Porthos walked into the dining room behind the pretty young nurse-administrator who'd introduced herself as Constance, and hoped he didn't look as nervous as he felt. It was ridiculous he told himself, a man of his age who'd worked all over the world, feeling intimidated by a group of elderly men and women. They were almost certainly entirely harmless, but coming here had felt too much like a surrender and he was currently feeling old and useless and vulnerable.
Everyone looked up as he entered, and he tilted his chin up defiantly in the face of so many curious stares, feeling like he'd walked into a hostile saloon. Most of the lunch crowd were grouped around tables of six, and he was ushered over to a spare seat with a brisk but friendly hand. As Porthos sat, his attention was drawn by a man dining alone, not just because of his solitary state, but because he was the only person in the room who hadn't looked up and gawped at him.
"Constance! Ravishing as ever. Have you brought us a new inmate?" The man beside Porthos, sporting a neat beard and hair far too dark to be natural at his age gave the nurse a broad wink.
Constance snorted. "I can see I'm going to have to up the dose of bromide in your tea again. This is Porthos, he joins us today. And I've told you to stop calling them inmates."
The man grinned at Porthos and extended an elegant hand. "Hello. I'm Aramis. Don't worry there's a tunnel in progress, report to the library for digging duty, nineteen hundred hours. Don't tell Commandant Bonacieux."
Constance snorted and moved off, only pausing for a moment to exchange a word with the man sitting alone before leaving the room. Porthos felt suddenly friendless.
"Don't worry, I'm not actually bonkers," murmured the man - Aramis, was it? - sitting next to him. "It just passes the time."
"Till we all drop dead you mean?" Porthos asked gloomily.
"Oh, you're a cheerful one."
"Sorry." Porthos made an effort to smile. "Just - first day, you know? All feels a bit daunting."
"Well you'll find we're all friendly enough. And the staff are delightful," Aramis added, raising his voice for the benefit of another young woman walking past.
"I'll be sure to pass on your compliments to my husband," she called over without missing a beat, and Aramis sighed a little wistfully.
"If I was ten years younger..."
"She'd still be too young for you, and she'd still be married," Porthos interjected, and Aramis laughed.
Lunch progressed in a reasonably agreeable fashion, and Porthos was relieved to find people were willing to talk, without being too nosy.
As the plates were being cleared away and coffee served, the solitary diner got up to leave without so much as a glance at the rest of his fellow residents.
"What's the deal with him?" Porthos murmured with a discreet tilt of his head.
"Athos? Oh he always eats on his own. Says the rest of us give him indigestion," Aramis declared. "Miserable bugger, but he's alright when you get to know him. Don't let him intimidate you."
Porthos wanted to retort that he'd worked in warzones and it would take more to intimidate him than that, but held his peace. He lingered over his coffee as long as he could, but eventually the cups were cleared away and the remaining diners all dispersed to whatever activities they had in mind for the afternoon.
Feeling very alone, Porthos made his way back to his bungalow - or at least he tried to, but the connecting corridors all looked the same, and he was soon hopelessly disorientated.
The retirement home was based around an old manor house, which contained the communal and administration areas. Spidering out from this via a series of covered walkways were what was described in the brochure as bungalows, but was really more a series of conjoined apartments.
Having walked down several of these to no avail, Porthos was starting to feel he was in a nightmare. Everywhere looked the same, and despite the floor to ceiling glass in the link corridors he was feeling claustrophobic and short of breath.
Hurrying round a corner back into the main part of the building, he walked slap bang into someone coming the other way.
"God, sorry, are you alright?" Porthos apologised hastily. He might be getting on in years, but he was a solid fellow and not small, and the man coming the other way had rebounded off him with almost comic effect. Porthos recognised him now as the man from the dining room. The miserable bugger, according to Aramis. Athos, had he said?
Porthos' heart sank; he didn't want to get off on the wrong foot with anyone he was going to have to live in close proximity with for the rest of his years. To his relief, the man didn't look particularly cross.
"That's alright, I should have been looking where I was going," Athos said generously. He looked Porthos up and down and raised an eyebrow. "Where are you off to in such a hurry? Not much cause for speed round here."
"Trying to find my bungalow," Porthos said sheepishly. "I'm lost. I was starting to think I was stuck in a maze."
"The perils of bland modern architecture. Which one's yours?"
Porthos stared at him in increasing misery, realising the anxiety of the last few minutes had driven the new address right out of his mind. "Five? I think? Something to do with a bird?"
Athos gave a dry laugh. "It's all birds here. Chaffinch Court, Songbird Walk, Blackbird Court and Wren Walk, clockwise from the north. I'm Blackbird Six, which now I say it out loud sounds distressingly like a sixties cop show."
Porthos laughed, calmer now and grateful to the man for taking the time to talk to him. If he'd been brusque, Porthos had the horrible feeling it would have been the last straw between him and some kind of embarrassing breakdown.
"I'm Wren, then," he said. "I think."
"You want to go straight through reception, down the passage past the lounge and out the other side," explained Athos. "You're on the wrong side of the house." Porthos looked confused and Athos took pity on him. "Come on, I'll show you. If you want?"
"Would you mind? I don't want to be a bother."
"Be as much of a bother as possible, I say," Athos declared. "No point in just fading away apologetically. People like to forget we still exist, tucked away out here."
"It does feel a bit like it," Porthos agreed dolefully. "I wasn't sure I wanted to come, but I didn't really have a choice."
"Kids dumped you?" Athos asked sympathetically.
"No. No, I don't have any. Lost my wife a while ago. Got a nephew and a niece, but they didn't really - they could hardly be expected to take me in..."
"Couldn't be arsed you mean," Athos interrupted. "You're better off not relying on other people anyway. At least here you still have a degree of autonomy."
"I hadn't thought of it like that," Porthos mused. "Tell you the truth it felt a bit like being sent away because nobody wanted me any more."
"Fuck the lot of them," Athos remarked absently, leading Porthos down a complicated series of corridors that he thought ruefully he'd never have managed on his own.
"Do you have family?" Porthos ventured.
"No," said Athos rather shortly, then seemed to realise he'd been abrupt and continued in a milder tone. "Anyway, this place isn't that bad. It's hardly a prison camp, no matter what Aramis likes to pretend."
Porthos realised then that despite his apparent lack of interest in the dining room, Athos hadn't missed a thing.
"You can come and go as you please. And the food's not bad. And they do all your laundry for you. If you can get over the idea that everyone's waiting for you to die, it's not half bad." Athos drew up at the entrance to a wide glassed corridor that looked identical to the first one. "Here we are. Wren Walk. Number five should be about half way down on the left."
"Thank you." Porthos realised dolefully that he was about to be left on his own again. "I'm sorry to have troubled - " he broke off, remembering Athos' exhortation not to apologise for his existence. "Thank you," he repeated rather lamely.
Athos gave him a considering look. "You know, there's a pub in the village?" he offered finally. "Only a fifteen minute walk, quite pleasant in the sunshine. And we won't even need to tunnel out."
The pub turned out to be a cosy affair, all low beams and old fashioned cushioned oak benches. Porthos settled into one gratefully, trying to hide how breathless he was even from the short walk down the hill.
Athos fetched them both a drink and slid in next to him. There was a log fire across from their table, and Porthos felt his eyelids drooping in the warmth and dim light. Catching himself on the edge of sleep he shook himself and sat up. Athos gave a slight smile.
"I have been known to come here and spend all afternoon dozing," he murmured. "I won't be offended if you drop off."
"I'm fine," Porthos objected, cross with himself. "Thank you, for inviting me."
"That's alright. Always drinking alone can become a little tedious. Besides I remember that feeling of dread from my first week here. It takes a while to adjust, but you get used to it. You'll find there's plenty of company if you want it. And if you don't, well, they'll leave you alone. Eventually." Athos smirked, and sipped his red wine.
"Have you been here long?" Porthos asked, curious. He judged Athos to be a few years older than him, although not many. He had grey hair that curled down past his ears, and a neat grey beard with flecks of brown in it that unlike Aramis' looked entirely natural.
"Couple of years," Athos told him. "Two and a half, maybe," he amended, considering the question more closely. "It seemed the simplest option when I retired. No property maintenance required. Or cooking for myself," he added with a smile. "I never really got the hang of that."
"I was finding I couldn't manage the house any more, on my own," Porthos said. It had taken a long time for him to come to terms with that, and he was surprised how easily the admission slipped out to Athos. "And I lived a fair distance from my relatives, so - it was hard for them, to keep coming over to do the grass and such." And keep an eye on me, he thought ruefully.
"Don't see it as a failure," Athos murmured. "Coming here, I mean. Just look at it as letting somebody else do all the hard work for once."
Porthos looked sideways at him, both comforted by his words and slightly prickly that Athos had divined the way he was feeling so easily.
"What did you do?" Porthos asked. "Before you retired I mean?"
"Architect," said Athos, without elaborating. "You?"
"Photographer. Working for newspapers mostly."
"Oh, paparazzi then?" Athos suggested, with just a twinkle of amusement in his eye to show that he was teasing.
"Warzones, mostly," Porthos retorted, and Athos tipped his glass towards him in a gesture of respect.
"You must have had an eventful life. It really will seem quiet round here."
"Glad of the peace, to be honest," Porthos smiled. "All that death and destruction wears you down after a while. I retired a while ago. Had a few years to enjoy meself anyway, before - before - "
"You lost your wife?" Athos murmured, and Porthos nodded, taking a large gulp of his beer to ground himself again.
"After Alice went it all seemed a bit pointless," he admitted. "Guess I went downhill a bit. Maybe that's why I ended up here."
"At the last chance hotel?" Athos supplied dryly, and Porthos gave a surprised laugh.
"Am I being maudlin? Aramis accused me of that already."
"Then you're off to a good start," Athos smiled. "When there's nothing else left to live for, annoying as many people as possible is as good a reason as any," he explained, when Porthos looked enquiring.
Porthos laughed again, feeling brighter. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad here after all.
They took a taxi back up the hill after a couple of drinks, and parted with a promise to do it again some time.
When Porthos went into dinner that night, still pleasantly buzzing from his couple of beers, he hoped that Athos would be there, and that he could perhaps sit with him. Athos' table though was empty, and he was relieved when Aramis beckoned him over.
"Hello. How are you settling in?" Aramis smiled. "I hear you went drinking with our resident grouch, you are honoured."
Porthos raised his eyebrows, realising exactly how quickly gossip was going to spread around here. He hadn't thought anyone had seen them go.
"Yeah, we went to the pub," he said. "Athos seems nice enough? I thought he might be here, actually."
"Probably still drinking," Aramis said blithely. "Once he's had a couple he finds it hard to stop."
"Oh." The chagrin must have shown on Porthos' face because Aramis waved away his unvoiced concern.
"Oh don't worry about him. Drinks like a fish but he's got a tougher liver than most teetotallers I know. You know how some people cling to the excuse they could stop if they wanted? I asked him once, and he said he had no idea, he'd never wanted to."
Porthos laughed awkwardly, not entirely sure if it was supposed to be a joke, but Aramis seemed unconcerned. Porthos reflected that he'd known journalists like that, hard-drinking men and women who seemed unaffected by levels of alcohol that would have had him on the floor. He remembered the one thing they'd had in common had been the air of loneliness about them.
The food arrived at that point, and Porthos hesitantly took a bottle of pills out of his pocket, looking round self-consciously. Aramis caught the look and patted him on the shoulder.
"Don't worry, everyone here's on something. Even Athos, although I'm not sure what. Something to counter the vitriol probably. Wait till you see this place at breakfast, some people have got five different pill bottles lined up. It's amazing we don't all rattle as we walk."
Porthos smiled, grateful to Aramis for putting him at his ease. "Have you been here long?" he asked, wondering what he was going to use as a conversational gambit once he'd used this on everyone.
"Nearly three years?" Aramis estimated, head on one side. "Moved in about the same time as Athos, actually. I suppose that's why we became friends."
"You're friends?" Porthos blurted before he could stop himself, thinking that Aramis had been quite offhandedly rude about Athos every time he'd been mentioned.
Aramis looked surprised. "Yes? I think. As friendly as Athos gets with anyone, anyway. He's very self-sufficient."
"Must get lonely though," Porthos mused. "Not having anyone."
"Oh his son visits occasionally," Aramis said. "Twice a year maybe?"
Porthos blinked. "He has a son?" He was certain Athos had told him he didn't have any family.
"Yes. I don't think they're particularly close, mind. I don't think Athos lets anyone gets close, come to that."
"That's a shame."
Aramis shrugged. "His choice."
Porthos changed the subject, but it preyed on his mind. He wondered why Athos had lied to him, and why he might not want to admit to having a son, particularly one who apparently cared enough to come and visit him.
Athos still hadn't appeared at breakfast the next morning, and it wasn't until halfway through the afternoon that Porthos ran across him, sitting alone in the library reading.
"Hello. Mind if I join you?"
Athos looked up with a frown that cleared slightly when he saw who it was. "Oh, hello. Er, no, be my guest."
Porthos sat down in the leather arm chair next to him, and promptly lost his nerve. Athos had gone back to his book with a pointed focus that was clearly meant to discourage conversation, and Porthos realised he didn't want to screw up their fledgling friendship before it had really begun. What did it matter if Athos had lied? Presumably he had his reasons.
Porthos settled back into the chair with a sigh, and let his eyes roam over the book-shelves opposite. He should pick one, he thought. At least then he'd have an excuse for being here. Maybe he could just close his eyes for a second first though...
When Porthos woke up it was dark outside and Athos had gone, but there was a lamp lit on a side table next to him, and a blanket over his lap that hadn't been there before. Porthos got stiffly to his feet with a grateful smile.
A couple of weeks passed. Porthos gradually got used to life in his new surroundings, and although it still didn't feel quite like home yet he'd made several friends amongst the residents and staff, and was now able to easily navigate the corridors that had once seemed so mystifying.
His afternoons he now mostly spent reading; having discovered that Athos made a daily trip to the library to curl up in the chair near the fire, Porthos had started joining him. Athos, for his part, once he realised Porthos was prepared to read and not pester him had been welcoming enough, and in the end they spent many quiet hours conversing in between chapters.
It was Sunday afternoon, and Porthos walked into the dining room for tea to discover a party appeared to be in progress. There were plates of sandwiches and mounds of cake far in excess of the usual Sunday spread, and even a few balloons.
"Is it someone's birthday?" Porthos asked, upon being handed a plateful by Aramis.
"Athos'," came the reply, and Porthos looked surprised.
"Oh, he didn't say?"
"No, he wouldn't," Aramis smirked. "He doesn’t like a fuss."
"Where is he?" Porthos asked, looking around and not seeing him.
"Oh, he's not here. He hates parties," said Aramis nonchalantly. Porthos laughed.
"Let me get this straight, you're holding a party in honour of Athos' birthday - without him?"
"Yes." Aramis grinned. "This way, everyone's happy. Don't worry, we'll send him some cake."
Porthos shook his head in baffled amusement. "Give it to me, I'll take it round."
Five minutes later he was standing in front of Athos' door with a covered plate in one hand and knocking with the other. He'd yet to see inside, although presumed the layout was much the same as his.
Athos opened it looking suspicious but relaxed a little when he saw who it was, leaving Porthos feeling oddly flattered.
"Happy birthday," Porthos smiled, and Athos rolled his eyes.
"I presume Aramis told you. How's the party?"
"Going well," Porthos nodded, faintly relieved. He'd had a lingering fear they hadn't actually invited Athos, but if he knew all about it then everything was fine. "Here, have some cake, compliments of Aramis."
"As long as he didn't make it." Athos sighed and took the plate, pushing his door wider. "You'd better come in."
Porthos stepped inside, looking around with a certain curiosity. The place was reasonably neat and fairly spartan, with very few ornaments or personal possessions scattered about the place although one wall was entirely books.
On the mantelpiece above the gas fire was one lone birthday card, and Porthos felt a stab of sympathy.
"You should have said it was your birthday, I'd have got you something."
Athos raised an eyebrow. "And if I'd wanted anything, I'd have told you," he countered. "Tea?"
"Yes please." Porthos wandered over to look at the solitary card. It was matte black with just a silver glittery Happy Birthday printed on the front, understated and very Athos. Porthos smiled.
"At least your son remembered, eh?" he said cheerfully, assuming that was who it was from.
Athos froze, and stared at him.
"Who told you I have a son?" he asked icily. Porthos blinked, belatedly remembering he wasn't supposed to know.
"Aramis," he admitted.
"Aramis. Aramis should know to keep out of my affairs," Athos hissed with a surprising amount of ferocity.
"Look, it's none of my business, I just think it's a shame that you seem to be so estranged," Porthos started, but Athos cut across him.
"No. You're right. It is none of your fucking business," he said tightly, and although he hadn't once raised his voice he was clearly furious. "You don't know me, Porthos. You know nothing about me, you know nothing about the circumstances. How dare you fucking presume?"
"I know he apparently cares enough to send you a birthday card," Porthos protested.
Athos marched across and snatched the card from the mantelpiece, held it out to him. "Here. Since you're so nosy."
"No, I - "
Porthos took it and slowly opened the card, knowing already from the tight feeling in his chest that he'd guessed wrong.
"Constance," he read dully.
"Get out," Athos said tiredly, and Porthos looked up at him in shock.
"Athos - "
"I said get out. Get out of my house Porthos. Get out of my life. I don't know what you imagined you were going to do, engineer some sickly reconciliation or what, but trust me, it won't happen. So stop sticking your nose in where it's not fucking wanted."
In the end, Porthos left. It was the only thing he could do. Too upset to go back to the party, Porthos went home, hoping that Athos would come down to supper later on and he'd be able to apologise. Athos though didn't appear again that night, and Porthos wondered miserably if he was drinking himself to sleep.
The next morning, Athos was at least back at his customary table, and steeling himself for confrontation Porthos walked over and slid onto the seat next to him.
Athos looked up coldly. "I prefer to eat alone."
"I'm not stopping." Porthos took a breath. "I just - came to apologise." He paused, choosing his words, and Athos grudgingly waited for him to finish. "You were right. It wasn't any of my business. I never meant to interfere, or upset you. And I won't do it again. So - anyway. Yeah. Sorry."
Without waiting for a reply, Porthos got up again and went across to sit at his usual place next to Aramis, shaking his head mutely at Aramis' concerned enquiry as to what that had all been about.
After a moment Athos got up and left, and Porthos felt a dull weight settle in his heart.
Athos didn't appear in the library that afternoon, but wandering aimlessly through the grounds Porthos spotted him sitting on a bench some way distant, nose buried in a book as usual.
He wondered whether to go over, but it was across a wide stretch of wet grass, or even further round by the paths, and he already felt breathless. More breathless the more he thought about it in fact, and Porthos had to clutch at the nearby brick wall, half doubled over as his vision went blurry.
He took a few deep breaths, blinking the crumbling red bricks into focus. There was a length of wire stretched in front of his eyes, fading bits of green twine knotted to it at intervals, pegging up the roses, mostly bare thorns at this time of year. The earth sank under the weight of his foot and he realised he was standing half in the flowerbed.
Maybe he should go back into the house. Have a lie down.
Porthos took a breath and straightened up, preparing to let go of the wall. And then the pain hit.
It was like a vice grip and a sword-blow all at once, and it drove him to his knees. Black spots danced in front of his eyes, and he wanted to cry out but couldn't produce more than a breathless whimper. A second burst of agony seemed to rip him in half, and he wondered for a second if he'd fallen onto one of the garden canes, somehow impaled himself. But there was no blood, no wound, and the terrifying knowledge that it was all coming from within hit him just as everything went black.