Chapter 1: Sickness
In which Athos receives a mysterious letter.
The letter could not have arrived at a more opportune moment for the four inseparables. Their fortunes, which had for weeks struggled to rise above middling, had lately sunk to their lowest ebb in quite some time, and it was with a growling stomach and a despondant sigh that Athos broke the seal and uncreased the paper of the note. At the sight of the handwriting within, however, he raised an eyebrow in surprise and hastily finished reading.
On finishing, he carefully—almost reverently—re-folded the letter and placed it in his pocket. Grimaud looked at him inquiringly as his master rose, but Athos said nothing, only gesturing for his boots and cloak. Once thus attired, he strode out of the door, one hand resting reflexively for a brief moment on the hidden letter, as he stepped through the doorway.
The air outside was cold and damp, the gloom of a late winter afternoon already settling on the streets. Athos, anxious to share his good news with his friends, made haste towards d’Artagnan’s lodgings, the closest of the three to his own abode. However, when he arrived at the door, he was met with disappointment: the windows were shuttered and the door locked. D’Artagnan was clearly gone for the evening.
Rubbing his hands against the chill, Athos sighed, and started towards Porthos’ rooms, the next closest. A light misting of rain began to fall, as the sun crept closer to the horizon, but despite this, Athos’ spirits could not be dampened. Even the grubby and unswept road leading to Porthos’ rooms took on a rosy glow to his eyes as he mentally re-read the letter. Good news! His heart sung, and he could not help but allow a smile to widen his lips as he anticipated Porthos’ pleased exclamations to the news of funds—and lots of them, at that. ‘A feast!’ his inner Porthos jubilated. ‘And plenty of wine!’
It was therefore with some annoyance that Athos discovered that Porthos, too, was not at home. His landlady called out as Athos tapped on the door. ‘Monsieur Porthos is not here! He left with his friend some hours ago!’
‘Merci,’ Athos replied, feeling irrationally annoyed that his friends (for, presumably, that friend was d’Artagnan… or one of Porthos never-ending line of mistresses) had found some kind of entertainment without him. Perhaps he should have sent Grimaud to leave them messages to meet with him, instead—but he had wanted to find them immediately, to share this unexpected stroke of good fortune with them. But Aramis must be at home, he thought. Whenever their fortunes fell, Aramis was always the first to hide in his lodgings and muse the possibility of taking holy orders. Sharing good news with him was always satisfying—if only to see the disappointment of Bazin!
Athos’ intuition was proven correct. He quickened his step as he reached the avenue to Aramis’ lodgings and saw the flickering light of a candle in the window. Athos strode to the door and rapped sharply. After a pause, Bazin opened the door slowly. Athos frowned as he took in the man’s worried expression.
‘Oh, monsieur Athos, I am glad that you are here!’ Bazin exclaimed. ‘Monsieur Aramis would not allow me to call for a doctor, but he is terribly ill!’
Athos stepped quickly through the door and glanced around the room. Once inside, he could smell the sweet, musty smell of sickness and feel the chill in the air of the room—the fire was dying, and there was little coal remaining to stoke it. He gestured to Bazin. ‘Quickly, run and buy some coal,’ he said, urgently, handing over his last remaining livres. ‘Tomorrow we’ll be rich again, so fetch the doctor, too! I shall tend to Aramis for now.’
Bazin stared at him, but did as he was asked, hurrying out the door and into the now darkened street.
Athos turned to the bed, where Aramis lay, seemingly oblivious to his arrival. His friend was flushed and sweating, his eyes glazed and unfocused. As Athos approached, Aramis coughed weakly, and tried to sit.
‘Be calm, ami,’ Athos urged, laying his hand on the sick man’s shoulder to prevent him from moving. ‘All will soon be well.’
Feeling the heat rising from his friend, even through his sweat-drenched nightshirt, Athos went to the washstand and dipped the washcloth in the water, which was chilled in the cold of the room. Ringing it out, he glanced back at Aramis, and frowned as he heard the man’s whistling breath and occasional small coughs. He returned to the bed, folded his cloak, and pushed it under Aramis’ pillow.
‘Perhaps now you might breathe more easily,’ he told him, laying the cool, damp cloth on the sick man’s forehead. With his head now raised up, Aramis’ breaths certainly sounded less labored, and Athos felt more than a little relieved. While certainly the most delicate of them in build, Athos was in many ways the most consistent, not given to Porthos’ flights of fancy, d’Artagnan’s scrapes and mishaps, or his own bouts of depressive thoughts. It was most unsettling to see his friend, usually to be relied upon for moral support and good conversation, laid so low.
Aramis still did not seem fully aware of Athos’ presence, but since he had done all he could for the time being, Athos decided to simply remain by his friend’s bedside, at least until Bazin returned with a doctor.
‘I may as well tell you why I came,’ he said, his tone soft. ‘Really, I had hoped to find a better welcome, but I supposed I shall have to forgive you!’ Athos leaned forward in his chair. ‘Our fortunes have turned, my friend. We shall not have to worry about a living, or even equipping ourselves for a campaign, for quite some time.’
Aramis stirred, and Athos paused, wondering if his words would be remembered come the morning. He shrugged. ‘I don’t supposed you will remember this tomorrow, so perhaps I will tell you what I had not intended to share—that is, from whence our income will come. You remember my confession to you all some time ago, concerning Milady de Winter?’ He could not help but say the woman’s pseudonym scornfully, remembering all the sorrow she had caused them, and especially him. He sighed, and continued. ‘I had thought my fortunes from that time, from my family’s estate, to be quite lost in the aftermath of that most unpleasant affair.’ Athos paused, a cold feeling rising inside him at the memory. ‘I had tried to put it out of my mind, in fact—but after the events of the past year, it seems that certain funds that I had overlooked were spared. My former estate manager found my current whereabouts, learned of the name I now use, and wrote to me, informing me that some money survived from the fall of the family, and that he had kept the funds in safety in case of my return.’ He shook his head. ‘Such loyalty, I do not deserve, after abandoning those who relied on me! In any case… Tomorrow, the funds will arrive here in Paris.’ He looked at Aramis, his face still feverish and warm. ‘That is why you needn’t worry about paying a doctor, my friend. From now on, we shall eat like kings, and ride to our campaigns on the finest horses.’ Athos sighed again. ‘Still, I cannot help but feel that I would rather I could escape my old life somewhat longer than I have been able to. Somehow, it continues to catch up with me.’ He stared at the dwindling embers of the dying fire and continued, his voice barely above a whisper, now. ‘Perhaps, now that that woman has finally met her end, it is time to recover some part of my former self.’
His voice trailing off, Athos gazed at the fire, pensively. He was startled from his reverie by Aramis’ voice, weak but clear. ‘Each of us is but one man,’ Aramis murmured, breaking off to cough feebly.
Athos started. ‘I thought you were asleep!’ he said, somewhat tactlessly.
Aramis smiled slightly. ‘I… like to keep you… off guard,’ he said quietly, his words interrupted by small coughs. Despite his friend’s pallor of sickness, Athos still thought he saw a familiar glint in Aramis’ eye. Then Aramis coughed again, more this time, and let out a groan as he sank back into the pillow. ‘Pray for me, ami,’ he muttered, closing his eyes.
Concerned, Athos clasped his hand. ‘I will,’ he promised. ‘But it will not be necessary!’ So they remained, as the candles flickered and the night grew dark.
Chapter 2: A Gamble
In which Porthos pushes his luck.
Sometime earlier that day
The tavern was dark, dusty, and filled with some rather unsavoury characters - male and female alike. Still, it was cheap, the wine was plentiful (if of dubious quality), and it was not likely to be frequented by anyone who knew them, so d'Artagnan and Porthos chose to make it their drinking venue for the afternoon. A woman, her face painted and her body overly perfumed, sashayed towards the two musketeers enticingly. Porthos' uncharacteristically grim expression changed to a pleased smile at her approach, but d'Artagnan waved a hand to shoo her away. "I believe even she is too expensive for us at this moment, my friend," he said.
"Puh," Porthos said dismissively. "What does it matter to you? It appears that you have sworn off women, anyway!" D'Artagnan looked at him, and Porthos had the grace to look ashamed. "I suppose your luck in such matters has not been so good, of late."
D'Artagnan laughed darkly. "One might better say, their luck. Women who cross my path do not seem to have good things waiting for them."
Porthos shrugged. "Well, then drown your sorrows in some cheap and ill-tasting wine!" He waived over the master of the tavern, who brought them a jug of wine.
Porthos filled his glass and waived it at d'Artagnan. "To your good health, my friend."
D'Artagnan snorted and raised his glass. "It seems that that is about all that remains to us, for the moment!"
Porthos sighed, and gazed off across the tavern pensively. "What to do, what to do to raise some funds! We cannot live like beggars forever, and I have but a few livres left to my name."
"As do I," d'Artagnan admitted. "And having seen Athos yesterday, it seems the others are in the same situation." He looked at the place on his finger where the Queen's diamond had once rested. They did not have any such trinket to fall back on this time! "At least we still have our horses," he mused.
Porthos looked sceptical. "And I do not know what I shall be feeding mine with, soon. Or how I shall equip myself if there were to be another campaign!" His eyes wandered across to the doorway of the tavern, where an unruly bunch of men was entering, to the enthusiasm of the tavern's ladies.
"The Cardinal's men," d'Artagnan scoffed. "Of course they would be drinking somewhere like this."
"It's probably the best wine they've ever drunk," Porthos added scathingly. "Although.... since they're here...."
D'Artagnan looked at his friend suspiciously, recognising the appraising tone in his voice. "What are you considering, friend? Remember, we don't have all that much left as it is!"
Porthos smiled. "All the better - we don't have much to lose!" He stood to go over to the men, who had made themselves at home against the bar. "Which do you think looks the best equipped? He'll be the one to play."
D'Artagnan looked over at the men. "The one in the middle. But I do not wish to take the risk. I'll leave you to it, friend!"
Porthos looked at him, his face disappointed. "Are you certain? With the two of us, we would be bound to win!"
D'Artagnan stood as well, and tossed him one of his last coins. "Here. For the wine, and to add to your pile. Don't lose everything!"
Porthos shrugged. "Have it your way. Let me see what I can win us!"
As d'Artagnan crossed the bar, collecting Planchet and heading out to his horse, Porthos turned his attention to the Cardinal's guardsmen. D'Artagnan had been correct--the one in the middle certainly did look the best dressed, and Porthos spied a flash of something shining between his fingers, as if he were wearing a ring or something else that he was trying to hide. He strode across the tavern towards them.
"Well, well, well," he said loudly. "I did not expect to find the Cardinal's exalted guardsmen drinking in a place like this!"
The man in the centre looked up at him, an eyebrow raised. "One of the King's precious musketeers, I see. I could say the same to you, sir," he said softly.
Porthos smiled dangerously. "Well perhaps, now that we have established our superiority to this humble establishment, we could discover who is the superior between you and I?"
The guard drew in a breath and looked at him suspiciously. "Oh?" he said. "And how might you propose we do that?"
Porthos glanced at the barkeep. "Why not a game of cards?" He pulled the purse with his last remaining livres from his coat. "We can add in this, to sweeten the deal."
The man looked at the purse, and nodded slowly. "Then let us play. I will match your wager." The barkeep brought them cards and more wine, and Porthos dealt the first hand.
The first few rounds were not kind to him, and the guardsman and his friends were growing cocky and jubilant. His temper rising, Porthos looked down at the cards in his hand for the fourth time in as many minutes. His opponent glared at him. "Play, or admit defeat," he growled. "I already have your money, your horse, and your saddle. You have already wagered your sword. I would like your servant too, just to complete my collection."
Porthos sighed. "Then make it all or nothing. If you win, you may have it all. If I win, I get it all back... and that diamond ring you have been trying to hide."
The Cardinal's Guard scowled at him from across the table. "You think you are so clever, just like all the King's foolish musketeers." He looked across at his friends, five Cardinal's men, each swilling wine and trying to entice the ladies of the tavern. "My friends should like to drink well tonight. I will take your wager!" He laid down his cards. "Now, hand over your sword, fool."
Porthos smiled. "An impressive hand. But I believe it is you who will be handing something over." He laid down his cards.
His opponent stared at him. "A cheat! You are a cheater, sir! That is impossible!" As his voice rose, his friends began to gather from the bar, their hands on their swords.
Porthos sighed, and gestured to Mousqueton. "You had better fetch back our young friend," he instructed. "Tell him that our luck has changed but our friends here are less than honest."
"Less than honest!" the Guardsman cried. "It is you, sir, who is less than honest."
Porthos looked at him squarely. "I beg to differ," he said bluntly. "It is I who have won this wager, fairly and easily, and you must hand over my winnings. If you would like to fight for their return, that can be arranged. But not here, and only once I have been able to find a second."
His opponent glowered at him. "A cheater and a coward too? What makes you think I will let you leave?"
"My honour as a musketeer. We will meet in the Place de P____ tomorrow at five. If I do not appear, you may report me as a coward to Monsieur de Treville himself."
The guardsman glanced at his friends, and shrugged. "I do not think the honour of a musketeer is worth all that much," he said, scornfully. "But I shall take you at your word. Take your "winnings". We will meet again tomorrow." He tossed his ring across the table, turned quickly, and marched off, his friends following behind.
Porthos sank back into his chair and sighed. "Well," he said to himself. "Our fortunes may have turned, but who knows if we will live to see the benefits!"
Chapter 3: Tenderness
In which Aramis recovers.
The first rays of sunlight weakly filtering through Aramis' window awoke Athos slowly. He shifted uncomfortably, finding himself slumped over in the armchair by Aramis' fireplace, where he had dropped off to sleep after the doctor had left, late the previous night. It took a moment for him to realise exactly where he was--at first, he looked confusedly at the fireplace and at his cloak, until his mind cleared and he remembered the events of the previous night. Twisting around, he looked over at Aramis' bed. His friend slept soundly, his face still pale and wan, but not flushed with fever as it had been when Athos first arrived.
Athos rose, and quietly walked to the wash basin to rinse the remnants of sleep from his eyes. He splashed the cold water in his face and dipped his hands in the bowl, enjoying the cool sensation on his skin. The sound of a sigh from the bed made him stop and turn.
"Mon ami, you are a true friend," Aramis murmured sleepily.
Athos crossed the room quickly and sat down at his friend's bedside. "You look better," he remarked dryly, but with a smile. In all honesty, he was relieved--his friend's condition when he had arrived the night before had been truly concerning.
Aramis' lips curved upwards. "I feel better. Hungry, even!"
Athos stood. "Then let us summon Bazin, and have him fetch us something to eat. I must say, I would certainly appreciate some breakfast, myself." He turned to fetch Aramis' servant, but the other man reached for his hand.
"I do not know what I would have done had you not arrived when you did, my friend," Aramis said, softly. "And I feel honoured to have been entrusted with your secret, last night."
Athos looked into his friend's eyes and saw true affection. He laid his other hand over Aramis', and spoke with conviction. "Mon ami, I cannot tell you how relieved I am to see you recovered. I am as glad as you that I chose that hour to come to your door!" Aramis opened his mouth as if about to respond, but coughed instead.
"Perhaps you are not quite recovered," Athos said, letting go of Aramis' hand. "I will fetch Bazin to provide us with breakfast."
Aramis' eyes did not leave him as he left the room.
It was past noon when the pair's conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door. Aramis had been able to get out of bed and was gradually regaining his strength, so they had moved to the fireside where they could sit more comfortably. So deeply engaged in their discussion were they, that they at first did not notice the tap on the door, until Bazin came to answer it.
"Perfect!" Porthos' voice boomed across the threshold, as the tall musketeer entered Aramis' rooms, closely followed by d'Artagnan. "You are both here! Then we do not need to go any further!"
D'Artagnan looked inquiringly at Aramis, who still looked somewhat pale. "What is the matter? More bad news?" he asked quickly.
Aramis waved his hand dismissively. "It was la grippe, but I am quite fine again now."
Athos glanced at him, but, more pressingly, found d'Artagnan's question rather ominous. "What do you mean by more bad news?" he asked, suspiciously.
D'Artagnan snorted, and looked at Porthos. "Porthos should explain - it's his fault!"
Porthos tossed his head exaggeratedly, looking hurt. "Pah! It is hardly bad news - gentlemen, our financial difficulties are solved! I was most successful yesterday, and managed to win this from one of those despicable guardsmen." He produced the guardsman's ring with a flourish, looking pleased with himself.
Aramis could not stifle his smile. "Then our situation is indeed rosy, for Athos has also had good fortune of late!"
Athos glanced at him again, pleased that Aramis' explanation meant that he did not need to explain the real provenance of his windfall, which he had never intended to reveal in the first place. Then he looked at Porthos, frowning slightly. "That is good luck! But I do not hear any bad news...."
D'Artagnan grinned. "Do you really think one of the cardinal's men would lose so gladly to a musketeer? Porthos has got us all mixed up in a duel."
Aramis sighed, and from somewhere in the other room, a noise of disapproval could be heard from Bazin. "Monsieur de Treville will have our heads if we are caught duelling again. Or the Cardinal! And we had only just redeemed ourselves with him..." Nevertheless, he sounded resigned - and not wholly displeased at the thought of some exercise after being confined to bed.
Porthos looked unconcerned. "D'Artagnan has the Cardinal's ear now - I'm sure he can redeem us if it becomes necessary."
D'Artagnan looked somewhat doubtful as to whether he could pull off another pardon for all of them, but Athos merely shrugged. Porthos looked from one to the other of them and rubbed his hands together. "Marvellous!" he said. "We are to meet them in the Place de P_____ at 5 o'clock this afternoon. We shall show them that the King's musketeers are no cowards!" He looked around the room. "Now, my dear Aramis, do you have any wine left? We may as well pass the time pleasantly until our appointment."
Bazin brought a bottle, and they settled back by the fireplace. As Athos passed Aramis to sit, he brushed his hand across the man's back. "Are you sure you are recovered enough for this?" he murmured quietly, low enough that the others would not hear. Aramis said nothing, but gave a slight nod, and moved his own hand, just for a moment, against Athos' thigh.
Neither of them mentioned the intimacy of the previous night or that morning to Porthos and d'Artagnan. Somehow, neither of them quite knew how to describe it to their friends - both had felt something beyond the affection of friendship, in those quiet moments.
Chapter 4: A Duel
In which the musketeers redeem their honour.
Place de P____ was a quiet, leafy square, a few streets away from the inn where Porthos and d'Artagnan had met the cardinal's men. As a duelling location, it was rather ideal--it was not on any common route taken by any Monsieur de Treville's musketeers or the cardinal's guardsmen, and thus the duellists could be relatively certain that they would not be observed.
When the four friends arrived at the square, the guardsmen were waiting for them. The dandiest of the six, the man whose ring Porthos had won, stepped forwards as the musketeers entered. "So, sir," he said, addressed Porthos. "Do you admit that you are a cheater and a coward, like all musketeers, or must I kill you to prove my point?"
D'Artagnan's hand went to his sword as Porthos stepped forward. "You are a fool, Monsieur, to try to provoke us," the youngest musketeer said, his voice calm but his body language menacing. "There has not yet been a man who could beat us!"
"Well then, I shall be the first!" the guardsman scoffed. His friends fanned out around him, their hands on their swords. "Gentlemen, en guarde!"
The guardsmen pulled out their swords, and the musketeers did the same. Porthos leaped forwards with a flourish, his sword meeting that of the man he had beaten. Aramis took the tallest of the six, a man with a red doublet, and Aramis and d'Artagnan each found themselves taking on two men.
D'Artagnan handled his sword with skilled practice, taking down one of his opponents with a swift thrust to the leg before focusing on the other. The guardsman, a Picard by his accent, lacked talent but made up for it with persistent, and the younger musketeer soon found sweat dripping from his brow as he matched the guard blow for blow. Athos, meanwhile, was alternating trusts between his two guards, one a swarthy southerner and the other a thin-faced Breton. Deftly avoiding their strikes, he twisted and turned before finally leaping between the two. As they both rushed at him, he dived backwards, and the Breton's sword cut through his friend's doublet, slicing through his arm. The southerner fell, and the Breton stared at him, stunned. Athos took the opportunity to disarm him, flicking the man's sword out of his hand with the tip of his own, and quickly standing on it.
The guard glowered at him, raising his hands in defeat. "I yield!" he said, dully. "I do not wish to tangle with you madmen any further." The guard knelt to tend to his injured friend, while Athos turned back to the fight. Porthos was dealing easily with his man, pushing him further and further across the square, and matching him blow for blow. Aramis, however, was clearly beginning to tire. His illness had still not quite left him, and his face was pale as he valiantly avoided his opponent's sword thrusts. However, he was clearly beginning to tire, badly. His opponent jabbed his blade towards the slim musketeer's chest, nearly skewering Aramis, who twisted out of the way at the last possible minute. His movement unbalanced him, though, and he half fell, catching himself with his non-sword hand. Athos ran to his aid as the guard swung at him, trying to make the most of the opportunity. Before he could strike the weakened man, however, Athos engaged him from the other side, forcing him to defend from the new flurry of blows. Aramis pulled himself to his feet slowly and stepped back to catch his breath as his friends easily fought the three remaining guardsmen.
It was when Porthos got in a thrust to his opponent's leg that the other guards admitted defeat. The dandy guardsman looked flustered and dishevelled as he clutched his thigh. "Do not think I will forget this, musketeer," he snarled. His uninjured friends helped him to his feet, and together they limped away.
Aramis nodded at Athos in thanks, and Athos smiled and nodded in return. D'Artagnan turned to Porthos. "I think we will be hearing from the Cardinal before the week is over," he said, somewhat ruefully.
Porthos, hearing his tone, raised an eyebrow at him. "Concerned for your good reputation with our dear friend?" he teased.
Aramis intervened. "Such a relationship is no bad thing, as difficult as it may be to maintain." He sheathed his sword and sighed. "In any case, let us leave the Cardinal for another day. I may not yet be as recovered as I had thought, but I still think some wine and good food might be in order!" He grinned at his friends. "After all, we have two strokes of luck to celebrate, do we not?"
Athos rested a hand on Aramis' shoulder. "Indeed, we do. And we will find no better company than each other!"
"Hear, hear," Porthos said heartily. "But... Let's make it a different inn, this time, all the same!"
The musketeers laughed, and strode from the square to an evening filled with laughter, friendship - and indeed, good food. And if Porthos and d'Artagnan noticed that Aramis went back to Athos' rooms instead of his own, they never said a word.