Pairings: implied past Aramis/Marsac, mostly gen.
Summary: Western AU.
A/N Hey evilmaniclaugh I finally updated it! Only taken me nearly two months... XD
Athos lead the way up the rickety flight of steps and introduced himself to the man Porthos had indicated. To all intents and purposes he'd come as a courtesy to inform the captain that he was appropriating one of his convicts for a while. In reality, this was mostly an excuse to get a good look at the man and weigh him up.
What he saw didn't fill Athos with enthusiasm. Alleyn was perhaps in his mid-forties, sporting a tightly waxed moustache and overly smart clothes and top hat, his patent leather shoes shined to within an inch of their lives, despite the dusty conditions. He listened to Athos' explanations, smiling politely all the while but never letting it reach his eyes, which remained cautious and condescending.
"Well," Alleyn said finally. "If you can rid the town of this pest, I'm sure everyone will be grateful. Keep du Vallon for as long as you want if you think he'll be of use." His expression clearly suggested he found this unlikely, and Athos was conscious of Porthos shifting restlessly behind him, although he kept silent.
"Thank you. I - " Athos broke off as a loud percussive crash echoed around the construction site, and a cloud of dust rose into the air some way distant.
"What the hell was that?" Athos asked, both reassured and mildly embarrassed by the fact neither Porthos nor Aramis had reacted at all to the noise.
"They're blasting," Porthos explained. "Clearing the rock for the trackbed."
"You get used to it," Aramis added with a slight smirk.
Athos gave him a sour look, but in the next moment there was a second almighty explosion and bits of dirt and stone rained down on them. Everyone jumped for cover under the veranda of the building.
"You're not telling me that was normal?" Athos managed.
Aramis shook his head, looking shocked. "They must have detonated a huge amount for something that big!"
"It was the platform!" Porthos exclaimed, leaning out and staring down the site. "They've blown it to bits!"
They hurried back down the steps and raced towards the cloud of dust billowing from the site of the explosion. As the air cleared a little they could see the full extent of the devastation. Broken timbers and twisted metalwork stuck out of the ruins of what had been the almost-completed station platform. Men were stumbling out of the wreckage, bleeding and dazed, others could be seen still lying in the rubble.
Without needing to confer the three men set to work, tending the injured, helping them to safety and in some cases digging them out of the collapsed structure.
It seemed that a stockpile of the blasting powder had been detonated, either by accident or, as they couldn't help wondering, by design.
Aramis was scanning the wreckage, wondering with relief if they'd got everyone out, when he heard a faint voice calling for help. Crouching down, he finally caught sight of a man trapped beneath a set of overhanging timbers. Bloodstained and white with dust, he reached out weakly towards Aramis.
"Hold on," Aramis said, stretching towards the grasping fingers. Taking hold, he tried to pull the man towards him only to find he was wedged in place. Above them the structure creaked and shifted ominously. Aramis knelt in the dirt and leaned further in.
"Aramis!" A way off, Athos had noticed what he was doing, and with an eye on the unstable debris above him was considerably alarmed. "Get out of there!"
"Someone's trapped. I can reach him!" Aramis called back, stretching further.
"Aramis move, the whole thing's going!" Athos yelled, watching in horror as the weight shifted and stones started slipping to the ground. Athos started running, knowing he was too far away to reach him in time.
Aramis looked up, realisation finally dawning of his position. He was half-kneeling, in too awkward a stance to move quickly, and could do nothing but stare in horror as tonnes of stone and scaffolding slid towards him in what felt like slow motion.
And then something hit him in the side, tackling him bodily out of the way and he rolled over and over with another body on top of him, coming to a stop just inches from the crashing stones.
He coughed, blinking Porthos' face into focus. Porthos looked down at him, panting with exertion, and grinned. He rolled off and offered Aramis a hand up as Athos ran over to them.
Aramis nodded in silent thanks, words for the moment beyond him. Buoyed up on adrenaline Porthos laughed delightedly and slapped him on the shoulder. "Next time move quicker," he advised.
"I was just trying to help." Aramis sighed, looking at where a sea of rubble completely covered the place where he'd been standing, knowing the man he'd tried to rescue must be dead and how close he'd come to joining him.
"Come on." Athos spoke with quiet purpose. "We'll organise everyone into clearing this. We can dig out the body at least."
"Someone's less than moved by it all," Porthos murmured, and they looked back at where Alleyn was still standing on the balcony watching them silently.
"He didn't even seem particularly surprised by the explosion, now I come to think about it," Athos said quietly.
"You think he knew that this was going to happen?" Aramis demanded, outraged. He'd have stormed off there and then to confront him, but Athos held him back.
"Later. Wild accusations will get you nowhere. We need proof before we act."
It took the rest of the day to clear enough of the rubble to be sure there was no-one else buried beneath it. Overall there had been two fatalities, the man Aramis had tried to save and another who it turned out had been close to the initial explosion. The mood was sombre as the three men gathered tiredly in the saloon for a subdued supper.
Aramis slumped in his chair, toying with his glass, his expression grim. "So. What do we do?"
Athos considered. "The primary threat is Vadim. We neutralise him, at least we can see then if there's a move made to replace him. See if there really is a wider power at work here. We may even be able to make him talk." He was cleaning his pistols as he spoke, and the calm movements of his fingers over the metal gave his words a chilling weight.
"And how do you propose to accomplish this where others have failed?" Aramis asked tiredly.
Athos glanced up, wondering if Aramis had taken his words as a criticism of Marsac, but there was no accusation in his face, just weary heartache.
"Vadim's camped in the hills, right?" Athos said. "We flush him out. Take the fight to him."
"He'll pick us off before we even get close," Porthos snorted, speaking for the first time. "It's a killing ground out there, there's no cover."
"Then we go at night," Athos said. "Cross the open ground in darkness, and hole up somewhere until it's first light. Surprise them while they're still asleep. Aramis, how are your tracking skills?"
"It's been so dry there'll be precious few signs. But we're talking quite a few horses. I can lead us to them," Aramis said confidently. "And there's only one easy track up into the hills."
Athos nodded. "Then we go tomorrow night."
"That's your plan?" Treville stared incredulously at him. "Just the three of you? Against Vadim's entire gang?"
It was the afternoon of the following day, and Athos had sought out the Mayor to explain their intentions. Not so much seeking approval, as wanting someone to know what had happened to them if they didn't return.
"No-one else was willing," Athos said mildly. "The town's too frightened."
"And if you all get yourselves shot?"
"Then I regret you will need to find yourself another sheriff. But this isn't intended as a suicide mission. We will endeavour to return in one piece."
Treville glared at him, not entirely sure if he was being mocked, but Athos returned his gaze placidly enough and he sighed.
"You're our last hope. I won't willingly send you out to die, but I need Vadim stopped."
Athos nodded understanding. "We will do our best for you.
"You pull this off, you'll certainly earn your fee." Treville leaned back in his chair and regarded Athos narrowly. "I assume I need not remind you that officially your duty is to attempt to bring him in alive? That you are retained by this office as a sheriff, not an assassin."
"And unofficially?" Athos couldn't help adding, not having missed Treville's light emphasis on the word.
Treville just looked at him. Athos gave a slight bow of acknowledgment, and left.
That evening they waited impatiently for nightfall, the light summer's day stretching out unbearably. As soon as it was fully dark the three of them mounted up and rode quietly out of the town, taking a route through the back streets to avoid unnecessary notice.
Once out in the open they felt better, despite the fact they were riding into danger. They rode in silence, harnesses muffled to prevent any jingling that might give them away when they got closer.
There was a full moon overhead, which was both a blessing and a curse. It would be easy to find their way, but also easy for anyone to see them coming. They had to hope that Vadim's gang were far enough away not to bother keeping a watch over the valley, as their stark black shadows would be easily picked out from a distance.
An hour's ride and they were picking their way up the first slopes. Aramis went first, knowing the terrain best, leading them deeper into the hills. As the slopes rose around them they couldn't help giving apprehensive glances up into the darkness. It would be simple to ambush them here, they could be picked off with ease.
To everyone’s relief they made it through the first range of hills without incident. Riding down into a valley, Aramis lead them to a sheltered gulley where they dismounted and gathered round.
"From here they could have gone in any number of directions," Aramis said in a low voice. "We'll need to wait until it's light to pick up the trail."
"May as well try and get some sleep," Athos said. "There's still a few hours until dawn."
Not wanting to risk building a fire in case the light was seen, they made themselves as comfortable as they could on the stony ground and shared some food. There had been no indication that Vadim or his people were anywhere in the vicinity, but they kept their voices low, and conversation to a minimum.
Eventually they settled down beneath thin woollen blankets, lying close together for warmth in the absence of a fire.
"We're not taking him alive."
The sudden assertion came from Aramis, quietly made and without looking at the others.
Athos glanced at him. "And if he surrenders?" he asked neutrally.
"But if he does?" Athos propped himself up on his elbow, looking at Aramis. "Being as I somehow appear to be the designated representative of law and order here - it would be my duty - "
"To hell with duty!" Aramis said angrily. "He killed Marsac. He deserves to die."
Athos shrugged. "You'll get no real argument from me. I was merely making sure I understood your full intent."
"You ever killed a man before?" This, unexpectedly, from Porthos, lying on Aramis' other side.
Aramis hesitated. "No. But that doesn't mean I can't."
"I have. Once." Porthos rolled over until he was staring up at the stars. "I was part of a travelling show. Court of Miracles we were called. Small time con artist stuff mostly, bearded lady that was a bloke in a dress, snake oil cure-alls, cardsharps, rainmaker machines that we promised would work once we were at least one town away..." he sighed.
"Then one day the law caught up with us. It's not like we were doing anything horrendously illegal, probably would only have been facing a fine though we didn't have the money. But Charon - he was our leader like, you know? He panicked. Pulled a gun."
Porthos' face was stony in the moonlight, Athos and Aramis listening in fascinated silence. This was the most either of them had ever heard Porthos talk, certainly the first information he'd volunteered about himself.
"It's not like he was going to use it. Bloody thing wasn't even loaded, probably wouldn’t have fired even if it had been. It was his grandfather's, he just used to carry it about with him. But I guess they didn’t know that."
"They shot him?" Athos hazarded quietly, when Porthos was silent for a long moment.
"Yeah." Porthos sat up, pulled the blanket around him as if he was suddenly cold. "The others moved on, but I stayed behind. Didn't know what to do with myself. Couldn’t sleep, couldn't settle. He was my friend. More than my friend. Family, I suppose. More than I ever had. So I tracked him down. The guy that did it."
"You killed him?" Athos prompted, after another long pause.
"In cold blood." Porthos gave a heavy sigh. "They arrested me straight away. I didn't even try to run. Guess I didn't see the point. Expected they'd hang me." He gave a tight laugh. "Still not entirely sure why they didn't. Figured to get some use out of me I suppose. Twenty five years' hard labour."
Athos winced. "That's a death sentence in itself." The life expectancy of such a punishment could be barely more than a handful of years at best.
"Would have been kinder to hang me." Porthos grinned, but there was no mirth in it. "Anyway. here I am."
Aramis shifted uncomfortably. "I'm not sure if that was meant to deter me from shooting Vadim, but I'm still determined he should pay."
Porthos shook his head. "I'd never try and talk a man out of anything he's set on. I suppose I'm just saying - I understand. How you feel. But revenge doesn't bring anyone back, you know? And then - if you do it - if you kill him - well, I suppose I'm saying I'll know how you feel then too. Afterwards, like. If you need someone. To listen."
Aramis was quiet for a beat. "Thank you," he said, genuinely touched.
Porthos just nodded and lay down again, facing deliberately away from them and feeling awkwardly like he'd shared too much of himself. But the darkness and the shared danger had seemed to invite confidences, and in a way it was a weight off him too, to have told them.
He'd been bearing it a long time alone, and that neither Aramis nor Athos had condemned his actions felt like a surprisingly huge relief. Porthos fell asleep wondering at the fact that their good opinion of him should have become so important in such a short space of time.