Athos sleeps like the dead. Porthos, twitching like a dog chasing rabbits in his sleep.
Aramis does not sleep. Instead he sits with his back to the fire, a wild churning in his belly and watered-down wine in his cup. The rip in Porthos' coat has been mended, the sewing kit put away. He has already seen to the horses twice, running his hands over their warm flanks and untangling some of the terrible knots in the gelding's mane.
Another night, he would have leaned back against his saddle and stared up at the dark vault above them. The night sky is a dark blue canvas, dotted with pin pricks of light. A man could lose himself observing those lights, could find oblivion in the impossible act of counting each star.
But not tonight. Tonight Aramis keeps guard. Not because Athos has commanded it. Nor because he has any reason to believe that they are in danger. The countryside is quiet; nothing but the crackling of the fire, the rustling of the horses and the snoring of his companions to disturb the dense silence around them.
No, he keeps guard for no good reason. Feels compelled to by memories he'd rather not name.
It's been this way since they left Bayonne. To make up for the lost sleep, he's been dozing in his saddle while they ride and taking catnaps whenever they've stopped for meals. But even so, his hands tremble and his temper flares. The uneven stitches in Porthos' coat, meant as a peace offering, do perhaps speak for themselves.
Pushing himself to his feet, he rolls his shoulders and flexes his fingers. They feel cold, almost numb despite the fire. Remembering that Porthos had been bragging earlier of his acquisition of some apples, Aramis helps himself to one of them. The flesh is crisp and sweet as he bites into it. A last taste of summer as the evenings grow darker and colder.
"You owe me a kiss," comes a familiar voice, rough with sleep.
"A kiss?" Aramis repeats, turning to raise an incredulous eyebrow at his friend.
Porthos grunts in confirmation, struggling with the horse blanket he'd wrapped around himself in lieu of his coat. Finally free, he rubs at his eyes in the same fashion a toddler might before aiming a bleary yet clearly accusing look in Aramis' direction.
"For the apple," he grumbles. "I'll have you know I paid for those, you rogue. A kiss for each apple."
"Or an apple for each kiss? For shame, my friend. You set your price too low."
"It was a fair exchange," Porthos answers, leering in what Aramis assumes to be fond remembrance. The expression quickly disappears though, replaced by a cross frown. "Must you chew so loudly? Bad enough that you're a thief, must you also make such a racket? Cows chew their cud with more refinement!"
"What do you know of cows?" Aramis demands, before his tired brain parses through the rest of the words. "And you're one to speak of refinement, naming your comrade a thief and a rogue!"
"That was my apple!"
"Well, I claim it as mine," Aramis snaps back. "Call it due payment for mending your coat!"
"I'll call it my apple, as that's what it was. Paid for with a kiss!"
"Oh, I'll give you a kiss," Aramis threatens, clenching his hand into a fist. Porthos, in turn, shakes off the blanket and jumps to his feet with the ease and agility of a hunting dog. There's a stubborn glint in his eyes that Aramis knows all too well. The reason for it he cannot fathom though, but perhaps there is no need.
After all, even if a man could stand to be called a rogue, most men -and Aramis amongst them - drew a line at being compared to farm animals. Closing the distance between them, he prepares to thump his friend on the nose. Not hard enough to break it, but certainly with enough force that no farmer's wife will be willing to trade him kisses for fruit for a good while. That is the plan, at least.
Like most plans, it does not survive past the first few seconds of combat.
Porthos absorbs the first blow, but rather than retaliate he grabs holds of Aramis' wrists, hooking a foot around his ankle and pulling. They both fall, tumbling into the wet grass and rolling down the slight incline until they bump into Athos solid form. There they both freeze, holding their breaths.
Athos groans, then sighs and yawns. But does not stir. Does not open his eyes.
"You overgrown oaf," Aramis finally hisses, trying desperately to avoid too much undignified flailing as he struggles to get back on his feet. "What do you think you're doing?"
Instead of answering, Porthos tightens his already bruising grip on Aramis' wrists and shifts his weight so that, short of bucking and kicking, there's no way to escape. Porthos then leans forward, their noses bumping awkwardly before his mouth covers Aramis'.
It's not a kiss. There's no tongue, just teeth. No softness, just pressure. Beard stubble and whiskers scrape at Aramis' face and days spent in the saddle has left them both ripe. It would be hard to imagine something further away from the soft skin and sweet perfume of a lady. So, no, it cannot be a kiss.
Even so, he's panting by the time Porthos pulls away. There's not enough air, not enough space, not enough room inside of him for the explosion of questions. Porthos, for reasons known best to himself, withdraws without a word and Aramis is left breathless and frozen in place.
"Oh, well done," someone mutters. "You've gone and spooked him."
Someone who's not Porthos. Someone who should not be awake.
Someone who should not have seen.
"Did I not tell you to go slow?" Athos continues, the question obviously rhetorical. "Did I not tell you to pick your moment?"
"Yes, yes," answers Porthos, mouth twisting unhappily. Aramis finds he cannot look away from that mouth. From those plump, warm, chapped lips. Lips which had pressed against his, in something which had been everything but a simple kiss. "Patience is a virtue, et cetera. We can't all be virtuous, cold-hearted bastards though."
The cold-hearted bastard huffs out an annoyed breath, before casting off his blanket and pulling on his boots. Aramis watches his friends without moving, feeling somehow removed from the scene. He can sense their eyes on him of course, and suspects perhaps that the next move belongs to him. But he'll be damned if he can piece it all together. Damned if he can make sense of what's happened.
"Come here," Athos eventually says. It's a clear command and Aramis is, above all else, a good solider. Still he imagines that he approaches his leader with the same level of enthusiasm as a dog does his master when the latter stands armed with a whip.
When he's close enough to smell the sourness of wine on Athos breath, Aramis stops. Whether it's lack of sleep or the kiss that wasn't, he flinches - flinches! as if he were indeed nothing but a dog awaiting chastisement - when Athos lifts his hand. Behind them Porthos curses, and somehow that small bit of normality gives him the strength to stay his ground.
To stay his ground and stand still, back rigid and hands clenched where they hang by his sides, as Athos hooks a gloveless finger under his chin and tilts his head so that they're facing each other. Stand still as those dark eyes study his face as if reading a passage from an open book. Stand still as Athos, the God of virtuous and cold-hearted bastards, frowns at him, a perfect mirror of Porthos' unhappiness.
"Bring your blanket," he finally commands, speaking not to Aramis but rather directing his words over his shoulder. "And the wine."
Then his hands are on Aramis, drunk fingers clumsy but insistent as he undoes buttons and buckles. And Aramis means to protest. He truly does, only he's cold and tired and the ground under his feet has turned to quicksand. There's not enough air to fill his lungs and without air, he cannot speak. So he stands still and quiet as his weapons are put away and his coat pulled off his shoulders.
Porthos returns with blankets, both his own and the ones which Aramis had kept strapped to his saddle, as well as the requested bottle. Athos confiscates the wine, helping himself to a long swig before pressing it into Aramis' hands. The bottle falls when Aramis' fingers refuses to clutch on to the glass and wine splashes over their shoes.
"My apologies," Aramis hears himself say. "I don't know-"
"You don't know?" Porthos snaps, an unusual darkness in his voice. "Could you not hazard a guess as to what ails you? Tell me, when did you last sleep, brother? When did you last-"
The way Athos clears his throat works as good as any warning and Porthos falls silent.
Aramis squeezes his eyes shut. Escaping like a child might.
Around him, the world continues to spin. The fire crackles. An owl shrieks. His friends move around him, snapping twigs and muttering to each other. Hands, so large that they can only belong to Porthos, grab at his shoulders and press him down until he's kneeling in the grass, until he's sitting back with his legs stretched out in front of him, until he's on his back.
Someone plucks the hat off his head. Someone tugs the boots off his feet. Someone tucks a blanket, still warm and smelling of horse and sour grapes, around his shoulders.
He thinks perhaps that's the end of it, but no, it's just the beginning. Someone lays down to his right. Someone else lays down to his left. An arm is draped over his chest, a heavy anchor pinning him in place. Warm, wet air assaults his ear. Sweat-damp curls tickle his nose. A hand, rough and scarred, sneak under the blanket to wrap itself around Aramis' hand.
Something snaps, deep inside of him and he shudders. Then he opens his eyes and stares up at the stars. They are far away and beautiful, too many to count. Though a man could lose himself trying. Could fall asleep attempting the impossible.
"Sleep," Athos commands.
Aramis has questions. Dozens, nay, hundreds. He has objections. He has demands.
"And don't think so loud," Porthos adds.
But, he thinks with a yawn, they can perhaps wait until the morning.