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After Midnight

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It is after midnight when the last cadet pulls through his crisis and drops, spent with the ravages of fever, into a deeper sleep. Constance drops the damp cloth she’d been cleaning Clairmont’s sweat with into the waste barrel, for later burning. With a few short strides through the narrow space of the Garrison infirmary, she crosses to the window, opens the shutter, and gulps three breaths of rain-soaked air, resting her elbows on the sill and allowing herself, finally, to tremble.

“Our brave young soldiers,” she hears: Aramis’ light soft voice behind her. “Our brave general.” She looks up, startled. It is quiet in the rain-blurred yard, and dark - a few flambeaux, for the benefit of the sentries, a lamp in the Captain’s office as Athos, forbidden entry, keeps his own stubborn vigil. There are no sudden entrances of military dignitaries, caparisoned in glory… “You brought them all safe home,” he continues, voice soft and slurring. “I salute you.” As her head turns, startled, he touches fingers to his temple in a quick and informal Musketeer salute.

“Get away with you,” she says fondly, pushing herself back to her feet carefully and closing the shutter. “Tending the sick is woman’s business. There’s no glory in it: it’s just a job of work.”

From his seat on a stool by Porthos’ narrow bed, Aramis scrapes back his lank hair, then pulls back his dull calico sleeve and lays his wrist on the big man’s forehead, testing the heat of him. Porthos grumbles in his sleep, his colour, even in the low light of the candles, better than it was a day ago. Aramis smiles to himself, satisfied, and leans back, then nearly falls off the stool as he realises, almost too late, that it is not a chair with a back to it. He collects himself, swaying groggily but with rampant dignity, and says, “My dear Constance, you have divined the final mystery of Musketeering. The riding and the fighting and the dashing hats, the panache, they’re all a distraction for the audience. Underneath it all is, ever and always, just another job of work.” Holding up a determined finger, dark eyes bright with new purpose, he declares, “We must take you drinking, when the christening is over, and quarantine you with fine wine.”

Drunk with fatigue as she is, that nearly makes sense to her. But she smiles and says, “I’ve no head for liquor; take me dancing instead.”

He smiles with his eyes and rises, to bow with the innate trained grace of a courtier and offer her his hand. “That I can do. My lady, this dance?”

“Get away with you,” she says again, but a laugh is bubbling up inside her, born of relief and the splinter-bone exhaustion of a long week. “Me, a respectable married woman alone with a notorious libertine…”

“I assure you, Madame, your reputation is safe with me,” Aramis says with dignity. “Assuming we can ditch our -” he counts rapidly - “dozen chaperones, that is.”

“They stick closer than my Aunty Florence,” Constance says, wide-eyed and breathless, “what shall we do?!”

“We shall have to pretend,” he answers, solemn, “that we are nothing but chance acquaintances. But when our hands touch you shall know, as will I, that intimacies have passed between us.” He bows again with a glorious flourish and she takes his hand. Accompanied by the drum of rain and the rasp of sleeping breath, they tread the stately measures of an allemande in their grimy linen and shabby skirt and breeches - fit for nothing but burning now - humming the bars of the melody softly to themselves. They turn about each other and Constance trips on a bucket. Aramis steadies her with a hand under her elbow but himself loses equilibrium. They collect themselves at last leaning against the wall, eyes on each other, breathing the same air. “My husband,” she mourns, “returns from Amiens tomorrow.”

“Ah, well-a-day,” he says, tucking a strand of unwashed hair behind her ear, “we can only treasure tonight, then.” As one they turn to hilarity, resting heads on each other’s shoulders and chortling, barely restraining themselves. It is only when Porthos whimpers in his sleep that they break off, Aramis’ attention returning to his friend with the focus of a sniper.

“He’s fine,” Constance tells him softly. In their close-set pallets, Clairmont and Brujon’s hands have found each other and interlaced fingers. “All our soldiers are coming home.”

“D’Artagnan left before the sickness started,” he says slowly, dreamily. “He didn’t even know to worry. If it had gone a little worse…”

“It didn’t go worse.”

“Out like a candle, when he wasn’t even looking. There’s something to lose sleep over.”

“It’s another job of work,” Constance tells him firmly. He doesn’t answer and she wonders if he has fallen asleep on his feet, but he is only watching Porthos carefully, as the big man settles again and begins to snore.

“You should get some rest yourself,” she chides him.

“I had a nap this morning,” he protests.

“No, I had a nap this morning.” He looks at her in disbelief and she scowls at him. Copying one of Athos’ intonations she orders, “Bed,” and it works this time: he protests again but lets her chivvy him to the spare cot and prod at him until he falls into it. He looks at her, betrayed, as she eases off his sickroom slippers, appalled as if she were taking away his feet. “Get away with you,” she says again gruffly, easing a blanket over him, “for you can trust I shall keep watch.”

“I believe you,” Aramis says softly.

“Too right you do.”

“I’m so glad you came to stay with us…” he mumbles, eyes drifting shut. Constance smiles wryly, putting her hand to his cheek. She’s so very glad too, strange as the last years have been. A job of work…

“It was my birthday today,” he confides, his eyes opening again, soft and black in the low light.

“We’ll take you out drinking when the quarantine is done,” she says fondly.

His fingers reach up and touch the very tip of her severe braid where it dangles over her shoulder. “Never thought I’d live this long.”