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Musketeers fic: Fear to Tread (2/2)

December 8th, 2017 (08:51 pm)
impressed

feeling: impressed

Continued from Part One.



-o-

In the early dawn, he’s upright in bed, drenched in sweat. He can still feel the cold, like ice in his veins, while his heart pounds rapidly in his chest. He can still see them, all of them. He hears them cry; he sees their blood. He can even feel the snow as it lays wet and heavy on the exposed parts of his face.

He’s still there.

He squeezes his eyes shut.

No matter how far away he gets, how much time passes, he’ll always be there.

“Aramis?”

Alone as he feels, he still knows better. Porthos is still snoring soundly, but Athos is watching him from the next bed. Aramis looks at him shakily, trying to decide whether or not to be strong.

Athos gives him this long moment of contemplation, but then tilts his head. “Do you want to talk about it?”

In all this time, they have asked him little. They have no asked him to recount how he was injured or what he saw. They’ve inquired into a few general details to see if Aramis knew who attack him, but they’ve never pressed for anything more.

It occurs to Aramis that this behavior is strange. There is no talk of justice; there is no angry posturing for retribution. Aramis is not so confused as to think his friends are indifferent; instead, he recognizes another strange kindness he had been too lost to see.

Truthfully, it’s about time they asked the question.

That doesn’t make it any easier to answer. Struggling, he calms his breathing and adjusts himself on the bed. Running a hand through his hair, he tries to huff a laugh to hide the tapering cries. “Not really.”

Remaining neutral, Athos keeps his gaze steady. “It might help with the dreams.”

Aramis shoots him a look, withering and exhausted. “Nothing will help the dreams.”

He doesn’t say that he thinks nothing should.

“Time will,” Athos counters.

Aramis looks at him, surprised. In the kindness Athos has shown him, there has been no need for discussion because no one disagreed with him. There had been no debate, no argument. Not even friendly banter directed his way. He’s out of practice with this, but he still remembers.

Swallowing hard, he feigns a smile. He bears no ill will against his friends, none in the least, but there’s no possible way for them to understand. “You don’t know what I saw,” he replies, unable to contain the waver in his voice.

Athos does not disagree with him. He also does not let the comment pass without reply. “Certainly, but I was the one who checked every body for signs of life. Every one, Aramis,” he says. “I don’t presume that equals your pain, but I’ve been here. I’ve listened to you every night. I may never understand the weight of what you saw and experienced and suffered, but then you must remember, I never claimed I did. I merely want to help you.”

It’s an endearing sentiment; it’s the kind of talk you might expect from a musketeers. All for one, and one for all. Brothers. But there’s no way Athos understands.

He feels vaguely hysterical, and he has to take several deep breaths before he trusts himself to speak once more. “They’re all dead, Athos.”

“I know,” Athos says, voice barely louder than the fire burning low in the nearby fireplace.

The utter calm of his friend is nearly Aramis’ undoing. “But you don’t know,” he says, voice pitching. “I should be with them. I should be dead, too.”

It’s something he’s thought, for days, weeks, months. Something that’s been frozen into his memory ever since the snow started to fall on Savoy. It’s the fear that paralyzes him, not the fear of death. The fear of living.

“We all should be, at one time or another,” Athos says. “We’re soldiers; it comes with the job.”

Aramis shakes his head with a scoff. “This is not the same thing. This is not the funny way fate works; this is not how some men go to battle and don’t come home. This was a slaughter, Athos. Every man there was marked for death, and yet here I am, still breathing.” He takes a gulping breath, surprised by the flush of emotion that darkens his face. He’s trembling now, the sheer emotion nearly overwhelming him. “It’s not the same thing.”

The way his voice cuts, there is no mistaking his meaning.

That’s why it is somewhat infuriating that Athos does not demur. “It is, though.”

This time, Aramis feels a hot tear slip down his cheek. He wipes it away viciously, shaking his head. “Athos, please,” he says, and he’s begging for understanding. Begging for acceptance. He needs this validated more than he needs air. “That’s what I dream about. The nights I wake up screaming, it’s not because they died. It’s because I’m still alive.”

The admission is raw and honest. He feels as exposed as he did, half covered by the thicket in Savoy. In his mind, he still sees Marsac running away.

In the here and now, however, Athos is not going anywhere. “Your death would not make them happy. It would not give meaning to their sacrifice,” he says. “All of us, myself included, ache for what was lost that day, but do you know what gives me hope? Do you know what allows me to wear the uniform and carry on?”

Aramis inhales and holds in his breath. It is all he can do not to cry now. All he has to stay composed, face rigid in the dying light.

Athos holds up a hand, pointing at Aramis. “You,” he says. “I see you, and how much you endured. I see you, and I know how much you have suffered to still rise another day. You have kept my faith -- kept the faith of the whole garrison -- and given us all we need to still prevail against the daunting odds.”

It’s not fair; not any of it. That Athos should be so kind and effusive. This is not in his nature, and Aramis does not feel strong enough for this. Usually, he preens under praise, but it makes him uncomfortable. “And if faith is not enough?” Aramis asks, voice wavering precariously. He shakes his head. “I did nothing in Savoy. I barely had time to pull my sword. I cannot even figure out how I survived when I did nothing to help myself. I’m no hero; not for Savoy.”

Athos raises one shoulder lightly. “Maybe not for Savoy, but for after,” he says. “It took courage to keep living, even when you felt dead inside. And I know you, Aramis. If you surrendered control of your life in Savoy and have lived to tell the tale, then how can you not credit your faith? Or do not believe in the God to which you pray?”

Hot tears spills down his cheek, and Aramis brushes them away sharply. “That’s not fair.”

“But it’s true, and you know it,” Athos tells him candidly. “I know you know it, but you have just not come to terms with it.”

His pride breaks. It’s actually surprising that it’s held out this long. A hard sob goes through him, and he sniffles to retain some control of his emotions. “I can’t do this, Athos,” he says, and there is desperation laden in his voice now. “I don’t know how to do this.”

This time, Athos sits up, swinging his legs over the bed and leaning closer to Aramis. “You do,” he says, more insistently than before. “I told you, you just haven’t come to terms with it. Doing nothing is still a choice, and it is a choice you fight with every day, sometimes to your credit and sometimes not. But know this, Aramis. You cannot change what happened to you. But you can change what happens next, for yourself and for the garrison. For all the men that died out there. You get to choose.”

If it’s meant to empower Aramis, the force of it oversteps. Aramis has recovered substantially, but his emotions run weak and his self control is thin. These truths are not shared in cruelty, but they gut him all the same.

In the dimness, Athos’ expression softens. “And whatever you choose, Aramis, right or wrong, good or bad, you will not be alone,” he says. “We will always come for you. We will always be with you.”

Athos knows of duty; more than that, he knows of love. Love broke Athos once, just as faith could crush Aramis. Their greatest strengths will always be their greatest weaknesses in turn. That is why they are better together.

That is why they came to Savoy.

That is why they are still here.

Even when Aramis is too weak to fight. “I am not sure I’ll ever wear the uniform again,” Aramis finally confesses.

“Then don’t,” Athos says. “If you leave the service, you will not leave our friendship. This much I promise, even when I can guarantee nothing else in this life.”

The promise is titillating in its way, the perfect anchor in his turbulent sea of emotions. That is probably why Aramis struggles to believe it. Adrift as he is, the idea of a steady port of harbor is hard to comprehend. The haunting isolation of Savoy has turned his world upside down, but the constancy of his friends, his brothers, has kept him alive.

In the end, that promise is all he has. He knows this because he has lived it. He has given up the fight and surrendered to the unkind fates, and yet here he is. By no account of his own, and by every account of them.

Athos and Porthos.

He’s still trembling, but when he looks at Athos again, he doesn’t try to hide anything. “That’s good,” he says, nodding his head rapidly. He laughs nervously. “Because if I’m going to live, then I’m going to need all the help I can get. For a while, anyway.”

A smile widens on Athos’ lips. “For as long as you need, my friend,” he pledges as the dawn awakens outside. “As long as you need.”

-o-

After several more days, Aramis accepts another aspect of his makeshift life that is simply untenable. He’s living in the garrison. The room was once semi-private, but it’s clearly been set aside solely for his purposes. This seems excessive; Treville is a just captain with diligent good sense, but he’s not indulgent.

Moreover, it is no way for three grown men to live. Surely Porthos would appreciate other company; it seems likely that Athos would crave privacy.

If Aramis has no concerns for his own comfort, then he must start thinking of others.

“Don’t be silly,” Porthos scoffs when Aramis suggests they move back to their own quarters. “No one comes in here at all!”

Aramis tries not to looked pained. It’s not an easy thing for him, making an argument that contradicts his friends. It’s not so much the conflict that unnerves him; it’s having an opinion at all. Dead men do not get their druthers.

But Aramis, against the odds, is not dead.

He sighs. “That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?” he asks. “I know there are many uses for this room at the garrison. I have been here for, what, months?”

“No one is keeping track,” Athos tells him.

The way he says it means that it’s not quite true. Everyone is keeping track; no one dares mention it, though.

“This was appropriate while I was convalescing,” he explains patiently. He gestures to himself. “But you yourselves have told me multiple times that I’m quite well. The doctor will not even make house calls anymore because I am not in need of medical assistance.”

Porthos does not like this answer in the least. He looks to Athos, whose expression is more indulgent. He shrugs.

Turning back to Aramis, Porthos growls. “But where will you stay that we can make sure you’re okay?”

“What is wrong with my quarters?” Aramis asks, matter of fact. “You know where it is, and you both live nearby.”

These are the points he’s rehearsed with some labor. He still feels nervous, but he’s managing himself fairly. He knows that he needs to be reasonable to appeal to their logic, but that he needs to be steady to assuage their concerns. It seems so much like a chore, being a normal man.

Porthos juts out his chin defiantly.

Athos’ reply is more diplomatic. “You do have a spare cot there,” he ventures. “Don’t you?”

“I do,” Aramis says. “It doubles as a dining area, but the effect is the same.”

Athos gives Porthos a nod of solidarity. “We could take turns, then,” he offers. “Sharing a bunk.”

Porthos glowers, but he sees he can’t fend off the logic. “Fine,” he says. “But I get tonight.”

Athos inclines his head. “Then we’re agreed,” he says, rubbing his hands together. “Shall we?”

The thought of it strickens him, but he finds his way to his feet irregardless. “Excellent,” he says, hoping his smile looks more sure than it feels. Athos stands tentatively after him, and Porthos gets reluctantly to his feet. “Let’s go home.”

-o-

It’s not exactly a dramatic move, but his friends have accumulated more than he’d realized over the last few months. It takes some time to track down all the items -- cards and books and favorite tankards -- but Aramis is ready when the items are finally accounted for.

At least, he thinks he’s ready.

At the front door, he finds his legs stiff and his heart pounding. Unconsciously, he can feel the throbbing in his head, where the head wound has already healed. His two missing toes ache, and he stretches his fingers reflexively, as if to remind himself they were still there. He’s awash with cold and lightheaded. For a horrible second, he thinks he’s going to pass out.

But then, Athos opens the door. The bright sunlight half blinds him, but Porthos comes up alongside him, pressed shoulder to shoulder.

“Come on,” Porthos nudges him. “If this is what you want…”

Want is not a concept Aramis has yet to grasp again, not when his whims often involve freezing to death on an icy tundra. All the same, he understands it less as desire and more as volition. Aramis cannot bring himself to want, but he can find it within himself to accept the reality of his beating heart and make the necessary choices accordingly.

He’s alive, no matter what should have happened.

He’s alive.

And now he has to live, no matter how much the idea terrifies him.

“It is,” he says, the words rushed and harsh. He swallows, balling his fingers into fists. “It is.”

With that, he takes an unsteady step forward into the light.

-o-

It’s not so much the people who greet him or the way the sunlight seems foreign to his eyes. It’s not the strange feeling movement brings to his legs or how the air is warmer than he remembers.

It’s that the world has gone on, indifferent and persistent. Men train in the garrison; a few are eating stew at the tables. He can see Treville on his balcony, and hear the sounds of the city outside the gates.

For the past few months, Aramis has been frozen in time.

Out here, though, the world is thriving.

This is unsettling.

It is also gratifying.

That just makes it more unsettling.

For all of his choices, he has no choice in this. Savoy is over; those men, his brothers, are dead. Life has gone on.

And so has Aramis.

-o-

At first, it’s a relief to be home.

The relief is, however, short lived.

True, he’s not a man with a lot of possessions. His quarters are meager and his items are few. As a soldier, he does not enjoy much pay, and the trinkets he’s been granted from his mistresses are stowed in a drawer for the time in which he may need to sell them for food.

Still, his books are there, and his journals. A few religious pieces and a few weapons with extra ammunition. Clearly, Athos or Porthos has had someone tend to the kitchen. While the cupboard is bare, there is at least nothing festering there.

No, if anything, the room is pleasant, homey and inviting. He remembers the mornings he slept in, and he can almost see himself eating a piece of fruit while he says his evening prayers. Even his drinks are in order, and he can see the bottle he was holding back to share with his friends when he returned from Savoy.

His peace offering, he’d say. For going to Savoy instead of on a mission with them.

He’d never even asked how it went.

It doesn’t matter; he can’t imagine they have much reason to celebrate.

“Everything okay?” Athos asks him.

Aramis startles a bit, realizing that he’s been standing dumbly in the doorway. “Yes,” he says. “I just…”

He trails off, not sure what he wants to say. He’s not even sure what he feels.

He’s home.

All this time.

All those odds.

He’s home, and the others never will be.

It’s not right; it’s not fair.

Aramis takes a breath and gets his bearings.

It is, however.

It simply is.

“Yeah,” he answers finally, almost surprising himself. “I think I might be.”

-o-

What’s most surprising is how normal it all feels. He has the strength, and he’s increasingly surprised by his own emotional capacity. He doesn’t just feel able.

He’s starting to feel good.

Despite the kindness of his friends in providing food, Aramis starts to keep kitchen on his own. His scant cooking skills are still more diverse than theirs, and he finds that he has cravings once again.

And tidying the house feels like a boon. It’s nice to put things in order, the way they’re supposed to be. He doesn’t just stop there, either. He takes the time to refresh things a bit, get a bit of organization done that’s been long overdue.

He washes his clothes and tends his beard. He grooms his hair, and whistles while he preens over his new, shaggier look. It’s not quite as suave, maybe. But the roguish nature of it might have some appeal.

For the first time since Savoy, he’s starting to feel like himself again.

-o-

That doesn’t mean he’s forgotten. He still wakes in tears, and he still passes into fits when his mind is not quite his own. He’s haunted by memories, and when he hears the sound of musket fire in the distance, the blood drains out of his face and he’s paralyzed, just like he’s back on the frozen ground once again.

It threatens to ruin him, each and every time. It threatens to break in, cleave him, destroy all that his friends have worked so hard to put back together. The guilt of recovery is such a strange and horrible thing. Who is he, to have any right to recover?

When so many others are decaying in the ground?

But, when he wakes, his friends are there.

When his fits arise, his friends ground him.

When the doubts become pervasive, his friends remind him what is real.

When Aramis falls apart, they are there to keep him together.

Who is he, then, to deny them his recovery?

Who is he to deny them this sacrifice when they have given up so readily?

Who is he?

Sooner or later, Aramis thinks he might be able to answer that question.

-o-

Porthos and Athos are out more often now, and Aramis has started to wonder what they’re doing. It’s the simple understanding that life exists beyond him.

And he cares about that.

He hopes they are spending time doing things they love, but he also worries that without being on active service that they’ll love the drink and the women a bit too much. He’s actively fretting about this when there is a knock on his door.

This perplexes him. Athos and Porthos have taken to coming and going as they please, and he doesn’t expect Porthos back for another hours. Athos will not be back until dinner.

Curious, he gets up and tentatively opens the door.

When he sees Treville on the other side, he’s not sure if he’s relieved, terrified or something else entirely.

For Treville’s part, he seems just as disconcerted.

“Aramis,” he says, and every syllable sounds horribly forced. He smiles awkwardly, rocking on his feet. “It’s excellent to see you up and about.”

This is intended as a compliment, Aramis is sure of that. He’s not sure what to do with it, however.

Treville swallows, visibly more disconcerted. “Can I come in?”


Aramis remembers himself, and steps away. Gesturing in, Aramis hastily attempts some semblance of hospitality. “Yes, of course.”

Treville sweeps in, his blue cap swaying by Aramis as he walks. Treville hesitates as he looks around, but then he seats himself on one of the chairs near the fire.

Aramis, for the lack of something more intelligent, sits down in the one farthest away from him.

Removing his gloves, Treville clears his throat. “I read the notes from the doctor, and Athos has provided me frequent updates,” he says. He nods. “You’re doing much better, I’m told.”

Politely, Aramis smiles. “Not the same as I once was, but I dare say I’m good enough at this point,” he says. He gestures weakly at nothing in particular. “Almost entirely self sufficient, save for the fact that I haven’t earned an honest wage.”

Treville waves his hand dismissively. “In time,” he says.

Aramis huffs a laugh. It feels tight in his chest. “I’m still not even sure just how much time has passed,” he admits. “Sometimes, I wake up, and it feels like it’s been years since I left Savoy. Other times -- I swear, I still think the others will be laid on the ground if I go back.”

This is not what he intends to say. He’s knows it’s not polite to talk about pain and death and darkness when someone has taken the trouble to pay him a social visit. He’s not trying to be difficult or morbid; the words just come out, like he needs them in the light.

In response, Treville looks oddly pained, which just makes Aramis feel his social mistake more profoundly. Shifting in his seat, Treville looks at him anxiously. “Aramis,” he begins, clearly hedging. “About Savoy….”

He’s the one who brought it up, so really, this is his own doing. But until this point, no one has asked him about it. No one has even mentioned it to him. It’s impossible to clearly decide if it’s a relief to not be handled gently, or if it’s far too much for his psyche to handle, even after all this time.

Treville, if aware of this dilemma, chooses to ignore it. Instead, he presses on. “I know the Musketeers suffered a great many losses that day.”

“Too many,” Aramis reminds him.

“Too many,” Treville agrees patiently. He sighs. “But I’m glad we didn’t lose everyone.”

It’s hard for him to decide if this is intended to be sentimental. Such an attitude is so unlike his captain, that Aramis concludes it must be tactical instead. “I’ve been wondering when you’d ask,” he admits. “And I think I could talk about it now, just to clear up any questions you have. Some of my memories are hazy, but I do remember enough--”

Treville stops, somewhat taken aback. “No,” he says. “I came here to ask if you had any questions.”

Aramis blinks at him.

“About Savoy,” Treville says, matter of fact. “Much of the incident has been classified, but given your unique position, I felt it was my duty to offer you closure if I could.”

Closure. It’s not a novel thought. Aramis has been wondering if there’ll ever be something that makes him feel complete, that makes the past over. He’s pined for closure and found it elusive, and the idea of someone offering it to him so plainly is almost laughable.

But Aramis isn’t sure he remembers how to laugh at this moment in time. “Questions?” he repeats instead.

“About what happened,” Treville continues.

“What happened?” Aramis says. “They died. All of them. And I lived.”

Treville listens, face twisted in a strange composition of emotions. “But if you had questions about how or why…”

Aramis can’t stop himself from scoffing. “Does it matter? Does it matter how they died? Why they died? Does it matter why they’re in the ground rotting and I’m here, getting better?” he asks, more sharply that he intends. The emotion bleeds through him so quickly that he can scarcely control it. He feels his eyes burn, and his chest tightens. “I don’t understand it, it’s true. But honestly, I’m not sure I’m ready to.”

That’s the right thing to say, in the end. It’s poised, it’s polite and it’s poignantly true. He must not forget, Treville has been paying him -- all of them -- during Aramis convalescence. He’s asked for nothing, quite literally, in return. Aramis knows he owes his captain.

All the same, it is Treville who looks grateful. “That’s fair,” he says. “But if you need anything--”

A wry smile plays on his lips. “Then I’m quite certain Athos and Porthos will attend to it.”

Treville chuckles gently. “Well, when you’re ready for more, you know where to find me.”

Aramis has been more coherent in recent weeks, but he still finds that he can’t quite follow this one. “More?”

“Work,” Treville says. “If you ever want to come back, you will always have a place in the regiment.”

For a long, stunning second, Aramis feels his whole world tilt. He’s blinded by the emotion, which glares at him like sunlight on freshly fallen snow. He shudders like the frost has covered him again, and it’s all he can do to keep himself in the here and now. “Thank you,” he manages to say woodenly. “I’ll have to think on it.”

It is another kindness that Treville does not question him. Instead, he gets to his feet. “I really am quite glad, Aramis,” he says, looking at him almost fondly now. “Your survival has been everything I needed to get past this.”

That’s a new way of looking at it. It’s not that he hasn’t realized this has been a struggle, but he has not considered its fully effect. He hasn’t thought about rumors at the garrison, or the low morale. He hasn’t even thought about how Treville must feel, sending out a whole regiment and only getting back one.

He’s mourned the dead.

Not the living.

That’s not a sin, exactly, but Aramis can do better. He forges a smile. “It should have been one of them,” he says. “Any one of them.”

“There is no should have been,” Treville corrects him. “You must remember that, Aramis. Their deaths are wrong, yes. But that doesn’t make your life wrong, too. What happened to your brothers in Savoy wasn’t meant to happen. Your survival was. Believing in the first doesn’t make the last wrong. You must keep that distinction at the forefront of your mind.”

Aramis doesn’t know how to respond. Honestly, for all that Aramis has thought he knew, it’s clear that it’s not as simple as he thought. Dumbfounded, he watches as Treville sees himself out, stopping to turn back at the door.

“Stop by my office sometime,” Treville says.

“I told you. I don’t know if I’m ready,” Aramis counters.

Treville smiles, more kindly this time. “When you are,” he says. “We’ll make it work.”

With that, Treville leaves, the door closing behind him.

Aramis stares after him, not sure what to make of it all.

God chooses those he chooses.

He has mercy on those whom he chooses.

It is not up to man to question God.

Aramis’ faith is shaken, to be sure, but it still stands on that.

It still stands.

Aramis is starting to think that maybe, just maybe, that may be enough.

-o-

The others start to move on. Athos comes back one day, dressed in uniform. Porthos has been bringing more weaponry along than usual. They don’t talk about it, not in the least. But Aramis can see it in their faces.

He hears it, nearly screaming, in the things they aren’t saying.

“Are there extra potatoes?” Porthos asks, shoveling the last of a large portion into his mouth. “I’m starving.”

Aramis raises his eyebrows, offering the plate with the remaining spuds on them. “Long day?”

Porthos scoffs in good humor. “You have no idea!” he says, spooning the remainder to his dish. “There’s this new group of recruits--”

He stops short, face going pale. He looks half frantically at Athos.

Athos reaches for a new drink, making a point to pour some for Aramis first. “Nothing very exciting,” he says with a calm shrug. “Porthos is starving after a day of doing nothing.”

Porthos’ laugh is awkwardly loud. “That is true, that,” he says and hastily clears his throat.

“Speaking of which,” Athos continues with purpose. “I arranged for the shoemaker to stop by. I was noticing we could all use a fresh pair.”

This is superfluous, and it is also for Aramis’ sake. It’s funny to think how much being a Musketeer means to them. It’s no small decision, to become a Musketeer. The training takes your mind and body over; it becomes who you are more than what you do. It makes you more than you are, and the idea that you could talk about shoemaking instead of the latest training is almost too much to reasonably expect.

Aramis knows.

He is a Musketeer, after all.

Or he used to be.

He’s still not quite sure what to make of it, how to reconcile the depth of his devotion to duty with the plain horror of what happened in Savoy. It feels disingenuous somehow, to act like any massacre should sway him. He’s never had any compunction about what the job entailed and the risks it necessitates.

That logic does little for his dreams or the way his heart skips a beat whenever he thinks of taking his sword in hand again.

Still, the silence is starting to feel laborious. He knows where they go everyday, and he can imagine what they do. He knows the training exercises and the sound of Treville’s voice as he gives an order you have to accept. For them to ignore such truths on his behalf is perhaps an unforgivable lie.

At the very least, it is an untenable one.

“It’s the rainy season,” Aramis says. “The mud in the garrison is hell on boots this time of year.”

Athos manages to contain his look of surprise.

Porthos does not.

Aramis sighs. “There is no need to hide it,” he says. “I know where you go.”

Porthos reddens, but Athos inclines his head. “We simply do not want to cause you undue stress.”

The kindness in his voice is almost more than Aramis knows how to contend with. It’s what he wants to hear, but he’s not so sure it’s what any of them need anymore. As much as Aramis needs them, he owes them as well. The idea of fighting again is still one that is hard to grapple with, but he has to frame it all in context of his failure.

He failed to save his brothers in Savoy. He’s not so blind as to think that’s entirely his fault; in fact, he’s coherent enough to understand there was nothing more he could have done.

That is simply the point, though.

There is something he can do this time.

“It’s conversation,” Aramis tells them, forcibly keeping his voice light. “In light of the real stresses I’ve faced, I am convinced that conversation is a relatively minor concern.”

“We don’t have to go at all,” Porthos tells him. “Not if that’s better.”

Aramis inhales deeply. “I hardly think we can go backward, not at this point,” he says. “Not after as far as we’ve come.”

Athos bobs his head in agreement; Porthos looks tentatively pleased.

“So,” Aramis continues. “New recruits? Anyone any good?”

Porthos sits forward eagerly. “Well, now that you mention it--”

Aramis braces himself to listen.

It’s not what he wants.

But it is what they need.

-o-

As the others spend more time on duty, Aramis spends more time alone. True, he’s been caring for himself almost entirely on his own for the last month or so, but knowing that his friends are at the garrison makes it harder, somehow. He finds himself worrying, anxiously wondering if they’re okay, if they’re on a mission.

If they’ll come back.

It’s not that he doubts them, but he knows how easily fate slips. He knows how even the best soldiers can be felled when the odds are stacked against them.

To this end, it’s tempting to fall back into a pattern of lost bleakness. With long hours to himself, indeed, it does feel like the most natural course of action.

But Aramis has found his faith, and it is enough to gird his resolve.

He will endure the long hours of the day, keeping his mind engaged and his body busy. He will outlast the hours of the night, maintaining his prayers to God.

And when the dreams come for him, when the nightmares wake him up screaming, he will stay strong, he will stay true. He will hold this faith as a long defense when all else fails him.

It is possible, and Aramis knows this because he survived Savoy.

So, he can survive this.

Aramis believes that with enough resolve, he can survive anything.

-o-

And sometimes, Aramis can see himself going back.

Sometimes, he looks to his sword and his fingers ache. He eyes his gun and craves the smell of gunpowder in his nostrils. Aramis is a man born for violence, and he has never tried to deny it.

Truly, what else would he do? Who else would he be? He’s spent these months lost, and he knows he will find himself when he puts on the uniform and wields his sword. It calls to him almost, like an inevitability he cannot fight.

Like God’s will.

It be easy, in so many ways, to go back and reclaim the life he put on hold after Savoy.

Easy, except for the fact that it terrifies him.

Such minor, inconvenient details.

-o-

Then, one night, Athos doesn’t check back in. He had promised, by his word, to return after dinner, that they would share a drink before bed. Aramis had had no reason to question him.

But as the night falls deeper, there is no sign of Athos, and Aramis finds his faith more fragile than ever.

Alone in his room, he frets. He wonders if his friends have finally grown tired of him. He wonders if they have forgotten about him.

Worse, he wonders if something has happened.

Aramis knows, better than anyone, the dangers involved with being a Musketeer. He spends the whole of the night, staring at the door, looking at the face of every Musketeer who died in Savoy.

And trying not to see Athos among them.

In some ways, being stuck in the memory of Savoy has made things easier. After seeing the things he saw, after surviving the way he did, it’s second nature to think nothing could possibly be worse. For Aramis, time has stood still. Life has been a state of limbo. It’s given him the time and space he needs to get better.

But it’s not real.

Because life has gone on. Time has passed. And it continues to pass with each second he breathes.

What has Aramis done with that? What has he squandered? What has he taken for granted? He has no assurance of his next breath, and although Porthos and Athos are the constants in his life that allow him to stay grounded, there’s nothing that guarantees their safety, either.

They’re still Musketeers, after all.

And in so many ways, Aramis is still lying half frozen on the fields of Savoy. There’s nothing he can do. Locked up safe and tight in his quarters, he sits here and bides his time, contemplating his own mental state, doing nothing.

That is the part that haunts him about Savoy. It’s not the screams, or the blood, or any of the horror. It’s not the lives that were cut short or the fact that he never saw it coming.

It’s the fact that he had no power to change it. It was the fact that he took a blow that removed him from the fight and he spent two days, lying immobile on the icy ground, unable to bury his friends, unable to pursue who wronged them, unable to even save himself.

That paralysis is what grips him most, and it’s what dominates his dreams.

And here he is, living it still.

Worse, he’s made it his choice.

No one has forced him to stay locked up in this room. No one has told him that all he can do is continue to convalesce. No one’s taken his life from him, not even the people who felled him in the first place.

No, this is Aramis’ choice.

He’s chosen this, and if harm comes to Athos because Aramis was not there to protect him, then he’ll carry that guilt. He knows, despite his regrets, that he could not have prevented those who died at Savoy. But he could have prevented this.

He should have prevented this.

But Aramis can only sit and wait and hope and fear.

And pray to God that he gets just one more chance.

-o-

It is just shy of dawn when there is noise at the door, and Aramis finds himself unable to move. Blinking rapidly, he looks at the door, not sure if he should dare to hope or resign himself to the inevitable.

When Athos enters, looking worn and weary, Aramis can only gape for a long, protracted second.

Then, the paralysis is broken.

Not broken.

Shattered.

After months of holding himself in check, Aramis cries.

It’s not the tears of pain during his early recovery. It’s not the hysterical cries when he is wrenched from his dreams. It’s not the silent grief over those he left behind.

These sobs are different, deep, guttural. They burn through him like a fire in his belly. He feels them, trembling throughout every fiber of his being. He sobs with an intensity that surprises him, and he can feel the race of his own heart vibrantly against his chest.

He’s so gripped by these sobs that he cannot stop himself, he cannot even assure Athos he’s okay as the other man rushes over to him, the door swinging shut behind him.

“Aramis,” Athos says, going to his knees in front of Aramis. He grips Aramis’ shoulders in his hands. “Aramis, what’s wrong?”

That’s the questions they’ve all been asking for the last several months.

Heaven knows, Aramis has had a lot of things go wrong.

But that’s not why he’s crying.

God help him, he’s crying because of what’s right.

He swallows, almost laughing as he looks up through watery eyes at Athos. “You’re okay.”

Athos, ill kempt as he is at this early hour, stares blankly back at him. “What?”

Aramis laughs again through the tears. “You’re okay.”

Athos is not a dim witted man; he understands the implications. Sitting back a little bit, his fingers relax on Aramis’ shoulders but he doesn’t let go. “Of course I am,” he says. “I apologize for my tardiness, but the mission got turned a bit on its head. Prisoner transport. But then, you know how it goes.”

“Yes,” Aramis agrees, grinning widely from ear to ear. “I believe I do.”

Athos continues to watch him, somewhat vexed. “And you’re sure you’re okay?”

Readily, Aramis nods. “You’re okay,” he says. “And I’m okay.”

For the first time in months.

He laughs as more tears fall.

But not the last, he resolves.

-o-

Athos lingers more than he usually does the next day. He’s been content to give Aramis more space in the recent weeks, but he seems more rattled by the morning’s encounter than Aramis himself. In this, Aramis cannot fault him. While he himself has been living in a fog, he can only imagine what it’s been like for Athos.

It is, however, a moot point.

There is no fog anymore.

The thaw is complete, and Aramis has never felt more alive.

Athos doesn’t know quite what to do with that.

Fortunately, Aramis does.

He waits until Athos leaves, but then he sits up, looking at Porthos anxiously and pinning him with expectant, wide eyes.

This is because he is tremulously excited as his phobia gives way to hope.

This is also because he knows the effect this look has, on Porthos even more than Athos. Athos is full of gruff concern, but Porthos barely concerns the dedication he has to Aramis. He knows that his next request will only be successful with Porthos’ blessing.

And the only way to get Porthos to stop worrying.

Is to make him fret that the alternative is worse.

“Let’s go train.”

Aramis foregoes pretense; with Porthos, it is best if he doesn’t see an attack coming.

Porthos stops, card in hand as he lays out a game of solitaire in front of him. “I’m sorry?”

Aramis makes his expression more beseeching, leaning even closer. “Let’s go train.”

This time, Porthos seems torn between thinking he misheard Aramis and thinking Aramis has regressed to some point beyond catatonia. “Train?”

Aramis nods readily. “We can start with swords, if you like,” he says. “I could go for some target practice, but I don’t think I’m up to fisticuffs just yet.”

Given Porthos’ expression of outright confusion, Aramis must sound like he is speaking Spanish. That’s how long he’s been trapped in the wilderness in Savoy; long enough to make normal activities seem foreign.

“You want to go train,” Porthos repeats. He sound as if he’s hoping there’s been some kind of mistake.

Aramis, however, nods eagerly. “We’ve been sitting in here for, what, months now?”

Months is the easy way of saying it; the look on Porthos’ face suggest how long it’s felt.

Aramis makes great pains to smile. “If we stay in here much longer, we’re going to go mad.”

Porthos knits his brows together, somewhat vexed. “But you’ve been, I don’t know,” he says, flustered. He makes a general gesture. “Recovering.”

“Exactly,” Aramis says, pouncing on the word. “All that time recovering, and now I think it’s time to take it to the next level. Just a little swordplay to start with, honestly.”

Porthos almost laughs. “But you’ve not been well!”

“And I never will get well until I start to live again,” Aramis says. “I have to train, remember my skills. At the very least, if I don’t go inside, I’ll probably need to be committed to an asylum.”

The sound of the word actually makes Porthos flinch. It’s not something Aramis has considered; but it’s something that Porthos clearly has.

Aramis sighs. “You must humor me, Porthos,” he implores. “There is a reason I couldn’t become a monk, after all.”

Porthos makes a face, skeptical. “Because you like women too much?”

“No -- I mean, yes, that, too,” Aramis says, feeling himself blush. “But it’s all because I can’t sit still. Not when I know there’s more, always more, just beyond my reach. If I’m sitting still, then I’m dead.”

Porthos’ face is hardened and composed, unconvinced.

Aramis shrugs. “Contrary to all best efforts, here I am,” he says. “I didn’t choose it, but I can’t really deny it anymore. I’m alive, so it’s about time I started to live.”

Something wavers in Porthos’ countenance, and Aramis knows he’s got it. Porthos, for all his strength and fortitude, has his weaknesses, too. Wine, women--

Wayward best friends.

With a measured nod, Porthos breathes in. “Training, huh?” he wagers, laying the stack of cards down on the table. “You sure about that?”

“Hell no,” Aramis says.

Porthos looks keenly dissuaded.

But Aramis just grins. “But what the hell do I have to lose?”

-o-

Of course, it’s not always that easy.

Nothing is, not in life. Not as a Musketeers. He’s dogged by doubt, and he’s weighed down by loss. There are moment he catches him, staring blankly at nothing. And in his dreams, he can’t ever forget.

That’s okay, though.

Because when Aramis wakes up, he knows the difference. He knows he’s not asleep anymore.

He chooses to remember.

And keep living anyway.

-o-

It is dawn, and Porthos is still asleep nearby. Athos has left out some scraps for breakfast, and Aramis suspects the other man will stop by on his way into the garrison. Porthos’ gear is in a pile by his chair, the armor on the bottom with the sword poised on top. In the early morning sun, the metal glints.

Aramis smiles, turning over his own sword. The weight has become familiar to him again, and his confidence in wielding it has come back. He knows that when he carries it, he runs the risk of using it.

Moreso, he runs the risk of someone using it against him.

He may not even see it coming.

Aramis sheaths the sword, holstering his gun next. He hesitates as he reaches for the arm guard, fingers brushing over the intricate indentations on the exterior.

The fleur de lis.

The sign of being a Musketeer.

He forces himself to swallow, thinking back to all the arm guards that were buried in Savoy. Musketeers are but men, and Aramis knows they each have sins. The only one that condemned them, however, was this, right here.

The fleur de lis had marked them, and they carried it like a brand to the grave. There’s no way to be sure if it’s a blessing or a curse.

Aramis suspects it’s both, like most things in life.

Faith is what determines how you deal with it.

Faith in the cause.

Faith in your brothers.

Faith in yourself.

Aramis slides his arm into the guard, cinching it tight around his shoulder. It fits more loosely than it used to, but it still feels familiar.

It still feels right.

Straightening, Aramis reaches for his hat. Pausing to doff his mustache, he plucks his hat up, placing it snugly on his head.

His lips turn up, and he feels his chest swell with pride. He’s forgotten what this feels like; he’s forgotten how this transforms him. All the things he’s clung to, and this he’s forgotten.

Aramis doesn’t have to see it coming.

Blessing or curse, terrified or confident, he’s ready for it anyway.

-o-


When Porthos wakes, Aramis has breakfast ready. It’s plain that Porthos can see the uniform, but he doesn’t say anything while he nurses his coffee. Athos is equally reticent when he arrives a short time later, bringing fresh bread for them to share.

Truth be told, Aramis is too nervous to eat, but he manages to stomach several bites for the sake of his friends. Still, he’s already on his feet when they’re still eating, rocking back on his heels in a vain attempt to control the anxiety building in the pit of his stomach.

He could back out of this, right here, right now. No one would say a word, especially not Athos and Porthos.

But that’s why he has to do this.

He owes them.

They saved him, after all.

At least, the they they have.

God help him, Aramis would hate to let them down now, and truthfully, he’s resolved that he won’t. Not while he has air in his lungs and blood pumping through his body. If the Lord works in mysterious ways such as this, then who is Aramis to question?

Who is Aramis?

Except a Musketeer?

He wets his lips, swallowing back his trepidation. “Shall we?” he asks with a gesture to the door.

Athos exchanges a look with Porthos, but gets to his feet. A beat later, Porthos follows. They have trepidation, too, but that’s what makes it okay. They’re doing this, together.

They’re doing this.

Athos nods to Aramis. “Please,” he says, holding out a hand. He doesn’t quite smile; Porthos doesn’t quite beam.

Aramis does enough of both for all three of them.

Athos lets the words hang like resolve, binding them together. “After you.”

It’s not easy, taking that first step, but he knows who’s behind him.

No matter where he goes or where he falls.

Aramis knows.

In the end -- in the beginning -- that’s what matters most.

-o-

It doesn’t hit Aramis, not until he gets back to the garrison. It’s been nearly a year since he left for Savoy.

And here he is, back at last.

The others are dead or gone, and it gives him pause to see the garrison so alive. Musketeers fighting, talking, eating, laughing. Living.

These are men he knows; men he’s cared about. Their rabble is, at a glance, invigorating. As for the clang of metal, the smell of gunpowder -- that is downright intoxicating.

They’re telling dirty jokes and playing rowdy antics.

It’s just like in Savoy.

Aramis strives to steady himself against the cold wash of nerves.

Just like Savoy, there’s no way to tell if this will end in disaster.

He grits his teeth, squares his shoulders.

But there’s just one way to find out.

He takes a tentative, wavering step. Beside him, Athos and Porthos keep pace. It’s an awkward thing, as the others greet him. Some are almost shy, as if unsure he’s really himself, but others are so flamboyant that Aramis nearly feels overwhelmed. It’s a bit of an ordeal, all things considered, and Aramis is red in the face as he finally clears the cloud.

Glancing up, he sees Treville, standing on the decking. Without a word, Treville nods before ducking back inside.

Athos nudges him. “It’s not too late, you know.”

Porthos nods seriously. “Say the word now, and we’ll go back. All of us.”

It’s tempting, in some ways. Because for all the men he sees, it is those he does not see that are hardest to bear. As composed as he is, he still feels fragile, and he worries that this ruse is not one he can maintain.

But Aramis has already resolved this much. At this point, going forward, going back; it all carries the same cost.

But only one offers him anything substantial in return.

“No, I’m here already -- and you’re both here,” he says, trying to sound carefree. He shrugs, having faith that he’ll believe it himself one day. He smiles warmly, taking confidence from their presence. “That’s all that matters in the end.”