Summary: Musketeers Boarding School AU. Just because. Content warning for racial and homophobic slurs, mostly because Rochefort as a schoolboy is even more of a shit than as a grown-up, it turns out. Also, I make Athos cry quite a lot.
Aramis and Porthos were sitting in a corner of the common room a few nights before the end of term, when Athos came in looking gloomy. He sat down next to Porthos and seemed about to speak, but after a couple of attempts to find the right words, closed his mouth again and sighed.
Porthos, lounging against the arm of the sofa, poked Athos with his foot. "What's up? You've got a face like a wet weekend."
"I've just spoken to my father." Athos hesitated, curling into a defensive ball at the other end. "He says - my mother can't cope with visitors right now, and I can't bring anyone home with me. I'm sorry Porthos, I feel awful." When Athos had first brought the subject up, his mother had given him an admittedly vague 'we'll see' on the subject, that he'd taken as a yes. Now that had been taken away and he felt embarrassed and rather sick.
Porthos patted his ankle. "Oh well. Not to worry."
"I feel like I've let you down." Athos wouldn't look at him, and Porthos sighed.
"It's not your fault. I'll be okay. I'm used to Christmases on my own."
"Let me see if you could still come home with me," Aramis said, standing up. "I'll call them now." He went out in search of a mobile signal, and Athos finally ventured a miserable look up. Porthos smiled at him reassuringly.
"Will you be okay?" he asked.
Athos shrugged. "I don't know," he said in a low voice. "I spent so long wanting to go back, but now I'm afraid what I'll find."
"I'm sure it'll be fine." Porthos looked at him worriedly, not knowing if it would be or not.
After a minute or two Aramis came back in looking despondent, and Porthos frowned. "Uh oh," he muttered to Athos. "Not looking good, eh?"
Aramis threw himself back into the arm chair and shook his head. "No go, sorry. Apparently we've got about a dozen cousins descending on us, and my mother's already freaking out about where she's going to put them all." He sighed. "Sorry Porthos."
"It's okay. Really. Don't worry about me, I'll be alright." Porthos, whilst a little disappointed, was philosophical about it. He was more concerned about Athos, going home to face the first Christmas without his brother, and with a mother who sounded like she was still brittle and grieving. It had only been six months, to be fair to her, but Porthos hoped they would at least try and make it a happy holiday, for Athos' sake.
The week leading up to Christmas after the school had broken up seemed a long one. Porthos was one of only three pupils staying on for the holidays, under the care of the Bonacieuxs and a skeleton domestic staff. The other two boys were first years, and twins, and consequently other than mealtimes and a certain amount of tv-watching in the evenings Porthos didn't spend much time with them, although they got on well enough.
The school seemed odd without the normal crush of people, its hallways echoing and empty. Porthos received occasional texts from Aramis, and a couple of terse emails from Athos, but the degree of loneliness he experienced was unexpected. He'd always thought of himself as being entirely self-sufficient, and it came as a shock to realise how far he'd come to depend on his friends in such a relatively short space of time.
Christmas Day dawned overcast and cold, and to the delight of all three boys as they were just finishing breakfast it started to snow. For a couple of hours it came down hard, settling enough to be ankle-deep over the lawns. Porthos and the twins spent the morning chasing each other through it, Porthos submitting to a severe pelting with snowballs and wishing that Aramis and Athos were there, so he could return fire with equal violence.
When they trooped in for lunch, Porthos checked his phone. He'd texted both of them first thing, wishing them Happy Christmas and thanking them for his presents (a big bag of sweets from Aramis and a beautiful pocketknife from Athos). He found a reply from Aramis, who seemed to be having a hectic but enjoyable day, but nothing from Athos. Porthos frowned, hoping it was because he was having too good a time to check his phone.
In the dining hall they stuffed themselves to near-bursting with roast turkey and all the trimmings, plus Christmas pudding and trifle because the kitchen staff had pulled out all the stops for the poor boys having to stay at school. A table in the bay window had been set for the three of them plus the Bonacieuxs, decorated with paper chains and crackers and streamers, and despite the French master's rather dour presence, everyone had a surprisingly good time.
The cloud cover meant darkness came early that evening, and Porthos settled himself comfortably in the common room. He had it to himself, and pulled all the cushions off the sofas to make a nest in front of the fire, where he proceeded to work his way through his bag of sweets and start reading the book that had been an unexpected present from Constance.
Porthos had had to hold in his laughter at the dining table, when Constance had explained in response to her husband's rather disapproving question that she'd given the boys improving books on history. Porthos didn't know what the twins had got, but his at least was a lurid book about pirates, and he was very pleased with it.
He'd been lying there for perhaps half an hour, getting drowsy from the warmth and feeling pleasantly sick from the number of sweets he'd eaten, when someone opened the door from the corridor.
Porthos glanced up, his view obscured for a moment by one of the sofas. Whoever it was came in and Porthos sat up, assuming they were looking for him. And stared. Standing just inside the doorway, with snow in his hair and an exhausted, deadened look in his eyes, was Athos.
"Athos!" Porthos scrambled to his feet, astonished. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Athos blinked slowly, as if hardly understanding the question, and as Porthos drew nearer he realised Athos was shaking with either cold or exhaustion.
"Ath? You alright?"
Athos shook his head, looking hesitant. "I - I couldn't stay. It was too - I had to - " He swayed slightly, and Porthos grabbed him, instinctively pulling him into a hug.
"Fucking hell Athos, you're freezing." He brushed the melting snow out of Athos' hair and from his coat and hugged him tighter. After a second Athos hugged back, suddenly clinging to him with a tiny whimper of relief.
"I'm sorry." Athos whispered it, face buried in Porthos' jumper, and he shook his head, bewildered as to what Athos was apologising for.
"It's okay. It's okay. You're safe, you've made it. Look, come over by the fire before you catch your death. How did you even get here?"
Unprotesting, Athos let Porthos pull off his damp coat and settle him by the fire.
"I got the train," Athos said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Porthos was surprised. "Are there any even running today?"
"On the main line, yes. It's only three and a half hours."
"Only." Jesus, when had Athos left home? "Hang on, the mainline station's ten miles away. How'd you get here if the branch wasn't running?"
"What?" Porthos stared at him incredulously. "In the snow?"
Athos shrugged. "It's not so deep. And I can run further than that on a good day."
"Yeah, when you're well fed and rested and wearing the proper kit," Porthos muttered. "You could have died in a ditch and we wouldn't have found you till it thawed."
"Don't be daft. Anyway, I didn't." Athos looked uncomfortable. "I didn't know where else to go," he added miserably.
Athos just shook his head, and lay down on the cushions as if he was too tired to hold his head up any longer.
"You're the maddest bastard I ever met," Porthos said softly, stroking Athos' hair. "And the bravest."
"I'm not brave," Athos whispered. "I ran away."
"Still takes guts." Porthos looked down at the figure huddled on the cushions in front of him and sighed, wondering what had been so awful that it drove Athos out of his home at Christmas and halfway across the country.
"Can you tell me about it?" Porthos asked, but there was no answer and he realised after a second that Athos was already fast asleep.
Twenty minutes passed. Porthos ate chocolates and watched over the sleeping Athos, feeling obscurely like he was on guard. He knew he should probably tell someone that Athos was here - for all he knew, half the police in the country were looking for him by now - but he didn't want to leave in case Athos woke up alone, and he didn't have the heart to wake him.
He was saved from having to make the decision when the door opened for a second time, and Constance came in.
"Porthos, did you want any supper? There's not going to be a formal meal, but - oh my God, is that Athos?" She stared down at the slumbering boy in shock.
"Yeah." Porthos looked up at her helplessly. "He just turned up about half an hour ago."
"Do his parents know he's here?"
Porthos shook his head. "I don't think so. I think he ran away."
Constance looked even more alarmed. "Why?"
"I dunno. He wouldn't tell me. But it must have been pretty bad at home. I don't think things are great there at the moment."
"Do you think he's hungry?" Constance wondered, latching onto the most practical thing she could think of.
"Probably. He must have been travelling most of the day. He fucking walked the last ten miles." Porthos clapped a hand over his mouth as the inadvertent expletive slipped out, but Constance let it pass, more concerned about Athos.
"You know I'm going to have to tell his parents he's here?" she murmured.
Porthos nodded. "Yeah. I know." He sighed. "Don't let them take him away again?"
Constance gave him a sympathetic look. "That'll be up to them," she said softly. "I'll fetch you both some food. You can have it up here."
A few minutes after she'd gone, Athos stirred, and slowly woke up. He scrambled into a sitting position, disorientated and alarmed, but relaxed when he saw Porthos.
Obscurely flattered, Porthos smiled at him. "It's okay," he murmured. "You made it."
"Dreamed I was stuck on the train," Athos sighed, rubbing his eyes.
Porthos ruffled his hair, and Athos pushed his hand away, almost raising a smile.
"So come on then," Porthos probed gently. "What happened? What was so bad you'd rather come back to school? You didn't insult your mother's cooking did you?" Porthos smiled, but Athos' expression had clouded, and he hugged his knees defensively.
"There wasn't any cooking to insult," Athos said, staring into the fire. "The turkey never made it as far as the oven. My mother spent the morning upstairs crying over a pile of presents she'd bought and wrapped for my brother."
Porthos stared at him. "Jesus. She - I mean - she bought them - after he'd - um?"
"Yeah," Athos said softly.
"Fuck." Porthos didn't have the faintest idea what to say. He shifted closer, until his shoulder was resting against Athos'. Athos leaned against him, not his whole weight, but enough to show Porthos he appreciated the gesture.
"Where was your dad when all this was going on?" Porthos asked tentatively.
"He started drinking after breakfast," Athos said bleakly. "I think by the time I left he'd passed out. I don't even know if it was because of Thomas, or because he can't cope with my mother any more."
"Are you alright?" Porthos asked, feeling that the answer could hardly be yes, but finding that the words came out automatically.
Athos looked round at him, and managed a faint smile. "I am now."
"Do you think they'll have called the police?" Porthos asked, remembering his worries of earlier.
"They've probably not even noticed I've gone."
Porthos was saved from having to answer that by Constance coming back in, bearing a tray with two heaped plates of food and two cans of coke.
Athos tensed, but she smiled at him, and Porthos laid a calming hand on his back.
"She came in earlier while you were asleep," Porthos explained under his breath, as Constance set the tray down on one of the tables.
"Am I in trouble?" Athos asked, looking hunted.
"You seem to ask me that an awful lot," Constance smiled. "And no. Not from me, anyway." She hesitated. "I called your parents. I'm sorry, I had to, I hope you understand that."
Athos nodded tiredly, just glad he hadn't had to do it himself. "Yes. Thank you."
"They were relieved to know you were okay," she ventured, rather worried by Athos' apparent lack of interest. She'd assumed at first that he'd run away to provoke a reaction, to make them prove they cared enough to be worried about him. But it was starting to look like he'd actually run away from a situation he didn't want to be in.
"Athos - they've not hurt you at all, have they?" she asked carefully. "Physically, I mean?"
Athos gave a bitter laugh. "No. They just wish I didn't exist."
"I think they're having a hard time - accepting what happened," Porthos volunteered.
To his surprise, Athos glared at him. "Shut up. You don't even know what happened."
Porthos faltered, taken aback. "Sorry."
Athos' face crumpled. "No, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to - " he pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying to force back tears. Porthos put an arm round him.
"It's okay," he said. "You're upset, and you're tired and hungry. Why don't you have something to eat?"
Athos sniffed and nodded, and Porthos gave him a squeeze. "Will he have to go home again?" he asked, looking up at Constance. "Or can he stay here?"
Athos stiffened, not looking up, but waiting tensely to hear his fate.
"Your father's coming to pick you up tomorrow," Constance said, directing her reply to Athos. "He was glad you're safe, but - not best pleased at being made to come all this way again, I think," she added cautiously.
Athos did look up then, face tight and anguished. "Then why doesn't he stay at fucking home?" he snapped, getting up and stumbling off the cushions to the floor. "Why's he coming to get me when he doesn't bloody want me there in the first place? You know why he can't come tonight? Because he's too fucking drunk!" Athos slammed out of the room, leaving Porthos and Constance staring at each other in an awkward silence.
Porthos tracked Athos down in the dormitory, huddled in bed. He set the stacked plate of food he'd carried up on the nightstand, and changed into his pyjamas.
"Shift up," he said, poking Athos through the duvet. "I know you're not asleep, I can hear you sniffing."
Athos turned over with a sigh, and made room. Porthos climbed in beside him and balanced the plate on the bedclothes. "Eat," he instructed. Athos just looked at him miserably. "What?"
"Do you think I'll be expelled for talking to Madame Bonacieux like that?" Athos asked anxiously.
Porthos pursed his lips. "Nah. I happen to know for a fact, she's just going to stick you in detention. Every day for the next two weeks."
"But - "
"Yeah. She called your father back and told him you deserved to be thoroughly punished, and that you should consequently be made to spend the rest of the holidays at school." Porthos' poker face broke into a grin. "You can stay, you twat."
"Oh God." Athos put a hand over his mouth, and looked like he was about to burst into tears. Porthos jabbed him with a bony elbow.
"Oh bloody hell, don't start that again. Here, have a turkey leg and cheer the fuck up."
"Thank you," Athos breathed, staring at Porthos with the wonder of someone who couldn't quite comprehend his reprieve. "Thank you."
Porthos shrugged. "Wasn't me, so much as matron." He smirked. "She did ask what I thought you'd want though."
"How can I ever thank you?"
"Eat. And then try not to snore." Porthos wriggled down in the bed and picked up his phone. "While I text Aramis and tell him what a mad bastard you are."
It was the first day of the spring term, and the minibus containing those boys returning by train had just come back from the station. Porthos and Athos ran down the steps to meet everyone climbing off, and Porthos flung his arms round Aramis in a bear-hug.
Ever more reserved, Athos nodded to him with an amused smile. "Good Christmas?"
"Yes thanks, brilliant. Sounds like yours was more eventful though!" Aramis was glad to see Athos looking happy; he'd heard most of the details from Porthos and been horrified.
Athos shrugged and smiled, and clearly didn't want to talk about it. Porthos grabbed one of Aramis' bags as a diversion. "Want a hand? Jesus, what have you got in here, bricks?"
Aramis smirked. "Books, mostly. And thank you, yes, you're very welcome to carry that one, I nearly did my back in getting it on and off the train."
Porthos heaved it up onto his shoulder with a wild swing, almost smacking Athos with it in the process. Athos stepped back without looking and banged into someone behind him.
Athos turned in time to see a boy he didn't recognise almost stumble to the ground. The bag he was carrying fell and spilled open, scattering his possessions across the carpark.
"Sorry," Athos apologised. "Didn’t see you there. Here, let me help."
"You've done enough already," the boy shot back angrily. "Keep your damn hands to yourself."
"Oi! He said sorry." Porthos appeared at Athos' shoulder, clearly considering dropping Aramis' book bag on the newcomer's head. "Who the hell are you, anyway?"
The boy straightened up, glaring at all three of them. "My name's d'Artagnan. I'm new. Although if everyone here's this clumsy and rude I'm starting to wish I hadn't come."
"You could always fuck off again," Aramis volunteered helpfully.
"What seems to be the problem?" came the drawling enquiry from behind them.
Athos looked round and groaned. "Piss off Rochefort. This is none of your business."
Ignoring Athos utterly, Rochefort approached d'Artagnan with a look of concern. "Are these boys bothering you? Here, let me help you pick up your things."
"Thank you. That one tried to push me over," d'Artagnan said hotly, gesturing at Athos.
Struck speechless at the injustice of this, for a second Athos could do nothing but gape at him.
"Don't let him concern you," Rochefort said smoothly. "Nobody here likes him. Why don't you come with me, and I'll show you round?" He drew d'Artagnan off towards his own group of friends, a proprietal arm draped around his shoulders.
"Of all the - " Porthos glowered.
"Stuck up prick," Athos added in a rather louder voice, and was gratified when d'Artagnan visibly stiffened and glanced back towards him with a look of fury.
"Ladies." Aramis put an arm round him and Porthos. "Decorum at all times." He grinned. "Forget them, they deserve each other. Come on, I'm starving, help me unpack before tea."
"...a farmer's son, can you imagine! I thought he was somebody of consequence!" Rochefort broke off his tirade as Porthos came round the corner, but sneered when he saw who it was. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, it appears they'll let practically anyone in here now."
Porthos grinned at him, unruffled. There was a time when he'd have taken mortal offence, but these days he found he was more grounded, more secure in himself. He presumed it was having the unwavering support of such good friends. That, or the realisation that Athos and Aramis had far worse problems than he did, anyway.
"Just as well as far as you're concerned," he called out now. "I don't know of any other schools that take mangy dogs."
Rochefort took a furious step towards him then checked himself as Aramis and Athos, hitherto hidden by the angle of the wall, materialised at Porthos' side. Rochefort sneered.
"Wouldn't be so brave without your little friends, would you?" he spat.
Porthos looked his skinny frame up and down with genuine bemusement. "Any one of us could take you with one hand tied behind his back," he declared.
Rochefort was saved from answering by the appearance of d’Artagnan, and he immediately latched onto him.
"Ah, d'Artagnan. Are you ready?"
"Ready for what?" D'Artagnan looked confused.
"For your initiation, of course. It's a tradition here I'm afraid, all new boys have to go through with it."
Athos and Porthos glanced at each other. This was news to them. If there'd been any kind of existing humiliating ritual to go through, they were fairly sure Rochefort would have tried to make them do it. Which suggested this was something Rochefort had come up with himself, as petty revenge for having taken d'Artagnan under his wing only to discover his lowly origins.
"Er - okay." D'Artagnan looked taken aback. "What do I have to do?"
"Nothing much. Just - borrow Professor Richelieu's mortar board, and put it on the top of the flagpole."
Whereas most of the teachers wore suits or smart but reasonably informal clothing, Richelieu insisted on wearing a formal cap and gown, and stalked the corridors like a big black bat.
There was a stir amongst the gathering crowd, and Rochefort sent them a quelling glance. "Don't worry, he's an easygoing sort," Rochefort lied. "You won't get into trouble."
"If Richelieu catches him, he'll skin him alive," Aramis muttered under his breath.
"Serve him right," Athos muttered back, still harbouring a grudge. "Save me having to do it."
Normally, none of them would have let Rochefort get away with a scheme that could get an innocent boy into so much trouble, but given d'Artagnan's behaviour the day before, none of the three raised a word of protest.
When Rochefort realised there would be no dissenters, even from amongst his enemies, he looked smug. "Hurry then, d'Artagnan," he pressed. "If you go now, you might find Richelieu's still at dinner. You'll be able to sneak into the staffroom unobserved."
D'Artagnan, nervous but resolute, ran off down the corridor, and Rochefort lead the way outside to wait expectantly beneath the flagpole.
"Should we be letting him go through with this?" Porthos muttered. They were all outside waiting for d'Artagnan, and looking up at the flagpole. It seemed a lot higher than they remembered, now they were standing underneath it.
Aramis shook his head. "He'll be fine," he said. "There's no way he'll be able to climb high enough to do himself any damage by falling off. I reckon there's not a handful of people in the whole school could manage it." He looked thoughtful. "Athos might. And, I hate to say it, possibly Rochefort."
Athos jabbed him with his elbow. "Don't stick me in categories with him," he objected, and Aramis laughed.
"Where is the little bugger, anyway?" Porthos grumbled. Unlike Athos and Aramis he hadn't bothered to grab his coat on the way out, and he was getting cold.
"Maybe he's sitting by the fire in the common room having a good laugh at all of us waiting out here," said Aramis gloomily. "If he's got any sense."
"He'll come," Athos predicted. "He'll need to prove himself."
Sure enough after a few more minutes d'Artagnan appeared, although not from the direction everyone was expecting. He didn't emerge from the main doors, but from round the corner of some of the outbuildings, and he was dragging something.
"What the hell's he got there?" Aramis wondered, squinting into the gathering dark.
"It's a ladder!" Porthos gave a sudden laugh. "The sneaky bastard's figured out a way round it!"
Rochefort looked less than amused, and folded his arms as d'Artagnan came panting up to him. "What do you think you're doing with that?"
"You said I had to get it up there," d'Artagnan declared. "You didn't specify how." He held Rochefort's gaze boldly, until Rochefort stepped back with a slight shrug.
With some difficulty, d'Artagnan propped the ladder up against the flagpole. It was awkward to get it balanced on the narrow and circular mast, but somehow he managed it, the foot of the ladder wedged firmly in the gravel drain at the edge of the tarmac. It was a rickety old thing, ancient and wooden, with half the rungs missing, but it stretched almost to the top of the pole.
D'Artagnan produced a rather battered black square from inside his jacket, which turned out to be Richelieu's mortar board. D'Artagnan perched it jauntily on his own head, which got a laugh, and started climbing.
Everyone held their breath as he ascended the ladder. Rochefort had forbidden anyone from holding it steady, saying that d'Artagnan had to make it on his own merit.
Halfway up, one of the rungs, riddled with woodworm cracked under his foot, and everyone flinched as d'Artagnan slipped. He steadied himself, holding onto the flagpole with one hand and the hat with the other, bracing the ladder with his feet until his heart had stopped thumping enough to continue.
"This is a bad idea," Porthos muttered uneasily, but there was no stopping him now. Another minute or so and d'Artagnan was balanced on the top rung, arm wrapped firmly around the pole and craning up to hook the hat in place. The school's flag was flapping awkwardly in his face, and the halyard ropes that ran it up and down were slapping against the pole like a drum roll.
And then Rochefort stepped forward.
"Sorry, but using a ladder is cheating," he declared, and before anyone could stop him, kicked the foot of it sharply away.
Six metres up, d'Artagnan made a frantic grab for the flagpole and hung on grimly while the ladder fell sideways, and to everyone's horror smashed on the tarmac. Old and rotten, the wood splintered on impact and when some of the boys tried to haul it back into place, it simply fell into pieces.
Ten boys looked skywards, nine of them feeling guilty by association and Rochefort looking defiant. "You'll have to climb down," he called. "You've broken the ladder now."
D'Artagnan screwed his eyes shut for a second in frustration. He wasn't used to climbing ropes or poles, and it was all he could do to keep his position. He could feel his grip starting to slide and panicked, thrashing out for a better hold and trying to grab the flag itself.
From the ground it was never clear exactly what happened but d'Artagnan appeared to slip, and grabbed wildly for purchase. He dropped, then held, and for a brief moment of relief they thought he'd saved himself. His frantically kicking feet swiftly told another story, and in another horrified second they saw he'd got the flag ropes somehow caught around his neck.
Aramis was the first to unfreeze. "Fetch a teacher!" he yelled. "Find another fucking ladder, now!"
Two boys hared off towards the school, but d'Artagnan was choking, being strangled by inches, and it was clear they would never be able to fetch help in time.
Athos grabbed Aramis and Porthos and dragged them towards the flagpole. "Give me a leg up. Quickly!" Aramis laced his fingers and gave him a foothold, Porthos steadying his back and half-lifting him upwards. Athos reached as high as he could and started climbing, strong legs wrapped around the pole, shoving himself higher.
They watched in silence as he went up, Porthos' fingers twisted anxiously into Aramis' sleeve. D'Artagnan's kicking was getting weaker, and the noises he was making were dreadful to hear.
Athos, legs screaming with the effort, drew level. He steeled himself to let go the pole with one hand and reached out, grabbing d'Artagnan by the shirt and drawing him in. Lost in panic, his fingernails bleeding from where he'd torn at the rope, d'Artagnan hit out at him blindly.
"Stop it!" Athos shouted. "Stop struggling, you'll have us both off. I've got you." His hand found d'Artagnan's belt and he heaved him in until he was braced against his hip, taking the weight off his throat. It was all Athos could do to hold them both there, but with the tension in the rope slackened, d'Artagnan was finally able to tear the loop away from his neck.
"I suggest you hold on," Athos said grimly, feeling like his arms were about to be wrenched out of their sockets. "Because I don't think I can carry you down."
D'Artagnan couldn't speak, but he did reach past Athos to take hold of the flagpole himself, and a fraction of the weight burden lifted. They clung there together, afraid to move in case they fell, only half-aware of the running feet and shouting and lights gathering beneath them.
A powerful torchbeam flashed upwards and Athos flinched, closing his eyes. A second later a metallic clang signalled the arrival of another ladder hitting the pole just beneath them. It might as well have been a mile away, and when it became clear to those below that the boys couldn't move, the ladder shook as someone started climbing.
A moment later, or it might have been a year, Treville's head appeared by their feet, and he cautiously climbed the last few rungs until he could reach them. He carefully pried d'Artagnan from Athos' deathgrip on his belt, and eased him over his shoulder in a fireman's lift.
"Can you make it down alone?" he asked Athos, who gave him a shaky nod. Treville started back down with d'Artagnan, and Athos finally plucked up the courage to slither as far as the ladder, where he paused until his legs stopped shaking enough to climb down.
In the distance an ambulance siren was getting closer, and everyone was gathered in an anxious huddle around d'Artagnan. Everyone that is except Porthos, who had refused to take his eyes off Athos, and was therefore the only person watching when his legs gave way halfway down and he crumpled quietly off the ladder.
"Athos!" Porthos darted forward and grabbed him out of the air, tumbling backwards until they were sprawled together on the ground, panting.
"You okay?" Porthos sat up, patting Athos anxiously over in search of injury.
Athos nodded, curling against Porthos' chest and making no protest when Porthos hugged him tightly.
"Is he alright?" Aramis had dashed back from the crowd around d'Artagnan.
"Give me your coat," Porthos ordered. "I don't think he's hurt, but he won't stop shaking."
Aramis draped his coat over Athos' shoulders and looked on worriedly as Porthos rocked him comfortingly.
"It's okay," Porthos murmured. "You did good, you saved him. It's all okay."
"What's going on? Is Athos alright?" It was Constance, looking concerned.
"I think he's in shock," Aramis told her.
"Right, come on, you're going to the hospital with d'Artagnan," she said, crouching down to look at him.
Athos took a shaky breath and finally looked up, shaking his head.
"No," he said hoarsely. "Please. I'm fine. I don't want to."
Constance sighed. "You really should."
Athos shook his head again, pressing back into Porthos' arms. When it looked like the prospect was only going to make him more distressed, she gave in.
"Fine. But you two stay with him, do you hear?" Pointing at Aramis and Porthos. "You take him inside and get him a hot drink, and if he gets any worse you come and find me, immediately, do you understand?"
"Yes miss," said Aramis obediently, and Porthos nodded. She hurried back to where d'Artagnan was being loaded into the ambulance. Aramis noted with a distant sort of interest that Richelieu's mortar board, dropped by d'Artagnan and kicked around by the crowd in the subsequent confusion, had just been run over.
"Come on you." Porthos heaved Athos to his feet. "Let's get you indoors."
Athos hung back, and they looked at him exasperatedly. "Now what?"
"I don't want to go in," he confessed under his breath. "It's too bright, and there's too many people."
"Stables?" Porthos suggested. Aramis sighed.
"We're supposed to be keeping him warm."
"Well there's two of us, and it's pretty warm with all the horses," Porthos pointed out, and Aramis gave in.
Over the last term, they'd turned the end stall into quite a hideout. Hidden under loose boards they had a battery lantern and a stash of chocolate, and they settled Athos between them in the straw, draping Aramis' coat and a horse blanket over the three of them.
For a long while they said nothing, just cuddled up against Athos until, gradually, he stopped shaking.
"Sorry." Athos raised his head tiredly from Porthos' arm and looked embarrassed as full awareness of events came seeping back.
Porthos snorted, fumbling around under the straw until he found the chocolate and holding it out to Athos. "Eat this, you'll feel better."
Athos shook his head, and Porthos frowned at him. He unwrapped it himself, snapped a piece off and held it against Athos' lips.
Athos ducked backwards. "Don't."
"If you're going to behave like a sulky baby animal I'm going to treat you like one," Porthos told him sternly.
At that, Athos gave a reluctant smile, and opened his mouth enough for Porthos to pop the chocolate in. Porthos then handed a bit to Aramis, and licked his fingers.
"Is d'Artagnan alright?" Athos asked, after they'd demolished two slabs of chocolate between them, and he was feeling a bit stronger.
"Thanks to you," Aramis smiled.
"You were amazing," Porthos added. "I didn't even think you liked him."
Athos sighed. "I had to save him," he said in a small voice. "Nobody was doing anything."
"Didn't make it your responsibility," Porthos pointed out. "Should have sent that rat Rochefort up."
Aramis was watching Athos closely. "Was it - because of your brother?" he ventured. Given that Athos was normally of hardy nerves when it came to reckless behaviour, the strength of his reaction seemed surprising. The only times Athos had fallen apart like this had been related to his own troubles, and Aramis wondered if Athos had been traumatised all over again by witnessing d'Artagnan's near death experience.
Athos looked at him sharply. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I just - you've never said," Aramis answered gently. "What actually happened to your brother." He hesitated. "Athos - were you there? Did you see it happen?" It would explain a lot, he thought.
For a long minute, Athos was silent. Then, in a quietly neutral and distant voice, without looking at either of them, he started talking.
"There was this barn," he said. "On our land. Derelict. We weren't allowed to play there, so obviously it was always the first place we'd make for. It had a hayloft, only the stairs had long gone, and there was no way up. I didn't really care, but Thomas was obsessed with getting up there. So one day we carried in a ladder."
Athos hesitated. "It was heavy, he'd never have managed it on his own. I helped him." Eyes flickering, not looking at them but at a distant scene, long past, in the first sign of emotion since he'd begun. Porthos burrowed under the horse blanket and took his hand. It was obvious this story wasn't going to end well. Athos squeezed his fingers gratefully and took heart to continue.
"It was easy enough, once we had that, to climb up. I said we should stay at the edges, where it was safer, but Thomas wouldn't listen. He called me a coward. And he walked right out to the middle."
"He fell through?" Aramis guessed, when Athos paused again.
Athos nodded. "He might have been okay. He might have got away with a broken leg or something, even from that height. But there were these ropes - pulleys and stuff, for getting sacks up there I suppose, I don't know. He - he got caught in them. Round his neck."
"Oh fuck," said Aramis softly, and took hold of his other hand.
"I couldn't reach him, from below," said Athos. "And above - well the boards didn't take his weight, and he was a lot smaller than me. They were old, and rotten, and I knew I couldn't make it. So I did the only the only thing I could think of. I went for help."
"It was the right thing to do," said Porthos, into the silence that followed. "The responsible thing."
Athos laughed, bitterly. "The responsible thing would have been to stop him getting up there in the first place. To stop him doing what I knew was dangerous. He was my little brother, and it's my fault he died."
"No. Ath, no." Porthos squirmed round to look at him, distressed. "You did all you could."
Athos shook his head. "By the time I got back with my parents, he was already dead. He died alone, and he died because of me." Tears filled his eyes, although he didn't seem to heed them. There was no sobbing this time, no anger. Just blank, accepting despair.
"I should have tried," Athos breathed. "I should have saved him, or died trying."
"That's bullshit," Aramis objected. "You think your parents would want you both dead?" Knowing awkwardly even as he said it, that Athos' parents couldn't necessarily be judged by the standards of his own.
Athos looked at him, eyes full of pain. "It was my mother who said it," he whispered.
"Oh, Athos." Aramis looked at Porthos in desperate hope he would know what to say, but Porthos just stared back at him in helpless misery.
It was Athos who sighed, and set his shoulders, and patted their hands. "I think - she shouldn't have come," he said quietly. "She shouldn't have had to see him like that. I think - maybe something broke, that day. Maybe in both of us."
At that, they both fell on him and hugged him tightly, without words.
"You're not broken," Porthos said finally, gruffly, face buried in Athos' tousled hair. "And if you say you are, I'll fight you."
Athos laughed, and sniffed, and pulled him closer, and Aramis too.
"Fuck your family," Aramis said tightly. "We're your family now."
"You understand, then?" Athos asked. "Why I had to try and save d'Artagnan?" As if they might have been angry with him, for risking his life for a boy they had no cause to like. "I spent so long, going over it all in my head. Looking for a way I might have saved Thomas. I promised myself, that if I'd had a second chance, I'd have taken it. And maybe today I did."
"You're a hero," Aramis murmured.
Athos half-laughed. "I am not."
"Well you're our hero," Porthos said firmly, and wriggled down under the blanket. "Come here."
The three of them curled together in the straw, and one by one fell asleep.
Porthos lifted his head, blinking tiredly. He was disoriented to find himself in the stables, and wondered how long he'd been asleep. Athos was fast asleep on his watch arm, and he hissed across at Aramis.
"Aramis! What time is it?"
There was a pause, and a rustle. "Shit. Just gone ten." They'd missed lights out.
"Athos. Ath, wake up, we're gonna be in the shit." Porthos shook Athos gently, and he peered up at him blearily. "Come on. We've got to go in. You okay?"
Athos nodded, and yawned. "Sorry. Fell asleep."
"We all did." Aramis helped him to his feet. "We need to run."
To their surprise, upon reaching the dormitory floor they found it still lit up from one end to the other. Worried at first that this was due to their unexplained absence, it quickly transpired they hadn't even been missed.
Treville had apparently not yet returned from the hospital, which partially explained why no one had enforced the boys' bedtime, but the real reason everyone was still up turned out to be far more dramatic. Enquiry revealed that about half an hour before lights out, Richelieu had appeared in thunderous mood, and marched Rochefort away with him.
There was some speculation that this was due to the belated discovery of his mangled hat, but the truth was likely to be rather more serious.
"D'Artagnan must have squealed," Aramis said.
"Can you blame him?" Porthos retorted. "Christ, can you imagine the shit the school'll be in if his parents decide to sue?"
"We're all at fault, not just Rochefort," said Athos gloomily. "None of us stopped him. We just stood and watched."
Aramis slapped him round the back of the head. "Will you stop trying to take responsibility for everything? Rochefort was the only one to kick the damn ladder away, or is that somehow our fault too?"
Athos produced an unexpected smile. "Fair point."
When they finally crawled into bed, Athos couldn't sleep. He tossed and turned, plagued by uncomfortable thoughts and memories, and a fear of what sleep itself might bring. For weeks after Thomas' death he'd had nightmares, and while no longer as frequent as they once were, they still sporadically seized him.
Athos looked longingly over at Porthos' bed, mentally willing him to realise he needed a hug. Athos had never found it easy to ask for comfort, but Porthos seemed to have some kind of sixth sense about when he needed it, and willingly gave without having to be asked.
Tonight though, Porthos was fast asleep and snoring, and Athos sighed. Porthos' warm body next to him was one of the few things he'd found to be proof against nightmares.
He cast a look round the rest of the dorm, wondering if he dared. All was quiet, and the dim light from the corridor suggested everyone but him was asleep. Finally, he couldn't stand the accusatory silence of his own head any longer, and slipped out of bed.
There was enough of a gap to climb in next to Porthos, who mumbled in his sleep and wrapped an arm around Athos without waking. With a quiet sigh, Athos finally relaxed.
The sun was just up when Porthos woke the next morning, and he was somewhat surprised to find Athos in his bed.
"Hello," Porthos grinned.
"Hello." Athos smiled back, blushing slightly. He'd have immediately retreated to his own bed, but Porthos slipped an arm back round him, and they lay there for a few quiet minutes, enjoying the peace.
A sudden burst of cackling laughter from behind them suggested they'd finally been caught out, and Athos tensed for a second before sighing. He sat up, and cocked an eyebrow at the dorm's other inhabitants, all of whom had now woken up and were staring and sniggering.
"What? We're only having a conversation. It's cold."
"You're in his bed!"
Athos climbed out and rolled his eyes. "Yes. You're right. We're actually having sex. You're next, by the way." He went to grab his towel and dressing gown, and Porthos watched him with considerable amusement. There was something about Athos' arch tone that had immediately shut down the piss-taking, and Porthos was impressed by the way he'd dealt with it.
Athos caught his eye on his way to the showers, and smirked. "I only hope it doesn't make its way to Rochefort," he muttered as he went past.
Rochefort though, was nowhere to be seen, and when they gathered in the common room at breaktime, the news finally filtered in. He'd been expelled. Not for instigating the prank, but for the way he'd wilfully endangered d'Artagnan's life by kicking the ladder away.
The three of them stared at each other in shock.
"I thought I'd be happier," said Athos, numbly. "But that's kind've awful. I wonder what his father will say."
Aramis took him by the shoulders and looked at him seriously. "Not. Your. Problem."
Someone nearby cleared their throat, and they turned round to find d'Artagnan standing there, looking awkward. He'd spent the night under observation in the local hospital, and just been picked up by Constance. There were livid bruises round his neck that made them all wince.
"I - I just wanted to say thank you," d'Artagnan stammered, looking at Athos. "What you did - you saved my life. You risked yours, when you had no reason to like me. So - thank you." He held out his hand, rather stiffly, as if he expected Athos to spurn him.
Athos took it, and smiled. "You're welcome. Rochefort's an arse, and by the sounds of it we're well rid of him."
"I see that now." D'Artagnan sighed, sinking into a chair. "None of his friends will speak to me. They think it's my fault he's been expelled. I suppose it is."
"He did it to himself," Athos said immediately, while Aramis stifled a snort of amusement at the fact Athos appeared to have found someone with a worse guilt complex than his own.
D'Artagnan looked gloomy, and Athos looked round at Aramis and Porthos, who both nodded. They all sat down on adjacent chairs.
"You can hang round with us, if you like?" Athos offered.
"Do you mean that?" asked d'Artagnan, with a sudden look of hope. He was gazing at Athos with something approaching hero-worship, and Porthos nudged Aramis and grinned.
"Yes. Of course. You'd be welcome to." Athos nodded. "I'd say all three of us know what it's like to feel alone, and it's not pleasant."
"Thank you." D'Artagnan's face lit up. "They asked me if I wanted to stay. I'm glad I said yes now."
"Who did? Your parents?" Aramis asked. D'Artagnan shook his head.
"Treville, is it? And the matron. Constance, I think he called her." He looked dreamily into the distance. "She's lovely."
Porthos snickered. "And married. And too old for you."
D'Artagnan grinned. "I can dream, can't I?"
Aramis caught Athos' eye. "He's going to be trouble," he warned, laughing.
Athos just smiled. "He'll fit right in, then."