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We Are the Garrison

Chapter Text

FYI - I'VE HAD TO TAKE DOWN ALL THE BEAUTIFUL ART ADRENALINESHOTS MADE FOR ME DUE TO PHOTOBUCKET'S DECISION TO CHARGE A $40/MONTH FEE FOR POSTING ANYTHING FROM THEIR ARCHIVE TO AN OFFSITE VENUE.

Author: M_LadyinWaiting (aka bootsnhats)

Artist: adrenalineshots

Beta:  Annejackdanny

Genre:  Slice of Life 

Rating: Gen

Warnings/Spoilers: Warning -- if you are Milathos fan, give this one a pass.  You will not like it.  Minor spoilers for all three seasons, major spoilers for S3

Word Count:  23,741

Summary:  A peek into what might have happened after the end of Season 3 through a series of letters between the Musketeers. 

 

Chapter Text

 

I

"Paper in the drawer by the pots," Sylvie instructed with gentle humor, bending ponderously to disengage the kitchen kitten's snagged claw from the pile of yarn at her feet. 

Athos opened and closed several drawers in the ancient cabinet before happening upon the one with paper.  His glance strayed to his wife, catching her in the act of yawning.  The drawer slid halfway closed.  "You're tired. We should go to bed."

"I am tired," Sylvie agreed pleasantly, folding strands of the freed yarn over and then over again to form the center of a ball.  "I'm tired all the time these days, but not so tired that I cannot stay awake while you write to our friends.  They will be wondering what has become of us; you cannot put if off any longer.  Ink is on the high shelf."  She directed his gaze with her chin.  "Quills are in the drawer next to the paper," she added when he'd laid hands upon the ink pot. 

Athos rummaged for a quill, gathered several sheets of paper and took his collected supplies to the kitchen table, though his bemused gaze did not leave his wife's bent head. 

Sylvie glanced up again.  Under any other circumstance, she would have found this intense scrutiny disconcerting, but she had sensed, from their first encounter, the vulnerability he so successfully hid from the world and saw in that gaze a bewilderment that was both endearing and exasperating.  He still did not think himself worthy of her love, but she was working on that.  Her lips curved in that secret smile she reserved only for him and only for times when they were alone like this when he had no reason to withdraw behind that formal façade he wore like armor. 

His answering smile was slow and secret as well, transforming the austere countenance.  The scarred lip stretched as he bent his head, hair falling forward to obscure the delicate blush that still, after all these months, embarrassed him.  She felt that smile as though he had reached across the distance between them and unerringly touched his finger to the beat of her heart that silently echoed his name with every pulse. 

She wanted to kick aside the pile of wool, push her cumbersome self up from her chair beside the fire and close the distance between them.  Run her fingers through that hair.  Bend down and kiss the still stretched lips.  Touch the scar with her tongue.  But that would defeat the purpose of installing them here in the kitchen this evening, rather than the warmth of their marital bed. 

"It need not be a long letter," she offered, deliberately letting her gaze wander across the kitchen toward the door of their chamber.  What would have been, in days long past, the housekeeper's quarters. 

The smile stretched further still as the blush deepened to rose.  He sighed then, and shoved the hair back from his face as he moved the ink pot closer, then slanted the paper and picked up a quill.  He studied the tip for a moment before sliding a hand into his boot to withdraw the lethal weapon sheathed within.  With the precision of a scribe, he whittled away at the end of the feather, blew away the shavings and tested it against his finger. 

The knife disappeared into his boot again, the quill dipped into the ink and Sylvie, still watching, saw from the swirl of his beautiful tutor-taught round-hand that he addressed d'Artagnan. 

Athos drew in a deep breath.  Wood shifted and collapsed with a sigh in the fireplace, its fragrance enhancing the subtly sharp bouquet of fresh herbs mingling with the aroma of bread baking in the hearth oven.  "I did not know contentment had its own scent," he said, chest lifting and falling again on another deep inhale.    

"You are stalling, husband."  Sylvie released the kitten's claws once more, though this time from its vantage point in her lap where it stretched lazily every so often to snag the yarn as she continued to twine it around the small ball she'd created.  "I took time this morning to write to Constance.  You will enclose it with your letter to d'Artagnan?"

"Of course."  Athos sat for a moment, then dipped the quill again and began to write in earnest. 

 

My dear d'Artagnan,

You will be wondering by now if we were set upon by deserters or worse on the road since it has taken this long to write, so let me assure you we are both fine.  We were delayed several times in our meandering-journey-to-we-knew-not-where to accommodate Sylvie's descent into motherhood. Naturally any child of mine will be giving its mother fits before ever it shows its face to the world.  She is enclosing her own letter to Sylvie, but she says having had much experience with this recurring phenomenon among her refugees, she is progressing as nature intended. 

While we did not set out to return here, nor are  we of one mind as to whether or not we will stay, we have returned to Pinon at least until the birth of our offspring.  I am indebted to Catherine, as we are settled in the servants quarters she put to rights.  It is shelter and at the moment all we require, though Sylvie is already beguiling the tenants.  She's chosen the local midwife as her caretaker, over the drunken sot of a doctor currently inhabiting the role of village healer.  Amazingly, I can say that now without flinching.  Tell Aramis he has a job waiting for him here should he ever decide serving the queen is too much trouble. 

As time and materials permit, we are slowly working on restoring the wing of the house destroyed by fire.  My memories of that night are hazy at best, but do you remember Madame and Monsieur Glasson?  Madame Morgause has been helping Sylvie in exchange for reading lessons.  Monsieur Éloi came along a time or two and offered his assistance with the reconstruction.  As it turns out he is a far better carpenter than a farmer. 

As we haul out burnt timbers and flooring and wash a decade of ash and grime from the walls, you are constantly on my mind, wondering how work on the garrison fares.  While I was not reluctant to go, I find myself turning without thought, to speak to you or Porthos, to ask your opinion or advice or share a reminisce.  And then you are not there ... and my heart sinks a little. 

Our small corner of France has not been ravaged by the war, so if you have need of materials for rebuilding, our timber is plentiful and sound.  It would ease an uncomfortable ache to know that I could have some small part in the reconstruction of the physical structure of the Musketeers. 

Lest I forget to mention it, at the end of our journey, Sylvie finally consented to take my name.  She teases that it is only for the sake of the child, but her love is a flame in my heart that cannot be quenched.  It has been an experience unparalleled  in my rather wretched existence.  Perhaps I should regret the wasted years of self-indulgence attempting to drown my sorrows, and yet, had circumstances been different, I might never have met Sylvie.  Never experienced this unexpectedly deep well of joy in sharing the bringing into the world of a new life.  There is a quality of wholeness expanding in me even as Sylvie's slender form becomes more gravid each day with this tiny soul we have created. 

As Aramis would say, 'to everything there is a season'.  I am a fortunate man in more ways than I can count. 

Yours with Respect,

Athos

 

 NOTE TO CONSTANCE

 

"Sand is in the middle drawer," Sylvie offered as she watched her husband append his signature before glancing over his supplies.  She dropped her yarn into the basket at her feet, the kitten bounding down to chase it as the ball hit the edge and bounced off to roll across the stone hearth.

Athos stretched to reach the middle drawer without rising, pulled out the pounce pot and proceeded to sand his letter.  It was the work of a moment to pour the unused sand back into the pot, replace the pot in the drawer and shove it closed before turning on the seat of the chair to observe his wife.  "That's a lot of yarn."

"It is," Sylvie agreed, biting back a smile as she pushed to her feet.  It never failed to amuse when her word-parsimonious spouse stated the obvious.  She collected her letter from the sideboard, leaning over with a hand on the table to give it to Athos to fold inside his missive.  "You miss them."

"I do." The response was immediate, no thought needed.  "It stills seems strange to turn around without running into one of them, even after all these months."  He paused reflectively, gaze turning inward.  "But it is a sweet ache, one I don't mind."  Athos shook his head, as if to rouse himself, and pushed back from the table, leaving the folded letters.  "I will seal and send  it off in the morning."

"I am looking forward to seeing Constance soon."  Sylvie took the arm Athos offered as he joined her.  "I did not expect to be befriended when she began bringing your young recruits to help out in the refugee camp." 

 "She did?  While we were away?"  Athos led them on a slow promenade down the length of kitchen. 

"You did not know that was how I met her?"

"No."

"It's the bane of every refugee camp; the few men around are hardly capable of heavy work.  She did not ask us if we needed or wanted help; she just appeared with her small army and set them to work with brisk efficiency."

"Sounds like Constance."

"Yes, well, I thought her an interfering bit of baggage and attempted to dismiss her." 

Athos made a sound deep in his throat that from any other man would have been a chuckle, but ventured nothing further.  He'd had a few similar run-ins with Constance; he could accurately predict her response.

They had reached the bedchamber where he led Sylvie to the hearth and she turned to present him her back in a well-practiced routine.  She could no longer manage the twisting and turning required to get into or out of her clothing.  Athos had offered to find her a maid if she preferred a woman's services to his.  Sylvie had made herself quite clear on that point.  Fisting a hand around her hair, she drew it to the side to give him better access to the hooks and ties down her back. 

"You laugh, but my pride was seriously injured by her assumption that we needed assistance.  I am very self-sufficient you know."

"I would never have guessed."  Athos lifted the hem of her dress over her head.

Sylvie's laugh rippled around the room like a lively stream.  "We had words.  Constance won, but she was gracious in her victory and the camp was the sounder for it.  She stood between us and the wolf of winter that first year I was in Paris.  Without her, the entire camp would have died of pleurisy."  She put her arms up for Athos to drop her nightgown over her head, then turned to wrap them around her 'maid'.  

"Apparently I have more reasons to be grateful to that woman than I realized." Athos snugged his wife against him.  "The two of you are well-matched forces of nature."  He felt rather like an explorer these days, discovering new propensities in the most unexpected venues.  He had recently perceived in himself a heretofore unknown penchant for cuddling.  Anticipation made it all the sweeter. 

Sylvie's small breathy sigh was the tiniest bit smug.  "Shall we to bed, my lord?  I swear mornings arrive far earlier here than in Paris."   She crawled between the covers and slid across the bed.  Athos having stripped and inserted himself under the bedclothes as well, obligingly spooned around her.  "Mmmmm," she purred, "like cuddling up to a volcano."

 

Chapter Text

 

II

 

Dear Athos,

Aye, you may be certain I was  anxious of mind when I did not hear from you for months!  I had determined to set out upon your trail at the next opportunity, but duties here in Paris kept me from embarking - and then your letter arrived.  I'll have you know it reduced Constance to tears, though she insists I allow they were tears of joy. 

d'Artagnan turned his head to kiss his wife as she wrapped her arms around him from behind and bent to press her check to his. 

"You make it difficult to write, my sweet."

"I know, I will leave you alone in a moment.  I am just so relieved to know they are safe.  And settling in Pinon.  I had hoped they would return to Paris, but at least Pinon is not so far away."

"True," d'Artagnan agreed.  "Were the miscreant here, I would punch his lights out for leaving us so long in the dark about their whereabouts though.  Mmmmmm," he murmured, rubbing cheeks like a cat. 

"You, my good sir, are all bristly."  Constance drew aside just far enough to look down her nose at him.  "I love that smooth-skinned baby face of yours.  But this makes you look - older," she said consideringly.  "More mature."  She brushed her hand lightly over the stubble on his jaw.  "And it will soften in a few days." 

d'Artagnan scowled.  "Not you too.  I get enough of that from Aramis, who has no room to talk about who looks too young for their post," he muttered, dipping his quill back in the ink.  "And if I don't finish this tonight, who knows when I'll have time to work on it again.  So, my dear," he kissed her with lingering promise, "if you will depart and stop distracting me, I will be the sooner done.  Though I must write two more reports after this and check on the recruits before I can join you in retiring."

Constance sighed but made no demure; she well knew the demands of command.  "Wake me if I have fallen asleep.  Sylvie's letter has made me hungry."  She hugged him tight, kissed him once more upon his bristly cheek and departed the office with swift steps. 

d'Artagnan tapped the quill on the ink stand and returned to composing his response. 

Mine were tears of relief.  I have been regularly visited  by nightmares of your desecrated bodies flung off the road somewhere, left to rot with no one the wiser, though I knew in my heart you could not be dead for I would have known if such a dreadful thing had happened.  Still - do not EVER do that to me again. 

You have returned to Pinon? Read an exclamation in that question.  Constance thought you might, though I did not believe you would return to that house and the memories it holds.  Let alone with Sylvie.  Constance had already informed me she intends to be there for Sylvie's lying in; it remains only for you to let us know when.  I intend to escort her personally, Aramis can take over the garrison for the duration. 

I suppose in your understated way, you are announcing that Sylvie has undertaken to restore you to the status of lord of the manor, though I am sure her intention is merely to establish good relations among your neighbors.  Will you allow her to accomplish this goal?  I would remind you of your promise to return to the responsibilities you devolved to me on your departure to - undertake a leave of absence to fulfill a mission of great importance - according to your lady wife.  If you do not intend to use that pauldron you wore out of here, I will be needing it for one of my new recruits.  As you are well aware, they cost a fortune to produce and this bloody war Aramis is now running is costing France not only her sons, but the crown's financial resources as well. 

The sound of water pouring into a tub distracted the captain.  d'Artagnan was of two minds about the retinue of servants the queen had placed at their disposal.  Constance would have young men aplenty to do her bidding when they were able to return to quarters in the garrison, but personal attendants were above a captain's pay grade.  He was grateful for the service now though, as it meant Constance, who continued to work as hard as any recruit, did not have to come back to more chores at the end of a long day.  That she could bathe every night.  And wear clean clothes without having to lug loads of laundry along to the laundresses.  He would have to assign her an aide-de-camp when they returned to the barracks, he mused with a rueful grin, returning to his composition with the symphony of small splashes emanating from their personal quarters promising a beautiful sunset on this day's activities.   

By the way, Aramis is content playing patty cake with the king and consorting very discreetly these days, I will leave it to you to imagine with whom. I doubt he will be traveling to Pinon in search of a job any time soon.  Shall I send you Dr. Lamay's protégé?  Before his untimely murder, he had been working with a young woman who has become quite knowledgeable in the ways of healing, but her services are underused.  The folk here in Paris have not taken to a female physician.  Her name is Placide.  She may be known to Sylvie, as she works extensively among the refugees who can afford no other services. 

Of course I remember the Glassons.  Madame Morgause likely saved your worthless hide that night.  I am forever indebted to them.  You should unearth that shirt I know you tucked away somewhere safe and give it back to her.  She would be thrilled that you kept it all these years and disgusted that you have not worn it to shreds.  As for Monsieur Éloi, some folk, as we both know, are just not meant to be farmers.  I am glad that he has at last found his true calling, especially as sounds as if it is of further benefit to you.

It also gladdens my heart to hear that at least one small bit of France is yet untouched by the devastation we have wrought upon our land.  While I know the southern provinces are less mortally wounded, we have seen little but desolation and waste in the last four years.  We are bringing order to the capitol again, but it's slow going hunting out the pockets of deserters and war mongers who've secreted themselves in their foul nests and practice their depredations though the long arm of their minions.  There are many men such as those we encountered at the Douai monastery and in the forest near Epicéa, a disgrace to the uniform they once wore, easily bribed with ill gotten coin and unfazed by anything their masters demand.  They are the bane of my existence.  And - there are those, still, that carry a grudge for the demise of both Grimmaud and Marcheaux. 

Daily we must fend off ridiculous attempts to slow the work on the garrison, or repair, again, that which we've already redone as there are constant malicious smalls bits of sabotage.   I lost two cadets to unaccountable accidents before we realized what was going on.  A roof we had just shored up the previous day collapsed of a sudden, burying four and killing two.  A week later, I lost another to a sniper taking pot shots into the courtyard from the ruined roof.  We caught that one; he awaits his execution in the chatelet. 

We are still housed in the bowels of the Louvre, courtesy of the queen and Aramis insisting that we remain here until the garrison is fully completed.  Your offer of supplies comes at an opportune moment as we had to halt all work more than a month ago due to a lack of materials.  Not even Aramis has been able to conjure resources such as you offer.  He opines that France will be denuded of its forestry before this war is over, a blank land devoid of flora and fauna by the end.  The woods on his own family lands were sacrificed to the building of machines of war at the very beginning.  He says Madame Catherine was replanting before the last tree fell and is nourishing the saplings with all her formidable might.  But it is sad to think that lovely forest we rode through on the way to the hot springs is long gone. 

All this is to say - anything you could send us would be put to use.  And ... if t'would ease that ache of conscience as regards your abandonment, then it is all in a good cause. 

There is one thing I must ask for further clarification on - this line 'then you are not there ... and my heart sinks a little.'  Is this your subtle way of saying you miss me?  I will not be so subtle but tell you from my heart that I miss you tremendously.  It is a sore trial attempting to emulate your leadership skills, your deft hand with the men, your ability to navigate the politics of this job with the fineness of a nobleman. 

The loss of Minister Tréville was devastating.  But your leave-taking opened a huge hole in my heart no amount of salving has closed over.  I am bereft.  The gift you left behind is my constant companion these days and I think of you every time I lift it from its peg in our quarters. 

In closing, I will tell you that I have not yet mastered Aramis' trick of flipping the thing onto my head.  Nine out of ten attempts I must foolishly retrieve it from the ground where I have dropped it.  But I keep it close because if reminds of you.

One for all,

d'Artagnan

P.S.  General du Vallon, via Elodie, sends his regards as well.  Your finagling to have him made a general may have far reaching consequences. In case you have not heard, his new troops are single-handedly driving the Spanish back from our borders.   If only he could be in ten places at once, this war would be over shortly. 

The garrison captain set aside the abused quill with a sigh, clasped his hands and stretched his arms high over his head. 

Their quarters were only next door, the scent of beeswax perfumed the air, along with the essence of patchouli with which his wife scented her bath.  He'd seen the longing steal over her as she'd shared Sylvie's letter an hour ago, while he'd bathed quickly out of a basin and exchanged his filthy work clothes for acceptable palace attire. 

The queen was wont to wander down here frequently to converse with his wife, often leaving the king in Constance's care while she graced whatever meeting Aramis convened with her presence.  One did not attend her appearance in filthy clothing, d'Artagnan had learned to change quickly when he returned to the garrison's palace headquarters. 

He rose, the backs of his knees shoving the chair away as he stretched aching shoulders again.  He was becoming re-hardened to hauling timber and bundles of shingling, but there were days still when the long hours of backbreaking physical labor took its toll, just as there had been days on the farm when he'd fallen exhausted into bed at night. 

The physical rebuilding of the garrison was taking longer than he'd expected, not only due to supply shortages, but time and monetary deficiencies as well.  Constance's maimed soldiers were a great boon to the garrison, but their carpentry skills were often limited by their incapacities.  And only a few were skilled enough at deceit and disguise to be capable of the intricacies of dealing with the rogues and spies that had fallen to d'Artagnan's charge to root out and annihilate.  Much of his time was spent teaching his raw recruits the rudiments of tracking and capturing villains. 

The captain shoved a hand through his hair as his gaze roamed over the scraps of paper and scrolled parchments littering the top of his desk.  Duty called, though duties of such disparity his mind was torn with which call to obey. 

He had promised Aramis those reports by morning.  His lady wife had changed her mind on a certain topic; he'd watch her resolution wilt in the face of Sylvie's letter. 

A grimace twisted his lips briefly, before resolve hardened the still youthful features.  d'Artagnan rounded the desk, staying his stride only long enough to pinch out candles as he crossed the room.

The door latch between chambers clicked and he strode from cool darkness into light and warmth and heady scent, resolved. 

Aramis' reports would have to wait. 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

II

 

Brother, Porthos scrawled in his large, looping handwriting.  His mind was a pinwheel of thoughts and ideas jostling for prominence, but this might be the only moment he could snatch to write to Athos in the next few days.  The groundwork was laid for another attack later tonight; his men were out scouting the place from which to launch the ambush even as he tried to write. 

He brushed off the memory of similar nights not that long ago where it would have been Athos sitting at this desk Porthos had inherited, likely scrawling letters of condolence to distant family members of comrades lost in battle, while he and d'Artagnan whiled away the hours with desultory chess games or knife throwing contests.  He missed them constantly and dreadfully, especially in battle when he felt the loss of their balance at his back so keenly. 

He pushed away the thoughts with a ruthlessness foreign to his nature, but an acquired habit he had learned to employ with the strictness of a general commanding men he must send to victory or defeat based solely on his strategies. 

The quill clenched between his fingers required re-dipping, it had dried during his cogitations. He reached to draw the lamp closer, touched the quill to the quiver of ink holding to the lip of the jar and let his thoughts flow in a different direction than war.   

Captain d'Artagnan couriered a copy of your letter to me at the front with the understanding that I was just as anxious as he to hear that your sojourn had come to a safe ending.  Be advised, I expect my own communication sooner rather than later now that you are settled. 

Enclosed with d'Artagnan's note was correspondence from my wife as well, with her thoughts on your letter.  Elodie's accompanying message was quite insightful.  She noted the d'Artagnan's were split on their receptivity of the news that you have returned to Pinon - Constance believing it to be the best place in the world for you, while d'Artagnan has reservations.  In this, I feel obligated to side with d'Artagnan; I pray daily the ghosts of Pinon will not drive you back to the bottle, my friend.  And that you will have the wisdom to recognize it soon enough to shake the dust of it from your boots before any such travesty should occur.  But I will not belabor the point as I know in my bones that you are a different man than the one Aramis insisted we rescue all those years ago.

In reading between the lines, I believe I am hearing that you have come to terms with acquiring dependents.  I do not have Aramis' gift of words to express the joy this gives me, knowing that you are discovering that well of happiness you capped off so long ago.  That you have finally come to understand you are deserving of happiness and contentment I attribute to Sylvie's influence.  Though me and d'Artagnan will gladly accept a bit of praise and glory for bringing you along to the point that Sylvie was able to sway your thoughts and actions.  It is my most cherished hope that fatherhood will bring a flourishing peace into your life that will never be banished.    

As Aramis' God has been gracious enough to gift me with a wife and child of my own, I, too, am coming to a new understanding.  You will likely laugh when I tell you that I have discovered a new fear of death.  These few months as husband and father have enlarged my life in a way I expect you understand now too. I find myself snatching everything chance I can to ride like the devil to be home with Elodie and Marie-Cessette even if it can only be for a few hours.  It is no longer my fondest wish to die gloriously in the service of France.  I want to die comfortably in my own bed, with my beloved wife by my side and our children surrounding us as I discharge my final duties and bless them one last time. 

Nevertheless, I thank you for this opportunity to serve our country in this capacity.   Aramis told me you were instrumental in both our elevations, yet again turning down any reward for your own service to the crown.  The queen informed him you refused the post of minister, recommending Aramis instead.  I would have suspected ulterior motives from anyone other than you.   

As a result of your generosity, even sending home most of my pay, I have already been able to set aside a respectable amount toward a new life someday.  Likely that will surprise you, given my penchant for throwing money away.  I'll have you know, the day I wed I was as cured of gambling as you were cured of drinking the day you saved me from that flogging.  For which I can finally find forgiveness in my heart.  Command gives one a rather different perspective. 

Though I pray it will not be my end, I am committed to ending this war.  I will not shirk my duty here, nor break the faith you and the queen have shown in me.  And now I have new reasons to drive the cursed Spaniards to their knees so they will beg for terms.  It really is too bad the queen regent is not in a position to sue for peace; her brother might have accepted an overture coming from her. 

But enough of war.  I have other news.  Elodie is enceinte again, we are expecting our first child together in March.  The girls will be little more than a year apart, for Elodie is certain this one will be a girl as well.  She told me on my last visit home a fortnight ago.  I will admit, I'm all aflutter with the news.  I want to shout it from the mountaintops and declare it from the depths of the valleys.  I will have to have my armor resized for the pride puffing out my chest. 

Alas, I must end this as Brujon is telling me the men are back with their report.  We could be done with this war and home in the next six months if  just a few others would side with me, but older, wiser heads must prevail, despite our success with my own tactics.  I have come to the conclusion there are those here in this echelon that do not desire the end of war, the spoils of battle incite a kind of excitement they thrive on.  I understand this to a degree, having been certain for most of my life I was not cut out for anything but soldiering.  I will likely pay for this sin of hypocrisy, but the attitude disgusts me now and I am little able to tolerate it.  I could benefit from some lessons on diplomacy from you my friend.

Yours in gratitude,

General Porthos du Vallon

Porthos glanced over the letter, set it aside to dry and turned to take report from d'Artagnan's protégé.  Brujon was proving to be quite as good a solider as the Gascon. 

"You've found a breach?"

"We have, General.  The men are ready to move out at your command."

"I'll be along in a moment.  Brujon," Porthos addressed his aide-de-camp as the young man turned to leave the tent.  "I've a letter to Athos that needs sending off in the morning."

"I will make certain it gets on its way first thing."

"Send it with the dispatches to the garrison, d'Artagnan will see that it gets to Pinon."

"Very good, sir."  Brujon bowed again and backed out of the tent.

Porthos rose and blew out the oil lamp.  He could navigate the tent in complete darkness because - as had been their practice previously - everything was placed in precisely the same place no matter when they set up camp.  He did not follow directly on Brujon's heels though, he paused a moment, hand on the back of his chair, head bowed, directing a simple prayer to Aramis' God.  "Please not tonight, or for many nights to come." 

Chapter Text

IV

My dear General du Vallon,

You are right to chide me for not writing sooner.  I would proffer my most sincere apologies for my procrastination except I knew d'Artagnan would forward my letter to you, as well as share it with Aramis, though I am in receipt of a chastising letter from the minister as well. 

I do not neglect you from want of things to share; however, I no longer have the strange leisure of days and days of boredom sitting around camp waiting for the generals to decide where next we battle, nor are my days my own any longer.  Lest you think, as d'Artagnan mistakenly believes, I am taking up the reins of the estate again, that is so far from the truth it is laughable. 

Perhaps you recall the name Bertrand Collier?  He has matters well in hand here.  The estate has been aiding in the war effort from the beginning, producing food and clothing as well as limited armaments.  Monsieur Collier has the forges ringing, the weavers spinning, and the wine press clanking all hours of the day and night.  There is not one unemployed soul on the property from the littlest shepherd to the ancientest armorer. 

War has brought an unexpected prosperity to the region.  There are folk here, as well, who dread the defeat of the enemy; their motivation being only a bit purer than your current covey of generals.  They have sacrificed their sons to the cause, compensation in the form of monetary gain makes the sacrifice more palatable.  We are living in a world where sacrifice and gain have become odd bedfellows. 

While on the subject of the estate, let me put to rest your concerns about living here again.  You are right to claim credit for disabusing me of the notion I was not worthy of happiness and you are correct in recognizing Sylvie's hand as the finishing touch.  It is by yours and d'Artagnan's generosity of spirit that I have arrived at this place I inhabit. And Aramis to a large degree, since it was he who saw the potential and maneuvered Tréville into allowing me a second chance.  It took me far too long to fully embrace that opportunity, but I am holding onto it with both hands these days.  And Sylvie, bless her, keeps reminding me she would not chose an unworthy man as the father of her child. 

As you so insightfully noted, a new perspective gives one a very different view of events.  I knew from the beginning Catherine cared only for my title and the duties as chatelaine of my domain.  She was my father's choice.  And though I thought I was happy here with Anne, in hindsight, I realize there was always a tension between us that I could not name.  I suppose keeping her identity a secret made her wary of giving her heart as completely as I - in my naiveté - turned over mine.  Lesson learned.  There is no secrecy between Sylvie and I, I have confessed my sins and been absolved of my rank stupidity when it comes to women.  She is in full agreement that she is my salvation. 

So even when those old ghosts occasionally raise their heads, they cannot control me as they were wont to do .... before.  There is a new hand on the reins, one that meets commitment with equal commitment and steers our days in pleasant paths.  As a result, I await the birth of our son - Sylvie is certain it is a boy - with glad anticipation rather than quivering knees and queasy belly. Could we, do you suppose, perhaps look forward to a time when our offspring might find their own heartsease in one another?  Would that not be the epitome of destinies forged in the fires of brotherhood and war?  To have our children joined together in blissful matrimony?

I did not laugh when you shared that your gambling habit became a thing of the past over night.  Responsibility for another, whether it be a vulnerable child or invincible grown men, is life changing.  d'Artagnan's flogging woke something dormant in my soul that I think you were born with, or perhaps it was nurtured to fruition during your formative years in the Court of Miracles - that dragon-like desire to protect all those around you. 

We had carried on together for years, I did not doubt that you were both fully capable of defending and protecting yourselves.  As your captain, though, it was my ultimate responsibility to act in accordance with the role I had been assigned; to protect and serve my men.  I did not grow into that understanding, nor did I make a conscious choice in the moment.  I acted because Tréville, without ever saying a word, had mentored that in me without any understanding on my part.  It was an ingrained response to a dire situation.  Between breaths I saw with the clarity of vision I'd never before experienced, what drinking had done to me and knew I would not touch another drop.  So it does not surprise me that accountability has changed you, too, my friend.

My congratulations on the news of another child to feed and clothe and bring up.  Despite the tongue-in-cheek best wishes, I feel the vibrations of your joy echoing in my own heart.  Constance is to come for Sylvie's lying in, we expect sometime around the end of next month, so she'll be back at the garrison in plenty of time for Elodie's lying in as well.  Unless it's twins as the midwife has predicted, in which case, I will have to beg Constance to remain while I return to the garrison to teach for d'Artagnan in order to ensure my ability to provide for three souls.  Perish the thought; one is more than enough for me right now.  I am enjoying the bliss of married life too much.  I am not yet ready to return to reality.

While I do not have Aramis' ecclesiastical bent,  I have at least made my peace with his God, and pray daily that you and all our men remain under the shadow of His wings.  Yes, despite having no churchy inclinations, I do know the scriptures.  A long ago tutor of little intelligence and even less imagination made certain of that.  These days, I am occasionally grateful for that knowledge.

No thanks are necessary on the topic of your promotion, I merely offered our new regent options.  She is a wise woman, no matter her still tender years, and a keen observer.  She learned much from Tréville during his time in her sphere and chose accordingly from the options I was able to offer her.  It is a great privilege to be a leader of men, you wear the mantle with dignity and courage and are an outstanding example of the breed.  But Porthos, do not think that to quit is to break faith with me or the queen.  Listen to your heart, do not fight it when it tells you that you're done with soldiering.  As I said to d'Artagnan, and because I have experienced it in my own life - to everything there is a season.  Be prepared to allow yourself to change with those seasons. 

As for those lessons in diplomacy, next time you're home for any length of time, bring your family to visit us.  I understand generals have a bit more leeway in terms of familial visitations. After all, we got into trouble because de le Force was out of camp for more than a month.  Exercise those rights, man.  Even with as much joy as Sylvie and this new life we've created together has given me, I miss you all and would welcome the opportunity to be together again in the very near future.

Your devoted servant and friend,

Athos

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

V

Captain Athos,

Since you have neither returned your pauldron as the current Captain of the Musketeers has requested, nor resigned your commission, you are hereby recalled to active duty.  Report to the garrison no later than the 30th of this month. 

By Order of the First Minister of France

Signed, stamped and sealed this 14th day of October in the year of our Lord 1637

Aramis d'Armitiz

First Minister of France

 

Aramis grinned as he appended his flourishing, barely legible signature to the beribboned document then set it aside, taking up a new piece of parchment upon which to continue his literary efforts. 

He had not had much practice this last eight months, dashing off those little illustrated notes and poems he had used to be so good at composing.  He was a confirmed, committed monogamist these days, with no desire to pursue any of the flirtatious women who made sure they crossed his path on a daily basis. He knew his consort was highly amused by the demurely downcast eyes not-so-covertly following his every move as he curried, castigated and chivvied in order to accomplish his goals as First Minister. 

Many things had unexpectedly fallen into place in his life since God had released him from his vow of chastity and he'd taken up with the Musketeers again.  Not the least of which had been Athos' prediction that if he gave himself the opportunity, he might work his way to a balanced relationship with his son.  Louis might never know him as biological father, but he was filling the role in every other way that counted.  His pride these days, wore itself on his sleeve in a manner entirely different from the youthful, cocky arrogance he'd worn like a second skin in his early days as a Musketeer. 

There was a deep well of contentment running like a swift river in his soul, one that enhanced his perceptions as a healer beyond measure.  He was the equal of his mother in this role, now, though he allowed it free rein only among his closest friends; France's First Minister could not afford whispers of witchery.

Aramis allowed himself a long, lingering look in the direction of the disheveled dishabille of his consort, sprawled with abandon upon the counterpane. 

She must have felt his gaze for a languid hand lifted to touch her fingertips to lips that pursed to blow kisses his direction, though those blue Spanish eyes remained closed. 

A candle guttered and went out with the gust of the minister's contented sigh.  He relit it with another and slanted his parchment to resume writing. 

Ha!  Had you going did I not?  It is only what you deserve, writing solely to d'Artagnan and making the rest of us feel as though we reek of eau du rotten fish.  But then, d'Artagnan was always your favorite ... ahhhh, yes ... if I were standing next to you right now you'd be boxing my ear, despite the fact - by your good graces and astonishingly brilliant remarks - I outrank you.   I suppose it behooves me to share the fact that both Porthos and I were glad d'Artagnan came along to be the kind of friend to you that Porthos and I were to one another. 

Alas, no boxing, as I understand you are in Pinon and I am ... well let's just say I'm comfortably ensconced in present quarters. 

The palace, I've found, is a rabbit warren of a place, with secret entrances and exits in nearly every room.  You have only to touch the right bit of paneling to disappear.  I inherited the maid assigned to Tréville; she grew up here and knows every inch of this salt box, including the vast network of tunnels we were reconnoitering while chasing Vadim. She's been showing me around as time permits.  Which is to say, she has made it very convenient for me to move around unseen and unheard by the public. 

d'Artagnan told you the Musketeers are being housed in the public rooms on the ground floor of the Louvre?  The accommodations are by no means as palatial as those above stairs, but they are adequate for our men. d'Artagnan informs me he has discovered that living at the Louvre has turned out to be an incentive rather than a drawback for recruiting purposes. There is a currency of sorts in being able to brag that one is quartered in the palace where the queen lays her head upon her pillow at night. 

I will miss them when they return to the garrison, which I know d'Artagnan and Constance are anxious to do.  With the current arrangement, we are able to dine together most evenings, so I can keep track of the progress of the reconstruction as well as the various and sundry lines of investigation d'Artagnan is carrying on. 

Which reminds me, your first wagonloads of supplies reached us just today.  The queen expressly wished me to tell you how grateful she is for your continued support of the garrison, even from a distance.  d'Artagnan remained behind this evening, with a host of new recruits, in order to guard the shipment, else it will be gone by morning.  While we managed to save Paris from Grimuad and Feron's machinations, they left a legacy of  embittered, angry men who will stoop to anything petty or vile.  Ferreting them out of their hidey holes has become a full time job, leaving little time for restoration work.  d'Artagnan is frustrated in the extreme. 

So about Pinon, I'm thrilled you've settled there, even if only for the short term.  In all seriousness, Athos, it would be extremely helpful if you were to take up the title of Comte de la Fère again.  The regent could name you to the idiotic council of advisers the king put in place and perhaps together we might corral their ridiculous lordships and accomplish something other than bickering over the color of uniforms and who should be allowed to wear them.  Tréville, God rest his soul, must have been tearing his hair out.  I have snatched myself nearly bald already and I have only been in the job these eight months. 

I know you told Porthos you have no intention of reassuming control of your estate, but I implore you to at least give some consideration to resuming the birthright of your name.  If not for the sake of your country, at least for the sake of my soon-to-be-bald head.  Please?  I am not above begging.  And enlisting your wife in my cause if necessary, as she's the sensible one in the family.  I swear I will not require you to become embroiled in court life, you would have the freedom to come and go as you desire. 

The queen is well aware of the infamous pair behind the plot to discredit Sylvie, who were hand in glove with Marcheaux.  She is anxious to makes amends for the damage done to Sylvie and her reputation.  I know you have no love for politics, but Sylvie, with the queen's patronage, has  the potential to be the next great political hostess, she's more than capable.  The two of you could leave a lasting legacy by setting your oars to steer the political leanings of the next generation. 

You have both the linguistic and diplomatic skills to forge this path, but I am not asking you to make this sacrifice now.  I am merely planting seeds I intend to water regularly in hope that they will someday produce fruit so you will think the idea your own and act accordingly.  Though you do owe me a rather large favor for acquiring a church annulment of your first marriage.  I quake in my boots every time I pass your former wife in the hallways.  I do not know if anyone has told you, but the queen has continued to make use of her special talents. 

If I have made you laugh, all the better.  You do not laugh often enough, your lordship, though I hope that is changing. 

I am enclosing a small gift for your progeny.  It is a royal hand-me-down from the king, who disdains baby toys these days and is bestowing them among his servants with a true noblesse oblige.  The rattle, the queen says, was a gift from her Spanish brother and is over a hundred years old.  Elodie and Porthos have been patronized as well, with a blanket His Royal Highness has taken in dislike for its pink hues. It was a gift from the king of Siam.   Today Louis informed his mother he will henceforth wear only blue, he is no longer fond of gold or brown or even purple.  Blue is the color du jour.  I am fortunate that blue is the sigil of the First Minster, I remain in his majesty's favor. 

It is tradition in my family that the tribe gathers to celebrate whenever there is a new soul to enlarge the circle.  I know that would put a strain on your current accommodations, but we will erect tents if necessary.  Our tribe is increasing and we intend to be there with you to celebrate.  You have told Sylvie we all expect to be named as guardians to the babe, as well as honorary aunts and uncles, haven't you?  It would be wise to share this news with her before the christening ceremony so she does not object or roll her eyes when we rise as one to assume the role of godparents.  

You are the first among us to take on this new paternal role, I am looking forward to seeing you in it.  I expect you will excel as you have done in everything else you have undertaken. 

Until we meet again,

Your friend (and superior officer)

Aramis

Finishing with another flourishing signature, the First Minister snuffed the  remaining lit candles in the candelabra, rose and went to the window to draw the drapes, then made his way soft-footed through the moonlight to re-warm the cooled sheets.  

 

Chapter Text

VI

Beyond the heavy, velvet drapes veiling the sitting room windows, a late autumn storm pattered sleet against the glass, though its cold fingers did not disturb the warmth of the cozy room. 

Autumn's swirl of copper-colored leaves graceful as court dancers had given way to lusty winds and cold drafts.  The evergreens were fluffing their branches and shoving out tiny bumps that would grow into pinecones the size of a man's hand.  Or so Athos said.  Sylvie had never lived in the country before, this fall had been her first experience with Mother Nature's extravagant change of seasonal raiment. 

The mistress of the house raised her needle again, but only to anchor it in the fabric enclosed in her tambour frame.  The small dress she was embroidering floated down to cover the hill of her belly as her gaze wandered over the sitting room attached to their bedchamber.  Sylvie caught her breath silently lest she disturb her husband's concentration.  Her revolutionary heart could not help but feel a little guilty at the surrounding luxury, but it did not keep her from enjoying the sense of security, she, who had grown up in refugee camps across France, had never known. 

The master suite had been the first rooms to be restored.  They had moved from the servants quarters as soon as the new bed from the carpentry shop had been assembled in the sleeping chamber.  A few mornings later, Sylvie had woken to a dizzying array of fabrics spread over every available surface in the chamber. 

She had once accompanied Constance on an errand for the queen, to a fabric warehouse Constance's former cloth merchant husband had frequented.  The display in her bedchamber had been just as dazzling, despite its far more limited scope.  Her husband had appeared with a pot of chocolate and warm, flaky pastries he had gone to the village to fetch and kept warm over a hot brick from the kitchen fire. 

Copious tears had flowed over his thoughtfulness, and Athos, having finally mastered a response to tears had crawled back into bed to hold her and rub her aching back until the flow had ceased and curiosity had enticed her to rise and explore. 

Sylvie had spent the day choosing fabrics for old and new furniture.  Much that had been destroyed by the fire had been rebuilt, Monsieur Glasson being a deft hand with mallet, plane and chisel, and a master craftsman when it came to furnishings and fixtures.  What had been salvaged had had considerable smoke damage, in addition to the following years of neglect, but Sylvie had refused to be cajoled into discarding it.  One of her projects, a restored sideboard of great antiquity, resided now between a pair of windows on the west-facing wall, upon which sat a large Chinese vase flaunting an array of seasonal flora.  Athos was pleased to call it her arrangement of sticks and twigs, though he did so with that instructive twitch of the lips that informed his humor.

Another day he'd taken her up to the attic to potter about among the oddities his ship captains had collected over the years from foreign ports of call.  A treasure trove of rugs from the Orient had been carried down, beaten, and scattered throughout the house, their exotic jewel tones the foundation for each new restoration.    

The Persian rug stretching the length of the sitting room had been the inspiration for the deep autumnal russets and golds of the elegant, upholstered furniture gracing the room.  

Sylvie had noted her husband's surprise with delight, when upon its completion she had finally allowed him to enter this room that had quickly become a mutual haven.  She, who had never had curtains to put up, nor more than a pallet to throw a blanket over, had created a retreat suited to both their tastes. 

In one of the numerous old trunks in the attic she had unearthed, and had the estate carpenter frame, the original architectural renderings for the mansion.  In that same trunk, she'd discovered a series of water color paintings of the house and surrounding gardens, depicted in each of the four seasons.  Athos had identified them as his mother's drawings and spent a long time in front of the montage she had created between the end wall windows, though he had not allowed himself to be drawn on the subject of any memories they had evoked.  Someday, she'd thought as she'd watched him study the beautiful sketches, he would share the reasons for his silence. 

Watching him now, the scritch scratch of his quill harmonizing with the crackle of burning wood, she thought she might burst with the swelling of satisfaction in her soul.

The great hearth broadcast autumn's scent, red and orange flames leaping about in the fireplace like the ancient souls of wood sprites.  Its light gleamed upon the horse hair sofa Sylvie had just run her hand over, and played against the deep hunter green of the wing chairs flanking the andirons. 

The desk where Athos sat letter writing was of polished mahogany, the depths of the wood catching the firelight and reflecting it back. 

My dear Aramis,

You are ever incorrigible.  Do not make me regret suggesting to her majesty that she consider a more ecclesiastical man to fill the post Tréville's untimely death left vacant.  Nor encouraging you to rethink your position on refusing the job.  However, you may collect my pauldron if d'Artagnan wishes to bestow it elsewhere, it is only taking up space and gathering dust here in our sitting room. 

My sword is likely rusting away as well; it has not been out of its scabbard since we arrived here in Pinon.  A year ago my sword and I were inseparable, I slept with the damn thing. And could never have imagined the path I am on now.  Strange, the unexpected twists and turns along this journey. 

d'Artagnan tells me you are settling into your new role with your usual wit and charm, winning over the contentious crowd of coattail hangers-on you inherited from Tréville, in addition to the irritating council the king left in place.  I have neither your patience with the fribbles, nor your ability to incessantly wheedle the opposition into compliance just to shut you up.  The queen made the right choice; there would have been blood decorating the walls of the Louvre within hours had she refused to allow me to decline her request.

I can well imagine what use you are putting those hidden passage ways to.  Do not become complacent, those tunnels and passageways are known to more than just the palace staff.  Likely more treason has been plotted inside the Louvre than out; be vigilant, lest you entertain an enemy unawares. You must know by now, the very walls of the place have ears. 

As for politics, do not think ... Athos raised his head, as if he sensed Sylvie's gaze upon him.  "You are warm enough?"

"Do you know you are everything I did not know I wanted in a man?"  Sylvie waved him down when he would have risen to come to her side.  "No no, finish your letter.  I know Aramis is haranguing you for not writing directly." 

She withdrew her needle and began again the delicate pricking in and out that drew pictures with thread upon the cloth as she had been learning to do from the village washer woman.  Madame Herriot could see entire flower beds filled with buzzing bees and tiny hedge hogs decorating the hem of a skirt.  As yet, Sylvie saw only a single flower at a time, but she was leaning to embroider her internal vision as she worked on the tiny clothing.  The scalloped  hem of this dress was slowly growing a border of blue bells and scotch bonnets, as she was sure their child would be a boy.  She might get away with dressing him in flower beds and bees until he could walk, though likely not much longer if he took after his father.   

"Will you ask Aramis to tell Constance I would welcome her presence any time now."

Athos, who had returned to his letter, looked up sharply.  "Is it time then?"

"Soon," Sylvie said serenely, fluffing the little skirt again.  "Finish your letter, I will not give birth in the next day or two, but do not be dilatory in sending the letter off.  The midwife said a week or two at the most when I saw her today." 

"So soon?" Athos suddenly felt a bit dizzy. 

"You would not say that if you carried around this elephant of a son of yours, my lord.  Now if you please, finish your letter so we may retire and you can rub my back.  I find it aches abominably by the end of the day."

Athos returned to the letter to pick up the thread of his thoughts again, muttering about inventing a pen that would hold ink without requiring frequent trips to the inkpot. 

As for politics, he picked up where he'd left off, you are well aware of my dislike, though now that you have pointed out what an excellent hostess Sylvie would make, I will be obligated to lay the matter before her.  You are right, it would give her a much broader platform from which to present her persuasions.

 She has never held the queen accountable for Marcheaux's depredations upon her person, though I should have recognized his intent the moment those broadsheets dishonoring the queen appeared on the streets.  I am not sure she would accept the queen's patronage again, though. My Sylvie is rather proud of her ability to forge her own path.  It may well be the reason we deal so well together, we are as alike in that preference, as two peas in a pod.

If she should decide she wishes to accept your challenge, we will return to Paris and set about creating sycophants of our own.  Given the court's insatiable appetite for the new and unconventional, it should not be a difficult proposition.  And by the time they realize we are merely a Musketeer and his refugee wife, she will have them eating out of the palm of her hand.  I hope you know what you would be potentially unleashing, for Sylvie will not tamely spout any rhetoric you try to feed her.  She knows her own mind and will be tireless in sharing her ideas if you loose her upon Paris.

But first, we must have this baby.  I would bring this letter myself and collect Constance, but I do not want to leave Sylvie here alone at this time.  She is asking that I request you send Constance as soon as possible though.  The midwife here is competent, but this business apparently requires the presence of a trusted friend and I would give my wife that comfort if at all possible. 

We both send our thanks and gratitude to the king and his lady mother for their benevolent gift.  I did not think, at the beginning of this journey, that I would be awaiting the arrival our child with such anticipation. Your words - that I am the first among us to experience this - produced a wealth of sorrow in me, Aramis, for I am not the first.  And that taints my joy. 

But yes, you made laugh out loud - quaking in your boots indeed.  My lady wife merely smiled complacently at the sound as she has been assiduously retraining my sensibilities. 

The sounds of hammer and saw can be heard from dawn to dusk, though the house will not be completely restored by the time our child arrives.  However, I do not think we will have to resort to tents on the lawn to accommodate the lot of us. And we will be elated to host everyone.  Sylvie is well aware this child will inherit far more familial bonds than most when it is born. Being an only child herself, she is thrilled to be included in our enlarging tribe, as you have dubbed us, and delighted to know our child will have a plethora of adults to turn to should we prove inadequate as parents. 

You will have noticed that I have not addressed your blatant accusation of favoritism.  I will say only that you are First Minster of France and Porthos, a general.  d'Artagnan is merely a captain. 

Your servant,

Comte de la Fère.

Athos capped the inkwell, dried the end of the quill and set it in the cunningly carved quill holder presented to him by Bertrand Collier.  He had not paid much attention to Monsieur Collier's sly smile as the man had presented it, until he'd discovered the ring he had ceded to the mayor's care, in the bottom of the holder.  He picked it up from its spot on the desktop, lifting it so it caught the light and reflected its own glittering fire deep within.  Though it still did not grace his finger, he had been considering the ramifications of assuming the title again even before Aramis' letter. 

Sylvie was watching him again, her guileless face, soft with the rounding of pregnancy, revealing a breathtaking tenderness. 

Athos rose, tossed the ring carelessly down on the desk where it bounced twice before rolling to its side, and crossed to take a seat at the far end of the couch from his wife.  "Come," he invited.  "I have been distracted from my evening duties, allow me to redeem myself." 

Sylvie, already in her night clothes, set her embroidery hoop on top of her basket, bent sideways - the only way she could bend anymore - to move the basket to the floor and stretched out on her side.  Her protruding belly met a folded blanket perfectly graded to provide support without pressure, her cheek pillowed on her husband's thigh and a large warm hand slid over her shoulder.   Strong fingers began to knead that spot in her back that ached with unabated ferocity.   Curling her hands beneath her chin, she sank into the bliss of momentary ease, sighing her satisfaction. 

"Athos?" 

"Mmmmm?" he murmured, his busy mind completely focused on providing surcease. 

"Is it my reticence holding you back from resuming the title?"

"What?"

"I asked..."

"I heard what you asked.  What makes you think I am even contemplating it?"

"Do you not know by now that I can read your mind?"

"Witch." 

She heard the smile in his voice.  "You might consider discussing the pros and cons with me.  I am reasonably intelligent and might bring a new perspective to your dithering."  Sylvie turned over in time to see that eyebrow wing up in combination with the reluctant smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.  She coiled up to wrap her hands around his neck and draw him down for a kiss. 

"I am not a ditherer," her spouse stated unequivocally a hairsbreadth from her lips, tongues mating in a dance as old as creation. 

"Not usually," Sylvie agreed on a little pant of regret that they could take this no further.  "So what keeps you from making a decision one way or the other?"

Athos leaned back with a sigh, though his fingers continued their ministrations.  "The benefits appear to be all to us.  What would the estate gain by my resuming the title?  How will it affect the villagers?  And oh-by-the-way, Aramis wants us to return to Paris and take our place in the political mêlée'." 

She turned back on her side, nuzzling her nose against that thickly-muscled thigh as she wrapped her hands around it and rolled her cheek down.  "I do not understand why you think the benefits would be all to us.  You know you would be in the saddle morning to night seven days a week.  I see very little benefit to me in that arrangement, or our child, though the estate would regain a master whose knowledge and understanding is far broader and richer than the mayor's.  I mean no disrespect to Mayor Collier, he has done a wonderful job in your absence, but when this war is over, the estate will need to move in a different direction.  Its oversight will require someone whose vision is not limited to Pinon.  And the villagers are anxious to regain their superiority over neighboring estates.  As for Aramis, his political ambitions are not our concern."

She had reduced his weighty cogitations to six short sentences. 

"Aramis points out you would make an excellent political hostess.  You could do much to change the lives of the refugees."

"Perhaps you have not noticed that I am very happy here, husband?"

"Are you? Really?"  Athos moved the hand not kneading tired, strained muscles to rest on Sylvie's belly.   The baby was kicking high up under her rib cage; it had turned then, head down;  there was no way this child was going to wait a week or two.  He had best get that letter off to Aramis tonight.  "I know you have made friends here and that you do not hate it.  But would you be willing to make this our permanent home?" 

"You must be tired, your legendary perspicuity has deserted you."  Sylvie squeezed her hands, giving his thigh a little hug.  "Do you know that the love of this land is steeped into your bones?  I think you forgot that for a time, or deliberately denied it, but you are the essence of the heart of this estate.  You have broken it's hold over you, but it still tells you its secrets, it speaks to you in a way the mayor will never be able to hear.  It does not matter whether or not you ever put on that ring again, you are master here with or without it.  Everyone but you knows this." 

She pushed off the sofa and his arm came around her bulk to help her up.  Sylvie snuggled into the curve of his elbow, laying her head against his collarbone as she rested a hand over his heart.  "I will admit I feel guilty sitting here in the lap of luxury when there are so many in need, but my obligations - no, let me rephrase that - my inclination right now revolves around husband, home and hearth, and babies.  The revolutionary has not disappeared, she is just quiet at the moment, but while she thinks I would make an excellent political hostess as well,  she understands now is not the time."

Athos leaned to rest his chin on the top of her head.  "I am astounded at my own brilliance."

"Oh?" Sylvie willingly played along with these little humorous forays Athos occasionally ventured.

"At taking up with you, then getting you pregnant so you had to marry me."

"A close run thing, my lord, since you were still married when you got me pregnant." 

"It pays to have friends in high places."

"I would have happily lived with you for the rest of our lives, born you a passel of children even without the auspices of marriage, scandalized the neighborhood for awhile."  She petted the patch of chest hair his loose shirt afforded her access to.  "But eventually they would have come to conclusion we were to meant to be together."

Athos captured that wandering hand and kissed the tip of each finger.  "See?  Brilliant."

Sylvie laughed, as he'd intended, and stretched to kiss him again.  "I love you."

"And I you." Athos sealed the exchange with a last kiss and swept his lady into his arms.  "To bed with you, Madame, our son needs a great deal of rest."  He kicked the door open between the sitting room and the bedchamber, bent to let her pull back the covers and slid her neatly between the sheets before bending to kiss her on the forehead.  "I will join you shortly, but I want to get this on the road."

"It's not necessary to send it tonight," Sylvie protested, though a deep, unexpected twinge undermined the authority of her delivery.  She held in her gasp until the door closed, hands involuntarily cradling the mound of her belly.  She'd attended enough births to have a good handle on the process, but it was very different when it was happening in her own body rather than an external event happening to someone else. 

Purposefully she relaxed into the feather mattress, breathing deeply though the sustained pain.  "We are not quite ready for you to make an appearance.  I need you to wait just a few more days, little one, but we will see each other soon."

Downstairs, Athos hurried through the still-warm kitchen and out the back hallway without bothering to collect a cloak.  He slipped and slid across the sleet-covered lawn mentally rehearsing a stinging castigation for whichever minion had left the stables doors standing wide open to the elements. 

His slanting path took him to the edge of the door before he realized there was activity in the spacious interior turn-around.  His efficient staff was rubbing down two steaming horses, even as a hatted and cloaked individual worked at untying saddle bags with clearly frozen fingers.  

"Athos!" a familiar feminine voice rose above clanking pails, the hubbub of orders and the curses of the man trying to remove the saddle bags. 

"Constance?  But ..." Athos found himself enclosed in a freezing embrace.  "I was just ..."

"It started snowing in Paris this morning," Constance interrupted.  "First babies are notoriously unpredictable.  I was worried we wouldn't make it if the storm worsened."  She drew back to beam at the former garrison captain.  "How is Sylvie?"

"And then it did, get worse that is."  d'Artagnan gave up on the knotted leather ties and came to shakes hands, then pull Athos into another chilly hug.  "How is Sylvie?" he repeated.

"She's well.  I can't believe you're here.  I was just coming down to send a messenger with a letter to Aramis asking him to let you know Sylvie said its time."  He looked toward his stable master.  "I need to append a note and I will bring this back, but no need to get it off tonight after all."  He collected his manners and shepherded his guests toward the still open barn doors.  "Did it take all day to make the trip?"  The ride to Pinon was usually no more than three or four hours, depending on the state of the roads.

"It was close to sun high - if there'd been any sun - by the time we were able to leave." d'Artagnan clamped his chattering teeth together as he pulled his shivering wife against his side.  "So, no, not much longer than usual, but it was a long, cold trip."

"I am sorry it was so awful, but I cannot be sorry you are here,"  Athos said, leading them back out into the yard.  "Gervaise, send someone up with their things when you can."  He put out an arm as Constance slipped.  "Careful." 

"The lad can collect your letter again, too, when he brings the things up,"  the stable master lifted his voice to call after them. 

Athos turned to acknowledge the suggestion.  "Thank you, I will have it ready."  He grabbed d'Artagnan as a bit of iciness tried to snatch the Musketeer's feet out from under him.  Constance hauled on the other arm, though all three nearly went down in the process. 

A sneaky circling wind suddenly gusted in their faces, driving them back the few yards they'd managed to gain, then snuck around behind to shove them forward like skaters on a pond.  Athos moved around d'Artagnan to slide an arm under Constance's elbow and between them, the men grounded her lighter weight, stomping their boots through the thin crust of ice for better purchase. 

They gained the back hall with lungs heaving from the elemental battle and took a moment to catch their breath before staggering down the rest of the short hallway to the kitchen.

"Sylvie readied one of the chambers for you in anticipation and we have hot water constantly on the hob, just in case, so d'Artagnan and I can wrestle it up for bathing."  Athos went hunting pails for the job as d'Artagnan began unwrapping his wife. 

"Careful, don't break off my nose," Constance cautioned, her voice muffled as d'Artagnan unwounded a knitted scarf stiff with ice. 

"I'm more worried about your toes."  Her husband knelt to pull off her boots as she braced herself on his soaked, leather-caped shoulder. 

Pails located, Athos found hot pads and lifted the kettle off the hob to begin filling a quartet of vessels.  "I am more grateful than I can articulate that you are here already."  He left the pails by the fire and went to valet d'Artagnan out of his wet clothing.  "Sylvie said another week or two, but the baby was very active tonight. He - if it is a he - appears to be turned ready for birth." 

d'Artagnan tossed his hat to land on the ancient cabinet beside the fireplace.  "Then it was worth every minute we fought to get here.  But I would like to get Constance warmed up as quickly as possible."  He grabbed a pair of pails, motioning his barefoot wife to follow their host who was already headed toward the main staircase, and trudged up behind her. 

Sylvie came out to investigate the commotion and began to sob at the sight of her bedraggled friend.  "Don't mind me," she said, laughing through her tears, "I'm just so grateful you're here!  Come come," she took the shivering queen's Musketeer by the arm, "ours is the warmest chamber in the house just now, we'll get a fire going in your room but you must bathe in ours." 

"Good idea."  Athos diverted into their bedchamber with his buckets, d'Artagnan following.

"No no, don't hug me!" Constance drew back, then leaned in to kiss Sylvie on both cheeks.  "I don't want to soak you as well.  Athos is already as damp as we are."

"That's probably because he didn't bother to put on a cloak before going out, silly man. Oh I'm so glad to have you here!  But you need not have tackled this storm to come so soon, it could have waited a day or two yet."

"As I told d'Artagnan before we started out this morning, we couldn't take the chance of getting snowed in."  Constance, who had been in the habit of sleeping in the same room as the returned war heroes and Aramis, was already stripping off her dress.

"This is likely to blow over quickly, too early in the season for a major storm."  Athos had hauled a copper tub before the fireplace and poured his buckets into it.  "But we are very grateful for your presence," he echoed, again, stepping behind Constance to maid her as efficiently as he served his wife. 

d'Artagnan formed the impression Athos was seriously worried; the man was never effusive. Despite his frozen fingers, he stepped up to take over from the comte.    

Sylvie laid dressing gowns out on the bed and set the towels she'd collected on the hearth.  "We'll leave you to your ablutions and pray neither of you come down with lung fever as a result of this mad dash.  I can't believe you're actually here.  We have so much to catch up on, I want to hear about everything first hand; the palace, the garrison, Aarmis and the queen!"  She hugged Constance again.  "But I will stop chattering at you and let you get warmed up."

Athos escorted her back to the haven they had abandoned only a short time ago, where he tucked her beneath a warm lap robe on the sofa, built up the dying fire, and went to scrounge food for their unexpected guests.

Warm and dry and fed an hour later, a little bit of catching up accomplished over hot soup and bread served in the sitting room, Constance burrowed in against her husband's side.  They were housed in a newly restored chamber two doors down from Sylvie and Athos.  The furnishings were sparse still, but the room and the sheets had been warmed and the dancing fire reflected a pale gold wallpaper Constance admired a great deal.  "Wouldn't this paper look lovely in our new quarters at the garrison?"  It was a rhetorical question, she expected no answer.  While her husband could spot a brigand three streets away, he cataloged room furnishings only when extended guard duty left him standing in one place long enough to become bored.  "I know you had reservations this morning; I appreciate that you did this anyway."

d'Artagnan stroked a hand over her still damp hair as he curled around her like a cat.  "Neither of us are delicate flowers.  You wanted to be here, I could make it happen.  Besides," he yawned, "I was as anxious to see them as you.  I am, however, too tired to pursue our amorous activities tonight.  Can we resume our quest in the morning?"

"Mmmmm," Constance murmured sleepily, "me too.  But I will expect you to make your best effort at it before you leave."

"Deal," d'Artagnan breathed into her sweet-scented neck.

And slept while the storm blew itself out as Athos had predicted, giving way to a brilliant crystalline moonscape only Pinon's master was awake to witness.  He beheld the dark beauty of the night from their bed chamber window as he paced anxiously, grateful the d'Artagnan's had had the foresight to come without waiting for a summons. 

Restored sunshine, however, bathed the morning quest, hushed laughter an accompaniment to the promised tender lovemaking.

"Did you notice," d'Artagnan remarked, rolling them both over so he could pop out of bed to poke the slumbering fire back to life,  "Athos looks like his soul is less pinched."

"He looks like a man who's found unexpected nourishment in the roots he's put down."  Constance propped herself on her elbows as her spouse slid back under the covers, pulling them over their heads to cocoon the warmth.

"It's obvious he belongs here.  In a way he could not have before."

"Before the war?" 

d'Artagnan wrapped an arm around his wife and drew her back down to pillow her head on his shoulder.  "I was thinking of the time when his tenants kidnapped him and dragged him back here."

"I'd forgotten that."  Constance turned over and shoved the covers back down so they could breathe again.  "Will you release him from his promise?"

"To return to the garrison?"

She poked him in the ribs.  "What other promises did you manage to bind him too?"

"To be honest, I'm not sure I even bound him to that promise." d'Artagnan stretched as his wife sat up and scooted to the side of the bed.  "However, I'm not releasing him from any obligation he might feel himself under."

"You know he would come if you called.  Release him from any obligation and you will know he comes out of love."  Constance had thrown on the borrowed dressing gown and was gathering up their dried clothing from the chairs set with their backs to the renewed blaze on the hearth. 

d'Artagnan gave the idea some consideration.  "You're right."

"Of course I am."  Constance rounded the bed, dropped d'Artagnan's clothes on top of him and bent to kiss him.  "Athos will appreciate the distinction as well.  Lace me up?"  She scrambled into her shift and first petty coat and turned, holding her stays to her waist, her back to d'Artagnan, who rose with alacrity to help.  "Not too tight, I thought we might be up in the night, but it may well be today.  Sylvie has the look."

"I wish I could stay." d'Artagnan, finished with his job, flopped back, arms spread-eagled.  "Come back to bed, I love it when you're half dressed."

"You just love it," his wife chided with a laugh, escaping reluctantly when he sat up and grabbed for her.  "We'll have to find someone to take over if Aramis is to come for the christening," she said briskly, slipping on one of the half boots she'd pulled out of the one bag d'Artagnan had allowed her to bring. 

d'Artagnan turned so he could watch her hop about as she drew on the other. "Do you suppose Jean Paul might be willing to take charge for a few days?"

Constance, her hand on the door latch, stopped.  "You would let him?"

"He's a one-armed bandit, but he is an honest one-armed bandit." 

"The cadets respect him."

d'Artagnan shoved to his feet to pull on his small clothes and britches.  "I'm well aware I'm the only one who doesn't like him." 

Monsieur Jean Paul Segal was a particular favorite of Constance's among the raggle taggle band of returned soldiers she'd recruited.  d'Artagnan had disliked him at first sight.  Probably because he had initially come upon the man flicking at a dangling bit of his wife's hair, then smoothing it behind her ear since her arms had been full of an immense basket of carrots. 

"He is a wicked flirt, but he's harmless."  Constance held her place a moment longer before uttering softly, "Thank you.  Jean Paul will appreciate the distinction too."  Her husband's concession was one of those unexpected gifts he occasionally gave her; more priceless than rubies or diamonds. 

She was traversing the length of the corridor when Athos appeared at the top turn of the stairs lugging a huge kettle of steaming water.

"Why didn't you wake me?" Constance hurried to open the sitting room door for him.

"Sylvie wouldn't let me," he grunted, hefting the kettle through the door.  "I've sent for the midwife though."

"You've been up all night,"  Constance tsked, as she closed the door behind them, following Athos into the beautifully appointed sitting room. 

Athos set down the heavy pot by the bed chamber door and put a finger to his lips before whispering, "She says she's not in labor yet, but her water broke early this morning.  She finally fell asleep toward dawn.  Come," he motioned back through the room, "I can put together something to break your fast."

"Oh no," Constance replied in an equally hushed voice, "I'll find food and bring it up.  You go stay with Sylvie."

Athos ran both hands through his hair as he blew out a breath.  "Shouldn't she be in labor if her water broke?"

"Sometimes it happens that way, sometimes it takes a bit longer.  Her body knows what she needs and right now its rest."

The world's former most-entrenched-misogynist pinched the bridge of his nose.  "I would rather face a battalion of cannon." 

Constance closed the distance between them, sliding her arms around his waist.  A bewildered Athos was so endearing she could not help but hug him.  "It will be fine, I promise."

"Do not make promises you are unable to keep."  Despite the gruff pronunciation, Athos was grateful for the human contact and hugged her back tightly. 

"I never make promises I can't keep.  Sylvie is young and healthy and better prepared for this than many women in her condition," Constance said, giving him a saucy wink.   "Had you married an aristocrat, you would have far more reason to fear."  She let him go, rising on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.  "It will be fine," she repeated.  "Go be with your wife for as long you can, no midwife worth her reputation will let a man remain in the birthing chamber.  They pass out too often."

Athos lifted an eyebrow but made no verbal response.  Now was not the time to announce that he had assisted Aramis in more than one birth, and learned to do it on his own during the war.  He had been witness to incalculable grotesqueries; the aftermath of battle had left many a village bereft of even the crudest form of human kindness.  One did not walk away from a laboring woman no matter which side of the war she supported.

Here he would make his stand when the time came. 

d'Artagnan was coming down the corridor as Constance slipped out of the sitting room.

"Already?" he asked, sneaking another kiss.  They were, after all, still newlyweds for all intents and purposes.  Stealing kisses in public places yet produced that little thrill of illicit exhilaration. 

"Soon,"  Constance predicted as she took d'Artagnan's arm and they descended the stairs. 

Someone claiming to be a cook Athos had not mentioned appeared with the midwife, carrying a large pot that already smelled heavenly.  She confiscated the apron Constance had been about to don and set to work. 

The midwife took herself off up the back stairs, though unhurriedly. 

"The Master don't know it yet, but his lady wife'll be busy with the young'un; they're gonna need a cook," the woman stated matter-of-factly.  "I'll be takin' over the job."

"I'll inform the comte,"  Constance offered, attempting to hold back the grin threatening to take over her face.   "With the ice melting so quickly now, the return journey won't take as long, will you stay and keep Athos company?" she queried her husband as she stirred chocolate shavings into the milk she'd already warmed. 

"I expect Athos won't need any company, you'll have to have him bodily removed from the chamber.  And I'm not volunteering.  He may not have used his sword since he's been here but I'd lay good money it's been hanging somewhere in that bedchamber for awhile now."  d'Artagnan, sitting at the long kitchen table, the eggs he'd been cracking having been whisked out of his hands, looked at his wife quizzically.  "Do you expect me to leave you alone when our time comes?"

Constance tilted her head.  "I hadn't thought that far ahead, I suppose.  It's ... just not the done thing."

"And when have any of us ever done the done thing?"

The self-appointed cook snorted.  "Most women don't want their husband's seeing - or hearing - them in the throes of labor."

Predictably, d'Artagnan had a ready answer to that as well.  His wife had engaged in more than one fracas that involved swords, pistols and a great deal of foul language.  "I've already seen her red-faced and screaming."  Prior to his demise, Marcheaux had been the most frequent recipient of Constance's verbal harangues. 

Cook smacked d'Artagnan with a spatula.  "Mind that tongue or she won't be lettin' you near enough to be makin' any babies, boy." 

"Ouch," d'Artagnan offered for form's sake, rubbing at the spot on his head.  "Mark my words:  I will be just as difficult to dislodge as Athos is going to be." He rose, reaching for their outer clothes that had been left by the kitchen fire.  "But I'll stay, just in case I'm proved wrong.  The garrison won't fall apart in a day.  I'll go bring in some wood."

He spent the morning chopping more, since as expected, Athos did not appear below stairs.  Then refilling buckets of water from the well for cook who took over the job of washing soiled linens as labor began and then progressed.  He pegged sheets and towels out on a clothesline in the windswept backyard and slid quite naturally into the old familiar routine of farm chores.  Those kept him occupied away from the mansion, though a particularly piercing scream occasionally smote his ears as he hauled timber and posts to shore up the listing paddock fence, then set to work on the roof of the hen house.  Even in the stables where he lent a hand mucking out stalls he could not block out the teeth-clenching sounds.

d'Artagnan hadn't realized he'd been grimacing until Gervaise had cuffed him out of his trance with a gruff, "Babies are worth it."

He'd run into Constance, literally a couple of times, coming and going from the kitchen, but he did not see Athos until dusk began shadowing the corners of the restored front room where d'Artagnan had retreated to pace as evening had begun its slow crawl into night.    

d'Artagnan did not hear Athos, only saw him as he turned at the fireplace end of the room and observed the comte leaning wearily against the entryway into the room. 

"We have a son.  Sylvie is resting comfortably.  And I ---" Athos pushed off the wall, "am so exhausted you'd think I'd done the thing myself.  God I could use a drink."

"You look like you did it yourself."  d'Artagnan changed direction, heading for a mahogany sideboard set against the middle of the inside wall.  From among the selection of decanters he picked up a carafe and poured water into a fragile goblet.  "Congratulations."  He handed the glass to Athos who drank it down in one go.

"I thought I was terrified before."  Athos, goblet dangling from his fingertips, closed his eyes.  "I am suddenly responsible for a small person.  What if he turns into my brother? What if he grows up to be another Grimaud? Or worse yet, someone like Marcheaux?"

d'Artagnan poured himself a goblet of very fine cognac, if the delectable scent was anything to go by.  "You are tired."  He canted his head as the sound of a wailing baby wafted down the staircase.  "Or insane," the Musketeer captain added ironically.  "No child of yours would ever grow up to be like any of those men."

"They're cleaning up Sylvie and the baby and changing the sheets again."  Athos went to refill his glass and drank down two more glasses of water in quick succession.  "You did not know my brother."  He was finding it difficult to breathe.

"I don't need to; I know you.  Athos?" d'Artagnan grabbed an arm when the comte swayed.  "Maybe you should sit down."

"I am a murdering, drunken sot and I am ... a father."  Athos sank onto the nearest chair, upholstered in a midnight blue velvet to match the draperies in the room.  A very different room than the one they'd spent the night in after Aramis had sewn up Porthos' shoulder. 

"You were a father this morning, too, and yesterday, and the day before that."  d'Artagnan steered clear of the murdering, drunken sot declaration.  Athos was having a momentary lapse; it would pass.  "You've been a father for the last nine months.  This is not news." 

"If you mean to imply nothing has changed, you are the one who is daft."  Athos bent over his knees, sucking air.  "I cannot make another decision for the rest of my life without asking myself - how will this affect my son?"

d'Artagnan, momentarily struck dumb, opened and closed his mouth.  "They grow up eventually, and at the beginning here, it will just be like new territory," he said finally, pulling back from the fright of realizing he was embarked upon the same path.  "Maybe a bit daunting at first, but we were good at developing routines that allowed us to cover new ground quickly and efficiently.  It will be the same here, you'll see."

"I am just getting used to being two instead of one, and now I am a trinity without the spiritual connections."  Platitudes were not getting air into his lungs, nor quieting Athos' racing heart. 

d'Artagnan, finally recognizing the signs of full-fledged panic, sank to his knees in front of his brother.  "Listen to me."  He circled his free hand loosely around the back of Athos' neck and bent to rest his forehead against the bowed head.  "Breathe - just breathe."  They'd all been through this before:  on the battlefield; in field hospital tents; in their own tent more often than they cared to remember, when nightmare days had given way to nightmare-filled nights. 

"In  ... out." d'Artagnan set a slow, steady cadence drawing in air and letting it out.  "Just breathe," he repeated quietly, moving to circle his hand between the tense shoulders.  "I happen to know you're going to be great at this job.  I have firsthand experience." He lifted the hand with the wine glass in a staying motion as he heard Constance's footsteps.

Constance shuffled backwards on tiptoe, bunching her shushing skirts in her fists.  Athos had been a trooper in the birthing room, grounding Sylvie in the moment, breathing with her, letting her wring his hand with bruising force.  At one point, even sliding in behind her to let her use his hands as leverage to push.  Witnessing battlefield atrocities did not grant immunity when one's own loved ones were in danger, though Sylvie had never been in any danger.  Her labor had progressed fairly rapidly for a first baby and with an ease Constance envied.

She sent up a quick prayer for a similar delivery and retreated to the kitchen where d'Artagnan delivered Athos a few minutes later, with instructions to feed him before he passed out. 

The new cook, swinging a last kettle of hot water over the hearth, informed the master of the house, "You'll be bathing, too, afore you be holding that new babe," as she put a full plate in front of him.  "An' you'll be clearin' that if'n ya know what's good for ya." 

"Too late, I've already held him.  I know you," he said, frowning.  "You are Madame Paget; wife of Old Adalard."             

"Aye, and your new cook."

"We don't need ---" Athos took a bite of baeckeoffe and blinked.  " I know this dish.  It's Alsatian."

"Met Old Adalard back during one of the last wars, didn't I.  Would'a been right afore the turn of the century.  Married up when his service ended and 'e brought me here from Alsace.  You might not need a cook, but your lady wife does.  Won't be able to run this place by yourselves anymore, what with a babe needin' constant attention.  I'll get some maids inta' help with the heavy work of cleanin' 'n laundry and such.  A babe 'bout triples the laundry output if ya didn't know that already." 

Athos blinked again.  "There are many things I suppose I have yet to learn about babies.  You are right, Sylvie is not going to have time.  You have my full authority to hire whomever you think is necessary to run this place." 

Cook's nod had all the elements of a signed contract.  "Right then, I'll get to work on it first thing in the mornin'."  She waved Constance to the table as well.  "Bein' as it's informal tonight, you'll eat here in the kitchen, same as the master. Tomorrow, you'll eat in the dinin' room."

"There is no dining room yet," Athos interposed smoothly.  He held up a hand when cook sputtered indignantly.  "I will move up its priority.  Especially as we will be having house guests for the christening in December.  Where did d'Artagnan disappear to?"  He needed to step up the schedule on further bedchambers as well, in order to accommodate everyone. 

Madame Paget removed the apron, hanging it on a hook by the fireplace.  "Then I suppose you'll be eatin' in the kitchen until then.  There's a tray set in the inglenook for Eveline, midwifery's hard work, and another to be sent up for the comtesse when she's rested enough to want to eat.  Birthing babies is even harder.  And that," she indicated a covered plate set on the table opposite Constance and Athos, "is for Monsieur d'Artagnan.  I will be back in the morning."

The door opened as she reached for the latch.  Madame Paget and d'Artagnan danced for a moment, each attempting to give way to the other, until d'Artagnan stepped back, holding the door open.  "You first, Madame," he said, bowing as he swept off his hat.   

"He was out in the stable," Constance replied, as d'Artagnan closed the door behind the departing cook. "Aramis could not rearrange his schedule to do more than look in on the garrison project.  d'Artagnan is worried it will grind to a halt, or worse, if he is not there to oversee things.  He meant to return this morning, but I persuaded him to stay.  I'm going to take Eveline and Sylvie's food up."  She rose, taking her plate to the dry sink.

"Give me a minute and I'll carry that up." d'Artagnan offered, reaching to take the heavy tray his wife had loaded with Sylvie's and the midwife's dinner. 

"No need, I've got it."  Constance whisked past him, turning so he could not simply take the tray from her. 

d'Artagnan just shook his head.  "I stayed because Constance was certain you would require distraction."  He discarded his outer garments, toed out of his boots as well, and padded over to the table.  "She didn't believe me when I told her you would be beside Sylvie the whole time.  But I had a productive day.  You have enough wood to see you through the next couple of weeks, the chicken coop is finished and the kitchen garden has been put to bed for the winter."

"You are supposed to be an honored guest, d'Artagnan, not my farm laborer."

"I am a friend who saw a need and filled it.  Besides, I needed something to do since you didn't need shoring up."  d'Artagnan addressed his plate of food before digging in.  "You've got a gem in Madame Paget, be warned, I will make every attempt to steal her when we can move out of the palace.  I don't want Constance bearing the load of cooking for the entire company when the garrison is at capacity again.

"Duly noted.  And I thank you for your assistance.  Sylvie's need trumped the chicken coop, though it was on today's list of chores.  It would have been spring before the kitchen garden received attention."

"It will do better having been turned and mulched while it lies fallow." 

"I am well aware, but there are only so many hours in a day."

d'Artagnan stopped channeling Porthos and put down his fork and knife, eyeing Athos across the table.  "This isn't the garrison; you can't run the estate singlehandedly.  You have people willing to work and the resources to pay them.  If it makes you feel better, pay them well, but pay them, Athos.  Stop pretending you're a commoner."

"Is that what you think I'm doing here?"

"I think you feel guilty because you abandoned the estate and left your people to fend for themselves.  I think you're trying to prove you're worthy of their fealty by acting like one of them.  They don't want you to be one of them.  Their comte is a Musketeer, a captain in the king's elite guard."

"Former captain; for the former king," Athos inserted when d'Artagnan drew breath.

"With a reputation as the finest swordsman on the continent. They don't want you to be one of them," d'Artagnan repeated, "they want to bask in your reflected glory, they want to brag that they work for the Comte de la Fère, who is also Athos of the King's Musketeers."

"Now the People's Musketeers."

d'Artagnan rolled his eyes.  "It would make Sylvie's life far easier."  He'd saved his best ammunition for last.  "What's changed since you first wrote six months ago?"

"Did Aramis put you up to this?"

"Put me up to what?"

"He is attempting to direct Sylvie's revolutionary leanings toward politics."

"Oh.  That.  He did mention it would be beneficial if you resumed the title."  d'Artagnan dismissed Aramis' political ambitions with a shrug.  "You know I would not side with Aramis in this, at least not to further his church career." 

Athos toyed with the remainder of the food on his plate.  "You're right of course.  I do feel guilty for abandoning the estate and the people here."

"It didn't turn out so bad.  The estate certainly appears to be in good heart."

"Does that make what I did right?"

"Athos, guilt has informed your entire life.  You claim you're no disciple of the church and yet you're a slave to it.  Buy an indulgence, say a few Hail Mary's and be done with it."

"Would that I could," Athos returned dryly.  "An Indulgence merely alleviates such temporal punishment in the afterlife as the monetary expression of guilt absolves." 

"Slave," d'Artagnan repeated with a sad shake of his head. 

"If I do not teach my child every choice has a consequence, I will be remiss in my duties.  Nor can I make my way merrily through this life disregarding the destruction my own choices have left in my wake.  There must be some restitution.  I am attempting to make a start at it here." 

"I do not see much destruction here," d'Artagnan murmured obstinately, clearing his plate with the remainder of a baguette.

Athos huffed a sigh.  "You judge me as a friend, were you my enemy you would see me very differently."

"You count the people of Pinon as enemies?"

"That is not what I meant."

"Well," d'Artagnan reflected, "I suppose if I were to look at you through the eyes of Grimaud or even Marcheaux or Feron, you are a fiendish enemy." 

"And now you are channeling Aramis."

"In this, he is right.  Guilt is as useless as self-pity.  Stop wallowing in it and get on with your life, Athos.  The people of Pinon do not want another laborer among them, they want the prestige of working for the Comte de la Fère.  They want the trickledown effect the privileges of pedigree accompanying your rank bring them.  In your sanctimonious need for penance, you are denying them the very thing they covet."

That eyebrow winged up.  "I'm not inclined to revert to that life again."

"I see," d'Artagnan said gravely, narrowing his eyes.  "You believe if you take up the title again, you will abandon all good sense and ... what?  Divorce Sylvie and take up again with Milady?  Return to the arms of the Madame Joos' that populate every court in Europe? Travel about enhancing your reputation as Europe's finest swordsman by murdering every ridiculous youth who challenges your skill?"  He paused.  "Or do you mean you do not want to bear the responsibility again, for so many lives and livings?"

"Did I say I missed you?  I must have been dyspeptic." 

d'Artagnan grinned.  "Porthos makes it home regularly enough that I only miss him a little.  There are days when I see too much of Aramis, but you I've missed indecently.  Though I release you of any obligation I may have put upon you to return to the garrison."

A glint of a smile came and went as a shadow passing over the moon on the comte's well-schooled features.  "I made no promises."

"I considered it implicit."  d'Artagnan rose, picking up Athos' plate as well as his own.  "I wish to meet your son, my lord, does he have a name yet?" 

Athos plucked the plates from d'Artagnan's hands.  "Hubert." He scraped the remainder of his food into the slop bucket and put both dishes in the sink on top of Constance's. 

"After Sylvie's father.  He would be honored."  d'Artagnan hastily wiped down the table with a damp cloth, tossing it in on top of the dishes. 

"Hubert Olivier de la Fère," Athos appended, leading the way up the back stairs. 

d'Artagnan's newly raised fears of fatherhood and responsibility were instantly allayed as he stepped into the bedchamber.  Constance was just closing windows that had been thrown wide, despite the cold, the freshening wind having blown away any remaining reminders that this chamber had just served as a birthing room.  A compensating fire filled the massive hearth corner to corner, it's compensatory blaze taking the chill off the room.  Wall sconce candles had been lit in addition to the candles in holders littering every flat surface in the room, leaving only the friendliest of shadows gossiping in the corners of the large chamber. 

A bassinet, cunningly crafted to rock between two posts ornately carved to resemble fat, wooly sheep, was set cheek by jowl to the side of the bed Sylvie occupied, the soft smile on her face reminiscent of a da Vinci portrait d'Artganan saw every time he entered the main apartments of the Louvre. 

Sylvie lifted her arms as d'Artagnan bent to hug her.  "I would rise to greet you, but Eveline and your lady wife have decreed I must spend the rest of the evening in bed.  It is not so hard a job as many make it out to be," she whispered in his ear.  "Constance will be fine."

d'Artagnan kissed her cheek, murmuring, "She does not know that I know."  He straightened to peer down at the new soul that had stolen his friend's very breath away.  "He does not look so daunting," he observed wryly, reaching down to caress a tiny hand.

"Funny how that works." Athos seated himself at Sylvie's bed-clothes-covered knees, bending over the cradle too.  "His toes are no bigger than Sylvie's fingernails.  It takes only the palm of one hand to cradle him and yet he's like a master work of art, perfect in every way."

"Even the tiny boy parts."  Sylvie laughed.  "Oh go on, you were thinking it," she said, smacking her husband's shoulder when he turned his penetrating gaze on her.

Athos's face was so used to smiling these days, those oft seamed lips parted instinctively.  "Even the boy parts," he agreed.  "I am in awe that we created this thing lying here.  That it - he," the proud papa amended, stroking the back of a curled fist smaller than a walnut, "is bits and pieces of both of us, and yet, at the same time a blank slate."

Constance wrapped her arms around d'Artagnan from behind, resting her chin on his shoulder.  "Sylvie guessed already, so I suppose I should tell you we're expecting our own work of art in seven months or so."

For a moment d'Artagnan found he could not breathe either.  He'd thought so, but confirmation stole not only his breath but his sanity, too, as his chest expanded with a kind of fevered joy that made his eyes water and his throat close. 

"Breathe," Athos parroted dryly, rising to hug them both.  "It appears felicitations are warranted all around."

Sylvie beamed her pleasure.  "We must make a point of seeing one another often enough that they become best friends," she said, sitting up to hug Constance and then d'Artagnan again.  "I am so happy for you my dear, dear friends." 

"And on that note, we will retire and allow the two of you to get to know your new son.  Sylvie, if you have any complications in the night, do not hesitate to send Athos for me."

"I promise," Sylvie agreed over the startled wail of a babe missing the warm, watery home he had been compulsorily expelled from.

Constance ushered her still tongue-tied Gascon from the room and down the corridor.  His hands were icy when she shoved him playfully onto the bed in the guest chamber, though it did not take long to warm him thoroughly.   

Chapter Text

VII

December  24, 1637

"It is too cold to keep the congregation waiting any longer, we will have to start without Aramis,"  Athos growled, swinging around to pace the few feet back the other way.  

Every able-bodied individual on the estate had turned out to pack the village church to capacity, which, given the weather, was no bad thing.  At least they were generating their own warmth.

"He's usually late, but this is beyond the pale," d'Artagnan muttered, peeping through the tiniest crack he could make without opening the ancient double doors fronting the narthex of the stone chapel.  The tiny vestibule was freezing cold, their words lingering frostily in the air.

"He'll probably be late to his own funeral." Porthos, a little girl on his right arm, the baby in his left, glanced through the crack in the second set of double doors at the back of the sanctuary. 

"That's because he is a very important person," Marie said gravely, patting Porthos' silk-clad shoulder.  "The war waits on no man," she quoted, her tone and cadence a perfect match for the First Minister's.  "But he always keeps his promises, even if it takes him a day or two," she intoned solemnly.

"You're perfectly right, Tiny Mite," Porthos agreed, laughing as he kissed the little girl on the forehead.  Her impersonation was spot on.  "Our Aramis will be here, even if it is tomorrow or the next day before he can make it.  I'm going to put you down so can run back to maman and tell her it's time to start."

d'Artagnan suppressed the shudder that ran down his spine every time he encountered the little girl from the monastery.  Against all odds - or, sinisterly, perhaps not - Marie and Luc had survived a Grimaud-led massacre of the inhabitants of the Douai monastery, then made their way leagues south to Paris and eventually to the Musketeers by way of a small theft witnessed in the market place near the garrison. 

The current captain of the Musketeers closed the outer door firmly, turning to raise an eyebrow at the comte.  "I agree.  I'm freezing and have I on far more clothing than most of the women in this church."

The horrifying tale the practically starving children had had to tell had left the war heroes with churning stomachs and a steel-edged fury that had fueled an intense, ongoing search for the war mongering bastard who had perpetrated the atrocity.

Porthos bent his tall frame to set Marie on her feet and drew open the inner door for her, watching every head turn as his little faery scampered down the middle aisle trailing the ends of a large warm shawl Elodie had tucked her up in.  Marie-Cessette  slept on peacefully, as secure in her papa's elbow as if she'd been in her sleeping basket. 

"Maman," Marie called in her high, piping voice, before she'd passed half-a-dozen pews and with a dozen yet to go,  "Papa says to tell you it's time to start!"  

They'd found employment for Luc in the stables while Constance had arranged for Marie to live at the Louvre as companion to the young king.  Marie had been in transports of delight, the queen equally enamored with her son's playmate.  Though it had become apparent the little girl needed something more when Marie had asked to call Aramis papa and Anne, maman.  Porthos, hearing the story from a beleaguered Aramis, who had been finding trying to parent without the authority of being papa a trifle difficult, had immediately offered a solution

Marie and Marie-Cessette were sisters now, and Aramis' Tiny Mite had a real maman and papa, not just people she could refer to that way.  Her days were still spent at the palace, but she went home at night to her own family.

"Well then, I'll just rejoin m'family,"  Porthos said, opening the door again.  He parted company with his friends, striding down the center aisle to the front pew where he gathered his whole family inside his arms just like a big mother hen.  His little harem cuddled right up, thankful for his warmth. 

Athos caught the door and he and d'Artagnan moved around to the side aisle to collect their wives from the rector's vestry.    

Sylvie and Constance looked up together.  "Is he here finally?"

"No, but we are not waiting any longer." 

"You will have to squeeze together as it is, with all of you up there," the parish priest opined, collecting a batch of parchments as he rose behind his desk.  "One more will hardly be missed."

"Father Raimund is joking, in case you missed the cue," Athos translated.  "Come, let us get this business over with."

"Like Father Raimund, Athos is also joking," Sylvie added with a private smirk for her husband as she handed over baby Hubert to his father, straightening the long gown the comte had unearthed from a cedar chest in the attic.  Though the outside of the trunk had been licked by tongues of flame, the interior had sheltered the generations-old christening dress pristinely.  Not only Athos, but his father, his grandfather, and his grandfather's father before him had worn the gown.  It smelled of cedar and the history of de la Fère ancestors. 

Athos, Sylvie and Hubert slipped into the right front pew as d'Artagnan and Constance joined Porthos, Elodie and the girls in the pew across the aisle. 

"When do we stand up for the baby?" Marie asked, having learned whispering from her new papa. 

"In a little bit," Elodie shushed, pulling Marie onto her lap. 

 A whoosh of freezing air sucked what warmth the congregation packed into the church had managed to generate and every head craned over shoulders to inspect the late comers. 

"Would this be the last one, my lord?"  If there was a touch of patient weariness in the priest's voice, Athos did not remark it. 

"ARAMIS!" Marie slid off maman's lap like an eel, eluding Elodie's and then Porthos' grasp, to shoot back up the aisle.

"It is," Athos returned as Aramis ushered in a woman and a little boy before wrestling the doors closed again.  "I'm going to run him through."

"Please refrain from committing murder in the God's house."  Father Raimund didn't bother lowering his voice either.

"Hello Tiny Mite," Aramis greeted as Marie threw herself at him.  "We're in a church, we have to be quiet, remember?"

"I remember," the clear voice assured her idol.  "Like we had to be quiet in the cellar when we were hiding from those bad men who killed Father Abbot.  Hello Louis."

"Hello, Marie, Aramis did not tell me you were to be here too.  When did you arrive?"

"Shhhhhh, both of you.  This is one of those times we have to practice being quiet as a mouse."

"Or a snake."  Marie shivered deliciously.

"Are there snakes in here," the little boy asked interestedly, squatting to peer under pews.  

"No, there are no snakes in here." 

The church rustled with amusement, though several feet were instinctively lifted off the floor  and not a few trailing cloaks were whipped tightly around an owner's legs.  Aramis swung the little girl up on his hip, even as he offered his arm to the cloaked, hooded and veiled lady attempting to convince the little boy snakes did not live in sanctuaries, even in the wilderness of Pinon. 

The woman declined Aramis' arm and slid into an open spot three rows from the back, pulling the disappointed boy onto her lap.

Aramis waited until they were settled, then strode down the center aisle with Marie, genuflected before the alter, and seated himself and his grinning baggage in the empty spot next to Porthos. 

"'Bout time," Porthos said out of the side of his mouth, as d'Artagnan leaned forward to glare at their tardy teammate. 

"May we continue?" Athos raised that ubiquitous eyebrow at his tardy friend, his face perfectly blank despite the giggles he could feel his wife ruthlessly repressing.    

Aramis gracefully offered a universal 'roll on' gesture accompanied by the merest hint of a bow from the waist and winked audaciously. 

"Do we stand up with the baby now?"

"Not yet." Elodie reached around her husband in an attempt to take back her daughter, who clung like a limpet to Aramis' neck. 

"She's fine." Aramis waved off Elodie.  "Marie," he admonished, unwrapping the small hands from around his neck to seat her in his lap.  "Quiet," he reminded, setting a finger to his lips.  She put a finger to her own lips, nestling down obediently.  Aramis kissed the top of the blonde head and gathered his composure. 

Athos indicated the priest should get on with it.

Father Raimund, mindful of the fact it was Christmas Eve and his congregation was anxious to get their first look at the public rooms of the newly restored mansion, kept his opening remarks brief, concluding with, "Our Lord commanded his own disciples - Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.  Today we have three little ones to celebrate; as I call the children's names, parents please bring them forward."  He lifted the parchments in his hand, clipped a pair of glasses on his nose and commenced the reading of the names.  "Hubert Olivier de la Fère, Marie-Cessette du Vallon, and Marie Christine du Vallon." 

The general raised a mystified, inquiring eyebrow in the comte's direction, employing their old voiceless communication. 

Athos shrugged, looked pointedly at Aramis, and rose, lifting Sylvie by the elbow.  A flick of the wrist and he asked, silently, if Porthos had objections.  General du Vallon wordlessly consulted his wife, and the pair rose together. 

A sigh rolled through the sanctuary as two additional Musketeers rose, one turning to assist his wife, the second still with the little girl in his arms, as Father Raimund requested the godparents join the two couples at the baptismal fount.  

"Do you mind?" Aramis asked, taking up a position behind Elodie's right shoulder.  He took the inscrutable smile cast in his direction as consent, if not overmastering joy. 

Elodie was willing to follow her husband's lead on this; she had no objections to having the girls baptized, though neither did she expect it would have any great benefit.  Religion had not served her well in the past. 

The front of the church was indeed crowded as the priest had predicted, though the company looked entirely comfortable rubbing elbows and shoulders so intimately. 

Father Raimund laid the baptismal certificates on the alter and began lighting candles. "This flame represents the light of God's love surrounding these children our gracious God has seen fit to place in your homes," he said as he passed candles to each of the adults.

"What are we doing now?" Marie stage-whispered in Aramis' ear.

"We're going to promise to take care of Hubert and Marie-Cessette and you, if anything ever happens to your parents."

"Oh.  Did you promise my first maman and papa to take care of me if something happened to them?  Is that why we were at the monastery?"

"Uh, no, can we talk about this later?"

"I suppose." Marie sighed gustily, grabbing a handful of Aramis' coat to anchor herself as she leaned forward to peer around Elodie.  "Are we all going to take care of baby Hubert?  Like I take care of Marie-Cessette?"

"Exactly like you take care of Marie-Cessette," Elodie agreed, trying again to shush her daughter.

"Why aren't Auntie Anne and Louis up here?  Aren't they going to promise to take care of Hubert and Marie-Cessette too?"  

"I thought she was the mute one at the monastery."  Athos shot an admonitory glare at Aramis, who was struggling to rein in his armful. 

"Can I hold the candle, Aramis?" 

"Certainly you may."  Aramis blew out the flame, tilted the candle to pour off the hot wax and handed it to Marie.  "Now Father Raimund is going to ask some questions and you must put on your listening ears so you can answer.  That means you have to close your mouth, right?"

Marie compressed her lips and widened her eyes.  "Like this?" she mumbled.

"Perfect." Aramis mimicked her thin-lipped mumble.  "Maman is going to hold you so that you will be together as a family," he said, passing the little girl to Elodie.  And to the priest, "I'm sorry."

The priest inclined his head, pursing his own lips to hold back the smile threatening his impassivity.  "As parents, and godparents, it is your duty to keep the flame alight, to craft an atmosphere in which to train up your children in the light of God's love.  Do you so vow?"

"We do," six adult voices replied.  The seventh moved his lips; Athos was not inclined to make promises he was not certain he intended to keep. 

"As godparents, should the unthinkable happen to any one of these parents, do you accept the physical and spiritual responsibility of caring for these children should they be orphaned?  Do you agree to watch over and care for these tender souls as if they were your own?  Will you pray for them and over them and with them?  Will you work to draw them into the community of faith?"

"We will," Aramis, Constance and d'Artagnan replied in unison.  d'Artagnan slanted a sideways grin at his wife. 

"The sacrament of water," Father Raimund continued, dipping his fingers in the fount to sprinkle water on each of the babies, then Marie, who crinkled her nose and wiped her arm across her face but kept her lips compressed, "represents God giving his divine life to those who believe in him."  He took up the vial of oil.  "Oil--

Marie-Cessette woke with a wail as Father Raimund made the sign of the cross on her forehead.  He merely raised his voice over the howl.  "Oil softens, heals, comforts and protects.  The oil of catechumens is a sign of strength, imparting the power to resist evil."  He anointed Marie and moved on to Hubert.  "These children, strengthened by the gift of God's Spirit, will be guided and guarded by God on every step of life's journey."

Hubert, by far the most composed of the lot, slept peacefully in his father's arm right up to the moment the blessed oil slid down the snub nose he'd inherited from his mother.  A fist went to his mouth as the blue eyes opened sleepily, crossing to watch the drop of oil until Sylvie blotted it with a soft handkerchief.  The tiny hands came up to wave excitedly at this recognized face, the baby burbling a happy coo as he caught a finger.

"Let us pray."  Father Raimund turned to the congregation, lifting his arms to include all in the blessing.  "O God, our Father, giver of all good gifts, may your presence be always with these children we present before you this day, may they grow in wisdom and stature as did your own son you gave to us as savior and redeemer.  Make these new parents vessels of your grace and love, empower in them the virtues of patience and courage and strength to navigate the journey ahead.  Surround these children with your love, protect them from evil.  At this Christmas tide, we ask your blessings upon these new members of our congregation, upon their parents, upon each member of our parish and every guest who has joined us here today in celebration.  We ask these things, humbly, in the name of Mary the mother of Jesus, who bore our redeemer, amen."

"Shades of Father Grandier," d'Artagnan murmured for Athos' ears alone. 

"The reason he still employed here in Pinon," Athos replied equally softly as he switched the baby to his other arm.

Father Raimund took up the baptismal certificates again, handing the first to Marie.  Elodie gaped at it as Porthos accepted Marie-Cessette's before Father Raimund turned to hand Hubert's to Sylvie, whose mouth dropped open as well.  And not just because they were personally signed by Jean-François de Gondi, the Bishop of Paris, and Pope Urban VIII. 

"Who did these?" Sylvie asked Father Raimund.

"That would be Aramis' work," Athos answered before the priest could reply.

"Aramis," Sylvie echoed.  "I did not know you're an artist!  These should be hanging in the Louvre.  They are works of art."

Undoubtedly there was another of these hanging somewhere in the Louvre, though Athos kept the thought to himself.  He was also grateful his wife had never been the recipient of any of Aramis' artwork. 

"And each one different," Elodie exclaimed. "Aramis, thank you!"  She turned to hug the Minister.  "I'm sure the children will treasure these gifts forever.   I know I will!  We must have these preserved and framed."

The baptismal certificates bore the full names of each child, the official signatures, including Father Raimund's as the officiate, and the date, but those were the only similarities. 

Hubert's was bordered by crossed swords with the de la Fère coat of arms reproduced in the upper right corner.  But there was whimsy, too, in the lion-sized pussycat a small knight rode like a steed, wooden sword aloft, the open helmet revealing what Athos might have looked like as a child.  Opposite, in the bottom right corner, a little dragon, each scale meticulously drawn and painted a brilliant metallic green, purple wings spread menacingly, breathed fire up at the youthful knight.  

A forest of miniature trees formed the border of Marie-Cessette's, a bow and quiver etched into each outer corner of the parchment.  In the inside corner, opposite the signatures, a tiny camp fire had been depicted, with a very enceinte Elodie sitting on a boulder affixing a chiseled arrowhead to a slender shaft.  Porthos, his leather armor exquisitely detailed, stood looking down on the scene, arms folded over his chest, from the top left corner.  While in the top right corner another pussycat lion sat on its haunches looking tenderly down on Marie-Cessette as it rocked the cradle with its tail. 

"That's me!" Marie crowed in delight, running her finger over each detail on the parchment Elodie held for her.  "And Louis!  And that's you, isn't it?" She beamed at Aramis, pointing to the pussycat lion as he leaned over to look at it with her. 

Curling vines and flowers grew from each letter of Marie's name, a pair of bluebirds nested in the bottom of the 'C' of Christine and a tiny version of the pussycat lion slept curled on top of the 'N' in du Vallon.  Beneath her calligraphied name, the three signatures appeared to be appended to the back of shelves of toys in an open cupboard.   Louis and Marie were depicted in the palace playroom, engaged in building towers with brilliantly hued blocks on a rug in the middle of the room.  Unobtrusive in the doorway, the lion pussycat, wearing the boots, hat and cape of a Musketeer, stood on its haunches, the brandished sword a clear warning to any who sought to harm its charges within. 

"Oh look!" Marie craned over Elodie's arm to look at her sister's certificate.  "You're in Cessette 's too!  Rocking her cradle with your tail!  Are you in Hubert's also?  I want to see!"

"You may look at Hubert's when we get back to the house."  Aramis lifted the squirming girl back into his arms.  Elodie might be a fearsome archer, but she was a slight little thing despite her growing belly. 

"But are you in it?"

"Of course, it is my job to watch over every one of you."

"What are you doing in Hubert's?"

"I am his trusty steed."

Marie's peal of laughter rang through the rafters of the quaint old church like the bells of a Paris cathedral.  There was not one grumpy face in the lot as the parishioners followed the comte, his wife and their friends down the aisle and out into the briskly cold afternoon.  

"Your Maj--" Athos began, only to be interrupted. 

Anne raised an imperative hand.   "Not today."  She had Louis on her hip just like any other mother and stood with Aramis on the church steps.  "We are not here on official business, I would prefer just to blend in and be one of the crowd today."

Athos glared at Aramis. "Unwise," he clipped, "I would never have allowed this," he added in an undertone for Aramis' ears only, inclining his head to the queen.  "Very well, Madame, but we cannot call you Anne and Louis."

"You think I could have stopped her?"

Anne laid a hand on Aramis' arm.  "Then we will be Mistress Beth and her son, Michel for this afternoon," the queen replied from behind her dark veil. 

"It will be as you wish, Mistress Beth," Sylvie assured, feeling the muscles tense in her husband's forearm.  "We are so pleased you and Aramis could be with us today, ma'am.  Thank you for coming."

"It is my pleasure, I assure you."

They walked back to the house, Athos, Sylvie and the baby in the middle, the flanking Musketeers in their usual places; d'Artagnan to the left, Aramis, the queen and Porthos to the right, wives and children inserted between spouses. 

As if someone had whispered a command, the raggedy line stopped as one as the house came into view across the winter dormant lawn.  Of their own accord, the ends gravitated together, forming a circle. 

Athos took his wife's hand,  Sylvie reached for Aramis and Marie, who connected Anne to the group.  The queen slipped her hand into Porthos'.  He snagged his wife's elbow, Constance reached for Elodie and d'Artagnan closed the circle by tucking a hand through Athos' crooked elbow, careful not to poke the sleeping Hubert. 

Athos took a moment to meet each gaze around the circle.  "You all know speeches were never a strong point of mine, but we want to thank you for being here for us today.  Porthos, Elodie, thank you for allowing your children to be part of this ..." he had to clear his throat.  "I am reminded again that it does not matter where we roam, where we settle, or what we do.  Because it lives in us, we are the garrison."

Beside Athos, d'Artagnan sent a glance around the circle. "All for one."

"One for all," came the echoing response.  They broke apart with smiles and laughter, heading into the house.

It occurred to Athos, as he followed his wife and guests into the house, they must have looked a sight, circled like pagans celebrating some rite, as the straggling villagers came up the hill behind them.  He did care.  The garrison was home; it had given him a second chance, brought into his life friends who had become brothers, shaped him into a leader and afforded him the opportunity to find love again. 

It would always be a part of him. 

~*~