evening_bat: Bat in flight, silhouetted against the moon. (Default)
[personal profile] evening_bat
Title: Carry Me Far
Author: [personal profile] evening_bat
Pairing: Gen
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: ~8000
Warnings: Some violence and injuries, not much more than found in canon
Summary: Athos was injured, imprisoned, and waiting for the worst, but it seemed that help was not as impossibly far away as he'd thought. (AU)

Notes: The initial idea for this story came from a conversation with [personal profile] lynndyre, who was also kind enough to let me ramble endlessly about it until I found a workable variation. The impetus to write the story was provided by the [livejournal.com profile] all4onebigbang challenge. And [livejournal.com profile] seryan was gracious enough to provide a rush job beta at my frantic request to ensure that the story (mostly) made enough sense to post. Remaining errors & issues are entirely my fault. Thanks to all for making this story a thing that actually exists!

Carry Me Far

Eyes open or closed, the darkness was so deep as to make no difference. Athos felt it better to keep them closed in any case and spare himself the illusory press of the walls of his cell. He lay where he’d been dropped on the dirty straw piled in the corner. There was no comfort to be had in this place, and no reason to stir his injuries with any undue attempts at movement. Even the draw of a deep breath set his myriad cuts and bruises to complaining. Then again, that was perhaps a small mercy. The stench of the moldy straw hardly encouraged one to breathe too deeply.

Fresh air was a painfully rare commodity down here, a fact which hadn’t been lost on his captors. They’d laughed as they’d slammed the door for the first time. “Not so above it all now, are you, airkin?”

God help him, he wasn’t, shut away in the dark with the rasp of every breath echoing back to him from the too-close walls. The only thing keeping him halfway in his right mind was the spiteful refusal to give them the satisfaction of breaking him.

He didn’t know how long it had since Maillard’s betrayal had left him an unwilling guest of de Beaulieu’s dubious hospitality. The pattern of his days – interminable hours in the claustrophobic darkness of his windowless cell, interrupted by beatings at the hands of de Beaulieu’s hired thugs – made it difficult to track the passage of time. He suspected it was far shorter a time than the ages it felt; he was still alive, after all. Not that he expected to persist in that state for much longer.

The rasp of a lock turning didn’t inspire any improvement in his outlook, though a small part of Athos wondered at the lack of noise. Previous visitors had always announced themselves with a veritable cacophony of heavy footsteps and cruel laughter, voices echoing through the dank cellar long before the door to his prison swung open. By comparison, the men who’d just slunk into his prison had entered in near silence and even more surprisingly, appeared in no great hurry to announce themselves with a new flurry of blows.

Something approaching curiosity prompted Athos to open his eyes, squinting against even the dim light that shone red against his eyelids. He flinched despite himself when the first sight to cross his blurry vision was a shadow kneeling beside him. His breath caught and he ground his teeth against the pain that jolted through him at the involuntary motion, momentarily losing track of the man who’d startled him.

“Easy now,” he heard as his senses steadied again. “We’re here to help.”

Here to help? Athos slid his gaze from the shadowy figure at his side to the big man holding the lantern, lingering near the door.

“Make it quick – we don’t have much time,” he warned, low-voiced and worried.

“He’s right,” the one next to Athos said. “You’re one of Treville’s, aren’t you? We’re...well, call us agents of his. We’ve come to get you out and send you home.”

Athos wasn’t sure he believed them, but their actions seemed too elaborate to be a trick of his captors. And it wasn’t as if his situation had much room to worsen, was it? He had nothing to lose by trusting their word, and he’d risk far more than his dignity for a chance to be free of this place. “That would be appreciated.”

The shadow beside him hissed in sympathy at the hoarseness of his reply but moved straight on to the business of escape. “Good. Can you stand?”

Athos hadn’t thought so, but he managed with a judicious amount of help. Despite the support, his vision clouded over for an alarming few seconds when he tried to get his feet under him, but he blinked himself back to awareness to find himself propped between his rescuers as they shuffled slowly out of his cell.

“All right there?” The question came from the lantern-holder and held shades of the same concern displayed by his companion.

“I will be,” Athos forced between clenched teeth. Walking hurt like nothing else he’d ever felt, but he had little choice and staying would lead to worse.

He let them lead him through the quiet corridors, grimly clinging to their shoulders as he stumbled along between them. The darkness and silence of the house suggested it was night, a fact he was able to confirm when they finally slipped out a servants’ door into a messy alleyway. Athos tipped his head back as far as he could and sucked in a deep breath of chilly air heedless of the complaints of his injuries. The pain was of small consequence compared to the relief at being out of his cell and able to see open sky over his head.

Attention fixed above him, he was only dimly aware of a whispered exchange taking place around him before his weight was carefully transferred to the larger of his rescuers as the other slipped away back into the house. He bit down on a groan as the movement jostled his assortment of cuts and bruises.

“Where’s he gone?” he asked, trying to blink the sparks out of the corners of his eyes.

“To make sure the house gets locked up safe behind us.”

“A good idea,” Athos agreed vaguely.

“Well, best to be sure that – oh. Oh no. Come on, don’t do this now. You’ve made it this far – just stay –”

But his vision was fogging over again, and this time there was no shaking it off. Athos felt the arm around his shoulders tighten even as his knees buckled, but he didn’t remember hitting the ground.

When next he woke, Athos found his circumstances much improved. He was lying in an actual bed, next to an open window through which came a most welcome breeze. Equally welcome was the discovery that he was clean, the filth of his imprisonment washed away, and his wounds had been tended. It still hurt to move, but it no longer felt like to kill him. He laboriously pushed himself up on to one elbow to better survey the room, oddly surprised to find it empty. For a moment he considered climbing out of the bed and making his own way back to Paris but found himself stymied by his current unclothed state. He hardly missed the dirty rags he’d been wearing (all save for his pauldron and his sword, oh, those he missed) but wandering the streets of Bordeaux in naught but a sheet didn’t strike him as a successful means of avoiding notice.

Ah, well. Athos let himself slide back into the sheets with a sigh. Quite aside from his lack of clothing and any other resource, the mysterious pair from last night had kept true to their word so far. There was no pressing need to separate himself from their company just yet.

He’d no sooner decided to stay when the doorknob turned, and Athos got his first good look at the men who’d liberated him. Both were dark of hair and eye. One was of a height with him, perhaps a bit taller, and wore shades of dusty brown, from his long leather coat to the hat perched at a rakish angle on his head. The second was both taller and broader. He wore black, liberally and lavishly embellished against the plain colour, with a large, equally decorative hat. Both were armed, and moved with the trained confidence of competent fighters, and something in Athos’ chest loosened when they both brightened with pleased smiles at the sight of him.

“Well, hello then! Good to see you awake. How are you feeling?” asked the one in brown, examining his bandages with a critical eye as he approached, a long, slim bundle tucked under one arm.

“Much improved,” Athos answered, dipping his head in a grateful nod. “You have my thanks. And my apologies,” he added to the one in black, now closing the door behind himself. “I would rather have not made an extra burden of myself.”

The one in black shrugged off his words. “I saw what they’d done to you. Most wouldn’t have made it out of that cell. You don’t need to apologize to me.”

“Though you do look rather better now,” was his companion’s satisfied assessment as he pulled a chair away from the table tucked into the corner of the room and took a seat. “Time for more pleasant business, then. I’m Aramis, and this is Porthos. Might we know the name of the musketeer we’ve had the pleasure of rescuing?”

“Athos,” he said briefly. “You said you’re Treville’s agents?”

Treville had mentioned allies in Bordeaux before Athos’ departure. He’d instructed Athos to call at a local church and leave a message in the event that their mission went sour. Somehow Athos wasn’t surprised that the men who’d earned his captain’s trust hadn’t been content to wait for a call to arms.

Aramis nodded approvingly. “You remember that. Good. And yes, we’ve had cause to help Captain Treville in the past, when he was passing through.”

“He left a lasting impression so these days we do him the occasional good turn when the opportunity presents itself,” Porthos added.

“And you presented an irresistible opportunity,” Aramis finished smoothly. “We’re making arrangements to get you out of the city, but in the meantime, how did you end up in de Beaulieu’s tender care?”

“We were betrayed.” Athos swallowed a surge of fury at the memory. “One of the regiment assigned to the city, Maillard. He arranged a meeting with de Beaulieu so that we might deliver the sealed letters we’d carried from the capital. But we walked into a conference between our host and a Spanish spy. Bad timing all around. And that’s when Maillard put a knife into Luc’s back, shot Philippe, and turned me over to de Beaulieu’s guards.”

His outrage was catching, it seemed. Aramis had straightened in his chair, and Porthos had visibly tensed where he leaned against the wall.

“Maillard, you say?” Porthos asked, deceptively casual.

“I believe we know the man,” Aramis said, lips curled into a sharp-edged smile. “His reputation is...unsavory. Surprising for a musketeer but evidently deserved.”

“Feel free to take him as another opportunity,” Athos suggested, hands curled into tight fists on the sheets. Maillard had never been a favourite in the ranks, but they’d still called him brother. His treason and very personal betrayal of their oaths rankled. The King’s justice would certainly order Maillard put to death if brought to trial, seeing as he’d killed two musketeers and conspired in espionage. But Athos would rest easier the sooner Maillard was dead. He was in no shape to be hunting the man himself, but however unofficial their capacity, he thought that Aramis and Porthos would make fitting executioners.

“We’d take de Beaulieu’s guards as another if we could.” Anger was plain in Porthos’ voice.

Aramis nodded agreement. “Even if we were inclined to let the beatings pass – which we are most certainly not – shutting you up in the basement was indefensibly cruel. No decent man would confine an airkin so.”

Porthos was earthkin; that was obvious at a glance. One couldn’t ask for a steadier, more grounded presence. Aramis was harder to identify, more shifting sand than solid stone, but Athos guessed he was earthkin as well. There was a slick polish to him, and a distinct impression that here was a man who enjoyed the physical. Besides, it was evident that they were brothers, blood-relation or no.

Athos fought not to react to the sudden, visceral memory of his lightless, airless prison, averting his eyes from their silent sympathy. Even the most grounded of earthkin knew that airkin suffered when shut away from the sky. He drew a steady, slow breath and turned his face towards the window for a long moment. “I doubt that that lot is overly burdened with decent men.”

“Clearly not.”

Athos exhaled, a long relieved sigh. He’d survived far worse than the bruises and shallow cuts, however numerous, but that damned cell had nearly smothered him. “How did you find me?”

Porthos snorted. “De Beaulieu’s men don’t have any more discretion than decency. Word got back to us that they were bragging in their favourite tavern about getting the best of one of the King’s Musketeers. Aramis bribed one of the house staff to let us in so we could get you out.”

“It turns out that de Beaulieu isn’t much kinder to his staff than to his unexpected guests. She was tremendously helpful.” Aramis reached down to the bundle he’d carried into the room, placing it on the edge of Athos’ bed. “Speaking of, I believe this is yours.”

Athos reached out with an unsteady hand and picked the knot loose. He swallowed hard when the cloth fell open, and he immediately recognized the familiar lines of his blade.

“My thanks a thousand times over, gentlemen,” he said, voice gone hoarse again. He’d walked away from his family, from Anne, but he’d never willingly been parted from his sword.

Aramis just smiled at him, something akin to understanding softening the expression. “Clothes can be replaced, but we thought you’d appreciate this returned to you.”

“Very much so,” he agreed, tracing a careful finger down its length before wrapping it up again. He looked to each of them, unable to hide the depth of his gratitude.

He cleared his throat, uncomfortable with the display of sentiment, and resumed a more business-like air. “You said you were making arrangements for my departure?”

His recently buoyed hopes foundered somewhat when they exchanged a speaking glance. Clearly they weren’t expecting him to like this part of their explanation.

“It’ll be a least a few days before you go anywhere,” Aramis said. “There’s a friendly crew sailing out of Bordeaux at the end of the week. They’ve agreed to take you aboard.”

“The end of the week?” In truth, Athos wasn’t entirely certain what day it was, but that seemed too long to wait. De Beaulieu couldn’t be happy that his prisoner had escaped. “Why wait?”

“Aside from the fact that you’ve been beaten and starved half to death?” Porthos promptly retorted. “It’ll be that at least long before you’re fit to travel. And Aramis tells me that more than a few of those slices are showing signs of infection.”

“I’m fine – they were barely more than scratches.” Still, Athos couldn’t quite stop the reflexive glance down at the thankfully clean bandages wrapped around his arms.

“You will be fine,” Aramis agreed. “Provided you take the chance to rest and recover for a few days before we put you on that ship. Besides, we wanted to be sure we’d found a trustworthy captain.”

“There’s no need to wait that long,” Athos persisted, stubbornly blinking unwontedly heavy eyelids.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Porthos sighed and turned to Aramis. “I think he’s actually worse than you are.”

“Hey now!”

Porthos just rolled his eyes. “I’ll tell you what. We’ll open this argument again when you can get out of that bed by yourself and stay awake longer than ten minutes at a stretch, all right?”

Athos had intended to protest that point, but he fell asleep before he could marshal his argument.

The next two days passed in much the same manner, with Athos sleeping far more than he felt was necessary while Porthos and Aramis came and went about their business. He suspected they were trying to keep an eye on him – there were times when one of them was present while clearly worrying after the other – but any protests fell on deaf ears. Though he’d already be on his way if given a choice, Athos was privately grateful for their insistence. He was recovering but slowly, and he still found himself needing their help. It made him surly, but they weathered his temper with good grace.

In addition to his role in liberating him and finding a safe place for him to recover, Aramis also proved to be the one who’d tended to his injuries. He continued to do so as they readied for Athos’ departure, cheerfully declaring him on the mend as the week progressed. He had a delicate touch for a man trained to fight, and Athos was soldier enough to recognize and appreciate competent doctoring when it was being worked on him.

The days had passed with so little trouble or sign of concern from Aramis and Porthos, that it came as a nasty shock when the door to Aramis’ room slammed open, and an angry young man stormed in.

“Aramis! What have you been up – you’re not Aramis,” he realized, stopping short and blinking at Athos in confusion.

So clearly firekin that he practically cast sparks, Athos identified automatically, even as he reached for his sword, still bundled into its cloth under the bed. The boy’s hand had fallen to the hilt of his own weapon, as he visibly reoriented himself. Fortunately they were interrupted before either of them could do something regrettable.

“Well spotted, d’Artagnan. There may be hope for you yet,” Aramis said as he breezed into the room behind him, shoving the boy further into the room as he shut the door firmly behind him. “Now would you be so kind as to lower your voice before you announce it to all and sundry?”

“Sorry.” The apology came apparently by rote, as d’Artagnan was still eyeing Athos warily. “But I’ve been looking for you for days.”

“We’ve been busy –”

“And I’m not the only one.”

“Damn.” Aramis shook his head, abruptly abandoning whatever story he’d been planning on feeding the boy. “Who else?”

“Almost everyone, as far as I can tell.” D’Artagnan’s dark eyes were worried as they watched Aramis pace up and down the length of the room. “Your names are everywhere, and people are talking about money changing hands now. Whatever you’ve done, it’s made someone very angry.”

“And how do you come into things?” Aramis stilled, attention focused wholly on d’Artagnan’s answer.

“A couple of Gaspard’s thugs were asking after you. They thought I’d be willing to pass on what I knew.” His shoulders lifted in a flippant shrug, and his grin turned faintly smug. “They were wrong.”

“Are you all – “

“I’m fine.” D’Artagnan impatiently waved off Aramis’ concern. “But you’re in trouble. A lot of trouble. Let me help.”

“Damn,” Aramis repeated softly, tossing his hat to the side and tugging his fingers through his hair as he thought. “Okay, you want to help?”

“Of course!”

“Don’t go home tonight.” Aramis gestured sharply to cut off d’Artagnan’s objection. “Get yourself a room somewhere, stay with one of the girls you’ve been flirting with, just don’t go back to where you’ve been staying. Be at Porthos’ favourite bakery first thing tomorrow – one of us will meet you there.”

“Don’t go home? Aramis, what you have you gotten yourselves into?” He shot a quick look over at Athos, obviously drawing a few conclusions of his own, before turning back to Aramis in earnest appeal. “And I said I wanted to help, not hide.”

“You will be, d’Artagnan,” Aramis promised, clapping him on the shoulder. “But for now we need you someplace safe for the night so you’ll be free to act tomorrow.”

“But I –”

Aramis leaned in close to d’Artagnan’s ear. “Please. Do this and you won’t just be helping us, you’ll be helping the King’s own Musketeers.”

D’Artagnan drew back in surprise, then looked at Athos again, eyes going wide as he looked back and forth between them. “I – yes! Okay, yes,” he agreed hastily, nearly tripping over his own feet as he hurried out of the room.

Athos shot a glance over at Aramis, eyebrow raised in silent inquiry.

Aramis sighed, mouth quirking in a wry smile. “His father was a Musketeer. He’s had his head filled with stories since he was old enough to listen. He’s desperate to join the regiment, but the family farm isn’t doing well, so he fetched up here to try and raise the money he needed.”

“He seems...enthusiastic.”

“Oh, you have no idea.” Aramis’ sigh was equal parts frustration and fondness. “But he’s got a good heart, and he’s fantastic with a sword. If he lives long enough, he’ll be a great addition to the ranks.”

“We can always use good men,” Athos said, quietly wondering about Aramis himself. He and Porthos spoke of Treville with personal fondness, and he trusted them to aid musketeers in distress. They acted nearly as part of the regiment themselves and yet had no apparent interest in claiming a proper place in it. Oh yes, Athos would have questions for his captain when he returned to Paris.

Aramis broke into his musing. “Will you be all right on your own for a bit? I need to go find Porthos. This changes things.”

Athos waved him off. “Go, I’ll be fine. I’m strong enough to hold my own, if need be.” A few days of rest and decent food had made all the difference in the world.

Aramis gave him a quick once-over before nodding then slipped out the door.

Neither Aramis nor Porthos appeared again until the next morning. He lifted his head at a quiet knock on the door, relieved to see them returned safely. Both of them looked tired as they quietly closed the door behind them – tired and more worried than he’d seen them yet.

“D’Artagnan?” he asked immediately.

“We sent him on ahead,” Porthos answered through a yawn as Aramis wandered over to take a seat at the edge of Athos’ bed, rubbing his eyes. “Called in a favour with a captain I know. He’s got a fast ship, leaving port today. D’Artagnan’s on board now – we told him to get to Paris as soon as possible with a message for Treville.”

“Really.” Surely d’Artagnan didn’t know enough to be a useful messenger in this case. Not unless they’d told him far more than Athos thought they had.

“We needed him out of town,” Aramis conceded. “It seems that people have connected him with us, which would have put him in a rather unpleasant situation.”

“And you?” If they were in enough danger to need to get their friend out of the city, it didn’t bode well for their own chances.

They exchanged another long look, some argument passing between them that Athos couldn’t read. Porthos scowled but appeared to give in under Aramis’ stubborn stare, shoulders bowing in as he turned away.

“As for us, it seems you’ll have company on your journey,” Aramis said, determination vanishing under a thick layer of cheer.

Athos considered that for a moment. The pair of them were good company, and he was surprisingly comfortable with them, but still... “Oh good. I grow tired of being the only invalid.”

The comment won him a pair of rueful grins, and a reluctant snicker. Earthkin did not travel well by sea.

“Well, this will be interesting,” Aramis declared as he allowed himself to fall over backwards onto the bed.

Athos resisted the urge to kick at him as the man’s weight settled across his feet. “When do we leave?”

“Three days from now,” Porthos sighed, dropping heavily into a chair and rubbing his hands over his face. “Just three more days.”

“The captain of the ship is a friend of my family’s,” Aramis said to the ceiling before Athos could question why they continued to wait. “It’s why we went to him in the first place. We can trust him to keep his mouth shut when people try to bribe answers out of him, and he’ll make sure his crew does the same.”

Sound reasons. “Three days, then.”

The remaining time passed agonizingly slowly for Athos, while Porthos clearly felt the seconds slipping through his fingers. Aramis came to despair of both of them within hours and quickly abandoned the room for more pleasant places to catch his rest. He continued to make himself scarce until the night before their departure, when the muffled sounds of a conversation drifted through the wall behind Athos’ bed, Aramis’ and Porthos’ voices carrying from the room Porthos had taken earlier in the week. Athos suspected they’d begun speaking circumspectly but forgot caution as they grew agitated.

“Yes, you’re being ridiculous!” was the first thing he heard, Porthos’ frustration carrying as clearly as his words. “We don’t have to do this!”

“You’d prefer we sit around and wait for de Bealieu’s objections to our interference to catch up with us?” came Aramis’ tart response.

“I’d prefer that we go with the option that doesn’t involve boarding a boat and sailing all the way up the coast of France!”

“Ah, Porthos, I’m sorry. Are you going to be all right? We can find another –“

“Don’t be stupid, I’ll be fine. It won’t be much fun, but I can handle it. It’s you I’m worried about.”

“You needn’t be.”

“Of course I do! You don’t have enough sense to do it yourself. You know what they say about leaving –“

“And I don’t care. The consequences aren’t set in stone, and I refuse to let de Beaulieu chase me – chase us – into the woods like animals.”

There was a gusty sigh. “You’re set on this, aren’t you?”

“You’d have to hit me over the head and tie me to the saddle to keep me from boarding that ship tomorrow.”

“Don’t tempt me!”

But there was laughter trailing those words, and their voices quieted afterwards, leaving Athos to wonder about what he’d heard until he fell asleep.

Aramis was waiting for them in the boarding house’s common room the next morning, and he and Porthos carried on as if they’d never had a disagreement in their lives. Athos looked back and forth between them but could see nothing more than determination on their faces. He’d trusted them to know what they were about so far, he reasoned, and they had yet to lead him false.

They slipped out as the sun was rising, dressed as nondescriptly as they could manage between them, and made their way through the still-quiet streets. Athos was content to follow their lead, far less familiar with the city than were they, and rather preoccupied with working out the stiffness of his muscles. He was well on the way to recovery, but it had been too long since he could move freely, and he was dismayed at the lingering weakness. A quick glance to his side showed he wasn’t the only one struggling; Porthos was looking distinctly sallow, and they hadn’t yet caught sight of the water. Aramis had forged on ahead and was refusing to look at either of them. Athos gritted his teeth, forced himself to pick up his pace, and fervently hoped for good weather.

The captain welcomed them aboard like long lost relatives, catching Aramis in a crushing embrace before ushering them hastily belowdecks. He eyed Athos up and down before apparently finding him acceptable, then turned his attention to the other two.

“Are you certain you want to do this? You know it won’t be a pleasant journey.”

“We know.” Porthos was already looking ill.

Aramis just nodded, setting his jaw. “Staying is just as risky as going.”

The captain sighed heavily. “On your heads be it. Stay here until I send someone down to fetch you. I’ll get us out to open water as soon as I can. Bucket’s over there if you need it before then.”

None of them did, but it was a near thing. Porthos had been swallowing rather desperately for long minutes before a crew member tapped on the door to the small cabin in which they were waiting. Porthos nearly knocked the poor man over in his frantic rush for the deck. Aramis hadn’t yet taken sick, but he’d been acting nearly addled since they’d set sail. Athos caught him by the chin, turning his face so that their eyes met and sighed when Aramis simply blinked at him in vague bemusement. The tables had turned, it seemed, leaving Athos the only functional man between them.

“An interesting trip, indeed,” he murmured as he nodded thanks at the crewman, took Aramis by the elbow and headed for the deck to check on Porthos.

As expected, they found Porthos hanging miserably over the railing, coughing and spluttering as he emptied his unsettled stomach over the side.

The sight seemed to revive Aramis somewhat, and he gently tugged his arm free of Athos’ guiding grip to make his way over to Porthos. Athos was surprised to see that Aramis had already adopted a sailor’s rolling gait; clearly this wasn’t his first time on a boat. The previous experience must be the reason he’d been spared the worst of the illness plaguing Porthos. Odd that – given Porthos’ concern the previous evening, Athos had expected Aramis to be more adversely affected.

“All right, you should be fine for the next little while,” Aramis was saying to Porthos as he clung to the rail, carefully patting him on the back. “Let’s find you some water. And I’ve brought a bottle of that tonic your landlady swears by, that ought to help.”

Porthos groaned unhappily but allowed himself to be shepherded to a makeshift seat on a coil of rope.

Athos turned away to hide a smile he couldn’t contain, letting Aramis’ fussing and Porthos’ grumbling fade into comfortable background noise. He turned his face into the breeze and closed his eyes against the glare of the sun off the waves, allowing the knowledge that he was free, and safe, and going home sink in, easing muscles held too long braced for a new blow.

The remainder of the journey passed with surprising ease. Porthos eventually became sufficiently acclimated to sea travel that he was no longer in danger of ejecting vital organs at every lurch of the ship, though he never quite picked up the knack of keeping down a decent meal. Athos spent as much time as he could on the deck, happy to feel the endless push and pull of the wind. Aramis wandered between them, claiming a companionable space at Porthos’ side at the railing or beside Athos at the prow. But for all that the trip was unexpectedly pleasant, Athos’ nerves still tightened with a thrill of anticipation when Nantes loomed large on the horizon. One step closer to Paris and justice for his fallen brothers.

“What now?” Aramis asked quietly as he and Porthos took up positions to either side of Athos.

“I check in with the local garrison,” Athos answered, eyes still straining towards shore. “Whatever comes next, I’ll require resources to replace what I lost to Maillard and de Beaulieu.”

“We,” Porthos corrected, cuffing him lightly on the shoulder. “We will need resources. You aren’t rid of us just yet.”

“It would be a waste to come so far without seeing this through to the end,” Aramis added lightly.

Athos barely hesitated before he shrugged acceptance. “If you wish.” In truth, their continued company would be welcome, moreso than he’d easily admit. If they were determined to accompany him further, he wouldn’t argue against it.

There was no need to hide belowdecks this time, so the three of them stayed at the rail, safely out of the path of the bustling crew, as the ship sailed into Nantes. Porthos scrambled ashore the instant the gangplank was laid, transparently relieved to have solid ground under his feet. Athos followed more sedately, though he didn’t waste any time disembarking either. In contrast, Aramis lingered at the top of the plank, apparently exchanging farewells with the ship’s captain. Their conversation continued far beyond what Athos felt was warranted, family friend or no, but he wondered at the look that Porthos was directing at the pair. He couldn’t possibly be worried that Aramis might abandon them now. Athos had met them only days ago, and even he knew that was an impossibility.

The shout of his name in a familiar voice cut across his wandering thoughts, immediately demanding his full attention. He was astonished to see Captain Treville crossing the pier towards him, accompanied by two full squads of musketeers. He straightened to attention as Treville approached, eyes narrowing when a pair of musketeers shoved Maillard to the front of their ranks, one last push sending him sprawling to the rough wood at their feet. Treville waved off the formality, and Athos gratefully relaxed out of the rigid stance that had strained his still-healing injuries. From Treville’s sharp glance, he hadn’t missed the rough hitch in what should have been an easy movement.

“Athos. Good to see you. Particularly given recent reports out of Bordeaux.” Treville paced over to him, looking him up and down.

Athos inclined his head, making no effort to hide his condition from Treville’s scrutiny.

“This one practically broke and ran at the mere mention of your name. Do you think you could shed some light on the reason why?” Treville flicked a glance at Maillard, watching without expression as one of the other musketeers landed a kick in Maillard’s ribs. Maillard flinched and glared, but there was fear cracking through his defiance. A reasonable response, Athos supposed, when one was surrounded by angry musketeers. Especially when those musketeers had good cause to feel that you’d betrayed them.

“I owe Luc and Philippe nothing less than an exhaustively thorough report on Maillard’s actions in Bordeaux.” Athos stared down at the man, hands clenching as he struggled to leash in the urge to draw on him. “His reasons for wishing to avoid attending this reunion should be quite evident.” That they would also explain why Athos had returned late and alone went without saying.

With the men safely at his back, Treville allowed Athos to see the twist of grief pass across his face before the expression chilled into icy rage. He gestured sharply, and a pair of musketeers broke ranks to drag Maillard to his feet again. “See him well secured, gentlemen. We’ll take him before the king to see justice done.”

Athos watched them tighten their grips on Maillard, grimly satisfied at the hopeless fear on the man’s face. He deserved far worse, but at least he’d have the length of their journey to dread his inevitable execution.

A rush of motion at the edge of his vision had Athos turning his head to see d’Artagnan emerge from the rear of the group of musketeers and practically pounce on Porthos. Porthos immediately brightened at the sight of him, clapping d’Artagnan on the shoulder as he returned d’Artagnan’s enthusiastic welcome. Athos found some of his anger dissipating at the display, a smile tugging at his mouth as he turned back to the captain. Treville met his grin with one of his own, apparently similarly cheered by the sight.

“Interesting company in which you return to us,” he said, lifting a hand in greeting to Porthos. He raised an eyebrow when Aramis finally made his way down the gangplank but included him in the gesture without hesitation. “I hadn’t thought to see those two venture this far north. They’re rather far from home.”

“Unexpected, I’m sure, but I trust not unwelcome?” Of this, Athos was certain. These two were far more than agents whose loyalty Treville had bought.

“Not in the least,” came the prompt confirmation. “I’d have had them in Paris years ago if either of them had been willing to make the trip. And the boy they sent will make a fine musketeer with a bit of seasoning – ah, damn it all.”

The abrupt change in tone startled Athos, but not so much as the worried furrow of Treville’s brow alarmed him. He shot a hasty glance over to edge of the pier, breath catching at the open fear on Porthos’ face as he steadied Aramis, who’d paled to a terrifying shade of grey. Athos barely waited for Treville’s curt, “Go,” before he was in motion, hurrying over to them with as much haste as he could manage.

“What’s wrong?” he demanded as he reached them, catching Aramis’ shoulder in a bracing grip. On Aramis’ other side, d’Artagnan echoed his concern, and Porthos cupped one wan cheek in his free hand, breathing a steady stream of low, vehement encouragement as Aramis swayed. “Aramis! Are you all right?”

Aramis turned his head, the movement slow and full of effort, and Athos hissed a curse when Aramis’ unfocused eyes looked straight through him. His lips moved soundlessly, no breath behind the words he was trying to shape.

“What’s wrong?” Athos asked again, and the clutch of his hand on Aramis’ shoulder tightened to the point where it must have hurt.

But for all that the man looked halfway to a corpse, Porthos was the only one prepared for the moment when Aramis’ knees buckled.

“No, no, no,” he muttered as he caught Aramis firmly around the waist, lowering him gently to the ground. He propped Aramis against his own chest, patting carefully at his face. “Come on, Aramis! You made it this far!”

D’Artagnan had dropped to his knees beside them, hovering anxiously as he exchanged helpless looks with Athos. “Porthos – what –”

Porthos shook his head without lifting his eyes from Aramis’ slack face. “He’s waterkin.”

“He’s what?” Oh, but that made a terrible kind of sense…

“But he came here! On a boat! And we’re right next to a river!” d’Artagnan protested, worry transmuting to fear as he looked from Aramis to the water nearby and back.

“That wouldn’t matter if it isn’t his river,” Athos said, voice flat. Of course Aramis had reminded him of drifting sand, especially standing next to Porthos. Porthos had lent him solidity, but in retrospect, the shift of the tides was obvious. How had Athos missed it? “Bound to the Garonne, I take it?”

Porthos nodded miserably, expression crumpling when Aramis remained unresponsive. “It’s why we stayed there so long. He couldn’t go, and I wouldn’t leave without him.”

It was one of life’s little jokes that the most fluid element restricted its kin most tightly. Firekin flourished wherever fuel could be found to sustain them. Earthkin could travel anywhere there was ground beneath their feet. Airkin moved as freely as the clouds in the skies. But waterkin suffered away from their element, and land-dwelling waterkin were typically riverbound. It was generally accepted wisdom that one didn’t separate a waterkin from his source, not if one hoped to keep that waterkin alive.

“Why didn’t he say something?” Athos asked, the question reduced to a harsh whisper.

Porthos’ answering smile was sad. “People always have trouble figuring him out, and he’s not above using it to his advantage. We thought you figured him for probably earthkin. If he’d let on otherwise, you’d never have agreed to let us do this.”

“Of course not!” Athos might have privately entertained the notion that it might be pleasant to keep these two at his side a while longer, but he’d never have traded Aramis’ life for the idle thought. “What was he thinking?”

“Oh trust me, there wasn’t much thinking involved. He never was one for listening to common sense, and he hated being limited to the course of the river. And of course he’d heard all the stories about waterkin who left their sources and adapted to new lands.” Porthos dragged his sleeve over his eyes, tightening his grip around Aramis’ shoulders. “The idiot was convinced they were true. And determined to find a way to try it.”

Athos twisted his mouth into a humourless smile. “And then I come along and give him a perfect excuse to be foolish.” He wasn’t sure he’d ever forgive Aramis for that. Athos had already had more than enough regrets of his own without having Aramis’ death laid at his feet.

Porthos grimaced an apology at him. “He’d have found a reason. I’ve been trying to talk him out of this for years.”

Athos stared down at Aramis, limp and faded in Porthos’ arms, and found little comfort in the rationalization.

“For a while there, I thought he might even manage it.” Porthos smiled down at Aramis, and something in Athos’ much-battered heart cracked at his evident grief. “But I suppose he’s got enough sea-faring cousins that the ocean just...kept him afloat until now.”

“So what do we do for him?” d’Artagnan asked, traces of hope still lingering in his expectant expression.

“We take him in and return some of the hospitality these two were kind enough to extend to Athos,” Treville answered from behind him.

Porthos looked up at the sound of his voice, surprise momentarily brightening his face. “Captain Treville! I–”

“It’s the least we owe you. And less than I owe either of you,” Treville interrupted firmly. “Even if you weren’t trying to outrun the consequences of helping my men, I promised you’d both have a place if you ever came to me.”

Porthos stared mutely at him for a long second before drawing a shaky breath and nodding grateful acceptance. Athos and d’Artagnan moved to help him to his feet, taking some of Aramis’ weight until Porthos was upright again.

“Can we keep him with one of us in the saddle? Or shall we send someone to arrange for a cart?” Athos asked before Porthos got the idea that the burden was his alone to shoulder.

“I’d rather keep him with me – with us,” Porthos said, drawing one of Aramis’ arms over his shoulder as d’Artagnan ducked under the other so they could carry him between them.

“Then stay with us he shall,” Athos promised, striding over to the squad commanders to inquire after mounts.

The trip back to Paris seemed longer than usual, undoubtedly due to the anxious attention they paid to every slow, even breath. Since Aramis stubbornly refused to wake, they couldn’t help but watch him for any sign of stirring. (And dreaded any sign of the slow, inevitable fade that they all half-expected but refused to admit aloud.) But despite the weight of his companions’ stares Aramis remained unconscious for the entire journey, oblivious to the muttered sympathy of the accompanying squads of musketeers.

“If he survives, I’m going to kill him when he wakes up for doing this to me,” Porthos swore one night after a large swallow from the bottle of wine he and Athos had been passing back and forth between them.

“I’ll help,” Athos offered. Aramis wasn’t likely to live through this, and they both knew it. But in the unlikely event that he did, it would be best to act immediately to prevent a repeat display of thoughtless self-sacrifice.

Porthos actually cracked a smile at that, saluting Athos with the bottle before taking another swallow.

The nights were the worst. Porthos expended as much time and energy as a man could spare on seeing to Aramis’ well-being, seeing him settled safely and comfortably each night before tending to the minimum of his own needs. He sat endless hours at Aramis’ bedside, carefully bathing the dust of the road from his face. Athos did his best not to listen to the words that spilled from his lips as he tended to Aramis; far too many had the sound of confession rather than comfort. D’Artagnan was eager to help, fetching and carrying endless cups of tea and soup, wine and stew for the rest of them, and preparing heated rocks to tuck into Aramis’ blankets. There was little tenderness in Athos, but he occasionally stepped in to bully Porthos off to sleep with the promise that he’d sit watch on Aramis while he was gone. And if some of those long, dark evenings passed with Aramis’ hand caught in his own while Athos breathed promises and encouragement over his skin, well, neither one of them was telling anyone about it.

They established something of a routine after they reached the capital. Athos had duties he could no longer ignore, and d’Artagnan was in training to join the regiment. The boy had every bit as much promise as Aramis had indicated, and Athos looked forward to their sparring sessions. Porthos made a few appearances at roll calls but spent most of his time with Aramis with Treville’s blessing. Athos and d’Artagnan visited as best they could, for Porthos’ sake as much as Aramis. Someone had to see that they didn’t lose both of them, after all. Porthos would have a place in the musketeers at the end of Aramis’ illness, Treville had told Athos, and Athos hoped it would give the man something to focus on when it was all over. And for all that life went on, it felt as though they were all holding their breath and waiting.

The afternoon that Athos walked in and found Aramis’ sickroom empty, it felt as though someone had punched that long-held breath straight out of him. He lurched to a halt in the doorway, one hand clenching to white-knuckled tightness on the frame. The sheets were a tangled mess, dragged halfway onto the floor, and Porthos’ chair lay on its side next to the wall.

Damn, damn, damn. Athos shut his eyes against the sting of futile tears, leaning the side of his head against the rough wood of the doorframe for a long moment to steady himself. He’d known this was coming, but it was no help in cushioning the blow. Strange, though. He thought he could hear laughter echoing down the halls. He permitted himself one more deep breath before pushing himself upright and venturing forth to investigate.

It didn’t take long for him to find Porthos, similarly slumped in a nearby doorway. His shoulders shook, and he’d covered his face with one hand. The shouts of laughter from the courtyard outside must be nothing short of cruelty to him at the moment. Athos swallowed hard and walked towards him, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder.

Athos wasn’t surprised to see tears rolling down his face when he dropped his hand, but the wide, beaming smile was unexpected. “Porthos?”

“Can we please go inside now?” someone shouted before Porthos could draw breath to explain, and Athos leaned forward to look past him into the courtyard.

The rain was the first thing he noticed, a steady, drenching downpour that had soaked everything in sight. Poor d’Artagnan was out in the middle of it, unhappily swiping his wet hair out of his eyes as he shivered dramatically. Athos had little sympathy to spare for the boy – all of his attention focused instead on the man next to him. It was Aramis, standing on his own two feet, arms spread wide and face tipped up to the sky. He’d been out there long enough to get thoroughly drenched; water was dripping from his hair, from the clinging fabric of his shirt. He was smiling, sweetly and brightly enough to rival any summer sunshine, and Athos once again found himself blinking against tears.

“Not that I’m not glad to see you’re all right, Aramis, but come on. Can we at least get out of the rain?”

Aramis hummed acknowledgement of d’Artagnan’s complaints but made no move towards the shelter of the garrison. “Rain’s water too. Every bit as sweet here as at home.”

D’Artagnan flung up his hands in frustration, abandoning Aramis to the weather as he headed for the doorway in which Porthos and Athos still lingered. They shuffled aside to make room for him, staring out into the rain as Aramis lifted his hands to the sky, laughter bubbling out of him. Athos couldn’t look away, shoulder to shoulder with Porthos and d’Artagnan, as they watched Aramis acquaint himself with a new flavour of water.

“Shall we give him a few moments, gentlemen?” Athos asked, looking from Porthos to d’Artagnan and back. “Then we can drag him back inside and ensure that he agrees to forego any such dramatics in the future.”

D’Artagnan laughed and agreed, still trying to wring some of the water out of his sleeves. Porthos just nodded, still overcome, and Athos clapped him on the shoulder as they watched in companionable silence. Until today, Athos would never had said he was overly fond of grey weather, not after countless rainy patrols, endless hours being chafed by wet clothes, inevitably futile attempts to stay dry while on campaign. But now the scatter of raindrops would always remind him of relief and of Aramis, sleek and happy and unbelievably, miraculously alive. With that image in mind, Athos thought he might yet learn to love the rain.


End Notes: Title from Lights’ River. It seemed appropriate. :)
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