They said you couldn't run away from your problems, because wherever you went, you were always taking yourself with you. There seemed to be a sad truth to this Athos mused to himself, standing in the echoing foyer. He'd thought a new town might finally mean a new start, but instead it had only meant unfamiliar surroundings and even more loneliness than before. Hence why, less than a week after moving in, he was standing in a school building after hours and staring at an incomprehensible site map next to a sellotaped sheet of A4 with 'Alcoholics Anonymous' printed on it.
The school building was used for a variety of evening classes and support groups, and various people were coming and going behind him but they all seemed to be in intimidating groups and no one had obligingly come out with a label saying 'alcoholic' stapled to their forehead. He turned back to the map trying to work out which bit of brightly coloured block he was currently standing in, and scratched his head.
"You alright mate? Going my way?"
At the cheerful voice behind him Athos turned gratefully only to be rendered speechless by the vision of physical perfection that was grinning back at him. Tall, dark and handsome hardly covered it and Athos wished heartily that the answer was yes, but he suspected the only drink problem this guy had was how much kale he could fit in his blender.
Athos opened his mouth to ask directions to room B05, but before he could get the words out his would-be rescuer was talking again.
"You here for the sample drawing class, yeah? New sign-ups today. Just on my way up there, I'll show you if you like?"
Athos faltered. Suddenly to tell this gorgeous specimen that actually no, he was here for the sad wankers in the basement club was more than he could bring himself to do. That look of cheerful enquiry would inevitably turn into a look of disgust or pity, which right now might be the last straw.
"Uh - yes," he heard himself saying. "Thank you." Still, maybe it wasn't a bad idea after all. He'd done a bit of sketching when he was younger, although like so many other things in his life that had fallen by the wayside. What he needed right now was a distraction from the cravings, and maybe an art class would actually fit the bill.
"I'm Porthos, by the way," said his rescuer with a smile. "If you sign up for the term, you'll be seeing quite a lot of me."
"Athos." They shook hands, Porthos already leading him towards the stairwell. He'd assumed from all this that Porthos was the class tutor, so was mildly surprised when they arrived to find this was in fact a woman called Constance, who welcomed him brightly and found him a chair and easel.
As he took off his coat and got himself settled, she explained to the group that as this was a sample class materials would be provided, but if they signed on for the full term they would be expected to provide their own. This came as a relief to Athos, who'd been wondering how to explain turning up to an art class without so much as a pencil to his name.
Athos looked around with interest at his fellow wannabe artists. Most were women, he was one of only three men in the class, and as he noted that he wondered where Porthos had gone.
He wasn't wondering for long. After a minute or two during which they all filled in registration forms, and Athos forked over the sample class fee that everyone else seemed to have paid already, a door at the back into what was presumably a supplies cupboard opened and Porthos came out. Except now he was no longer wearing the jeans and sweatshirt he'd been in earlier, but a dark red towelling robe that came down to his knees.
Athos stared in surprise, but the penny didn't finally drop until Porthos climbed up into a chair on a raised platform in the middle of the room.
Christ, he thought. Porthos had only said drawing class - he'd thought they'd be sketching a bowl of fruit or something. But he'd meant life drawing class. Not entirely the plums he'd had in mind.
With that, Porthos shrugged off the robe and struck a pose, with a lack of self-consciousness that Athos found staggering. If it had been him, he'd have been trying to hide under the chair. But then, he didn't have Porthos' body. Maybe if he'd been built like some kind of god, he'd feel able to flaunt himself as well.
Athos realised he was staring and hastily looked down, fiddling with his paper. A surreptitious glance around the room suggested everyone else was staring as well to a greater or lesser degree, and he relaxed a bit. There'd been a certain amount of nervous sniggering when Porthos disrobed and even a wolf whistle from one of the girls in the corner, all of which Porthos had weathered good-humouredly.
Athos ran out of things to fidget with, and accepted that sooner or later he was going to have to look up again. That was, after all, the point of being here. He was, for the next couple of hours, entirely allowed - expected even - to stare at the naked body of the most perfect man he'd ever set eyes on.
Feeling the heat rising in his cheeks, he glanced up with all the nonchalance he could muster. Porthos, thankfully, was staring off at a neutral point somewhere on the wall, and the risk of eye contact seemed low. Athos let himself look properly, and felt his blush increasing. Porthos had one foot raised on a draped box, and all his worldly goods were spread out for Athos to see.
He suddenly recalled Porthos saying you'll be seeing quite a lot of me, and a splutter of laughter burst from his lips before he could stop himself. Embarrassed, he hastily cleared his throat and turned it into a cough, although not before Porthos had glanced in his direction. For a brief moment their eyes met, and to Athos' startled amusement, Porthos winked at him.
Once he'd got used to the idea, Athos found he rather enjoyed working on his pencil sketch. Constance moved quietly round the room, giving out advice and encouragement to each of them in turn and he found his old skills came back to him instinctively. He was by no means harbouring a world-shaking talent, but neither was he turning out a stick-figure, and Athos was quietly pleased with the result taking shape.
By the time they broke for a cup of tea after about an hour he'd captured the basic lines of Porthos' body, and filled in some of the detail of his face and hair. He'd left the area around the crotch vague, still a little embarrassed to be staring at the private parts of a man he'd only just met. Not that Porthos had anything to be embarrassed about, even respectably limp he was quite impressive.
Athos realised he was chewing the end of his pencil reflectively and made a revolted face as he realised it was a school pencil and had probably already been in the mouths of countless small oiks. He'd probably catch typhoid. Or nits.
He accepted a mug of strong tea gratefully, and dropped his coins into the kitty. Still feeling a little self-conscious, like he was an intruder on the class, he hung back from the buzz of conversation but everyone seemed nice enough. After a couple of minutes he sensed a presence at his elbow and looked up, expecting it to be Constance checking her most morose looking student wasn't feeling left out, but to his surprise it was Porthos.
To spare everyone's blushes he'd put the towelling robe back on, and had a mug of tea in his hand. He nodded affably. "How's it going?"
"Not bad," Athos conceded. "I'm a bit rusty though."
"Let's have a look." Porthos ducked round Athos' easel with a grin, ignoring his yelp of protest.
Athos stood there and chewed his lip, waiting nervously for the verdict. Porthos nodded slowly, giving a pout of appreciation. "Not bad at all. It's recognisably me, for a start." He grinned. "I see I've been sadly emasculated though. Were my nuts too small for you to see 'em?"
Flustered, Athos gave him a sheepish grin. "Hardly. I was afraid I'd run out of pencil, so I left your biggest feature till last."
Porthos threw back his head and gave a roar of laughter, and Athos flushed with pleasure. It had been a long time since he'd made anyone laugh like that. He searched around for something else to say to keep the conversation going. He'd never been good at small talk, but if Porthos wandered off he'd be back to standing here on his own like a prize awkward twit.
"Must be difficult, keeping still like that for so long," Athos ventured. "Don't you get stiff?"
Porthos grinned delightedly, even as Athos winced at his choice of words. "No, Constance throws things at me if I do that."
"Cramp," Athos groaned with embarrassment. "I meant get cramped. Sorry."
Porthos' grin widened. "I knew what you meant," he laughed. "It's alright. And no, not really, you get used to it. Can start to ache after much more than an hour though, depends on the pose."
"Do you not get bored?" Athos wondered.
"I use it as meditation time," Porthos told him. "It's quite nice. Lets you sort through things in your head, like."
Athos shuddered. "I try and avoid spending too much time alone in my head if I can help it," he muttered. "The company's awful."
Porthos looked surprised, but the tea break was wrapping up and he was chased back to his perch by Constance before he could enquire any further.
The second hour went by even faster than the first, and by the end of the session Athos had a passable depiction of Porthos down on his sheet of paper. In the end he'd chickened out of trying to attempt an anatomically correct cock and balls and had left the lower half of the body deliberately abstract, concentrating instead on drawing Porthos' features. He was a good looking man but by no means blandly handsome. He had a slight scar over one eye that gave his face an interesting depth, and Athos worked hard to capture it. For this he drew both praise from Constance for his portrait skills and a mild scolding for what she saw as missing the point of the life drawing class.
As they were packing away Constance handed out enrolment forms for the term, and told them all that she hoped the taster session had made them all want to sign up for the full course. Athos was tempted, and had to admit to himself that the lure of Porthos flaunting his naked body every week was a damn sight more appealing than an AA meeting. Choosing one over the other was a risk, but he thought it a manageable one. He'd come here looking for distraction, and he'd certainly found it.
Porthos had ducked back into the supplies cupboard to get dressed, an oddly modest move that struck Athos as funny given that Porthos had spent two hours sitting stark naked in front of a whole classroom full of people. He was still in there when Athos ran out of reasons to dawdle and started making his way out of the building, but by the time he’d reached the foyer Porthos had appeared behind him, fully dressed and beaming.
"So what did you think?" Porthos asked him as he caught up. "Did you enjoy it? Will we see you for the rest of the term?" he sounded hopeful, and Athos wondered briefly if he was on commission, although he hadn't noticed him talking to any of the others like this.
"Thinking about it," Athos admitted. "And yes, I had fun tonight." It was true he realised with slight surprise. The whole time he'd been in the classroom he hadn't thought about needing a drink once.
"Great." Porthos seemed to be genuinely pleased, and Athos smiled at him. Porthos smiled back, holding the door for him as they walked out into the night.
"So hey, uh - there's a pretty good pub just over the road. Don't suppose you fancy getting a drink do you?" Porthos asked offhandedly.
Athos froze. "Oh. Um, I, er - I can't," he stammered. "Sorry, I - er - " desperately trying to think of an excuse that didn't sound rude. Porthos though, had quickly got the message his invitation wasn't welcome.
"No, no it's fine, no worries. Just a thought." He pulled up the collar of his coat, clearing his throat awkwardly. "See you next week then maybe yeah?" He walked off hurriedly, leaving Athos staring after him feeling miserable. Why did it have to have been a drink he'd offered?
Feeling suddenly sick, Athos crumpled the enrolment papers in his fist and looked around for a bin. After making his way out of the car park without finding one he shoved them blindly into his coat pocket and trudged dolefully off to the bus stop.
When Athos got home to his tiny rented flat he made himself a cup of tea and sat at the table, smoothing out the sketch of Porthos. Not having set out with the intention of attending an art class he hadn't had any kind of folder with him so it was a bit crumpled from having been in his coat. He sighed despondently. The earlier sense of pleasure he'd felt had been thoroughly pricked, although more from his own ham-fisted response than Porthos' offer itself, which had been entirely innocently meant, if unexpected.
Athos wondered if he should have said yes. He could have had a coke after all. But deep down he knew it had been the right decision, that in his current mental state just being in a pub might have been enough to bring about his downfall.
He wrapped his fingers tightly around the hot ceramic of the mug until it was almost burning him. Don't think about pubs, he told himself sternly. Don't think about drinking.
He studied the drawing critically. It was a passable attempt for someone who hadn't picked up a sketch pad in years, but suddenly he could see all the flaws in it. The urge to tear it to pieces washed over him, and he squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the destructive impulse.
After a moment it faded and he gulped hot tea as a distraction, smoothing out a few more creases with his free hand. Maybe it wasn't so bad as a first attempt, he conceded. If he went back, he'd improve. Giving up at the first hurdle was no good, he'd learnt that much from his experiences if nothing else. Plus, it meant he could see Porthos again. Apologise for the abrupt way he'd turned him down.
Maybe he'd sleep on it.
Over the next few days Athos changed his mind on a roughly hourly basis. He had no friends here, and taking the class would be at least a step in the right direction. Feeling constantly so alone had been one of the hardest parts of his ongoing withdrawal. On the other hand, one of his key reasons for going along to the AA meeting had been to see if he could get a sponsor, and to try and continue on his own without that crucial support would be harder.
His thoughts went chasing each other round and round in this vein for several days. There was also the cost of the course to consider. Although it wasn't exorbitantly high, he was barely earning enough to cover rent and food, and he would be expected to buy art supplies on top of that. Oddly, it was this that finally convinced him to give it a go. Less money left over at the end of the week meant he'd be less able to buy a bottle of anything likely to end up killing him.
Having found the dog-eared forms still in his coat pocket, Athos duly filled them out and sent them off with a cheque for the course fee. Rather than dreading it, as the day of the class approached he was pleased to discover it gave him a sense of purpose and something to look forward to. He went out and bought proper pencils and a sketchbook, and even made a start practising his drawing.
As the time came to leave for the class though, Athos found himself brimful of nerves. What if Porthos had been offended by being turned down? What if he ignored him? What if - worse - he wasn't there at all?
Athos put his coat on, then took it off again and sat back down. He did this twice more, before growling at himself in frustration and slamming out of the door ten minutes later than he should have, running for the bus before he could change his mind.
By the time he reached the school he was only a few minutes late, and made his way up to the classroom trying to control his spiralling anxiety. He had to pause in the corridor outside, taking deep breaths and telling himself this was ridiculous. It was supposed to be making him feel better, not worse.
There was still the opportunity to change his mind, he reflected. There would be an AA group meeting again tonight in one of the other rooms. He could go there instead. Concede defeat. Give up pretending he could function normally.
With a hiss of effort Athos pushed himself away from the wall and marched into the classroom.
The smell of the art room was instantly comforting, somehow magically transporting him back to the uncomplicated days of primary school. Athos hesitated just inside the door, relaxing as he saw that the group was still milling about and settling down, and that he wasn't too late. Constance looked up and waved him in with a welcoming smile, and his feet unfroze enough to carry him forward.
As she sorted out his registration forms - more paperwork, it seemed endless - he let himself oh-so-casually scan the rest of the room. Porthos, already in his robe, was talking to a group at the back, but as Athos turned in his direction he looked up and caught his eye, gave him a nod of recognition and a smile. Athos returned the same, feeling relieved that Porthos didn't seem to bear him any ill will.
There was no opportunity to speak to Porthos before they got started, but Athos took his place contentedly enough, only half-listening as Constance ran through the structure of the course. He was seated in a different position today with Porthos was facing away from him, and found that while the view was just as pleasant, without the full-frontal it was also less distracting and he could concentrate on his sketching.
The broad lines of Porthos' back and the curve of his arse gradually took form on Athos' easel, and so wrapped up in it was he that when Constance called a halt for the tea break he was astonished to find that an hour had passed already.
Still too shy to strike up a conversation with any of the other students, Athos had hoped that Porthos would come and talk to him, but he seemed to have been buttonholed by a couple of the others. Athos sipped his tea and considered his classmates. Only one other man had returned for the full course. Athos had thought that they might naturally fall into conversation by virtue of being, with Porthos, the only men in the room, but it seemed he was more interested in pestering Constance for tips.
"You look deep in thought," said a voice next to him. "Considering the mysteries of the universe, or just what to have for dinner?"
Athos turned and found he was being addressed by the woman who was occupying the next easel. She had long blonde hair tied back artfully in a silk scarf and was regarding him with a look of faint amusement. He wondered whether to say he'd been contemplating the mysteries of Porthos' bare arse, and decided against it.
"I'd better keep quiet, or you'll only be disappointed in me," he replied instead, and she laughed, holding out a hand.
"Athos." They shook, and Athos noticed she had colourful splashes of paint around her wrist. Given they were only sketching in pencil, presumably this meant - or was designed to indicate - that she was a Proper Artist, and was probably hoping he'd ask. So he purposely didn't, and then wondered distantly if this was why he had problems making friends.
"Have you been drawing long?" Ninon asked, craning round to have a look at his half-finished sketch without being invited.
"About fifty minutes," Athos declared, draining his tea and looking innocent.
Ninon started to explain what she'd meant, then realised he was taking the piss. "Then may I congratulate you on getting the hang of it so quickly," she said dryly. "It's a passion, don't you find?" she went on enthusiastically. "I've been sketching and painting since I was old enough to hold a crayon."
"Your wrist must be getting very tired by now," Athos said gravely, and she gave him an exasperated look, somewhere between annoyance and amusement. It was a look he seemed to remember getting from his teachers at school on a regular basis, and wondered if she would make him go and stand in the corner. "Sorry," he said. "Bad habit. May I see yours?" Not being particularly interested, but sensing she was bursting for him to ask.
He was prepared to make politely impressed noises whatever it looked like, but Ninon's sketch was genuinely very good. Far better than his in fact, with a confidence in its bold strokes that made his own look entirely too careful and hesitant.
Athos duly showered her with praise and slipped away as soon as he could to wash out his mug, feeling rather depressed. Was he kidding himself doing this? What if he was actually awful at it?
"I see Leonardo Larroque's been giving you the benefit of her wisdom," said a low voice in his ear, and Athos looked up in surprise to find Porthos had materialised at his shoulder.
"Um," he said, brain refusing to cooperate, and Porthos grinned at him.
"Don't let her put you off. She's been coming for years. Claims it's because she likes the time set aside each week to concentrate on her art, but I reckon it's mostly because it lets her be smug about the fact she's better than everyone else who's just starting out." Porthos abruptly remembered he knew next to nothing about Athos and looked panicky. "I mean - er - she's not a friend of yours or anything is she?"
Athos shook his head. "No. We just met. I don't think I made a very good first impression though."
Porthos looked relieved. "Huh. Made a decent enough one on me," he muttered, but then walked off before Athos could form a reply.
There was a certain amount of quiet chatter during the classes, but to Athos' relief Ninon didn't try and engage him in conversation again when he returned to his easel. He concentrated firmly on his drawing, not catching anybody's eye, and tried to infuse his lines with a looser and more expressive style. It didn't really work, and the end result was something of a mess. Athos glared at the paper irritably, unclipping it and folding it away before anyone could see it, or Constance tried to give him any well-meaning advice.
In a bad mood, he walked out without remembering he'd meant to find and apologise properly to Porthos, and was at the main doors downstairs before it came back to him.
Athos turned and discovered Porthos had once again caught up with him. He gave him an embarrassed smile. "Uh - sorry. Just remembered something." Before he could continue, Porthos got in first.
"Look, um, a group of us are going over for a drink," Porthos said. "If you fancied joining us?"
Athos mentally banged his head against a wall. "Oh - I'd love to, but - I can't," he said. "I'm sorry. Really, thank you for the offer but, ah - I have to get back."
Porthos nodded philosophically. "Fair enough. Another time, maybe?"
"Yeah. That'd be good," Athos agreed weakly, and watched Porthos walk out into the car park to join the knot of people waiting for him.
Great, Athos thought. Now he probably thinks you're bloody married.
Athos spent most of the following week trying to decide if he felt strong enough to go into a pub and withstand temptation. He realised there was a good chance that after two refusals Porthos simply wouldn't bother asking him again, but in case he did, Athos wanted to be able to say yes.
For a long time he hadn't been in a good place, and when he'd first tried staying off the drink, it had been the lure of the pubs and the daytime drinking camaraderie they offered that had been his downfall over and over again. It had been one of the reasons for moving towns, there were no familiar drinking dens here that he could stroll into and fall into easy conversation. But this drastic measure had also left him lonely, and Porthos was the first person he'd met who'd extended the hand of friendship.
Athos pondered the question of whether it was more than that. Had the second offer of a group drink been Porthos assuming his first refusal had stemmed from not wanting to be alone with him, or had Athos assumed wrongly that the first offer had been meant as a date of sorts?
He'd rather got the impression that Porthos had been flirting with him, but on the other hand Athos couldn't imagine why anyone would want to do such a thing, so maybe Porthos was just like that with everyone. Certainly, if he discovered Athos' problem he would be unlikely to want anything further to do with him - and therein lay the issue, Athos thought. Because while he might be able to face going into a bar and not drinking, it would almost certainly require whoever he was with knowing that he couldn't, and not offering any or cajoling him to do so.
By the time the next class came around Athos still hadn't quite made up his mind how he would react - but in the event the problem didn't arise, for the simple fact Porthos wasn't there.
Athos hadn't noticed anything amiss at first, as he settled at an easel a safe distance from Ninon, and next to the only other male student, whose name he finally learned tonight was d'Artagnan. Porthos wasn't in the room, but he'd assumed he was in the back getting changed - except when the door opened, it wasn't Porthos who stepped out, but a woman he'd never seen before.
As she took her place on the central podium, Constance introduced her as Suzette, and she shed her robe with a flourish and a smile.
Next to him, Athos could see d'Artagnan's eyes were on stalks, and he laughed inwardly. His initial reaction to Porthos had been much the same, although he hoped not quite so obvious.
D'Artagnan caught his eye, and cleared his throat sheepishly with a smirk. "That's more like it, eh?" he said in a low voice, clearly hoping for some male bonding validation.
"Actually I'd rather look at Porthos to be honest," Athos told him, and d'Artagnan did a double take.
"Oh. Right." He gave Athos a dubious look, then shrugged. "Each to their own I s'pose."
Athos nodded, and to his relief d'Artagnan let the matter drop, although continued to chat freely to him throughout the first half of the session. When they broke for tea Athos found a chance to have a quiet word with Constance.
"No Porthos tonight?" he murmured, hoping she hadn't overheard his words to d'Artagnan earlier and would think he was only here to perve. But he was also concerned that Porthos might be ill, or have got a better offer. The classes would be a lot less appealing without his presence to look forward to.
Constance, to his relief, just laughed. "We have to teach you both types of anatomy remember. Porthos and Suzette tend to alternate a couple of weeks each."
"Oh, right, okay." Athos had the feeling if he'd paid attention at the start he'd probably have known this, but he'd been too busy contemplating an anatomy lesson of his own.
While Athos wasn't uninterested in women, the blonde and blowsy Suzette definitely wasn't his type and by the end of the class he had to admit that the drawing he'd produced was a lot better than the first two had been. Lack of distraction had its advantages, and even Constance remarked on his progress.
It was a bittersweet sense of success, and Athos would gladly have traded the praise for a smile from Porthos. It was tragic, he mused on the way home, how much he was already coming to depend on seeing the man, just to get him through the week. If it wasn't dependency on one thing it was another he realised, wondering if he'd ever be able to function without some kind of emotional prop.
Still, he'd just have to cope, for a while at least. Presumably Suzette would be there for the next class as well, which meant two weeks before he could see Porthos again. It felt like a very long time.
As it happened, it wasn't as long as he'd expected. On Saturday Athos was standing in the queue at the supermarket, basket filled with a stack of depressing ready meals for one and lost in his own thoughts, when a voice in front of him said "Hullo?"
He looked up and blinked to find Porthos standing in front of him, grinning. "Oh. Hello! Sorry, miles away."
"Thought it was you. How's it going?" Porthos was loading a heap of fresh salad and vegetables onto the till and Athos was faintly amused that his guess about Porthos' healthy living had been correct. Although there was also a bottle of wine, that Athos quickly averted his eyes from.
"Oh, not so bad. Just stocking up, you know?" Athos felt Porthos' eyes on the contents of his basket and cringed a little. Still at least it would probably put paid to any suggestion that he might have been married.
"Up to much this afternoon?" Porthos asked idly, paying for his shopping and then lingering while Athos dealt with his.
"No, not a lot. Bit of sketching maybe." Athos winced inwardly. It was the truth, but he was afraid it had come out sounding a bit teacher's pet. Porthos though, was more intent on the suggestion he didn't have anything to rush off for.
"So - don't suppose you fancy going for a drink? If you're not busy like?"
Athos hesitated, seeing the trap he'd just walked into and trying to muster his thoughts. Porthos though took his silence for reluctance and held up an apologetic hand.
"Sorry, you're not interested are you, I'll stop pestering you."
"No!" Athos yelped. "I mean - um - it's just a bit early for me, that's all," he stammered, cursing himself for the lie that tripped easily off his lips. "Make it a coffee and you're on."
Porthos looked at him assessingly. "You sure? I really don't want to be a pain. If you're not up for it you can say no. I won't be offended."
Athos gathered up his carrier bags and shook his head firmly. "I'm up for it," he declared. "My treat, and all. To apologise for the fact I keep blowing you off. If you'll pardon the expression."
Porthos gave an appreciatively dirty snigger and lead Athos out of the shop and down the road to a cafe, where they settled in a window seat with a couple of coffees.
"I hope I've not been a nuisance," Porthos said. "I couldn't quite tell if you were desperately trying to shake me off, or genuinely always in a hurry."
"Sorry," Athos sighed. "I promise I wasn't trying to get rid of you. I just - needed to get the last bus," he said, then frowned at himself. What he really needed to do was tell Porthos the truth, or at least part of it. Instead he was weaving himself a net of lies, none of which were designed to stop Porthos offering him alcohol any time soon. But he flinched away from the thought of having to explain himself, and the knowledge lying heavy in his stomach that Porthos would almost certainly lose interest in him if he found out he was a drunk. An addict. A loser.
"You okay?" Porthos asked, studying the troubled expression on Athos' face as he continued to stir in a spoonful of sugar that must have dissolved several minutes ago.
Athos looked up, and gave him an apologetic smile, realising he'd missed what Porthos had said. "Yes. Sorry, what?"
Porthos took a sip of his own coffee and licked cappuccino froth from his moustache. He raised his eyebrows enquiringly at Athos, who indicated on the corner of his own mouth where Porthos had missed a bit, and he laughed, wiping it with his hand.
"These things are a menace. I should have copied you," Porthos said, nodding at Athos' own cup of black filter coffee. "I like 'em though. Can't be good all the time, eh?"
"Well, no." Athos smiled at him. He'd been afraid this would be painfully awkward but Porthos was a very comfortable person to be with, and to his surprise he found himself relaxing.
"So I was saying," Porthos resumed. "Being nosy really. You married?"
"No." Athos shook his head. "It's just me." Then, in the spirit of trying to inject at least a little honesty into proceedings, he added, "Divorced, actually."
"Oh. Right." Porthos looked a bit taken aback, then ventured, "Uh, from a man or a woman?"
Athos looked amused, feeling that that answered the question of whether Porthos was just being friendly or actually flirting.
"A woman," he admitted. "But I'm - ah - I like both." He could feel himself blushing, but Porthos nodded immediately.
"Right. Gotcha." He smiled at Athos over the top of his cup. "Good."
Athos blushed harder than ever, and changed the subject hurriedly. "So what do you do, when you're not posing for Constance?"
"Landscape gardener," Porthos told him. "Which round here mostly means glorified hedge-trimmer. What about you?"
"I, er, work for a mail-order company," Athos said. It was true, technically. He worked in the warehouse, packing boxes for dispatch.
Porthos nodded. "What made you join the art class?" he asked, and Athos smiled, thinking that the answer to that was sitting in front of him.
"I guess I was looking to make a few friends," he said. "I moved here not long ago. I don't really know anyone."
"Fresh start, huh?" Porthos asked, and Athos looked startled. "After the divorce, I mean."
"Oh. Right. Yes, maybe," Athos said. "That was a couple of years ago now though."
"Brave step," said Porthos. "Leap into the unknown, like."
"I hadn't thought of it like that," Athos admitted. "I was more afraid I was running away."
"No shame in a tactical retreat," Porthos said, and gave him a smile so warm and understanding that Athos had the unreasonable urge to crawl into his arms and start sobbing his heart out.
He sat back, clearing his throat and imagining how horrified Porthos would be if he did that. Was he kidding himself with this, Athos wondered. It wasn't like it could go anywhere. All he could ever be for Porthos was a sore disappointment once he found out the truth. But it had been a long time since anyone had made him feel warm and safe just by their presence, and he knew that however selfish it was, he couldn't give it up quite yet.
They talked easily of inconsequential things for some time, Porthos fetching them another couple of coffees in due course.
"So how did you get on with Suzette?" Porthos asked with a grin.
"I think d'Artagnan liked her rather better than me," Athos said, and when Porthos looked questioning, mimed long hair.
"Oh, right, him." Porthos laughed. "I thought he was only there to gaze adoringly at Constance. She'll get jealous if she has to share his affections."
"I'm sure he's just there to learn like the rest of us," Athos said, and Porthos cackled.
"Have you seen his artwork? It's shocking. No, he'd definitely there for the - shall we say the social element of it?"
Athos, who was there for much the same reason, felt a little defensive of the lad. "I'm sure he's not that bad. I'm not exactly great, if it comes to that."
"You're pretty good," Porthos said immediately, and Athos felt warmer than ever.
"Suzette not for you then?" Porthos asked craftily. "Won't be fighting d'Artagnan over her charms?"
"I prefer yours, if I'm honest," Athos admitted under his breath, and Porthos looked delighted.
"Then how about we get that drink now?" Porthos asked. "Waste the afternoon together? I know a great wine bar."
Athos shook his head reluctantly. "I'd love to, but I have to get back before a week's worth of processed microwave meals of dubious nutritional content defrosts completely."
"Alright." Porthos considered. "Then would you let me buy you dinner?"
Athos looked surprised. "What - really?"
"Yeah. Really." Porthos gave a quiet laugh. "I've been trying to be subtle but you seem impervious, so I figure to hell with it, go for the formal date invitation. Will you have dinner with me, Athos?"
"I, er - well. Yes. Alright. Why not?"
Athos nodded. "What did you have in mind?"
Porthos gave an embarrassed laugh. "I hadn't got as far as an actual plan. I didn't expect you to say yes, to be honest. I'm glad you did!" he added hurriedly. "Let's think - d'you like Italian?"
"Yes, who doesn't?"
"Okay, there's a place just down from here, Da Vinci's - bit cheap and cheerful, but the food's good. How about that?"
"Sounds good to me."
"Great. Meet you there at eight?"
Athos nodded, feeling a little dazed. A date. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been on one. He felt rather queasily nervous, but Porthos was good company and so far they hadn't struggled for conversation. It would be fine. He could do this.
Athos was glad he only had a few hours in which to fret. He was starting to debate the wisdom of having said yes at all, but the idea that Porthos actually liked him was too seductively flattering to ignore. Athos' self-esteem had been at rock bottom for a long while, and as he showered and carefully trimmed his beard it occurred to him that maybe this was what he'd needed.
He spent most of his time these days looking barely one step up from a tramp, but having someone else to neaten himself up for was making him take a little pride in his appearance for once. The face that looked back at him out of the mirror now was one that he hadn't seen for months, and it gave him a tentative confidence. Enough, at least, to get him over the last minute wave of paralysing fear and out of the flat.
Not wanting to be late Athos arrived at the restaurant much too early, but to his surprise found Porthos already waiting for him outside.
"Evening." Porthos gave him a broad smile with more than a little relief in it, and Athos realised he'd been worried he wouldn't turn up.
"Hello." Athos smiled back, suddenly feeling ridiculously shy, but Porthos held the door open for him and he found himself ushered inside.
The restaurant wasn't crowded but there were enough customers to give it a friendly buzz, and as they took their seats Athos thought it had been a good choice. Not stuffily up-market or awkwardly expensive, but clean and cheerful and full of appetising smells.
"Did you want to share a bottle of wine?" Porthos asked as they picked up the menus, and Athos felt his stomach dissolve into a mass of snakes. This was the point he needed to come clean, he thought. At least tell the man you don't drink, you don't have to tell him why.
"Uh, do you mind if I don't? I'm driving," Athos heard himself add, much to his own disgust.
"You could have a small one?" Porthos suggested. "We are eating."
"Better not," Athos said, and was relieved when Porthos didn't press the point.
"Okay, guess I'll just have a glass then," Porthos said with a shrug, and went back to studying the menu.
Athos chided himself for being a miserable coward. He liked Porthos, he liked him a lot, and all he seemed to be doing was lying to him. Little lies, admittedly, but the more he told the harder it was to undo them. If only he wasn't so ashamed of the truth. Objectively he knew there wasn't any reason for Porthos to scorn him for it - yes he had a problem, but he was dealing with it. The trouble was he could only see himself through the layers of self-loathing that had built up around him, and had a hard time believing anyone else might see him differently.
As the evening went on though, Athos started to enjoy himself. Porthos had been right, the food was good here, and although Porthos had ordered himself a second glass of wine he hadn't made anything of it when Athos asked for another coke.
"This is the sort of food you should be eating," Porthos said at one point, gesturing at Athos with a forkful of seafood pasta with roasted vegetables. "None of that instant muck. You'd have nightmares for a week if I told you how much sugar and salt was in one of those things."
"That's easy for you to say," Athos objected. "I'd probably end up poisoning myself. Besides, that organic shit you were buying is hideously expensive. I can't afford to live on rabbit food at that price."
Porthos conceded the point with a shrug. "It's not all that bad though. I betcha I could come up with a decent menu for you for the same price as those ready meals."
"You should have your own tv series," Athos said acidly. "Porthos' Patronising Pantry."
Porthos spluttered with laughter, and Athos grinned at him. It was a liberating feeling to discover you could argue with someone in good humour, with neither taking offence.
"I could always teach you?" Porthos ventured after a while.
"To be condescending?" Athos asked innocently, and Porthos kicked him under the table.
"To cook. If you wanted, I mean. Not cheffy stuff, just the basics like."
Athos was startled. "Do you mean that?"
"Yeah. Why not? Could be fun." Porthos looked hopeful, and Athos found himself smiling. It might be fun, he thought. It would certainly mean them spending a lot of time together.
"I don't really have any pans or anything," Athos admitted.
"Come round to mine then. I've got enough to open an ironmongery," Porthos laughed. "Makes sense to get the hang of it before forking out on anything too. You don't need much, to be honest. A decent pan, and a couple of saucepans'll see you through most things."
"You're very kind," Athos said, and meant it. Porthos smiled at him.
"And trusting," Porthos teased. "I mean, you might be an axe murderer, and here am I inviting you into my home."
"Oh I'm far more likely to end up poisoning you at this rate," Athos smiled. "You'd better make me taste everything first, for your own safety."
The rest of the meal passed in companionable chatter, and as they got up to leave Athos realised they'd been there for three hours. Porthos insisted on paying the bill as it had been his invitation, and Athos gave in gracefully, making noises about getting the next one. In truth he was a little relieved; he had the money but it would have left him rather short for the rest of the week - no spontaneous coffees, or buying breakfast on the way in to work.
As they stepped outside, another worry raised its head. What if Porthos wanted to kiss him goodnight? Ordinarily Athos would have liked nothing better, in fact had spent an embarrassing amount of private time over the last couple of weeks imagining exactly that - but by now Porthos had had three glasses of wine, and Athos suspected that nothing was calculated to make him want a drink quite as sharply as being French-kissed by a boozy Porthos.
"So. Um." Porthos shuffled his feet, looking more uncertain than he had all evening. "Did you want to - "
"I have to get back," Athos said apologetically, and Porthos sighed.
"Course you do. See you again, though, yeah?"
"Yes." Athos nodded. "I had a lovely time tonight. Thank you."
Porthos smiled at him, looking a little more hopeful and leaned in for what was clearly intended to be a peck on the lips. Athos turned his head at the last second and the kiss landed on his cheek instead. He brushed his own lips against Porthos' bearded jaw, and stepped back, rigid with embarrassment.
"I'm sorry, I have to go, that's my bus," Athos stammered quickly, looking round.
"Oh. Right. Uh - see you at class, then?" Porthos called after him, rather startled as Athos turned and ran straight across the road to where a double decker was just pulling into the bus stop.
"Yeah, see you then," Athos called back with a wave, and jumped onto the bus.
Porthos watched it drive away, looking distinctly puzzled.
"I thought you said you were driving?" he muttered to himself, as it also dawned on him that he'd completely failed to ask Athos for his number and had no way of getting hold of him.