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Musketeers fic: Rising to the Challenge (1/2)

December 27th, 2017 (08:32 pm)
grateful

feeling: grateful

Title: Rising to the Challenge

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: No beta. Set post series. Fills my toothache square for hc_bingo.

Summary: D’Artagnan had always risen to the challenge. He determined that he would not fail now.



-o-

Accepting the position as captain of the musketeers had seemed completely natural when it came up a year ago.

These months later, after all the paperwork, after balancing the political demands with the needs of his men, after sending so many men out and seeing so few return home, D’Artagnan was less sure. Not that he doubted that the job was meant for him.

Rather, he doubted that it was a job that any man could maintain without risking his sanity. It had been easy to take it for granted, the way Treville handled it so seamlessly. Even Athos, after Treville’s promotion, had taken to it with an unspeakable grace. D’Artagnan had the heart, the experience and the support; he had only assumed it would be just as easy for him.

Nothing made it easy, of course. But D’Artagnan had found ways to cope. Seeing his position less as leadership and more as service had helped; so had Constance’s support and companionship. In truth, however, the thing that made it possible to keep going day after day was that he wasn’t doing it alone. The men he served above, and the ones he served under. Generals like Porthos. Ministers like Aramis.

They made it possible, not to do his job well.

But to do his job and stay sane.

Indeed, working with one of these respected colleagues was the thing he looked forward to most. So, when he made his way to the palace for a regularly scheduled strategy meeting with Aramis, he found himself quite chipper.

Sure, it had helped that he’d spent a late morning with his wife, and that the news from the front was actually quite positive, but he was looking forward to seeing Aramis as well.

Of the three, D’Artagnan had maintained the closest relationship with Aramis. Athos wrote to them from time to time, and he’d stopped in once back at Paris for supplies and stopped by the garrison to see how the rebuilding project was coming. Porthos stopped in periodically, as his war campaigns permitted, and those visits were often too short to do much socializing. But as First Minister, Aramis was also stationed in Paris, and the nature of their jobs required a close partnership.

In fact, it was so productive that D’Artagnan could scarcely imagine doing what he did without such an ally. How had Treville managed it with Richelieu in place? And Rochefort? Athos had had the benefit of Treville in the palace, but with Aramis, there was no sense of rank between them. For all intents and purposes, they were still equals, and they could speak freely to each other on all terms, personal and political.

This particular morning, however, Aramis did not look pleased to see him.

Aramis didn’t look pleased at all.

He looked sick.

Pale, drawn and sallow-skinned, the former marksman seemed to be barely upright behind his desk. He didn’t even flinch until D’Artagnan cleared his throat, shaking Aramis from his stupor. “Hmm?” he asked, blinking his dark eyes for a moment. He tried to gather himself when he realized who was there, but getting to his feet just seemed to fluster him.

“Aramis,” D’Artagnan said, watching in dismay as his friend tried and failed to find his feet. “You look horrible.”

Aramis cast a quizzical look up at him that was surely meant to convey offense. “Well, it’s good to see you, too.”

D’Artagnan huffed a small laugh, half in disbelief. “You’re clearly ill.”

Aramis sighed with a huff of his own. “That’s what Anne keeps telling me.”

“You should listen to her,” D’Artagnan said. He took a seat across from Aramis, gazing up at his friend in concern. “She has your interests at heart.”

Aramis’ relationship with the queen had been contentious for many years, but in the wake of the king’s death, the two had grown close. When the year of mourning had ended, the queen had been slow to make their affections public, but the murmurs were all about the court. Aramis had been reluctant to share the news, but he’d not been able to keep it from D’Artagnan.

Especially not when the queen had scarcely kept it from Constance, who was still invited frequently to the palace as a dear, dear friend.

Aramis groaned, slumping back in the chair and massaging his forehead. “I’m not sick,” he said again, probably not trying to sound completely petulant. It was almost comically, really. He had the affectation of the young dauphin himself.

“Mmm,” D’Artagnan mused, inclining his head. “Then what’s wrong?”

“Nothing!” Aramis said. “I mean, nothing more than a toothache.”

“A toothache,” D’Artagnan repeated.

“Yes, a toothache,” Aramis said. “Started a week or so ago when we were entertaining the delegation from Austria.”

“Has their pledge of support come through yet?” D’Artagnan interjected.

Aramis nodded faintly. “They sent a payment already, bless them,” he said. “We still owe them the extra food goods, but I think it’s a fair trade.”

“More than fair,” D’Artagnan agreed. “But it has nothing to do with your tooth.”

Aramis made a face, wrinkling his nose. “Well, it hurt on and off, mostly when I ate,” he explained. He reached up, massaging one side of his jaw. “But then last night we were having some delightful roast duck and the pain nearly sent me toppling to the ground. It was so bad I had to excuse myself early.”

D’Artagnan frowned in concern. “Have you consulted a doctor?”

Aramis made another face of deeper discontent. “You sound like Anne again.”

“And again, she has your best interests at heart,” D’Artagnan told him.

Sighing, Aramis made a grand gesture with his hand. “We’re at war, D’Artagnan. Our troops are spread thin, and our people have needs. Our international alliances are being tested, as it our resolve. We must avert military disaster without creating a humanitarian crisis. Not to mention the fact that we are still politically vulnerable with a young king on the throne and population that still thinks of their queen as Spanish more often than not.” He paused, running a hand through his hair. “I hardly have time to indulge in toothaches.”

D’Artagnan shrugged, diffident. It wasn’t that Aramis was wrong, but it wasn’t that he was right either. The work they did was important, and they did each carry a burden for the sake of their country.

But they were no good to anyone like this.

“You’re sick, Aramis,” D’Artagnan said, getting to his feet. “The decisions can wait for a day, or if there is something truly pressing, I can consult the queen herself.”

“D’Artagnan,” Aramis started.

D’Artagnan shook his head. “Go back to bed, and let the doctor attend to you,” he said. “If he pulls the tooth, then we can be right back at it tomorrow.”

Aramis looked miserable. Miserable enough to acquiesce. “Fine,” he muttered, slumping even more pathetically in his seat.

Rolling his eyes, D’Artagnan walked around the desk and pulled Aramis up by the arm.

Aramis protested. “What are you--”

D’Artagnan led him to the door -- the private one at the back of the chamber. The one that led him further into the castle’s more intimate quarters. “I’m seeing you to your bed,” he said plainly.

“I am not a child,” Aramis said, even as he huffed along by D’Artagnan’s side.

D’Artagnan chuckled. “You could have fooled me,” he said, half pushing Aramis through the threshold. “Now go, or do I have to walk you all the way back to your room?”

Aramis glowered at him. “You know, technically I outrank you.”

“Uh huh,” D’Artagnan said. “And yet here you are, laid low by a toothache.”

“Your sympathy is overwhelming,” Aramis muttered crossly, holding his hand gingerly to his jaw.

D’Artagnan grinned, offering up a mocking bow. “Anything for you, First Minister.”

-o-

Missing the meeting with Aramis would put him behind on some of his paperwork, that much was true, but as captain of the musketeers, he certainly had plenty of other tasks to attend to. In fact, D’Artagnan found that he often had more tasks than time these days, and while he liked to think that was on account of the war, he really knew better.

So when he headed back to the garrison, he really did have the best intentions to get some work done. He had some applications for new recruits, and there were various orders that needed to be sent out into the field. He had to speculate on strategy on some of the more problematic fronts, and he was still trying to make sure that construction of the garrison was proceeding as quickly as possible. While main structures had been rebuilt over the last year, there was still a ways to go on the barracks.

Such were his intentions.

But when he got back to his office, he found Constance at the desk, chewing her lip as she studied a manual from his bookshelf. For a moment, he stopped to appreciate the scene. It was a strange sort of thing, to be with the one who completed him. He hardly deserved such a beautiful woman -- and such a practical one, too. Not only was she his partner at home, but she had become his partner at work, too. An advantage that Treville and Athos had never had.

She looked up, surprised to see him. “I thought you had a meeting at the palace.”

“I did,” D’Artagnan replied, crossing over to the desk. He perched on the edge, looking at her. “I made Aramis cancel, however. He’s taken a bit ill.”

“Oh, no,” Constance said. “Nothing serious, I hope.”

D’Artagnan made a flitting motion with his hand. “A toothache actually.”

She made a face. “Your war meeting is on hold for a toothache?”

He rolled his eyes. “That’s was the tone of his indignation, too,” D’Artagnan said. “But you should have seen him. He needed to be in bed.”

“Well,” Constance said, pushing back. “I was just going over the protocols to see if we could narrow down our list of recruits. I know we need numbers, and I’m a firm believer in giving people a fair chance, but some of these options--”

She was all business, but D’Artagnan found it impossible to focus on musketeers when his wife had the audacity to sit there and look so completely beautiful. “They can wait,” he said, closing the manual and throwing it on top of the pile.

Flustered, she started to protest. “But I was--”

“Working, I know,” D’Artagnan said.

She pursed her lips coyly. “Which is what you should be doing.”

“But I’m supposed to be at a meeting at the palace for another hour,” he reminded her, inching his way closer to her.

She didn’t back away, arching her eyebrow provocatively. “But the First Minister is in bed.”

He moved closer, running his hands along the curves of her waist. “A sound example I should follow.”

Mouth composed wryly, she did what she could not to smile. “But you’re not sick.”

“No, I’m not,” D’Artagnan agreed. He moved in, pressing a kiss to her lips. “But there are other things to do in bed.”

She laughed as he kissed her again. “You are so bad!”

“I’m just doing my duty!” D’Artagnan protested.

“Not to your men, you’re not!”

He gave her a baleful look, on his knees between her legs now as he peered up into her eyes. “That is not the only duty I have,” he vowed.

This time, she did smile. “Well, now,” she said, fingering the silky ends of his hair. “Who am I to keep a man from his duty?”

-o-

Needless to say, D’Artagnan performed many duties that day -- all quite admirably.

Some were for his men, for France.

Some, though, had to be for himself.

If the last few years had taught him anything, it was that he should never take the good things in life for granted. There would always be duty and honor, after all.

But the people you cared for and cared for you in return?

They were the prize that made it all worthwhile.

He was, against all odds maybe, completely happy with his life.

On some levels, that gave D’Artagnan cause for trepidation.

But as he surveyed all the things in his life, he had to wonder what could possibly go wrong.

-o-

It was with that attitude that he went back to the palace, all smiles the next day. He had made a point to consolidate the necessary items of discussion; with a day to make up for, he didn’t want to be repetitive or overtaxing. He could keep things to the point, which would give Aramis plenty of time to continue his recovery from the toothache.

At least, this had been D’Artagnan’s plan.

As Captain, he had a certain expectation that his plans held some precedence.

Fate did not always readily comply.

“I don’t understand,” D’Artagnan said to the private secretary. It was a man he’d worked with frequently, one who attended Aramis personally. “I thought it was just a toothache.”

“It is, sir,” the man explained, sounding genuinely apologetic.

“And he’s still not up and about?” D’Artagnan asked, unable to hide his disbelief.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, shrugging. “Would you like me to pass along a message?”

D’Artagnan collected a breath and controlled his thoughts. Sickness happened; it was no fault of any one. Even musketeers fell ill. Even captains and first ministers.

Sighing, he held out the paperwork. “Just have the First Minister review these and send back any notes, especially regarding the advancement of troops in the south,” he said. “And wish him the best while he recovers from this….”

“Toothache?” the man supplied helpfully.

D’Artagnan forced a smile. “Toothache,” he concluded.

At this point in his career, D’Artagnan probably shouldn’t be surprised.

-o-

The rest of the day was no better than the start. Having wasted a trip to the palace, D’Artagnan arrived back to find utter chaos and disarray. Recruits had arrived early; the food stores hadn’t been stocked, and poor construction had caused part of the barracks to collapse. News from the front demanded his immediate attention, and D’Artagnan didn’t have a moment to himself until well after dark.

When he retired, Constance was already sound asleep, and D’Artagnan sat heavily on the bed beside her. Exhausted, he considered waking her, but he found himself too tired to make the effort. Laying down, he blew out the candle and pulled up the covers.

As he drifted off to sleep, he had to wonder how lucky Aramis was to be laid up in bed, pampered at the palace with nothing but a toothache.

Some people had all the luck.

-o-

When word came the next morning that Aramis was still unwell and unable to take visitors, D’Artagnan did little but roll his eyes. Aramis could be a hard worker, this was true. But he could also be self indulgent. The idea of him holed up in the palace with a toothache and the queen to comfort him? Well, D’Artagnan’s doubts weren’t unjustified.

It was just as well. D’Artagnan had plenty to keep him busy. Distractedly, he sent word back.

Enjoy your toothache while the rest of us in the real world still work to earn their keep.

-o-

One day became two. D’Artagnan had to make a short jaunt out for a training exercise, and he spent much of the next with scouting. He would have made a trip to the palace by week’s end, but he had to entertain a very unexpected, a very important and very welcomed military leader.

“Porthos!” he said, getting up from his desk with a grin on his face. He crossed the room, reaching out to embrace the other man. “You didn’t tell me you were coming!”

Porthos laughed, and the sound was deep and familiar as they hugged. “I didn’t know I was coming myself,” he admitted, pulling away. He beamed at D’Artagnan. “We made better time than expected across the south, and I was only a half day’s ride from Paris. We don’t start the next offensive until next week, so I thought, why not come in and file my report in person?”

D’Artagnan chuckled. “Well, that is a report I will gladly take,” he said. “And you must join me for dinner.”

“Of course,” Porthos said. Then he looked slightly chagrined. “But not tonight.”

D’Artagnan arched his eyebrows. “Elodie?”

“I’ve spent more nights away from her than with her in the last year,” Porthos said. “That’s no way for a man to treat his wife.”

“Or for a man to treat himself,” D’Artagnan sympathized.

“I have to be careful, though,” Porthos said. “She keeps talking about giving ?? a little sister.”

D’Artagnan made a face of feigned commiseration. “It could be worse,” he said. “I think the idea of motherhood scares Constance.”

“Probably just the idea of you as a father,” Porthos quipped. “Though I understand her point. War is a hard time to be having babies.”

“But a good time to remember why family matters,” D’Artagnan said. “So, please, just name your time.”

“Tomorrow, I think,” Porthos said. “Maybe you can send word to Aramis, see if he can meet us.”

“If he’s feeling up to it,” D’Artagnan mused.

Porthos’ brow creased with concern. “Is he not well?”


“Just a toothache, from what I know,” D’Artagnan said. “But he’s been holed up in the palace all week, not taking visitors.”

Porthos scoffed. “Sounds like a nice excuse to enjoy the company of a doting queen.”

D’Artagnan huffed his laugh in return. “We probably shouldn’t speculate,” he said. “Isn’t that close to treason?”

“Aramis is the one consorting!” Porthos protested.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s not about to bring us up on charges,” D’Artagnan said. “I’ll send word, see if he can make time in his busy schedule of convalescence for an old friend.”

“He better,” Porthos said. “Or I’d wager that palace life is making him soft.”

“Aramis is not one who should be indulged too regularly,” D’Artagnan quipped in agreement. “But it is good to see him happy. And you, too.”

“All of us,” Porthos said. He shrugged. “Though I imagine we’d all be a bit happier if this war would end already.”

D’Artagnan drew more sober. “We should get to business, then,” he said, gesturing toward his desk. “I could use an update.”

“And there is a lot to update,” Porthos said, striding toward the chair. “The front changes on a daily basis, but we’re winning.”

D’Artagnan followed, taking his seat behind the desk. “That is really the kind of news I can get behind,” he said, picking up his quill and spreading clear away his papers to reveal the map on his desk while Porthos leaned in, expectant and ready. “Now, tell me the specifics.”

-o-

They spent most of the morning together, and their strategic planning spanned well into the afternoon. When Porthos finally excused himself just before dinner, D’Artagnan had a wealth of new information to deal with. While he would have to update his own files, he realized in dismay that he would also have to send a physical copy to the palace for Aramis’ viewing.

That was most inconvenient. Strategic planning was best done in person.

But Aramis had a toothache, and D’Artagnan wanted to get home for dinner. The idea of going all the way to the palace just to be told that the First Minister was not taking visitors did not sound appealing.

Instead, he made quick notes for Aramis, and then scrawled a final message on the top page. “News from the front, assuming your toothache has not inhibited your ability to read,” he wrote hastily. Then, with a wry grin, he added, “You can learn more yourself tomorrow night at dinner. Consider it a personal request not from your captain, but from your favorite general on the front lines.”

Before signing his name and adding his seal, he added one last script: “If you don’t show up, I think we may all take it personally.”

-o-

He summoned one of the recruits and dispatched him with haste. It was not that he was concerned that the message would arrive too late. Instead, D’Artagnan simply realized that there were other obligations that he wanted fulfill. He hadn’t needed such a reminder from Porthos, but he had to admit, it didn’t hurt.

When he arrived back at his home early enough to help Constance with dinner, it was a pleasant surprise for both of them.

In fact, the rest of the night was pleasant, too.

He fell asleep, Constance in his arms, thinking that life couldn’t be much more perfect than this.

-o-

In the dawn, Constance was first to wake. He roused, turning to curl into her but found that she was already up.

Squinting up, he watched as she dressed herself busily.

“Up so soon?” he mused.

She gave a light scoff. “It’s hardly early,” she said. “Especially for you. Don’t you have business at the palace that you’ve been putting off all week?”

“I haven’t been putting it off,” D’Artagnan objected. “Aramis is the one who is ill.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m sure.”

He sat up. “It’s true! But he should be up and around tonight?”

She looked at him, quizzical. “And you’re his doctor now?”

It was his turn to roll his eyes back. “He’ll want to see Porthos, I’m sure.”

“Ah,” she said, lifting her hair as he stood to help her tie her corset. “Priorities.”

He leaned over, kissing her cheek. “I wouldn’t say that.”

She demurred. “That’s why you have dinner plans too?”

Gently, he tightened the pieces, tying it off at the end. “Just say the word.”

At this, she scoffed again. “I wouldn’t!”

“You could!”

She turned to face him. “I like your friends, and I want you to maintain those relationships.”

“As do I,” D’Artagnan said, reaching for his own undergarments. “But tell that to Aramis and his toothache.”

“Well, it’s been what, a week?” she said, reaching for her dress. “Maybe he’s really sick.”

D’Artagnan sniffed his shirt experimentally and deemed it acceptable. “In the palace, he’s the safest one of us all.”

“The palace is hardly a refuge,” Constance reminded him. “And look what’s happened to every other first minister over the years.”

D’Artagnan frowned. “That’s rather ominous.”

“Oh, I don’t mean anything,” Constance said, reaching for her hairbrush. “I just hope everything’s okay.”

He watched as she continued to ready herself. “It is,” he said, pausing to chew his lip. Then, he shrugged, as if to convince himself. “I’m sure it is.”

-o-

D’Artagnan wasn’t concerned. Not about Aramis. Not about a toothache.

He still got into work early that day, checking to see if any messages had been left for him. Having sent word so early in the evening to Aramis, there would have been plenty of time to return a page that night. It should have been there, waiting on top of his desk.

There was no envelop, from the palace or otherwise. Porthos’ notes from recent battle were still stacked neatly there instead.

For a moment, he stood there, contemplating his next move.

He still had plenty of work to do; more than enough to keep him preoccupied this morning.

He glanced back at the door, Constance’s voice still echoing in his head.

Sighing, he reached for his cloak. Muttering to himself, he shook his head as he made his way out. “Priorities.”

-o-

D’Artagnan made the trek to the palace in good time. True, he rode his horse a bit harder than he probably had to, but he felt somewhat gratified to arrive in such a timely fashion. The breakfast hour was over, but no major business would have been attended to just yet.

The perfect time for D’Artagnan’s almost entirely perfunctory official call.

He was, therefore, not pleased when his advances were politely but firmly rebuffed.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the attendant said. “The First Minister simply is not taking visitors yet.”

“He hasn’t been taking visitors for a week,” D’Artagnan protested.

The man gave him a banal look. “Yes, sir.”

D’Artagnan did his best to keep his temper. “He hasn’t even returned my letters.”

“That is not within my purview--”

“Just go back there, tell him I’m here--”

“I’m very sorry, sir--”

“Oh, come on!” D’Artagnan exclaimed, ready to round on the man. He would not strike him -- not really -- but he’d come to realize that there was power in the uniform. And he’d also come to realize that he hardly had the time much less the patience for this sort of thing. “If you just--”

He was stopped short when he realized the door had opened. He half expected to see Aramis.

When he recognized the queen, he muffled a curse to himself and bowed his head. “Your majesty.”

She glided into the room, regarding D’Artagnan coolly. “You may leave us,” she said to the attendant.

The man gave the queen an apprising look before eyeing D’Artagnan suspiciously. He was, however, not employed for his judgement of character but his ability to follow orders. He bowed, making his way out of the room and closing the door behind him.

Anne looked back at D’Artagnan. She seemed to be holding herself more erect than he sometimes saw her. It was her stance for official business most of the time.

But there was something else in her face. Something more subtle

Worry.

She drew a breath. “D’Artagnan,” she said, pursing her lips. She exhaled heavily with an anxious look around the room. “I think we need to talk.”

-o-

No matter why he’d come, D’Artagnan had no right to deny the queen an audience. To be sure, he had no desire to do so, either. She had proven herself a fit leader, and even if Aramis were not in love with her, he had sworn his loyalty to her, her son and their government.

His duty was hers to determine.

It was hard, though, given her relationship with Aramis. Not that he had ever been allowed to be completely social with the queen, but the familiarity between them was undeniable. His own wife was a primary confidante, after all. And yet, D’Artagnan had to hold his tongue as she drew him into a more private interior chamber.

“I know you must have many questions,” she began, turning toward him again. Her face was still composed but less restrictively so. She smiled slightly.

“About what, your majesty?” he asked, striving for restraint.

“Please, be at ease, D’Artagnan,” she said. “Surely you know that I consider you a friend in addition to a loyal officer.”

“That is my honor,” he said.

“So let’s forgo the pretenses,” she said, drawing another breath. “You have come to call on Aramis.”

“Well,” D’Artagnan said, trying to be nonchalant. “We do have official business--”

She shook her head, as if to dismiss the notion. “I am aware that our updates have been unsatisfactory,” she said, looking truly aggrieved.

With anyone else, he would have made a joke. Even if the queen was a friend, she wasn’t that kind of friend. “It has been quite some time for a toothache.”

To his surprise, her face didn’t brighten. Instead, it darkened. “I’m afraid it’s become far more than that at this point.”

Uncertainly, D’Artagnan found himself hesitating. “Far more?”

She nodded, graver than ever. “The doctors removed the offending tooth, but I worry he let it go too long,” she said. “The illness has not left him. If anything, it has only gotten worse.”

D’Artagnan now found himself frowning. “Worse?”

“He needs rest, by his doctor’s orders and my own,” she said, pressing her lips lightly together. “But he is quite insistent upon seeing you.”

To that, D’Artagnan wasn’t sure how he was expected reply.

The queen, however, did not seem to notice un trepidation. Not while she was experiencing her own. “I have put him off on this for several days,” she said, clearly fretting. She turned imploring eyes to D’Artagnan. “But at this point, I fear denying him anything.”

The honesty in her expression, as raw as he’d ever seen, caught D’Artagnan off guard. “Your majesty,” he said, faltering slightly. He licked his lips. “Are you...how bad exactly is Aramis’ condition?”

Her smile was weaker than before. “Come,” she said, beckoning him onward. “See for yourself.”

-o-

Despite the fact that he saw Aramis frequently, D’Artagnan had not spent much time with his friend in his personal quarters. In fact, as the queen led him back through the winding corridors, it occurred to D’Artagnan that he had not been there at all. Close as they were, they were living quite different lives.

Considering the opulence around him, D’Artagnan began to realize just how different.

To be fair, it hadn’t changed Aramis in any measurable way. But it was a stark reminder of just how much they had all changed in the last year, how much they didn’t know about each other. For years, they’d been inseparable. Now, there was so much that D’Artagnan didn’t know.

His thoughts were cut short when the queen gestured to a door, pausing to knock just once before letting herself in. Her demeanor softened almost immediately upon entry, and when she spoke, it was no longer a royal proclamation. Instead, it was soft, feminine and familiar in its exhortation.

“Aramis, your company has arrived.”

For a moment, D’Artagnan was too overwhelmed by the fact that Aramis had a luxury room in the palace to notice his friend in the grand bed. Aramis was covered in grandiose quilts, and he was propped up upon a sprawling bed with supple pillows.

In most instances, it would be the picture of luxury.

The ghastly appearance of his friend, however, made it somewhat more sobering.

Aramis tried to smile, but it only made the tableau worse. His hair was matted and greasy, obviously from days of being unkempt. His beard was in marginally better condition, but only because Aramis plainly had not been eating very much. This conclusion was easy enough to come to because of how gaunt the Spaniard looked. His cheeks were sunken, which only exacerbated the deep circles under his eyes and the sallow color of his countenance.

“D’Artagnan!” Aramis croaked. “I’m pleased she let you in!”

Stepping closer, D’Artagnan realized that Aramis cheek was swollen, and he was clearly favoring one side of his mouth. “I’m a little surprised she did,” D’Artagnan quipped, treading carefully with a glance to the queen. He settled his gaze back on Aramis. “This looks worse than a toothache.”

The queen smiled politely. “I will let you to talk in private,” she said, before casting a meaningful look at Aramis. “Do not over exert yourself. You know what the doctor said.”

He made a dismissive noise, but it became garbled in his throat with a cough. “I’m fine.”

The queen then cast a stern eye to D’Artagnan. “Make sure he minds,” she ordered. “He is not to expend any unnecessary energy.”

D’Artagnan bowed. “Of course, Your Majesty.”

With that, she swept out of the room. Normally, D’Artagnan might appreciate the privacy -- it wasn’t easy when your best friend was romantically linked to the queen. But today, D’Artagnan found himself sorely out of place. He was not good as a nursemaid, and despite his ample experience around death and injury, he did not find it easy to deal face.

Especially when it was one of his dearest comrades.

He cleared his throat, feeling awkward. “You look horrible,” D’Artagnan blurted, more bluntly than he’d intended. He worked his jaw, knitting his eyebrows together. “What happened?”

Aramis smiled weakly. “Toothache.”

D’Artagnan could not contain his snort. “This is more than a toothache.”

Wearily, Aramis sighed. “The doctor finally removed the tooth in question.”

“And it didn’t help?” D’Artagnan asked with concern.

“He said it may take several days for the symptoms to clear,” Aramis supplied.

“And how long ago was that?”

Aramis looked chagrined, stifling a cough. “More than several days ago.”

To that, D’Artagnan wasn’t sure how to respond. He wanted to be cavalier to avoid the awkwardness, but he found himself unable. The implications were more dire than either of them wanted to acknowledge. Under duress, such things could be handled with the rush of the moment.

Here, so far removed from the action, D’Artagnan found himself caught unawares.

Of all his companions, he had expected Aramis to be safe, to be constant.

Yet, here they were. Aramis bed-ridden and stricken down with fever.

Ultimately, D’Artagnan proved himself to be a coward, and he changed the subject. “Porthos is in town.”

Aramis perked up, looking bright. It only accentuated the fever. “That’s wonderful!” he said. “For how long?”

“A few days only,” D’Artagnan said, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. “He has to be back on the front--”

Aramis was nodding along. “Of course,” he said. “Then we will have to get together.”

D’Artagnan did his best not to let his outright incredulity seem evident. “We have plans for tonight, in fact,” he said. “I was going to invite you…”

“And you shall,” Aramis said, sitting up a little more.

“You’re not well,” D’Artagnan said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Aramis said, sloughing off some of the blankets. With enough affectation, Aramis almost sounded convincing. “I’ve already been laid up far too long with this silly toothache. Anne does worry so.”

It might have been convincing if his friend did not look more dead than alive. “I’m not sure she’s without reason.”

Aramis flitted his hand at D’Artagnan. “Something far worse than a toothache would keep me from seeing my friends again,” he said. “It’s a pity we can round up Athos, have some time together like the old days.”

“Well, perhaps when you are better,” D’Artagnan ventured diplomatically.

“We can make plans for it tonight,” Aramis said enthusiastically. “Where are you meeting?”

D’Artagnan hesitated, because he did not want to discourage Aramis but he could scarcely stomach encouraging him either. For all of Aramis’ enthusiasm, he was frail and weak -- and no better despite the days of care and recovery he’d received. Illness was a pervasive thing; it could take the strong and the weak in equal turns. It did not matter if you were a king, a musketeer or a peasant. There were some things that even the most daring could not overcome.

They had, though. In the past. Even when Porthos had been shot and laid up, they had managed to survive together. There was a time when D’Artagnan might have believed them to be invincible as a group.

They weren’t a group any longer.

So much had changed; more than D’Artagnan had allowed himself to understand.

Yet, how could D’Artagnan deny him? Especially Aramis? This paragon of hope, however naive?


“The garrison,” D’Artagnan said. “For drinks, after the dinner hour.”

Aramis nodded, ever resolute. “Then I will be there.”

D’Artagnan had his doubts; he had ample reservations. Maybe a good friend would tell Aramis not to consider it, to stay home and try to get better.

For all that D’Artagnan was battle worn, for all that he was the captain of many, sometimes he was still the new recruit, anxious to please his betters.

He smiled and nodded. “I look forward to it, then.”

Aramis nodded back, beaming for a moment. He almost managed to hold it before a cough shook his frail frame. It rattled him, and D’Artagnan resisted the urge to move forward to steady him. Instead, Aramis collected himself with a wheezing breath. He squared himself, looking D’Artagnan in the eyes. “Until tonight,” he said.

D’Artagnan bowed his head in agreement. “Until tonight.”

-o-

On his way out, D’Artagnan felt inexplicably guilty. He was not sure what bothered him more: that he had encouraged Aramis in this venture or that he had not stayed to help him back to health. Aramis clearly needed rest, but D’Artagnan had been a coward. Sick as he was, Aramis was not delusional, but it was clear that he was not of right mind. The toothache had become something far more ominous indeed.

He had nearly turned himself around to seek out the queen again. Part of him wanted to know everything, how long the fever had lasted and what other symptoms were persisting. When had the cough started? Had his fever raged or merely stayed at this level? What were the doctors doing in terms of treatment?

Then again, D’Artagnan wasn’t sure he really did want to know. It had been so much easier when this had merely been a toothache. Now that it was more, that this illness had taken hold…

D’Artagnan did not allow himself to finish the thought that he knew he couldn’t deny.

In his line of work, he was surrounded by death. He’d served in a war and buried more men than he could count. As a captain, he had sent men to their deaths and offered their lives nothing but a meager letter of consolation.

Could it be that he still thought himself impenetrable?

He still thought them to be impenetrable?

D’Artagnan had grown up a lot over the last year.

He hated to think this could be fate’s way of teaching him another lesson.

A lesson, he thought morosely on his trek home, that he most certainly did not want to learn.

-o-

Back at the garrison, he found Constance busying herself in the barracks. What she was doing, it was impossible to say for sure; his wife was always one to keep herself busy. Early on, he had tried to discourage her from this, hoping she would appreciate some rest and pampering like a proper wife.

She had objected most stridently.

And it was true, he had never seen her happier than when she was thus engaged. True, she had found little pleasure in her marriage to Bonacieux, but she had enjoyed the perks of essentially running the household when he was busy with work. Here, at the garrison, she had more responsibility and she took all the more pleasure in each and every task she was delegated.

In fact, she was always smiling now, singing to herself. Her grousing was half hearted and good humored. She loved each and every recruit, and she learned the name and history of every musketeer on active duty. She took on new duties without being asked, and D’Artagnan was quite sure that the only reason his tenure as captain had found success was because of her.

She knew the job, after all.

And she knew him.

It was no surprise, therefore, that she knew something was wrong before he even thought of how to tell her.

“Tell me it’s not the war,” she said, the color draining out of her face as she faced him. “Please, tell me we didn’t lose any more.”

“No,” he said. “The latest campaign will start up on the weekend. That hasn’t changed.”

She exhaled heavily, but didn’t look exactly relieved. “What, then?” she asked, crossing over to him.

He settled himself heavily into one of the chairs, and she poised herself next to him. “I just came from the palace,” he reported.

She nodded. “To check in with Aramis,” she said, then her eyes narrowed. “It’s Aramis, then?”

He returned her nod, more warily still.

“But I thought it was just a toothache,” she said.

“It was,” he replied. “But you know how things can be. Once illness takes hold…”

She looked pained in commiseration. “It doesn’t always want to let go,” she said. “Hard to imagine, what it is that happens in the body.”

“They took the tooth, and he looks worse, if that’s possible,” D’Artagnan told her. He shrugged, feeling helpless. “Honestly, I’ve never seen him this bad off before.”

Reaching out, she rubbed his back affectionately. “We’ve both seen more than we care to,” she said. “But at least at the palace, he’s got the queen’s resources at his disposal. He’ll be getting the best care; better than we’ve ever gotten for anyone down here at the garrison.”

“Those same doctors couldn’t save the king,” D’Artagnan reminded her. “I mean, what if all their efforts, all my efforts, aren’t enough?”

She smiled sadly. “Welcome to life in my world.”

Frowning, he looked at her. “What?”

“This is what I do, right here,” she said plaintively, gesturing to the two of them. “I sit here, back from the action, and worry. I worry until all I can do is accept that I can’t change the outcome, no matter what I do or say or think.”

“But this isn’t battle,” he countered.

She shrugged. “Does it matter?” she asked. “Life is cruel, it’s kind. It’s unexpected -- we never get to pick.”

Her wisdom was, as usual, without exception. Looking at her, he had to wonder -- and not for the first time -- how he’d ever gotten so lucky as to get her. Fondly, he bent his head toward her, finding comfort as they met brow to brow. “So what do you do, then?”

She nuzzled him, lowering her voice to a mere whisper. “The only thing you can do,” she murmured. She leaned up, her lips brushing his. “You make the most of the moments you have.”

D’Artagnan had doubts about many things this day, but as he leaned in to kiss his wife again, he had no doubts about that.

He had moments he’d like to take back; moments he was afraid he’d never get.

But this one, he knew as he kissed her more deeply, taking her up into his arms, he would make the most of.

-o-

It was a respite he’d needed from the emotional turmoil of the morning, and the rest of the day was thankfully too busy to do much fretting. He had scarcely a moment to himself, much less enough time to worry about toothaches and all their side effects.

In fact, he was so thoroughly preoccupied that he worked through dinner. He barely looked up from his work until Porthos arrived, ready and expectant, at his door in the garrison.

Standing in his doorway, Porthos grinned at him. “I see you’re earning your paycheck.”

Chuffing, D’Artagnan put his quill down, pushing his chair back as he stood. “The paycheck is scant, but the work certainly isn’t.”

Porthos moved toward him as D’Artagnan rounded the desk. They met with a hearty handshake. “That’s the way it goes, isn’t it?” Porthos drawled, his voice almost deeper and more resounding than D’Artagnan remembered. “I have to admit, though. It feels pretty good to be back.”

“Well, you have been away too long,” D’Artagnan mused. “You’re the one earning that paycheck more than I ever could from this office.”

“Eh,” Porthos said with a shrug. “There was a time when I was in it for the glory.”

D’Artagnan lifted his eyebrows. “And now?”

Porthos grinned mischievously. “Now it’s mostly for the pay,” he said, winking one eye. “Got a wife and child to take care of after all.”

“You are the most respectable man indeed,” D’Artagnan agreed.

“Give it time,” Porthos said with a playful nudge. “And you’ll see what I mean.”

For as much as he was Porthos’ equal now, he still found himself getting red in the cheek. How was it, all that he’d accomplished, all that he’d done, and he was still the grunt among them in all the ways that counted.

D’Artagnan wanted to say that bothered him -- indeed, it used to -- but enough time had passed that he found he missed it. Those good old days, the way things used to be. They’d all been younger. Maybe not innocent, definitely not quite naive, but less calloused, less worn.

He nodded reflectively. “We’ve come a long way,” he said. “All of us.”

There was a noise at the door. Surprised, D’Artagnan turned around, and he had to blink twice when he saw Aramis there. The former musketeer was upright and dressed, and at first glance, his wide grin and manicured beard made him look nearly recovered.

At second glance, D’Artagnan had his doubt. Aramis was still pale, still too thin, and there was a strange rigidness to his stance that was clearly trying to hide his weakness or pain or both.

But Aramis was already crossing the threshold, arms out to welcome Porthos.

Face lighting up, Porthos did not disappoint. He eagerly embraced the other man with a hearty series of thumps on his back. “I heard you had a toothache!”

Pulling back, Aramis’ eyes twinkled. “And you think I’d stay away from a friend such as yourself because of a toothache?”

D’Artagnan arched his eyebrows skeptically. “It is a bit more than a toothache.”

Aramis scoffed. “Still, that’s no reason to stop from a reunion such as this,” he said, seamlessly ignoring D’Artagnan very well placed concerns. “How long has it been?”

Porthos was grinning again, even wider than before. “Too long.”

“Far too long!” Aramis joined in. “So come! Drinks and dinner are on me!”

D’Artagnan found himself hesitating, but Porthos was so happy and Aramis was so upbeat, and D’Artagnan had to admit just how much he wanted a night like this.

“Come now,” Aramis said, gesturing to the door. “You can pick the place.”

Porthos shrugged, still beaming. “Who can say no to that?”

D’Artagnan followed, chewing his lip. Who, he thought to himself, indeed.

-o-

D’Artagnan had is doubts, but the first round of drinks dulled them. By the third, he had nearly forgotten them entirely.

“Honestly, I don’t know how anything has ever gotten done in a palace,” Aramis said. “If it’s not the endless distractions of finery and excess, it’s the complete lack of understanding of how the real world functions. Almost to a man, the advisors on the regency council are educated beyond belief and naive beyond repair.”

“Ah, but that’s why we have you,” Porthos said. “Don’t think I don’t appreciate it, out there on the battlefield.”

“You have the hard job,” Aramis told him. He nodded to D’Artagnan. “Both of you.”

D’Artagnan took another sip. “I prefer to think of it as a team effort,” he said. He waggled an eyebrow. “All for one remember.”

Aramis raised his glass boldly, tipping toward them. “And one for all.”

The clinked glasses, downing their drinks with hearty guffaws. Aramis turned to the bartender. “Sir?” he asked with a devilish grin. “Another round, please?”

-o-

For a few hours, it was just like old times. Honestly, it was like D’Artagnan had stepped back in time, reliving some of the very best days of his life. Athos’ absence was missed, to be certain, but there had always been something special when two or more were gathered together.

It had been that magic that made him stay in Paris and pursue his commission.

It had been that magic that had given him a home when his own was burned, a family when his own was dead, a purpose when his own was left floundering.

These were the men who had helped him grow up, and while he was proud of where he was now, he had to embrace the nostalgia. It was, after all, guaranteed to be very short-lived.

“It’s good Athos isn’t here,” Aramis clarified as the barkeeper brought them plates of food. “He’d drink so much that not even I could afford to finance it!”

Porthos guffawed, cutting into his own meal. “I would say that his drinking days are behind him with Sylvie, but that new little one? He’ll have all the more reason!”

Aramis eagerly took up his knife and fork, cutting into his meat. “It wouldn’t seem right, anyway. Athos without his drink. It’s like, Porthos without his gallantry. D’Artagnan without his passion.”

“Aramis without his vanity,” D’Artagnan joked, picking up his own cutlery.

Porthos and Aramis laughed raucously. “For all that has changed, it must be reassuring, is it not?” Aramis asked, lifting the bite to his lips. “To know that some things will forever endure?”

Aramis puts the bite in his mouth, still smiling broadly. He was about to continue; Porthos was about to comply; but D’Artagnan saw, in a split second, that change was inevitable.

And it was not always good.

He was powerless to stop it, though, just as he was powerless to stop Aramis from biting down, starting to chew before his face contorted with pain.

D’Artagnan saw it instantly, but it was Porthos was responded first. “Aramis?” he asked, looking down in concern.

Aramis tried to recover, and he made a brief attempt to smile, but another wave of pain overtook him and he reached up to his face, cupping his cheek.

Porthos pushed his chair back, reaching out toward the other man. “Aramis!”

There was a moment, however brief, that D’Artagnan thought Aramis would recover just like he always did.

He had forgotten, of course, that they weren’t infallible. They never had been.

Aramis staggered back in his sheet, face going a deadly shade of white. He tried to open his mouth but faltered, and he was slipping to the side as his eyes rolled up in his head and he crashed toward the ground.

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