D'Artagnan was hurrying across the quad, trying to wrap his scarf more securely to keep out the bitter evening wind when he recognised the tall figure in front of him and guessed they were probably heading in the same direction.
The wind snatched his words away, but Porthos turned and raised a hand in greeting when he saw who it was, waiting for d'Artagnan to catch him up.
It was mid-December, nearing the end of the autumn term - the final one of d'Artagnan's degree course but the first one of Porthos'. The shared experience of a series of terrifying events the previous Christmas had resulted in a firm friendship developing between them, and despite the fact they were in different years and reading different subjects, d'Artagnan had been pivotal in helping Porthos settle into what was for him a completely alien world.
Coming from an exceedingly poor background to read law at the country's top university as a mature student of mixed race had made Porthos nervous beyond belief. That d'Artagnan had been on hand to show him the ropes, introduce him to his friends and get him regularly drunk had meant he'd got used to life here more quickly than he would have believed possible.
The other factor in his rapid acclimatisation, if a rather less public one, was his relationship with the man they were both on their way to see. Athos de la Fère, irascible professor of English and d'Artagnan's tutor, had also participated in the events of the previous year, and been Porthos' lover ever since.
Porthos and d'Artagnan fell easily into step, talking animatedly of how cold it was, and how they hoped Athos would have a decent fire going in his room.
They were to be disappointed, Athos' window was dark as they passed, and d'Artagnan frowned. "It looks like he's not there. That's odd." They had a long-standing arrangement of pre-dinner drinks on a Friday, and Athos, who provided the drinks in question, had never missed it without good reason, or at least prior apology.
"He told me he'd be in," Porthos agreed. "Maybe he got held up in classes. It's alright, I've got a key, he won't might if we get the fire lit."
D'Artagnan looked amused. He was one of only two other people aware of the nature of Porthos and Athos' relationship, and whilst he'd once upon a time harboured certain feelings for Athos himself, he was very glad they were happy together.
Porthos was fiddling with the door and frowning.
"What's up?" d'Artagnan asked, and Porthos looked up in consternation.
"It's not locked." He pushed the door open and walked into the darkened room with d'Artagnan close on his heels.
"I wish he'd get them to put electric light in here," d'Artagnan muttered, fiddling with the oil lamp on the sideboard.
"They offered it to me. I didn't want it," came a dry voice out of the gloom and d'Artagnan and Porthos both jumped violently and grabbed each other in fright, before letting go and clearing their throats with considerable embarrassment.
"Jesus!" D'Artagnan struck a match and glared at Athos, who was seated at the table. "What the hell are you sitting here in the dark for? Trying to scare the living daylights out of us?" The match burnt down and he shook it out with a yelp, finally managing to light the lamp with the second one.
"Sorry," Athos sighed. "I lost track of the time. It sort of got dark around me."
Now they could see, Porthos realised Athos looked tired and upset, and wondered what was wrong. There was a letter lying on the table in front of him, and he wondered if Athos had received bad news.
"Are you alright?" Porthos asked, coming over to him in concerned sympathy. "What's happened?"
In answer Athos pushed the letter towards him. It was an official looking missive, with a solicitor's heading. Porthos started to scan it, then looked up again curiously.
"Who's Olivier de la Fère?"
"I am." Athos got to his feet and crossed to the tray of decanters on the sideboard, pouring himself a stiff drink.
"You? But your name's Athos?" Porthos said, looking confused.
Athos sighed. "Olivier Armand d'Athos de la Fère," he reeled off, gesticulating wearily with his glass. "Disinherited son of the la Fère estate and all round disappointment to his father the Count de la Fère."
"Oh. Right." Porthos blinked, then smiled at him. "Well, I'm still just plain old Mister du Vallon, pleased to meet you."
At that Athos finally smiled back and relaxed a fraction, but d'Artagnan's next words made him tense up again.
"You told me your family were dead."
"I know what I told you," Athos snapped. A moment later he relented and sighed. "In any case, it was mostly true. My parents died some years ago." He looked unhappily at the letter in Porthos' hands. "And now apparently so has my brother."
"Why don't you start from the beginning?" Porthos suggested softly. "It sounds like we've got a bit of catching up to do."
Athos looked at him, grateful that he wasn't complaining Athos had deliberately hidden things from them. He'd told Porthos a little, mostly just that his parents hadn't approved of his inclinations and that he hadn't spoken to them for years before they died, but certainly not the whole of it.
He sat back down, and Porthos poured drinks for himself and d'Artagnan while d'Artagnan pulled the curtains and lit more lamps. They joined Athos at the table, and Porthos reached out to take his hand. "Go on. You can tell us anything, you know that."
"I know," Athos sighed, giving them both a rueful smile. "Perhaps I should have told you before. But I thought it was all in the past." He took a swallow of scotch and a deep breath.
"My father threw me out when I was eighteen. I'd just finished school. He paid for me to go to university, on the understanding that I never came home again, and made no further claim on him or the estate."
"But why?" asked d'Artagnan, horrified.
Athos flushed. "He - found me in a compromising position with a male member of the estate staff," he confessed, with an awkward glance at Porthos.
"Trousers round your ankles kind of compromising?" Porthos asked, and Athos gave a sheepish nod.
"Ouch." Porthos squeezed his hand and winked. "Male member eh?"
Athos gave an involuntary snort of laughter as he realised what he'd said, and Porthos grinned at him.
"We've all been there. Well in my case it was jumping out of a window on the Old Kent Road and trying to outrun the filth while holding my trousers up, but yeah."
Athos stared at him, trying to work out if he was making this up or not. Porthos looked innocent.
"Swear to God."
"Did they catch you?" d'Artagnan asked, wide-eyed.
"Nah. They caught the other guy though, poor bastard. Not my most successful relationship, all things considered," Porthos sighed.
"How long did it last?" d'Artagnan asked. Athos rolled his eyes, having guessed by now that Porthos was making the whole thing up in order to make him laugh.
"About twenty three minutes," Porthos said with a straight face. "Wouldn't have been so bad, except twenty of those were getting him to come upstairs in the first place."
D'Artagnan choked on his drink and Porthos leaned back in his chair grinning in satisfaction.
"Have you quite finished?" Athos asked, although he appreciated Porthos' efforts to cheer him up more than he could say.
"That's what he said." Porthos suddenly remembered that Athos had just learnt of his brother's death, and sobered abruptly. "Sorry. I didn't mean to be inappropriate."
Athos smiled at him. "Yes you did, and I love you for it," he said quietly. He took a moment to gather his thoughts and picked up where he'd left off, but there was a little more strength in his voice now as he outlined the bleak events.
"My mother tried to talk him out of it," Athos continued. "But in that, as in everything else, my father got his way. She passed away two years later. I only found out three months after the funeral. He hadn't even bothered to tell me she was dead."
Athos paused to fetch himself another drink, and Porthos silently took hold of his hand again as soon as he sat down.
"My father died a few years after that," Athos continued quietly. "Everything went to my younger brother, Thomas."
"Should have gone to you," Porthos growled, indignant on his behalf, but Athos shook his head.
"He was welcome to it. I'd made my own life here by then." He stared into his glass. "I thought that part of my life was all in the past, that's why I never talked about it. I wanted to be a different person. And now - " Athos gave another deep sigh and flicked at the letter.
"Thomas worked for the Foreign Office. This says that he died six months ago, in India. Malaria, apparently."
"I'm sorry," Porthos murmured, and Athos shrugged uncomfortably.
"As far as I'm concerned he'd been dead to me for years."
Porthos just looked at him levelly, and Athos groaned. "What did he want to go and do a stupid thing like this for?"
"What, dying?" asked d'Artagnan, confused.
"No." Athos pushed the letter at him. "He's left it to me."
"Everything. The house, the estate. Everything. I didn't even know he knew where I was."
"He must have cared enough to find out," Porthos said, and Athos scowled.
"Not enough to come and see me."
D'Artagnan was reading the letter. "He wanted it to stay in the family?"
"My father was adamant that I'd never set foot there again." Athos drained his second glass and shook his head. "Maybe I won't. I should just sell it and be done with it."
"Is that what you want?" Porthos asked gently.
Athos looked miserable. "I don't know. I don't know anything any more. Why me? I thought the stupid bastard would have been married by now."
"You're not. Maybe it runs in the family," d'Artagnan suggested with a smile, but Athos glowered at him.
"For his sake I hope it didn't."
Porthos patted his hand. "That bad, is it?" he teased, but this time Athos wasn't to be cheered up.
"He inherited," Athos said flatly. "If he was like me, that means he had to hide it from my father, live a lie his whole life. At least I escaped. For his sake, I hope he wasn't." He scraped his chair back and refilled his glass again, this time bringing the decanter over to the table for the others.
"What do I do?" Athos asked plaintively. "What would you do?"
Porthos and d'Artagnan exchanged a glance.
"I'd go back," Porthos said, and d'Artagnan nodded agreement. "At least once. Maybe lay some demons to rest, eh?"
Athos raised an eyebrow, and managed a thin smile. "I've done enough of that for one lifetime already, thank you."
They laughed, and the tension eased a little. Athos slumped in his seat, and looked at them both.
"If I did go back - would you come with me?" he asked tentatively. "No one would see us, the place has been shut up for years by the sounds of it, while Thomas was overseas. I guess his memories of the place were no fonder than mine."
"Of course we will," Porthos said immediately.
"Definitely," d'Artagnan agreed. "When do we go?"
Athos pursed his lips. "Well we break for Christmas next week. Might as well go up then."
"Can't be a worse holiday than last year," d'Artagnan grinned. "Although we should maybe pack a bible just in case."
Athos gave a low laugh. "I think it'll be a different kind of ghost I need to lay to rest this time." He looked at d'Artagnan consideringly for a moment. "Would you like me to invite Aramis as well?" he asked carefully.
D'Artagnan's face clouded. "Do you think he'd come?"
"He might." Athos looked at Porthos, who winced. They'd both noticed that it hadn't been all smooth sailing lately for d'Artagnan and Aramis. On the face of it, the problem was that Aramis lived and worked in London and they hardly ever saw each other. In truth, Athos suspected the problem was, well, Aramis.
"Yes. Alright." D'Artagnan rubbed his face, and came to a decision. "Ask him. And - make it clear that I'll be there. If he doesn't come then I guess I know where I stand."
"I'm sorry," Athos murmured, and d'Artagnan held up a hand.
"Just don't say 'I told you so'."
"I wasn't going to," Athos said gently, feeling sorry for him.
D'Artagnan sighed. "You did warn me what he was like. To be fair, so did he. I can't say I didn't go into it with my eyes wide open. I suppose - I just thought it'd be different, you know? That he'd have flings, and we'd laugh about it, and it'd be something we shared. I never thought he'd care about them. I never thought I'd feel this jealous," he confessed, looking guilty and miserable.
"Aramis has always fallen in love too easily," Athos told him kindly. "He doesn't mean to hurt anyone. He just doesn't understand that not everyone's wired the same way."
"I thought I was special," d'Artagnan said in a small voice, hating himself for confessing such intimate things in front of his friends, but having no one else he could discuss it with.
"I'm sure you are," Athos said comfortingly, just managing not to say were. "Like I say, he doesn't mean to be hurtful. Look, I'll tell him when we're going up, let's see what he says. Let's face it, one creepy old manor house deserves another, eh?"
D'Artagnan raised a wan smile and nodded, getting to his feet. "Let me know the arrangements," he said. "I'll be there. And to hell with Aramis. I guess love affairs aren't that important, in the great scheme of things."
He said goodnight and slipped out of the door, leaving Athos and Porthos alone.
"He's wrong," said Porthos quietly, taking Athos by the hand and drawing him over to the settee. "In the end, love is the only thing that matters."
A week later the three friends found themselves standing at the end of a gravel path looking at the house that loomed up before them. They had travelled up by train that morning and commandeered the station's shooting brake to drive them up to the house along with their bags.
All of them were travelling reasonably light - Athos hadn’t been entirely sure what sort of condition they would find the house in or whether it would be habitable; if it turned out to be too bad they planned to decamp to the nearest hotel for the night instead. Aramis had announced his intention to drive up and meet them there, so with any luck they would have a car at their disposal for the duration of their stay.
The planning stage hadn't been too bad; concentrating on train times and packing had allowed Athos to avoid thinking too deeply about things. Now though, he was actually here, and he hesitated on the path to delay the inevitable.
"You alright?" Porthos murmured at his side.
Athos stared up at the blank windows that seemed to stare back at them and sighed. "I never thought I'd come back here," he said. "Certainly not as the only one left."
"You might be the last of your family," d'Artagnan said. "But you're not alone."
Athos looked at them both and smiled a little sadly. "Thank you for doing this," he said quietly.
Porthos slipped his hand into Athos' and squeezed it reassuringly as he stared up at the house. He hadn't known what to expect, wondering if it might be a stately pile on the scale of some of the college buildings, but it was a fairly modest country manor house, a little larger than the house Aramis' uncle had bequeathed to him the previous year.
Built of cold grey stone, it had two stubby wings that projected out towards them like pincers and a higgledy-piggledy assortment of rooflines. As his gaze swept over the frontage, something unexpected caught his eye and he cried out in surprise.
"What is it?" Athos turned to him looking startled.
"There's someone up there."
"Where?" Athos looked back up at the house and Porthos frowned in consternation.
"They've gone. There was a face at the window, I was sure of it. Second floor, window in the middle."
Athos looked where he was pointing. "That'd be the landing. I can't see anything?"
"Neither can I now," Porthos admitted, feeling a bit silly. "Is someone here to let us in maybe?"
"No. The solicitors sent me the key." Athos drew a bunch out of his pocket, one of which was twice the size of the others, made from ornate heavy iron. "We should be the only people here."
"So are we going in then?" d'Artagnan asked, starting to shiver as it began to spot with rain.
Athos shook himself and set his shoulders. "Yes. Come on." He strode up to the door determinedly, and tried the handle before fitting the key in the lock and turning it with some difficulty.
"No one's been in this way for years I should think," he said as the door creaked open on loudly protesting hinges. "If anyone is in here they must have come in the back."
Entering through a stone-floored porch they found themselves in a hallway that stretched the depth of the house, tiled in a black and white chequerboard pattern. Everything was covered in a fine layer of dust that lifted in clouds as they walked in.
Halfway down the hall a wooden staircase rose to the upper floors, turning about on itself at precise right angles.
"No one's been up there by the looks of the dust," d'Artagnan observed. "You can see mouse tracks in it, but no footsteps."
"Is there another way up?" Porthos asked, not yet quite willing to admit he'd been mistaken. It had looked very like a face behind the glass.
Athos nodded. "Couple of rear stairs, one from the scullery, one in the east wing. But I don't think anyone's here. It feels empty, don't you think?"
They stood and listened intently, the silence of the old house folding oppressively around them as soon as they stopped moving.
Suddenly a loud knocking echoed down the hall, and they all jumped.
"Anyone home?" called a voice from the front door and everyone immediately relaxed again, feeling silly.
"Aramis! You scared the hell out of us," Athos declared, marching back up to the door to greet him.
"Sorry." Aramis grinned at him, looking around with interest as he gave Athos a warm hug of welcome. "Well. You kept this quiet."
Athos tensed, but Aramis only looked amused. "Thank you for coming," Athos murmured, and Aramis nodded.
"Wouldn't miss it for the world." He held a hand out to Porthos and pulled him into a hug too. "Porthos. Good to see you my friend."
"You too." Porthos returned the hug with a smile. Aramis was funding him through university, and whilst Porthos had vowed to pay it all back as soon as he could, he was infinitely grateful for the generous nature that had lead Aramis to make the offer in the first place.
"D'Artagnan." Aramis smiled at him, opening his arms wide and going in for a full-body hug with no room for refusal. D'Artagnan submitted to it looking startled and a little uncomfortable. He'd been hanging back, nursing his grievances and preparing for an argument, but Aramis seemed oblivious to the stilted welcome he received.
"Do we get the tour then?" Aramis asked, wandering off down the passage without waiting to be invited. D'Artagnan gave a frustrated growl, and set off after him.
Porthos sighed. "Aramis doesn’t have a clue d'Artagnan's cross with him, does he?"
"D'you think they'll sort it out?"
Athos shrugged. "I'm staying well out of it. You should too."
"Yeah. Point taken." Porthos looked sideways at him. "You'd tell me, right? If you were ever mad at me like that?"
Athos smiled. "When am I ever mad at you?"
Porthos matched his smile, and leaned in to brush a kiss across his lips.
Still half convinced he'd seen someone at the window, Porthos was more than willing to follow Athos up the winding stairs. To his surprise Athos didn't stop at the first floor but kept going up a narrower flight to the second, where the ceiling of the passage was pitched with the roof.
Athos disappeared through a door to the right, and Porthos followed to find him standing in a long room with a sloping ceiling. It was empty but for the metal frames of two single beds, and what looked like a dressing table shrouded under a sheet.
Athos looked round at Porthos, wrapping his arms around himself protectively. "This was my room," he explained softly. "Our room."
"You and Thomas?" Porthos asked, and he nodded. Typical of the upper classes, Porthos thought. Have a house big enough to shelter half the village, but make your sons share a room in the attic.
"Bit old to be sharing, weren't you?" he added, thinking that Athos had been eighteen when he left, although wasn't sure how much younger Thomas had been.
"Wasn't here much," Athos admitted. "I was at school most of the time."
"But - oh." Porthos realised what he meant, and wondered why it hadn't occurred to him before. Alien territory again, he supposed. "You mean boarding school."
Athos nodded. "Since I was seven."
Porthos shuddered. "Bit harsh."
Athos gave a thin, hard smile. "Good practice for being sent away, as it turned out." Porthos moved forward to hug him but Athos was pulling the dust sheet off the dressing table to see what was underneath.
"Oh!" He started back, and Porthos was at his side in an instant.
"What is it?"
"Just a mouse." Athos looked embarrassed. "Sorry. Made me jump." He looked down at what he'd uncovered - a few faded books, a dish of cracked marbles and a moth-eaten looking teddy bear.
Athos picked up the bear and turned it over with a frown as bits of stuffing fell out onto the floor. He held out the mouse-nibbled bear for Porthos to inspect, with a look of mournful indignance.
"Poor old Bruin's had his arse chewed off!"
Porthos grinned. "Guess d'Artagnan was right after all. It really does run in the family."
Athos' eyes widened as he took Porthos' meaning, then he spluttered with scandalised laughter and hit him with the bear in a puff of stuffing.
"Oi!" Porthos laughed, and hooked an arm around his neck. "Come on, let's get out of here and find the others. This dust is making me cough."
Outside on the landing Porthos bent to peer through the window, trying to get his bearings.
"This would be where you thought you saw someone," Athos confirmed, guessing his thoughts. He looked at the trails in the dirt underfoot, and shook his head. "There's only our footprints though."
"Must have been a trick of the light," Porthos sighed. He straightened up and looked wary. "The place isn't haunted, is it?"
Athos shook his head. "Scared the living daylights out of me as a child at times, but no I don't think so. I never saw anything, anyway." It seemed strange to be giving such a question serious consideration, but the events of last year had given them both a wary respect for the supernatural.
"Good to know."
As they were about to descend, a vigorous knocking echoed throughout the house for a second time, and they looked at each other in surprise. A moment later voices floated up from the hall below, Aramis, and another man.
"Well I'm fairly sure that doesn't sound like a ghost," Porthos said, and they hurried down to the lower hall.
"Here he is." Aramis turned as they came towards the door and nodded to Athos. "Someone here to see you."
Athos stared at the grey-haired figure in the doorway, then gave him a startled smile. "Serge?"
"Master Olivier." The man, who'd been squinting at Athos in the gloom of the porch seemed rather more convinced by the sound of his voice than the sight of his beard. "I guess we've both changed a bit, huh."
"You haven't changed at all," Athos smiled. "Serge was my father's gamekeeper," he added for the benefit of those listening, and Serge nodded.
"Yes, and your brother's too," he added, then seemed to remember something. "Oh! Ah, I've got summat for you here. Now, where did I - oh yes." He pulled an envelope out of his inner coat pocket and held it out towards Athos, who looked at it and froze.
"That's my brother's handwriting."
"That it is," Serge agreed. "Had this for years, I have. Told me if you ever came back here, I was to give it to you."
Athos was staring at the envelope without taking from him. "What does it say?"
"Well I'm sure I don't know!" Serge said indignantly, as if he was being accused of steaming it open. "He just asked me to see that you got it."
"How did you even know I was here?" Athos asked uncomfortably.
"Folks at the station," Serge said amiably, lowering his hand as Athos still made no move to take the letter. "Said you was back. Said they'd brought you up here." He nodded approvingly. "Good to see you back, it is."
Athos shook his head. "I'm not staying, I'm afraid. In fact I'm selling the place."
The others looked at him in surprise, this having been the first he'd mentioned of his decision. Serge looked shocked.
"But this is your home!"
"No. This hasn't been my home for a very long time." Athos sighed. "Serge - there is one thing you might be able to tell me. Jacques - is he still around here? What happened to him?"
Serge looked uncomfortable. "Jacques as was your father's groom?"
"Well now. I thought as you'd have heard."
Athos looked wary. "Heard what?"
"What happened to 'un."
Athos now looked like he was on the brink of shaking Serge until his false teeth rattled, but he swallowed down his impatience with a visible effort. "What. Happened. To him?"
Serge took his cap off, scratched his head, replaced it. "Well. Hanged hisself, didn't he?"
Athos went deathly pale. "What do you mean, he - when?"
Serge considered. "Month after you left, mabbe?"
"Oh - God." Athos took a physical step backwards. "I - I didn't - oh, God, excuse me." He clapped a hand to his mouth and ran off down the hall.