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

December 27th, 2017 (08:33 pm)
indescribable

feeling: indescribable

Continued from Part One.



-o-

In retrospect, D’Artagnan probably should have seen it coming. He was highly trained, and his experience as captain had taught him to gauge his men by a standard they often could not judge for themselves. If this had been any other man, D’Artagnan never would have let it get this far.

This wasn’t any other man, though. D’Artagnan was no captain here.

All he could do was watch while the whole damn thing fell apart.

-o-

Porthos had quick reflexes, but even he wasn’t quite quick enough to stop Aramis’ downward descent. He nearly upturned the table to get to him, knocking aside chairs with such a ruckus that the entire room came to a halt.

“Aramis?” he asked, reaching down and rolling Aramis’ still face toward him. “Aramis!”

This was no time for guilt or doubts. D’Artagnan had not played his role of captain so far, but in a crisis, he remembered his training.

He had to, for it was Porthos and Aramis who had given so much of it to him. Moving quickly, he joined Porthos on the floor, trying not to let himself linger on the deathly shade of Aramis’ countenance. “The toothache,” he said, the words forced out through gritted teeth.

Porthos made a loud sound of contempt. “This is more than a toothache.”

D’Artagnan looked up, where the concerned bartender was watching on. Aramis had been paying good money this evening, and the man had been ever attentive to their needs. More than that, no good businessman wanted a dead person on their floor. It was bad for morale. “Some water, if you could,” he said, a little softer to the man.

The man nodded, looking anxiously from Aramis and back to D’Artagnan before he scurried off.

Porthos, meanwhile, was muttering curses under his breath, trying -- and still failing -- to rouse their friend. “A toothache,” he hissed, using his strong fingers to give Aramis’ chin a shake. “You’re stronger than a damn toothache.”

D’Artagnan had not the heart nor the fortitude to question him. “Is he breathing?” he asked instead.

Porthos, for all his experience and strength, flinched at the question. He looked nearly appalled for a moment, but his fingers hesitated over Aramis chest for a second before he nodded, brows deeply knitted. “Fast but sure,” he said, wetting his lips. He searched Aramis’ face, imploringly. “He’ll be okay. I mean, it’s Aramis. He’s always okay. Always.”

Always was a strong word, though. It often signaled certainty and fortitude, but sometimes it was a false hope more than anything else. D’Artagnan had learned from experienced that always was not a word he could count on.

He looked at Aramis’ still, drawn features.

No matter how much he wanted to.

-o-

It only took several moments for the barkeeper to return with the water and a few clean cloths, but it felt like a lifetime. Grateful, D’Artagnan took them, handing the water into Porthos’ anxious hands. D’Artagnan was about to wet a cloth, but Porthos took a more direct approach, pouring the liquid generously over Aramis’ face.

D’Artagnan was about to protest the roughness of it, but, to his utter surprise, it worked.

On the ground, Aramis spluttered weakly, blinking his eyes dazedly as he forcibly came to.

Porthos grinned in what could only be abject relief. “Aramis!”

D’Artagnan leaned closer, helping Aramis sit up between them. He was clearly disoriented for a moment, but when he looked up at them, it was clear that he had his wits about him.

“Oh,” he said, sounding more surprised than anything else. “Sorry about that.”

D’Artagnan felt mildly incredulous, so much so that he didn’t trust himself to speak.

“Sorry?” Porthos said, deep voice rumbling. “What’d you go an do that for? You work a comfortable job in the palace!”

Aramis nodded, wincing with the movement. “Well, I have had a bit of a toothache as of late.”

“That’s what D’Artagnan told me,” Porthos said, helping steady Aramis a little more. “But you fainted. Swooned like a woman.”

Aramis had the decency to look sheepish.

It only served, however, to make him look gaunt.

D’Artagnan’s throat tightened. “He’s had it all week,” he supplied. “The tooth was removed just a few days ago.”

“Then it should be better,” Porthos said, matter of fact. He looked almost in accusation at Aramis again. “Why isn’t it better?”

“Well, I thought it had,” Aramis said, moving to sit himself up a little straighter.

“And what did the doctors say?” D’Artagnan asked pointedly. “Not to mention the Queen.”

“They said there was nothing more medically to be done for it,” Aramis said with a shrug that was meant to look casual. It simply looked ridiculous. Aramis creased his brow apologetically. “I wouldn’t do something rash enough to risk my health.”

D’Artagnan leveled Aramis with a knowing look. Porthos actually scoffed. As if Aramis didn’t have a history of making rash decisions that ended up in the worst possible way.

Aramis’ shoulders slumped. “Fine, fine,” he relented. “Help me up, and I’ll go back to my quarters to rest.”

He was already getting to his feet before D’Artagnan had the chance to suggest that it might not be the best idea.

No matter, his common sense did not need a voice. Not when it prevailed so overwhelming on its own.

The second Aramis found his footing, he nearly lost his wits again. He wavered -- badly -- and this time, Porthos’ sturdy frame was quick enough to catch him before he slumped unceremoniously back to the ground.

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Porthos said with a grunt, propping Aramis up until he found his footing again.

Aramis staggered between them, blinking in confusion.

“Come on,” D’Artagnan said, pulling them toward the door. “We’ll head back to the garrison. It’s not far away.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Aramis protested, even as he struggled to keep pace with his friends.

“You wouldn’t,” Porthos muttered, taking more of the weight from D’Artagnan as they passed the other patrons, who were still watching anxiously.

D’Artagnan smiled politely, apologetically and nodded to the barkeep. “You can send whatever our remaining bill is to the garrison as well.”

The man nodded gratefully.

“Really, this is all undignified--” Aramis was continuing on.

“So is passing out like a woman,” D’Artagnan pointed out.

“From a toothache,” Porthos added.

Aramis sighed, but his struggles ceased. “You aren’t going to let me live this one down, are you?”

“Nope,” Porthos said, easing them out onto the street. “Not on your life.”

The sentiment was sincere.

D’Artagnan just hoped there was no irony in it for fate to use against them.

-o-

They made it back to the garrison with no small amount of work. Aramis was not trying to be difficult -- he so rarely did -- but, as was his habit, he created complications by his mere presence. This was the man who nearly took down the monarchy with the power of his charms -- without even trying. To think they could have a simple gathering of old friends -- well, that had been wishful thinking.

“Come on,” D’Artagnan grunted. “There’s a spare room down here--”

The barracks were still only half as full as they should have been. True, constructed left them at only partial capacity, but the war had depleted their ranks and spread them thin across the lines. No matter how hard D’Artagnan worked to fill the garrison with new recruits, things still didn’t feel like they used to.

“You’ve made good progress,” Porthos said, helping Aramis across the threshold of the nearest door. “Last time I was here, you didn’t have so much built.”

“The rights funds were allocated to the cause,” Aramis chimed in. He was mostly walking now, though neither Porthos nor D’Artagnan trusted him on his own for the time being. “No easy task during war, I can tell you.”

“Yes, yes,” D’Artagnan said rolling his eyes. “We’ll extol your virtues later.”

They helped him down onto the first cot by the door. He looked strangely hopeful as they forced him onto the pillows. “Really?”

“Sure,” D’Artagnan said, reaching for a blanket. “When you’re not laid low by a toothache.”

Aramis feigned insult. “You really aren’t going to let me live that down,” he said. “Are you?”

“As long as you live,” Porthos said, straightening himself with a perfunctory grunt. He shook his head, almost vaguely bemused. “Honestly, only you could pull off something like this.”

“Should I take that as a compliment?” Aramis asked.

“Take it as a kindness,” D’Artagnan ordered him. “We’ll save the rest of the mocking for the morning, after you’ve rested.”

Aramis smiled, but he was obviously exhausted. “This is really too much trouble--”

“It is,” Porthos said. He shrugged. “But I already told Elodie not to expect me home tonight. So…”

“And I’ll send word to the castle,” D’Artagnan said. “I’m sure the Queen will have her concerns if you don’t show up.”

Aramis blinked sleepily, stifling a yawn with a wince. “I’m sorry for the trouble.”

“Save your apologies,” D’Artagnan said, watching as the other man was unable to keep his eyes open any longer. “We’ve never had any need for them, now more than ever.”

After a moment, Aramis’ breathing even out, and it was plain that he was sleeping. The color of his complexion was waxen in the dim candlelight, and without his defenses up, Aramis looked as sick as he had before. It was remarkable how that man could transform himself; D’Artagnan hoped it came naturally to him. He hated to think of the energy that he could have expended to keep up any kind of charade for their sakes.

“Come on,” Porthos said, nodding toward the door. “We best let him sleep.”

D’Artagnan hesitated, just for a moment more. There was no real reason to think that something was amiss, that this was anything more than a toothache after all. With a good night’s rest, Aramis would be better in the morning.

Probably.

Here they were, men of planning, men of power, men of precision.

All reduced to the simplicity of hope.

“Okay,” he said, moving away from the cot and following Porthos out the door.

-o-

The exterior had been rebuilt with few frills, but D’Artagnan had made a few requests. He’d always liked the garrison’s use of upward space, and he’d made sure to include plenty of balconies to accommodate outdoor living during the warmer months. This made for plentiful porches, which could provide covered space for moments just like this.

The hour wasn’t quite late, but the garrison was still quiet. The recruits were nothing if not devoted, and with the long hours of training and work they were all required to do, most of them were in sleep by the time D’Artagnan was finished with his own work.

That meant that the garrison was silent and still, a few faint candles glowing from nearby windows. He could see his own quarters from here, where the light was blown out. Constance must have called it an early night. She deserved that much.

Porthos pulled up a chair, tipping it back against the wall as he sat down with a groan. “It’s funny, you know,” he mused, eyes studying the darkness. “No matter how different this place looks, it still feels like home.”

D’Artagnan dragged his own chair up, positioning it next to Porthos and within close proximity of the door, which he had left cracked. “Well, it is home,” he said. He tilted his head quizzically. “You are the ones who have gone and outgrown it.”

“Hey!” Porthos protested. “I’m still a soldier; always will be. What’s with the rest of you? Captains and ministers and husbands. What am I to make of that?”

“Okay, okay,” D’Artagnan relented, a smile creeping across his lips now. “But it’s still hard for me to really understand it. That I’m the only one still here, in this garrison. When I came to Paris, I was the outsider. Now, here we are.”

Porthos grinned, nodding his head. “Here we are.”

For a moment, the sat in the silence, listening to the quiet sounds of the city after dark. D’Artagnan chuckled to himself, looking down at his hands. “You know,” he said. “I remember when we were barricaded; when all we had was that wine.”

Porthos’ face lit up at the memory. “And we refused to die,” he said, nodding along. “That was, without a doubt, one of the stupidest things I’d done.”

“Oh, I know,” D’Artagnan said. “It was definitely a low point for me.”

“But we made it,” Porthos said. “Defied the odds.”

“That’s the thing, though,” D’Artagnan told him. “I’m not sure we did.”

“Outnumbered like that? Cut off?” Porthos asked. “Not sure what odds you’re looking at.”

“Our odds,” D’Artagnan said. He gestured with a shrug. “Think about it. All the years we spent together. All the close calls; all the times we probably should have never come back. And we always did, without fail. Those odds are always in our favor.”

Porthos looked thoughtful at that. “I suppose it was special, what we had,” he said. “It’s impossible to quantify that kind of thing. The way certain relationships just make everything stronger. I’ve led a lot of men into battle, and they’ve all had the same training, same pay, same everything. But you know what I’ve found? About why some men come home and some don’t?”

“Why?” D’Artagnan asked.

Porthos leaned toward him, lifting a finger. “Some men, it’s just a job. A paycheck,” he said. “But for others, it becomes life. It becomes family. Now I’ve lost men of all persuasions, don’t get me wrong, but the ones who treat it like family -- those are the ones who have something to die for, which means they have all the more to live for.”

D’Artagnan smiled. “That’s what we’ve tried, more than anything, to instill in our new recruits,” he said. “The swordplay, the marksmanship, the brawling -- that’s all important. But we have to be a family. That was what set us apart from the Red Guard all those years ago.”

“Ah, I’d like to say we trained you right,” Porthos said, shaking his head as he looked out into the night. “But I think you had all that when you came to us.”

“But you made it better,” D’Artagnan pledged.

Porthos winked at him. “Damn right we did.”

They fell into silence, which started companionable but it was tinged with sadness somehow. It was a natural thing, for people to move on. None of them regretted the choices they’d made; not when life had turned out so good for all of them.

And yet, D’Artagnan knew they missed this. He missed it, and he could feel they did, too. For all the had gained, they all knew the thing they lacked.

“When the war’s over, will you come back?” D’Artagnan asked.

“I’ll still be a general, I’d wager,” Porthos said.

“Without a battlefield,” D’Artagnan reminded him.

Porthos considered that with a frown. “There’s still need for strategy.”

“An advisor, then?” D’Artagnan asked.

Porthos shrugged. “Unless you think I’d be no good for the Musketeers.”

“I have a hard time seeing you following my orders,” D’Artagnan pointed out.

Porthos seemed to think about that. “I hadn’t really thought about it. I mean, it wouldn’t be the same, would? With Treville gone, and Athos on a farm and Aramis in the castle. Where does that leave us?”

“Honestly, I have no idea,” D’Artagnan said. He chewed his lip. “The war’s such an easy distraction sometimes.”

“Never a second to think,” Porthos agreed. “Not enough nights like that, just to take stock.”

D’Artagnan offered him an apologetic smile. “And here I’ve given us something morose to think about.”

Porthos chuckled. “It’s all Aramis’ fault,” he said. “Going and passing out like that. Him and his toothache.”

D’Artagnan laughed, louder than he intended. “Definitely Aramis’ fault,” he said. “We’ll have to have him make it up to us in the morning.”

“Of course,” Porthos said, matter of fact, but his mood faltered. He stole a glance back at the door, and then lowered his voice to D’Artagnan. “You promise this is just a toothache.”

D’Artagnan found himself sobered immediately. “That’s what I’ve been told.”

Porthos wet his lips, glancing behind him again. “Because if he needs something--”

“Then we’re here,” D’Artagnan supplied for him, feeling the sentiment verging on too much. He managed a smile to appear reassuring. “Then we’re right here.”

Hesitantly, Porthos nodded. He settled himself back, trying to adjust himself more comfortably in the chair. “Like you said, the odds are in our favor then.”

Neither of them spoke for a long time after that, afraid to break the silence and admit that sometimes, when you played the odds long enough, failure was inevitable.

-o-

They night was not as they had planned, to be sure, but D’Artagnan could not count it all for loss. Neither of them felt compelled to sleep, and the quiet conversation between them made the hours pass more quickly than they probably should have. It was not that D’Artagnan was starved for friendship, companionship or conversation. To the contrary, here in the garrison, in Paris with Constance, he had those things in abundance.

Yet, there was something to this. Something sentimental, maybe. Something that reminded him of who he’d been when he started and just how far he’d come. Something that made him remember why all of this mattered in the first place.

They talked about what they’d done together, and they talked about what they’d done apart. The shared stories they’d told a thousand times, and they found new ones to discuss as the night inched toward the dawn. When they had shared all they could, they talked of what they hoped would be, the dreams, the plans, the hopes.

Somewhere, as the sun started to rise, D’Artagnan found himself dozing pleasantly. It was an easy thing to do, even in a time like this. To let his guard down when he felt so safe, so complete.

When it felt as though all were finally, finally right with the world.

Then, with a suddenness that seemed to rend the morning into two, a yell split through the air, and the moment was irrevocably lost.

On his feet, D’Artagnan found himself acutely aware.

The respite, as it were, was over.

Now, it was time to act.

-o-

There could have been a thousand things to cause a scene, D’Artagnan knew that.

He also knew, however, that it wasn’t any of those things.

It was one thing.

Charging inside, he found Porthos standing over Aramis’ bed. The former sharpshooter was still against the sheets, and D’Artagnan caught a glance of his flushed face with closed eyes.

Distraught, Porthos turned toward him. “He’s burning with fever,” he said, the drawl heavier than it normally might have been. He’d already flung Aramis’ covers back to no avail. “He won’t wake up.”

Looking from Porthos to Aramis, D’Artagnan realized that for all that had remained the same, much had changed, too. Porthos wasn’t completely confident. Aramis wasn’t completely resilient. Athos wasn’t even here.

And D’Artagnan.

Well, he wasn’t the new kid anymore.

He was the captain of the musketeers.

And it was time for him to take action.

-o-

With long strides, D’Artagnan crossed the floor, letting the door fall shut behind him. He eased in next to Porthos, gently moving him out of the way so he could get a better look at their stricken compatriot.

Brushing his fingers across Aramis’ brow, he could feel the raging fever. Up close, it was easy to see the toll it was taking on his already taxed body. He looked more gaunt than ever, and sweat glistened on his forehead, soaking into the strands of his hair.

It was bad in most respects, but good in this.

“At least we know he’s alive,” D’Artagnan muttered, passing his eyes over the rest of Aramis’ prone body, just to be sure. There were no obvious signs of injury, and Aramis had been in no sort of combat lately. There was nothing, nothing except…

He frowned, shaking his head.

“Must be that damn tooth,” he said, reaching down to tilt Aramis’ jaw to the side.

“But they took it out, I thought,” Porthos said.

D’Artagnan gave a short, curt shrug. “Something’s obviously gone wrong.”

From behind them, there was a noise at the door. D’Artagnan looked up in time to see one of their new recruits, a young man from the south, looking on in wide-eyed concern.

“There’s been an incident with the First Minister,” D’Artagnan said, leaving no room for nonsense in his tone. He carried weight now; there was a time when he’d trusted Treville like his men trust him. “Go to the palace and summon the doctor. Make sure the queen is informed.”

The man looked at him blankly for a second. “But--”

“But nothing,” D’Artagnan snapped. “Did I mention this is the First Minister of France?”

The man -- no more than a boy, D’Artagnan had to remind himself -- paled significantly and scrambled to take his leave.

“You really think a doctor can help?” Porthos asked. “They were the ones who were supposed to fix this in the first place.”

D’Artagnan made hasty work, throwing the blankets fully aside. “Maybe, maybe not,” he agreed. “But Aramis is not merely our brother. He’s the queen’s lover, and he’s the First Minister of France. Can you fetch some water? Maybe put some on the fire, too.”

Porthos complied without argument, though he remained skeptical. “If the doctors can’t figure out, then what are we supposed to do?” he asked, fretting. His doubts would be annoying were they not so firmly rooted in obvious and undeniable concern. “Aramis was always the medic of the group.”

“True, but he did teach me a thing or two,” D’Artagnan said, manipulating Aramis’ jaw to open his mouth. He tilted his own head, trying to get a better look. “We’re also going to need clean cloths and a flame.”

Porthos threw a log on the fire, adjusting the kettle before approaching again with the water and cloth. “The fire’s not enough?”

“We need something to provide us better light inside his mouth,” D’Artagnan said, using the first of the water to clean his own hands.

Porthos reached for a half-worn candlestick, lighting it at the fire. “In his mouth?”

D’Artagnan scrubbed another moment more before drying his fingers. “It is a toothache, after all,” he said, settling himself back down next to Aramis. “Now come, bring the light.”

Obediently, Porthos came closer. Carefully, he positioned himself to give D’Artagnan full use of the light while not blocking the natural sunlight that was coming through the windows.

“See anything?” Porthos asked anxiously, rocking just slightly on the balls of his feet.

Squinting, D’Artagnan forced Aramis’ mouth open even more. Beneath him, the former musketeer did not stir. “Move the light a little more to the left,” he coached, waiting for Porthos to comply. “A little more...and there.”

The illumination flickered, but it was bright enough to reveal the source of the problem. The missing tooth was easy to spot, and not just because of the gap along the bottom side of his jaw. No, more than that, the entire area was swollen, and even in the strained light, it was plain that it was blossoming red.

It was true that D’Artagnan was no doctor, and he’d developed good rapport with as many medical professionals as he possibly could. He’d never hesitated to enlist the best for his men, but that didn’t mean he was completely inept in this regard. Aramis had told him, very early on, that he had steady hands -- more than that, when he was friends with the likes of Porthos and Athos, knowing how to throw a stitch could only be of benefit.

Now, here he was. About to apply Aramis’ advice on behalf of Aramis’ life.

“Give me a knife,” he said, carefully holding Aramis’ mouth open.

“A knife?” Porthos rejoined, sounding appalled. The light moved as Porthos sat back, aghast.

“There’s a piece of the tooth still in the gum,” D’Artagnan explained reasonably.

“So wait for the doctor!” Porthos exclaimed with a glare.

D’Artagnan barely restrained a sigh. “It could be hours before he gets back. His fever is only getting hotter. We have to clean out this wound if he’s going to have a chance of survival.”

“And if you cut him too deep, you could bleed him before the doctor even has a chance to see him,” Porthos retorted, shaking his head.

“Porthos,” he said, refusing to back down. “You have to know, I don’t do this lightly. Do you trust me?”

Porthos scoffed. “With Aramis’ life?”

“Yes!”

At this, Porthos hesitated -- badly. “You know I do,” he said. “But if this goes wrong…”

“He’s dying anyway,” D’Artagnan reasoned. “At least this way, we’re fighting with him.”

Porthos looked like he wanted to argue. His mouth was held open, the protestations poised and ready. But, he faltered, eyes going to Aramis. Closing his mouth, his jaw clenched and he looked soberly at D’Artagnan again. “You sure you can do this?”

That wasn’t the question he’d been expecting. He could have easily explained again why it was necessary. He could have outlined in detailed the reasons for and against. He could have justified himself in his rationale.

But this wasn’t about reason or logic. It was about D’Artagnan himself.

Could he do this?

Could he take another man’s life into his hands and sleep well with the outcome?

Could he save Aramis’ life?

Could he face Porthos if he failed?

For a moment, D’Artagnan almost wavered. He almost remembered what it was like it be young and new and inexperienced. He wished, if only fleetingly, that Athos was here and that the choice wasn’t his.

That moment, however, passed.

D’Artagnan had proven that he didn’t need Athos to make the hard choices. He’d shown that he didn’t need Porthos to overcome obstacles by sheer force alone. And he’d made the point that he didn’t need Aramis’ finesse to talk his way in and out of a situation as he saw fit.

Because he could stand on his own, thanks to them.

Resolutely, he nodded. “I know I can.”

Sighing, Porthos reached into his belt, withdrawing a small, sharp blade. “Will this do?”

D’Artagnan took it, bobbing his head curtly. “I think so.”

-o-

D’Artagnan’s hands were shaking as he cleaned the knife, and they were damn near trembling when he held the blade in the fire until it gleamed. Porthos had lit a fresh candle, and he turned Aramis’ cot to give them the best of the sunlight possible. When D’Artagnan turned back, readying to sit down, he thought that he may actually be sick.

He swallowed back on his churning stomach, forcing his numb legs to sit. On the bed, Aramis looked even worse than the before. He could feel the heat now, radiating off the man in waves.

It was a lot, of course, but then, it always had been.

D’Artagnan had always risen to the challenge.

Girding himself, he determined that he would not fail now.

He glanced at Porthos. “Hold the light steady, but stay close,” he advised “I don’t want Aramis to rouse too much--”

Porthos made a face. “I’ve always been able to hold him down when I need to.”

D’Artagnan gave him a brief, understanding now. He looked at Aramis and took a breath.

Reaching the knife up, the time for doubts had passed. The time for uncertainty was over.

His hands were steady and sure as he reached inside toward the inflamed gum and made his first cut.

-o-

Confident, prepared and experienced -- none of it really mattered. The blood nearly exploded at the first touch of the blade, followed by a rush of pus and saliva. Surprised, D’Artagnan withdrew, carefully turning Aramis’ head to the side as the red liquid spilled from his mouth. Frowning, he tried to clean out as much as he could -- the last thing he needed was for Aramis to choke to death while they tried to save his life.

Nearby, Porthos winced, but he didn’t say anything. It was a margin of grace that D’Artagnan needed.

Rallying himself, he right Aramis’ head and peered inside his mouth again. It was still bleeding, but only just. Using the tip of the blade, he gently pressed back the inflamed edges of the wound to get better visibility.

Although the cut was small, it was revealing. The exposed gum made the tooth remnant even more visible. “Looks like part of the root,” he said, trying to put his fingers around it. The blood made it hard to find the small piece. “Looks deep.”

Porthos made a noise of discontent that D’Artagnan did not have to turn to comprehend.

He shook his head, resigning himself to a deeper cut.

More blood welled up, and D’Artagnan took the time to clean out Aramis’ mouth again.

“That’s a lot of blood,” Porthos murmured anxiously.

D’Artagnan did what he could not to flinch. “Hold the light steady,” he advised, using the knife again. “I need to see.”

“But the blood--”

“Makes the light even more important,” D’Artagnan snapped.

“D’Artagnan--”

“We can’t stop now,” he countered. “We’ve come too far…”

To that, there was no argument.

There was only action.

The light steadied, and D’Artagnan found his wits again. Narrowing his gaze, he chewed his lip in concentration as he used the point of the knife to lever beneath the root. He applied a small amount of force at first with little effect. Willing himself to ignore the blood as it slithered down the back of Aramis’ throat, he pressed deeper still, letting the blade find its tipping point as he levered up with even more force.

It took a long, horrible moment, and D’Artagnan nearly gave up. But, just as his own fortitude dissipated, Aramis’ prevailed.

The speck of white moved, and with an audible sucking noise, it was hefted free of the gum and into the blood-stained palm of D’Artagnan’s waiting hand. “I got it,” he said, disbelief washing over him.

“You sure?” came Porthos’ crisp reply.

D’Artagnan put the tooth remnant aside, reaching his fingers back inside Aramis’ slack jaws. He had to wipe away the blood, opening the slit in the gum again to get a better look inside. “I think so.”

“You think?” Porthos asked.

D’Artagnan moved, tilting Aramis’ head back to the side to let the blood and saliva drain out again. “It’s impossible to be sure.”

Porthos’ expression was grave. “I thought you said you could do this.”

“I did do this,” D’Artagnan reminded him, reaching for a cloth in the water basin. “But you know how this is, Porthos. We can do what we can do, but there’s never any guarantee, not with the way this world works.”

Drawing a terse breath, Porthos nodded grimly. “The world, maybe, but we’ve got something better than that.”

Using the water, D’Artagnan ran a stream into Aramis’ mouth, using it to clean the wound. “Oh?”

“Musketeers,” Porthos said. He used one hand to pat his chest. “Call us captain, general, minister -- we know who we are.”

D’Artagnan felt the solidarity swell in his chest, filling the gaps left by the gnawing doubts. “I haven’t forgot,” he said, looking sadly back at Aramis. “I hope none of us has.”

“That’s our secret, though, isn’t it?” Porthos asked. “We’re stronger because we’re together.”

With a faint smile, D’Artagnan nodded, wiping a trail of blood in Aramis’ beard. “Until the end,” he said.

Porthos brought the light closer, reaching for another clean cloth in another water basin. He handed it to D’Artagnan with nothing more than the promise in return. “Until the end.”

-o-

They do what they can to keep themselves busy. Neither of them wanted to talk about it, but it was not easy for men of action to be so decidedly idle. For as harrowing as the makeshift surgery may have been, waiting in the aftermath to gauge their success -- or failure -- was that much worse.

D’Artagnan tidied up, picking up the stray remnants of their activity. He hastily folded the soiled rags, wishing he could burn them so as not to look at Aramis’ blood any longer. But he could not afford that kind of sentimentality.

Porthos, for his part, tended Aramis devoted, sitting anxiously on the edge of the chair. He studied every rise and fall of Aramis’ chest, relieved each time when another breath was drawn.

Between them, words fell short.

They’d fought their part of this battle.

They had said their peace.

Now, for better or worse, it was up to Aramis.

-o-

By the time the doctor arrived, D’Artagnan had almost dared to hope.

The doctor’s apoplectic reaction, however, gave him reason to pause.

“What have you done to him?” the doctor demanded, inspecting Aramis’ mouth with a look of vague horror.

“There was still a bit of tooth in there,” D’Artagnan said. Porthos was sitting rigidly, almost too tense to move.

“So you took it upon yourselves to remove it?” was the incredulous reply.

“His fever was raging,” D’Artagnan tried to explain. “He was dying.”

“It was a toothache!” the doctor snapped with a trying tsk of his tongue.

“Men don’t die from a toothache,” Porthos growled. “And besides, I thought you were the one who was supposed to have taken the thing out.”

The men understood the implication; moreover, he understood the threat. He quieted himself somewhat, preening idly. “I merely advised upon the surgery,” he said. “Another colleague completed the surgery as I had minimal experience with conditions of the mouth.”

The attempt to absolve himself only made him appear all the more inept. D’Artagnan drew a breath, seeking to avoid the inevitable confrontation that would occur if he did not intervene. “We know it was a rash decision, but we are not men to run from a fight,” he explained. “Did we do wrong in removing it?”

That was, in the end, the question. A doctor of his standing would be territorial, especially since D’Artagnan knew the queen would be pressing on him for results. But, he had to hope that arriving at such a position in the queen’s household was not a fluke or a political favor. Surely, for the sake of everyone in the royal household, he knew what he was doing.

The man hesitated, looking at Aramis with more than a twinge of trepidation. “The wound is swollen still, which suggests that you were right to suspects something inside,” he said. “In fact, I’m quite surprised to see how it looks. A cleared wound would have started to improve by now.”

“So it was the right choice?” Porthos asked in a low, deadly voice.

“It wasn’t the wrong choice,” the doctor said, marginally more diplomatic than before. “Wounds in this condition need immediate attention, but I cannot say that your work is the most satisfactory. You damn near butchered his mouth doing this. It’ll be a mess of work to stitch him up properly.”

The words were hard to hear, although they were without overt condemnation. He crossed his arms tautly over his chest, glancing anxiously at Aramis. “But he’ll be all right?”

“At this point, it’s hard to say,” the man admitted. “The fever is still something to contend with. With proper care and minding, he has a chance. When we get him settled at the palace--”

Porthos was already shaking his head, but D’Artagnan inched his way forward appropriately. “I don’t think it’s probably best to move him.”

“But he needs a doctor!” the man exclaimed.

“And funny enough!” Porthos boomed. “Here you are!”

The little man looked positively aghast. Under different circumstances, it might have been funny. “But this is no place to tend a wound of this magnitude!”

D’Artagnan produced his most disarming smile. “With respect, you’ve made it sound like his condition is delicate.”

The doctor gestured with a shrug. “You’ve gone and cut a hole in his mouth while he’s strained with fever,” he pointed out. “Delicate is the only possible description.”

“All the more reason not to jostle him by taking him to the palace,” D’Artagnan reasoned. “Trust me, we are not medical experts, but we are well equipped to tend to Aramis’ needs and to follow your orders explicitly.”

The man hesitated, looking again at Aramis. The gaunt figure that was unmoving under the sheets was a powerful defense of D’Artagnan’s argument. Funny, D’Artagnan could have done with being proven wrong right about now.

With a sigh, the doctor looked at him again. “I will stitch him up and show you how to irrigate the wound properly,” he said, reaching for his medical kit. “You’ll need to be vigilant, and call for me immediately if his condition should change.”

“We’ll bear that in mind,” D’Artagnan promised.

“As will the queen,” Porthos said, shooting the doctor a look laden with distrust. “I’m sure she’ll be very interested to know how her most trusted doctor managed to mistreat a toothache.”

To the man’s credit, this time he did not cow. Instead, he produced his needle, and gave Porthos a look of keen distaste. “We all fight our battles, monsieur,” he said. “I imagine you’ve learned the hard way that it is often the battles perceived as simple that can be the most damaging.”

Porthos was too proud to give his ground.

It was no matter, though.

“The stitching,” D’Artagnan interjected. “How can we help?”

The doctor shrugged. “Warm water, hot fire, cloths…”

Porthos got to his feet, clambering noisily to the kitchen to get a fresh pot. D’Artagnan reached for the last of the cloth, holding out a clean swath. “I think we know how this one goes.”

The doctor reached out, grabbing it over Aramis’ still form. “Men like you,” he murmured. “Somehow I’m not surprised.”

-o-

All bluster and accusations aside, D’Artagnan was quite relieved to have a trained medical professional on hand. He had done what he’d needed to do on Aramis’ behalf, but watching the doctor work on the mangled gums left him feeling queasy now.

If he took it poorly, Porthos took it damn near horribly. By the end of the procedure, the large man looked nearly as gaunt as Aramis did. D’Artagnan made his thank-yous quiet as he ushered the doctor to the door.

“Like I said, I’ve done what I can,” the doctor told him, just outside the door. D’Artagnan made a point to close it, watching as Porthos adjusted Aramis’ pillows. “But I have no guarantee to offer you.”

It was a mere matter of habit that D’Artagnan mustered a weak smile. “I would not ask it of you.”

The man seemed to collect a breath with a pitying look. “I will say, however, that I have crossed paths with the First Minister many times in many official capacities. His tenacity in the face of adversity is nothing if not notable. You should have seen his response the last time the dauphin came down with a cold. I damn well feared for my life!”

The man could have no idea why, of course, but D’Artagnan could easily imagine. “He can be very protective of those he cares about.”

“And stubborn,” the doctor said. He patted D’Artagnan’s arm reassuringly. “He is an innately stubborn man.”

D’Artagnan’s lips twisted into a wry, hard smile. “You have no idea.”

The man gave a shrug. “Maybe not,” he agreed. “But I remind you that I have tended to him in the past. I know his wounds. I believe I know an inkling of what he has faced and survived before.”

D’Artagnan nodded, a little grimmer. “But this was supposed to be nothing more than a toothache,” he reminded the man. He gestured to the door. “So how did we end up here?”

At this, the doctor seemed vexed. He shook his head. “You should not be so presumptuous,” he advised. “You think you can protect against many things in your position -- as do I -- but it is the unexpected things, the little things, that pose the biggest threat to us. You can stop armies. I can stop the plague. But this? How do we admit, men of action like we are, that we may be powerless to combat it?”

D’Artagnan gave a stiff shrug. “Maybe we don’t.”

This time, the doctor’s expression was kind. “And may you not be proven wrong,” he said. He tilted his head. “For both of our sakes.”

-o-

Watching the doctor go, D’Artagnan wanted to feel relief. He wanted to be reassured. He craved hope.

None of those things were to be found.

No, here it was just D’Artagnan, captain to his men and servant of France. For all his strength and training and experience and influence, he was useless here, no matter how many protestations he gave otherwise.

He looked at the door, thinking of Porthos and Aramis on the other side. He knew what the tableau must look like, Aramis’ stricken in bed, Porthos curved with worry at his side.

Gritting his teeth, he knew he had little to offer, but maybe not nothing.

Maybe something.

His presence, meager as it may be.

It was all he had.

And for his brothers, he would give it gladly.

Thus decided, he opened the door and entered once more.

-o-

“We’ve been shot, stabbed, run through. Poisoned, pushed through windows,” Porthos said after they’d held vigil for a while. “The would-be coups, the fighting in the streets, the wars. And how did we end up here?”

D’Artagnan pulled up a chair, settling in next to it, situating himself between Porthos and Aramis. “The better question is, how have we not been here before?”

Porthos chuckled. “I reckon we have,” he commented. “I seem to remember someone pulling a bullet out of me a few times.”

D’Artagnan smiled faintly at the memory. “We survived all that,” he said. “This is just another instance for us. Another example to show our resilience and remind us who we are?”

Porthos gave him a quizzical look, turning his eyes from Aramis’ prone body for the first time. “You believe that?”

For all his hesitations, D’Artagnan smiled boldly now. “I do,” he said, and if it wasn’t a truth, then he could say honestly that it was neither a lie.


The musketeers, after all, did not survive by faith and strength and cunning. No, it relied, in large part, by belief.

In the cause, yes.

But mostly in each other.

He settled himself more deeply, as if planting his stake in the ground and claiming this battle as his own, no matter what the outcome may be.

“I truly do.”

-o-

The day was long with much to be done. There were the practical matters, of course. Porthos sent word to Elodie, alerting her of his absence and begging her apologies. News had to be sent to the front, suggesting the slightest of postponement to the troop’s advances in order to give Porthos time to catch up.

Life at the garrison went on much as it always did, but D’Artagnan refused to check in with his paperwork. It was easier than it probably should have been, since Constance made an especially apt stand-in during all of his absences.

Messengers came from the palace every hour, and D’Artagnan entertained them with kindness for the sake of the queen. He would not have been surprised to see her turn up on his doorstep, but he insisted in all his messages that Aramis was holding his own against the illness. He liked to think that was a kindness and not a cowardice, but if Aramis did not recover, the queen would never forgive him.

No matter, for D’Artagnan would never forgive himself.

That was why he did not allow himself to dwell on such things. Instead, he busied himself in his vigil. He kept a cool cloth on Aramis’ brow, and he held tepid water to the other man’s lips while Porthos tried to hold his head steady. The changed the sheets and kept the fire stoked, and they kept up a comfortable but quiet repartee that had to benefit them each.

Sometimes, he thought about sending word to Athos, but found himself hesitating. It felt wrong, in some regards, not to let him know. They should be together, if only for the last time.

He shook his head, for this was why he could not send the word. True, Athos would want to know, and indeed, he would come, but D’Artagnan could not let himself think in such dark, pessimistic terms.

The last time?

If this was it, D’Artagnan would not embrace it without a fight.

This was his job now, his responsibility. He could not pawn it off on Athos, nor could he claim to be following the orders from Treville. He could not cite Porthos and Aramis as accomplices in crimes, and he was not following the foolish orders of a foolish king.

No, he made the choices.

And he endured the consequences.

He was the captain now, and the others did not hold active commissions, but that mattered little. Porthos was his; Athos was his; Aramis was his.

It was up to D’Artagnan to use all that they had taught him and lead on.

And that was a responsibility that D’Artagnan, until his very dying breath, would never, ever shirk.

-o-

The hours grew long; Aramis’ fever did not break.

Porthos, however, showed signs of crumbling.

Blowing out a hot breath, the larger man shook his head. “This shouldn’t bother me as much as it does.”

“It’s hard, sitting here and waiting,” D’Artagnan said politely.

Porthos shook his head, getting to his feet jerkily. “But I’ve been here, more times than I’d like to recall,” he said. “I’ve lost men before, even friends.”

D’Artagnan smiled sadly. “But not like this. Not Aramis.”

Though his words were kind, Porthos bore them with difficulty. He looked bereft, almost more lost than D’Artagnan had ever seen him before. “Not Aramis,” he agreed, voice weaker than before. His countenance wavered, and his eyes were wet as he looked down at the first minister again. “If something happened to him…”

It was hard to see him like this, so vulnerable. Almost harder than seeing Aramis, so vibrant most of the time, laid so dangerously low. But kindness was not the same as softness. “But something has happened to him,” D’Artagnan pointed out.

Porthos looked up sharply.

D’Artagnan would not be deterred now. “And more things will happen to him, too. To all of us, really. More wounds, more illness, more blood.”

Porthos’ gaze darkened.

“But that’s why it’s a good thing we’re not on our own,” he said. “Remember? All for one?”

Something loosened in Porthos’ expression, and the hint of vulnerability returned. This time, he did not chase it away. Instead, Porthos nodded, shaky but certain. “And one for all.”

It was more than anyone else could claim to have.

D’Artagnan merely hoped that it would be enough.

-o-

Strong and determined as he was, Porthos’ vigor faded as Aramis’ fever raged on. When the larger man lapsed into silence, breathing deep and even as he slumped against the wall. He was still poised over Aramis, one large leg against the bed. If there was the slightest sound, the most meager of movements, it would wake him in an instant.

That was why, then, D’Artagnan kept himself as still as quiet as possible. Aramis was the one burning with fever, but he was not the only one affected by this. In the palace, the queen would be fretting, and a little boy would wonder where his favorite advisor had gone. D’Artagnan could do nothing about that.

So he would do something about this.

Seeing Porthos sleep reminded D’Artagnan of his own exhaustion, but he refused to indulge it. Porthos needed the rest, and D’Artagnan could sit and play nursemaid in the meantime. Reaching out, he felt the tepid cloth against Aramis’ head, removing it before pulling a fresh one from the cool basin nearby. He squeezed it out momentarily before splaying it over Aramis’ forward, letting the coolness sweep over the flush of his cheeks.

“I’m sure this does nothing for your hair,” he murmured apologetically, pressing the cloth back over Aramis’ matted hair. “But if not this water, then your own sweat would be bad enough. Your hair will look a fright for being laid up so long, and I can already see that your beard needs a trim.”

His tone was light and his words quiet. Thus being as it was, no one responded to his trivialities. He sat back with a wan smile, studying Porthos for a moment.

“I’ve never seen him like this, you know,” he continued. “Not even when the baby was born. But you do something to him, and I’m not sure you even meant to.”

On the bed, Aramis did not stir. Porthos, on the chair, snuffled quietly and settled back into sleep.

“Porthos needs you, I think,” he said with a thoughtful frown. “It was hard on him when you left at the start of the war; hurt him bad enough that he sort of hated you for it. And even though we parted on the best of terms this time, you’re always the first thing he asks about when he visits. You know that.”

They all did, but that wasn’t the sort of thing they said to each other. Not out loud, not really. And all these years later, D’Artagnan found himself at a loss. What if they never got the chance? What if they’d spent all their luck when they hadn’t needed it?

He sighed, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees wearily. Looking up through the fringe of his bangs, he sighed again, shaking his head at Aramis. “You’re the First Minister of France,” he said, as though someone may have forgotten. “Your country needs you, now more than ever. Not to mention the Queen and the Dauphin. You wouldn’t leave them, would you? Not when they need you so very, very badly.”

His voice wavered, and he felt his throat tighten. Distantly, his eyes burn and he has to grind his teeth together to keep the precariousness of his emotions soundly in check.

“We need you,” he admitted, voice almost hoarse in the stillness. He blinks, wiping away an unshed tear viciously. “We need you.”

It caught up with him, then, and he wondered again how Treville and Athos had handled this job so seamlessly. Here he was, nearly beside himself, over a toothache.

He looked down, suppressing a wry laugh with enough force that it hurt.

Looking up, he reached for Aramis’ hand, wrapping the flaccid fingers in his own.

This, he knew, holding tighter than he thought possible.

He drew a breath and let it out through his nose as he squeezed tighter still.

This was how they did it.

-o-

The day was long, no doubt.

The night was longer still, and bleaker, too. There were moments when Aramis’ breathing grew so faint that D’Artagnan had to press his hand over the man’s chest just to be sure they hadn’t lost this battle yet.

Aramis did not relent, however. And, if he considered it, Porthos was an unyielding force and D’Artagnan had an evergreen spirit.

It was all they had.

Fortunately, it had been all they ever needed.

-o-

It was probably apt that D’Artagnan was the last to wake.

In fact, he was woken by the sound of Porthos’ guffaw, as loud and guttural as he’d ever heard it before. As sudden as it was, D’Artagnan could barely tell if the other man was laughing or crying or--

Jolted awake now, he blinked in confusion. Porthos was still making near-hysterical noises that didn’t seem entirely coherent, but his eyes were on--

D’Artagnan looked to the bed, and found himself even more dumbfounded than before.

There, lifting his head weakly off the bed, was Aramis.

Eyes clear, cheeks pale, forehead dry.

“Aramis!” he said, and he finally understood the strange noise of Porthos’ voice as he heard it mimicked in his own. “The fever broke!”

Aramis looked vaguely uncertain about this news, as though he wasn’t sure if it was actually good or not.

“We’ve been so worried,” he continued, half aware that he was babbling like an idiot. “We should really check your mouth--”

Aramis’ frown deepened. “My toothache?” he asked weakly.

Porthos grunted, but he was grinning broadly from ear to ear. “Bit more than a toothache at this point.”

“Hopefully this means that you’re on the mend, though,” D’Artagnan told him by way of encouragement.

“This?” Aramis asked haltingly.

“There was a bit of tooth still in your gum,” he explained. “I think it was making you sick.”

Aramis studied him dubiously.

“We cut it out, though,” Porthos said.

Reaching his hand up, Aramis felt his jaw gingerly. “Is that why it feels so bad?”

D’Artagnan felt himself redden. “Trust me when I say the alternative was worse.”

This time, Aramis considered his words more carefully. He put his hand down, turning to his friends again. “I feel exhausted, but I daresay you two look worse,” he said. “What have you been doing?”

“Making sure you don’t die, you idiot,” Porthos said.

“Besides,” D’Artagnan interjected. “Like you have any room to comment. You were the one laid low by a toothache in the first place.”

Aramis feigned woundedness. “I thought we agreed it was more than a toothache?”

D’Artagnan rolled his eyes. “As you are technically still my superior, I have no further comment.”

Porthos, however, gave a good natured huff. “First Minister, my ass,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Here we are, fighting hard and risking our lives, and it’s still you who end up half dead.”

Aramis winced at that. “Well, it may not be as dangerous as being captain of the guard or general on the front, but it has its perils.”

“Uh huh,” Porthos said smugly. He winked at D’Artagnan. “He always was the dramatic one.”

“You think?” D’Artagnan quipped back.

“Admit it,” Aramis said, the buoyancy of his voice starting to return. He offered a brash, disarming smile that he had no right to this soon after a near-death experience. “You’d be disappointed if I wasn’t.”

“No, actually,” D’Artagnan said. “I don’t think I would.”

“I know wouldn’t,” Porthos said.

“Ah, well,” Aramis said, as though it were nothing but a trifling idea anyway. “Maybe I’ll learn after this.”

Porthos shook his head with bemused rejection. “Since when have you pulled that off? All the stupid things you’ve put us through?”

“But never a toothache,” Aramis said, lifting a finger keenly.

D’Artagnan found himself chuckling. “I suppose there’s a first time for everything.”

“Sure, but can we make this one a last?” Porthos said. “We had to delay an entire movement on the front on account of you.”

“Like I said,” Aramis said with no hint of apology now. “Drama.”

Drama, to say the least. They had had more than their share, and D’Artagnan had an inkling that they would continue to find their way around more trouble. There would be war, intrigue, betrayal, rebellion, sword fights and even toothaches.

That was how it was, this life.

And they could handle it, from the biggest to the least.

As long as they were, inextricably, together.

-o-

Aramis convalesced for another day at the garrison before he was spirited away back to the palace. For as sick as he’d been, the man recovered quickly. Indeed, he took quite well to pampering, and it was probably for the best that the queen expressed dismay at his continued absence from the palace. The queen sent her kindness regards, and she was quite insistent that D’Artagnan and Constance join her for dinner at the nearest possible convenience.

Porthos, by the by, had to return to the front, and with a swift horse, he barely lost any time before he was back in action. D’Artagnan sent extra troops to reinforce the man’s position, and although he would argue that the move was strategic, he would always fail to mention whether or not he was taking France’s best interests to heart -- or his own. As it were, after this incident, he had little desire to leave such things to chance.

He sent word to Athos, sooner rather than later. While he kept his note cordial and friendly, he mentioned the events of the last few weeks with the lightest of touches. He trusted, more than nearly anything else, that Athos would understand. He closed the letter by wishing that Athos was well, and he entreated the other man to reply soon with an update to his life and health. It was a silly concern, perhaps, but D’Artagnan was not too proud for such things.

At the end of the day, he still went home to the garrison and found his rest in Constance’s arms. The life he’d chosen, it wasn’t easy, and it seemed fate took pleasure in making it inexorably harder. That was just as well, D’Artagnan decided when things had quieted enough for reflected. Because he would never have to face it, not as long as he drew breath, all on his own.