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Beneath the stains of time

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Everything happened in a blur.

Aramis' yell, the shoots, the horses scared neighs. And then the feeling of Aramis on him, pushing him down, the terrible pain in his leg and then just of the dreadful sensation of falling. And falling. Not just a fall, no soft grass hitting his body a second later, a real fall, rocks and trees trying to stop his body, ripped clothes catching on the stones, body bruised, skin broken.

For a few seconds Athos’ brain worked faster than ever before, quick thoughts in black and white, adrenaline making his heart pump so fast he felt it hurt in his chest. He had, obviously, been in danger in the past, very close to death, but usually he had some control over it, he could have fought or something. That time, instead, he could only fall, and fall, down a cliff that seemed to go down straight to the centre of the Earth. There was nothing he could do if not hope he won’t feel the impact. He wasn't really scared, his brain didn't have time to waste resources on that.

His thoughts went to Aramis. In the confusion he lost sight of him, and sure enough he couldn’t see him while his face was repeatedly hit by stones and branches. Maybe he was still up there. Maybe he managed to run away. Maybe he hid. Athos refuses to think that Aramis was dead. No, that were probably his last thoughts and he wasn’t going to use them to imagine Aramis gone forever from that world.

The impact left him without breath. Everything hurt too much to even open his eyes and when he did he couldn’t focus, everything around him was blurred and too bright. Was death like that? No, Athos was sure that to be dead couldn’t be so painful, after all if he was dead he wasn’t supposed to have a body.

He tried to take a breath, lungs still protesting, closed his eyes for a few seconds and just listened. He could hear voices and neighs, the mercenaries that attacked them were still up there, probably satisfied of the death of two musketeers, sure enough Grimaud was... but all his reflections were suddenly disregarded by the thought of Aramis. Where was he? Was he still alive? Up there with those deranged monsters? Had he fallen too? Suddenly his lungs seemed to work even less.

Athos tried to sit up, pain so intense it took all he had not to scream or cry like a kid. He started to look at himself, assessing the damages. The shooting pain in the leg was a bullet, the bone seemed intact, so it probably was a flesh wound. One that was profusely bleeding. His left wrist was badly broken and sure enough more than a few ribs hadn’t been more lucky. The rest were just scratches and bruises. Overall he probably wasn’t going to die in the near future, at least not because of the wounds. Ripped clothes, branches and dead leaves had somehow softened his fall.

Ignoring the piercing pain in his thigh he got up, leaning on a tree trunk to stand. He needed to get away from there, he needed to go back up and find Aramis and then run back at the garrison and give the alarm, alert all the musketeers that Porthos and d’Artagnan had probably been caught too. Except he took a step and miserably fell, pain so strong he growled loudly. He searched for his sword, but found nothing at his hip, only lacerated clothes.

Frustrated he throw a rock at some random tree in the forest and suddenly notices something. A lump of fabric and mud, half covered by branches and leaves. A lump that could only have been Aramis.

Ignoring the pain Athos tried to run to his friend, crawling when his leg gave out, muscle too torn to bear his weight, and then using his elbow when his wrist too decided it was too much on his shattered bones. But he didn’t feel any pain, his brain only able to pray over and over that the bundle wasn’t only a corpse. He hesitated to touch or turn him, scared to know, scared to hurt him even more. He took a few deep breaths, forcing his healthy hand to stop shaking, then took Aramis by the shoulder and with the care he’d use on a bird just out of the egg, he turned him. Breath left his lungs with more violence than any hit could have caused.

Aramis face was covered in blood, his shoulder bent in a way that left no doubts it was dislocated, and a few ribs were so badly broken he could see the lumps through the remains of the shirt. But those ribs were moving. Aramis was still alive and breathing.

Athos tore one of the few pieces still left of his own shirt, carefully cleaning some of the mess on Aramis’ face. It didn’t look like something serious, just a gash on his forehead, he knew his friend had worse in more than a few battles. But when he started to call his name, trying to wake him up, a hand under his head let Athos know that there was something a lot worse than that. A big wound was profusely bleeding at the back on Aramis’ head. A terrible hit, probably against some rocks while falling.

Athos closed his eyes for a second, try to regain control of himself, trying to go back into being a soldier and a captain, someone who had fought a war and seen hundreds of men fall and die. All he felt, though, was that kid so scared of the dark to hid in his younger brother’s bed.

“Aramis, Aramis, can you hear me? Come on, you need to wake up, we really need to get away from here,” he started to repeat, caressing his face at first and then gently slapping him. Athos could still hear the mercenaries up the hill, he couldn’t understand their words, but in their place he’d be up there trying to decide who should go down to check they were really dead. And since their commander was Grimaud he didn’t expect nothing less.

A few shots in their direction, followed by crude comments yelled at them, confirmed his theory. They weren’t leaving, they really wanted the musketeers dead.

He looked around, hand still under Aramis’ head, ignoring the warm and sticky fingers.

There were only rocks, more rocks and trees. No water, no path. It was good, he sure was going to hear the enemy approach. On the other hand he had no idea where to hide the both of them. He scanned the area once more, eyes finally focusing again. There was a cleft between two rocks, almost large enough to be called a small cave. They’d probably barely fit in, but it was their best option.

Athos carefully patted down Aramis. The pistol was long gone, maybe even still on the horse, but the sword was only barely damaged and the dagger at his back was bent but still usable. It didn’t do much to make him feel safer, but was enough, he could have worked with that.

With an ear still on their attackers, and no signs of them going down yet, Athos took off the last few remains of his shirt, tying it around his leg, tight enough to partially stop the bleeding and to keep it vaguely immobilised. Then looked at the wrist. There was little he could do about it, at the moment.

He took one of the remaining pieces of Aramis’ belt and put it in his mouth. He was sure he couldn’t stay silent during what he was planning to do. Then, before his body could force him into changing his mind, he took Aramis under the arms and started to drag him toward the cave.

It hurt, probably more than he expected, probably more than everything before, even the fall and the bullet now felt like a pleasurable feeling compared to that, but Aramis was still passed out and he was up to anything to protect him.

The few meters felt like they were taking hours, every step pure agony, every thought a prayer that Aramis was going to wake up. He was up to anything, even to carry him to the garrison like that, if only he was going to be awake. Alive.

When he finally made it between the rocks, hidden from sight, he hoarded some dead leaves under Aramis head, unable to care about possible infection at that point, and went back on his steps to hide every possible track, every single drop of blood. A few minutes later he let himself fall near Aramis the pain in his leg was bad enough that he later was sure he had passed out for a while.

*

The late afternoon was starting to be cold. The voices seemed long gone, but Athos knew he couldn’t trust it.

Grimaud was good. Crazy, deranged, but a great soldier, one of the best Athos had ever faced, so he wasn’t going to make mistakes like announcing himself with noise. And even if Grimaud no longer was with his mercenaries, trusting them with checking on two devastated corpse, Athos had no idea how far the path to descend was, if it was possible to still hear the voices while they were technically getting closer. A fire wasn’t an option.

He checked on Aramis once more, calling his name, caressing his cheek, but the man still gave no sign of life, just his ragged breath to let know he was still alive. Athos had already put his shoulder back in its place before it could damage nerves even more and then he had tied his own wrist with Aramis’ belt, hoping it was enough to keep the broken bones from making even more damages if he was going to fight.

Other than that he really had no idea what to do.

He couldn’t run for help and even if he could... no, there was nothing in that world that would have made him leave Aramis alone like that. His Aramis. The gorgeous face now pale, still. Gently Athos traced it with the back of his hand, brushing it with his scraped knuckles, not even trying to wake him up. He had never saw someone so beautiful in his life. Not a damsel, not a Queen. He could no longer even say since when he’d been in love with Aramis, but he was, so deeply he couldn’t even compare the feeling he felt for Milady to it. But now they were going to die and that secret was going die with him.

Forcing himself to forget such secondary things, Athos listened carefully. There still was no suspect noise outside, just the leaves and some animal in the distance. If that was an animal. He couldn’t underestimate someone like Grimaud. Athos was sure the man could walk leaving behind barely a trace and with less noise than a deer on snow.

He had confronted many enemies in the past, himself and his own wife being two of the worst, but never someone as dangerous as Grimaud. He never seemed to make a real mistake, he never seemed to start something he didn’t meticulously planned. An assassin with the best skills of a general. No pity, no conscience, no ethics. There was little they could do against someone like him, just hope in a lucky shot.

That thought took away his breath for a moment.

He didn’t know if there was still a “they”. Porthos and d'Artagnan had been separated from them in a bad way, obviously a trap, and him and Aramis had fled to search for help. It would have been useless to die in four in a fight they couldn’t win. Except it obviously didn’t go according to the plan and now Aramis was about to die too, probably a lot sooner than Grimaud could arrive to end his work.

With tears in his eyes Athos bent to press his forehead against Aramis. It was all his fault. He had killed him and their best friends. It was his plan that had failed, his blind need for vendetta, his personal war against that dangerous man. He was a worse assassin than Grimaud because on his hands there was his brothers' blood.

“I’m so sorry, it should have been me, I should have died in that damn forest, you had better chances with them at your side,” he murmured almost brushing Aramis’ face with his lips.

It had been Aramis alerting him of the attack. He had been Aramis shoving him down of his horse, the shot aimed at his back now just in his leg. It had been Aramis who, involuntary, threw them down the cliff. It had been Aramis who saved his life. It shouldn’t have been Aramis lying there, dying.

“I am so scared of Grimaud, he’s me but better, he’s what I’d be without a conscience, he has nothing to lose while I now realise I had everything, and I’m so scared I could turn into him just because of how much I hate him, that I just did. I got you all killed, I gave up my best friends, my brothers, my soul mates. I was wrong but too bloodthirsty to see and that cost you everything,” he passed a hand under Aramis head. The bleeding had stopped, but he knew it didn’t mean anything.

Athos wanted to scream, to curse Grimaud name to the sky, instead he bit on his tongue. If there still was a small chance that Aramis was miraculously going to make it he wasn’t going to risk it. He tried a few stab movements with the broken wrist, then slashed the ruined sword in the air. Without being able to stand he had no chances, but he was sure he could take a few enemies down to Hell with him. If it was Grimaud instead... he was going to kill Aramis first, anything not to let the man he loved in the hands of that monster, and then he was going to fight until his last breath, to cause all the damage he could.

The clang of the falling dagger, his hand too weak to still hold it, resounded in the little space and he coursed himself. Another mistake. Another step into getting Aramis killed for good.

“Please, wake up?” he asked in a whisper, begging him. The man was still breathing, his heartbeat was strong and steady, Athos knew there still were possibilities. But probably not there, in the middle of a forest, at night, with assassins searching for them, “come on, Aramis, it took me years to admit to myself what I feel for you, you can’t go without me telling you. Come on, wake up, I promise you’ll have fun looking at me blushing like a maiden. Please, I’m ready to die, I’m ready for Hell, it can’t be worse than my life, but I'm not ready to lose you, you’re the only great thing that happened to me, just wake up...” Athos kept saying in a low murmur, lips pressed against Aramis forehead. But once more the man didn’t even stir.

Desperate, Athos tightened the band around his leg. It was still badly bleeding, but he didn’t care. He was going out there, we was going to find out everything about the place where Grimaud’s men were staying and, trough them, he was going to find the man. Then he was going to kill him slowly, piece by piece. He was already on his feet, hands tight around the ruined weapons, when a louder wheeze from Aramis caught his attention. The man was still passed out, but the sound forced him into realizing the horror of what he was doing. He was leaving behind a badly hurt Aramis, still alive though, in a forest with wolves, bears and, probably, assassins, just to run behind his own revenge. That was it. He was lost for good. He had lost himself during the war, or maybe it was just Grimaud driving him crazy, the man who really put everyone he loved in danger. Not even the disaster with Aramis and the Queen had been more dangerous than that.

He fell on his knees, pain almost unbearable, but he didn’t care.

“I’m so scared, Aramis,” he confessed to the passed out man, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to go back to be myself. I wasn’t a good man, but I had honour and bravery, now... when did I lost everything? Why you weren't there to stop me when I started to turn? It was too much for me,” his mind wandered back, well before Grimaud appearance, “I could do nothing but watch my men turned into cannon fodder, I couldn’t protect d’Artagnan or Porthos, just pray that I wasn’t going to leave a widow and desperate friends behind us. I turned cruel, Aramis, I started to hate my enemy, I started to be more interested in missions and war than into taking care of my people, because I couldn’t take that responsibility, I was the wrong man for that, I was a bad captain, it was too much, I can barely take care of myself, I wasn’t able to take care of you. And during all that time you were gone, away, to never come back, and I knew nothing, I didn’t even know if you still wondered about us, if war had reached you and hurt you...”Athos stopped, a hand on his mouth to muffle his wet sighs. That was it. It hadn’t been Grimaud to change him, it had been everything else, it had been a responsibility too huge that had turned him back into the Comte he hated so much. Grimaud had just been the last drop.

He touched Aramis’ hurt shoulder and the man moved a finger. He probably didn’t set it totally right, not with a broken wrist, but he was sure it was enough that, in case they were going to survive, it could be settled better and still avoid real damages.

Athos looked outside. It was almost as dark as in the cave, cold, maybe he could consider it a protection. Maybe, by that point it was from him that Aramis needed protection from. He made sure both blades where near him, then he lied down, listening to any sound, any rustle in the leaves. There was nothing, just the sound of an owl and something very small, very light, mice probably. Athos relaxed a little. Probably Treville was going to send someone to search for them. If only he could keep Aramis alive until then his friend would be safe. He forced himself not to think of the others. They were too far and even if they were still alive there was nothing he could do to help them. No, he needed to focus on the there and now.

Getting closer to Aramis, hoping to share his body heat even if he felt like any trace had already left his body, he tried to stay still and silent, but his mind was going too fast.

“I don’t blame you for leaving, you know?” he started his monologue once more, teeth chattering for the cold, “it did you no good, but you needed it to understand that you really wanted what you already had. If you had stayed you’d have ended up hating something you love just out of frustration. But I realized how important you really were to me just when you were gone. Too late. And then I found you again and...you were back, Aramis. You were back to help me once more, to make a better man out of me like you always did without the both of us realizing... but it was too late and now I don’t know how...”Athos was fully crying now, something he didn’t remember doing in a long time. It had always been wine for him, not tears. A lot easier and a lot more punishing. What was going to happen if he survived but Aramis wasn’t going to wake up ever again? He got over losing his whole family, he got over killing his own wife, but that was different. They were just people he loved, Aramis, instead, was the only one who could help him going back to himself. That could save him from the fear squeezing his heart. The one who, for the first time, gave a real meaning to the word “Love”.

“’Mis, you need to wake up, because I can’t do this without you,” he whispered while crying, mind incredible far away from the possible attack they were about to receive, “please, please, wake up, I can’t, I’m so scared. Everything is too much for me, I couldn't do it before and I can't do it knowing you're dead. I love you so much, ‘Mis” Athos repeated, kissing the back of Aramis hand.

It flinched again, Athos bit on his lip. Had he done such a bad work that the man was going to lose the use of his hand?

"Are you crying?" voice so low and rough for a moment Athos was sure he was imagining it, but when he looked up Aramis eyes were open, the trace of a tired smirk on his face.

"You're alive," Athos said, a few more tears slid on his cheeks, but he didn't care. Actually he cared about nothing. Not the pain in his leg and wrist getting stronger with every heartbeat, not the cold that was making him shiver. At that point he wasn't even sure the shaking was because of the freezing night or just because Aramis was alive and leaning into his touch.

"I feel like I went to Hell and back, but I'm alive," Aramis voice was still weak, but his eyes were already back to bright and focused. He tried to check his head, but hissed in pain when he lifted his arm, "I guess you aren't much better?" he asked almost joking. Athos lifted a corner of the mouth.

"Can't walk, can't fight. Anyway, your blades are crooked and your pistol is gone," Aramis groaned at the words.

"I knew I still was in Hell, you're the Devil, my friend, bearing terrible knowledge," this time Athos smiled for real, "can you help me sit up?" Aramis asked, getting a nod in response.

"Are you sure is a good idea? And anyway, it's not like your weapons didn't belong to the garrison," without even waiting for an empty reply to his rhetorical question, Athos helped Aramis to sit against the rocks, biting his lip at every moan of pain.

"Since you let no one touch them for years, even being at war and short on weapons, I thought they no longer belonged to the garrison," Aramis said, holding his tender shoulder and smiling when Athos face turned red.

"We just didn't need them," he mumbled, suddenly really interested in his broken wrist, well knowing Aramis wasn't going to believe the lame excuse.

"Athos, I'm sorry I left," Aramis started, touching the back of his hurt hand, "but I'm here now, I know you had the others, so you were never alone, but now I'm here too and…" Aramis stopped, suddenly shy, looking at Athos with just the corner of his eyes, and Athos looked down at his leg, not even seeing the blood, not feeling the pain, a tiny smile on his lips.

"It was your right to go, and the others protected and helped me, fighting like lions," he whispered, teeth chattering again for the cold, bare chest feeling like ice, "but… it wasn't…"

"I missed you, Athos," Aramis declared, stopping a speech that they both knew wouldn't have taken to anything, "the others too, obviously, but I couldn't stop thinking about you, about leaving you back. I left minutes later I found out you were the new captain and…I left you alone."

"I had the…" but Aramis laughed and shook his head.

"Please, Athos, I know you're hurt and freezing, and I know you're not the best with this kind of things and I'm kind of rusty but… think about my words, focus on them for just a second…", it wasn't Aramis best act of seduction, but he was in too much pain to do better. He smiled his most charming smile, though, nodding when he saw a spark of understanding in Athos' eyes.

"I need you, for more reasons than I can say," were the only words Athos could find, mind suddenly blank. Aramis, his Aramis, was declaring something incredibly important, something he couldn't get wrong. A minute before he was about to lose the man for good and now he was listening to the sweetest words he had ever heard.

"And I'm here, I'm back for all those reasons. I'm back because of you and we can do anything tog..." a noise in the distance stopped Aramis mid word. Heavy steps on the dry leaves, more than a person, "I fear I jinxed it" Aramis tried to joke while already getting up, using the rock wall as support, "can you stand at all?" Athos made a face of pain.

"I'll manage, after all I dragged you in here", he shrugged, gulping down the yell of pain that menaced to leave his lungs, "so… broken sword or bent blade?" he asked once he was on his feet, wound bleeding at the movement, but he guessed it didn't matter at that point.

"Is that a metaphor?" Aramis teased with the smile Athos had seen a thousand times before battles and duels, a mix of fear, adrenaline and excitement, he shook his head, throwing Aramis the sword.

The footsteps were closer now, the wind and the dead leaves covering how many men could be approaching. Maybe it wasn't Grimaud, maybe it was just his stupid mercenaries, but Athos didn't hope to beat them anyway. They were too hurt, barely standing, and with ruined weapons.

"So, that's it? That's how we die?" Aramis commented, as if reading in his thoughts.

"I fear that's it. Not the most honourable death after all these years. Half naked and aching in a cave," Athos smiled at his own words. He couldn't think of a better death, he preferred that one a million times over dying at war, without Aramis.

"Half naked and together, could have been worse," Aramis smirked, hissing when he tried to lift the dislocated shoulder.

Athos looked at him, really looked at him, like he never had the courage of doing since the man had came back. He was hurt and about to die, but he had that light in his eyes, the one Athos had fallen for so many years before, and he was smiling, as if he wasn't scared, as if he was at peace with the world. But Athos wasn't. Not like that.

Hearing the almost there steps he turned, grabbed Aramis head, uncaring of their wounds, and pulled him against his lips, kissing him with the knowledge that was going to be their first and last kiss, desperation and hunger clear in every sweep of tongue. Aramis kiss was barely slower, more accurate, but equally hungry.

When the men were too close Athos almost pushed Aramis back, tightening the hand around the hilt.

"So that's it," Aramis commented, holding Athos hand for a moment. The man nodded.

"It had been an honour to fight by your side," Athos offered and Aramis smiled.

"It had been a bigger one to live by yours" was the swift reply, the men just a few steps from them now, the cave too small for them not to be seen.

Athos didn't know if he was happy or not that it wasn't only Grimaud. On one hand he had hoped for long to really fight against the man, maybe even losing, but to die while facing him one last time. On the other hand he was happy it was just men sent to kill them, A swift and painless death for Aramis, the exact contrary of what Grimaud would have given them.

The footsteps stopped in the dark just outside of the cave. Both men tensed. They were scared, no one ever wants to die, but ready after years facing death from too close.

"You know you couldn't even scratch me, half naked, on one leg and with a crooked blade, right?" the voice echoes inside the small space and Athos felt his healthy leg almost give out.

"You're alive," he murmured, but his voice was drowned out by Aramis'.

"Porthos, d'Artagnan, I've never been happier to see you!" his companion cheered, hugging the men who where now inside. Athos leaned against the wall. They were alive. He didn't get all his friends killed because of his stupid, personal war against Grimaud. He had another chance, a huge one, to be a better captain, a better soldier, a better friend. A better lover.

He heard the others talking, he felt Porthos covering him with his jacket and something about him being into shock because of the bullet wound, but he didn't really listened to him, overwhelmed by everything that happened in the past hours, by the kiss that just now he was fully realizing he gave to Aramis. Were things going to change, to get complicate now that they no longer were about to die? Was Aramis going to change his mind, knowing he could have much better? But they *were* alive and that was all that mattered.

"…Athos, did you hear me? We found the horses, we'll only have to walk a very short distance, can you do it?" Porthos asked, probably for the second or third time. Athos just looked at him, unable to speak. Strong, brave Porthos. Alive Porthos.

"If he could manage to fight for our lives I guess he also can be dragged by you to his horse," Aramis helpfully answered for him while passing by, casually touching his hand with a secret smirk. Athos opened his mouth to say something, gulped, then just nodded, looking down at his own hand, bloody and broken, that Aramis just touched to reassure him. He could only feel the ghost of the tender touch.

He let Porthos set him as he preferred to drag him around a dark forest and once more he bit on his cheek to keep down any moan of pain. It was almost over, someone was going to stitch him up soon and to check on Aramis' head, it was only physical pain, he didn't really care about it, he could man up about it.

They were just outside the small crawl they called a cave when Aramis stopped them with a hand on Athos' chest.

"Just one more thing," he whispered in his hear, cheeks rubbing together. Porthos looked away as if to give them more privacy, "when I was about to wake up I heard you talking to me, but I'm still not sure what I dreamed and what was real, and…" Athos looked at Aramis in the darkness of the winter night. Aramis was nervous, shy, looking at the forest floor and blushing. There was something almost innocent in him, something that Athos had definitely never seen in him before, sure enough not when he was seducing women almost for the sake of it.

"I said that I need you and that I love you so much, 'Mis", Athos repeated himself, in a firm and certain voice, much more security than he felt, and it was his turn to smirk and signal Porthos they could go, while Aramis looked at him with a stupid smile and a shocked face.

They were badly hurt and they brushed Death's cape at least five times that day, still Athos was sure it was one of his best ones.