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Born for Adversity

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oOo

By pride comes nothing but strife,

But with the well-advised is wisdom.

Proverbs 13:10 (ESV)

oOo

Athos was having one of his worse nights.

Though he usually drank copious amounts, he also usually stayed at the table with his friends. Only on truly bad nights would he go off and insist on sitting alone, drinking himself into a stupor.

D’Artagnan eyed him from where he sat with Aramis and Porthos, only half-listening to the conversation. He didn’t realize he was staring until he noticed they had both gone quiet and he turned to find them watching him.

“He’s all right, lad,” Porthos said.

D’Artagnan cast him a narrow-eyed glare, both for the moniker and the platitude.

Porthos sighed and amended, “He’ll be all right come morning.”

“Come morning he will be surly,” d’Artganan countered. “And you are not the one who’ll likely be training at the other end of his sword.” He was not drunk himself, but he’d had enough to loosen his tongue a bit. As his gaze drifted back to Athos he asked, “Does it not worry you?”

The other two exchanged a glance. “Of course,” Aramis admitted. “But years of experience have taught us what we can and cannot do for Athos. We can offer our support; we cannot force him to accept it.”

It was clear how much that pained him. It pained d’Artagnan, and he’d known Athos far less long.

Porthos set his empty cup down and stood. “We can also carry him home to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.”

Aramis nodded and prepared to follow, grabbing his hat. He paused to ask d’Artagnan, “Can you get yourself home all right?”

D’Artagnan raised an eyebrow. “I’m fine. I’ve had hardly a fraction of what you all have had.”

“Yes, but your tolerance level is a fraction of ours as well,” Aramis said under his breath. Louder he added, “And what makes you think I was implying that you are drunk?”

“I preferred that to an implication that I can’t walk a few streets by myself. I am a big boy, no matter how often you all call me ‘lad.’”

Aramis grinned. “Yes, well you’d best get home then, big boy. We wouldn’t want Madame Bonacieux to worry,” he added suggestively.

D’Artagnan rolled his eyes at the familiar tease. “She’s still married. And just yesterday Monsieur Bonacieux arrived home from his latest trip to stay at least a few weeks.”

“Ah, that would put a damper on things.”

“There are no things to be dampened,” d’Artagnan insisted.

“Of course not,” Aramis humored. “Still, you’d best be getting home. Wouldn’t want to irritate the landlord by traipsing in too late.”

“More than I already irritate him with my wild, Musketeering ways?”

That earned him a hearty laugh and a clap on the shoulder. “Exactly. We’re horrible influences. Have a good night, d’Artagnan.”

But as Aramis moved off towards Athos, d’Artagnan made no move to leave. He picked up his cup, nursing the last few sips as he watched. Though he really couldn’t care less about the drink, he was curious to see if Porthos was going to have to literally carry Athos.

He watched as the big Musketeer approached, staying in Athos’ line of sight so as not to startle him, and placed a gentle hand on his back. As Athos was looking up at Porthos, Aramis expertly slipped the cup from his fingers and set it aside. They both spoke to him calmly as they pulled out his chair and pulled him to his feet, one on each side for support as they guided him to the door.

D’Artagnan gulped the last of his drink and stood to follow. He looked down the street after them for a long moment until they disappeared into the dark, then he sighed and turned to go his own way.

The whole scene had touched off a funny ache in his chest. The brotherhood between the three of them was incredible. Athos was not a man to be handled, but Aramis and Porthos did so masterfully. There was such tenderness in their interactions, such deep affection that was clearly evident in the caretaking.

D’Artagnan wanted to be a part of that brotherhood so badly that he could practically taste it. He was rather embarrassed by the intensity of the yearning, which tended to present itself at inconvenient moments. Now, for example. Though he knew that Porthos and Aramis were well-equipped to deal with the situation, d’Artagnan had to fight the urge to turn around and run back to join them. Athos most likely would not remember it in the morning and his help was not needed; he simply wanted to be there.

That they seemed willing to integrate him into their circle was still surprising to d’Artagnan. He did not wish to wear out his welcome or to appear so needy as to put them off.

He did worry for Athos, though. The level of attachment he’d formed in a relatively short amount of time surprised him. Athos was truly a good man; something Athos and Porthos had been quick to point out but that d’Artagnan had also learned for himself. Athos would do anything for any one of them.

But the man who comported himself with such strength and poise also felt things very deeply. Those emotions—and the bad memories apparently connected to them—could drive him to self-destruction. As Aramis had pointed out, there was little they could do when Athos did not welcome their support. Still, d’Artagnan could not seem to help trying to puzzle it out himself, to come up with a way to help his friend.

His mind was thus occupied as he passed an alleyway a couple of blocks from the tavern. It was this lack of attention, combined with senses a bit dulled by the drinks, that caused him not to notice anything amiss until suddenly a sound very near caused him to spin to his left. He’d hardly registered the dark shape of a large man before he was clipped on the back of the head by something heavy.

He did not completely lose consciousness. He did lose track of which way was up for a moment or two as rough hands grabbed him, pulling him deeper into the darkness of the alleyway. He registered dimly that there were at least two men.

It was not until they began to pat him down and reach into his pockets that he came back to himself enough to truly resist. He caught a kneecap as he kicked out, earning a muffled curse as one of the men fell back. He punched out at the other. Though he did not connect, the grip loosened enough for him to roll away and reach for his ankle. He had only one weapon on him—a small knife his father had given to him many years ago that was strapped inside his right boot. He managed to slide it out as he completed the roll. As he came up he swung it towards the face of the one still holding him. It was difficult to tell in the dark, but if the howl of pain was any indication his aim had been true.

He started to get back to his feet, but sudden pain burst through his ribs as a kick came from his other side. The first man was back and apparently rather angry. Another kick forced him back to the ground where he lost his grip on the knife. He scrambled to try to regain it, but a hard punch to the stomach forced him to curl up in reflex.

He was then grabbed roughly once more and hauled upright on his knees. He stopped struggling abruptly when he felt the tip of cold metal pressed just below his jaw.

“This was far more trouble than he’s worth,” the one holding him hissed.

“Maybe,” the knife-welder responded. “Find his purse.”

D’Artagnan grimaced as he was jostled, the blade biting into his skin. He could feel a warm stickiness trickling down his neck. Some part of him rebelled against the fact that he was apparently being mugged by some random street thugs, but he didn’t dare try to fight or even speak. Athos might be right when he called him headstrong, but he was not a fool. Injured and outnumbered with a knife to the throat was no time for heroics.

“Got it!” the first man finally crowed, pulling his coin purse from its berth inside his left front pocket.

D’Artagnan tried to keep his breathing even. If it became clear that they intended to kill him, he would fight regardless of the risk.

The second man leaned close, foul breath across d’Artagnan’s cheek. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep this to yourself,” he threatened.

Then, abruptly as they’d appeared, he was released and they were gone.

He sat there for a few minutes, stunned, curled in on himself against the pain in his midsection. Then he realized that they might change their minds and come back and he’d best not still be sitting there like an idiot. He pushed himself painfully to his feet and spent several fruitless seconds searching for his knife before he realized that they must have taken it, that in fact it must have been the very blade used against him. He shuddered.

He encountered no one else as he made his way back to Bonacieux's. Quietly as possible he let himself in, slipping into his room without disturbing the sleeping household.

He tried to frankly assess his injuries, probing gently at the already bruising ribs and the head wound. He did not think anything was broken or injured internally, and he was not dizzy or seeing double despite the throbbing headache. The least enjoyable task was to deal with the cut on his neck. Though it was not deep, to his thinking it was the worst offense. As he cleaned the wound, his hands shook slightly with lingering emotion and anger.

Tasks completed, he sank onto the mattress in exhaustion.

But there was little sleep to be had. He hurt and could not shut off his thoughts. When he finally gave up and pushed himself out of bed in the wee hours before dawn, he was stiff and sore. But his worries overrode the physical pain.

He’d been carrying over half the money he had left. He went to the dresser and pulled open the top drawer, bringing out his spare purse where he had tucked away the remainder of last month’s stipend. He emptied the little bag and lined the coins up across the flat surface. They took up depressingly little space. He knew how to stretch a coin, but this would still be difficult. Paying his rent would wipe out most of it. It would be a full week before he received more.

He did not have many possessions and he could do without a lot, but sustenance was rather critical.

Constance often shared meals with him, never asking anything beyond his rent in compensation. But this would change with Monsieur Bonacieux at home. D’Artagnan would not even expect to be welcome at the table. He could sometimes catch a meal at the Garrison if timing worked out just so. Serge was known to grow quite cross with the men who couldn’t manage to show up on time for meals, insisting they find their own fare elsewhere; besides which, d’Artagnan was not yet an actual member of the regiment. It did not feel right to expect them to feed him when he’d not yet earned his place among them.

In any case, it was going to take some very careful planning and rationing if he was to keep himself fed until his next stipend arrived.

He dressed slowly, carefully, trying not to wonder how he would ever manage to spar with his body feeling like tenderized meat. The back of his head was tender, but he was confident the wound would not show through his dark hair. With his midsection covered, the only visible wound was the mark on his neck.

As he went to grab his boots, he naturally reached for his knife as well only to draw up short with the reminder that it was gone. He fought a sudden surge of emotion. The knife held no major significance; it had neither belonged to his father nor marked a milestone of any sort. It had simply been a gift of necessity several years back. He’d not realized it held such sentimental value until now as he felt its loss like an additional physical ache.

He told himself firmly that he should just be grateful he still had his life, and he continued on with his morning routine.

He’d thought he was early enough to avoid any confrontations, but Constance was standing at the kitchen counter when he emerged from his room.

“You got in late last night,” she observed after they’d exchanged pleasantries.

He hesitated. The thief’s last words replayed in his mind. He wondered at the odds of them knowing who he was, where he lived. He would not put Constance in danger if his silence might keep it at bay. “Just out with Athos and the others,” he answered vaguely.

“Out at the tavern, I presume,” she said cheekily, then paused as she got a good look at him in the light and turned fully towards him. “What happened to your neck?”

D’Artagnan’s hand flew to the cut. “Oh. Training accident.”

Her eyebrows rose and she stepped closer, taking his chin in her hand so she could get a better look. “Training? Are you telling me that you nearly had your throat cut in practice?”

He stepped back. “It’s hardly a scratch.”

“Well, tell your friends to be more careful, or they’ll have me to answer to.” Though he knew she was teasing, the protectiveness was real. He immediately felt bad for even implying that one of his friends had hurt him however accidentally. But it was too late to take it back.

Lying, as he should have known, was a very slippery slope.

It should be pointed out that he never made a conscious decision to hide what had happened from the others. It just seemed to be a foregone conclusion in his mind. When he looked back on it later he would be able to pick out the stray thoughts that led to it—thoughts of his foolishness in walking around unaware in the dark, of his weakness in being unable to defend himself, of the humiliation of having his own knife held to his throat. The overwhelming theme was that any Musketeer even half-worth his pauldron would never have found himself in this situation.

And d’Artagnan so desired to be a worthy Musketeer.

That was why, when he arrived at the Garrison and the first thing to happen was Aramis asking about his neck, he flat out lied. And, since he couldn’t pass off the training excuse to those who trained him, it wasn’t even a good lie.

“Nicked myself shaving.”

Porthos snorted. “Shaving what?”

D’Artagnan glared. “Ha, ha.”

Aramis came closer and grasped his chin much as Constance had, tilting it up so he could study the wound. “Did you clean it?”

D’Artagnan batted him away. “Yes, mother.”

Aramis gave him a withering look. “If you can come that close to slitting your throat open trying to shave off a bit of fuzz, you need mothering.”

Bit of fuzz?” d’Artagnan said, only half-faking the indignation as Porthos chortled.

“All right, enough,” Athos intervened, though his eyes were sparkling with a bit of amusement as well as he nudged Aramis out of the way. D’Artagnan held himself very still as Athos too looked carefully at the cut. Aramis was perhaps more likely to notice medical issues, but it was Athos who could know he was hiding something simply by looking into his eyes.

But, despite Athos’ admonishments about being controlled by his emotions, d’Artagnan was fully capable of keeping a secret. It was really just play-acting, something he’d honed as a young boy giving his mother a wide-eyed innocent look to cover whatever rule he’d broken. The secret, he’d learned, was to use his emotions to his advantage.

Right now he was shaken; nervous and troubled over his own issue. But he was also still worried for Athos, noticing the slight circles under his eyes and the weariness he could not quite hide. The emotions looked enough alike that he could almost convince even himself that his only problem was concern for his friend. So as Athos held his chin, d’Artagnan reached up and gently caught hold of his forearm. “Are you well?” he asked softly.

Athos met his eyes with a bit of surprise. “Well enough.” After another moment of scrutiny he nodded. “Come. We’ve got a patrol to ride.”

Though getting on a horse was certainly not fun in his current condition, it was far easier than trying to pretend he was uninjured whilst sparring. D’Artagnan let out a shaky, steadying breath. Perhaps he might get through this after all.

oOo

The days passed slowly. On the bright side, the pain lessened as he limbered up and grew accustomed to moving with his slowly healing injuries. On the less bright side, the sudden rationing of food made him rather listless and cranky. Aramis became convinced that he was coming down with something and insisted that he take it easy in training, and Athos deferred to his opinion on the matter. While this was good for allowing him to recover, it was bad for d’Artagnan’s attitude. Sitting on the sidelines was not something he did graciously.

He came very close to a couple of flat out arguments with Bonacioux over careless remarks, saved only by Constance’s quick thinking and ability to soothe ruffled feathers. She kept casting him concerned glances, once coming right out and asking if he was all right. He just kept insisting that he was fine. Though he knew she did not believe him, she did not press.

One morning mid-week, Aramis and Athos were sent out on patrol. D’Artagnan took the opportunity to approach Porthos with a request. “Do you think we could work on some hand-to-hand training?”

Porthos eyed him. “I dunno if that’s a good idea.”

“I am not ill. If I were going to be ill, don’t you think I’d have come down with it by now?”

Porthos was still reluctant. But after a few more minutes of wheedling, he gave in. “Fine. But if something should happen, you’re on your own with the wrath of Aramis.”

“I can handle Aramis.”

Porthos snorted. “You say that now. Just wait.”

Despite the ominous warning, d’Artagnan was resolute. He needed to be better able to defend himself and others when a weapon was not readily available. And Porthos was a good teacher, much as Athos and Aramis were in their own areas of expertise.

It hurt, of course. But he reasoned that he might often be called upon to fight whilst already injured, much as he had been the other night. After he’d landed in the dirt a few times there was no need to hide his wincing; he had all new excuses for it.

At the tavern that evening he ordered nothing for himself. But he didn’t object when Porthos pushed a cup of wine into his hand. In fact he found quite quickly that it dulled the reawakened pain in his ribs and soothed the ache of his empty stomach.

He drained the first quickly and was given a second. At some point after that, he began to lose track of his surroundings. Athos and Aramis had joined them on the other side of the table and a lively conversation was taking place, but d’Artagnan had difficulty following. He just kept drinking whatever was in front of him.

Eventually, Porthos took notice. “Slow down there, lightweight! Don’t think you’re quite up to Athos’ levels of drinking quite yet.”

“’M fine,” d’Artagnan said. He was surprised by how much the words slurred.

Across the table, Athos looked suspicious. “How many have you had?”

He planned to enunciate this time. Unfortunately, he found he didn’t know the answer. “Um…”

Athos was scrutinizing him. D’Artagnan’s stomach squirmed uncomfortably as his mentor turned to Porthos instead. “How many?”

“Not that many!”

Aramis sighed. “I don’t suppose you thought to eat anything before his little binge?”

“There’s nothing to eat,” d’Artagnan said sadly.

“Now, now,” Porthos raised his voice, apparently for the benefit of the woman serving the next table. “They’ve got great fare here.” He ignored the choking sound Aramis made as he waved her over. “We’ll get you some stew.”

The woman looked exhausted as she followed Porthos’ gesture to d’Artagnan. “You want something to eat, love?”

“Yes,” he answered truthfully. “But I can’t pay you.”

Her weary expression immediately grew stormy. She grabbed for the nearest cup, which happened to be Porthos’. “No coin, no goods.”

Porthos calmly but firmly reclaimed it. “No need for that. You know we’re good for it.”

“And forget the food,” Aramis put in, eying d’Artagnan, “He’ll only throw it up.”

After she’d stepped away muttering about drunk idiots, there were a few minutes of loaded silence. Then Athos said, in that deceptively calm manner of his, “You can’t pay?”

“That would require money.”

“And you don’t have any?”

“Nope.” He drew out the word, popping the ‘p’ in an annoying habit he’d broken by age twelve. It amused him now, and he giggled.

Athos and Aramis exchanged a significant glance. Then Athos said, “You get a stipend from the farm, correct?”

“Monthly.” D’Artagnan held up three fingers. “In just four more days.”

“What happened to last month’s?”

D’Artagnan, who was still trying to figure out why his fingers seemed wrong, replied absently. “Gone.”

“Gone where?” Aramis asked.

“Away,” d’Artagnan clarified. He let his hand drop and allowed his head to follow, resting his forehead on the table. “Can you get them to make the room stop swaying?”

Porthos rolled his eyes. “It’s like pulling teeth. Why did the money go away, lad?”

“Because they took it,” d’Artagnan answered automatically. He then raised his head and frowned. “But I’m not telling you.”

This time the significant glances passed between all three of them. “Who is ‘they?’”

“I don’t know. It’s not like they asked me to tea.” Sensing the growing agitation in his companions, d’Artagnan grew agitated himself. “I didn’t give it to them. And I didn’t want to tell you,” he added crossly.

“So, just to summarize—you were robbed of the money you received last month, leaving you with no means to even eat properly, and you were not planning to tell us?”

“Right.”

Athos set his cup down rather harder than necessary. “Why?”

“Why what?”

Athos looked to be fast reaching the end of his patience. D’Artagnan shrunk down into his seat a bit. Unfortunately the position reawakened the pain in his ribs and he winced.

Aramis narrowed his eyes. “Your thieves did not simply pick your pocket, did they? You are in pain.”

“You’re injured? You let me toss you around like a sack of grain!” Porthos swore, loudly.

D’Artagnan leaned away, overbalanced, then gasped in pain as he clattered to the floor in a tangle of limbs and chair legs. The three of them were at his side in an instant, seemingly faster than he could blink.

What followed was a haze of hurt and confusion. He was aware of being hauled upright and essentially carried out of the tavern and through the streets. Funny, this had looked far different from an observer’s side of things. In reality, the helplessness felt rather humiliating. But he was in little position to do anything about it.

Soon enough they entered a house. He did not know whose quarters he’d been brought to, only that he was sat upon a bed not his own.

Then Aramis was crouched in front of him. “Where were you hurt?”

D’Artagnan grunted. “The alleyway a couple of blocks down from the tavern.”

Aramis gave him a look. “While that information may prove useful, you know it is not what I was asking. Where are you injured? Ribs?” He did not wait for an answer, but rather started prodding. D’Artagnan gasped and tried to pull away, which was perhaps answer enough.

“Right,” Aramis said with a sigh. “Let’s have a look then, shall we?”

Between the three of them they somehow managed to keep him upright and get him stripped. It occurred to d’Artagnan that he might should protest this manhandling or at least feel vaguely uncomfortable, but he found that he did not really mind. He knew he was safe with them. But as his bare chest was finally exposed, he remembered why it had been a bad idea to let them see.

Porthos swore with a colorfulness that rivaled the bruising and Aramis threw in a few choice words himself, some of which d’Artagnan had not even heard before. Athos just went dangerously still, staring.

D’Artagnan looked down at the green and yellow hues which were starting to crowd out the deep purples and blues. “It’s all right. They’re looking much better.”

This, of course, did not have the desired calming effect. Aramis’ jaw was clenched as he carefully ran his hands over d’Artagnan’s rib cage. D’Artagnan tried not to squirm away, but it hurt. The pain was sobering him up a bit. He did not really care for that.

“D’Artagnan,” Athos said firmly, claiming his attention. “Tell us what happened.”

It was clearly an order, and one did not argue with that tone. So, with somewhat slurred words and a bit of nonsensical wandering, he began to do as he was bid. He told them about leaving the tavern and heading for home, about passing the alleyway.

Even in his compromised state, however, he thought of Athos and the man’s capacity for guilt. He did not say that he’d been distracted worrying over his friend; he merely implied that perhaps even then he’d been more compromised by drink than he thought.

“Lie back,” Aramis directed presently.

D’Artagnan complied, staring up at the ceiling as Aramis began carefully pressing on his stomach and abdomen.

“Internal injuries would have already presented themselves by now, would they not?” Athos inquired.

“Probably, unless something already bruised was further injured this afternoon.”

Porthos grimaced and d’Artagnan felt horrible. “I’m all right,” he said out of reflex. All three of them glared at him.

“Carry on with the story, d’Artagnan,” Athos directed.

“I was struck from behind,” d’Artagnan said, reaching absently for the still tender spot on his head.

“A head injury, too?” Aramis said severely, nudging him to turn his head on the pillow so he could check it.

“I didn’t pass out,” d’Artagnan said defensively. “Well, not completely.”

Athos shut his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose as if he felt some massive headache coming on. “Go on,” he said with a sigh.

D’Artagnan decided it might be best if he shut his eyes too so he could not see their reactions. Literally laid bare before them, it was the only way he could even remotely hide his shame as he described losing his knife and being forced to his knees, helpless.

“And then, after they had my money, they left.”

“They just left?” Porthos questioned.

“Well, after the one threatened me not to tell. But that’s not why I didn’t! Well, maybe with Constance it was. I didn’t want to put her in danger. But I wasn’t afraid!” He opened his eyes on that note, determined to get the point across.

Aramis, who had stopped prodding a while back and simply sat on the edge of the bed, cleared his throat. “Right, then. So you’ve told us everything? There are no other injuries I should be concerned with?”

“Wasn’t that enough?” d’Artagnan said.

Athos stepped in. “I believe Aramis is trying to make certain that you were not violated.”

Wine and pain-muddled, d’Artagnan was slow to catch on. His confusion must have been evident because Porthos said bluntly, “Sexually.”

“Oh. No!” d’Artagnan said, shaking his head emphatically even though it made the room spin.

“That was delicate,” Aramis said aside to Porthos, who shrugged. Then he turned back to d’Artagnan. “And you’re being truthful with us now?”

“Yes!”

D’Artagnan watched the three of them exchange glances again. He was envious of their silent communication, wishing he could be a part.

He didn’t realize he was speaking aloud until Porthos smirked and said, “You’re getting there, lad. You already do it more than you realize.”

“All right, then,” Aramis said. “I don’t feel anything broken, but I’d like to wrap your ribs.” Aramis nodded to Athos, who settled on the edge of the bed and pulled d’Artagnan back into a sitting position. He carefully supported him with an arm around his upper chest, out of Aramis’ way as he produced a long bandage and began to wrap.

D’Artagnan knew they were upset with him and that they must be disappointed. But the hands that held and treated him were still incredibly gentle. He swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat, trying to ignore the pain in his ribs and the pressure behind his eyes. “I don’t even think they were armed,” he blurted. “It was my own knife they cut me with. And they took it. My father gave me that knife.” His voice broke. His face felt wet, but he didn’t realize he was crying until Athos brought up a hand to sweep his fingers across his cheek. The tenderness in the gesture undid him. He tried to turn his face into Athos’ neck as the tears streamed down unbidden.

He lost track of what was happening then, his world narrowed to comforting hands and soft voices. At some point he was coaxed to drink something and then carefully shifted out of Athos arms and down to the mattress.

He was only half-awake, eyes closed despite himself, when he heard the three of them talking over him.

“Still can’t believe he didn’t tell us.”

“He’s an independent soul,” Aramis said.

“He’s a stubborn idiot,” Athos countered, though there was a curious fondness mixed with his clipped exasperation.

Porthos chimed in. “Yeah, but he’s our idiot now.”

D’Artagnan thought he might ought to participate in this conversation. Unfortunately, he passed out as he tried to come up with a retort.

oOo

D’Artagnan’s dreams were strange and intense. He could not seem to escape them.

When he finally truly roused to consciousness it was due to an overwhelming sense of nausea. Spotting a nearby chamber pot he lunged off the bed, barely managing to grab it before he was vomiting.

Strong hands caught and steadied him, carefully grabbing him around the shoulders and chest to avoid the worst of his bruising. Though he was unsure who they belonged to, he was unconcerned. He knew without doubt that it was one of only three options.

Eventually his stomach was emptied and dry heaves had run their course. “I’m swearing off alcohol,” he declared to whoever was holding him. “Absolutely no good comes of it.”

He felt the rumble of a chuckle go through the chest he was leaning against. “That’ll be quite the feat in our company. Maybe you can keep the rest of us in line, then.”

“Porthos,” d’Artagnan mumbled, still not opening his eyes.

The big musketeer gave a hum of confirmation. “Ready to get off the floor, lad?”

All he managed was a grunt, but Porthos took it as an affirmative. He was gathered in an impossible gentle grip and set carefully back on the bed. He grimaced despite the soft handling. As he tried to settle, he could tell that Porthos had something he wished to say. But when he encouraged the other man to go on, Porthos hesitated.

“Now’s not the time.”

“No, please. It will distract me from how I’m feeling.”

“All right, then.” But still he paused for a long moment before continuing, far more intense than his characteristic joviality. “Have you ever truly been hungry?”

D’Artagnan was taken aback. “I have known lean times and careful rationing throughout my years on the farm, but…no. Not true hunger; not like I think you mean.”

Porthos nodded. “I mean the kind where you don’t know if you’ll have a next meal, let alone where or when it will come.” He paused. “You know some of my past, yeah?”

D’Artagnan nodded. He didn’t know a lot of specifics, but he knew that Porthos had been orphaned at a young age and had grown up on the streets.

“Hunger’s like a monster. There’s a gnawing to it. And a desperation. Makes you do things you never thought you’d do. Could even make you hurt people.” He trailed off, eyes unfocused as though he were seeing into the past rather than across the room. d’Artagnan hardly dared breathe as he reached forward, setting a hand gently on the other man’s wrist.

Porthos shook himself and cleared his throat, patting d’Artagnan’s hand. “I’ve been hungry. Aramis…” he broke off, swallowed hard. “Well, Aramis has experienced it too, on a bit of a different scale. I doubt Athos has, but he’s got demons that go by different names with no less desperation about ‘em.” He looked seriously at d’Artagnan. “I know you weren’t starving, but you were in trouble. And I know you’ve got your own past and things that go on in that young head that we probably know nothing about. But you’ve got to know that we’d have helped you with this; that it hurts that you didn’t let us.”

“That was never my intention,” d’Artagnan said as loudly as he was able, which was barely above a whisper.

“I know.” Porthos gave him a sad smile. “So. Here’s the wisdom I’ve got to share, such as it were. If you’re lucky enough to have someone willing to help you, you take it graciously. You say thank you. And if the chance comes up, you pay them back—not necessarily with money. You know that with us, they chance will come up. And you’ve got plenty to give.

“You’ve got brothers now. As such, we see the worst of each other. But we also get the best. And we look out for each other. You get my meaning?”

D’Artagnan nodded, unable to speak for the lump abruptly clogging his throat. Porthos could not have known the importance of what he’d just said, how deeply it touched that need d’Artagnan had been so desperately trying to hide.

Then again, maybe he knew it all too well. Porthos was studying him knowingly. “There’s a proverb…something about bearing adversity. Ask Aramis; he knows.”

As if on cue, Aramis suddenly spoke from the doorway. “A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity,” he quoted.

“How long have you been there?” Porthos asked suspiciously.

“Only just arrived,” Aramis said smoothly, face the picture of innocence as he crossed the room. The heartfelt pat on the back that he offered Porthos suggested differently, however. D’Artagnan flushed and looked down. But after only a moment, his gaze darted back towards the door.

Aramis noticed. “He had a duty to see to,” he explained vaguely.

D’Artagnan swallowed his disappointment. “Oh.”

“And how are you feeling this morning?”

“Fine.”

“D’Artagnan,” Porthos growled.

“Aching and throbbing and sick to my stomach,” he amended.

Aramis looked surprised. “You’ll have to teach me that trick,” he said to Porthos.

“Absolutely not. You’re already scary enough when it comes to this stuff.”

Aramis rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to d’Artagnan. He beamed at him and said, “Good!” d’Artagnan stared at him bleakly. “For the honesty, not the physical symptoms.” He then produced a cup of some viscous substance, handing it to d’Artagnan. “Here you are. This should help.”

D’Artagnan sniffed at it and then tried to hand it back. “No, thank you.”

Aramis pushed it back towards him. “Yes. Drink.”

D’Artagnan had thought that only Athos had a stare that could make him obey, but apparently Aramis had one as well. Porthos was right; he was scary. With great reluctance he screwed up his face and tipped the cup up, draining it in as few gulps as possible.

After that things got rather bleary rather quickly. “What did you give me?” he tried to ask accusingly, though it came out hardly intelligible.

Aramis still seemed to understand as he gently guided him to lie back. “Just something to help you rest. Relax and try to trust us for a bit.”

“I do trust you,” he mumbled, but as he drifted off he realized that his actions had very much declared the opposite.

oOo

This sleep was far calmer and more restful than his last. When he finally awoke, he was surprised to note that the sunlight and shadows suggested it was nearly evening. It dismayed him a bit to think that he had slept the day away.

He rolled away from the window, grunting at reawakened soreness, his attention shifting when he realized he had company.

“Athos!” he exclaimed, immediately trying to push himself upright. It was too much too fast and he wobbled as he felt dizzy.

“Easy,” the older man cautioned, reaching out to steady him and help maneuver his pillow so he could lean back.

“I’m all right. Just a bit sore.”

Athos eyes drifted up to his hair. His lips quirked in amusement. “You look…better rested.” Then he actually reached out and affectionately mussed what must have already been quite a rat’s nest.

D’Artagnan stared at him openly, too surprised to protest. “I thought you were upset,” he blurted before he could stop himself.

“I was. I am.” Athos studied him carefully. “Are you up to this conversation right now?”

“Yes,” d’Artagnan answered, determined. He pushed himself up farther, swinging his legs over the side of the mattress and sitting up on his own to prove it. If he was going to be chastised—and admittedly, he did deserve it—he did not wish to look like an invalid while receiving it. And he wanted to get the conversation over with; he did not like the unpleasant twisting in his stomach brought on by the knowledge that Athos was angry with him.

Athos’ hand hovered for a moment to see if he needed support before he let it drop. “All right, then. Care to tell me why you lied to us?”

D’Artagnan grimaced. “I prefer to think of it as…keeping a secret.”

Athos arched an eyebrow. “Really? Nicked yourself shaving, did you?”

“…okay, that part might have been a lie.”

“A lie by omission is still a lie. You wanted us to believe that everything was perfectly fine when, in fact, you were hurting and in need.”

“It never worked did it?” d’Artagnan asked, thinking of their suspicion that first morning, the cautious looks in the following days and the careful treatment. “You knew.”

Athos titled his head. “We knew something was wrong with you. We just didn’t know what exactly. We were hoping you would come to one of us eventually.”

D’Artagnan grimaced. “I’m sorry about that.”

Athos nodded slightly. “Why, then?” When d’Artagnan hesitated he continued, “You said you were not afraid, and I believe that you were not afraid of him; except perhaps for Constance’s sake. Surely you expected that we could handle the threat.”

“Yes.”

“So what were you afraid of?”

“I suppose I was ashamed,” he confessed.

“Of what?” Athos prodded.

“Of not protecting myself. Of being weak,” he confessed softly, then rushed on. “If I can’t even protect myself, how am ever going to protect the King?”

“You’re not going to do it alone. You tell us your problems; you let us help.” Athos paused. “I am perhaps not always the best example to follow.”

“Perhaps?”

“In this case, it would be much better if you did as I say and not as I do.” Athos paused, thought for a moment, and then smiled a bit as he continued, “A word of advice? Aramis does not take kindly to hiding injuries; neither does Porthos to denial of needs. And, speaking from experience, they can be quite persistent.”

“And you?” d’Artagnan asked.

Athos hesitated. “I’ve seen the damage wrought be secrets. Porthos may enjoy games of chance, but I do not. Please don’t make us guess when it comes to your well-being.”

“I think what Porthos actually enjoys is taking the change out of the game, so…” d’Artagnan nodded. “I understand.”

“Understand?”

“And I will try to do better.” He dared to add, “Maybe you could make me the same promise?”

“I can try,” Athos said. Then he cleared his throat and changed the subject. “I have something for you.” He reached back and pulled out a cloth-wrapped bundle. “Careful,” he cautioned as he held it out.

D’Artagnan heeded the warning, taking hold of it gently and carefully unwrapping it. His breathing stuttered when the handle was revealed. “How…” he said as he stared down at his lost knife.

“We have not spent your brief convalescence idle,” Athos said drolly. But he tone grew serious as he answered, “It was among the personal effects of a recent arrival at the morgue, a tall man with a fresh scar across his face.”

D’Artagnan jerked his head up at that, meeting Athos’ gaze. His mind raced, trying to process this information. “Did you…”

“No. He was quite dead when we got there. Unfortunately, that made questioning him rather difficult.”

“Disappointing, that.”

D’Artagnan looked over as Porthos and Aramis entered the room, the latter carrying a small bowl.

Porthos sat beside him, clapping a hand on d’Artagnan’s shoulder as he continued, “I was looking forward to that questioning. You’re looking better, lad.”

“Feeling much better, thanks,” d’Artagnan said with a smile. “Though I suppose I should be thanking Aramis. That concoction may have been foul, but it did work.”

Aramis grinned and mimed taking a bow. Meanwhile Athos groaned and Porthos exclaimed, “Don’t encourage him!”

Aramis narrowed his eyes at the both of them. “Just you two wait until your next maladies!”

Much as he preferred the lighter mood, d’Artagnan needed to know what they had learned. He reverently rewrapped the knife and set it on the bedside table. “And thank you for this,” he said softly.

Athos nodded.

“The dead thief—you think his partner killed him?”

Athos hesitated. “Perhaps. I’m honestly less concerned about your second attacker than whoever hired them both.”

D’Artagnan frowned. “What? I thought they were just vagrants, poor robbers after a bit of coin. You think they were hired?”

Athos exchanged a look with Porthos, who said, “Didn’t you think it strange they avoided your face?”

“I was mostly just grateful that they did.”

“We think they were told not to leave any visible marks,” Aramis said.

“You think they were after me specifically,” d’Artagnan said, his head beginning to hurt again as his mind raced. “But why? It’s not as if they got some great payday from my purse.”

“No. But if we’re right, your two robbers probably cared very little for the few coins you had on you. They would have expected payment from much deeper pockets.”

“But again…why? Why would anyone go to that trouble for me?”

“Intimidation, demoralization…” Aramis suggested.

“To drive a wedge between us,” Porthos added. “By promptin’ you to keep such a secret.”

“And to send a message,” Athos said quietly.

“What message? That d’Artagnan is the weak link?” d’Artagnan suggested, trying to joke. It fell rather flat with the apprehension in his tone.

Athos’ gaze pierced him. “No. That they can get to you—and us, by extension—whenever they want. That we would not see it coming or even know about it until it is too late. That there is nothing we can do about it.”

D’Artagnan frowned. “All of that suggests that they knew us well enough to know I’d hide it, and that you would find out anyway.”

“Yes. It all has a rather personal feel to it, doesn’t it?” Aramis said.

After a beat of silence, Porthos spoke up. “But that last bit Athos said, about them thinking there’s nothing we can do about it…well, they’re wrong. That just ain’t true.”

“They’ve underestimated your brothers,” Athos stated.

There was that word again, the one that spread warmth through his chest. D’Artagnan cleared his throat. “But who is ‘they?’”

“Could be Red Guards,” Aramis said. “You may have noticed that we don’t exactly have a warm and cuddly rapport with them.”

“Or their boss.”

“The Cardinal? Why would the Cardinal—or those in his employ, for that matter—care about me?”

“Because you’re one of us now.”

And, though it was perhaps inappropriate for the conversation, d’Artagnan could not seem to help but grin. He ducked his head, thus missing the fond looks being cast his way.

Athos asked, “Do you not find that less desirable knowing that your association with us may have made you a target?”

D’Artagnan’s head shot up. “No!” Quieter, he confessed, “No. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

Athos glanced at Porthos and Aramis. “Then I think I can speak for all three of us when I pledge that we will always do everything in our power to help you in whatever you may need.”

He held out his hand, palm down. Porthos reached out and covered it with is own in the same fashion. D’Artagnan caught on, laying his hand atop Porthos’. “And I pledge the same to each of you.”

Aramis completed the circle by placing his hand atop d’Artagnan’s, clasping it warmly.

The moment was interrupted rather rudely by d’Artagnan’s stomach, which growled loudly. On the bright side, it did lighten the mood.

“A bit hungry, are we?” Aramis asked, amused, as they dropped their hands.

D’Artagnan had the good grace to blush. “Apparently.”

“That’s a good thing,” Aramis said, making his way back to the table and uncovering the bowl he’d brought in. “You feel up to coming to the table?”

“Sure,” d’Artagnan responded. Remembering his initial dizziness he stood slowly, eye closed until he’d found his equilibrium.

He needn’t have worried. He immediately had Athos holding his elbow and Porthos wrapping an arm around his waist from the other side. He opened his eyes, pleased at the lack of dark spots, and found them all watching him carefully. He offered a soft smile.

“Come. Your broth is getting cold,” Aramis said.

“Broth?” d’Artagnan said doubtfully. He felt much hungrier than broth seemed likely to satisfy.

Aramis titled his head. “Trust me?”

His tone was innocent enough, but the question was loaded. D’Artagnan was beginning to realize the depth of his answer. He took the time to look both Athos and Porthos in the eye before he focused on Aramis.

“Yes,” he answered with confidence and promise. “Yes I do.”

oOo