Pairings: Athos/Porthos (could be read as gen or slash)
Summary: Set around the end of An Ordinary Man (S02:E02). Porthos escorts the King and Milady back to Paris, and debates whether it would be kinder to Athos to kill her en route.
On the ride back to Paris, Porthos was a troubled man. Not from the responsibility of returning the king safe and unharmed, nor even for worry of what might happen to his friends left behind, outnumbered and fighting for their lives, but from the presence of the third member of their party.
Milady de Winter.
Porthos rode at the back where he could keep an eye on her. He wasn't clear on the circumstances that had lead to her presence, but from d'Artagnan's terse explanation it seemed she'd been part of the gang that had kidnapped them in the first place. Consequently, Porthos kept a sharp watch on both her and their surroundings, alert for any potential further attack.
She, for the most part, rode side by side with the King, and the pair seemed thick as thieves. Porthos glowered, silently and from a distance, watching them become closer before his eyes. Whatever she was up to, it could only spell trouble. Trouble for them, and heartache for Athos.
His hand drifted to the pommel of his sword. He remembered Athos' only half-joking suggestion of arranging 'an accident on the road' for Rochefort. Something similar would surely be appropriate here. He could claim she'd drawn her pistol, that he'd acted in defence of the King.
The thought lingered throughout the wearying hours of the journey back, a half-formed intent that never quite became action. Porthos was not a man to strike down a woman in cold blood, but as far as he was concerned, this was no woman but rather a snake in the bosom.
When she'd first emerged from the bushes he'd have killed her there and then on no more than a word from Athos. But Athos' expression, however tight and shaken had not been one of anger, and he had stayed his hand then, as he presumably must now.
Must he? The idea was still going round his head. She was returning to Paris a pardoned woman, but he had no illusions that meant reformed.
She would inevitably hurt Athos all over again, either deliberately out of malice or merely by existing in the vicinity of him. Over the last few months since her exile Porthos had seen Athos become gradually lighter of mood and heart, his drinking become less extreme. Would he slide back into old habits now she had returned?
They were walking the horses for a spell to rest them, and he let his hand once more drift back to his sword.
Louis was bleating less about the hard ride than Porthos had expected, that was one mercy. The King was desperate not to miss his son's christening, nor did he wish to look weak in front of Milady.
Neither of them spared a word or glance for Porthos, treating him purely as an escort. It suited him well enough, leaving him alone with his churning thoughts.
If he killed her now - he would be saving Athos from heartache. From her clutches. Saving Athos from himself, even.
If he killed her now - Athos would never forgive him.
Porthos sighed, trudging onwards with an exhausted determination. He'd ridden all night to reach the port, and was now travelling all morning to reach Paris in time for the christening. He was ready to drop, with no rest in sight and no way of knowing if his friends were safe. His body ached, and his heart ached, and he silently cursed both the people under his protection to hell and back.
As they came in sight of the city, still no one had caught them up and Porthos was becoming more and more fearful that the battle in the gorge had ended in tragedy.
Numbly, he escorted the King to the palace. This far Milady had ridden with them, clearly hopeful of being taken in and accommodated by the King in his gratitude, but at the gates he drew up and took his leave of her, apparently conscious that turning up after several days' absence in the company of a strange woman would not reflect well on him.
Unable to press the point, Milady had to turn about and ride off into the sprawl of Paris, exchanging one hard look with Porthos as she went. He suspected his constant fidgeting with his weapons hadn't gone unnoticed by her, and that she'd been keeping just as wary an eye on him.
He watched her ride off with mixed feelings. He was glad she was gone, but out of sight you didn't know what she was up to.
Inside, Porthos sighed, and sagged against the wall outside the King's chambers. Treville, he was told, had left for the cathedral already, and he would therefore need to wait and escort the King himself the rest of the way.
He closed his eyes, almost swaying with tiredness, and for a moment didn't process the sound of hooves on the gravel outside, until the door was flung open and in walked Athos, Aramis and d'Artagnan, looking as weary and travel-stained as he did, but all three blessedly alive and in one piece.
They were equally as relieved to see Porthos, and there was a certain amount of back slapping and arm punching exchanged, before the inner doors opened to reveal a hastily but smartly dressed Louis.
As they prepared to escort him out of the palace once more, Athos turned to Porthos with a question in his eyes.
"Gone off into Paris," Porthos said in an undertone. "I don't know where."
Athos just nodded, and said nothing, and Porthos stared at his back as he re-mounted his horse, wondering what was going on in his head right now. Athos could be so shuttered, so rigidly calm on the outside, with no hint of what turmoil might be seething within. If Porthos didn't miss his guess, as soon as they were relieved from duty Athos would head straight for the nearest inn, and he was determined not to let that happen.
After the long service in the cathedral, emerging into the bright sunlight was painful to their tired eyes, and Treville ordered them all home to get some well deserved rest.
D'Artagnan protested in favour of going straight away to find the widow Pepin, but Aramis pointed out they would probably only scare her by turning up in their current condition, and in any case needed to return to their lodgings to fetch what money they could scrape together for her.
As the others went their separate ways, Porthos walked over to Athos and slid a hand onto his shoulder.
"Come home with me," he said in a low voice. "My rooms are closer, it'll save you a good half hour. And you look ready to collapse."
Athos parted his lips as if about to argue, then gave in, allowing Porthos to lead him by the arm through the streets.
Having stabled their horses, Porthos let them into his lodgings, and there they sank into chairs, pulling off their boots and outer-wear with a grateful relief.
"Get into bed," Porthos said, quietly firm. "Are you hungry?"
Athos shook his head wearily. "I don't think I could eat," he muttered, looking pale and rather lost. Under Porthos' determined fussing, he stripped down to his small-clothes and crawled into Porthos' bed, resting his head on the cool pillow with a small sigh of relief.
He'd spent enough nights in this bed over the years to be familiar with the various eccentricities of its mattress, and automatically curled into the most comfortable position that still left room for Porthos.
He could hear Porthos moving around the room behind him, quiet, comforting, domestic noises, as he drew the curtain across to shut out the sunlight and ate a brief meal, too hungry to join Athos straight away.
When Porthos finally climbed into bed, he did so with a care and stealth that assumed Athos was asleep. He'd been so quiet and still it was the natural assumption, but Athos turned to him a little and Porthos made a small noise of surprise.
"I thought you were right out."
"I can't sleep," Athos confessed. "I'm exhausted, but - I can't stop thinking."
Porthos wriggled up close to his back and slipped an arm snugly around Athos' waist.
"Are you alright?" he asked. No need to expand on what he was referring to.
Athos gave a slight shake of his head. "Honestly, I don't know," he sighed.
"Must have been one hell of a shock for you," Porthos said. "I can't imagine."
"Be careful what you wish for, I suppose," Athos whispered.
"You wanted to see her again?"
Athos hesitated a beat before answering. "I wanted to know she was safe. A woman travelling alone - even one like her. It's a dangerous world out there."
"Generally most dangerous in her immediate vicinity," Porthos muttered, and was gratified to feel Athos give a silent huff of laughter.
"Don't think badly of me?" Athos said after a second.
"As if I ever could." Porthos hugged him closer, and Athos curled instinctively back into his arms.
"If I give you some advice, will you take it?" Porthos ventured, after they'd lain quietly for a while, listening to the city clocks chiming the hour outside.
"People rarely take advice, even their own," Athos sighed. "But don't let me stop you giving it. I know it will be well meant."
"Stay away from her."
Athos was silent for a while. "Do you think she'll stay away from me, is the question you should perhaps be asking. We seem to have a terrible fascination with each other."
"If you want her dead, you only have to say the word."
Athos turned over then, to look Porthos in the eye.
"You could do that?"
"For you? Yes." Porthos hesitated. "I almost did. On the way back," he confessed. "All I could think was - how it would be better in the long run. If she was out of our lives for good. Out of your life."
"But you didn't." It was more than half a question, and Porthos remembered Athos hadn't seen her since they'd returned to Paris.
"No." Porthos shook his head. "If I'd taken the decision away from you - " he sighed. "Could you have forgiven me?"
Athos gave him a tired smile. "Let us just be glad we don't need to find out."
Porthos took his hand, and squeezed it. "Whatever happens, know that I'm here for you."
Athos nodded slowly, and returned the pressure of his fingers. "Let's get some sleep, eh? We still have an unpleasant duty ahead of us when we wake."
He turned over to face the wall once more, and Porthos gathered him into his arms again with a protective possessiveness.
Athos didn't object, just settled easily back against him, and this time he was asleep within minutes.