"You're with me," said Athos, tapping d'Artagnan on the shoulder. The younger man looked confused, but nodded and followed Athos like a duckling on the heels of its mother. The comparison had Aramis grinning to himself as he scraped the last of the stew off his plate.
"Leaves you with me," he said to Porthos, disregarding the way his friend dropped his head into his hands with a theatrical groan. Standing up, ignoring how his back protested the sudden movement with an alarming pop, he rapped his hat against his thigh to shake away the dust.
"C'mon," he continued, reaching down to tug at Porthos' shoulder. "Don't want them stealing all our blankets, do we? "
Porthos muttered something that Aramis couldn't quite catch before obediently heaving himself to his feet. Together they followed the route their friends had taken, through the near-empty inn and up the creaky stairs to the bedroom they'd been given for the night.
There were two beds in the narrow chamber, each one little more than a frame filled with straw and covered with fabric so loosely woven that several of the dried stalks were poking out through the weave. Something small and furry hurried across the floor as they entered. The fireplace was filled with ashes but stone cold to the touch.
Athos had already staked out the bed closest to the door, his coat thrown carelessly over the edge while its owner emptied the last of a wine bottle. d'Artagnan stood shaking out the blankets, grimacing as disturbed dust and dirt from the floor danced in the air. Their weapons were carefully laid out on the rickety table but, Aramis knew from experience, Athos would already have hidden a dagger under his pillow.
For a few moments he played with the idea of warning d'Artagnan, but, well, why meddle with the only entertainment the evening was likely to offer...
"Next time, we should just sleep in the stable," the young man muttered as he picked up and discarded the dried shell of a beetle from the mattress. "Cheaper, cleaner and less wild life. If I end up with fleas-"
Porthos' laugh came close to rattling the already cracked window panes.
"If?" he repeated. "There's no if about it. Come morning, we'll be scratching ourselves like dogs."
They all shuddered at the thought.
Leaving Porthos to handle the bed and its possible inhabitants, Aramis began the arduous process of heading to bed. His boots were muddy, his coat wet and a button had come loose from his jacket. He almost gagged sniffing his own armpit, then nearly fell on his head as he jumped around on one foot while trying to remove his left boot. Raking his fingers through his hair he found it to be more tangles than not.
Crossing the floor he stepped carefully around the beetle graveyard at the end of Athos and d'Artagnan's bed before digging through the saddle bags for his comb. Only halfway through brushing out the worst of the knots did he notice that d'Artagnan's eyes, as wide as saucers, were focused straight at him.
In fact, they were all staring.
"What?" he demanded, looking from face to face.
"Nothing," came three voices at once.
"Please, carry on," d'Artagnan added, failing miserably at keeping a straight face. Suddenly very happy that he hadn't warned his young friend about Athos disturbing sleeping accessory, Aramis just aimed a chilly look in their direction before turning his back to them and refocusing on his hair.
"Enough," Athos finally ordered. "We have a long ride tomorrow."
Putting away the comb, Aramis hurried back across the floor. Something crunched under his foot but, all things considered, he decided it would be best not to look. It had been a long day and ever part of him longed to lie down. He was just about to climb into the bed when Porthos' huge hand landed on his shoulder and held him back.
"Hang on," he said. "Let's go over the ground rules."
Aramis moaned, but didn't try to struggle free. No point wasting his energy.
"Not this again," he complained. "It's sleeping, Porthos. It doesn't require rules."
"It does when one's sleeping next to you."
Though he'd spoken in his usual half-mutter, Athos voice carried clearly. d'Artagnan snickered, producing a most unflattering sound. Porthos just shook his he before continuing with his damned list. As if Aramis hadn't heard it a few dozen times already.
"No kicking. No tickling. No hair pulling. Do not pinch my nose. No, not even if I'm snoring. Do not stick your finger in my mouth when I'm yawning. And do not, under any circumstances, poke at my ear-ring. Or hog the covers. If you do, I'll kick you out of the bed and you can sleep on the floor. I mean it this time."
Across the room, d'Artagnan had started to laugh hard enough to shake the bed.
"This is why you picked me?" he asked Athos, shoulders jiggling with mirth.
"We try and take turns," came the dry answer.
"You're all hilarious," Aramis interrupted. "Now, can I get in the bed please?"
Porthos sighed, but released him.
The problem with sleeping next to Aramis wasn't that he had absolutely no respect for a man's boundaries, somehow managing to break every unwritten rule of bed-sharing without even trying. That was annoying, and strangely impressive, but not a deal breaker.
Nor was it the way he'd strip down to his small-clothes, jump straight into bed and then wait, with his eyes closed and his breath even, until his bed-mate gave in and joined him. Which was of course the very moment when Aramis pounced. Or, well, rolled actually but it amounted to the same thing. Within moments, sleep-heavy arms and legs would be pinning the helpless victim to the bed and the rest of the night would be spent in far too close proximity for anyone's comfort. Except, perhaps, Aramis'.
No amount of shouting or threatening made any impact on the man. Aramis stuck to his claim that a fellow couldn't help what he did while asleep and, anyway, did they expect him to just take their word for the fact that he had been the one to initiate the cuddling? For all he knew, they were the ones who'd snuggled up next to him.
Once, Porthos had followed through on his threat and kicked his friend out of the bed. He'd woken the next morning to the sight of Aramis sleeping with his back to the wall, teeth clattering and lips turning blue. Athos, when his turn came around to deal with Aramis, had just started giving a customary warning about the wicked little knife he kept under his pillow. Not that it seemed to help. Porthos had awoken many a morning to find Aramis sprawled out over Athos like a second blanket.
Sighing, he tugged at the bedcovers to ensure he didn't lose his fair share. Feet, as cold as ice, found their way to his thighs and he manfully swallowed down a yelp. Aramis mumbled something, digging his head into Porthos' shoulder as if trying to hide from his dreams. Porthos shushed him, shifting to allow his friend to roll closer, and moved his arm until it rested over Aramis' chest.
No, the worst part about sleeping next to Aramis had to be acknowledging that Porthos himself never slept as well as he did those nights when his best friend laid warm and docile in his arms.
Mere hours later, they all woke to the sound of cursing.
Athos, slow to wake ever since he was a child, rolled over on his side to squint at the source of the disturbance. The blurry sight that greeted him was of d'Artagnan, struggling with the blankets and waving something in the air while cursing up the kind of blue streak that would have left a member of the Red Guard impressed.
The night before, d'Artagnan had seemed like the wise man's choice for a bed-mate and Athos had congratulated himself before falling asleep when it had turned out that the youngster didn't smell too bad, nor snored or farted in his sleep. Sure, his pointy elbows had managed to find Athos' ribs a few times before they'd both settled down under the scratchy blankets, but, on the other hand, he'd kept to his side of his bed.
Which was more than could ever be said of Aramis.
"What?" Porthos demanded, his sleep-rough voice much too loud for such a late hour. Glancing over in his direction, Athos could see two heads peeking back at him over the edge of the bed frame. It was hard to tell in the darkness, but it seemed like Aramis might be grinning. Frowning, he returned his attention to the man next to him.
"There's a knife in the bed," d'Artagnan was saying, his voice high and thin. "Why is there a knife in the bed? I could have poked my eye out on it!"
"Did you?" Athos asked, yawning now that an explanation had been given for the ruckus. From the other bed came the mad cackling that fairytale witches and Aramis had in common, followed by the sound of a thump and a muffled cry. Porthos really didn't appreciate having his sleep disturbed.
"No!" hissed d'Artagnan. "But I could have."
"And we could all be asleep," said Athos, sinking back down on the bed, "but we're not."
The clattering sound that followed his comment strongly suggested that his knife had just found its way to the other side of the room. Kicking d'Artagnan out of bed to retrieve it seemed like too much of a hardship, so instead Athos just closed his eyes in the hopes that, if he pretended to be asleep, d'Artagnan would follow suit.
Perhaps, he thought, he would have been better off with Aramis. True, the man had a disturbing tendency to latch on to any heat source and more than once Athos had woken with his mouth full of flower-scented hair. But at least Aramis knew better than to disturb Athos when exhaustion or drink finally allowed him to sink into a dreamless sleep.
Also, he acknowledged just as sleep claimed him, sleeping close to someone who wanted nothing from him but warmth and comfort made for a nice change. It reminded him of Thomas and those cold winter nights when their mother used to cover them both with fur-lined blankets.
Athos fell asleep, dreaming of crackling fires and his little brother's cold toes.