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Musketeers fic: A Penance Paid (3/3)

December 15th, 2017 (09:05 pm)
melancholy

feeling: melancholy

Part One
Part Two
Part Three



-o-


Porthos is not a man who is easily swayed, but Athos has his means. Most of the time, he would tempt the other man with drink, food or women, but tonight he plays on something far more potent: his concern.

This is an easy thing to do in a time like this; it is not hard to frame an argument, using his guilt of Aramis’ injury as sufficient and immediate bait. That being said, Athos hates to do it for those same reasons. It hardly seems fair.

Athos reminds himself, however, that it is for Porthos’ own good.

“You’ll need to be well rested for tomorrow when Aramis awakens,” Athos argues. “I can sit with him while he sleeps, but if I have to hear him talk? Well, that’s more penance that I care to pay.”

“But what if something happens,” Porthos protests.

“Do you really think Aramis would have the gall to leave you behind after all this?” Athos asks coyly.

“He’s a bastard, that one,” Porthos says.

“Ah,” Athos says. He spares a glance at Aramis and shrugs. The night has fallen, thick and black outside. He has already dispensed with D’Artagnan, who arrived back several hours ago. Porthos has been more defiant, planting himself by Aramis’ side like a heavy stone by the riverbank. Steady and immovable -- except when overcome by the strength of the current. “Too stubborn to die, then. Even to spite you.”

Porthos harrumphs. It’s an answer he clearly does not like, but he has no immediate means to refute it.

Athos seizes his opportunity with haste. “You’ve heard the doctor: Aramis is doing well,” he says. “But, given the amount of blood he lost, there is little chance he’ll awaken tonight.”

“But if something happens--”

“Then I will fetch you -- and D’Artagnan -- immediately,” Athos promises.

“Me first, though,” Porthos says with a defiant jut of his chin.

Athos finds himself almost smiling. “Naturally.”

With that, Porthos finds his feet. He lingers, though, keeping his eyes on Aramis a moment longer. “He’ll be okay,” he ventures uncertainly. He casts his gaze back at Athos. “Won’t he?”

“You know I have no way to make promises, not on something like this,” Athos replies honestly. “But I can speak to you about what I know of Aramis, of you -- of us all. We’ve all been willing, more times than we can count, to pay the ultimate sacrifice. And God help us, we’ve all made mistakes, though some may seem more egregious than others. But I do not believe we are done yet.”

He collects himself, nodding resolutely.

“Not yet,” Athos says, and it’s not a promise, but it is a pledge. It is the only truth in a world of doubt.

Porthos stands and bobs his head, just a little. “I’ll see you in the morning, then,” he says, starting to move toward the door. His piercing gaze is directed back at Athos. “Both of you.”

With that, he’s gone, and Athos takes a moment to be relieved. One task done.

His eyes lands back on Aramis, and he promptly sobers. He’s still pale; he’s far too still. Athos finds it in him to give hope where it is needed.

It is much harder to find it for himself.

Wearily, he settles back down. “Just you and me, Aramis,” he muses quietly while Aramis’ chest rises and falls. “And a hell of a long night ahead.”

-o-

As a musketeer, Athos has endured many trials. He has been forced to his physical limit, and the emotional toll is not without weight. In some respects, this night pales in comparison. However, the comfort and safety of their room in the garrison cannot diminish how treacherous the night can be.

If anything, being idle makes it worse. Athos has no task to distract him, and it seems wrong to drink himself into a stupor when he promised Porthos and D’Artagnan so vehemently that he would take watch.

They all talk of penance.

Athos wonders, quite reasonably, if this is his.

All the years he’s avoided how he really feels.

And he’s faced with an entire night to grapple with those feelings. Not just the feelings. The doubts, the second guesses, the trepidations, everything. The things he’s so skillfully avoided over the years, coming to a head with no recourse whatsoever.

Sighing, he wipes his hand over his face. Outside, the moon is high and the streets are quiet. The hour must be late.

He looks back at Aramis.

“It’s a shame you’re not conscious,” he quips. “Your prattling is always good for a distraction.”

Aramis, as expected, makes no reply.

For some reason, Athos still finds himself disappointed. “You do have a tendency to do the exact thing you are not supposed to do, though,” he continues conversationally. Like they’re getting a drink, not holding a bedside vigil. “In fact, the one thing we all tell you is the worst idea is the one thing you can’t stop yourself from doing. Contrary, even while smiling and preening, you are.”

Contrary enough to romance the queen and father her child.

Contrary enough to stay alive when everyone else fell in Savoy.

Contrary enough that Athos fears telling Aramis it’s his duty to stay alive.

He’s contrary, but Athos is more than stubborn at this point.

He’s desperate.

True, he does not prefer the melodrama, but nothing about this is his preference. He doesn’t know -- he really doesn’t -- when he got so far down this road that he can’t see his way back. He’s not sure where the hell he’s going anymore.

He just knows that he can’t go back.

Pressing his lips thinly, he inhales deeply, letting his shoulders settle uneasily. “Contrary is one thing,” he says, studying the lines of Aramis’ profile. His beard is scruffy, and Athos can see stains of blood clinging to it that they missed in the melee. “But you have the audacity to feel guilty about it afterward. You can’t be a rebel and have a conscience, my friend. It doesn’t work.”

He’s trying to keep it light, but the stark attempt at humor falls woefully short.

Athos finds his resolve failing him. “You know that, though,” he says, almost gently. His smile flickers, and it hurts to keep it.

He needs a drink.

He needs a lot of drinks.

Instead, he swallows hard, rallying what he can of his inner reserves. “Which is why I think you should not be so hasty to assume what or what not your penance may be,” Athos continues, eyes tracing over the still features of Aramis’ face. He still remembers Aramis’ words, those pained words before falling unconscious.

It’s not something he wishes to remember, to be sure. But he’s fairly certain he’d be doing all of them a disservice if he ignored it entirely.

Some things need to be said.

Aramis’ chest rises and falls, no other flicker of movement. For a moment, his gaze falls and he studies his own hands, still caked with blood.

Before it’s too late.

Somberly, he looks up once more. “This is no penance at all, in fact,” he says definitively. “You can attribute it to the fickleness of fate, if you like. Or simple bad luck. You never are as lucky as you think you are.”

Or as he acts. Luck is not something Aramis would believe in, not after Savoy. For indeed, to most it seems like good fortune to survive a massacre -- and Athos has thanked the God he struggles to believe in for it -- but he saw Aramis in the aftermath. He knows what it did to him.

There’s nothing lucky about it.

“You’ve paid your dues,” Athos says. “And that does not justify your mistakes, but you haven’t tried. You’ve repented, yes? Isn’t that enough? Does not that give you license to move on in freedom?”

He asks the questions of Aramis, but he understands that they apply to him as well. The past cannot be changed. It cannot be fettered, for better or worse. It must be accepted.

And then you move on.

Your penance is not what you suffer.

It’s how you live in the wake of your mistakes.

“I know we were hard on you for...everything,” Athos says, shifting uncomfortably in his seat as he leans closer to the edge of the bed. “But this? For penance? I should think not. Your death would only bring us more harm. It rectifies nothing, and it leaves others to carry your burden instead.”

On the bed, Aramis seems to quicken his breathing, as if responding to Athos’ exhortations. It may be wishful thinking, but Athos is too sober to deny himself that much. Awkwardly, he reaches out, settling a hand against Aramis’ arm.

“You made bad choices, we all know this, but you cannot forget that you made the right ones, too,” Athos tells him, impassioned now. His stomach turns, and his throat tightens as his fingers clench against the clammy underside of Aramis’ wrist. “You left us once; for the love of all that is good, do not leave us again.”

It’s a plea he doesn’t expect to make, one he did not intend to levy. But he is not as proud as he once thought he might be, and he is not as indifferent as he tries to behave. For it is not true, no matter how much he wills it to be.

Athos does have compunctions in battle.

But here, on a battlefront he scarcely knows how to navigate, none of them seem to matter. None of those compunctions, practical or otherwise, are ones he’s willing to fight for now. Here, at the bedside of one of the few men he trusts, he’s willing to lay himself down. And if the fates will not take his body, then he will forfeit his soul.

Here, when the battle is all but lost, he’s willing to be the man he abandoned all those years ago. Here, he’ll be a man with connections, a man who is weaker to be stronger, a man who cares about the lives he takes.

The lives he saves.

He blinks heavily, eyes burning from the weight of it all.

Aramis does not deserve this; none of them do. They are merely four imperfect men who have found something better than themselves by working together. More than that, by being together. A team, friends. A family.

Athos can have compunctions about many things, but not that.

He steadies his breathing, relaxes his grip, keeps his eyes focused on Aramis with renewed resolved.

Never that.

-o-

It has been a long time since Athos counted the hours. In recent years, he has not bothered with, preferring for alternative methods to pass his time. To sit idle is to sit vulnerable -- not necessarily to outside threats, but to the more pervasive dangers inside his very own head.

Because Athos can seem brave and smart and clever as a musketeer, but he knows how he is as a man. He knows the callowness he chose to cover the grief. He knows the steely exterior he opted for to protect the pain of his past.

The past is a funny thing. Athos gave his up, left behind his name, his inheritance, his family, his obligations. He thought he could leave it behind, as if it were not his own. He thought he could build a different one.

Indeed, he has tried. He has a life as a musketeer, a life here in Paris. He has new obligations; in many ways, he has a new family.

Which just leads him to wonder how much has really changed for him at all? Is this merely his way of making all the same mistake again?

They talk of penance, a notion that Athos is quick to dismiss as pointless folly. It does no good to dwell, after all.

But, as he sits there, Athos has to wonder if it does any good not to dwell? Has his own refusal to deal with his mistakes helped him at all?

He lets his gaze flicker upward, toward a deity he always assumed to be indifferent. Penance is not an act of contrition. Penance is not a tangible gift to balance the cosmic scales.

Penance is facing your guilt.

And moving onward.

He lowers his eyes again, looking at Aramis in the dim candlelight.

“We all have our price to pay,” he murmurs. “But it’s not in what we sacrifice; it’s in what we save.”

They all must face the past in order to embrace the future.

He finds his own resolve solidifying within him.

And Athos is no exception to that rule.

-o-

Dawn breaks, and Athos fears he might as well. He knows that Porthos and D’Artagnan will arrive soon, and Athos wants something measurable to reassure them. Aramis is no worse, at least, but he finds the thought of the status quo suddenly unnerving.

It is a strange and unexpected blessing, then, when Aramis opens his eyes.

The Spaniard blinks hazily in the sunlight, clearly confused at first. He tries to move but winces, and Athos reaches a hand up to kindly restrain him once more.

Aramis startles, turning toward him, but Athos’ smile is disarming. “You may as well rest,” he says. “The others will be here soon, and I can’t imagine they’re going to let you do so again anytime soon.”

Confused, Aramis studies Athos for a moment, too overwhelmed to even know what question he wants to ask.

“You’re all right, by the way,” Athos tells him wryly. “I’m sure the doctor will want to watch the wound for a while, but you pulled through the night. I have to think that’s a good sign.”

It’s hard to say if it’s the words or the tone of his voice that make the difference. Perhaps it’s just the mere presence of Athos alone. At any rate, Aramis seems to calm, letting his body go lax again. He looks sleepy, but he keeps his eyes open as he stares at the ceiling. “Funny,” he says, and his words sound rough like gravel. “I was sure the Lord had finally came to call me home.”

Athos cocks his head. “A respite?”

Aramis looks at him, a faint color rising in his cheeks. “Or something else,” he says. “But at this point, I doubt I have much right to complain.”

“Penance,” Athos concludes.

Aramis looks surprised. “What?”

Athos leans forward, nodding his head. “That’s what you talked about yesterday, before the doctor stitched you up,” he says. “Penance.”


Aramis tries to smile, for it has always been his greatest weapon to deter a question he does not wish to confront. “I’m sure I said many things. Losing blood like that--”

“Makes a man honest?” Athos asks.

“It makes him overwhelmed,” Aramis concludes instead. He offers a smile of apology. “I hope nothing I said caused undo stress--”

“No, no,” Athos says quickly. “The blood and unconsciousness did that instead.”

At that, Aramis pales appropriately. “Athos, I’m sorry--”

Athos holds up his hand, shaking his head. “You think I’m looking for an apology?”


Aramis is unduly earnest; it is unsettling. “Penance, like you said.”

It’s not a surprise to hear him say it, but Athos has had his fill for it. Because he knows what Aramis has done, both good and bad.

And he knows that, no matter what is said or done, it doesn’t matter. He’ll forgive his friends, because he needs them. He’ll forgive them because he’s better off with them.

He’s better off. “All that time away, at the monastery,” Athos says. “And you still couldn’t shake it, could you?”

“Shake what?” Aramis asks with a frown.

“Your guilt,” Athos supplies.

Aramis almost flinches at the blandness of Athos’ voice. “The things I did--”

Athos is shaking his head, interjecting himself. “That’s not what I meant,” he says.

Aramis watches him, uncertain.

“Don’t misunderstand this for an accusation,” Athos says. “This is about what you feel for your actions.”

At this, Aramis’ expression is baleful. “I know the problems my choices created,” he says. “The burden is...substantial.”

Athos is intent, now. “Why, then?”

Aramis blushes again. “Athos, you know how I let my feelings get the better of me with the queen and the dauphin--”

“No,” Athos says. “Why did you come back? If you still carry the guilt, if you still owe penance, then why are you here?”

Aramis blinks at him in surprise. “Well,” he says, and falters momentarily. “You needed me.”

“Then, there,” Athos says conclusively.

Aramis shakes his head, more confused than ever. It’s probably not fair to do this now; but friendship isn’t about being fair. And family sure as hell isn’t. “What?” Aramis asks.

“There it is,” Athos says, nodding his head decisively. “There’s your penance.”

Aramis knits his brow together. “Athos, I--”

“You came back to become a musketeer, despite the fact that you didn’t feel read. Despite the fact that you still felt you owed something to God or whoever it is your pray to,” Athos says. “You came back, not for yourself. For us.”

Aramis huffs a laugh, almost as a way to avoid the tears obviously burning in his eyes. “You do me too much credit.”

“No, I don’t,” Athos disagrees. “I never have, not once. What you did over the last few years, it was selfish. You thought of no one but yourself, and you made all of us risk more than we should to save you from your own stupidity.”

Aramis looks grief stricken, as though Athos has landed a blow.

“But what you’re doing now, coming back, fighting beside us,” he continues. “That’s the opposite. And that, right there, is your penance. That is the price you’ve paid for your mistakes.”

Trembling now, Aramis seems weaker than before. He’s as vulnerable as Athos has ever seen him, which is why he wants to stop this conversation.

Which is why he can’t.

Aramis needs to understand that the price has been paid, by all of them. That’s not a source of guilt. That’s a source of strength. That’s what you do, when you’re brothers in arms.

No, that’s what you do when you’re brothers.

His own brother, flesh and blood, Athos gave little to defend.

These brothers, the ones whose blood is on his hands, he can’t afford to neglect.

Staying is a penance for all of them.

Ironically, it is also their salvation.

“Athos, please,” Aramis says. “That’s too easy.”

This time, Athos laughs, short and hard. “Come, Aramis,” he cajoles. “None of this is easy.”

Weak as he is, Aramis understands. For all of his faults, Aramis is not actually a stupid man. Impetuous, yes. Ruled by his passions, always. Occasionally too hedonistic, indeed.

But Athos is hardly the man to judge anyone on his faults.

Aramis has threatened the monarchy, this much is true.

It is Athos, however, who abandoned his family and his dependents and let his own grief add to the suffering of others.

This is not a contest one wishes to win.

Really, concession has always been the only option.

It’s just a matter of laying down his pride long enough to do so.

Aramis has laid his down.

Athos must take his turn now.

“It’s all well,” Athos says soothingly now. “For all the misadventures, I feel like we are exactly where we are meant to be. You can consider that divine will, if you like. I think it holds true.”

At this, Aramis’ lips turn up wryly. “Athos? Seeking guidance from the almighty God? I must have been hurt worse than I thought.”

Athos grunts loud enough to hide his chortle. “What almost was is irrelevant,” he advises, but it sounds like an order as he stares at Aramis down the end of his nose. “We must focus on the future.”

From his place on the table, Aramis nods with a resolve that belies the paleness of his countenance. “If you can do that, then so can I.”

That’s all Athos can ask for.

He finds himself hoping, however, that it’s not all that he can give.

For the sake of his duty.

For the sake of his men.

For the sake of his own soul.

Athos has one last compunction to overcome.

-o-

He stays until the others arrive, for the wait is not long. He did promise them, after all, that he would keep watch. Thankfully, that will keep him from having to admit that the idea of leaving is harder than it has ever cared to admit.

The doctor gives Aramis a thorough once over before declaring him on the road to recovery. He goes to great pains to explain how to care for the wound and how to watch for infection, but the warnings are superfluous. They already know. He says, barring any complications, Aramis should be well enough to be transferred to his own accommodations after lunch.

That’s good news, which is why Athos takes the moment to make his exit. It is not that he wants to leave, but he has been up most of the night, and the exhaustion is quite wearing.

This is the story he tells the others, and they are too jubilant to question him on it.

In truth, he has to leave to hear himself think once more. For all of his fortitude, he is plagued again by doubt. That is the way it is in his line of work. Men make all sorts of promises when they are in the eleventh hour. But when midnight tolls and a new day begins, such promises are often fleeting.

Making haste, he wonders if he could be so easily persuaded. Indeed, it is the easier thing in some ways. To avoid responsibility; to overlook his own heart and feeling. God knows he’s done it for years now, ever since he left his home behind and abandoned his title.

It is his good fortune that keeps him bouncing back.

Or his curse.

Athos has not yet decided which.

Some people think that penance is wonderful for the change of heart it brings. In Athos’ experience, however, penance is simply the price you pay to go back to your same old life. It’s one reason penance never seemed all that important to him. Real forgiveness, honest confession, true change -- that requires something more daunting.

In this, Athos has all the compunctions in the world.

He turns for home, but finds himself hesitating. There is a pub, and the allure of the drink still holds sway within him. He hesitates another moment, though, wondering if he is truly so weak.

It’s possible.

He grinds his teeth together.

More than possible, it’s probable.

Abruptly, he veers his course the entirely different direction. Not back to the others, but straight to Treville’s office.

Athos does not need a priest.

But God has given him a captain.

And he will face this, for the sake of Aramis’ life, for the well being of his men.

For whatever is left of his soul.

-o-

Of course, it had seem so easy in his head. Go to Treville; solve the problem; get the answers. As if that decision alone could make him the man he’s supposed to be.

From behind the desk, however, Treville gives him a curious look. “I do hope it’s not bad news.”

“No, no,” Athos says, suddenly realizing what his shell shocked appearance must convey. “Aramis is much improved. The doctor is optimistic.”

Treville nods, seemingly indifferent. Still, Athos can see the tension drain just slightly from the set of his shoulders. “I’m hardly surprised,” he says, casting a knowing look toward Athos. “Your lot has always been unduly resilient.”

“Well,” Athos says, making a vague gesture as he tries to find a stance that feels natural. “We have had apt training.”

Treville actually guffaws at that, a rare sound that Athos has heard than most men in the garrison. It should be disarming, reassuring.

But Athos does not find himself disarmed or reassured.

Treville pauses, arching his brows at Athos. “Was there something else?”

The question is to the point, which is something Athos has always appreciated about his captain. There is little room for nonsense when it comes to Treville, and that has always suited Athos just fine. But this time.

This time.

He’s staring, blank and stupid, but he can’t think of a damn thing to change it.

Treville puts his paperwork down, the quill on the table. “Athos?”

“I’m a good soldier,” he blurts finally, feeling the color flush his cheeks.

Treville’s response is carefully measured. “The best I have, without a doubt,” he says. “Possibly the best I’ve ever had.”

“I follow orders; I fight the good fight,” he says, the words tumbling over each other in a rush. “I do what needs to be done, for my country, for my honor, for my duty. I offer myself wholly to this without compunction.”

There is nothing in his words to disagree with.

Treville is smarter than that, however. He hears what Athos isn’t saying. Carefully, he leans himself forward, fingers laced slightly together. “So what compunctions do you have?”

The question leaves him momentarily dumbfounded, but he struggles to find his words. “Only that I embrace one form of duty to entirely abandon another,” he says. “That following orders is a convenient way to never make decisions with any actual accountability.”

“It is the price of being a soldier,” Treville agrees.

“But is it a price?” Athos presses. “Or is it why I’m here in the first place?”

To this, Treville is silent, eyes watching Athos with restrained curiosity.

Athos lets out a breath; he’s come too far to turn back, now. “I came to you to escape the life I had before,” he says. “I gave up my name and my station so I would not have to contemplate my own existence. I have used my position as a musketeer, not for personal gain as many might think it, but as the ultimate form of personal cowardice. And worse, now I’ve engendered loyalty in others that makes them follow me. They follow me like I know what I’m doing, when I’m really the biggest coward of them all.”

“Not one of the men you’ve led in battle would say that,” Treville reminds him. “Not even those who have lost their lives.”

Athos lets out a long, heavy breath. “But isn’t that the problem? I am so set on my own selective amnesia that I willfully let others follow in my footsteps?” he says, voice starting to rise. He gestures widely now. “I have no right, talking of duty and sacrifice when I know what I have left behind.”

Treville is neither surprised nor overtly concerned. Instead, he regards Athos with the same knowing curiosity. He tilts his head, keeping Athos steady in his piercing gaze. “So you wish to leave?”

Athos finds himself stopping short. “What?”

“Do you wish to resign your commission?” he asks again, matter of fact.

It is Athos who is surprised. All his revelations, and the thought had not quite occurred to him. Not so bluntly. “Do you think I should?”

Treville almost laughs, a short sound of disbelief as he shifts in his seat. “I couldn’t possibly tell you that,” he says.

Athos squares himself. “You could. And you would, in some circumstances.”

“But not these circumstances,” Treville clarifies. “You have not slept; you spent the night in worry.”

“The last few months have been a trial for us all,” Athos agrees.

“Months?” Treville asks. “Try years.”

Athos does not wish to remember, not everything. All the misadventures; all the intrigue; all the near-misses. “I ask again,” he repeats, a touch of defiance now. “Do you think I should walk away?”

Treville grows serious, for he knows that this is serious to Athos. He runs his tongue behind his teeth thoughtfully. “I think that that’s a question you’ve been grappling with for a long time,” he says. “But I think you’re so damn stubborn, that you haven’t let yourself even admit it until now.”

Frowning, Athos flattens his lips. “That has some truth to it.”

Treville waits a moment, and then he shrugs. “So?”

“So what?” Athos retorts, both as a prompt and as an accusation.

Treville takes a long suffering breath. “So,” he broaches, ever patient in his duty. “If you have known the question all these years, I suspect you have also known the answer.”

“I don’t, though,” Athos replies plainly. He crosses the rest of the way to Treville’s desk and sits across from him “I’ve been circling around it, trying to parse whether the right thing is to due my duty to the men around me or if I still owe something back to the title I left behind. All the reasons I thought I had for being here are not what I thought they were. Now I am just as vulnerable as when I left, which gives me no cause to declare either choice superior than the other.”

“Athos,” Treville says. “Honor is not in your profession, not innately. Honor is in how you live your life. You choose your duty, and you do either choice with honor.”

“But I am a liar, Treville,” Athos explains.

“As are we all,” Treville contends. He makes a face, lifting his hand lightly. “If you are looking for my blessing, I can say that I wouldn’t refuse it to you if you asked. Going back to your home -- no one would fault you for that. It is yours to take whenever you so wish. You’re not yet an old man, Athos. There is time yet to rebuild, to make connections. To marry and have a family.”

It’s a dream he remembers, if only vaguely. He remembers the hope of a family on his wedding day. He remembers the happy thought of a son walking in his footsteps, a daughter sash-shaying through the halls. “That is a thought,” he finally says.

“As I said, I would support you,” Treville says. He hesitates. “If that is what you want.”

It is Athos who hesitates now. He swallows, feeling plagued with more uncertainty than ever. “I can hire a permanent steward for my lands,” he says. “There are measures I can take to ensure the people are protected in my absence.”

Treville tilts his head, lifting his eyebrows. “Does that mean you’re staying?”

Athos pinches his mouth together. “I am not as young as you seem to think I am.”

“That’s an excuse,” Treville says.

“Is it?” Athos counters.

“The fact that you cannot stop having this argument is a testament to how unresolved you truly are,” Treville says. “You’ve always been my best soldier, Athos. But there will always been another soldier, long after you and I are gone. If you crave family and stability, then there is no need to belabor this.”

“But I know who I am,” Athos says, insistent now. “And I know my reasons for becoming a musketeers were never pure, but I cannot deny that this is my destiny. This, right here, is where I’m meant to be.”

Treville nods, the curious expression returning. “And you’re so certain of this now?”

“I suppose I just needed it to finally be a choice I made,” Athos says, slumping in the chair. “Being a soldier, it couldn’t just be an escape. It had to be a calling.”

A smile plays on Treville’s lips. “You know, that’s the only advantage D’Artagnan has ever had over you.”

Athos cocks his head.

“D’Artagnan longs to be a soldier for he believes it is what he is meant to do. That breeds a passion that sustains a man through the impossible,” Treville says. “But all that sustained you was your bitterness and drunkenness.”

Athos adjusts himself in the seat, trying not to feel the flush of embarrassment on his cheeks. “I thought I was your best soldier.”

“You are,” Treville says. “So I’m quite interested to see how much better you are when it is, unequivocally, what you desire.”

“And if it makes me worse?” Athos asks, posing the question carefully.

Treville dismisses it immediately. “Good as you are on your own, you’ve always been better on a team.”

Athos fiddles with his gloves between the dried blood on his fingers. “I’d be lying if I said they weren’t part of the reason why I’m staying,” he admits.

“If I were a good captain, I’d probably advise you against sentimentality,” Treville tells him.

“Do you, then?” Athos asks.

Treville’s expression is bemused. “We all have our reasons.”

That is as much as his captain will say of the matter, of that Athos is certain. In fact, he is somewhat surprised that Treville has indulged him this long as it is. For indeed, the captain is not a sentimental man.

Then again, neither is Athos.

Yet, here they are.

Someday, Athos could be on the other side of that desk.

Someday, he could be back at home, getting his affairs in order.

There’s no predicting the future, not that far out.

But he doesn’t need to predict the future, not when he has confidence in today. For Aramis will live. Porthos will laugh. D’Artagnan will go home and kiss his wife.

As for Athos, he will walk out of here, still a soldier, though not the same one he was before. If he’s weaker for it, he still trusts that they will be stronger.

“Very good,” Athos says, trying to change the subject. “How is the recovery going then? Have the goods been recovered?”

“It is going well enough,” Treville says, sitting up a little higher again as he picks up his quill. “I still have men scouring the site, just to make sure we didn’t miss anything.”

If the king needs to be updated--” Athos says, all business again.

Treville flits his hand through the air. “Then he will be updated by someone else.”

Athos finds himself feeling consterned. “But I thought--”

“Athos,” Treville says, unyieldingly now. “You are a man who knows your priorities. I have no compunctions, not now or ever, in trusting them to your discretion.”

Gratefully, Athos gets to his feet and tips his hat. “Thank you, sir.”

Treville makes no further comment as Athos makes his way out the door. For once, that’s merely because there is nothing more to say.

-o-

Athos sleeps for several hours before making his way back to his friends. He finds that they have been discharged from the doctor’s safekeeping, and Aramis has been put up in his meager rooms. That much is reassuring.

Watching Porthos and D’Artagnan scuttle about like nursemaids, on the other hand, is both hilarious and ridiculous. They are men trained for battle; men who are supposed to be above trivial attachments, and yet, here they are.

Porthos is at the stove, trying to sustain some sort of flame underneath the pot. D’Artagnan is scuttling about, trying to clear away space enough to eat at the table while also procuring enough clean dishes to feed them all. Between the two of them, they manage only to make a larger mess while Aramis lounges on the bed.

Sidestepping the other two musketeers, Athos makes his way to Aramis, perching himself on a nearby chair. “You look well.”

Aramis smiles. For all that his injury had left them worried over the night, the Spaniard looked quite well this morning. He had recovered better than Athos had expected, but it’s clear that Aramis has no intention of relying on that fact.

No, if his reclined position suggests anything, it is that he has fully recovered his cunning and employed it to a less noble task: the manipulation of his overly reliever teammates.

Indeed, Aramis has amassed a drink, his Bible, several other books, a piece of parchment and a writing quill. That’s not even starting on the bed which has been made up nice with a fresh blanket and an extra pillow.

Sure, the man’s been shot, but this is luxury.

Aramis knows it, too. “The doctor has given me the strictest instructions to rest,” he explains with unnecessary earnestness. He’s trying too hard to convince Athos that these measures are necessary; that is his first and only mistake. “He fears the walk back would be exertion enough; I am to take time to sufficiently recover.”

“Ah,” Athos says benignly. He does count this as good news, but he sees little need to encourage Aramis. From the look of things, he’s received quite enough of that.

D’Artagnan comes forth with an apple. It looks polished as he hands it to Aramis. “The doctor suggested we tend to his needs over the next day or so,” he says with a half shrug.

Porthos huffs from the stove. “More than that,” he says. “He damn near fainted on the way back here.”

Aramis blushes. Athos cannot fully tell if this is because he does not wish to advertise that he swoons like a woman, or if he’s worried Athos will question him on the veracity of said swooning. “It was a passing vapor, if you will,” he says.

Athos lifts his eyebrows, letting his incredulity speak for him.

D’Artagnan has returned to the dishes. “We have to check him frequently for bleeding and fever,” D’Artagnan explains while he scrubs the inside of a mug.

“And the more he’s off his feet, the better,” Porthos chimes in, looking for any kind of sustainable ingredient in Aramis’ sparse cupboards. “We can’t risk reopening the wound. I don’t want to go through that again.”

“Uh huh,” Athos says, watching the two scurry about. It’s a silly sort of thing to say. None of them want these things to happen. But they will happen. It is the nature of the job.

The nature of them.

He could scold them on that, but he has no grounds.

Not when he’s here, doting on them all.

Still, he pins Aramis with a look.

Aramis offers him back the most baleful look possible. “I am much recovered now, I believe.”

“Recovered?” Porthos grunts. “I had to carry you across the threshold!”

“I’m sure you did,” Athos muses, eyeing Aramis certainly.

Aramis’ cheeks are alight now, blazing red. “So, when the others offered to stick around, help out a little bit…,” Aramis continues with a self deprecating shrug.

It’s not much by the way of explanation.

Then again, it doesn’t need to be.

Athos is not surprised, and how can he be concerned when this is where he finds himself as well?

“Yes, who were you to deny their kindness?” Athos agrees wryly.

Aramis beams brightly, sitting up a little more erect. “Exactly!”

“Since you are still recovering,” Athos amends with a nod to his leg.

Aramis demurs with a gesture. “It would seem ungrateful to deny you all,” he says. “Besides, it’s nothing I wouldn’t and haven’t done for each of you. Remember the time Porthos came down with a fever? I tended to him.”

“That’s right,” Porthos says from the stove. The fire is going now, but there’s no clear sign that the ingredients scattered on the table will ever resemble an actual meal. “He did.”

“And he was the one who carried me back from that patrol gone wrong a few months back,” D’Artagnan says. “I don’t remember much of that.”

“See,” Aramis says, with a to-the-point nod. “It’s a very reciprocal relationship.”

Athos does remember, naturally. God help him, he remembers all of those events, and all the others. He remembers the times he’s been there for these men. The journeys; the battles; the investigations; the intrigue; the injury.

The joys, which are more than he’s allowed himself to give account for.

More than all of that, however, he will never forget, no matter how much he drinks or how hard he fights, the times they have been here for him in return.

All these years, give and take. He’s learned more about family here than he ever did back in his family’s manor with Milady as his bride.

They are his, these musketeers.

Which means, no matter how much he tries to hide it, he is also theirs.

Reciprocity.

They are four, flawed men. Imperfect men with sins in their pasts. They are marked by grief and defined by loss. They have taken lives and started fights. Four men who deserve nothing from this life.

Four men who are made perfect together.

As much as it defies logic, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. That’s not what Athos came to Paris to find, but it is why he hesitates to leave. Given how much he’s lost, he knows when something is special, when it matters.

He never chose this before.

He’s choosing it now.

Chuckling, he pats Aramis on the shoulder and gets to his feet. “In that case, I suppose I need to do my part.”

D’Artagnan stops, looking at him in surprise. “You were with him all night.”

“This is true,” Athos says. “But if I do not intervene, I fear none of us will have anything edible for supper.”

“Hey!” Porthos protests from the table. He’s holding a knife, attempting to cut vegetables. “Are you insulting my cooking?”

Athos nears, looking at it appraisingly. “Is that what you’re trying to do?”

Porthos snorts, rocking back on his heels. “And you think you could do better?”

“I think the rats could do better,” Athos says.

“I don’t know, Athos,” D’Artagnan says, finally stacking four clean plates for their meal. “The only meals I’ve seen you prepare are at the bottom of a bottle.”

“Says the only man here with a wife to tend to him,” Porthos quips.

From the bed, Aramis lets out a sigh. “If you would all let me get up--”

He half ambles upward.

“Not on your life!” Porthos insists.

“You’re under orders to rest,” D’Artagnan adds.

“And it is unnecessary, besides,” Athos says.

Aramis holds his hand up in effective surrender.

Athos wipes his hands, picking up a knife of his own and nudging Porthos aside. “I am quite capable in the kitchen, as it turns out.”

Porthos looks dubious, and D’Artagnan gawks at him. Even Aramis seems taken aback.

“You?” D’Artagnan asks.

“I didn’t know you cooked,” Porthos says.

“With respect, it is a bit of a surprise,” Aramis agrees.

Athos just rolls his eyes, starting in on the carrots. “There are many things you don’t know about me,” he explains.

The words hang there for a moment, with no one sure how to breach them. It is not that Athos is telling a lie; nor is it that Athos is being cruel. It is simply not something he speaks of -- his past. He doesn’t talk about his life, who he was before this. He’s always strived to leave that behind. Indeed, even his decision today, to stay, does not affect that.

Except that’s not the decision he made. He didn’t simply choose to remain a musketeer.

He chose to stay with these men, his friends. His family.

All these years, they know him better than he knows himself, and yet he has kept so much from them. It’s not that they don’t care; rather, it is that they have learned to stop asking.

That’s the choice Athos made. Family, reciprocity.

He’ll answer the questions.

Before they’re asked.

He is, after all, a man with connections now.

And no compunctions whatsoever.

“All the same,” he continues, as if not missing a beat while he works on his dinner preparations. “I can tell you more over dinner.”

It is almost humorous to watch them, expressions couched with something akin to hope. It’s not the hope of winning a battle; it’s not even the hope of a good assignment. It’s the hope of something more meaningful, more subtle, more important.

It is the hope of family.

Athos knows what it looks like, because he’s beginning to see it in himself.

Still, they are soldiers.

They’ll do family in their own way, in their own time.

“Now,” Athos says, reaching for a knife. “I need one of you to boil water.”

“On it,” D’Artagnan readily says.

“Porthos, I want you to wash the vegetables thoroughly,” he continues.

Porthos scoops a handful of vegetables into his hands. “Right, right.”

“And Aramis, please tell me you have something to season this with,” Athos says with a baleful look toward their injured comrade.

“The cupboard, on the other side of the door,” he says. He sits up, moving to swing his feet over the edge. “I try to keep things cooler--”

Athos waves him back with a harsh look. “I can get it,” he says, making his way toward the cupboard. “Your main duty now is to rest.”

Aramis raises his eyebrows. “That is a duty you have never supported before?”

“Well,” Athos says, poking through the cupboard and finding a few potatoes. “We’re all ready for new duties, wouldn’t you say?”

Aramis agrees, because of course he does. That is the nature of things in life, one duty traded for another. He could be master to his lands or he could be a musketeer. He could be a husband and a brother, or he could manage his ragtag team of musketeers. He abandoned one duty, but here he found another.

And this time, he will not let it go. Not without a fight.

Granted, he knows it will not be easy. He knows his own weaknesses, and he knows the habits that will pull him away from this choice that he has made. He knows the temptation now, for it is hard to put the sword away and harder still to avoid the drink.

But for the sake of his friends, for the sake of this family he has chosen, he will do what he must.

“Now come on,” Athos cajoles, offering the potatoes to D’Artagnan for his assistance. “If we are going to do this, we must work together.”

D’Artagnan does not hesitate, as none of them would. It is not lost on Athos that he will get as much as he gives. He’ll be here to hold them together, and maybe, someday, they’ll make him strong enough to be whole again.

Maybe even strong enough to go home and reconcile himself to his past, his name, the man he was.

He sets to chopping the vegetables, watching as his brothers do their work by his side. It’s all he can do to keep his smile from being too evident.

At this point, however, Athos knows that anything is possible.