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Musketeers fic: A Penance Paid (1/3)

December 15th, 2017 (09:02 pm)
angry

feeling: angry

Title: A Penance Paid

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: No beta. Fills my protection square for hc_bingo.

Summary: For all the things that Athos feels guilty about in his life, he knows that the thing he’d struggle with the most is the death of one of the men who follow him.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three



It might be easy to think, given Athos’ occupation, that he has no compunction about being in battle. Indeed, he is quick with a sword, but just because he always wins a dual does not mean he always draws first. While Athos has found himself comfortable with conflict, he is never one to like it.

He does not find it so wholly honorable as D’Artagnan does. Nor does he find it quite as invigorating as Porthos seems to. And he does not pretend to have the flair for it that Aramis does.

No, Athos is a practical man. He knows his talents, and he knows his duty. He knows that violence pays for his wine, and all the rest is what it is. He cannot change the world, after all. He’s lucky to manage his own heart with the pungent taste of cheap liquor. All he wants to do, scraping by as he does, is survive.

That is where his compunction comes in.

There might have been a time he found the risk to be encouraging. Maybe there was a time he thought becoming a Musketeer could be his way of committing suicide without tarnishing his father’s name. Maybe.

But, if that were the case, he’s surely failed. All these years, he’s survived. For all his other faults, Athos is a man who wants to live, sometimes against his best intentions to the contrary.

Of course, all of that is for naught, but it’s not merely his life on the line. While he has picked the occasional street fight of his own volition, he’s usually more prepared than that. Usually, he has backup.

That is where his compunction gets complicated.

It is a curious thing, after all, to trust men with your life.

And then to lead them, unwaveringly, into battle just to risk their own.

For all the things that Athos feels guilty about in his life, he knows that the thing he’d struggle with the most is the death of one of these.

It only figures, of course, that the bastards would call him on it.

In the most pointed and bloody way possible.

-o-

That’s not actually how it starts, though.

No, as with most things in Athos’ life, it starts with Treville.

“They must be brought to justice,” Treville says.

“Right,” Athos says, though honestly he’s not really listening. True, Athos is captain these days, but he’s still taking orders from Treville. As a minister for the king, Treville outranks him. More than that, Athos has never had any compunctions about following the man’s orders.

That said, it has grown tedious, after all these years. Treville’s gone on about it some, about the robberies and how they target the elite and how the king is most unhappy and this is a personal favor that would mean so very much.

All that, though, is mostly irrelevant.

What matters is this: “And you want us to arrest them?”

“Yes,” Treville says. “The King would prefer them alive, but…”

Treville shrugs.

Athos chuckles. “Yes, I’m sure,” he muses. “A violent band of robbers, bold enough to strike at the wealthy in the King’s city? I’m sure that will happen.”

“You understand, then,” Treville says. “Why I’ve called upon you.”

Athos adjusts his hat, rolling his shoulders. “Consider it done, sir.”

-o-

It is not hard to round up the others. No matter what they are doing, they are the sort of men who are soldiers at heart. They can be miles from a battlefield and always close to a war.

“That sounds too simple,” D’Artagnan says, his brow furrowed when Athos explains the mission. “How could we already know the location of a band of vicious bandits with no work whatsoever?”

“That’s a fair point,” Porthos muses.

“But the wrong one,” Aramis says with a huff. “If this group of bandits is so treacherous, why have none of us heard of them?”

Athos smiles tautly. These are the questions he had asked, almost verbatim. He’s been spending too much time with these men, or they’ve been spending entirely too much time with him. It’s a scary thing to consider: Athos, the leader. He has no business tending the hearts and minds of men. That’s why he became a Musketeer in the first place.

It was supposed to be easy.

“It’s been kept under wraps; this was the first I’d heard of it as well,” Athos admits. “But the targets have been very sensitive. There was concern in the Royal Court that if it became public knowledge that the elite were being persecuted that it would incite a lack of confidence in the crown.”

“The people know that the king protects his own,” Porthos adds with a knowing nod. “If he can’t even protect them, then what hope is there for the rest?”

“I’m sure that also explains the expediency of the mission,” Aramis says. “The King probably wants to resolve this before he tries the patience of his aristocracy too severely.”

“That still doesn’t explain how we know exactly where they are,” D’Artagnan argues sensibly. Sometimes, the boy seems quite reasonable. It might be tempting to think he wasn’t a reckless child with an overdeveloped sense of duty, but Athos knows him too well.

“They had a defector,” Athos says. “One of the youngest of the group got cold feet. He came to the palace and confessed to Treville in full. He gave up names, dates, locations. We’ve already found one of the stashes in the city walls, which confirms his story.”

Porthos’ brow darkens uncertainly. “That’s a bit too convenient, though.”

“A trap, perhaps?” Aramis wagers.

Athos inclines his head. These points are also ones he’d made. He wonders if this is how Treville felt all those years, relaying information and playing middleman. “The man -- whose name has been kept a secret -- appealed directly to the King, who also heard his confession. If his word proves false, he will be kill and his entire family line will be eradicated and his wealth will be confiscated. It’s possible that a man like this would be willing to die for his friends, but to sacrifice his entire family and his wealth?”

D’Artagnan works his jaw. “That does make it less likely,” he says. He shakes his head. “But how do we know they won’t have regrouped? If they’re as good as you seem to indicate they are, won’t they know that their trust has been breached?”

“We could be going on old information,” Porthos says. “Come up empty-handed.”

“Or worse,” Aramis says. “They could set up an ambush.”

Athos will not entertain the implication. Not now. He already has, of course. And he will, countless times before this mission is over. It’s one thing to say yes to Treville. It’s another to say yes on behalf of his men.

Athos takes such things quite seriously. “They won’t,” he reports. “The man was sent back as a scout. He’s not supposed to report back to them any time soon.”

Aramis let his lips twist into a bemused smile. “That is convenient.”

“Too convenient,” Porthos mutters.

D’Artagnan shakes his head, thoughtful. “I think we need to slow down,” he says. “Do our own reconnaissance.”

It’s exactly the right thing to say, and Athos feels his chest clench with what he can only assume is pride. D’Artagnan became a Musketeer under his guidance, and though Athos does not presume to take credit for all of the boy’s virtues, he certainly finds himself proud when he makes better choices.

That makes it all the harder to disagree with him.

“Normally, I would agree,” Athos says. “But the evidence is clear. The information has been verified for us. Treville has every confidence that this mission will be easy to complete.”

The moment he says it, he wishes he hadn’t. The moment he feels confidence swell in his chest, he wants to take it all back. He knows what it is when pride goes first. He knows what it is to fall.

All the missions he’s taken. All the missions he’s completed successfully. All the missions.

Athos has no compunction with following orders, but he knows there was a time when he had no compunction in ignoring them, too. He didn’t become a soldier to say yes.

Then again, why did he become a soldier?

To shut himself down? To pull away? To stop caring so damn much?


He eyes the men cautiously. D’Artagnan’s youth; Porthos’ strength; Aramis’ passion.

It’s possible, he has to concede, that he’s made a mistake.

He forces himself to smile, hoping that this isn’t another one.

“Come on,” he says, reaching for his things to set out. “If we set out now, we can finish this whole thing up before nightfall.”

He doesn’t have to look back to know they’re following him.

Still, he does. It’s not that he has to know.

But all these missions, Athos still likes to.

-o-

Athos, in many ways, is right about most of it. The ride is short; the location is accurate. The bandits, to a man, are on hand, and they are completely unsuspecting of a raid. More than that, it is easy to see that a good portion of the stolen goods are on the site, which means they can easily be remanded to the King and returned to their rightful owners.

In all, it’s all perfectly according to plan.

Honestly, that should have been Athos’ first clue.

Still, somehow, it comes as a surprise when gunfire breaks out.

And all hell breaks loose.

-o-

The sequence of events is not really that simple, nor is it actually that fast. Athos knows that, but he also knows that the details will never matter that much. He will have to relay to Treville the basics, that they arrived, took out the exterior guards and then issued the decree validating their presence. But when he had asked for them to come the easy way, the request had been declined.

With a bullet.

Sure, maybe it had been foolish to expect anything different. But Athos had half hoped that the fact that these criminals were as much a part of the elite as those they stole from that they might have some modicum of restraint and the slightest amount of respect for the authority of the King.

And really, when all is said and done, Athos should always be looking for a fight.

To that end, he’s not sure when he stopped.

He has no compunction about being in battle, after all.

But his men.

His stomach tightens, and his throat constricts as he leads his musketeers into battle that day.

There is compunction enough for all of them.

And no way to back down.

-o-

It’s a good thing, at least, that Athos has no compunction about battle.

Because this is, undoubtedly, a battle.

There is little time to reason during conflict, which is why Athos has come to trust his instincts as much as he has. Fighting can be practice, maybe, but there is no way to recreate the flood of emotion that eclipse the mind when actual danger occurs. This is for the best, he decides. This way, he does not have to consider the probability of his own death.

Or the risk for those who fight beside him.

And they do fight, his musketeers. Porthos is vicious, full of brute strength that commands respect on the battlefield. Aramis is more nuanced, shifting in and out of the conflict with the utmost precision. D’Artagnan is skilled enough, and he has the intensity needed to persevere. It is not that the boy is the most talented person Athos has ever met, but he is, without a doubt, the most tenacious.

These things, Athos knows, work in their favor.

That said, they are still outnumber and badly outgunned. To be sure, his men are trained for this sort of thing, but these bandits have had the time to harden themselves and they have the resources to make a last stand. They are formidable opponents.

Still, Athos knows his men.

Aramis and Porthos move out together, fanning a stretch of the conflict on opposite sides. They work in tandem, almost without checking, outflanking their opponents with a violent clarity. As for D’Artagnan, the boy charges into action, and he is so forward with his attack that he very nearly takes out six men before Athos falls into line beside him, providing the necessary backup.

They split off, after that. The group has thinned over the course of the last few minutes, and they will need to finish this by spreading out their attack. This does not need to be announced; indeed, the men have already started to do so as Athos narrows his eyes and focuses his own attack.

There are several paths to consider. He sees a few men, straggling at the rear, trying to get away. A few are even stuffing gold into their knapsacks to make their escape. The braver lot have dug in their heels, but their numbers are wearing thin. A few men are still in the makeshift barricade, where the bandits had attempted to fortify their position. Whether they are trying to escape or amassing more weapons, Athos does not know.

Then, he finds it.

His target.

It is a man, who carries himself much like Athos carries himself. It is not a question of title or rank, although Athos trusts that this man has both. No, this is a question of compunction.

This man is willing to fight to the last.

Because this is his battle.

These are his bandits.

This is his barricade.

He’s the leader.

Athos knows the look, for it is what he sees when he is cursed with an unforgiving look in his own mirror.

The man’s eyes lock on Athos’, and though the battle rages, a quiet falls between them. Approaching, Athos wields his sword suggestively but without strong provocation.

“You should surrender now,” he says, as easily as he can. He nods his head toward the men still engaged nearby. “Before more of your men die needlessly.”

The man scoffs. “And why does that matter to me?”

“They are here for you,” Athos surmises, closer still. “Does that mean nothing?”

“I steal from those who call me friend, and I flaunt my disloyalty to the king who has asked me to dine at his table,” the man tells him with a sneer. “What makes you think their deaths will cause me any trepidation?”

Athos raises his eyebrows, wondering if he himself had ever been that callous. He wonders if maybe he’d taken less drink and stayed at home in his large, empty mansion, if this could have been him.

“Truly, sir, I pity you then,” Athos says, rounding with intention now. “It is one thing to have no compunction in battle. But to have none when faced with the death of those who follow you?”

Athos shook his head, tsking his tongue.

“I’m doing you a favor,” Athos continues, lashing out with a parry. “To put you out of your misery.”

The man raises his sword in return, and the metal clangs together. He lifts his chin, face twisted in hate as he dislodges his sword for a strong thrust. “You will try.”

-o-

Though some may watch Athos in battle and be impressed by the fluidity of it all, Athos does not think it is much be behold. There is no grace in this; he can harbor no romantic notions about the give and take that ends with blood.

Always with blood.

It is Athos’ only goal to ensure that it is not his own.

This bandit may be good, but he has not suffered through years of service to the crown like Athos has. The bandit may be bold, but for all of that, he’s still a rich man playing with a sword. It is clear to Athos that the man is classically trained, but Athos has been trained by experience.

And, without further compunction, experience wins.

He sees his opening, and he trusts his sword into the heart of the man’s doublet. It is a particular thing, to feel the flesh give way beneath his blade. He can feel it tearing as his blade divides, and Athos knows before the man himself what has happened.

He knows, even before the man falls to the ground, that death is the only outcome.

Still, the man’s face recoils in shock as his knees give way, and he crumples to the ground, blood spreading a red stain across his chest while his fingers still weakly grip the his sword.

Despite himself, Athos still feels a pull of pity. He crosses over, kicking the blade away, before dropping to his knees to check the man. His chest stutters as it rises and falls, and he blinks wide, shocked eyes up at Athos.

“Funny,” he says, the words hitching uncertainly. “I knew this -- could happen. But I -- I didn’t think--”

Athos’ smile is almost kind. He too easily forgets anymore that his enemies seek to kill him. Maybe it’s just the years he’s been doing it. So many people have tried to kill him for so many reasons that it no longer surprises him or makes any impression on him at all.

“Easy,” Athos coaxes. “The King did request you alive, if possible. One of my men is an adequate medic when needed.”

The man labors for air as blood flecks his paling lips. His mouth twists into a cold, bitter smile. “I have lost, it is true,” he says with a hoarse laugh. “But you, you who fight so much, you will always have more to sacrifice.”

“And does that bring you comfort?” Athos asks, and he’s reminded of the priest at his parish back home. He remembers the last time he went to church, the last time he tried to ask for forgiveness when his heart was unrepentant. The priest had refused him, then.

Athos cannot quite refuse this man now.

“Only in that it--” he says haltingly, pausing to cough. “That it should bring you discomfort.”

“Sir,” Athos says stiffly. “You do have my pity.”

The man’s laugh is breathless and hard. “And you, mine,” he said. His breathing is fainter now, the noise harsh and grating. His eyes are starting to glaze, and death is moments away. “You don’t see your own weakness. No one does. Not until it’s -- it’s too late….”

He shudders violently and then exhales one last time. His body goes still, and Athos knows how the story ends.

He’s known since the first clash of their blades.

Maybe he’s known since Treville assigned him this task.

Maybe Athos just knows.

He closes his eyes, weary.

For a man without compunction, sometimes this job is still very, very hard.

-o-

With the battle over, Athos gets wearily to his feet. He’s not as young as he used to be, and the thrill of action leaves him more spent than in his youth. He wonders about that, for he can scarcely remember it. His younger years seem to have evaporated without his knowledge.

Across the field, D’Artagnan approached. Though his face is young, the look in his own eyes belies his youthful exterior. That may be the greater sin, Athos knows. He’s not the one who put the sword in D’Artagnan’s hand, but he’s been the one to guide the young man into this profession.

How many years will it be before he loses his compunction as well?

“Is that--?” D’Artagnan starts, nodding to the man on the ground.

“The leader,” Athos confirms, sheathing his sword.

D’Artagnan makes a pained face. “We were requested to bring him in alive.”

“A request I tried to comply with,” Athos says. “A request he did not seem intent on letting me keep.”

Nodding, D’Artagnan sighs. “The King will want an explanation.”

Athos shrugs, wiping a sheen of sweat from his brow. “That’s the nature of battle,” he says dismissively. “Someone always falls.”

To have no compunction in battle, you must have no compunction with that fact either. Athos has long accepted the callouses on his fingers from holding a sword all these years, but sometimes he forgets to remember those that have grown on his heart and soul as well.

This is a missive, however.

He shakes it away.

“All the same,” he continues, as indifferently as possible. “We should collect what we can and--”

He’s cut off by a yell, sounding from across the field.

“Athos!”

He looks up, not so much surprised as he is curious. The bandits have all been felled, though he thinks one or two may be moving. He will have to check that and see if anyone is fit to ride, but that’s not his concern.

His concern is Porthos, who is standing, face drained of its color.

“Athos!” Porthos calls again, more insistently than before.

D’Artagnan looks puzzled, starting to move toward the other musketeer. Athos feels his own curiosity turn to doubt, for he can still hear his own words, echoing in his head.

That’s the nature of battle. Someone always falls.

They just like to assume, of course, that it will always be the enemy.

Too many assumptions, Athos fears, his stomach going cold as he remembers to move.

Far too many assumptions.

-o-

He moves, walking at first, but his footfalls grow faster, his strides longer. Halfway there, he’s jogging and he overtakes D’Artagnan to get to Porthos first. Wide eyed, he studies his friend, scanning his dirtied uniform for tears, rips, blood…

There’s nothing wrong with him, though.

That’s when Athos looks down at the ground and sees Aramis.

And he realizes, in that very moment, that everything is wrong.

-o-

The first thing he sees, oddly enough, is the look in Aramis’ eyes. It is the good news, of course, that Aramis’ eyes are open, and he’s alert, looking straight up at Athos.

It’s also the bad new, however. Because, behind the recognition, Athos can see the fear. His men are tried, true and experienced. They’ve seen battle; they’ve seen horror. They know death.

That’s really the thing of it, they know death. Aramis more than the rest. There’s a shade of it in his expression now, the shadow Athos first saw after Savoy.

The injury is bad.

Aramis knows it.

Now, with one second of eye contact, Athos knows it, too, and the revelation threatens to undo him, right then and there.

He can’t let that happen, though, because he knows this isn’t about him.

That’s when Athos is at his best: when it’s not about him.

His own issues can tear him apart.

Those of others?

Athos tends to deal with those very well.

Those of his men?

Athos manages those with ruthless precision.

“D’Artagnan,” he says, kneeling down next to Aramis. Porthos is on his other side, propping him up. “We’ll need to find something clean to bind the wound.”

“He’s bleeding like a stuck pig,” Porthos says, and there’s a quiver in his voice. “I can’t see it--”

Of course he can’t see it. The wound is covered in blood, and the sight is nothing short of macabre. It’s a wonder that it wasn’t the first thing he saw, because the amount of blood is enough to turn even Athos’ stomach.

Still.

He braces himself, reaching down to Aramis’ leg. The cut is in the thigh, midway above the knee. The rip in the fabric is long, and when he goes for a closer look, fresh blood wells up in excess. Athos’ fingers are coated as he rips at the material, opening it wider in an attempt to get a better look.

Beneath his touch, Aramis hisses.

“Porthos,” Athos says with a curt nod. “Hold him steady.”

Porthos obliges him, even as Aramis winces and his breath catches. “You don’t exactly have a gentle touch, Athos.”

Athos hardly entertains the criticism as he presses the wound open to gauge its depth.

Aramis, despite his better efforts, makes a small cry that he can’t quite choke off in time.

“You’re bleeding out,” Athos tells him pointedly, feeling his fingers down into the gash. It goes up to his knuckle, but it’s not as long as he feared. “So I think gentleness is the least of your concerns.”

Aramis laughs, but it sounds like a sob. “It would be too easy, I suppose, to die in peace,” he murmurs. “Not that I deserve it.”

Athos ignores the sentiment. This is not the time to indulge it, even if he had the desire to. “How about we try not dying, then?” he suggests, wiping his fingers absently on his own pant leg. He glances about. “How’s it coming D’Artagnan?”

The younger man is approaching, water in one hand and a pile of cloth in the other. “This is the best I could find,” he says, settling the pile down next to Athos. “They looked clean--”

Clean is preferable, but Athos knows better than to be choosy at a time like this. The clothing is worn but in acceptable condition.

At least, it is before Athos rips it into strips and presses it against the seeping wound.

Aramis inhales sharply, his body bucking.

“Porthos,” Athos mutters. “Hold him.”

Porthos’ expression twists in pain as he tightens his grip. This is causing his men anxiety, and Athos takes no pleasure in that. But if Aramis dies, that will cause more anxiety still. It’s a question of priorities.

“Okay,” he says, reaching for the water now. “Let’s do what we can to flush it out--”

Aramis nods convulsively. “You’ll want to be thorough--”

“I know,” Athos says.

Trembling, Aramis swallows with difficulty. “And you’ll want to stitch it--”

“First things first,” Athos says. “Let’s see if we can stop the bleeding this way, shall we? And spare ourselves the agony of watching D’Artagnan prove his worth with a needle.”

That’s enough to make all of them blanch in equal measures.

Finally, Aramis nods.

Athos proceeds, then. Porthos holds Aramis, and D’Artagnan mans the supplies. Opening the wound, Athos pours the water in, slow at first. Aramis visibly flinched, but steeled himself, and then Athos poured the rest in, flushing it out in fast, solid measure.

“Okay,” he says, coaxing all of them now. “Now we’ll bind it -- D’Artagnan, keep making strips, if you can.”

As D’Artagnan hurries to comply, Athos takes the first piece of cloth and covers the wound. Within an instant, it’s heavy with blood.

Aramis shakes his head, face twisted in pain. “It’s bleeding too fast,” he says, his breathing starting to grow shallow. “You’ll never...I’ll never…”

The words leave him, though, as if they bleed out through the wound in his thigh. Athos does what he can, pressing another cloth on top and holding them both down with all his might. For the good it does, Athos can still feel the blood, soaking through to his fingers.

“D’Artagnan,” Athos says, harsher now. “Hurry.”

D’Artagnan fumbles. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Athos,” Porthos says, steely eyes on him now, laced with worry, punctuated by a warning.

Porthos knows, after all. Same as Aramis. It’s a conclusion that has left D’Artagnan’s hands shaking with uncharacteristic clumsiness.

Because this is the heart of Athos’ only compunction, if he’s honest.

Someone always falls in battle, and he’s accepted that it’s a matter of time before it’s going to be him.

But he has not contended with the cruel and uncertain truth that someday -- someday soon -- it may be someone he cares about.

Porthos is staring at him; D’Artagnan is struggling to make bandages; Aramis is bleeding.

And they all trust him, implicitly, and to the end.

They trust him.

Just like that, Athos knows it’s his decision to make. He has to choose, right here and right now. Does he accept the inevitability of the odds? Does he bow to the reality of his profession and deem some losses acceptable?

Or does he fight? When the battle is over, when the battle is won, when the battle is lost?

That’s the question he must ask, even if it’s not a question at all. There’s no real choice there, after all. Not for a man like Athos.

Not for men like his own.

Because Athos has no compunction about battle.

And he’ll fight for his men until there’s nothing left to fight for.

-o-

“Okay,” Athos says, collecting himself. He draws a breath and nods his head to gird his emotions. “D’Artagnan?”

The younger man holds out the cloth abruptly; Athos does not comment on the way his hands are shaking when Athos takes the cloth from them.

“Now,” he says, looking down at Aramis. “This is probably going to hurt--”

Aramis half-chokes on a laugh. “And you think it feels good now?”

Athos nods patiently. “I want it to be tight--”

Blinking rapidly, Aramis sobers somewhat. “You need it to be tight,” he says. His lips twitch, trying but failing to smile. “I understand.”

Warily, Athos slips the cloth under Aramis’ leg, keeping it poised over the wound. “Porthos,” he says. “Hold him steady.”

Porthos’ brow creases, even as he gather Aramis a little more tightly into his arms.

Blood doesn’t usually bother him.

Still, Athos finds himself blanching as he ties the cloth. Beneath the touch, Aramis stiffens. Athos pulls it tighter, and Aramis bites back an audible cry. Determined now -- he cannot back down -- he adjusts it, yanking it until the cloth is pressing deep into Aramis’ thigh against the wound. Tighter still, and Aramis bucks his body with a cry he cannot hold back this time.

With the next cloth, Athos repeats his actions until Aramis’ has tears streaming down his face, his entire body taut with pain.

Taking the last strip, Athos smiles thinly. “Last one…”

He ties it over the other two, tying it down with such intensity that Aramis screams, and Porthos’ knuckles are white as he holds the smaller man in place. It’s a long horrible moment of unsustainable pain -- for all of them.

Aramis, in this, is the lucky one.

He mercifully passes out.

Nervously, D’Artagnan creeps forward. “Is he…?”

Porthos looks stricken. “Just passed out,” he says. “I can feel his heart, but it’s a weak, Athos.”

Finishing his work, Athos sits back on his heels. “To be expected,” he murmurs, patting a hand to Aramis’ shoulder in something of an apology. His fingers are still coated red, and it looks garish all of a sudden. He pulls his hand back, as if to hide it. “And he’s better off this way.”

“Better off?” Porthos says with a snort.

“We have to get him back to the garrison,” D’Artagnan frets. “Get him to a doctor.”

“Exactly,” Athos says, getting to his feet. “And we have no time to spare. Riding that hard won’t be easy on him.” He lifts one shoulder. “Unconsciousness will be a mercy to him.”

Porthos grunts his disapproval. “Assuming he wakes up again.”

“Yes, assuming,” Athos says, reaching down to gingerly pick up Aramis by the legs. “Now, if you don’t mind…”

Porthos doesn’t look happy, but he still obliges. It’s not hard for him to scoop Aramis up under the shoulders, although he is gentler than most people would expect for a man of Porthos’ stature. They work together with careful, measured steps, keeping Aramis as still between them as possible.

“What about them?” D’Artagnan asks as they navigate around one of the fallen bandits. “We were supposed to secure the area…”

“I’m sure we can find another outfit at the garrison who will be happy to finish the job for us,” he says, adjusting his grip carefully so as not to jar Aramis’ leg further. “Let them come back, clean up. The glory can be theirs.”

“And if someone happens this way in the meantime?” D’Artagnan asks, kicking debris clear of their path.

“These bandits chose this location for its innate security,” Athos explains. “Besides, would you like to stay behind?”

“What?” D’Artagnan asks. “No, I--”

“Then help us get him on my horse,” Athos orders, a little more curt than he intends.

“I should take him,” Porthos says. “I’ll have an easier time with two.”

He steals a glance at Aramis, slumped between them, and shakes his head. “I need you to take what precious goods you can from the site. D’Artagnan, you too.”

“But you just said--” Porthos protests.

“Aramis wouldn’t like it if we gave up all of the glory,” he quips.

D’Artagnan nods. “I’ll start collecting a few bags.”

“Make it quick!” Porthos yells.

Athos offers Porthos a small, reassuring smile. “We can do this, Porthos,” he says. “Trust me.”

Porthos doesn’t quite look him in the eye. “Someday, you know,” he mutters crossly. “That’s not going to be true.”

“Likely,” Athos agrees, approaching his horse carefully. “But let’s hope it’s not today.”

-o-

It no easy task getting Aramis on the horse. They manage it between the two of them, but not without their share of work. Aramis may be slighter than either of them, but he is still a grown man, and wielding his pliant body on top of the horse leaves them all spent.

Still, Athos mounts behind him, pulling the other man securely against him.

“I can take him, Athos,” Porthos says again, looking almost desperate. Porthos wants to do this; part of him probably thinks he needs to.

There is no doubt in Athos’ mind that Porthos would be unequaled in the task. He knows, without a single hesitation, that he could trust Porthos to lay himself down if it meant that Aramis would live.

Therein lies the problem, of course. Because if there is success, Athos is pleased to share it. But if there is failure.

He swallows hard, feeling Aramis’ sluggish heartbeat against his grip.

If there is failure, it is Athos who will bear it alone.

“Go, help D’Artagnan with the rest of the things,” Athos says, and the order is gentle but an order all the same.

Porthos’ mouth falls into a line. The disagreement is written all over him, and he carries it on his shoulders like a physical burden. It’s a testament to his respect of Athos that he does not give it voice.

Porthos trusts him. D’Artagnan, too. Even Aramis.

They trust him to know what the hell he’s doing.

The thought of it turns his stomach, and he feels like he may crawl out of his skin as he draws Aramis closer still, settling them both in for the ride ahead. Aramis is still limp in his arms, head dipped forward. It’s an awkward thing, sometimes, this kind of intimacy, but it is what it is.

If Athos has any compunctions, this is neither the time nor place.

“Come on,” he calls to the others while they get on their mounts. He steers his horse carefully back in the direction of the road, mindful of the burden he now bears. “Let’s ride.”

-o-

And so it is.

Life as a Musketeer is not easy in some respects. Many people would balk at the danger and the itinerancy. It’s not an easy thing, living your life by the orders of other men, and there are few creature comforts involved.

In other ways, however, it is quite easy. So many decisions are already made; Athos’ determinations are merely secondary concerns. The decisions are often clear and simple, and the force of law is shaded in colors of black and white.

Athos tells his men to ride, and so they ride.

No argument; no fuss.

No compunction.

But nothing is ever truly that simply. Not really. Athos hides behind it well, but he’s not a dumb man. When he’s sober, it’s hard to avoid such shades of gray, which is perhaps why he is so fond of the bottle.

For everything he’s done to make things simpler; for all the choices he’s made to cut himself off from human influence; for all the decisions he’s come to in order to craft himself into a man who cannot be hurt again. For everything, here he is.

Aramis pressed tight against him; Porthos and D’Artagnan taking turns to storm ahead, keeping the path before them clear. He feels responsibility for these men, but it is more than that, isn’t it? How could it not be? How could one be so truly heartless as to not bear these men as brothers?

It is the strength of the musketeers; it is what will always define them over the Red Guard.

Yet, Athos knows it is more than that. His men are also his weakness. For all the ways they make him stronger, he knows they leave him inordinately vulnerable. He can feel it, like his own heart pounding his chest. He can feel it, like the flutter of Aramis’ heart against his hand. He can feel it, like the thundering of hoofbeats in the waning daylight.

He can feel it.

What it is to be a man with connections.

What it is to be a man with compunction.

Gritting his teeth, he wills his horse to go faster, tightening his grip and narrowing his eyes.

He hates this, what has become of him. He hates his weakness as much as he hates the blood on his hands. He hates that the thing he sought to leave behind is the thing he can’t escape now.

There is, however, one thing he hates more than that.

The thought of losing it, that connection, that vulnerability, that everything--

It terrifies him most.

-o-

They make excellent time, to say the least. They are good, his men.

As they bear Aramis down off the horse, it is clear they are motivated as well.

Athos is still dismounting, the hind part of his legs tingling from the exertion of the hard ride. He’s stiff, and sore, and he’s suddenly quite aware of the blood that’s managed to stain his own uniform.

He’s a mess, to be sure.

Gathering a breath, he girds himself.

There’s nothing to be done for it.

Except to keep on going.

-o-

By the time he catches up, Porthos is laying Aramis out on the table while D’Artagnan comes bustling back in with the doctor close behind.

“It’s been a few hours,” D’Artagnan is explaining. “And it looked deep--”

The doctor, who must have been doing house calls from his quarters at the palace, stops short when he catches sight of Athos. Athos recognizes him, but they are not well acquainted. There’s a small grace in that, but Athos’ luck never holds out very long. “Good Lord,” the man murmurs.

Athos conspicuously folds his hands over the worst of the stains on his front. It doesn’t do much. “It’s not mine,” he settles for instead.

Porthos grunts, nodding down at the table. “Aramis.”

The doctor hesitates, his face drawn and pale. He’s older than Lemay had been with wizened hands and a smooth, bald head that glints in the candlelight. When he turns toward Aramis, he goes absolutely colorless.

It’s just for a split-second -- the doctor surely has experience, after all -- but it is telling. Athos is numb as he starts to rustle about, checking on the tightly wound bandage.

“This has been on the whole time?” the doctor asks, poking at the discolored skin around the covered wound.

“We tied it as fast as we could,” Athos reports.

“And as hard,” Porthos says, half suppressing a shudder.

“Ah,” the doctor muses. He winces, pushing the tips of his fingers underneath it experimentally.

“And it was deep?” he asks.

“Deep enough,” Athos says.

The doctor checks the rest of Aramis over, pausing to listen to his breathing before he straightens again.

“So?” D’Artagnan presses, more than a little impatient.

“You’ve almost cut off the flow of blood entirely,” the doctor notes, sounding vaguely impressed. He’s not as familiar to the musketeers as Lemay was before him, but it is not as if Athos has any alternatives. Doctors are hard to find on demand; the fact that this man serves on call in the royal court and still attends to the needs of the musketeers is as much of a blessing as Athos can ask for. “Much longer, and we would have probably started to see damage in the lower part of his leg.”

Vexed, Athos furrows his brow. “Did I do it wrong?”

“No, no,” the doctor says. He shrugs. “It’s not fully decided, of course, but there’s only so much blood a man can lose, in my experience. It’s a tricky business sometimes. Like a little boy trying to stick his fingers into a well.”

Athos wets his lips, anxious and expectant. “So it didn’t work?”

The doctor visibly gathers himself. It is a good thing this man has been on call in the royal courts; it takes a certain fortitude to hold your own around three desperate musketeers. He presses a thin smile toward Athos. “You minimized the flow of blood, and you got him here. That’s as much as you could have possibly done.”

“So he’ll be okay?” Porthos edges in. There’s a tone in his voice. Something urgent; something desperate. Something hopeful.

The doctor’s expression darkened just slightly. Just enough. “Well, in order to stitch the wound, I will have to remove the bandage,” the doctor reminds them.

“And it’ll bleed,” Athos concludes for him.

“Possibly, given the state of your clothes and hands, a lot,” the doctor agrees.

“Then let’s just leave it on,” D’Artagnan says.

“And then we’ll be cutting off Aramis’ leg in a few days time,” the doctor replies, shaking his head.

Athos wants to close his eyes. He wants to run away again. He wouldn’t mind setting this whole thing on fire just to watch it burn to ash.

That’s the horrible part about this, though.

He can’t.

Worse still, he doesn’t really want to.

“You can’t postpone it,” he says, looking at Aramis for a long moment. He lifts his eyes to the doctor. “The best you can do is lift the bandage and sew like hell.”

The doctor chortles mirthlessly. “And maybe,” he says with a nod. “Maybe it’ll be enough.”

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