll feel it in this cold or if he’ll just shatter like ice.

It’s a pity, he decides absently, that he’s going to be too dead to find out.

-o-

The blow doesn’t come.

There’s a scuffle and the clash of swords, and Athos blinks twice as Aramis flies past him, almost tackling the man to the ground. They fall, tumbling through the brush, scurrying to regain his footing with his sword a the ready.

Still on the ground, the man is at a tactical disadvantage, and for a second, Athos lets himself believe that he’s gotten lucky again.

That second passes though, terminated by the deafening resound of a gun.

He feels it, echoing in the frozen chamber of his chest, but he’s not the one who’s been hit.

Wide eyed, Aramis looks at him, gaping slightly as he fingers the bloody hole in his coat. He blinks and his knees give way as he crumples to the ground.

-o-

This is not how it ends.

Aramis will not die on the cold ground of a battlefield; this is a promise Athos has made himself, one he has kept since Savoy. Aramis will not be left to freeze, surrounded by the vestiges of death.

Porthos will not bear his best friend’s body home; he will not drink himself into oblivion to cope with a death too painful to speak. D’Artagnan will not lose his innocence to this; he will not understand how sharp it cuts when a friend, a comrade, a brother, a Musketeer, falls in battle well before his time.

Athos will not explain this loss to Treville. He will not present Aramis’ sacrifice to the King and Queen. He will not bear the burden of Anne’s grief when she cannot express it to anyone.

And he will not watch the child grow, and he will not make sure he is well trained and well reasoned. He will not perform this duty in service to a friend he lost, a friend he failed.

This is not how this story ends.

Even if Athos has to rewrite the ending in his own damn blood.

-o-

His attack is fast, furious and unrelenting. It matters not how sick he feels; his own well being is now entirely irrelevant. No illness, no malady, nothing matters at all in the face of this kind of challenge. He will lay down all he has in the name of his friends.

Truth be told, however, he’d prefer to lay down his assailant’s.

Two clean thrusts and an extra parry for good measure, and Athos gets what he wants.

Almost.

-o-

The sudden flurry of movement has taken its toll, and he feels the pull of exhaustion even more acutely in his burdened lungs. As he pants to regain control of his breathing, a cough strains against his throat, and it it all he can do to keep the movement from building to a point where he can control it no longer.

As it is, suppressing the cough hurts, and he feels a fresh lance of pain through his numb body. His assailants lays dead at his feet, and for a long, painful moment, Athos fears he may join him.

That’s too easy, though.

Bracing himself as best he can, he turns his gaze up, following it to where Porthos and D’Artagnan have gathered. Between them, on the frozen foliage, Aramis’ form is obscured. It is impossible to miss, however, how very, very still it is.

“Athos!” Porthos gruffly calls out, not looking up. “We need you now.”

Frozen to the ground, Athos tries to remember how to move. He fails.

D’Artagnan looks up, the color drained from his face. “You’d better hurry.”

Athos is a man of action, but he stands there, dumbfounded. There’s a choice to make, he realizes. The choice to curl up and succumb to his own weakness, or the choice to stand tall and fight for his men. For him, the outcome may be the same, and that is acceptable as far as Athos is concerned. Dying on the battlefield is somewhat less comfortable than his warm bed back home, but it is more heroic. Death has stalked him long enough, and Athos has no delusions that it will catch up with him, probably sooner rather than later. The life of a Musketeer is eventful, to be sure, but it is rarely long. Not for the good ones, anyway.

For his men, however, the difference is palpable. Sick, hurting, cold: Athos may not care to save his life, but he will do anything to spare theirs.

Swallowing back a painful lump in his throat, Athos steps over his fallen opponent and crosses to his men. He’s wasted enough time wallowing.

He resolves, once and for all, to waste no more.

-o-

With Porthos on one side and D’Artagnan on the other, Athos makes his way toward Aramis’ head. One glance, and Athos’ stomach flips and his chest tightens -- and this time it’s not the cold or his illness. The Spaniard is pale, eyes closed against the washed out hues of the ground, and he looks dead.

Porthos, however, offers a different assessment.

He’s ripped the layers of Aramis’ coat away, leaning closer as he inspects the wound deep in the side of Aramis’ flesh. It’s hard to see at a glance, the blood has so obscured the site, but Porthos grunts. “It’s deep,” he mutters. “The ball’s still in there.”

“He’s alive, though,” D’Artagnan reports, a hand to Aramis’ chest. “He’s--”

At that, Aramis shifts. Athos looks back to his friend in time to see his face scrunch up in discomfort as his eyes slowly flutter open. He takes a shuddering breath and grimaces in pain.

Athos will hesitate no longer.

“Look more carefully,” he instructs Porthos. “See if it has hit anything vital.”

Porthos nods and uses his hands to wipe away the fresh swell of blood.

“D’Artagnan,” Athos orders next. “Help me sit him up.”

Supporting on shoulder, D’Artagnan hoists Aramis up, and Athos comes along the other side until Aramis is partially propped up against him. It’s hard to tell who feels colder at the moment; it’s not a contest anyone would want to win.

In his arms, Aramis lets out a cry. “What torture do you have planned?” he says, voice colored with a whine. He breathes heavily, clearly holding back another sob. “I’ve been shot, after all.”

“Deep, too,” Porthos reports, giving him a grim look. “My sense of anatomy is more limited than yours. Do you think it’s hit anything vital?”

Aramis grimaces again, twisting his lips almost into a smile. “My sense of anatomy is impeccable,” he says. “If you’d like a few lessons--”

“Aramis,” Athos growls.

Aramis’ smile falls as he looks down at his own bloodied midsection. He reaches up, tentative, and Athos feels D’Artagnan lean in closer instinctively. Fingers trembling, Aramis fingers the wound, tracing through the blood as best he can. He swallows convulsively and seems to seek for inner calm.

“So?” Athos demands.

“It’s deep, like you say, but it’s far enough to the side,” he says. He tries to smile. “I don’t think it’s hit anything vital.”

“That means we can take it out,” D’Artagnan says. He is earnest in this, almost overwhelmingly so as he looks up at Athos. “Right?”

It is Aramis who is shaking his head, half chuckling. “We have already established that I am the best versed in anatomy,” he says. “Deep as this is, it is unwise to dig around in there.”

“My hands aren’t that steady,” Porthos agrees. He inclines his head toward D’Artagnan. “Unless you want to give it a try.”

This time, it’s D’Artagnan who goes pale.

Athos shakes his head, intervening. It’s his decision; he’ll make it. “If it’s hit nothing vital, that means it should be able to wait until we get back to the doctor.”

“But the risk of infection--” Porthos starts to argue.

“--is hardly worth the risk of blood loss,” Aramis says. “One wrong cut, and it won’t matter if I get a fever or not.”

D’Artagnan looks incredulous. “Our plan is to wait and see? This is Aramis’ life--”

Aramis smiles wryly. “I share your concerns--”

“As do we all,” Athos says, more decisively now. “But that is why we will ride fast. If we push on, we can make it in a day, maybe less.”

“That means no stopping,” Porthos says.

“No breaks,” D’Artagnan notes.

Athos looks at them each before his eyes settle on Aramis. “What other choice do we have?”

Soberly, Aramis works his jaw. “You cannot risk your lives--”

“We can,” Athos says with an unrelenting. “And we will. The only question you need to worry about is whether or not you can ride.”

Aramis is trembling, but his nod in return is stolid. “I may need some help, but I can stay on a horse.”

“Then that,” Athos says. “Is all we need.”

-o-

Naturally, the task is nowhere near that simple. It is a monumental task preparing to ride again, from getting Aramis on his feet to securing their gear in a moderately reasonable fashion. While D’Artagnan is clearly distracted by the peril no facing their group, Porthos is nearly beside himself with worry. He does not display this in any traditional way, but is short and viciously protective, refusing to let anyone so much as touch Aramis as they get settled on the back of the horse together.

This is a bit time consuming, but Athos knows better than to work against the natural bonds of his team. Porthos’ attachment is more of an asset than a hindrance, though it is something that Athos must keep in perspective. The benefit only lasts as long as Aramis does on the trail; Athos can only conjecture what might happen if things take a turn for the worse.

This is why he keeps them focused, assigning orders with little sentiment or delay. Once Aramis is secure, he hands off the extra horse to D’Artagnan and tells them to keep pace.

“We’ll ride hard,” he says, ignoring the growing tickle in his throat as he turns his face toward the wind. “Be sure to keep up.”

He does not look back as he nudges his horse into a trot; he can hear the hoofbeats behind him as they coax their horses onward, faster, toward the promise of home.

-o-

Athos knows what to say and when to say it; it is a particular gift of his, and it makes him well suited to serve as the defacto leader of their group. He holds no special rank, but they all know who has the presence of mind to look at the bigger picture. His leadership, when paired with Porthos’ strength, Aramis’ charm and D’Artagnan’s resolve, is a powerful thing.

This is all well and good during a typical mission, but when Athos feels himself flagging? When Athos realizes that he’s the one who may be unable to follow his own orders?

It’s a difficult thing.

Athos feels the effects of his illness almost immediately. Within ten minutes, his adrenaline has faded, leaving him winded and tired. The hour grows late, and his body protests as night deepens. The cold on his face feels like pin pricks, and the air churns through his lungs with ever deadening effect. He dares not cough or it would unseat him, and he is not certain that he’d ever make it back on his horse again.

He aches until he goes numb, and his vision blurs so badly that he scarcely can see the way. Breathing has become a challenge, and though Athos does not back away from a challenge, he does not deny that he can sometimes lose them.

As the night wears on, everything in him wants to sleep. He wants to curl up to find some semblance of body heat and simply escape the pressing reality of the bitter cold. Everything feels sluggish, and it is all he can do to keep his eyes fixed on the path ahead, watching for the well trod signs of frozen dirt to keep him on track.

It is the sound of the horses behind him that keep him moving, pressing on until either mornin breaks.

Or he does.

-o-

At dawn, he hears the hoofbeats behind him taper off, and only then does he allow himself to slow down. As he dismounts, he instantly regrets it. His balance has been compromised, and he falters badly. Bracing himself against his mount, he allows himself a deep, hacking cough that provides no relief. Tears biting against his eyelids, he swallows back hard and forces his legs to move.

Behind him, D’Artagnan is helping Porthos with Aramis. Between the two of them, they can more than support Aramis’ weight, but the Spaniard is unusually loose-limbed, slumping hard and fast, leaving the others scrambling to catch his weight and lower it to the ground. Porthos ends up underneath him, propping him up and using his thick shoulder to rouse the other man while D’Artagnan kneels down worriedly in front of them.

“He was awake, for the first part of the night,” Porthos reports, watching while Aramis’ head lolls back. His eyelids flutter, but he does not wake. “But I haven’t been able to get a response out of him for the last hour. He’s so cold -- I was worried--”

D’Artagnan has his hand against Aramis’ chest, and he offers a wan smile. “Still alive,” he reports. He moves his hands down to the wound. They packed it as best they could the night before, but in the early light of day, it’s clear that the bandages have been soaked through with blood.

“He’s also still bleeding,” Porthos says shortly, nudging Aramis again.

“All the more reason we shouldn’t be stopping,” Athos says, not trusting himself to kneel down for a closer look. “We made good progress last night, but we still have half a day’s ride ahead.”

“We should bandage the wound again,” D’Artagnan says. “See if we can get him to drink a little.”

He’s already moving toward his pack, and Athos has to close his eyes to keep his equilibrium. On the ground, Porthos huffs gruffly. “Come on, now,” he cajoles. “If you wanted to snuggle, there are better ways to ask.”

It’s telling that there’s no response.

When Athos opens his eyes again, D’Artagnan has brought the flask of water, holding it up to Aramis’ mouth, for all the good it does them. Between the two of them, they manage to trickle some into Aramis’ mouth, but the other man is too weak to even swallow effectively.

In summation, he’s dying -- and fast.

And as much as Athos doubts his own ability to get back on his horse, he knows that they don’t have the time for this. More to the point, Aramis doesn’t have the time.

“Come on,” he says, locking his jaw as sternly as he can. If it’s a projection of strength, it’s as much for his own benefit as it is theirs. He’s still somewhat afraid he’ll pass out, the blackness is still infringing on his vision despite the rising sun. “We need to move.”

“We need to get his wound looked at,” D’Artagnan protests. “He’s weak--”

“And getting weaker every second we’re out here,” Athos argues.

“But if we rest a bit,” Porthos says. “Maybe let him recover.”

“We all know he’s not going to recover,” Athos says. “He’s lost a lot of blood; if we don’t get him back soon--”

Porthos’ eyes flash darkly and he pulls Aramis tighter against his chest. “I won’t let that happen.”

“I know,” Athos says, refusing to back down. Sick as he is, he would never win a fight against Porthos. He’s quite sure that even D’Artagnan could put him on his ass right about now. But he’s counting on the fact that it will never come to that.

He’s made all of them a promise, after all. Implicit though it is, it is the underpinnings of everything they do. They’ve sworn an oath to the Musketeers, but they live that out in service to one another. Athos, no matter how drunk he is, puts their lives above his own. For himself, he’ll press hard through any obstacle. For them?

He’ll stop at nothing.

“That’s why we need to go,” Athos resolves. “Now.”

When they hesitate, Athos understands. He knows they’re cold; he knows they’re scared.

That does not mean he’s going to indulge them, though.

Reaching down, he pries Porthos’ hands away and pulls Aramis up by one arm. D’Artagnan yelps while Porthos’ growls, but when Aramis falters in his grasp, they are both on their feet to support the weight. Together, they follow as Athos leads the to his horse, and he mounts first, beckoning them to help hoist Aramis up in the seat in front of him.

“I should carry him,” Porthos says, and he’s unable to hide his distress.

“Your horse is the fastest,” Athos disagrees. “You need to ride ahead with D’Artagnan, make sure that the doctor is prepared for us when we get back.”

They’ve succeeded in getting Aramis’ leg over the saddle, and he slumps forward in the seat. Athos reaches around with one hand, keeping him upright while grasping the reins.

“Are you sure we should split up?” D’Artagnan asks. “What if something happens?”


“It’s already happened,” Athos snaps. “If we want Aramis to live, this is a chance we need to take.”

Porthos nods, eyes cold and settled. “Keep him alive,” he says.

Athos inclines his head. “On my honor.”

Mouth tense, Porthos blinks hard, visibly tearing his gaze away. He cuffs D’Artagnan on the shoulder, making brisk strides back to his horse. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s move.”

D’Artagnan lingers for a moment longer, taking a worried look at Aramis before glancing at Athos. “Are you sure about this?”

This time, Athos tips his head and somehow manages a smile. “You know what the saying is,” he quips. “All for one.”

D’Artagnan returns the smile, bolstered by the confidence. “And one for all.”

Athos watches as D’Artagnan goes back to his horse, clicking his tongue to get her to move, chasing after Porthos, who is already down the trail. For a second, Athos can only watch as their figures grow smaller in the distance.

His throat feels tight; his lungs feel like ice.

Shakily, he pulls Aramis closer again, feeling the faint, sluggish beat of the Spaniard’s heart.

“Don’t worry,” he says into his friend’s ear. “I’ll get us home, even if it’s the last thing I do.”

NEXT