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In My Brothers' Hands

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--ONE--

The door closed behind Louis and Rochefort, leaving Treville and three of his musketeers alone in the audience chamber. The King's words still stung. "I'm disappointed. Your musketeers have let me down again." Treville let out a long breath and turned to face his men. He looked unsure of what to say, anger warring with some other emotion on his face. He pursed his lips and gave a slight shake of his head. His voice was surprisingly measured when he addressed them.

"The King is right. We lost this mission the moment things got out of control at the market," Treville paused, scanning the faces of his men. Athos as always wore a mask of inscrutable calm, his clenched jaw the only sign that he might be disturbed at all. D'Artagnan shifted nervously beside Athos, cocking his head with an urgent gaze that indicated he clearly expected their leader to speak for them. Aramis's behavior was the most telling of all – the typically outspoken marksman simply placed a hand to his hip and looked down, obscuring his face behind the brim of his hat.

"Really? None of you have anything to say?" Treville felt his anger rising. These were his best men, loyal to a fault and he knew they took no failure lightly. But there was obviously some missing piece that they were not sharing with him. Angry, Treville stepped up to Athos, inches from the swordsman's face. "Your failure at the market led to the death of five innocent people, loss of the explosive powder, and serious injury to a fellow musketeer. It's only by the grace of God that the crossbow bolt didn't shatter Porthos's leg. So, tell me something that will make me understand how you could have let this happen?" Treville stood his ground, nose to nose with Athos. He heard a sigh from his left and realized that Aramis was about to speak when Athos pre-empted him.

"Our positioning wasn't right in the square," Athos said calmly, "and there were more guards with Balthazar than we anticipated. There was nothing we could have done."

"Nothing," Treville breathed. He took a step back and ran a hand through his hair, "Nothing?" Voice rising, he gestured toward Aramis, "With the best marksman in all of Paris in the perfect position for an ambush and you tell me you could do nothing?" Treville spun on Aramis, bringing down his wrath toward the marksman, "What the hell happened!" he shouted.

Aramis finally raised his head but could not hold Treville's blazing stare. With a slight shake of his head he said softly, "I didn't have a shot." Aramis's jaw worked as if he wished to say more, yet he held his peace.

Enraged, Treville took another step toward Aramis, "How is that even possible?" he shouted. Aramis shied away from Treville's overwhelming presence, turning his head away but not before Treville could see the fear and sorrow in his gaze. Treville raised a hand to grab the marksman by the doublet, force him to look at him, but a firm grip arrested him mid-motion.

"He said he did not have a shot," Athos said with deadly calm. His voice was soft but his tone warned Treville to stop pressing. Athos had stepped in to him and Treville turned to face a steely gaze with a glint of danger. Ever protective of his friends, Treville knew how fierce Athos could be but was taken aback to find Athos's eyes full of warning toward him. Athos continued before Treville could speak.

"This was my mission to command and I accept the failure," he said calmly, "You must trust me that I will address this with my men. Your anger, however deserved, does nothing to help the situation," Athos said, arching an eyebrow. Treville pursed his lips, his desire to continue pressing his point at odds with Athos's analysis of the situation. The swordsman was right but his insubordination galled him.

Before the situation could escalate, the doors to the audience chamber swung open. Athos immediately dropped Treville's arm and took a small step backward, assuming a neutral stance while both Aramis and D'Artagnan instinctively straightened to attention. It was doubtful anyone entering the room would have noticed the tension between the men. No need to share their problems outside of the regiment.

Rochefort entered, flanked by two red guards. His false smile not reaching his eyes.

"Treville," he said, the name slipping from his lips as if it had a foul taste, "I'm so glad you decided to dally here instead of getting back to your post. The Queen is to travel to the chapel at Fontainebleau and the King has allowed the Musketeers the chance to redeem themselves by accompanying her."

"When?" was Treville's clipped reply.

"Immediately," Rochefort smiled, "The trip has been planned since the Dauphin fell so ill. It was to be a prayer for God's intercession, but now it will be a joyful trip of thanksgiving for the Dauphin's recovering health."

"Why was I not informed of the Queen's travel plans before now?" Treville asked, his soldier's discipline the only thing keeping his temper in check.

"My dear Captain," Rochefort replied, "You were preoccupied with that debacle you and your musketeers orchestrated to retrieve the cipher. It must have slipped past you," Treville started to speak but Rochefort raised a hand and continued, "No matter, Captain," he smiled, "my red guards are already provisioned to provide escort. Perhaps you and your men should return to your garrison until the King has a mission that you might be able to achieve more successfully."

"My men will ride with the Queen," Treville said flatly, not trusting himself to say more.

"As you wish, but we leave on the hour," Rochefort gave a slight nod to the captain before leaving the room with the same flourish he had entered.

"This is impossible!" D'Artagnan blurted out as soon as the door closed, "How are we supposed to provision with less than an hour's notice."

"He's baiting us, D'Artagnan," Treville said calmly, "But we will not allow it. Athos, Aramis," he said, stepping toward the two men, "You will ride out with the Queen. I don't trust her with just the red guard," both men gave a dip of their heads, acknowledging the order. Before D'Artagnan could protest, Treville turned to him, "D'Artagnan ride to the garrison and provision an escort of 8 men to ride with you. You will lead them to meet up with the procession, hopefully before they get too far into the forest. I'll talk to the King. Get him to delay the Queen's departure. Get moving," he finished, turning on his heel to leave by the same doors as Rochefort. Treville put a hand to the door and the paused, turning to look at the three men.

"I have an uneasy feeling about this. Stay sharp," he said, before turning and exiting the room. As soon as the door closed, the Musketeers took a collective breath. Things were moving rapidly and this might be the only chance they had to regroup. They converged in a small circle, the tensions of a few minutes earlier forgotten.

"I don't like any of this," Aramis said, lips pursed, hands on hips. The marksman looked ready for a fight.

"It reeks of another attempt by Rochefort to discredit the musketeers," Athos agreed, "We cannot let that happen."

"I don't like the idea of the two of you riding out alone with the red guard," D'Artagnan added, "Not if Rochefort is up to something."

"We are not going to let the Queen go unprotected!" Aramis replied, his brown eyes flashing, "No matter what the circumstances." Aramis shifted to take a step toward D'Artagnan but Athos smoothly intervened.

"Aramis," he said, his voice an odd mix of warning and empathy, "of course we will not. D'Artagnan's concerns are reasonable, but it is clear that we have orders and a duty to perform." Athos shifted his gaze to his protégé, "Get to the garrison and get provisioned. Make sure Giraud, Clemente, and Jobert are part of your complement. They will be good on your team." Athos clapped a hand on the young man's shoulder. "We are counting on you to join us quickly."

D'Artagnan nodded his head, lips set in a thin determined smile. Aramis stepped up to him and offered his hand.

"Apologies, mon ami," Aramis said, his eyes soft, "I've been on edge since yesterday." D'Artagnan took the offered hand then clasped Aramis shoulder.

"No apology needed," he smiled, "Just stay safe." Aramis gave a gracious dip of his head, acknowledging the request but of course, it was not a promise he could make.

D'Artagnan released Aramis and turned to leave but stopped and turned back.

"What am I to tell Porthos?" he asked pointedly, challenging the men to come up with an answer.

"He's injured," Aramis said, "A crossbow bolt to the leg is nothing he should be riding on. Tell him to stay put."

"Oh, I'm sure that will work," D'Artagnan said with a sarcastic smile.

"Tell him we said to be careful," Athos said flatly. Aramis started to protest, but Athos cut him off, "You know that there is no way he will stay behind. So, let's save precious time arguing about it."

"Great, thank you. You two are no help," D'Artagnan replied, "See you in a few hours," he said over his shoulder as he left.

"You know that Porthos should stay behind," Aramis grumbled at Athos's side.

"Yes," Athos answered, cocking his head to give Aramis a stare from beneath his hat, "But I also know that there is nothing that will keep him away if thinks the three of us are riding into danger. So, let's stop pretending we have any control over this and get ready to ride." Aramis clearly didn't like it, but Athos most certainly was right. He let the matter drop as they left for the kitchens to scavenge some food for the journey.

--TWO--

The first two hours of their journey toward Fontainebleau passed quietly, too quietly Athos thought considering he was riding with the most talkative person he knew. He and Aramis had been relegated to the rear of the procession, the red guards forming the main phalanx around the Queen's carriage. Inside with her majesty were the Governess with the Dauphin and Constance Bonacieux, the only one of the Queen's ladies to travel with her today. The trip was supposed to be short, just two nights at the summer palace with time spent at the chapel in thankful prayer for the health of the Dauphin. It was the kind of relaxed mission that normally would have had Aramis in fine spirits and Athos stoically bearing the brunt of Aramis's good-natured banter.

Quite uncharacteristically, their journey through the forest seemed to be having the opposite effect on his companion. Aramis had been silent for the better part of their ride. Not that Athos was overzealous for conversation, but Aramis's silence was a brooding one, his posture tense on his horse and his brown eyes troubled the few times he'd allowed himself to meet Athos's gaze. Athos was not generally one to pry, but something had been off with Aramis since the fight in the market square two days ago and concern for his friend was needling at him despite his attempt to stay aloof from his own emotions. Athos shook his head, wondering not for the first time in their years of friendship, how he had let this man get so under his skin. All three of his closest friends had burrowed far more deeply into his heart than he was comfortable with, but despite the years the depth of it still surprised him. Athos spared another glance to Aramis, his tension almost a palpable thing. Without the more openly warm Porthos here to worry at Aramis's distress, Athos knew the responsibility was his. None of them could bear to see a brother suffer.

"Do you want to tell me what is going on?" Athos asked, no preamble to his question other than having kicked up his horse to ride side by side with Aramis.

"Hmm?" came the distracted reply. Aramis gave Athos a questioning glance, not clear on what Athos had just said, "Going on with what?"

"You," Athos said dryly, "The only time you are this quiet is when you are unconscious."

Aramis let out a small chuckle, his lips turning up into a slight smile for the first time all day. "I'm fine, mon ami," he answered, the smile deepening on his lips but not reaching his eyes. "Just appreciating the ride."

"Lying does not suit you, Aramis," Athos answered quietly, "Nor do I deserve it."

Athos saw his statement have the desired impact, the false smile fell from Aramis's face and his brow furrowed with guilt and worry. Athos knew it was an underhanded trick to emotionally manipulate his kind-hearted brother this way, but two days of angry outbursts and silent brooding were enough. It was time to get to the heart of things.

"Tell me," Athos spoke gently but insisted nonetheless.

Aramis shifted in his saddle, scrubbing a hand over his face and letting out a deep exhale. Athos waited, allowing his friend the time to gather his words.

"At the market," Aramis finally said, eyes looking off in the distance, "it is not completely true that I did not have a clear shot." Aramis paused, licking his lips and taking a deep inhale. After another steadying breath, he continued, "When Balthazar first approached, I had him. But just before Tariq handed over the box . . . there was a baby," Aramis paused again clearly distressed about what he was trying to say. He shook his head and put his hand to his brow, pinching the bridge of his nose and squinting his eyes shut as if he didn't want to see the memory he was sharing, "I couldn't help it . . . the Dauphin was so sick, my heart so filled with worry . . . it was just a moment," the words were coming out in a rush now, "a moment of distraction and I lost my focus. Five innocent people are dead because of me. Porthos wounded. The mission a failure. Treville disgraced. I failed my duty as a musketeer in every possible way." Aramis's voice shook and Athos realized Aramis was struggling to hold back deep emotions.

"We are none of us perfect," Athos said simply, "even you, my friend, are prone to error."

"This was not just a mistake!" Aramis hissed, raising his face to meet Athos's gaze, eyes shining with unshed tears, "I put myself, my feelings, before my duty, before my friends, before . . ." he trailed off, biting his lip.

"You let your feelings rule you for just an instant, and yes, there were consequences, but do you truly think you can force yourself to feel any differently?" Athos asked, his own deep pain lacing his voice. "Because if there is some way, you must tell me, as everything I have tried has led me back to the bottom of a wine bottle."

"I can't be that forgiving of myself," Aramis said, "The consequences are too dire, the stakes too high. I know you struggle, but I don't think it is quite the same thing."

"It's not?" Athos answered, raising an eyebrow, and feeling his throat tighten. "My feelings overcame me in an alley in Paris last year and now we are forced to look at the consequences of my inaction keep company with the King of France. Do not think I do not know how you feel."

Athos surprised himself at his own candor, but this was Aramis, and there were no secrets, not truly, left between either of them now. Still, to say it bore an emotional price but one Athos was willing to pay for the sake of his friend's well-being. Athos watched as his words landed, the anger dissipating from his friend's face, only to be replaced by a look of sorrow.

"I'm sorry, mon ami," Aramis breathed, reaching out to put a hand on Athos's arm, "I didn't mean . . . that was inappropriate to say." Athos acknowledged his friend's apology with a slight dip of his head. Aramis had not truly hurt him with his words, but Athos knew his friend needed to feel forgiven anyway. Aramis let his hand fall from Athos's arm and he again ran it over his face. Something more was troubling him. Athos waited, knowing his friend would speak when ready.

"The Dauphin's illness caused me . . . great consternation," Aramis said softly, his voice thick with emotion. "I did not anticipate I would be so . . . affected." Aramis took a deep breath, "I have been fighting myself, denying how I have felt, pretending to myself that I could just let him go, to just forget about it as you have so wisely told me to do. I thought I was in control, but no matter how much I try, I will not be able to stop loving them."

"Aramis," Athos's voice held a note of warning, but Aramis shook his head and raised a hand, not wanting to be interrupted.

"I love them, but I will do nothing foolish. They are not mine to love," Aramis said, strength creeping into his voice. He looked directly at Athos, determination brightening his dark eyes, "They belong to France. And I swear to you, I give them freely, with no reservation. It is my own selfishness that I must overcome. I will not let my love for them bring them any harm. Nor will I allow my feelings to cause me distraction again. My duty is clear now and every action I take as a musketeer is to protect France, and they, they are France. There is no conflict in my soul anymore."

"Then why are you still so troubled, mon ami?" Athos asked tenderly.

"Because it is so hard," Aramis answered tears filling his eyes, "So very hard to let them go."

--THREE--

They stopped for lunch at a large clearing with easy access to the main road through the forest. It was a fine day and the Queen had a blanket spread on the ground so that she and her two ladies could enjoy the sun breaking through the trees. They passed the Dauphin between them, cooing and laughing with the baby as a group of content women are wont to do. The happy scene even brought a ghost of a smile to Athos's lips as he watched them fuss over the little prince.

Athos glanced over at Aramis standing near their horses. He had been rummaging for something in their saddlebags, but now he stood as a statue, paused in his forgotten task. His attention was drawn to the domestic scene on the blanket in the clearing as well but his eyes showed nothing but sorrow. His right hand absentmindedly rubbed at his chest, as if his very heart was paining him.

Privy to Aramis's secret, Athos had avoided all conversation about it with the marksman mostly in an effort to protect them both from the gallows. No matter the circumstances, it was treason and as they were the only witnesses to the event, as long as they never spoke of it, it could be like it had never happened. Aramis loved often and easily, although not frivolously, and Athos had assumed another light would capture his heart. The baby was definitely a complication, but for all Athos knew perhaps not the first such Aramis had managed. But after their conversation this morning, he realized he had not truly seen his brother's heart, maybe because he didn't want to. Every path on this route lead to either misery or death and Athos had a fierce need to protect his friend from both. His instinct all along had been to keep Aramis away from the Queen and the Dauphin lest some casual exchange provoke suspicions, but now Athos was even more certain his course of action was correct. Aramis was suffering far more than he had suspected and proximity to the royal family only deepened it. Athos redirected his gaze, suddenly feeling wrong to be witnessing Aramis's struggles. His brother was suffering and at the very least Athos could leave him with his dignity.

With the Queen and Constance to help look after the Dauphin, the Governess was free to turn her attention elsewhere. Athos could not help but notice her eyes following the marksman's every move, attempting to catch him alone when he was tending the horses, or getting food from his saddlebags. Aramis for his part did not seem surprised by her attention but was not entirely comfortable with it either. He finally invited her to walk with him to the stream to refill the canteens, and when they returned a few minutes later, the lady looked flushed but seemed satisfied to rejoin her companions.

Aramis joined Athos where he sat with his back to a tree, just far enough away to keep an eye on the comings and goings around the camp. Athos had forced the red guard to post two sentries, but he was not so certain they were being all that vigilant. Athos preferred a spot where he too could keep watch.

"It seems the Governess has chosen to take on another charge," Athos said flatly, although a slight smile played on his lips. He reached out a hand for one of the apples Aramis had retrieved from their saddlebags.

"Perhaps a lapse of judgment on her part," Aramis replied, handing Athos the apple, "A mistake I think we will need to rectify soon," he added.

Before Athos could press the matter further, something changed in Aramis's demeanor. He stood straight up, eyes quickly scanning the forest, head slightly cocked as if listening for something. Athos scrambled quickly to his feet.

"What?" Athos whispered, standing near the marksman.

"Something is not right," Aramis whispered back, "I heard . . ." his voice broke off and he squinted his eyes, looking intensely at something in the forest. Four ravens suddenly took wing, squawking as they pushed past the treetops. Athos trailed his eyes back to where they had come from. A glint of something caught his attention, metal in the sunlight.

"Ambush!" Aramis yelled beside him, hands already reaching for the pistols strapped to his chest.

"To the Queen!" Athos called out, drawing pistol and rapier and running to the center of the clearing.

All hell broke loose as pistols fired from all directions, the women screamed and men ran from the forest. The red guard scrambled to get hands to weapons and following Athos's lead formed a circle around the women and the Dauphin.

"Get them to the carriage!" Athos shouted as he engaged the first attacker to come within his range. Athos took in the rough clothing, the cheap sword, and the clumsy attack before skewering the man through the gut. As he pulled out his sword, two more stepped up to take the first's place. These were not trained men, but there were lots of them.

Athos looked for Aramis and found him fighting with rapier and main gauche to clear a path for them to the carriage. Other of the red guard fought for control of the horses. More pistol fire came from the woods as the attackers reloaded and the man to Athos's left fell, opening him up for a third attacker to rush toward him with a raised club. Suddenly a sword thrust came from almost behind him and he glanced quickly to see that Constance had picked up a blade. Her thrust was true and the man with the club fell to the ground. Picking up her skirts in her other hand Constance neatly stepped over him and brandished the blade toward the next attacker. Athos had no time to remark on her swordsmanship as the next assailant charged toward him. Another volley of pistol fire brought down more of their men.

It took Athos a bit to get the red guard to respond, but finally he sent men into the woods to take out the shooters. Athos was not sure if there were enough of them left to get the Queen and the Dauphin into the carriage but he was reassured again by the presence of Aramis, fighting like a very demon from Hell, bodies piling up at his feet. Athos broke from the circle and joined him, the two of them fighting in concert and forcing the attackers away from the carriage. Finally, the door was clear and Aramis helped the Queen, who was clutching the Dauphin, up the step. As she started inside, hands grabbed her and pulled her down from the step. With a desperate cry, she thrust the baby prince into Aramis's arms as she screamed and struggled against the men who were dragging her off.

-m-m-m-

Holding the Dauphin in his arms, Aramis could not follow the Queen, nor press on the attack. His first responsibility was to get the baby to safety.

"Athos!" he bellowed, desperation tinging his voice as he kicked one man in the stomach and struggled to turn his body to shield the Dauphin from another man. A sharp pain sliced through his side, but he did not relinquish his hold on the little prince. Another strike set his shoulder on fire and forced Aramis to his knees. He considered getting under the carriage, but with the horses spooked and bucking it was not safe to risk being run over by the massive wheels. Aramis was running out of options but then Athos was there, hauling him up to his feet and shoving him through the carriage door. He was concerned for the baby but managed to stop his momentum with a shoulder to the wall. Constance and Margarite stumbled into the carriage after him, Constance managing to lay down the sword before she accidentally impaled Aramis. Margarite flung herself to the floor, sobbing with her hands fisted in Constance's skirts. Scared but level-headed as ever, Constance reached immediately for the Dauphin, clutching him protectively to her chest. Her eyes were wild and blood streaked her cheek.

"Are you alright?" Aramis asked, breathing heavily as he reached to his belt for his spent pistol.

"I'm fine." She answered, only a slight quaver to her voice belying her fear, "The Queen . . ." she started, but Aramis cut her off.

"I know," he said, glancing up at her worried face "I'll get her back." His hands had not stopped moving as he loaded his pistol even while looking at Constance. Finished, he flipped it in his hand and held it out to her "You know how to use this, yes?" he asked.

Constance took the pistol with a steady hand and pulled back the hammer. "Yes," she answered confidently.

"Good," Aramis said, gently pushing the muzzle of the gun away from his torso and toward the door of the carriage, "Shoot anyone that comes in here that isn't Athos."

"Margarite," Aramis looked down to the woman cowering on the floor of the carriage while continuing to load his second pistol. "You are alright. Stay in the carriage. Stay with Constance." She whimpered and nodded, pressing closer to the other woman. He considered handing her the gun but thought better and rather boldly tucked the second pistol into Constance's belt.

"Aramis, you need that," Constance said confused.

"You need it," he said, cupping her cheek in his hand, "Protect the Dauphin. Don't let anything happen to him." He surprised himself, and her, by planting a chaste kiss on her forehead. "Or you. And don't worry, I'm sure Athos will be right behind me and will have the good sense to bring his pistols."

With that he was out the door of the carriage, pushing his way through the remaining men fighting on the other side and whistling for his horse. The black Friesian heard the call and found her rider at the edge of the skirmish. Battle trained, it hardly fazed her to join him in a melee. Aramis mounted up and they flew into the forest, following the narrow track the attackers had taken with the Queen.

--FOUR--

With the Dauphin confined within the relative safety of the carriage, it did not take long for the remaining red guard, under Athos's direction, to re-group and drive off the last of the attackers. Whether it was because they were shaken by the severity of the battle or because their own Lieutenant had been killed in the first volley of gunfire, they were willing to follow Athos's cool and confident leadership as if he wasn't a despised musketeer. The picnic spot, so idyllic earlier, was now a graveyard, bodies strewn across the clearing like so many rocks on the shore of a bloody ocean. The numbers that had been sent against them were overwhelming. This had been well planned and the only saving grace that although there were many attackers, they were by and large unskilled. Had the better-trained musketeer regiment been in escort instead of the red guard, the fight would not have been this close despite the size of the unit.

As it was, Athos had no time to ponder the implications of the attack as his first duty was to ensure the safety of the Dauphin and the Queen. He ordered the men to collect the weapons on the field, reload pistols and get mounted. They had to continue to Fontainebleau in all haste. Pausing a moment to see that his instructions were being followed, Athos mounted the step to the carriage and opened the door. He was met with the barrel of a pistol pressed to his temple. He froze on the spot, raising his hands slightly, palms upturned to show he was not a threat.

"Athos," Constance breathed in relief, immediately lowering the weapon and taking a step back. Athos too released a deep exhale, realizing he was lucky that the weapon had been in the hand of the more steadfast Constance than the near-hysterical governess who was on the floor of the carriage, the crying Dauphin held tightly to her chest.

"Aramis?" he said, his single word and raised brow a question directed to Constance.

"He went after the Queen," Constance said, uncocking the pistol and slipping it back into her belt beside the other one.

"Where?" Athos pressed, not considering the impact of his tone on the women. Luckily, it did not seem to faze Constance. Not much really ever did.

"He went out the other side of the carriage," she answered, "East. I think there's a track that way toward a ruined church. We have stopped there on previous trips, it's not far." Athos had started reloading his weapons as she was speaking, replacing the pistols on their holsters and returning his blades to their proper sheaths.

"How many men?" he asked, sparing her a quick glance.

Constance swallowed, gazing slightly off to try to capture the memory. "Four or five, I think." She finally replied. "One of them had the Queen on his horse. Athos, if they. . ." Constance trailed off, biting back a small sob.

Athos paused in what he was doing, putting a hand on her arm and gently giving her a reassuring squeeze, "Aramis will let no harm befall the Queen."

"But he is outnumbered and he has no weapons," she continued, lip trembling.

"He has his blades and his wits, and that is plenty for Aramis," Athos answered with more confidence than he truly had. He also knew Aramis was wounded, had seen him fall beneath a strike to his shoulder. He had to get to him quickly. He dropped his hand and returned to the preparation of his weapons, his voice full of authority, "Get yourselves settled, we must get the Dauphin to the palace and this will not be a comfortable ride."

Constance nodded, already moving to organize the pillows and throws to help cushion them during what was sure to be a frantic dash through the forest track.

"D'Artagnan and a complement of musketeers should catch up soon," his words caused Constance to pause in her work, and Athos could not miss the hope and tenderness that flashed across her face at the mention of the young Musketeer. "Tell him about the Queen. As soon as we get the carriage underway, I'm going after them."

It was not difficult for Athos to follow the trail, nor to notice the signs when a group of horses had veered off on a smaller track. Less than half an hour after he had left the road he came across the ruined boundary wall of the church Constance had spoken of. He pulled up his horse and dismounted, leading him into some of the thicker scrub of the forest where he would be better concealed. He peered over the wall, seeing nothing but overgrown orchards and a disused graveyard leading up to the abandoned chapel. It was mostly intact, but sections of the wall were blackened and Athos knew that fire had ravaged through the building at some point. There were no signs of life, but Athos thought he caught the sound of a horse whinnying in the distance. His mount must have heard it too as he nickered and stamped in response.

Athos made his way cautiously to the chapel, circling around toward what would have been a side entrance and in the direction of the horses. Five beasts were tied off and Aramis's black Friesian was several paces off as well. Athos gave a whistle and the Friesian perked her ears and came to him in a trot, as she was trained to do. The other horses were displeased with this new one, but their agitation was not enough to draw further attention. Athos quickly checked the horse, noting it was not injured, but also noting that Aramis's arquebus was still in the holster. Not surprisingly his friend had chosen stealth over power. It was a bad sign though that Aramis's mount was still here – that meant the musketeer must still be inside, leaving Athos no clue to as his circumstances. Even more disturbing was the amount of blood on Aramis's saddle. The marksman may have been more gravely wounded then Athos first suspected.

Dagger in hand, Athos made his way into the ruins. He found the first body, it's throat neatly slit, just inside the vestibule. The second was at the foot of a small staircase leading up to the remains of a squat tower. Athos assumed both were the work of Aramis, but where was he now? Athos spared a moment to make sure the main section of the chapel was empty and then carefully made his way up the stairs. He noted blood on the steps and hoped it belonged to someone other than the marksman.

The third body was laid out at the top of the stairs and from the looks of it, it had been a vicious struggle. Bloody boot prints were scattered over the landing and Aramis's main gauche was still protruding from the man's neck. Athos caught the muffled sound of raised voices coming from behind the half-open doorway at the other side of the landing. With extreme care, Athos shifted forward and silently pulled Aramis's weapon from the bloody corpse. Then he carefully made his way across the landing, pressing himself flat next to the partially open door and peering through the opening as best he could.

He could just catch the profile of a big man in torn and dirty leathers facing off with someone toward the back of the room that was out of his line of sight.

"This isn't a good idea," the man's voice was shrill, a note of fear mixed with his defiance. "We weren't supposed to hurt anyone! Especially her," he continued, gesturing wildly to his left "It was just to scare them!"

"I don't care what you were supposed to do," the answering voice was deeper, older but still out of sight of Athos, "There is more at stake here than your petty politics. The people are tired of this Spanish whore on the throne. It's time we did something about it. I'm not about to let this opportunity pass by."

"Dammit, Javier!" the big man raked a hand through his hair, "Why do you always have to escalate things! I needed a handful of men to stage a fake ambush and you bring half an army and kidnap the Queen of France!" The man shook his head shifting his body away from the man he was speaking to and opening up more of the room to Athos's view. Schooled soldier as he was, he didn't release the gasp that pushed against his lips as he took stock of the rest of the room.

Beyond the younger man, opposite from the door, the Queen was seated, her arms bound to the chair by a twist of rope around her wrists. She seemed unharmed, her lips pressed tightly together and her blue eyes wide with fear. Face down at her feet lay Aramis in a limp heap on the floor. Athos's heart caught in his chest at the stillness of the musketeer, no sign to show him if he was alive or dead. As Athos considered his options the Queen caught sight of him and her mouth opened in a small "O". He put his finger to his lips and gave a slight shake of his head. Her eyes widened but she closed her mouth and swallowed, regaining what she could of her composure.

"How are we going to get out of this," the big man nearly whined, his voice laced with worry.

"You are a fool, brother," Javier intoned, his voice retaining confidence and control. Athos immediately identified him as the more dangerous one. "We are heroes, not criminals. Emilie of Duras is making her way to Paris, and we will have seats by her side when we hand the bitch over. France will be purged of the Spanish taint."

"Who? What are you talking about?" the other man shouted, "You're insane." Even further agitated, the man started pacing frantically, running his hands through his hair and gesturing wildly as he yelled at his brother. "You and your political causes have gone too far this time! You kidnapped the Queen of France! We are going to hang!"

"Not us, her!" Javier's reply was icy and determined, "She will die twitching at the end of a noose on the steps of the Louvre by the time I am done with her."

"I want nothing to do with this insanity," his brother cried.

"It's too late, Matthieu, you are already involved. You are here and she has seen you, you attacked that musketeer, do you think you will just walk away now?" Athos could hear the derision in Javier's voice goading his younger brother, "No, you are in this and you will see it through. It's for the good of France we do this"

Javier's words stopped the younger man from pacing. He turned again to his brother, face a clouded mask of fear and frustration.

"Pull yourself together. We have to get out of here. Get the horses ready," Javier commanded.

"What about him?" Matthieu gestured toward Aramis.

"Since it looks like none of his companions followed him, we don't need him anymore. We'll kill him if he is not dead already," and Javier finally walked into Athos's line of sight to give a kick to the prone marksmen. All hell broke loose.

As Javier planted his booted foot into Aramis's side, the marksman suddenly twisted and caught the man by the ankle, bringing him down hard on his back. Aramis scrambled to press the attack, pushing himself up to his knees and reaching for the weapons on the man's belt. The Queen screamed as Matthieu moved to help his brother, only to be tackled to the ground by Athos, flinging himself through the door. Matthieu was big enough that it was almost like wrestling with Porthos, only luckily for Athos he was not as skilled. They struggled and rolled on the floor, each trying to gain the upper hand. Athos was finally able to get an opening and struck with Aramis's blade into the big man's back as the Queen screamed Aramis's name. Pushing the big man off him Athos fluidly rolled to his feet, drawing his pistol and cocking it as he rose.

To his left, the Queen was struggling against the ropes that held her to the chair, but before him stood Javier, holding Aramis against him with a hand fisted in Aramis's hair and a pistol shoved under his chin. The marksman's head was pulled back against his captor's and a trail of blood trickled from his temple and down his pale cheek. Aramis's eyes were squinted shut and his breathing was shallow, but he seemed to be on his feet enough to make an effective human shield. Athos aimed his pistol at Javier, but he knew he had no shot.

"Drop your weapon unless you want to see his brains blown all over this room," Javier sneered at him.

Outwardly, Athos remained calm, but inside it was all he could do to quell the panic rising in him. It had taken a mere moment for his keen tactical mind to assess the situation and there wasn't a scenario that didn't end with either Aramis or the Queen dead. His mind worked frantically looking for a way to end the stalemate.

"Majesty, are you injured?" Athos said calmly, taking another small step closer to Javier and Aramis, hoping to find an opening.

"I am unharmed," her voice was stately but held a slight tremor to it, "And I will live through this to see that man hang, I promise," she added with a steely confidence that surprised Athos.

"Shut up, Spanish whore," Javier flicked his eyes toward her as he spat his reply and Athos advanced another step.

"I will see to it personally, Majesty," Athos responded coldly stepping closer again. Javier was getting more agitated, eyes straying from the Queen to Athos, the pistol in his hand starting to slip slightly. "It will be a pleasure to send this madman to Hell after his brother," Athos baited again as he inched forward.

Javier suddenly tensed, realizing what Athos was doing. He pulled back further on Aramis's hair, exposing even more of his neck and firmly pressing the muzzle of the pistol into the soft flesh beneath his skin. The marksman let out a low moan as Javier cocked the pistol.

"Not one more step." Javier's voice was cold, his eyes murderous. Athos froze, realizing he had played this tactic as far as he could and still not sure of a clean shot on Javier. But he did not lower his pistol.

"Athos," Aramis's voice was just above a whisper, slipping through his shallow breaths. Aramis's eyes were open and slightly dazed, his face pinched from the pain of his wounds.

"Lower your weapon," Javier demanded, pressing harder with the pistol and eliciting another small whimper from Aramis. Athos gave a slight cock to his head but remained frozen, pistol raised, eye searching for a clear shot to Javier.

"Athos, you're close enough," Aramis softly begged, his brown eyes pleading to Athos more strongly than words from his mouth ever could.

Javier sneered, "Listen to him. Unless you want him dead."

But Athos's eyes widened as he realized what Javier had misunderstood, what Aramis, the expert shooter, had noticed. Understood between one heartbeat and the next what his brother was asking of him. He felt his breathing quicken and a tremor ran up his spine. Aramis was asking the unthinkable. At this proximity, he did have a shot, but it was by letting the lead ball rip through Aramis's body first.

Athos gave a slight shake of his head. No, he answered his brother, he could not do this. With the wounds and blood loss Aramis were already suffering there was virtually no chance he could survive a gunshot wound, and that was even if Athos could manage a true enough shot not to hit a vital organ. Only Aramis had the skill to even consider it. No. Athos's eyes broke from Aramis's, searching the room again for some other option he had overlooked.

"If you kill me," Aramis breathed up at his captor, "nothing will stop him from killing you. You are already dead." Aramis broke off in a pained wince as his captor shifted the pistol yet again.

"Good point." Javier smiled coldly and in one swift motion, he brought the weapon to bear on the Queen.

Athos felt his chest tighten, Aramis had just made the choice for him. Brother, Athos breathed but no sound actually came out. He found Aramis's eyes, full of pleading and sorrow, begging him to do what he must. Athos spared himself a long blink, eyes stinging with unshed tears against his closed lids. When he opened them again the gaze he gave Aramis was soft and fond. In their unspoken language Athos was telling Aramis he would do what he must. Athos could see relief play across Aramis's face as he let out a small exhale and shifted against Javier.

Javier brought him up short by a yank to his hair. "Move again and she is dead." Javier turned his attention back to Athos but left the gun trained on the Queen, "This is the last time I will tell you to lay down your pistol."

Ice ran through Athos's veins. This would go his way, not Javier's.

"Shooting her will not get you what you want. I will still be here and after I kill you, I will make sure the Queen is a martyr to France, and that the people know she sacrificed her life to save the Dauphin." Athos noted Javier's eyes widen and his jaw tightened when he mentioned the Dauphin so he pressed on, "Yes, the Dauphin lives. Martyring his mother will ensure he is beloved by the people. You cannot win as long as I am here to stop you."

"Enough!" Javier roared, moving to shift his aim from the Queen toward Athos. It was just what Athos had been anticipating and as soon as Javier began to move his pistol away from the Queen, he took the shot. The sound was immediately followed by a second from Javier's gun but as Athos had hoped, it flew harmlessly between himself and the Queen.

Time froze as the sound of the gunshots echoed through the room. Athos watched in horror at the red stain blossoming just below Aramis's right shoulder before the marksman slumped from Javier's grip and fell bonelessly to the floor. Javier staggered backward, a corresponding wound to his chest, eyes wide in pain and shock. Athos closed the small distance between them in three strides, pulling his main gauche from its sheath at his back and pressing it to Javier's neck in one gesture. Athos's eyes held no mercy or remorse as he slid the blade across the madman's throat. Javier raised his hands to his neck, trying to stop his life's blood from pouring from his body. He fell to his knees, gurgling through his last breaths. Athos spared him no more attention, as he moved to swiftly cut the ropes that bound the trembling Queen to the chair.

"Can you ride? There are horses below," Athos's voice was thick with emotion. He was surprised he could even speak.

The Queen slipped from the chair to her knees as soon as she was free. "Aramis," she sobbed reaching for his body.

"Majesty," Athos's voice took on a tone of command and he gripped the Queen by the arm and gave her a small shake, "You must go. You must get to safety. Do not let his sacrifice be for nothing," Athos choked out, his voice cracking. She turned a tear-streaked face to Athos, blue eyes pleading with him not to force her away but Athos was unrelenting, "Majesty, you cannot be found with him. Please," he begged.

The Queen took one last glance at the prone musketeer and then nodded her head, holding back her sobs. She gave Athos's arm a soft squeeze, then gathered her skirts and ran from the room. Athos knew he should follow her, to see her to safety, but he had pushed himself as far as he was capable. He could not leave his brother's side.

Athos quickly shifted himself next to Aramis who lay curled on his side and looking every bit like he might if he were simply asleep. Athos rolled him onto his back, pressing his fingers to Aramis's neck and searching for a pulse.

He had meant to hit higher, in the fleshy part of Aramis's shoulder where it was pressed against Javier's neck, but even as he took aim he knew that he was just not a good enough marksman to make the shot. When he pulled the trigger, it was in full knowledge that he may very well be executing his brother in order to save the queen. The shot had hit low, sending the ball into Aramis's right breast, and most likely through a lung. Athos did not expect Aramis to be alive, but the soldier him in said he must make every attempt to save his comrade even if the brother in him was too overwhelmed with guilt and sorrow to believe there was even a chance.

Athos held his breath and time seemed to stretch again. He closed his eyes, shutting out everything but the hope to feel the beat of Aramis's heart beneath his searching fingers.

A thrum bounced against his fingertips. So softly, it might have been Athos's imagination, until it happened again. It was slow, but it was a steady rhythm. Athos let out a small cry of relief then immediately moved to check the damage.

He worked urgently but carefully to undo Aramis's doublet and get to the bullet wound, biting hard on his bottom lip to choke back his emotions. The thread that anchored Aramis to the living was so thin that Athos thought any care for his brother would as easily kill him as it would help him. He pulled the doublet open finally and then sliced through Aramis's shirt with his dagger. The chest wound was a small hole but blood poured freely. Athos had nothing to hand, so took a portion of Aramis's ruined shirt to press against the wound. He knew there was an exit wound too, and that Aramis had also been stabbed in the other shoulder in the earlier skirmish. What he had not expected was the bloody gash along Aramis's side that was sluggishly oozing blood as well. The bandages were in the saddlebags but even if he had them available Athos couldn't shift his hand from the fresh gunshot wound to tend some other injury.

With no supplies and no help, a rare feeling of helplessness captured Athos as he watched his brother slowly bleeding to death beneath his hands. He swallowed thickly and placed one of his hands on the top of Aramis's head, gently smoothing back the damp, unruly curls.

"Aramis," he whispered, his voice low and hoarse with emotion. He hoped Aramis would open his eyes, would know that he did not leave this world alone but had his brother by his side, but there was no response. He thought it might be for the best. That Aramis could escape this earth without the painful torment of his injuries – or have his murderer be the last face he saw. Athos bowed his head and while he did not have a God he believed in, he asked Aramis's God to see him gently home.

Voices sounded from below, and booted feet clamored up the stairs, pulling Athos from his vigil. Athos knew he should draw his remaining pistol and be ready to defend himself but he couldn't, not willing to move his hands from Aramis even if it meant he too would take his last breath in this room.

It was D'Artagnan who burst into the room, pistol in hand, to find Athos bowed over the prone form of Aramis, blood pooling around them.

"Here!" D'Artagnan yelled over his shoulder, then moved swiftly to kneel at Aramis's other side. "Athos," D'Artagnan said, panting still from his frantic run up the stairs. "Athos, what? Is he . . ."

Athos heard him, but it took great effort on his part to move his attention from Aramis. But here was another brother and he knew he could not deny him. He looked up to meet D'Artagnan's panicked gaze just as Porthos limped his way into the room.

The big man stopped short at the sight before him, leaning heavily into the doorframe as if his legs refused to carry him further. "Aramis . . ." the husky voice choked out, more a question than anything else.

"I shot him," Athos confessed, grief and guilt surging through his chest. "I shot him," he repeated. He couldn't stop saying it as tears began to track down his cheeks.

D'Artagnan's hands were moving over Aramis now, finding the other wounds, pressing his hands to the gash in his side, calling to others for help and to bring bandages but Athos was finding it difficult to hear him. He felt like he was receding, slipping out of this world as surely as Aramis was slipping away. He couldn't hear D'Artagnan anymore, didn't resist the hands that pulled him from his brother. Athos kept his eyes fixed on the marksman's pale, still face until finally it was blocked from view by two others who had joined D'Artagnan by Aramis's side. Athos felt his head spin and the world narrowed to a thin channel. He didn't feel the strong arms that caught him as he finally plunged into blackness.

--FIVE--

It did not take long for Athos to regain consciousness. He let Porthos clean and bind the unnoticed gash to his head that he must have sustained in the fight with Javier. It had probably contributed to him passing out. Porthos said nothing as he worked, but Athos could see his clenched jaw and angry worried eyes as he glanced distractedly to where D'Artagnan, Joubert, and Clemente were huddled over Aramis. Now and again snatches of their conversation reached Athos, but he didn't react, choosing to hide his tumultuous emotions behind his practiced mask of indifference. Athos sensed that Porthos was angry and had questions, just as he knew that Porthos must sense that Athos wanted to be left alone. Porthos had wanted to be by Aramis's side, but D'Artagnan had gently pushed him off – his concerned hovering was not helping Clemente and Joubert's concentration and Porthos's skills as a field medic were too rough to be of any real help. So they stood together, shoulder to shoulder, waiting in a solidarity deeper than their unspoken discomfort to see if Aramis would live or die.

Aramis's wounds were so grave that it took three of them to tend him. Joubert took the lead, as he was apprenticed to Dr. Lamay, and D'Artagnan's steady hands were an asset with all of the sewing they had to do. They cleaned, sutured and bandaged his hurts but throughout the painful process, Aramis remained unconscious. He was so still that D'Artagnan more than once stopped to press his fingers against Aramis's neck or wrist, waiting to find the soft beat of his pulse before he could continue.

They decided they couldn't move him far and certainly he couldn't travel on horseback. D'Artagnan brought up a blanket and they carefully rolled Aramis on his side to slide the blanket beneath him. They picked up the four corners and slowly made their way down the stairs and across the vestibule of the church to an anteroom that had likely been the priest's dressing antechambers. It had a small fireplace and Porthos had already gotten a warm blaze started and laid a pallet of blankets by the hearth. The Musketeers placed their precious burden carefully then D'Artagnan covered Aramis with two of their blue cloaks. Aramis was chilled from loss of blood, his face clammy and pale. When D'Artagnan sent the others on to Fontainebleau with word that he, Athos and Porthos were staying behind with Aramis, the musketeer still had not regained consciousness.

Athos sat now on the floor, his back to the arched columns of the fireplace, waiting with the others to know if they would be taking their brother home or burying him the graveyard beyond the wall. Porthos sat cross-legged by Aramis's side, his sword lying across his lap, the cleaning cloth forgotten in his hand. D'Artagnan had been pacing but then decided to collect more firewood. It would be a long vigil and D'Artagnan needed something to do other than sit and brood. Athos and Porthos sat in a silence disturbed only by the crackle and pop of the fire.

"Tell me," Porthos's gruff voice broke the stillness.

Athos took a deep breath and let out a sigh then cocked his head and raised his eyes to meet Porthos's dark stare. Athos knew full well what Porthos wanted to know. He just wasn't sure how to tell him.

"The Queen's life was at risk," Athos started, "I had no choice."

"No choice but to shoot Aramis?" Porthos's voice was low, deep anger coloring every syllable. "Tell me how that could even have been a possibility."

Athos pursed his lips and looked away. There was no way to answer that without betraying Aramis's secret, a secret that was not his to tell as long as Aramis drew breath. Even then, to share what he knew would put Porthos at risk of the gallows too if the truth were ever to come to light. Porthos deserved an answer but there was none Athos could give. Lost in his tortured thoughts, Athos did not realize Porthos had moved until he was hauling Athos up to his feet. The big man grabbed him by the doublet and slammed his back against the wall.

"Tell me," he breathed, "Tell me how you could have thought in any way that this was the answer," Porthos tightened his grip and gave Athos a shake, "Tell me why I should still call you brother," he growled.

Athos swallowed. Porthos deserved better than his silence and Athos needed desperately to tell someone what had happened. He just hoped their brotherhood would be strong enough to bear it.

"He asked me to," Athos said, his voice so soft he was not sure he spoke out loud. He could see Porthos's eyes widen, the shock and disbelief on his face. The big man shook his head, denying the words but Athos continued, his voice gaining in strength, "He begged me to, Porthos, I swear it. He offered his life for his Queen and his country and begged me to take the shot," Athos's voice cracked, choking on his grief, "How could I deny him knowing he could not live with the outcome if I did not?"

"Why?" Porthos nearly sobbed, "Why would he say that?"

"I cannot tell you," Athos moved his hands to grip Porthos by the wrists where he still held him by the doublet, "Please brother, I can't. But know it was the hardest thing I have ever done and I did it because I loved him," Athos couldn't continue. He bowed his head and leaned it against Porthos's chest. He felt tears start to rise and his body trembled in his desire to hold them at bay. Aramis was all but lost to them and Athos did not think he could survive the loss of Porthos too. He might be functioning now but something inside of him was dying.

A soft moan pulled them both back to the present.

Swiftly the two men moved to kneel beside Aramis, one on either side. Porthos placed one hand on Aramis's cheek and clutched the marksman's hand with the other. "Aramis," he whispered, lightly tapping his cheek, "Aramis" he repeated again. The marksman moaned again, shifting his head away from the offending hand. Porthos spared a glance to Athos, hope shining in his eyes, "Aramis," the big man insisted.

With another moan, Aramis's eyes began to flutter beneath his lids. His face became pinched as his mind registered the pain of his injuries. Athos hated to see him suffer but knew if there was any hope to save him Aramis had to wake up at least enough to take medicines and water. Finally, Aramis forced his eyes open, the pupils wide with pain and panic. Porthos immediately soothed him but it wasn't until Athos laid a hand on the marksman's head and called his name that Aramis settled.

"I'll get the water skin and the herbs," Porthos whispered, giving Aramis's hand a reassuring squeeze before relinquishing it and moving toward the fire.

"Athos," Aramis's voice was barely audible. Athos leaned forward, stroking unruly black curls from Aramis's face.

"I'm here," he said, "You are safe. Don't try to talk."

"The Queen?" Aramis whispered.

Athos leaned in closely, his voice pitched for just Aramis to hear, "She is unharmed and with the Dauphin, mon ami. You protected them."

Aramis scrunched his brow then forced his eyes open wider, locking his gaze on Athos with unexpected clarity. He struggled to raise his head inches from the ground, intent on saying something to Athos.

"I'm sorry, brother," he breathed, "I'm so sorry."

"Hush, you have done nothing," Athos said, taking Aramis's hand in his and placing their clasped hands over his heart. Porthos rejoined them but Athos was afraid to break eye contact with Aramis, his hold to consciousness seemed so thin. He noticed Porthos slip his hand behind the marksman's head, gently supporting him.

Aramis's eyes fluttered and the weight of his head fell heavily into Porthos's hand as a tear leaked from beneath his dark lashes. Athos smoothed Aramis's cheek with the pad of his thumb, brushing away the dampness.

"Please forgive me," Aramis's words barely held enough breath to be heard.

"You need not ask," Athos said gently. Across from him, Athos could feel Porthos's rising anger as much as he could feel the warmth of the fire at his back. He looked up at Porthos and the fighter's eyes promised there would be a reckoning. Porthos held the cup of water and herbs to Aramis's lips.

"Drink this," Athos was surprised at how tenderly Porthos spoke when he knew there was rage simmering beneath the surface. "Try to take all of it." Aramis drank without further prompting as Athos continued to smooth his brow.

"Rest, brother," Athos said as Porthos took the empty cup away and gently laid Aramis's head back on the blankets, "We are here and we will see you back to health. Just rest." Whether it was Athos's gentle reassurances or the effect of the herbs, Aramis's face relaxed and he drifted back to sleep without further word. Athos settled back but did not release Aramis's hand. He would watch over his precious brother - no matter the depths of his guilt or the worst of outcomes this time Athos would not run from the consequences of his actions. If death dared to find his brother, it would have to take them both.

Chapter Text

--SIX--

When D'Artagnan returned with an armful of firewood, it was as if time had merely paused while he had been away. The fire still made the only sound as it crackled and popped in the shuttered room, pushing out just enough light to see by and enough warmth to make the room comfortable against the chill of an early spring evening.

Firelight flickered over the prone form of Aramis lying motionless just as he had left him on the pallet of blankets before the hearth, their blue cloaks pulled up over him to keep him warm. Athos too remained where he had been, sitting with his back to the arched facade of the fireplace, knees drawn up and hands loosely clasped in front of them. He made no acknowledgment of D'Artagnan when he walked into the room, but there was just enough light for D'Artagnan to see the glint of Athos's eyes from beneath the brim of his hat. He was awake.

Porthos was in the same place as well, sitting at Aramis's side, staring into the fire. His sword and pistols were laid out next to him, and he was absentmindedly polishing his main gauche with a small cloth. His eyes stared blankly into the fire giving no attention to the blade in his hands.

D'Artagnan moved the other side of the fireplace and began carefully shifting his burden of wood, piece by piece, from his arms into the small stack that he had already collected. His motions were focused, each piece laid softly and quietly to nestle next to its mate.

Finished with his work and satisfied with the pile he had accumulated, D'Artagnan stood and faced the other men. He wasn't sure what to do next, but the stillness of his friends, both the injured and the well, was alarming. The silence in the room felt holy, sacred as if sitting the vigil for the dead.

Aramis's life balanced on the edge of a blade. D'Artagnan's own hands had stitched the wounds and time and time again during the process he had to pause, to feel again for the pulsebeat of his friend's lifeblood tapping against his fingers. Aramis gave no response during his care of him. Even as D'Artagnan mercilessly cleaned the sword slash at his side with alcohol, pressed on the gunshot wound in his chest to stop the bleeding, rolled him to his side to stitch his shoulder. No response, no sound, not even a change in his breathing to indicate Aramis had any awareness at all. Even now D'Artagnan would not believe the musketeer lived if not for the calmness of his friends indicating the marksman had not slipped from his tenuous hold on life while he had been out gathering firewood.

Calm was not the right word. They were taught as bowstrings as they kept vigil over their brother. Their stillness was as unnatural as Aramis's. The air suddenly felt too heavy to D'Artagnan, the atmosphere too thick with woodsmoke and despair. They were not waiting for him to recover, they were keeping vigil to see if he would die. Maybe this is what their years of soldiering had taught them but D'Artagnan's spirit rebelled. If Aramis's God saw fit to take him from this world it would not be without a fight and he would not leave this earth surrounded by broken men already grieving. D'Artagnan was not sure what he should do but he was determined to do something. He took in a deep steadying breath then squatted at Aramis's other side, facing Porthos.

"Has there been any change?" D'Artagnan's voice was pitched low and soft but it seemed to boom and echo into the corners of the room. He placed a hand gently on Aramis's chest, needing to reassure himself again by feeling the slight rise and fall of his breathing. D'Artagnan found the quiet rhythm comforting. He looked up at his friend, "Porthos?" he asked again, "Any change?"

The big man gave a little sigh and blinked his eyes as if D'Artagnan's question needed deeper thought than he was capable of. He shifted his gaze toward D'Artagnan but the young musketeer could not fathom what he was thinking behind his large dark eyes. "He woke up for a minute," Porthos finally said.

"That's good," D'Artagnan smiled. But Porthos shook his head sadly.

"I don't know," he seemed weighed down beneath his words, "It felt like he needed to say something and once he did, he just let go. I think he knows he is dying." Porthos's gaze deepened and D'Artagnan felt his heart breaking at the deep remorse he found there.

"What did he say?" was all D'Artagnan could think to ask. He didn't want to address the rest of Porthos's words.

Porthos's tone was weary when he answered, "He needed to apologize to Athos. Damned fool is lying there dying and his last words are to apologize to that idiot," Porthos shook his head, "Fools and idiots."

D'Artagnan didn't need to look to know that Athos had heard that. He bit his lip, considering how to respond.

"Did you get him to take some water?" D'Artagnan opted for a neutral response.

"Yeah," Porthos said with a sigh, running a hand through his hair, "and some of those herbs for fever. He's so cold. I don't think it matters." Gingerly, D'Artagnan moved his hand from Aramis's chest to lightly brush his forehead. The chilled flesh was almost shocking. No wonder Porthos was so rattled. It was like sitting with a corpse that had forgotten to stop breathing. D'Artagnan felt a swell of grief rise in his chest, but his own passionate spirit refused to allow it a foothold. He would not be dragged into despair. Aramis deserved better.

"I snared some rabbits. They're outside. Can you clean them and set them to boil? We will need a hearty broth when he wakes again," D'Artagnan said, hoping that Porthos would respond to his suggestion for action. He waited a moment then shifted his hand to lay on Porthos's arm, "Porthos. I need your help. Aramis does. Please." Porthos exhaled and pursed his lips but gave D'Artagnan a curt nod. He pushed himself up from the floor, sheathing his main gauche at his back as he left the room, his other weapons forgotten.

D'Artagnan took a deep breath, finding it easier as some of the brooding intensity that had infused the room lifted with Porthos's exit. D'Artagnan knew it would not be that simple but he found a confidence and purpose now in his actions. Every instinct told him that Aramis's life depended on more than God and medicine - it hinged on them and their ability to bring him back.

His first course of action was to not give in to the silence. He eased down the two blue woolen cloaks so that he could check the dressings. The marksman's chest was bare but patched and swaddled with bandages. "I know you are cold, mon ami," D'Artagnan spoke as if Aramis could hear him, "But you know as well as I that I need to check these frequently for bleeding. Your chest looks good, now for your side," and D'Artagnan kept up a string of soft conversation, narrating each action he was taking. He had no response from Aramis, but it felt better to talk to him then to just treat him like a body. The coldness of his skin worried D'Artagnan but he knew there was nothing for it. Blood loss brought on this chill and despite the wool cloaks and the warm fire, they would not be able to drive it out until Aramis was able to take in sustenance and have the strength to fight it himself. Making broth from the rabbits would help, but he had to wake again to take any of it.

Satisfied the wounds needed no further attention and did not yet need to be redressed, D'Artagnan slipped the covers up over the marksman again, tucking them around his shoulders. His hand lingered on Aramis's cheek, wishing some of his warmth would transfer to his friend.

"You are settled," he said softly. D'Artagnan looked fondly down at his friend, thinking about the all too frequent times he had woken from a wound or sickness to be greeted by Aramis's smile when he opened his eyes. "I'll be here when you wake," he promised. His hand lingered a moment longer and then D'Artagnan settled down cross-legged in the spot Porthos had occupied, put his hands on his thighs, and fixed Athos with a stern gaze.

"So," D'Artagnan said boldly, "Would you like to explain why you shot Aramis?"

--SEVEN--

D'Artagnan's return with the firewood had barely registered with Athos, nor had his conversation with Porthos had much impact other than to cause his heart to clench at Porthos's proclamation that he was an idiot and Aramis a fool. That had fixed his attention enough for him to feel Porthos's anger still pouring from him like blood from an open wound. Yes, he had embraced him, on some level given him enough forgiveness to give him comfort, but Athos knew the wound between them was as far from healed as the one he had put next to Aramis's heart.

That the marksman still lived was nothing short of a gift from a God Athos thought had long ago abandoned him. Athos had lost track of how long he had sat here, watching the life slowly lift from his brother's body as he saw over and over again in his mind the events from the room upstairs. Aramis helpless in the grip of a madman, the queen with a gun to her head, and Athos facing the most devastating choice of his life. Yes, he had ordered Anne's death but as beloved as she was to him at the time, she was still guilty of a crime. But with Aramis, there was no crime, only a love so strong Aramis would have died along with her Majesty if the madman's bullet had found its mark. Aramis would never have forgiven him if he hadn't taken the shot but now he could not forgive himself for having done it.

Athos wished yet again for the oblivion of wine but the little they had was set aside for Aramis's wounds. Instead, he brooded and thought and saw himself, again and again, sighting his own brother with his pistol, watching the blood blossoming on Aramis's chest and tracking his slow and silent fall to the ground. Over and over again he saw it until D'Artagnan's question forced him back to the now.

"There was no other option," Athos sighed, leaning his head against the wall, unable to fully meet D'Artagnan's expectant gaze. If Porthos, an older and more seasoned soldier, could not understand how was he going to explain what he had been forced to do to D'Artagnan.

"What happened?" D'Artagnan demanded. He spoke quietly so as not to disturb Aramis but that did not stop his tone from being insistent.

"Soldiers make choices," Athos heard the bitterness in his own voice "Aramis gave his life for the Queen. Anyone of us would have made that choice."

"Did he? Or did you choose for him? It's your lead ball that went through his chest after all," D'Artagnan's words hit Athos in the gut.

"If another man had said that to me, I'd kill him," Athos felt his fists clench. He loved D'Artagnan as much as the others, but he could beat him into the ground for that accusation.

D'Artagnan pushed himself up from where he had been sitting beside Aramis and stepped lithely around the prone marksman. He stood before Athos, arms crossed, and spoke softly.

"Things have not been right between you and Aramis for months," D'Artagnan spoke in a conspiratorial whisper, "Your passions have ruled your choices before - you would have let Porthos die before you'd bring him to Pinion without Aramis's intervention. With no one there to intercede . . ."

Athos did not allow D'Artagnan to finish as he surged up to grab the younger man by the jacket, pulling him in close, "I would give my life a hundred times over before I'd lay harm to him," Athos hissed, "How dare you think anything less." Athos gave D'Artagnan a shake, his knuckles white for the strength he poured into his grip. If he released his hands, he might kill the Gascon for his words.

"I don't think that," D'Artagnan was surprisingly calm, "It is you who are acting as if you do." He put his hands gently over the ones twisting into his leathers, "I do not believe you would willingly hurt any of us. I believe what you said. I believe you had no choice, but you must believe it too." Athos felt the fire and tension drain from his body as quickly as it had overtaken him. He dropped his hands from D'Artagnan and took a shaky step backward to lean against the wall. He felt utterly deflated.

"I forgive you, and Porthos will eventually, but you have to forgive yourself," D'Artagnan's voice was sad, tired."Your guilt is too great a weight for Aramis to bear - he will not survive it." D'Artagnan glanced over his shoulder to where Aramis lay unmoving, "Porthos said Aramis begged your forgiveness. I do not know what for, but if you cannot forgive yourself he will not believe that you forgive him. Whatever it is he has done." D'Artagnan returned his gaze to Athos, "He is so close to death that maybe all that keeps him here is us. You cannot abandon him now."

Athos's words fled his mouth at D'Artagnan's statement. The Gascon cocked his head and gave Athos a thin smile - a silent invitation to make a choice, then moved to the other side of the fireplace to carefully select some more wood to add to the flagging fire.

D'Artagnan had laid down an ultimatum. To stay here was to stay in solidarity as brothers in arms, not in the solitude of a death vigil for a friend he had mortally wounded. Ever since they had laid Aramis out in this room, Athos had felt the walls closing in, the sound and color leaving, until all that remained was death's fingers gripping his own heart. He felt the maw of oblivion opening up beneath his feet and knew just how many bottles of wine it would take to push him so deeply into the abyss that this time he would not come out on the other side.

Athos was engulfed in a swirling fog of memory and fear and saw not the antechamber of the ruined chapel but his family tomb where he had buried his father and his brother but now Aramis was there, a marble figure laid atop his own grave. His breath caught in his chest and Athos propelled himself off the wall and out of the room, needing air, needing light, needing something, anything that wasn't death to surround him.

The waning sunlight felt unbearably bright as he staggered out of the chapel. He placed his hand on the crumbling doorframe to steady himself and took in several deep, shuddering breaths. The chill air of the early spring evening stung his over-warm face and as Athos clamped down on his wayward emotions the thought crossed his mind that he might himself be feverish from his wounds. He had forgotten his own hurts but in truth, the throbbing in his head had been growing along with his worry over Aramis and his guilt at his actions. Part of him wanted to retch but pride and willpower kept his rebellious stomach under control.

Athos gathered himself, letting the cool air and thinning daylight revive his dark spirit and refresh his tired body. He'd lost track of hours, but it had been early in the midday when they had been ambushed in the clearing and now dusk was coloring the sky. Athos took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. He'd been lost too long in his own bleak mind. Athos had long practice in holding his demons at bay. It was something he could put to use now too. He knew also how to grieve but those feelings he crammed into the deepest part of his heart. Later, he promised himself. Later, when there is wine and it is only a few steps to the swirling dark waters of the Seine will he let his grief have free reign.

Athos wandered over to where D'Artagnan had staked out the horses. The Gascon had stripped them of their the saddles and the saddle blankets now lie beneath Aramis. He'd watered their mounts and put them to their oats, tomorrow they could be let out in the field beside the abbey where the stone wall still runs around what would have been their rye fields. The soft grass would keep the horses well fed until they could ride from this place. When that will be wholly depended on Aramis. There was a well with a bucket in the small courtyard and Athos lowered it to pull up some water. He settled by the horses, cleaning the dried blood from Aramis's saddle. It felt pointless.

It didn't take long to finish his task and the light had all but died from the sky when Athos rose to return to the chapel. Making his way back toward the doorway, he met Porthos coming from around the corner of the crumbling structure, a small brass pot containing what must be the skinned rabbits. Porthos seemed intent on just walking by but Athos stopped him, a hand to the big man's chest.

"Porthos, I . . ." Athos licked his lips uncertain of what he even wanted to say. "I'm sorry," were the only feeble words he could find.

"Sorry, yeah. Me too," Porthos gave a mirthless smile, "Sorry we're stuck out here. Sorry Aramis is lyin' dyin' on the floor. Sorry you put your damned duty before Aramis's life." The last words were low and dark, threat sparking in Porthos's dark eyes.

"Aramis put duty first," Athos replied, thinking back to the conversation he had had with Aramis just that afternoon. The only solace Aramis had been able to find in his impossible love for a woman he could never have, a son he could never claim, was to put his own life before theirs. Even Porthos would not begrudge him that choice if only Porthos could know. But he couldn't know unless Athos was willing to risk Porthos's neck for treason so he continued the only way he could, "We are soldiers, Musketeers. Our lives are not our own the minute we take up our commission."

"So what's our brotherhood then?" Porthos's rage flared and his voice rose, "What is all for one? You are a bastard Athos, and I don't know that I can ever forgive you."

"I don't need your forgiveness," Athos spat, old and practiced barriers rising up, "When I pulled that trigger, I killed us both. You may as well dig my grave when you dig his!"

"Enough!" D'Artagnan appeared on the doorstep, anger lining his features. "Enough. Aramis is not dead and the two of you acting like he is helps no one. Is this what brotherhood means?" D'Artagnan took them both in with a gaze that could stop a charging bull.

Athos stepped back a pace and folded his arms, head bowed. D'Artagnan was right and shame flushed his cheeks. Porthos too seemed to let his anger diffuse and remorse took hold of his features instead.

D'Artagnan softened his tone but continued with conviction, "We can either live in hope or despair and I choose hope. It's what Aramis would have us do and I don't plan on letting him down. That's our duty. That's what all for one means. So get yourselves right about this." D'Artagnan reached out and took up the cook pot from Porthos. "I'll set this to fire. We need more water for the night and more firewood before it is too dark to see. There is a pile in the back."

D'Artagnan left the two men alone and they stood in an awkward silence. Athos wasn't sure how to move on from this moment but he was their leader, no matter how fractured they might be right now, and he knew he had to be the one to bridge the gap.

"I'll draw the water and then help you with the firewood," Athos said. Porthos nodded, sadness having replaced the anger in his eyes. He said nothing but gave Athos a small glance as they separated. It was a tiny gesture but it spoke loudly. Porthos would not abandon him and Athos would not abandon them. D'Artagnan was right, they owed at least that to Aramis.

--EIGHT--

The night did not pass easily for Athos. The first time Aramis woke he was incoherent, moaning with the pain of his wounds but with no recognition in his eyes as they held his hand and wiped his face with a warm cloth. His grip on Athos was like an iron band clenched around his wrist. It was hard to believe he could look so frail and yet have the strength to hold on like a vise. Athos endured it while Porthos and D'Artagnan managed to get Aramis to drink more water, even in his distressed state the marksman's body giving in to thirst.

The wound at his chest was red with dark bruising setting in around it but that was only to be expected from the proximity of the shot. They maneuvered him cautiously to his side so they could check the exit wound and the slashes at his shoulder and left side. All looked well as they refreshed the bandages but the side wound seemed angry and warm around the sutures and this gave them concern. It could just be the disturbed flesh from the cleaning and stitching, but this could be a sign of a wound turning putrid. It was too early to tell for sure and with Aramis's hold on life so tenuous, they decided to leave it be for the night rather than try to clean and stitch it again. They applied warmed cloths which seemed to ease the marksman's distress and he drifted off again but to sleep or unconsciousness they did not know.

Athos slipped back to his post against the wall, leaning next to the fireplace, hat pulled low over his face despite the near darkness in the room. D'Artagnan had stoked up the fire again before he and Porthos settled down again on the floor, Porthos stretched on his back on a bedroll and D'Artagnan curled under a cloak on the other side of the fireplace. They were indistinct forms in the dim light, only Aramis seemed truly human as the ruddy firelight highlighted his face and hands, the flicker giving them a sense of life despite the unearthly stillness that had again overtaken the marksman.

Athos knew he was done sleeping. The taste for wine was pulling at him in a way it had not done in a long time, since before D'Artagnan had joined their company before Aramis and Porthos had decided he was a danger to himself without one of them around. The ache and despair of loss was not a new feeling but that did not render it less potent and wine was the only cure he knew until the Musketeers. He did not know he could feel this kind of emptiness again with Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan only a few feet away.

There was nothing for it though but to sit and survive the night. He sat in his spot watching over the others, noticing when D'Artagnan grew restless as the fire waned, and Porthos's light snoring filtering away as the big man finally drifted into a deeper sleep. Wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him or if he truly could see the slow rise and fall of Aramis's chest as he slept. He chose to believe the marksman was breathing and had not slipped quietly from them in the darkness but he could not bear to draw near and confirm that Aramis still lived.

Near dawn, when sleep was heaviest upon his other companions, Aramis stirred again. Far less disturbed than earlier in the night his hands twisted ineffectually at his blankets and the soft sounds he made were more like words than the painful cries of before. Consumed still by guilt, Athos hoped one of the other would wake to comfort the marksman but they slept on unaware and it fell to Athos to kneel quietly by Aramis's bedside and take up his hand in his.

The slender fingers were still far too cold, but could it be that they held just slightly more life in them than before?

"Aramis," he whispered. Athos bit his lip as he brushed a hand across Aramis's forehead hoping to draw him fully awake. The marksman's quiet muttering continued and Athos tried again, calling his name and squeezing his hand. Aramis shifted slightly against the blankets and his eyes struggled open, gleaming darkly in the early morning light.

"Estoy muerto?," Aramis's soft words held a note of desperation, "Estoy muerto?

"You live, my friend," Athos answered thickly, knowing the Spanish word for death, "Despite all I've done to you. You live."

Aramis furrowed his brow as his breathing grew heavier, the breaths coming too rapidly.

"La vida duele," Athos did not know these words, but the pain behind them was evident as Aramis closed his eyes and let out a small moan. His head thrashed against the blankets beneath him, then Aramis's eyes shot open again and he gripped Athos's hand tightly, trying to raise himself up. "Mátame, por favor, mátame. El dolor es demasiado. No puedo soportar esto!" he cried.

"You are speaking Spanish, Aramis," Athos said, gently pressing the marksman back against the blankets, "Be still. You are wounded. Do you remember?" Aramis blinked up at him as confusion played across his features but then gave a slight nod. "You saved the dauphin and rescued the queen, do you remember that?" Again Aramis nodded. Athos nodded in return and found somehow a reassuring smile. He surprised himself with his next words, "You must remember that they live. That you must have strength for their sakes. You are their protector. Can you remember that? That they need you?" Athos said, heart full. He needed Aramis too, they all did, but Athos could not bear to say it.

Aramis closed his eyes, so much emotion playing across his face that Athos was not sure he had said the right thing. Was it pain, resignation, despair? In a moment Aramis's breathing grew more steady and he opened his eyes again, a hard edge to his gaze that had not been there before.

"I will live," Aramis said with great effort but the ghost of a smile lit his face, "You worry too much."

Athos couldn't help it as he grinned. Leave it to Aramis to be on the brink of death and darkness and find a way to tease him still.

"I fear we both will live," Athos said as the smile faded. "There is some broth, can you manage it?" Aramis nodded yes, he'd try. Athos was reluctant to let go of Aramis's hand but the marksman himself released it and closed his eyes again. The lines on his face said he was still in pain but the steady and deliberate breathing suggested Aramis was working his way through it.

Athos left Aramis to regain his composure and moved to the hearth to spoon out the rich broth they had made from the rabbits D'Artagnan had caught. He also poured some of their wine into a cup and mixed it with water. They had precious little left, but there was still enough if they had to redress the wound at Aramis's side and Athos could not imagine facing the pain of such severe injuries without something to dull the senses.

When he returned to the marksman's side Porthos was there, leaning over Aramis and talking softly to him. He looked up as Athos approached and reached his hand out to take the bowl from him.

"I'll help," they were the first words Porthos had spoken to Athos since their exchange outside the chapel the evening before.

--NINE--

The morning was quiet as Aramis seemed to have exhausted whatever stamina he had left on eating and bearing the pain as they again redressed his wounds. The one on his side looked no better nor no worse and they decided to again leave it be. Aramis fell back into a deep slumber still chilled beneath the pile of blankets and cloaks. They hoped the broth would do him some good. They ghosted quietly around the room, D'Artagnan bringing in more firewood and Porthos again tending to his and Aramis's weapons. Athos returned to his spot against the wall.

In the early afternoon, they gathered around Aramis to check the wound at his side and this time, things had deteriorated. Aramis did not rouse as they pulled back the cloaks and turned him to his side.

"I can smell that," Porthos's terse words came as D'Artagnan started to pull back the bandages. They all knew the scent of a wound gone foul but to hear it said confirmed the fear they all shared.

D'Artagnan sat back on his haunches, "We have to clean it out."

"It'll kill 'im," Porthos said, despair leaching through tight lips.

"We have no choice," Athos's voice was flat, the tone of command clear, "He will die if we do not."

"You love sayin' that, don't ya?" Porthos said darkly, "Always there is no choice with you."

Athos felt a surge of anger and rose to his feet and yet his voice remained taut and controlled, "What would you have me do? Leave him to lie here rotting from the inside?" Porthos pushed himself to stand as well and they faced off with Aramis lying on the ground between them.

"You could show the decency to at least be a little concerned!" Porthos's voice rose and anger flashed dangerously in his eyes, "You are so ready to do the right thing, do your duty, that you don't even notice the people you are sacrificing to do it!"

"You have no idea what I feel," Athos said with a dangerous calm, his hand twitching toward his rapier.

"Because you feel nothing," Porthos snarled.

"Porthos, stop! Athos is right," D'Artagnan was on his feet too. "The wound must be reopened and cleaned. There is no choice." Porthos pressed his lips together and took a deep breath. He obviously had more to say but was fighting back his words. D'Artagnan turned his gaze to Athos next, "And you could do well to remember that this not easy for him, for me, for any of us."

Athos said nothing but stood his ground as rage and despair warred within him. Porthos was wrong, he felt every wound, every heartache, every tragedy of theirs as deeply as his own. And he was furious about it. Furious that still, even after hanging his own wife, he could not stop himself from it. No matter what he did to hollow himself out he still had feelings. Too many damned feelings and they would destroy him as readily as the bullet to Aramis's chest was destroying the marksman. It might be the sword wound that was festering, but the shot that should have killed him had weakened Aramis to the edge of death. There was little chance he had enough strength left to survive a festered wound.

The sound of horses, lots of them, interrupted whatever might have been Athos's next words. They reacted out of instinct, Porthos immediately picking up his sword and main gauche and flanking Athos to the left as they stepped to the doorway of the chapel to meet the threat. D'Artagnan held back in the door frame, pistols drawn and primed. They were grim and ready for a fight when they recognized the quartet of musketeers riding into the yard at a fast trot. Porthos sheathed his weapons and D'Artagnan lowered the pistols as the men drew up and dismounted.

"Lieutenant," Joubert said as he approached Athos. He reached out his hand and Athos gripped his forearm as the young musketeer did the same. A greeting of brothers regardless of their rank, "How is he?" Joubert asked, face concerned.

"He lives," Athos replied, "But one of the wounds festers. Your return is timely." Athos knew that of all of the musketeers that had ridden out Joubert was the closest they had to a physician after Aramis.

"I'll take a look and see if we can keep him comfortable until the Queen arrives with supplies," Joubert shifted to move past Athos but he stopped him with a hand on his arm.

"The Queen?" Athos asked, raising a brow. Joubert looked down and shifted uncomfortably.

"She insisted we stop here before returning to the palace," the musketeer replied, "She wanted to see after your well-being. She was concerned about the musketeers who were wounded in her defense."

"She should not be here," Athos was angry. He knew full well it was his duty to have been at the Queen's side. He could have convinced her to make way directly to Paris. Yet he had been unable to put his feelings aside and chosen instead to stay with Aramis. Not knowing the source of the attack, the Queen remained in danger - perhaps even more so if anyone questioned her sudden interest in the health of a certain musketeer.

"She insisted," Joubert said again, raising his eyes. "I had no choice." Athos was beginning to see why Porthos hated that statement. "The carriage is a small ways behind us. We rode ahead to ensure it was safe. Clemente has ridden back to meet them."

Athos shook his head but released Joubert's arm so he could continue on inside. It might not be right, but Athos was deeply grateful that the Queen's stubbornness had brought them Joubert just when he was needed most.

D'Artagnan followed Joubert inside but Porthos lingered, clearly having something more to say. Athos turned to him, the tension from earlier gone. The potential threat of the approaching horses had erased it from both of them. Whatever their differences with each other at some core they remained brothers. At least Athos hoped so.

"Why's the Queen comin' 'ere?" Porthos said quietly so the other two musketeers in the yard would not overhear.

"To see to a musketeer wounded in her defense," Athos said dryly.

"And you think that's a good idea?" Porthos replied, "You think that's safe?"

"I think it's a terrible idea," Athos answered, "But as much as you don't like to hear this . . ."

"Yeah, yeah," Porthos cut him off, "We have no choice." Athos gave him a nod and shifted to move from the doorstep to give orders to the remaining musketeers but Porthos put a hand to his shoulder and leaned in closer practically whispering in Athos's ear, "I heard what you said to Aramis about being the Queen's protector and now she is here to see to his health. I'm not fool enough to miss that something is going on."

"Let it go, Porthos," Athos warned.

"Not on your life," Porthos whispered back. The big man released Athos's shoulder and headed back into the chapel. Athos scrubbed a hand over his face, for all of his efforts and sacrifice he was not managing to keep anyone safe at all.

Ten

The sound of a man screaming while his wounds were treated was not new to Athos but that did not mean it was any easier to bear. Particularly so when it wasn't just some poor unknown sod on the other end of the knife, but Aramis.

His first agonized cry was heartbreaking. The Queen's face had gone pale and Athos thought she might collapse. He suggested she take Constance and see if they could find anything useful to them in the remains of the garden. She seemed the brighter for having a task to do and as Constance took up the Queen's arm to lead her away she sent a grateful look to Athos. He gave a dip of his head and as he met her eyes he realized that Constance knew everything. Despite the danger that put her in, Athos felt some relief surge through him. If Aramis did not survive, he had an ally in Constance. They must get the Queen through this without revealing her feelings. He owed that to Aramis as much as he owed it to France.

He sent them with Porthos as guard, who was fairing little better than the Queen if truth be told. Athos could not bear both his own guilt over having sentenced Aramis to this agony and the silent accusation of Porthos who looked about to wrestle the devil himself in the struggle for Aramis's life. Despite what others might think, Athos was not in fact unbreakable. He sent him with the Queen for Porthos's benefit as much as for himself.

D'Artagnan and Clemente were assisting Joubert while Athos remained outside, overseeing the musketeers patrolling the grounds and keeping the contingent of Red Guards who had survived the ambush in some semblance of order. Athos had taken up a spot at the doorstep which now served as an unofficial command post as men came to ask for orders and report on the different tasks he had set for them. Truly there was very little to do, but Athos knew they were lingering for word about Aramis and none were immune to the wretched cries coming from the chapel.

"Athos," Edouard, a red-haired and stocky musketeer, called out as he approached. Athos pushed himself up from where he was leaning on the door frame to step forward to meet the musketeer.

"Find anything?" Athos asked.

"Here," Edouard held out a coin purse and a sheaf of papers, "These were on the body of the man whose throat was slit." Athos took up the papers and sifted through them. The one who had held Aramis was called Javier Athos remembered. It felt like it had happened days ago, but it had only been yesterday afternoon. He had sent Edouard with a few men to search the bodies and then bury them. Athos forced himself to focus on the documents as another cry sounded from the chapel.

"He had been corresponding with that woman he mentioned," Athos said, trying to make sense of the poor writing and bad grammar, "Emilie of Duras. He wanted to hand the Queen over to her. Who is she?"

"I don't know," Edouard replied, "But whoever she is, she seems to have had help from someone close to the Queen." Athos looked up in surprise at the statement but took the paper that Edouard offered him next. "This was on the other man," he explained.

On fine parchment and in a neat hand, the Queen's schedule for the trip to Fontainebleau was laid out in careful detail - including the number of the red guard expected to be with her and likely spots to stage an ambush. It was unsigned but this was clearly the work of an educated person with the means to finance the attack if the size of the coin purse they had recovered was any indication. Athos considered the papers and pushed back through the haze of his guilt and worry to focus on the events of yesterday, the conversation between the brothers that he had overheard before bursting into the room. He had been negligent, sloppy in his duty in the wake of his emotions.

"No, they disagreed," Athos said as the memories sharpened, "The younger brother, Matthieu, said they had been hired to scare the Queen, not abduct her. Javier had other plans though."

"Plots within plots," Edouard said quietly, "But regardless the intent someone close to the Queen orchestrated the attempt."

"Indeed," Athos answered, mind flipping through options and strategies before handing the papers back to Edouard, "Take these to Treville. He needs to know there is a spy in the palace, a spy close to the Queen. As for Emilie of Duras, find out if he knows of her. I think she too poses a threat to the crown, but I do not know if these incidents are linked through plan or happenstance."

"What of the Queen?" Edouard asked, nodding over his shoulder to where her majesty and Constance were emerging from the overgrown garden, a bundle of plants in Porthos's arms. The large musketeer was favoring his right leg, a telltale sign the injury from the crossbow bolt was troubling him. Athos would have Joubert look at Porthos's wound before riding out.

"We must get her majesty back to Paris with all haste," Athos said, "This attempt was thwarted but who is to say another is not planned. She is not safe here."

"Good thing there were musketeers and not just red guards or things might have been very different," Edouard raised a knowing brow to Athos.

"Yes, good fortune that as it seems Treville's intercession is the only reason we are here," Athos gave his head a shake, "Report directly to Treville upon your return. Speak of this to no one else."

"Understood," Edouard gave Athos his hand and they parted ways as the Queen and her party approached.

"Majesty," Athos said, offering a deferential bow.

"Any word?" She asked, her voice calm and regal but her blue eyes wide with worry.

"Not yet," Athos said, "but things have quieted and I expect we will hear soon." It was true, the chapel had fallen silent. That no one had come immediately to get him suggested Aramis had not died beneath their hands, but beyond that, he could not speculate. He focused instead on the Queen.

"Majesty, you must return swiftly to Paris," Athos said calmly, "This was not a random attack. They had information about your plans from someone inside the palace."

"It could be anyone," the Queen said, taking in the new information, "There are so many people, servants, guests . . ." the Queen's eyes were wide at the seemingly endless possibilities.

"No, Majesty, this is someone close, very close to you," Athos said quietly, "Someone who knew specific details about the arrangements for this trip." Athos saw Constance clutch the Queen's arm tightly, anger, not fear rising in the young woman's face.

"We will find this traitor, Majesty," Constance bristled at the thought of the Queen and the Dauphin in danger, "The Musketeers will deal him." The Queen gave Constance a fond smile, one surprisingly serene for the news Athos had just shared and patted the young woman on the arm.

"Of course they will, Constance," the Queen was calm and confident, "We must keep faith in our musketeers." Athos was impressed at the Queen's ability to mask her fears so completely, but then again she was a Spanish princess married into a French court at the young age of 14. Young as she still was, she had had over a decade to learn how to protect herself. Her defenses seemed as accomplished as Athos's own. "The King must be informed."

"Yes, Majesty," Athos gave a slight bow, "I'll have the men prepare for your departure."

"We will leave as soon as they finish in the chapel," the Queen said, leveling her sharp gaze to Athos. "We will prepare a spot in the carriage for Aramis." The Queen's tone suggested there would be no argument, but Athos could not let her do this. Her delay to see Aramis was already questionable, but to delay her return further to wait for a wounded soldier who might not recover was near treason on his part if Athos let it happen.

Before Athos could respond, Clemente emerged from the doorway behind him, his doublet off and his shirtsleeves rolled up. His face was grey and he took several staggering steps toward the side of the building before leaning over to retch. Everyone stared at him in silence until the young man finished, standing awkwardly and leaning a hand against the wall to keep his balance. He ran his sleeve over his face then finally noticed he had an audience.

"Majesty," Clemente attempted a half bow but could not let go of the wall, "My apologies, I did not realize . . ." He left his sentence unfinished and looked desperately at Athos in despair for his unseemly behavior in front of the Queen.

"It's alright," the Queen gave the young man a kind smile, "It is a difficult duty you were asked to perform." Clemente attempted another small bow and then a musketeer was at his side offering a water skin and walking him back toward their horses just as Joubert emerged carrying a small pot covered by a damp cloth. He too was in a disheveled state, blood on his untucked shirt and his hair damp with sweat. The pot, Athos knew from experience, would be the fouled bandages from their grim work. Those would be burned, they could not be salvaged.

"How fares our musketeer?" The Queen's question was light as if asking after a lady at court, but Athos saw the deep worry in her blue eyes. Joubert gave a small bow before replying.

"Majesty, the wound was deep and fouled and took much to clean and redress," Joubert looked troubled as if he did not wish to continue, "He is resting. It is in God's hands now," the young musketeer added his voice cracking.

"My physician will see to him as soon as we get him back to Paris," the Queen replied, "He will have the best of care toward his recovery."

"Majesty, he cannot travel," Joubert said earnestly, "I do not know how he has survived thus far, but there is so little strength left that his body could not take the abuse of a carriage. He must not be moved."

"I think that is for me to decide," the Queen raised her chin, bringing the power of her crown to bear. Joubert exchanged a worried look with Athos but Athos gave him a slight shake of his head. He would handle this.

"Yes, Majesty," Joubert said softly.

"I would see him," the Queen's serene smile once again descending over her face.

"Of course, Majesty," Joubert replied with a bow, and stepped aside from the doorway. The Queen gave him a nod of acknowledgment and entered the chapel, Constance at her side and Porthos following behind. Athos caught sight of the big man's face but could read nothing but storm clouds. But he didn't have to see it to know that Porthos's guts were as twisted as his own. Athos let Porthos move past him before following them into the chapel.

The room was overly warm and smelled of sick and sweat but in all other ways, it was much like yesterday. Aramis was on his back on the palette of blankets before the fire, two blue musketeer cloaks tucked closely around him. His lips were slightly parted, his dark curls tousled and damp from the sweat of what he had endured.

D'Artagnan straightened from where he had been crouched at Aramis's side. He gave a low bow to the Queen before stepping back from Aramis to give them all room to gather around. Athos did not miss how the Gascon's eyes were full of tears, nor the hitch to Constance's' breath as she noticed too.

Porthos moved to where D'Artagnan stood and gave him a comforting pat on the arm before kneeling beside Aramis and placing a hand gently over the marksman's chest. Athos doubted that Aramis was breathing deeply enough for Porthos to feel it, but he recognized the same need in himself to feel life beneath his hand.

Standing between Constance and Athos, the Queen did not move. She stood completely still, stricken with some combination of grief and fear that made Athos's heart ache. If Athos had any last remaining doubts that what had happened between the Queen and Aramis in the convent may have been a passing fancy on either of their parts, the Queen's face dispelled them from his mind. Her feelings were obvious to anyone bothering to look. And that was dangerous to them all.

"He looks quite pale," the Queen said softly.

"He is not well, Majesty," Athos replied.

"Perhaps then it is correct that he must not travel," her tone was casual as if she was discussing the fit of her newest gown.

"A wise decision, Majesty," Athos was relieved but hoped it did not show overly much in his tone.

"How long do you think it will be?" The Queen never did like to give in to circumstances, "We could wait the day and then in the morning —" she did not finish her sentence as Athos was already shaking his head no.

"Majesty, with wounds this grave it will be days before he has the strength to make even a small journey," Athos knew this was not what the Queen would want to hear, so considered how best to make a compromise she could accept, "You must return with the Dauphin to the safety of the palace and inform the King of this treachery. Perhaps though you might inform Captain Treville and have him send us a physician and more medical supplies. It would help greatly if we could give Aramis proper care."

He watched the Queen bite at her bottom lip as she considered his suggestion. He knew she did not want to leave Aramis's side any more than he did, but he also knew, the Queen needed to protect her son and do her duty to France. No matter what she felt she would not jeopardize the safety of the Dauphin.

"As always you give me wise counsel, Lieutenant," the Queen graced him with a smile but her eyes remained troubled. "Porthos, perhaps you could organize the guards to leave behind the supplies we carry. We have far more with us than we need for the journey back to Paris. There are more blankets and some cushions from the carriage as well." Porthos looked none too happy to be sent from the room, but he knew a dismissal when he heard one.

"Yes, Majesty," he said gruffly with a dip of his head. He fussed with the blanket beneath Aramis's chin then rose and gave the Queen a slight bow before heading out to follow her orders.

"Constance," the Queen turned her manufactured smile to her lady in waiting next, "perhaps you would show D'Artagnan where we found the mustard seed and comfrey in the garden. They will need more for poultices than what we have gathered."

At his name, D'Artagnan lost the faraway look that had masked his troubled eyes since they had entered the room. Athos could see the Gascon was barely holding it together. It was not just Aramis but the tension between all of them that had been grating on D'Artagnan's nerves and with Constance now added to the mix, Athos doubted D'Artagnan could maintain his composure much longer.

"Of course, your Majesty," Constance gave a slight curtesy and moved to take D'Artagnan by the arm. "Come, I'll show you just where things are." When D'Artagnan did not move, Athos realized the boy was waiting on word from him. He gave D'Artagnan an approving nod and the Gascon let Constance bundle them off. Athos wondered if he too would be sent away by the Queen but she said nothing, choosing instead to take three small steps forward and lower herself delicately to sit by Aramis's side.

"Aramis," her voice broke on his name as she reached out to smooth the hair from his face. Gingerly she pulled back the cloaks to Aramis's waist, running a hand lightly over the bandages as if she could feel the wound beneath.

"He is so cold," she said, not taking her eyes from Aramis's face.

"It is the loss of blood, Majesty," Athos explained wondering how he still had words to speak. He watched her hand lay softly over Aramis's shoulder, over the hole that Athos himself had put in Aramis's chest. Whether Aramis lived or died, they were tied together now through sorrow and blood and nothing would be the same again. Athos felt a lump rise in his throat as he watched the Queen tenderly stroke Aramis's face. "It might best to keep him warm," Athos suggested, his voice thick with emotion.

The Queen gave a small nod and shifted her hands to pull the cloaks back up over Aramis's chest. She paused and let her hand trail to the golden chain at Aramis's neck. She pulled it gently and found a golden jeweled cross in her hand.

"He still wears this," the Queen said softly.

"Always, Majesty," Athos answered. She held it tightly then brought it to her lips before placing it on his chest and pulling the cloaks up over it. She smoothed his hair back again, her other hand stroking his cheek. Athos cleared his throat, knowing that he could not let this continue any longer. The others would be back at any moment. "Majesty, you must make haste. You cannot stay here with your safety and that of the Dauphin at stake."

"I know," the Queen said. She lingered nonetheless, giving Aramis's face one final caress before leaning close and whispering to him something that Athos could not hear. She straightened and turned toward Athos, offering him her hand so he could help her up. She was small and came only to his chin, something Athos had not really noticed before, but then rarely did they stand this close. She peered up at him, her blue eyes sharp and clear.

"This is the first time I've touched him since —" the Queen did not finish that thought as if she too had vowed never to speak of it. But clearly, there was something she wanted to say to Athos, "We have had no further assignations. No encounters behind a closed door. He has never sought me out privately nor spoken directly to me other than on the occasion of the Dauphin's birth." She paused, her chin raising slightly, her eyes defiant and clear, "Aramis has done nothing wrong. None of this is his fault."

"I would assign no blame," Athos replied, "The situation is . . . complex and we are all involved in some way."

"It is not complex at all," the Queen's tone was almost incredulous, "It is quite simple. Our duty to France, to the King, to the Dauphin comes first. For all of us. For me, for Aramis and for you. If not, how could you bear to have fired that shot?"

She looked up at Athos which such earnestness and devotion in her gaze that he could do nothing but duck his head away from her prying eyes. That the Queen herself would say this, would offer comfort to the man who had shot a person so beloved to her, was overwhelming. There had been too many emotions in the last day, too much for Athos to handle. He felt the tears draw in his eyes but his stubborn pride would not allow them to fall.

"I know you love him as I do," the Queen whispered, "Keep him safe for me."

In a rustle of skirts she was gone and Athos, finally alone, put a hand to his eyes to keep the tears from tumbling down his cheeks.

Chapter Text

--ELEVEN--

The Queen departed midday and would likely be to Paris by the time early evening set in. Athos anticipated an angry Treville would arrive with a contingent of Musketeers by the middle of the following day. He knew his duty required that he travel with the Queen but she had insisted that he, D’Artagnan and Porthos stay with Aramis until he was fit to travel. If the other musketeers had issue with their Lieutenant remaining behind they did not show it. There were many pairings and partnerships within the regiment but none more respected than that of Les Inseparables. Edouard was competent and capable of leading the regiment back to Paris and it was he who had stepped up to offer the Queen his personal protection when it looked like Athos would protest her command.

In truth Athos had not put up much of a fight and he knew Treville would not accept his decision. Love and duty. Athos had given up love for duty when he joined the musketeers. The scales had slowly tipped over the years and Athos knew that the only reason he could do his duty was with the love of these men who rode by his side. They had defied orders before, or skirted around the edges of them at the least, but never had Athos been so derelict. Despite what Porthos thought, Athos knew it was love, not duty, that had given him the strength to pull the trigger yesterday and now love was forcing him to continue to make choices that duty could not. He would stay at Aramis’s side until the musketeer was bundled onto a cart to be brought home to recover or bundled into a grave to make his final rest.

The sun was setting when Athos found himself again in his spot against the wall, this time a bottle of wine by his side courtesy of the supplies the Queen had left them. Porthos had taken up his post again on the other side of Aramis, this time cleaning Aramis’s pistols. Constance had returned them, handing them over with great reverence to Porthos as she said her farewells. Porthos’s own blades were lined up beside Aramis’s ready to be polished and sharpened again once he was done with the pistols. No matter that he had already done it hours earlier. D’Artagnan was collapsed in a heap of carriage pillows, a brocade blanket draped around his shoulders. His exhaustion was born from the same worry that had set Porthos to meticulously tending their weapons and had put a bottle of wine in Athos’s hands. Athos had ignored Porthos’s glare when he first popped the cork and they had settled into an uncomfortable silence as they waited for Aramis to regain consciousness.

D’Artagnan had continued his role as nursemaid. Porthos, steady in almost all things, found himself trembling at the thought of his broad fingers damaging the delicate sutures. He was afraid he’d do more harm than good so instead hovered by D’Artagnan’s side, fighting the urge to be sick as he handed him cloths and bandages. Athos remained a silent sentinel, vigilant to the marksman’s every breath despite his casual posture against the wall. In truth he watched over all of them because despite what Porthos might now think of him, Athos worried over each of them more than for himself.

The marksman had not moved since his ordeal of the afternoon and while the exhaustion was expected, his stillness was unnatural. He had had very little water or other nourishment now since he was wounded and they all feared he would continue to slip away from them without sustenance to help his healing body. D’Artagnan planned to rouse him this evening if he did not wake on his own. So when something changed in Aramis’s breathing and a soft groan broke the silence it was with relief, not worry, that Athos scrambled to the marksman’s side.

“Aramis,” Athos said, lightly patting his cheek, “Aramis, wake up,” Athos called again. Porthos laid the weapons aside and shifted closer, a hand to Aramis’s shoulder. The marksman’s eyes fluttered beneath his lids and he moaned again. Athos and Porthos exchanged a glance silently agreeing that pushing him to wake was the best course of action.

“Aramis,” Athos’s voice assumed an air of command as he called to the marksman again. He laid his palm along Aramis’s cheek and instead of patting him again, grabbed his earlobe between his thumb and forefinger and squeezed. Aramis reacted to the pain, scrunching his eyes tighter and trying to shift away. Athos and Porthos exchanged a hopeful glance and Athos tried again while Porthos fished under the blankets for Aramis’s hand and began to rub the back of the marksman’s hand with his thumb.

“Stop,” the word was all breath. The eyes blinking up at them were open but unfocused and confusion and annoyance both played across Aramis’s face.

“Here,” Porthos handed Athos a damp cloth and Athos shifted his hold around Aramis’s ear to cup the back of his head while he gently wiped the marksman’s face. That brought a sigh that was more of relief then pain and when Aramis’s eyes opened again he seemed more present than he had been before.

“How do you feel?” Athos asked softly as he set the cloth aside. Aramis flicked his eyes between Athos and Porthos as if trying to figure out how to respond to what was being asked of him. He shook his head “no” which Athos interpreted as “not good.”

“See if he’ll take some wine,” D’Artagnan had joined them from his palette on the floor and handed a cup to Athos. Athos took it and D’Artagnan shifted to raise Aramis up against his thigh while Athos put the cup to his lips. It took a few sips for Aramis to coordinate swallowing but they managed to get quite a bit down before the marksman shifted his head away and whispered ‘enough.’

“Better?” Athos asked, still not sure how aware Aramis was of his surroundings or situation, “Do you know where you are?” Aramis again flicked his eyes toward Porthos and then up at D’Artagnan, confusion playing across his face.

“Do you know who I am?” Porthos’s voice was soft but the worry evident. Aramis nodded his head and pulled his hand from Porthos’s grasp, tapping weakly at the big man’s chest.

“Richelieu,” he said weakly. Porthos’s eyes widened in shock. Aramis’s however twinkled as he let out three stuttered breaths.

“He’s laughing at you,” D’Artagnan said through a broad smile. Athos too grinned and Porthos sat back on his heels as his fear gave way to relief.

Porthos held the marksman’s hand against his chest, “When you get better I’m going to kill you,” Porthos’s voice was warm, his eyes damp with tears. Aramis closed his eyes as a content smile smoothed out his features.

“Aramis,” Athos put a hand on his sternum tapping gently, “No sleeping yet. You have to eat.” Aramis wrinkled his nose and shook his head ‘no.’ Athos ignored his protest and moved to the hearth. He spooned some of the rich broth from the rabbit stew into a cup and took a heel of bread left behind by the queen. He settled by Aramis again, ripping off some of the bread and thoroughly soaking it in the stew.

“Here,” Athos insisted, tapping Aramis’s cheek insistently until the marksman opened his eyes again, the annoyance returning to his gaze. “Eat this, and then you can sleep.” Aramis narrowed his gaze, lips tightly closed.

“Don’t be stubborn,” D’Artagnan said shifting the marksman up a little bit more. Aramis winced at the motion, his hand flopping across his torso to lay lightly over the wound at his side. “I know, it hurts. Eat something and we’ll get you settled again.” Aramis took a pained breath and nodded, not resisting the softened bread when Athos put it to his lips.

It was a slow process as even chewing and swallowing seemed to tire the marksman. At some point Porthos released Aramis’s hand and went outside, looking for more firewood although there was plenty stacked already beside the hearth. It did not seem to register with Aramis but D’Artagnan and Athos exchanged a glance at his departure.

After the bread and stew they got a few sips of wine into him as well until Aramis’s face almost begged them to stop. His eyes narrowed in pain and a light sheen of sweat covered his face. Aramis caught up Athos’s wrist as he shifted to set aside the wine cup.

“Hurts,” he breathed, looking up at Athos with fear and pain in his gaze.

“There is comfrey and mustard seed, I can make a poultice,” D’Artagnan said to Athos quietly. Aramis shook his head his breathing getting more labored.

“Laudanum,” Aramis said, “please.” He was clearly more distressed than when he had first awoke as the pain from his wounds manifested as he had grown more alert.

“Do we have any?” Athos asked.

“The Queen left medicines,” D’Artagnan said as he carefully shifted Aramis back to the ground, “I’ll check.” Athos settled Aramis’s hands by his sides and reached over him to dampen another cloth in the bowl of water Porthos had had by his side. He stroked it over Aramis’s face hoping to offer some comfort.

“The Queen?” Aramis was confused.

“She stopped here on the way to the palace,” Athos was careful to keep his tone neutral. He did not trust his own emotions on the subject let alone what Aramis might read into them.

“Dangerous,” Aramis said, worry now adding to his agitation.

“It’s fine,” Athos said tightly, “She was not here long.”

“I’m sorry,” Aramis’s eyes filled with tears. “I never —-. You . . . I didn’t want you . . “ Aramis’s breathing was becoming more rapid and a soft moan escaped between the words.

“Sssh,” Athos hushed the marksman’s words and again wiped the damp cloth across his face. He knew Aramis well enough to know that his worry was not just for the Queen. “I am fine as well.” It was a lie and despite Aramis’s obvious distress it was clear the marksman knew it too.

“I ask . . . too much of you . . .” Aramis panted, “This is not . . . your fault. It is . . . mine.” Athos knew he was no longer talking about the Queen’s visit. Aramis’s hands twitched again and he laid one hand on his chest, over the hole Athos had put there. “I did this.” Aramis’s words had surprising strength. “I chose my life for hers. I chose this death. . .” Aramis choked on a pained sob and Athos clutched his hand tightly.

“You ain’t dyin’,” Porthos’s voice sounded unexpectedly from above them. Athos looked up startled, having had no idea when the big man had returned. The look he gave Athos was inscrutable as he kneeled beside Aramis and put a large hand on the marksman’s head, “You ain’t dyin’,” he repeated as he stroked his thumb over Aramis’s forehead.

“I did this,” Aramis whispered up to Porthos. “I made Athos do it,” Aramis started to breathe more unevenly as the pain and stress caught up with him.

“Aramis, stop this,” Porthos’s voice held fear as well as anger, “Settle down.”

“He can’t bear this,” Aramis pleaded to Porthos even as he clutched tightly at Athos’s hand, “You have . . . to help him. Promise me. . . .For the love you bear me, please . . .” Athos could not look at Porthos, at either of them, and ducked his head to hide his face behind the brim of his hat. Something inside of him was breaking.

“Here,” D’Artagnan interrupted. He had a cup with a small amount of wine, “It’s just a few drops, it should help him sleep again.” D’Artagnan slipped his hand behind Aramis’s head and lifted it enough so that he could sip from the cup. The marksman did not resist but wine leaked from the sides of the cup and trickled down his chin as he struggled to control the pain.

D’Artagnan gently laid Aramis’s head back on the palette of blankets, but let his hand linger as it threaded through Aramis’s dark curls. “Relax. Let that work,” D’Artagnan said softly. Porthos rested a hand lightly on Aramis’s shoulder. The marksman closed his eyes and took several deep, shuddering breaths as the grip of pain relinquished his body and tension began to drain from his face.

“I’m sorry,” Aramis fought to open his eyes. Tears tracked down his cheek. “No one should be asked to sacrifice a brother,” the words were slurred and soft. Aramis fidgeted his hand from Athos’s grasp only to press it gently against the swordsman’s heart, “I’m sorry mon ami, I’m so sorry.”

“Ssssh,” D’Artagnan quieted the marksman, continuing to stroke his hair. “Sleep, Aramis.” Aramis’s breathing continued to even out and his eyes closed. His hand slipped from Athos’s chest as he finally gave in to the blessed oblivion that laudanum could bring.

--TWELVE--

They sat silently around Aramis as he drifted into a deep and still sleep, each lost in their own thoughts. Sometimes men dying would have a burst of energy like that toward the end - having something important to say before they let go completely. Or it was a sign of recovery that his strength was improving enough to be lucid and able to eat and communicate. Only the dawn would tell them which path Aramis was upon and they were not men who were particularly good at waiting patiently.

Athos eventually retreated to his spot against the wall, Porthos took up Aramis’s pistols for another cleaning, and D’Artagnan organized something for them to eat. They were tired, they were on edge, and they all felt as if the ground we crumbling beneath them.

Sometime in the small hours of the night, Porthos appeared beside Athos and slid down the wall to sit beside him. An uncorked bottle of wine was in his hand and he passed it to the swordsman. They sat silently together, shoulder to shoulder, passing the bottle between them and watching the firelight flicker over their sleeping companions.

“I’m tryin’ not to be angry,” Porthos said as they reached the bottom of the bottle, “but you gotta say somethin’ besides you didn’t have a choice,” Porthos cocked his head and finally looked at Athos, “We all got choices.”

Athos sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. He owed Porthos an answer, so did Aramis for that matter, but revealing Aramis’s secret put everyone in danger. The situation was impossible to resolve.

“What’s going on with the Queen then?” Porthos tried to change the subject, “Why’s she so interested in Aramis?” Athos gave an ironic chuckle. Porthos had the answers to his own questions except it was unfathomable even to him that Aramis would have been so foolish to be involved with the Queen. Athos couldn’t tell the story, but he considered what truths he could share. What he thought Aramis himself would not deny if confronted by one of his brothers. He thought back to their conversation on the ride to Fontainebleau.

“Aramis believes he has a calling,” Athos explained quietly, “A higher duty than that even sworn by the Musketeers to be the Queen’s protector and I believe that her majesty has accepted this.”

“A calling?” Porthos was uncertain, “Like from God?”

“Like from God,” Athos confirmed.

“And you believe this?” Porthos’s skepticism was evident.

“What I believe is not important,” Athos said, turning his head to look at his friend, “It is what Aramis believes.”

Porthos considered this. Aramis’s deep faith juxtaposed against his career as a soldier had confounded all of them at one time or another. Eventually they just accepted that their marksman would pray over the men they killed and didn’t need to understand why. He never asked that they share his faith and they never asked that he leave it behind.

“I could see him thinkin’ that,” Porthos said, an ironic smile playing at his lips. “What I can’t see is you actin’ on it.” Porthos raised his eyebrows, signaling that he expected more from Athos than just Aramis’s part in this.

“Any other decision I made in that moment would have put the Queen’s life in danger,” Athos said carefully, “And Aramis would never have forgiven himself for it if something had happened to her.”

“You mean never forgiven you,” Porthos said with a snort.

“You think I’m worried about myself?” Athos was stunned, “My worth as a man was forfeit the minute I put a noose around my wife’s neck,” Athos gave a disgusted laugh and polished off the last of the wine. “Aramis would never forgive himself if he failed in protecting her. If it had been the Queen shot instead of him what do you think he would have done? He puts her life above his own - above yours and mine for that matter. How do you see our tender-hearted Aramis faring with the death of the Queen on his head?” Athos was getting angry, his tone bitter, “No. Better he died at my hand then die consumed by guilt and despair. No one should have to bear what my black soul does. Aramis least of all.”

Athos set the empty bottle down and pushed himself up from the floor. He wanted nothing more than to find two more bottles and drink himself into a stupor. But he dared not leave this room, dared not break his promise to see Aramis through to the end of this journey. If he left now, he’d never be able to face his own cowardice.

Porthos rose too and next thing Athos knew he was being pushed back into the wall, big hands forcing his shoulders back. Athos didn’t fight, he knew he deserved Porthos’s rage for what he had done to their brother.

“Enough!” Porthos’ voice was a harsh whisper as he gave Athos a shake, “You think I’m supposed to say Aramis is worth more than you?” Porthos’s lips curled in a snarl, “You think choosing between you somehow makes this better? I couldn’t do that.”

The arms that had pinned Athos to the wall now pulled him close. Porthos said nothing, but the embrace said everything. Athos stood encircled in a love he knew he no longer deserved but nonetheless desperately needed. Porthos’s big heart had found room for him but Athos was not sure his own heart would ever be the same. Despite the warmth of Porthos’s embrace Athos felt cold inside.

Porthos released him and walked away, taking up a blanket from the floor and wrapping it around his shoulders. To his left Athos saw D’Artagnan settle back down to his nest of pillows from where they had woken him. Athos didn’t know at what point D’Artagnan had begun listening but it didn’t matter any more. He had said all he could on the matter and it would have to be enough for everyone. The only one undisturbed was Aramis who lay as still and unmoving on the floor as he had all night.

--THIRTEEN--

The horses were what saved them. A shrill whinny that could only have been from Aramis’s broody mare pierced through the foggy slumber that Athos had fallen into. As he blinked the sleep from his eyes in the low morning light the horse whined again, joined this time by the snorts and stamps of her stable mates. Something was wrong.

Athos rose, slipping his sword belt around his hips, even as Porthos was sitting up to reach for one of the swords still carefully laid out where he had been obsessively cleaning them. D’Artagnan was struggling to free himself from a pile of blankets when the first man burst through the door.

Porthos grabbed his main gauche from the floor and threw it with enough force to pierce the man’s throat and the intruder went down in a heap. But two more men clamored over the body in the threshold and moved to tackle Porthos. Athos advanced quickly to get between their attackers and Aramis as another two pushed through the door and rushed toward him. A fifth slipped past where his partners grappled with Porthos and raised a sword over D’Artagnan. Athos spared a quick glance to see their youngest, though on his knees, was far from defenseless. With a deft tug he pulled the blanket his attacker was standing on and the man went down hard, D’Artagnan flinging himself on top of him.

It was mayhem in the small room as the three musketeers, not fully armed, fought against half a dozen untrained but determined men and tried to keep them from their fourth, still unconscious on the floor. D’Artagnan was able to defeat his man only to have one of the men entangled with Porthos disengage and attack him instead. Athos was doing alright fending off two men, but could not go on the offensive lest the men flank him and get to Aramis on the ground.

Porthos finally subdued the man he had been wrestling with a chokehold and he pushed the inert body off of him just as Athos dispatched one of the men attacking him with a long slice to the midsection. The other man roared and lunged at Athos forcing him to take one half step back. His foot caught up on something and Athos fell backwards, tripping over Aramis’s legs. His sword slipped from his hand as he hit the floor and he scrambled to reach it even as his attacker raised a sword over his head. To his left he heard a crash as D’Artagnan slammed his man into the stack of crates left behind by the Queen. Thoroughly engaged with wrestling the man into submission, D’Artagnan did not see the sixth man striding in from the doorway wielding a pistol at his exposed back. Porthos didn’t see it either as he had gotten a hand around one of his pistols and was now aiming it at the man raising his sword over a prone and defenseless Athos.

“D’Artagnan!” Athos called out as he managed to shift backwards and avoid his attacker’s first swing. Porthos whipped his head around to find the threat to D’Artagnan even as the swordsman over Athos raised his weapon for a killing blow. Porthos had a split second to chose and in that moment he caught Athos’s eye. They knew each other so well. As sure that Aramis had been that Athos would take the shot, Athos knew Porthos would save D’Artagnan. Athos’s eyes begged it and Porthos could not deny him any more than he could deny Aramis. With a mournful cry Porthos swung the gun around toward the man behind D’Artagnan and two shots rang out as steel crashed down toward Athos’s head.

The gunshots were deafening in the small stone room and sound seemed to be sucked from the air after that. Athos’s eyes widened as the attacker’s blade fell in a wide unwieldy arc, his body crumpling to the ground. Blood was already soaking the back of the man’s white shirt. Athos looked up in horror, but D’Artagnan was fine, having pinned his opponent to the wall. The man with the gun was dead on the floor, clearly shot by Porthos. Athos twisted to his left to find Aramis leaning on an elbow, one of his elegant pistols smoking in his trembling hand.

Athos pushed himself off of Aramis’s legs even as Porthos shifted to take the spent pistol from the marksman’s hand. Aramis looked somewhat relieved when Porthos helped to ease him back down to the floor. Leaving Aramis to Porthos’s care, Athos went to where D’Artagnan had forced the remaining man to his knees.

“Who are you?” Athos demanded. The man was older with a shock of white hair pulled back over leathery features. He was strong and broad shouldered, a laborer or farmer by the look of him. It was no wonder D’Artagnan was challenged in hand to hand despite the man’s years.

“You bastards killed my sons,” the man nearly spat. His eyes were full of fire and despair. Athos realized why he looked familiar - his features and build were similar to that of Matthieu and Javier, the brothers who had orchestrated the attack on the Queen.

“Your sons were traitors to the crown,” Athos said, “And better they died at my hand than at the end of the hangman’s noose.”

“They were good boys!” the man shouted, “You had no right!”

“I had every right,” Athos growled, “When they raised arms against the Queen and her musketeers.” Athos glared at the man but he continued to shout insisting that Athos would pay for his crimes.

“Get him out of here,” Athos said to D’Artagnan, “Tie him to the fence post. We’ll hand him over to Treville.” D’Artagnan nodded and dragged the screaming man from the room. Athos shook his head. An entire family destroyed for the sake of what? Money? Politics? And Aramis nearly dead for it too. His stomach churned with the uselessness of it all as he made his way to kneel beside Porthos, raising an inquiring eye.

“He’s alright,” Porthos said as he checked the stitching at Aramis’s side, “Nothing pulled.” Athos let out a relieved sigh and ran a hand through his hair. They’d gotten lucky. He gave Aramis’s shoulder a light squeeze.

“You joined us just in time,” Athos said fondly as he pulled the blankets back over Aramis’s chest.

“Hard to sleep through that,” Aramis said with a weak smile.

Athos had an urge to return to his spot by the wall, but the aftermath of the fight had left five dead bodies and blood all over the floor. Athos shifted to stand over the body of the man who had nearly killed him and realized it could just as easily been his corpse being dragged from the room. It was nothing Athos wanted to dwell on.

With Porthos’s help, they made quick work of clearing the room. Porthos found a tarpaulin to cover the corpses with until they had time to dig graves. They spread it over the men and then found stones to weigh down the large cloth. They worked in silence but not the angry tension of the previous day. Returning to the chapel, they were pleasantly surprised to see Aramis’s eyes open, head turned toward the doorway. He had been waiting for them. Athos and Porthos shared a smile as they moved to squat beside Aramis.

“How are you feeling?” Athos asked.

“Hungry,” Aramis said with a sigh.

“I can help with that,” Athos replied pushing himself to his feet to get the last of the bread and broth from the pot. Not a task that he needed help with so Athos was surprised that Porthos followed him. Athos was oddly relieved to see Porthos looking troubled rather than angry.

“What?” Athos said looking him up and down, “Are you injured? Your leg?” He asked referring to the healing wound from the crossbow bolt that had embedded itself in his thigh during their last mission.

“I’m fine,” Porthos said, swallowing thickly, “D’Artagnan can look at it later. I just . . . I’m sorry.” Athos met his worried gaze with confusion. He did not know what Porthos was apologizing for. Porthos cleared his throat and continued, “I had a choice. I couldn’t save you both. . . “ his voice trailed off unable to complete the thought. Athos put a hand to Porthos’s shoulder.

“No, mon ami, you did not,” Athos smiled fondly at his brother, “I asked you to save D’Artagnan. You knew it. I saw it in your eyes. You had no choice.” Porthos bit his lip as a tear tracked down his cheek. Athos pulled the big man closer in a half embrace. “This is brotherhood, Porthos,” he whispered, “this is one for all.” Athos kissed the side of Porthos’s head then released him, moving to Aramis with the cup of broth and bread just as D’Artagnan returned with a fresh bucket of water.

Porthos lingered by the hearth as D’Artagnan got Aramis to a more upright position and Athos began to help Aramis to eat. The marksman had more energy than the previous night, insisting Athos hand him the broth soaked bread rather then feeding him like a helpless babe. Porthos joined them eventually, bottle of wine already open and a cup poured for Aramis.

Athos felt the emptiness in his chest diminishing, a warmth building inside him that he had thought might be lost to him forever. He listened with a smile as his brothers recounted their parts in the melee they had just survived but it was Aramis’s light laughter that gave spark to the hope filling his heart. Their marksman was going to be fine.

“Hey,” Porthos said, “You were unconscious for most of the fight,” he said to Aramis, “How did you know who to shoot when you picked up the gun?”

“Easy,” Aramis breathed as he rested against D’Artagnan’s knee, exhaustion creeping into his voice, “I knew what choice you and Athos would make.” Aramis closed his eyes, a faint smile on his lips as he started to drift back to sleep.

Athos and Porthos exchanged a look, not an apology, but forgiveness. Forgiveness for having to pay the deep price that their brotherhood demanded. A price they knew they might have to pay again but in the end was more than worth it.

-FIN-