Prompt: "Porthos hates lent. He spent his entire childhood half-starved. The very concept of people voluntarily going without sufficient food for the sake of a God who, in his experience, doesn't care for penniless mothers or starving orphans upsets him."

His plate is empty, his belly full.

Humming in satisfaction, Porthos sits back to roll his shoulders. He takes in the room, trying to gauge his chances of getting a game going before the end of the night. Something in his left shoulder pops. It's been like that for some years now and he's grown mostly used to it. Besides, it barely aches at all during the summer months. Of course, Aramis will sometimes get worked up about it, digging his fingers into Porthos' shoulders and rubbing his back down with oil. It never helps for long, but it's as good a way as any to spend a few hours during the dark winter nights.

A cold nose presses against his hand and he jerks away, wiping his hand against the rough table to try and rid himself of the dog slobber.

"Damned thing," he says, "I don't know why it keeps bothering us."

No one answers, but when he looks up it's to find a decidedly guilty look on d'Artagnan's face.

"What?" he demands.

d'Artagnan squirms, his eyes darting from Athos to Aramis in a clear request for back-up. Rather than helping though, they both dig into their stews with renewed - and poorly faked - interest. Porthos crosses his arms over his chest, narrowing his eyes at their newest recruit. Loud voices alert him to the entrance of a few red guards, a restless look about them and fat purses hanging from their belts. Prime candidates for a card game, but Porthos intends to get to the bottom of this matter first so he just waits.

"Oh, c'mon," d'Artagnan finally splurts, breaking under Porthos' heavy gaze. "You have to agree it's pretty awful."

"What is?"

"The food!" d'Artagnan waves his fork in the air, sending a splash of watery stew flying across the table. Some drops land mere inches away from Aramis' sleeve and, if the surprised yelp's anything to go by, d'Artagnan receives a kick under the table for his carelessness. " I don't even know what this meat's meant to be? Chicken? Mutton? Rat? Why do we even keep going here?"

"The lovely atmosphere," answers Aramis, mock-leering at a woman sitting by the fire. She laughs, showing off her toothless gums, before waving coquettishly at him. Shameless as always, he jumps to his feet to respond with a bow which would have been slightly too deep to bestow even upon the Queen herself.

"The house red," adds Athos, grimacing as he takes a sip from his cup. The wine, Porthos knows, is sour and young, watered down until a child could drink it by the bottle without suffering any ill effects. But the price has always struck him as right, especially when circumstances forced a man to combine unquenchable thirst with a near empty purse.

Porthos glowers at the two of them until they duck their heads, meekly returning their attention to their bowls. He then resumes staring at d'Artagnan. He can see now that there's food still on the youngster's plate, big pieces of meat pushed to the side - no doubt meant for the mangy creature by their feet - and there, tucked under the rim of the bowl, a quarter of their shared bread loaf, nearly untouched.

"Now there's something wrong with the bread too?" he hears himself asking. "What do you intend to do with that then? Feed it to the pigeons? Leave it for the rats?"

"It's stale," d'Artagnan answers, squaring his shoulders and frowning right back at Porthos with a mulish expression on his face. "It's several days old. A man could break his teeth on the crust. Athos, Aramis, don't just sit there, you know I'm right."

They don't speak up in support of d'Artagnan's complaints. Of course, neither do they tell him that he's wrong to let good food go to waste when there's thousands, in their city alone, falling asleep with empty stomachs. The dinner which mere moments ago had brought him such satisfaction now rests like a heavy weight in Porthos' belly.

"I need some fresh air," he grinds out, pushing the chair back with such force that the dog runs off to take shelter by the hearth, what's left of its docked tail stuck between its legs. It stares over at Porthos with accusing eyes as he stomps out of the tavern, leaving the warmth behind along with the ignorant bunch of children he's unfortunate enough to call friends.

"Don't worry," he hears Aramis say. "He'll have forgotten all about this by dawn."

"You should hear him and Aramis argue during lent," Athos adds. "Now, that's something."

Porthos slams the door shut.

xxx

Aramis finds him by the river.

"Don't be cross with him," he greets Porthos, his stupid hat worn at a dashing angle and a smarmy smile on his lips. "You can't blame the boy for not appreciating our fine Parisian cuisine. Not when he's just missing his mother's cooking."

Porthos has no memory of his own mother ever cooking a meal. It would have required them to own a pot, and the means to build and keep a fire going. Bread they'd eaten, that he remembers, stale and wormy. Bits and pieces of other food too; whatever they'd been given as they'd gone from door to door to find work or beg for alms. He doesn't mention this, but the rock which he throws into the water doesn't skip on the surface but rather just catapults through the air before landing with a giant splash.

Aramis, picking up on his mood, swallows whatever else he might have meant to say. He picks up a handful of pebbles of his own instead, throwing them one by one across the water. Each pebble skips perfectly and it's all too easy to imagine him as a boy, shirking his duties in whatever backwards little town he'd grown up in, in order to play by the river. Porthos wonders if Aramis' mother had cooked him dinner each night. Probably. Most mothers did, he'd learned that much. Either way, he didn't intend to make a fool out of himself by asking.

"It's not a joke," he says, voice thick and resentful. "I'm not a joke."

"I know," Aramis agrees. He sounds gentle, which just makes Porthos more cross. He's not a spooked horse to be gentled with kind words.

"And don't go telling stories about me to the boy," he adds. Not because he thinks for a moment that Aramis would, but just because it's something to say. A point to make. A stand to take. Aramis hums in agreement before throwing another pebble across the river.

"How I feel about lent isn't funny," Porthos continues, unable to stop himself. "It's not an amusing story for you or Athos to tell. Understand?"

His voice doesn't break at the end of his speech. At most it quivers with anger. Aramis makes a sound as if he's been gut punched though and the next rock he throws sinks the moment it touches water. Then they stand there in silence, Porthos wondering if it's too late in the evening or perhaps too early in the morning to get drunk while Aramis stares down into the water as if it holds the answers to all his questions.

"I'm sorry," Aramis eventually says. "I don't think of you as a joke."

Aramis' voice rings with sincerity, which means less than nothing because that man lies as easily as he draws breath, but the way he reaches out to curl his fingers into the folds of Porthos' coat... now, that's something solid that Porthos can trust. That's the white-knuckled grip of someone afraid to lose something important.

"Truly, Porthos, I meant no offense. None of us did."

Even brimming with anger, Porthos can believe that. Aramis has never understood why Porthos hates lent. Not even when he once when drunk and furious - or had it been drunk and desperate? - had tried to put it all into words, had Aramis even begun to grasp the issue. It's as if they're speaking different tongues, that famous bond between the Inseparables turning into nothing more than the frayed string a child might use for his games.

"Porthos," Aramis says, his voice neither wheedling nor charming, but pleading. He's taken off his hat and he looks young and earnest and nothing at all like the ruthless and shrewd man Porthos knows him to be. And yet somehow the hard edges of his anger soften. He finds himself thinking that maybe, some night - some other night, when the weather's colder and his shoulder aches and Aramis has brough out his little bottle of almond oil - perhaps he'll try again. He'll be sober and he'll have thought of the rights words to say, the good way to phrase it so that Aramis will understand.

He doesn't want his pity. That's important. He just wants his friend to see it from Porthos' point of view.

To understand how it angers and confuses him to see Aramis make the choice, year after year, to go without sufficient food. To abstain from taking the full ration that a grown man - a solider at that, not a lazy merchant or fat old priest - needs to stay strong and healthy. To see the physical changes in his friend, invisible perhaps to others but not to someone who've spent years watching him. The cheeks slightly more hollow, the eyes just that little bit duller, the fingers colder and thinner. To see him fumble with his rapier and miss a target with his musket. Little things, perhaps, but in their profession it's the little things that get you killed.

And for what purpose? For what reason did he choose to starve himself? To appease God? The same God who'd cared nothing for a desperate mother's struggle to feed her infant son. Who'd cared even less when an orphan had been left to fill his belly on what the rats left behind. What did that God care about Aramis or his faithful self-denial? What did He care about the murmured litany of prayer or the endless grumble of an empty belly? What made one man's suffering more worthy of God's notice, than the endless hardship of the starving poor?

"Porthos," Aramis repeats, softly now. "Let's go. I've run out of pebbles to throw, and it's getting cold."

Ignorant child, Porthos thinks again, but it's not without fondness this time.

"C'mon then," he says, throwing an arm around Aramis' shoulder. "You can buy me a drink."