Pairings: implied past Aramis/Marsac, mostly shippy gen.
Summary: Western AU.
An awareness of stealthy movement nearby brought Porthos back to consciousness and he tensed before opening his eyes, ready to explode into attack mode.
Cautious investigation through half-closed lids revealed it was only Athos, readying the horses with a quiet purpose and he relaxed again. There was a warm weight against his back that proved to be Aramis, still fast asleep.
Porthos sat up carefully, trying not to wake him. Aramis was frowning in his sleep, the fingers of one hand clenched into a fist. Porthos watched him for a second, wondering if the course Aramis was set on would bring him peace, or merely a different kind of misery.
He pulled the blanket up to cover Aramis' shoulder, then looked round to find Athos watching him in turn. He flushed, but Athos just gave him a slight nod of approval, and turned back to the horses.
It was early, the sun only just up, and the air was still chilly. Porthos pulled his own blanket around his shoulders and went to join Athos.
"Here." Athos pulled a revolver out of his saddlebag, clicked it open to show Porthos it was loaded, and offered it to him.
"You're trusting me?" Porthos couldn't help the note of disbelief in his voice as he took it.
"If I didn't, you wouldn't be here. And I hardly expect you to face this lot unarmed."
Porthos nodded, and tucked the gun into his belt. "I won't let you down," he said solemnly.
To his surprise, Athos gave him a brief smile. "I know." He glanced over at the sleeping Aramis then back to Porthos, faintly amused. "Should we toss a coin to see who has to wake him?"
Despite the dryness of the ground and the fact it had been a couple of days since they'd ridden this way, it didn't take Aramis long to find signs of the gang's passing.
Wary now, they rode in single file up a narrow canyon, every sense straining for any indication there might be people nearby.
They'd been travelling for about twenty minutes, chafing at their slow progress but unwilling to risk stumbling upon the camp unawares, when they heard a horse whinnying somewhere nearby.
Everyone froze and listened intently, but there were no signs that anyone had taken alarm.
"It can probably sense our horses," Aramis breathed. "Hopefully the men don't have such sharp ears."
They dismounted, and Athos crept up a steep rise to peer into the hollow beyond. He spent a few seconds watching, then slithered silently back down to them.
"Six of them, all still asleep," he whispered. "Porthos, how many were there when you saw them at the station that night?"
Porthos looked mildly panicked, and counted hastily in his head. "Six? Six. I think."
Athos and Aramis looked at him exasperatedly. "It is rather important," Athos whispered acidly.
"Six." Porthos nodded decisively. "I'm certain of it."
"Right. Then that's all of them. We're in with a chance." Athos took a loop of cord from his saddle bags and cut it into lengths, handing some to Aramis and Porthos.
"What are we going to do, whip them into submission?" Porthos smirked.
Athos gave him a look. "We sneak down there and tie them together. Lift any weapons we can. Tie their boots. If they wake they'll be confused, and fall over if they try to stand. We should be able to subdue them between us."
Porthos stared at him. "That's the shittest plan I've ever heard," he declared under his breath.
"Do either of you have a better one?" Athos enquired.
"Can't we just shoot them?" said Aramis, although he didn’t sound all that enthusiastic about the idea.
"Six men, in cold blood?" Athos asked quietly. "Even I'd baulk at that. Besides, the noise of the first shot would wake the others too quickly. This way, we're in with a chance of taking them all alive. Remember, we've got questions we want answering."
He waited, and with a glance at each other and a mutual shrug, Aramis and Porthos both nodded.
They climbed back up the slope with as little sound as possible, and crept down the other side until they were within the circle of slumbering men. A fire in the centre had burnt itself out, and the good scattering of empty bottles suggested both that they'd been working their way through the goods taken from the supply wagons and that with any luck they were all deeply asleep.
With silent gestures they took two men each and gingerly crouched down to loop the cords around their ankles. Working on the basis of hampering movement rather than attempting a tight binding that might disturb the sleepers, they moved on to lifting weapons carefully out of holsters and carrying them to one side. Athos ran a longer rope between all of them, and almost had all six tied to each other when Aramis' foot struck an empty bottle, sending it rattling away.
He winced, throwing a look of apology at the others and they scattered backwards as the camp woke, tried to move, and promptly fell into each other in yelling confusion.
Athos fired a single shot into the air to seize their attention.
"Gentlemen, you are all under arrest. Come quietly, and we will see you receive a fair trial."
There was a fresh outcry at his words, men scrabbling for weapons that weren't there and tripping each other up all over again. One man fell into the embers of the fire with a yell, and another produced a gun from the folds of his blanket.
Porthos stepped forward and punched him out before he could fire it, and Athos fired another warning shot that finally made everyone freeze. By now Aramis was standing with his shotgun levelled at the group, and Athos nodded approval at the sudden silence.
"Thank you. Porthos, help me tie them properly."
With Aramis covering them, they moved quickly between the confused and increasingly angry men, binding their hands together behind them, so they were all in a single knot of grumbling ire.
There had been less resistance than they'd been expecting, and as Athos and Porthos moved to a safe distance, Aramis lowered his gun a little and moved round the group of captives, his frown deepening as he examined them closely.
"What is it?" Athos had noticed his growing consternation.
"Vadim's not here."
"What?" Athos stared at him in alarm.
"I'm telling you, he's not here. I'm not likely to forget his face in a hurry and he's not one of them."
"Where's your boss?" Porthos demanded, grabbing the nearest man by his shirt front. The man scowled at him and spat contemptuously on the ground.
Porthos was about to retaliate when a shot rang out, and he ducked.
"Take cover!" Athos yelled, and they dashed for the protection of a rocky overhang, as more shots rang out around them.
"Six!" Aramis exclaimed, as they crowded into the space. "You said there were only six!"
Porthos shrugged philosophically. "Might have been seven, now I come to think about it."
Aramis slapped him round the back of the head, and he glared. "Oi!"
"What the hell?" Athos seized them both by the arm and they looked in the direction he was staring. Of the six captives lashed together, two were slumped bleeding in their bonds, clearly only still standing because they were tied to the others.
"Is it me or is he a shit shot?" Porthos asked.
As they watched, two more men jerked and toppled, the rest desperately trying to move out of the way but trapped and weighted down by their fallen comrades.
"He's not shooting at us," Aramis said in shocked realisation. "He's aiming at them."
The last two men were hit in quick succession and the whole group slumped to the ground.
"Why do that?" Porthos asked, feeling sickened by the slaughter he'd just witnessed and his own part in having made it possible by preventing their escape. "Why shoot his own men?"
"To stop them talking," Athos guessed. "He couldn't risk us taking them into custody. Which means there's definitely something they could have told us."
They huddled together in the scant shelter of the rockface, trying to work out where the shots had come from.
Minutes ticked by and all was quiet.
"Do you think he's gone?" Porthos wondered.
"Why don't you take a walk out there and find out?" Aramis suggested helpfully.
Porthos snatched Aramis' hat from his head and held it out beyond the protection of the rock. No shots were fired at the apparent appearance of a man's head, and they relaxed a fraction, Aramis seizing his hat back and glowering at Porthos.
"Why not use your own damn hat?" he hissed.
Porthos grinned at him. "Why would I risk getting a hole shot in mine?"
Athos sighed, and before they could stop him had straightened up and walked out of cover.
"Athos!" Aramis yelped in alarm, but as seconds passed and nobody shot at him, they cautiously joined Athos in the open.
All six members of Vadim's gang proved to be dead, and Aramis shook his head in disbelief. "Now what?"
"Vadim's still out there somewhere," Athos said. "Probably watching us. We need to find him before he gets away."
"Or before he decides to get rid of us an' all," Porthos muttered, looking around warily.
They investigated the camp, finding the gang's horses tethered at the end of the hollow in a clump of trees. There were seven of them, prompting Aramis to give Porthos another reproachful look, which he bridled at.
"So I got it wrong, you want to make something of it?"
Athos laid a calming hand on his arm. "The fact they're all here means Vadim can't be far away. He won't get far on foot."
"We should bring our horses up," Aramis said. "They're unguarded right now."
Athos winced at their inadvertent carelessness. "Porthos, stay here and keep an eye on this lot. Aramis, with me."
They ran off, leaving Porthos uncomfortably trying to keep watch in all directions at once. Left alone he felt far more exposed than he had previously, and tried to tell himself that Vadim would be running for his life, not circling back to harass them.
Unless he came back for his horse. Which was now guarded by just one man rather than three. Porthos felt the back of his neck prickling and swung round, gun in hand.
The expanse of dry grass and rock was deserted, and he laughed at himself.
"Jumpy," he muttered. A sudden clatter behind him made him swing round again, but it was only a bird bursting into flight.
As he glared up at it, squinting into the sunlight, it only then occurred to him to wonder what had disturbed it.
There was a metallic click beside his ear, and the cold metal of a gun barrel was pressed into his neck. Porthos froze.
"Good guess. Drop the gun."
Porthos hesitated, but any attempt at using it would get his head blown off. He dropped it into the grass, cursing his own stupidity at letting Vadim sneak up on him. He wondered where the others were, what was taking them so long. Had a moment of fear for them, before realising he'd surely have heard any shots.
Perhaps that was why Vadim hadn’t just killed him, Porthos thought. He didn’t want to alert Athos and Aramis to his presence here.
"Good. Now get on your knees," Vadim hissed behind him, kicking the gun away.
"You won't get away you know," Porthos told him, debating the wisdom of yelling for help.
"Really? Because look, this is me, getting away," Vadim retorted, and dug the gun painfully into Porthos' skin. "I said, get on your knees. Hands on your head."
Unwillingly, Porthos dropped. Every muscle in his body was tensed, waiting for the bullet that was surely about to come.
"Drop it." The order came from the direction of the campsite, and Porthos risked turning his head a fraction. In his peripheral vision he made out Aramis standing with his shotgun trained on Vadim. He wondered where Athos was.
"One more step and your friend dies," Vadim told him calmly.
"He's not my friend. I barely know him. He's just a convict," Aramis said dismissively. "My friend died at your hand. And now I'm going to repay the favour." He took careful aim, and Vadim instinctively swung his own pistol up towards him.
As soon as Porthos felt Vadim move he launched himself upwards, wrenching the gun away. A shot cracked out, slamming harmlessly into the earth, and then Porthos was free of him, Vadim's gun gripped in his hand.
He scooped his own pistol up from where it lay and moved back, careful not to foul Aramis' sightline.
Vadim was staring at the shotgun, frozen in place, then seemed to relax.
"Fine." He put his hands up slowly, almost smiling. "I surrender. I'll come quietly." His smile widened. "Trust me, I won't be behind bars for long. I've got friends."
"Who?" Porthos demanded, but Vadim shook his head.
"It doesn't matter." Aramis' voice was hard. "He's not going anywhere. He killed Marsac, he dies here."
An element of unease entered Vadim's expression. "There's a badge on your shoulder that says otherwise. It's your duty to take me in alive."
Without taking his eyes off him, Aramis reached up and tore the metal star from his coat, throwing it to the ground.
He steadied the gun again, and Porthos noticed his hands were shaking.
"You don't have to do this," Porthos muttered, wishing Athos would show the hell up and take over. Wondered if he was purposely staying out of the way to allow Aramis take the shot.
"Yes. I do." Aramis licked his lips. "I promised Marsac. I swore I'd avenge him."
"I'm sure he'd be just as happy for the town to hang the bastard."
Aramis shook his head. "You heard him. You know what Athos thinks. That there are people more powerful than this behind everything."
"Then don’t you think we should keep him alive to find out?"
"I can't risk it," Aramis whispered, almost to himself. "I can't risk him getting away. Not after everything he's done. He deserves to die."
"Then let it be on the end of a rope," Porthos urged. "It doesn’t have to be at your hand."
"Yes. It does." Aramis raised the gun again, and Vadim visibly braced himself. A second ticked away, and another. Then Aramis closed his eyes for a split second, took a deep breath and went to pull the trigger.
The sound of the shot echoed deafeningly off the canyon walls, and Vadim slumped forwards into the dirt.
Porthos had a second of wondering why he hadn't fallen backwards, given that Aramis was in front of him, then realised Aramis looked as confused as he did.
"I - I didn't fire," Aramis stammered.
They both looked up at the same time, to find Athos standing at the opening to a rocky gulley some way behind Vadim, lowering his gun.
"Is he dead?" was all he said.
Porthos went over to Vadim's still form and checked for signs of life. "As a doornail," he confirmed.
Aramis, white as a sheet, stared at Athos as he came over to them.
"Why?" he managed.
Athos shrugged with deceptive lightness. "So you didn't have to." He patted Aramis absently on the shoulder. "My soul is already tarnished beyond all repair. No reason yours should be."
Aramis looked stunned, but Athos had already moved away, was untying the horses.
"We should take the bodies back to town. They at least deserve a decent burial," Athos told them.
As Porthos moved to help, Aramis reached out to him, looking awkward.
"Porthos. What I said about you back there - I didn't mean it. I hope you know that. I just - needed him to think I was the threat. And that he couldn't use you as a hostage."
Porthos fixed him with a cold stare for a long second, then his face creased into a smile. "Figured you were calling his bluff," he admitted, letting Aramis sag with relief.
Aramis smiled at him. "Still. Sorry. It must have sounded harsh."
"It's alright. Besides, if I thought you'd meant it, I'd have punched your lights out by now," Porthos added matter-of-factly, and Aramis snorted with laughter.
"If it helps, Aramis was the one who insisted on hurrying back in case you were in danger," Athos put in. "It was taking us too long to find a path the horses could follow, to get back here."
They lashed the seven bodies to the horses, ready to lead them out through the maze of gullies back to the main trail. As they prepared to mount their own, Athos went over to Aramis and held out his hand.
"You forgot something," he said quietly.
Aramis looked down. The deputy's badge he'd thrown away was lying in Athos' palm. He hadn't seen him pick it up.
Slowly, Aramis took it and pinned it back on his coat. Athos nodded approval and was turning away when Aramis stopped him with a hand on his arm.
"No man is beyond salvation," Aramis said in an undertone. "Not if he truly repents."
"Ah," said Athos softly. "There's always a catch, isn't there."