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A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste

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For a long moment, Athos remains unmoving in the dank alley. His body is still flushed from kissing Aramis, his lips feel swollen and slick – but his chest is as empty as his mind.

He has kissed Aramis and it felt good, it felt right, but he loves Porthos, and Aramis loves him too, and now they have betrayed him, betrayed his trust and his friendship despite everything he has done for them. Athos fails to understand how he could do such a thing, how he could be so weak – no, he understands that. He has always been weak.

He blinks, slowly, tries to remember where he is, and licks his lips – tastes Aramis on them and closes his eyes with a shuddering breath. He has never deserved Porthos, and now he has proven it beyond a doubt.

His eyes fall to the ground and perceive Aramis’ hat, laying upturned on the cobbles. Aramis must have lost it during their kiss. Athos bends down to pick it off the ground as one sleepwalking … stands staring down at it with a blank expression.

He took the first chance to yield to temptation that offered itself, and it makes no difference that it was Aramis. Athos was unfaithful to the one man who has never hurt him, who was always good to him. Although there was never a question of whether Athos would end up in Heaven or Hell once his life is spent, he will now gladly help to stoke the flames that burn him while he waits for eternity to end.

He takes a deep breath and turns, starts to walk – not back to the market, not back to Constance and into the light of morning, but instead into another dark alley, a back slum, full of refuse and dirty water, rank with the smell of poverty.

Surely, he will find a tavern here.

He does find a tavern, as dirty on the inside as it is on the outside, dim and smelly. They serve him, although it is still early in the morning – the cheapest wine he has ever tasted, sour and sickly sweet at once. He puts Aramis’ hat on the table in front of him and stares at it while he drinks, pours the wine down his throat as though he would die of thirst if he didn’t; and when his glass is empty, he immediately refills it to the brim, lifts it to his mouth once more.

Then he stops.

He has barely done this since Porthos asked him to stop drinking and took him home that night so many weeks ago, has not indulged in this ruinous weakness ever since Porthos has started taking such good care of him. It would be another form of betrayal to succumb to the alcohol, to drown himself in wine until he is able to forget – and lose himself by doing so.

Athos wants to forget, wants to drink and destroy himself a little more, but he cannot do so – not until he has confessed to Porthos, not until Porthos condemns him, and releases Athos from their bond to do with his worthless life as he pleases.

So Athos carefully sets the glass back down on the dirty table, reaches out for Aramis’ hat, and gets up. He leaves the tavern, entirely unheeded by its proprietors, and turns towards the garrison out of unerring instinct – he could always find it, even before, no matter where in the city he found himself, no matter how drunk he was.

The way seems long, this time, the people crowding the streets too loud and too shrill, and Athos pulls his hat down into his eyes and hunches his shoulders. He tries to breathe through it, sets one foot in front of the other and marches on – just the way he did before Porthos made his life worth living again.

When he eventually reaches the garrison, he does not immediately see Porthos – is seized by sudden fear that he was sent out on a mission, and stops dead in the entrance way. But then Porthos calls out to him, emerges from the smithy’s alcove with a smile so bright as to outshine the sun, and crosses the yard towards Athos in a few long strides.

But the closer Porthos gets to him, the more his smile dims, and when he is standing right in front of Athos, he looks so worried that it sickens Athos, twists the guilt inside him so tight that he starts to feel faint.

“What happened?” Porthos asks, and his gaze scans Athos’ body for injury. It rests for a long moment on the hat in Athos’ hands, while his own hands reach out to steady Athos. “Athos, what happened? What are you doin’ with Aramis’ hat?”

Athos wants to withdraw from his touch and cannot bring himself to do so. He swallows convulsively, agonizingly aware that this is not the right place to tell Porthos, that he needs to take him somewhere else.

“I am unhurt,” he says. It is the least he can do for Porthos – allay his worries and spare him anxiety. “Can you – do you have any orders, or can you come with me? I need … I need to speak with you.”

Porthos frowns and looks down at Athos’ face for what feels like eternity. Athos tries as best he can to encounter that searching gaze without flinching, but his throat closes up with rising panic, and the pain in his chest spreads like poison ink.

“Of course I can come with you,” Porthos says at length. “Shall we go home?”

Athos nods, despite the stab of regret in his gut at Porthos’ choice of words. Athos imagines he will never hear Porthos call it that again – at least not for him.

 

Porthos takes Athos home on the fastest way, makes use of back-alleys and short-cuts – does not let go of Athos’ shoulder for even a moment, no matter how many hapless strangers he has to push out of the way to make room for them both in the narrower alleys. His otherwise so steadying touch makes Athos tremble in sickening apprehension, and he bites his lip, tries to keep it all in, trap it all inside until they arrive at their destination, and none but Porthos will witness Athos break down.

To lose everything he cherishes most for the second time in his life … Athos does not believe he will recover, this time. Because it was good this time, not only the illusion of bliss, but real, genuine happiness, built on a solid foundation, resting on brotherhood and trust, and unfailing loyalty. Athos barely recovered from the loss of his former life, and he could only do so because he had Porthos, and Aramis, too, to pull him out of his head and fill him with their light. He has lost them both now. All that remains to him is a bottomless pit to cast himself into.

It seems to Athos that it takes far longer than usual to get to Porthos’ lodgings; but when they arrive it is still too soon. Athos’ heart leaps into his throat as he watches Porthos unlock the door, and when Porthos shoves him through it and shuts it behind them, Athos’ knees weaken to the point that he can no longer keep himself upright.

He staggers to the bed and falls down on it, forbids himself the indignity of crumbling to the floor. Not yet. He will do so soon enough.

Aramis’ hat drops from his unresisting fingers and lies on the bed next to him – a silent reminder of what has happened. As though Athos could forget.

Porthos rushes to his side, goes down on one knee and puts both of his hands to Athos’ cheeks, lifts up his head to look at him – smells the cheap wine on Athos’ breath. His expression darkens, but his hands remain gentle. “What happened, love? Where’d you get Aramis’ hat?”

Athos wishes he had drunk more, suddenly. He cannot stand it, neither the loving touch nor the endearment, and he lifts his hands and closes them around Porthos’ wrists, pulls him off. “Please,” he grinds out, “please do not touch me.”

Porthos does not fight him, gives in as he always does, and Athos feels a sob rise in his throat, and bites down on it. Not yet.

Porthos gives him space, moves back to sit on the floor, takes off his hat and puts it down next to him. He remains close enough for Athos to draw comfort from his presence, and Athos does, strangely enough, even though he should not. He has lost that right, forfeited it to a stolen kiss.

Porthos is looking up at him with an expression of worried unease on his face. The corners of his mouth are pulled down, and his eyes, otherwise so bright, are dark with discontent.

Athos takes a shaking breath – and steadies, goes calm with the knowledge that whatever will happen is his own fault, that he brought the inevitable consequences on himself. “You will not like what I have to tell you,” he says; his voice sounds dry and cold; his face feels like it is turning into a mask of ice, “and I am not … I am not asking for your forgiveness.”

Porthos’ frown deepens at that, and he tilts his head, but he does not interrupt. It hurts just to look at him, at his trusting, concerned eyes, and Athos closes his own. “I betrayed you.”

He expects some sort of reaction, and when it does not come, when Porthos remains utterly quiet, Athos looks at Porthos again, afraid of what he might see. Porthos seems to be entirely calm, if still very apprehensive. “Alright. What did you do then?”

Athos stares at him, and the words come wholly unbidden. He is not ready yet – not ready to cut the ties that bind him to Porthos, not ready to lose him. Nevertheless, the words rise up his throat and fall over his lips, despite his fear of their consequences, “I kissed Aramis.”

The air seems to freeze around them, and Porthos does not move.

The terrible moment passes, and Porthos blinks at him – smiles. “You did?” He sounds a bit wistful, to be sure, but there is none of the anger Athos expected, no hint of betrayed trust. He looks glad, relieved even.

Athos fears he might have gone mad – that his dread of Porthos’ reaction has scattered his wits so far that they are lost to him.

“You do not understand!” he croaks, his throat so dry that his voice comes out as a pained whisper.

Porthos’ eyes sharpen at that, and he straightens. “You didn’t want to kiss him? Surely he didn’t force you?”

“N-no, I wanted it –” Athos stammers, and clamps his mouth shut, fearful of what horrible truth he might let escape next – frightened out of his wits because it is the truth, because even now he can think back to that kiss and lose himself in the memory of feeling Aramis’ body against his own.

Porthos relaxes immediately, but he bites his bottom lip, and hangs his head. He breathes out very slowly, as though afraid that he might crumble if he releases the air from his lungs too fast. “I’m glad you did it, then. So it really was that what was wrong with him, eh? Drove me mad that I just couldn’t be sure about that for the longest time.” His face contorts into a grimace of guilt, and his eyes beg Athos for forgiveness. “I see now that I should’ve told you all along – it was stupid of me to keep my suspicions to myself ...”

Athos stares at him in silent amazement, entirely unable to grasp his meaning. “I kissed Aramis!” he repeats, and his voice breaks over Aramis’ name. “I held him in my arms and I – it felt so good, Porthos, just as good as when you are holding me, and – and I don’t know why I did it,” he gasps and brings one hand up to his forehead, hides his eyes.

He should be crying, he thinks, but his eyes are dry, burn with unshed tears. He should stop talking, too, he knows that, but the words want out, all of them, and he cannot keep them contained. “One moment I was so angry at him that I wanted to strangle him, and the next we were kissing, and I could not stop – I am so sorry, Porthos, so sorry for betraying you like this, and I swear to you it will not happen again, I could never take him away from you –”

Athos does not hear Porthos move, but nevertheless he is there, suddenly, draws Athos into his arms and onto his lap, throws Athos’ hat on the floor next to his own when it bothers him. “Stop, love, stop – calm down, please. There’s no need for your fretting, I promise you, no need at all.”

Athos fights against his touch, against his closeness, does not want to be held and comforted, because he does not deserve it – never has. But Porthos is stronger than him, has always been stronger than him, and for once he refuses to be pushed away. He puts his arms around Athos and holds him, kisses his face, every inch of it that he can reach, whispers quiet declarations of unwavering affection.

After a while Athos feels too weak to fight him anymore, and his tears spill over, leak out the corners of his eyes and run down his cheeks. Athos sighs and goes limp, and lifts his head – and Porthos kisses him, soft and sweet, gently licks into Athos mouth when he opens up for him. “There, that’s better,” he whispers, strokes Athos’ hair out of his eyes, wipes away his tears, even directs a gentle smile at Athos. “Have you calmed down?”

Athos’ breath gets locked in his throat, at the sight of that smile, and another sob claws its way out – tears down all his armour. He does not understand how Porthos can still look at him like that, how he can still smile so fondly at him, so full of affection that it hurts Athos to see it directed at someone as unworthy as he is. He hides his face in Porthos shoulder and cries, does not know whether it is relief that streams through him, or fear, or even guilt.

Porthos holds him through it, keeps his arms around him and rocks him, as though Athos was a child, woken up from a nightmare and reluctant to return to reality. He is quiet, lets his hands speak for him, strokes through Athos’ hair and down his back, and his presence calms Athos’ frazzled mind as it always does.

“That’s it,” Porthos whispers when Athos’ sobs calm down and he breathes just a little easier. “I’m ‘ere, love – I’m ‘ere for you.”

Athos squeezes his eyes shut hard, forces the last of his tears out, and tries to get a grip, takes a few deep breaths, unsteady and stuttering. He cannot though, not like this. Each and every single breath he is taking still hurts him.

When he tries to get out of Porthos’ arms this time, Porthos lets him – allows him to move off his lap and onto the floor, allows Athos to put his head into his lap instead.

Athos starts to drift almost instantly. He has been on the brink of letting go ever since he set foot into the garrison and heard Porthos speak his name. Now, on his knees on the floor, with Porthos leaning over him, there seems to be no need to hold himself together any more.

Porthos is gentle as always, and his caresses are deliberate: he cards his fingers through Athos’ hair and over his nape, lets his fingertips brush over Athos’ skin again and again, murmurs an endless flow of soothing reassurance. “Shht, it’s alright, love. I’m not gonna leave you, we’re alright, it’s all good.”

It is easier to let his voice wash over him like this, easier to close his eyes and find back to himself. Athos’ chest stops to hurt, after a while, as does his heart. When breathing is no longer something he has to force himself to do, it is much easier to actually listen to what Porthos is saying to him – what he has been saying all along.

Athos lifts his head, opens his lashes to look at Porthos, wide-eyed and overwhelmed, wipes the back of his hand over his burning eyes. “I do not understand.” He has to force the words out, and his voice sounds wrecked, beaten and helpless. Athos flushes, ashamed for so many reasons, and lets his gaze drop to the open folds of Porthos’ shirt instead of looking at his face. “Why are you not angry?”

It is almost as if Porthos does not care at all. But that has to be wrong. Porthos always cares. His hands on Athos’ cheeks, gentle and warm, are evidence enough.

“I’m not angry,” Porthos says carefully, and strokes the hair off Athos’ forehead “because as long as it’s Aramis you kiss, that’s fine with me.”

Athos is so startled that his eyes fly up to look at Porthos’ face once more, but all he finds there is calm sincerity. Porthos’ eyes are warm and dark, entirely honest. He means it. He really means what he says.

“But –“ Athos says, and does not know what to follow that up with.

Porthos shrugs. “It’s Aramis.” He says it as if that was sufficient explanation, and somehow it is, but Athos could never allow that to be true. He made a commitment to Porthos, he owes him his fidelity.

“That is no excuse!” he says, full of self-loathing, and his fingers dig into Porthos’ thigh muscles. “A man should be faithful to – to the one he –“ He cannot say it, no matter how hard he tries, and Porthos leans forward and kisses him.

“Don’t be daft, love,” he tells him gently, rubs his thumbs over Athos’ cheekbones. “You’ve loved Aramis for as long as you’ve loved me, and I never expected you to deny yourself half of your heart.”

Athos can only stare at him in mute astonishment. Porthos’ uncanny ability to garb his truth in simple but beautiful language has always been somewhat confounding. “But,” he gets out eventually, “but you are the one who –“

“I’m just the one who kissed you first,” Porthos interrupts him, voice quiet but firm, “and I’ll always be grateful for that privilege.”

Something breaks in Athos at the words, and he can only stare at Porthos for a long, long moment. Then he lifts his hands on puts them on Porthos’ cheeks, looks at him as if he has never seen him before – will never see him again; he memorizes the face that has become so dear to him, the smile that lurks in the corners of Porthos’ eyes even now, the one Athos thought was lost to him.

Athos pulls at him, very gently, and Porthos allows himself to be pulled, leans forward and into the kiss Athos is rising up to. Athos puts his arms around Porthos’ neck and tries to hold on to him against the whirling confusion that is tearing at his mind.

His heart is full, overflowing with affection for Porthos, and by rights there should not be any space left for Aramis, but he is there, right beside what Athos feels for Porthos. The realization that Athos not only loves, but wants them both is staggering; it leaves him reeling and bewildered as to how a man could possibly be in love with two persons at once when he made an oath to never let himself feel that way again for anyone – leaves him terrified.

It can never be, Athos knows that. He has to make a choice, as impossible as it may be; but Porthos keeps kissing him as if there was no choice at all. Instead of asking Athos to make up his mind, Porthos slides down from the bed to kneel with him on the floor, and take Athos properly into his arms.

Athos sobs into the kiss as the fear falls off him, as he realizes with brilliant clarity that whatever he may decide, Porthos will not be lost to him, that he does not begrudge him his kiss with Aramis –

A sobering wave of recollection breaks over Athos, and he surges back, breaks the kiss with a wet, utterly indecent noise. “But he loves you,” he pants, looks at Porthos’ flushed face in confused indignation. “He said so!”

Porthos blinks at him, very slowly, and pulls Athos forward for another soft kiss. Athos melts into it, but he does not forget the fresh dilemma that is preying on his mind, and when Porthos releases him, his question is no surprise at all, “Aramis actually opened his foolish mouth and said that he loves me?”

Athos frowns, unable to confirm this. Aramis did not say that he loves Porthos. Athos had said it, and Aramis merely did not contradict him. Porthos nods knowledgeably. “Thought so.” He smiles at Athos. “Cause you’re the one he loves, see – why else would he be kissin’ you?”

Athos finds it strangely difficult to argue against this, despite his certain knowledge that it is obviously false. He tells Porthos what happened between him and Aramis, how they came to be alone in that dark alley in the first place, does not leave out even the smallest detail.

Porthos listens to him with a gaze that is wide awake and intent, but a frown descents onto his brow the further Athos advances in his story. “So that’s how much he’s hurtin’, eh?” he says once Athos is finished. “No wonder he wouldn’t admit it.” His eyes flash in anger for a moment. “Shouldn’t’ve run from you the way he did, though.”

Athos goes very still, and does not say anything. He did not kiss Aramis out of pity, and he will not pretend that he did. But remembering the way Aramis talked about himself is like remembering a day out in the snow, when Athos’ hands started to fumble their grip on the reigns, and his feet were so cold that he could not feel them anymore.

“We need to find him,” he says, and his voice is blessedly calm, despite the worry eating him up from inside. “He should not be alone right now.”

Porthos nods. “He’s probably doin’ somethin’ stupid.”

Athos arches his brow at him, tries to built his defences back up. “Hopefully not Madame Faudree.”

Porthos rewards that with a fleeting grin, kisses him once more. “We’ll find him. And then we’ll tell him that he can kiss you as much as he likes – as long as you’re fine with it.”

He helps Athos up on his feet, and bends down to get their hats off the floor as well, dusts them off.

Athos watches him, somewhat bemused. “But I am not at all sure that I am.” He is still floating, albeit close to the ground, his mind still not quite as clear as it should be.

Porthos blinks at him. “But you said it felt good. And you love him.”

Athos wishes that Porthos would stop using that word. It still hurts, hearing it from anyone but her, even after all these years – even though she never meant it. Maybe that is the trouble right there.

Athos takes his hat from Porthos and puts it on, wipes at his still burning eyes, and does not say anything. Porthos quietly hands him a bowl of water to wash his face, dries Athos off with his bandana afterwards.

He does not ask Athos whether he’d rather stay behind, does not offer to search for Aramis by himself, and Athos is glad for it. He feels tired, yes, and overwhelmed, but busying himself with something beside his own troubles is just what he needs right now, and Porthos knows that just as well as Athos does.

They leave Porthos’ lodgings side by side, and turn into the direction of he market, and thus the alley where Athos saw Aramis last. The sky is pale blue above them, spotted with clouds, and gusts of wind reach down into the streets, tug at their hats. They walk in silence for a while, but then Porthos speaks up, lets out a little sigh. “I tried to kiss him once, you know – years ago.”

Athos turns his head to stare at him. Porthos grins, a little guiltily, and shrugs. “I’d just come to Paris, and I thought that’s what he did, you know – goin’ around and kissin’ people.”

The mere idea of Porthos and Aramis kissing is sufficient to make Athos flush, and he tries to hide his confused emotions beneath a cool surface. “You are not entirely wrong.”

Porthos frowns. “No, not entirely. But he wouldn’t kiss me, you see – he said he’s true to his lady. And I believed him, and that was that. I was a little miffed when he had a different lady, not a week later, but I got the hint.”

Athos clears his throat. “You never tried again?”

“No,” Porthos says, his voice a bit rough. “Found out it was much better to be his friend.”

Athos stops in his tracks. “I sincerely hope you never told him so?”

Porthos scrunches up his face in recollection. “I might have, once, when we were drunk. I doubt he remembers it.”

Athos sighs. “Oh, believe me, he remembers.”

No wonder Aramis never tried to get close to Porthos – believing he could either be his lover or his friend, that he couldn’t have both. No wonder he got so desperate that he kissed Athos instead. Typical, really, that the one time Aramis managed to control himself, it would have been better if he hadn’t.

Athos can only imagine how it started to prey on Aramis’ mind – that one kiss he was idiot enough to refuse … how much it hurt him when he saw Porthos kiss Athos instead.

“What are you talkin’ about?” Porthos’ voice breaks into Athos’ spinning thoughts. “Why shouldn’t I’ve said that to him?”

Athos tells him.

Porthos looks positively scandalized at the very idea. “You mean he kept that nonsense in his head all those years when he forgets to lock his door pretty much every damn day?” He takes a sharp cut to the left and growls. “I’m gonna strangle him when I find him!”

 

They fail to do so for almost three hours. Wherever Aramis went after he left Athos, he must have done so unusually discretely. The more time passes without a trace of him, the colder and quieter Athos gets, and his mind starts to float a little higher, tries to get away from him.

Even with the innumerable alleys and side streets that make up the Parisian panorama, and the multitude of people roaming those streets it is unusual for Aramis to pass anywhere unnoticed. His height as well as his looks demand attention, and he never shrinks from it – smiles brighter the more people look at him, positively revels in their stares.

“Ay, I saw such a one,” the voice of an elderly woman penetrates into these cogitations, and Athos turns around to see her talking to Porthos. They are close to the harbour now, in one of the poorer streets, but she looks clean and sharp-eyed, despite the way that age has bent her back. “Looked as morose as megrim, that one. Went off that-a-way.” She points a crooked finger down another alley, in the direction of the harbour, then glances up at Porthos. “He a friend of yours?”

Porthos nods.

“Then you better hurry. He had that soldiers’ stare, you know – the one they get before they do somethin’ idiotic like gettin’ shot. My son got it too, once – never saw him again.”

Porthos turns his head to look at Athos, and they both know what stare she is talking about – that unfocused glaring at empty space, when Aramis is losing himself in memories of Savoy.

So they leave her behind and more or less run in the direction she pointed at, rush down a number of narrow alleys. Porthos stops, suddenly, and Athos runs into him. “What?” he wheezes, his breath effectively knocked out of him, “Why are we stopping?”

“Found a tavern,” Porthos says – and goes inside. The place is even worse than the one Athos found himself in this morning. It is dark, its windows so dirty as to block out almost all daylight; a few cheap candles burn in the corners, flicker and smoke. The taproom is crowded, nevertheless, the tavern’s clientele an unwashed group of miscreants, each one looking more prone to violence than the last.

Even as detached from reality as he currently is – or maybe because he is – Athos puts his hand on his sword-hilt, and his blood quickens in readiness for a fight.

But then Porthos’ throat leaves a victorious sound, and Athos almost starts to cry when he spots a familiar head of unruly dark hair in the corner furthest from the door. His relief is short-lived, though. Aramis looks terrible, his clothes are dirty and dishevelled, and he is so drunk that he fails to recognize them at first. When he does, he shrinks back from Porthos’ touch, a look of horrified guilt on his face. “No – no no no, please, don’t.”

Porthos frowns, and picks him up – carries him out of the tavern despite Aramis’ desperate struggling. Athos follows them out, prepared to defend them if necessary, but no-one pays them any heed. You could probably cut someone’s throat in this tavern, and walk out unmolested.

Compared with the dimness inside, the sunlight outside the door is so bright that it blinds Athos at first, resulting in somewhat clumsy groping for the door’s handle to pull it shut behind them. After that is accomplished Athos turns around and has to blink a few times before he makes out Porthos’ sturdy frame on the opposite side of the narrow street, a few steps away from the tavern’s entrance. Porthos has deposited Aramis against the wall, and tries to get through to him – tries to make him understand that he does not need to be afraid of him.

His soft entreaties feel to Athos like a musket shot to the gut.

Aramis has never been afraid of Porthos, not once in all the time they’ve known each other. Now his eyes are wide and wet, and he tries to shield himself from Porthos as if Porthos had the intention to hit him. Nothing Porthos says to him does any good, and Athos shrinks back from them in astonishment when Porthos suddenly growls at Aramis, when he makes himself bigger and imposing, and shakes Aramis as if he was nothing more than a naughty little boy. “Stop this nonsense or I’ll put you over my knee!”

Amazingly enough, that does it. Aramis’ arms fall down as if he was a puppet whose strings were cut, and he gazes up at Porthos, blinks a few times – and throws himself at Porthos’ chest. “I’m so sorry,” he slurs, pushes his face into the folds of Porthos’ shirt and clings to him with both hands, “I’m so sorry – I didn’t mean to, you have to believe me – I didn’t mean to!”

Porthos puts his arms around him, instantly himself again, and kisses the top of Aramis’ head, pulls him closer. “I know, shht, it’s alright, Aramis, I know.”

Athos feels as though he is drowning. He fights with himself for a heartbeat or two, but then he steps forward, carefully, afraid of startling Aramis into flight.

When he reaches out his hand to touch Aramis’ shoulder, Aramis’ reaction startles him instead.

Aramis lifts his head, twists it around to look at Athos, and once he recognizes him, he twists his body around as well, stretches out both arms and pulls Athos towards him with single-minded determination. “I didn’t mean to,” he says again, both of this hands fisted into the leather of Athos’ uniform jacket. The look in his eyes is disquietingly intent, almost manic. “I tried so hard not to, Athos, you have to believe me.”

“I do,” Athos says automatically. His voice is smooth, presents an untroubled surface over the disturbed depths of his emotions, “I believe you.”

His outward calmness seems to calm Aramis as well, and he slumps back against Porthos, lets his head hang down and allows his hair to fall into his eyes. “Please don’t leave me.”

“We won’t,” Porthos says, his heart in his voice, and hugs Aramis to his chest.

Aramis lifts his head back up when Athos remains quiet, and his gaze is fearful again. “But I kissed –” He swallows, focuses his eyes on Athos before he hastily stares at the ground instead. “I kissed you.”

Athos pulls him into his arms then, still unable to say anything, his heart keeping his voice trapped inside his chest. Aramis comes willingly, just as he did when they were kissing, pushes into the embrace and hides his face against Athos’ neck. “Please don’t leave me.”

“I will not,” Athos says, finally, puts his arms around Aramis and holds him close. “I promise you, I will not leave you – and neither will Porthos.”

Aramis clings to him for a long moment, but then he hastily pushes Athos away, twists out of their embrace and is noisily sick into the gutter to their left. Porthos sighs and holds him upright, holds Aramis’ hair out of his face with gentle care, apparently neither discomfited by Aramis’ helpless retching, nor by the smell.

Athos supposes Porthos has ample experience with this, given the fact how often he took it upon himself to bring Athos home when he was too drunk to accomplish that feat by himself, and looks on in strangely detached self-awareness.

Once Aramis’ stomach stops heaving, Porthos pulls him upright. “All out?”

Aramis looks thoroughly exhausted, but he nods, and Porthos bends down to lift him up into his arms. “I’m gonna take it very personal if you get sick over me – so try to warn me, yeah?”

Aramis flails a little, which accomplishes precisely nothing. “I can walk!” He slurs the words so much as to be almost incomprehensible.

“No, you can’t,” Porthos grunts, holding him with ease. “And to be quite honest, I’m fed up with people tryin’ to tell me they can walk when they clearly can’t.” He looks around to direct a somewhat concerned gaze at Athos. “You alright?”

Athos is not sure that he is, now that he sees Aramis and Porthos together like this, but he nods, nevertheless. “Of course.” He clears his throat. “His lodgings are closest.”

Porthos grunts in agreement. “Take the lead, please.”

Athos does, and they make good progress – only have to stop once when Aramis’ stomach acts up again. When they reach Aramis’ lodgings, they find the door unlocked as usual, and Porthos kicks it shut behind him, clearly remembering his earlier frustration about Aramis’ erratic memory. He puts Aramis down in the middle of the room and prevents him from falling to the floor with a secure grip around his upper arms.

With most of the alcohol he imbibed since the morning no longer in his system, Aramis shows alarming signs of being overcome by guilt again. He refuses to look at either one of them, stares down at the floor, but does not try to get away from under Porthos’ hands.

That, at least, is somewhat relieving. Athos hopes he never has to witness Aramis shrinking from Porthos’ touch ever again. It is just not natural.

“I’m gonna clean you up now, Aramis.” Porthos’ tone is quiet, but firm – and there is a very noticeable aspect of command to his statement. Athos flushes, despite the fact that it is not directed at him, and his heartbeat spikes in unexpected pleasure.

Aramis merely nods, allows Porthos to walk him over to the bed, and yields to the gentle pressure on his shoulder – sits down without a hint of reluctance.

Athos watches silently as Porthos gets the basin of rain water from the window sill, watches him put it on the floor and sit down next to Aramis on the bed; he watches Porthos struggle with the buttons on Aramis’ uniform, and finally steps forward to help him, not so much acting for himself, but as an extension of Porthos.

Athos goes down to his knees in front of Aramis, his gaze fixed on buttons and buckles instead of Aramis’ face, undoes each one with an unhurried preciseness that stands in stark contrast to the trouble in his heart and mind.

Once Athos is done with the various devices keeping Aramis’ jacket closed, he helps Porthos pushing it off Aramis’ shoulders, and since he is down on the floor already, takes it upon himself to strip the boots off Aramis’ feet as well.

Aramis, who seldom apologizes for anything, whispers that he is sorry once more, and when Athos looks up, he finds Aramis gazing down at him, his eyes wet with new tears. “I’ve ruined everything.”

Athos mouth remains shut. He has no idea what to say.

Porthos growls. It seems that Aramis’ contriteness does not impress him at all.

“You’ve done nothin' of the sort,” he informs Aramis gruffly and gets up to search Aramis’ cupboards for something to rinse his mouth with. He smells a few bottles, wrinkles his nose in distaste at most of them, and finally returns with something he forces between Aramis’ lips without even a hint of compassion. “Don’t swallow it, mind – that doesn’t smell like somethin’ you’re supposed to swallow. Where do you always get this stuff?”

Aramis, preoccupied with gargling and coughing, gives no answer. Porthos produces the bucket from beneath the bed and lets Aramis spit, then produces a flask of water. “Here – drink that.”

Aramis, entirely docile by now, does as he is told, and drinks until the flask is empty. Porthos puts it away again, and when he returns to the bed, he pulls Aramis’ shirt over his head without further ado. Once the shirt is off Aramis directs a somewhat startled glance at him, confused and almost frightened. Porthos sits down at his right side and strokes Aramis’ tousled hair out of his face, both hands gentle on Aramis’ cheeks. “Told you I’m gonna clean you up.”

His voice is not nearly as soft as it is when Athos and him are together in bed. It commands the same calm though, the same sturdy firmness that tells you without room for doubt that he will take care of you – that he knows exactly what he is doing, and that it would be foolish beyond permission to fight back.

Aramis evades Porthos’ gaze almost immediately, but the flush to his cheeks is prominent on his pale skin, and Athos feels an answering warmth in his belly. Watching Porthos take care of someone else should maybe make him jealous, but instead it leaves him flushed and strangely excited – does to him what it seems to be doing to Aramis.

Porthos pulls the water basin closer towards his feet and starts to wash Aramis, using a rough cloth whose white fabric stands in stark contrast to Porthos’ dark skin. The way he lets it glide over Aramis’ face, neck, and chest is not so much thorough as loving – he turns each touch into a caress, doesn’t allow Aramis to squirm away, but keeps him steady as he cleans the day’s traces off him.

Aramis does not try to get away for very long – he surrenders soon enough, lets Porthos do whatever he wants with him, is passive under his ministrations – seems to move steadily closer to him although there was already very little space between them to begin with. The expression in his eyes is not empty, but enraptured, has nothing to do with the lost stare of bad memories.

Aramis knows where he is, and with whom – is losing himself in the presence, not in the past.

Athos knows precisely what Aramis feels, and it should frighten him, perhaps.

It does not.

Despite the absence of fear, Athos’ eyes go wider the closer Aramis moves towards Porthos, the more he relaxes under Porthos’ touch. Athos has risen from the floor when Porthos started to wash Aramis, and is looking down at them from a little distance now. Although he cannot begrudge Aramis his obvious enjoyment of Porthos’ care, he did not expect his friend to be so utterly submissive in receiving it.

The ongoing lack of resistance lures him closer, and he sits down on the bed on Aramis’ left side, turns a quiet, pleading gaze at Porthos. Porthos’ mouth quirks into a smile, and he hands the cloth to Athos willingly, watches Athos do his part in washing away any and all evidence of the hours Aramis spent in the tavern.

As soon as Athos touches him, Aramis’ eyes fly up to his face with the exact same expression he had when Porthos took away his shirt; so Athos tries to use the same tone of voice Porthos did – that same steady reassurance, the same implicitness. “I told you we would not leave you.”

Aramis closes his eyes, then, and leans into his touch, and Athos lets the cloth glide over Aramis’ chest, watches its progress over the creamy skin covered in bruises and scratches (none of them older than three days), wipes it over his belly and lower. He catches himself just in time, appalled by what he is doing, and slowly draws his hand away when his fingertips brush against the leather of Aramis’ trousers.

“It’s alright,” Porthos says quietly from Aramis’ right side, “he’s clean enough now.” He takes the cloth from Athos and hangs it up to dry, returns to the bed with a curiously blank expression. “Let’s put him to bed.”

He crouches down in front of Aramis, unlaces his trousers. Athos can do nothing but stare, his mouth suddenly too dry for speech. “Are you – what -?” He stops and clears his throat, unsure how to phrase his concerns.

“Harder to run away in the mornin' without trousers,” Porthos says quietly and stands up, pushes at Aramis’ shoulder so he falls back onto the bed. “Up with your hips.”

Athos goes hot all over when Aramis obeys without even a second of hesitation, when he lifts his hips so Porthos can pull down his trousers, and allows him to pull them off his legs. His heart jumps up into his throat when he watches Aramis close his eyes and bite his lip while Porthos is undressing him. Athos automatically mirrors the gesture, bites his own lip and holds back a moan.

Aramis remains flat on his back afterward, spread out on the sheets in just his undergarments, and Athos looks down at him, lifts his hand as if he was in a trance, and traces a particularly vivid scratch high on Aramis’ ribcage. It occurs to Athos, suddenly, that he should not do this – that he should keep his distance and let Porthos care for Aramis by himself … the way Aramis surely wants it to be.

But Aramis is looking up at him with such a soft, hopeful expression in his eyes that Athos cannot bring himself to get up and leave him. So he helps Porthos arrange Aramis’ limbs on the bed instead, pulls the blanket over him, and sits back down at his side. “Sleep,” he orders, fails to recognize his own voice. “You will feel better in the morning.”

“You won’t leave?” Aramis asks, tired and child-like, and his fingers circle around Athos’ wrist in a gesture that is as innocent as it is unconscious.

“I will not leave you,” Athos replies quietly, and he does not look up when Porthos sits down at Aramis other side. “We will both stay with you, I promise.”

He is not surprised to see Porthos bend over Aramis to press a kiss to his forehead, is not surprised to hear him repeat Athos’ command. “Sleep, you fool. We’ll be here for you in the mornin'.”

Aramis smiles and closes his eyes, and a moment later he is asleep, his fingers still circling Athos’ wrist. His breathing turns deep and regular almost instantly, and Athos can only assume that he has not had a night of proper rest since they returned to Paris. Athos feels an answering exhaustion creep into his bones, accompanied by a warmth he is reluctant to accept. He very carefully removes Aramis’ grasp from around his wrist and turns so he can rest his elbows on his knees and put his head into his hands.

He promptly lifts it again when Porthos abruptly stands up to stride across the room, back and forth, as restless as Athos has ever seen him. When Athos looks at his face, he is startled to detect tears in Porthos’ eyes, angry and helpless.

“Why is he always so stupid?” Porthos growls, and his voice carries his emotions without fail, although he tries very hard to keep it quiet. “Why didn’t he come to us? How – how could he do this to himself?” He takes another turn about the room, visibly aching for something or preferably someone to hit. “Why can’t he trust us, after everything –“

Athos remains seated by Aramis’ side, anxiety flaring up in his chest the longer he watches Porthos march about the room. “He … we betrayed you, Porthos. Surely you must see, how that –“

“I don’t see anythin’!” Porthos grinds out. “You don’t betray me by lovin’ each other – that’s just nonsense! You don’t belong to me, I’m not your keeper! Even if you wanna stop sleepin’ with me and be with him instead –“

“I do not!” Athos says, and his eyes fly up to Porthos’ face with the fearless fervour of utter certainty. “I do not!”

Porthos’ catches himself at that, stops pacing and smiles, a little guiltily. “Even if you wanted to do that,” he repeats, much calmer, “that’s no reason for him to drown himself in guilt. Why does he always have to turn love into somethin’ troublesome?”

Athos looks at him, mystified and full of awe for this strange, simple man who could not be more complex if he tried. “Because he is in love with you,” he says quietly, “and kissed me out of desperation.”

“I don’t believe that for one second,” Porthos growls, the conviction in his voice strong enough to force a mountain stream to change its course. “You didn’t see the way he cared for you when you had that fever – how he clung to you in his sleep. If the way he’s been lookin’ at you these last few weeks isn’t love, I don’t know what is.”

Athos cannot allow that to be true, but he does not say anything in return.

Even if it was true – Aramis has loved Porthos for so much longer; what he feels for Athos could not possibly compare to the feelings he has for Porthos.

“You don’t believe me,” Porthos says, and steps closer to the bed, crouches down in front of Athos and looks up at him with weary fondness. “Even after all this time – you don’t believe me.”

The sadness in his voice makes Athos feel more guilty than anything else. “How can I?” he whispers. “Why would he love me when –“

“Because you’re you,” Porthos says curtly, and the unshakable persuasion in his voice takes Athos’ breath away. He stares down at the floor, unable to accept Porthos’ words. He is not worthy of such devotion, never has been. He is too weak, too twisted, and it would be much better for everyone involved if –

“No, listen to me.” Porthos’ voice cuts into Athos’ thoughts, its urgency shaking Athos to the core. “Please, at least this once – listen to me! I know you don’t wanna hear this, but this one time you gotta let me say it, please.”

Porthos takes Athos’ hands in his, and it is his warmth that gets through to Athos and keeps him in place, his presence that steadies him. “I joke about it all the time – that you and Aramis would never make it without me … but the thing is: Aramis and me – we wouldn’t make it without you either. We need you. We need your wit, and your plans, and you pretending not to care, when you do, so much.” Porthos’ voice breaks over the last words, and Athos finally looks up at him, sees the affection and trust in his eyes, and it hurts, in all the best ways.

“The first time you allowed us to touch you, the first time you smiled at us – I’ll never forget it, and I’ll bet my life on it that Aramis won’t, either. He says you shine so much brighter than most, even when you get lost in the shadows, and he’s right about that.” Porthos goes to his knees when Athos tries to avoid his gaze once more, puts both of his hands to Athos’ cheeks and forces Athos to look at him. “We love you, because you’re you,” he repeats, earnest and impossibly honest. ”What else are we supposed to do?”