It was a solitary job, but a pleasant one Porthos reflected, kneeling on the grass walk and reaching into the herbaceous border to pluck out another handful of persistent weeds. The pile in the wheelbarrow was steadily growing, evidence not of neglect but of the sheer volume of flowerbeds to cover. There must be a couple of miles if you added them together he decided, not to mention the ornamental hedges and topiary.
He booked in outside firms to keep the latter under control and to cut the sweeping expanses of lawn, but the flowerbeds Porthos liked to tend himself. He'd been here almost seven months now, and watched them go from snow-covered hibernation to a riot of colour.
Visiting maintenance contractors aside, for the most part he'd been alone, working steadily away under the shadow of the house. He never had managed to get the full story of what had happened here, but the owners had shut it up suddenly and gone away, laying off all of the staff. Porthos had been brought in to keep the grounds tidy and secure, engaged via an agency halfway across the country.
Whatever the circumstances he was grateful for the job, and for the fact that he was mostly left to his own devices. He lived in an old gamekeeper's cottage on the edge of the grounds, and the village was only a short walk away. The locals had proved friendly enough, after they'd got over the stir he'd caused by being wilfully black in a rural area.
He straightened up and stretched the kinks out of his back, smiling as he watched a blackbird dragging a worm out from where he'd turned over the soil.
A movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention, and Porthos looked round just in time to see a figure walk past the end of the path.
He got to his feet, swearing under his breath. There shouldn't be anyone in the grounds apart from him, but people still turned up from time to time, either having mistaken it for a National Trust property, or just being nosy. It was incredible how many people thought they had a right to walk through private gardens just because they wanted a look.
The only other regular trespassers were kids from the village, but he largely turned a blind eye to them as long as they didn't cause any damage, and stayed away from the house. He'd have killed for a place like this to play in when he was growing up, after all.
Porthos hurried to the end of the formal walk and looked around. The intruder was a short distance away, walking slowly down towards the lake and making no effort to conceal himself from view.
"Hey! Excuse me?" Porthos started after him, and was relieved when the man stopped and looked round. Hopefully he would be reasonable and piss off without an argument. It was the chippy ones with a sense of entitlement that really got his goat.
"Can I help you?" Porthos asked pointedly, but keeping his tone respectful. The man might be looking for him for some reason after all, or be here on behalf of the agents, although he hadn't been notified of anyone being due.
"No, thank you?" The man gave him a rather confused smile. "I'm quite alright?"
"Er, no I meant - you can't be here," Porthos explained kindly, because the chap seemed harmless and had been polite. "It's private property."
"Oh." His expression cleared. "No, it's alright, you see, I live here."
Porthos frowned at him in surprise. "You live here?" He looked up at the house automatically. "No mate, the house is shut up, I think I'd have noticed." Wondering if he was a nutcase after all.
For a second Porthos thought this was a terribly upperclass comment on the decision to close up the house.
The stranger saw his confusion. "Down by the lake?" He gestured vaguely further down the path and Porthos suddenly realised what he meant.
"Oh! The roundhouse?" There was an old eighteenth century brick house on the bank of the ornamental lake, roughly circular with a thatched roof. Porthos had never been inside, but he'd peered through the windows and knew the ground floor was full of furniture under dust sheets.
"Yes. That's the one." The man seemed about to move off again, as if assuming the conversation was at a close.
"Hang on. Who are you? I mean - how do I know you're supposed to be here?" Porthos protested.
"My name is Athos. As to what would convince you of my legitimacy, I'm not entirely sure how to prove it." He looked mildly amused and Porthos was starting to feel embarrassed.
"Um. I have the key to the door?" Athos suggested, after considering the problem for a second. "Would that help?"
"I guess," Porthos said dubiously. He'd go back and call the agents, he decided, find out if this guy was really supposed to be here or not, but in the meantime it wouldn't hurt to humour him.
"I promise I'm not a trespasser," Athos said quietly, and started walking off down the path. Porthos followed, feeling both awkward and suspicious.
When they reached the folly, true to his word Athos took a key out of his pocket and unlocked the door. "Would you like to come in?" he asked, and stepped inside without waiting for a response.
Skin prickling slightly Porthos followed him in, wondering if he was about to get lamped over the back of the head. To his surprise the interior had been cleared of all its dust sheets, the floor swept and furniture polished, and there was a vase of fresh flowers on the table.
"I hope you don't mind," Athos said with a tentative smile. "I picked them this morning. Would you like a cup of tea?"
"Uh." Porthos stared round the neat little room in amazement. "I mean, yes, please. Thank you." He frowned. "How long have you been here?"
"Oh, I only moved in two days ago." Athos was filling a kettle at the sink, and placed it on the hob of the rayburn. The downstairs was all one room, with a door leading to what Porthos presumed was the staircase up to the bedroom above.
"How did you - I mean - I'm not being funny, but I wasn't told anyone was coming?"
"I'm sorry, I'd have let you know I'd arrived, but - I don't know who you are?" Athos said apologetically.
Porthos felt dafter than ever. "Sorry, I'm Porthos DuVallon, I'm the groundsman. Gardening and security, that's me. I don't mean to be rude, I just thought I was on my own here."
"That's quite alright." Athos looked relieved. "They should have told you. I'll have a word." He fetched down a teapot with blue roses on it, and started setting out a tray. "Shall we drink it outside? It's such a lovely day, and we don't get many."
When the water had boiled and the tea was steeping, Athos lead the way back out the door and round the side of the building to where an area of wooden decking stretched a little way out into the lake. There was patio furniture on it that Porthos swore hadn't been there last time he'd passed this way, and Athos set the tray down on the wrought iron table.
"Do you look after all this by yourself?" Athos asked, pouring out two cups.
"Mostly," Porthos admitted, finally taking the other chair. "I've got men who come in to do the hedge trimming and mowing. The rest I just keep steadily working away at. It'd need a full team to keep it in pristine condition, I'm just here to keep things ticking over really, while the owners are away."
Athos nodded attentively. "Then you're doing an incredible job I must say. It all looks spectacular. I hope you don't mind me pinching a few."
Porthos realised that was the second time Athos had apologised for picking some flowers, and shook his head. "Course not," he smiled. "I'm glad there's someone else to appreciate them."
"Do you live nearby?" Athos asked.
"Other side of the grounds," Porthos told him. "Gamekeeper's Cottage?"
"Oh, you live on site?" Athos sipped his tea. "Well, good to know I'm not quite alone here then."
"We won't be crowding each other," Porthos laughed. "Took me two days to even notice you were here!"
"True." Athos smiled. "I keep myself to myself mostly. So you won't have to worry about any other would-be trespassers."
Porthos ducked his head. "Yeah, sorry about that."
"Not a problem. You weren't to know." Athos hesitated, then looked at him. "I won't have many visitors, but my doctor will be coming by every fortnight or so."
"Oh, right, okay." Porthos nodded, immediately wanting to know more and realising it would be incredibly rude to ask. "Well, I'll make sure not to clamp 'em them, eh?" he grinned.
"Thank you." Athos gave him a faint smile that seemed to convey a note of gratitude that Porthos hadn't pushed for details.
"You're here long term then?" Porthos asked, realising if the doctor was expected fortnightly that implied a considerable length of stay. He'd half wondered if the place had been let out as a holiday cottage.
"For a while, at least," Athos nodded. "I'm - convalescing," he added carefully.
"Okay." Porthos reined in his curiosity again and just nodded. "Well, let me know if you need anything, yeah? I can always pick stuff up in the van if you need me to. "
"Thank you. That's very kind." Athos looked surprised and touched, and Porthos wondered what had happened to him. There was a hesitant and rather battered air about the man that suggested he'd had a hard time of it recently.
"No problem." Porthos drained his cup and set it carefully back on the saucer. "I guess I'd better get back to work. Thanks for the tea."
"You're welcome." Athos half-smiled. "Thanks for not strong-arming me off the premises."
Porthos laughed. "Yeah, well. You seem legit. Certainly got the place cleaned up nicely."
"It was good to have something to keep my mind occupied for a day or two," Athos admitted.
"Well let me know if you get bored," Porthos said as he got to his feet. "I've got a nettle patch that needs clearing I've been putting off for weeks."
"I'll certainly bear that in mind. If nothing else it should serve to remind me there are worse things than being bored."
Athos watched him walk away, a slight frown creasing his forehead. He'd expected to be quite alone here, and to discover he had a neighbour, even one so remote had come as a shock.
His hand shook a little as he poured out a second cup of tea, and he was forced to use both to steady the pot.
Perhaps having Porthos around wouldn't be such a bad thing after all he reflected, staring out over the lake. Whilst he'd come here in search of peace and quiet, utter loneliness might have been counter-productive. And Porthos hadn't tried to pry, which had come as a relief. Athos wasn't sure he was ready to spill his guts to a stranger just yet.
Over the next couple of days Porthos caught sight of Athos a couple of times, but only at a distance. The first time Athos was on the far side of the lake, just a flash of colour between the trees as he slowly walked the perimeter. The second time he was close enough for Porthos to wave and he was relieved when Athos waved back, although making no move to come over and talk.
Porthos had phoned the agency after their first encounter, and made discreet enquiries. After about an hour he'd finally had a call back confirming that Athos had a genuine right to be there, although no more information appeared to be forthcoming. It was none of his business he supposed, although now he was more curious than ever. Perhaps Athos was a friend of the absent owners.
Either way, given his valid claim to be in residence, Porthos was glad Athos hadn't taken offence at what had after all been him just trying to do his job. Athos probably could have made things difficult for him, if he'd felt like it.
Given that Athos had made it fairly clear he wanted to be alone, Porthos didn't want it to look as if he was pushing his company on him and therefore told himself it was an entirely unrelated interest in the progress of the water lilies that had him walking down to the lake on the third day.
There was no sign of Athos, but the door to the little round house was standing open, and Porthos could just see a tray of breakfast things sitting on the garden table at the back.
He was just debating sticking his head in the door to say hello, when from inside came a sudden loud crash of what sounded like breaking crockery.
Porthos hesitated, torn between going to see if help was needed, and of inadvertently causing embarrassment. What made his mind up was catching a low moan of distress, and he hurriedly bounded up the step. It was in his mind that if Athos wasn't well he might have fallen over or something.
"Hello?" Porthos cautiously knocked on the open door, not wanting to make Athos jump, and at first not seeing him. "Is everything alright? I heard a crash?"
A movement nearer ground level drew his eye and Porthos realised Athos was kneeling on the floor behind the table in a spreading pool of what for a hideous second Porthos thought was blood. There were fragments of blue and white china all over the floor, and recognising the rose pattern Porthos realised with a flood of relief that it was only tea after all. He hurried forwards, concerned that Athos hadn't reacted to his voice and was just staring at the mess.
"Athos?" he said gently, not wanting to touch him until Athos had acknowledged his presence. "Is everything okay?" Porthos crouched down beside him, and Athos slowly turned his head to look vacantly at him.
Porthos suddenly realised Athos was rubbing his wrist, and that the liquid soaking into the floorboards was still steaming slightly.
"Are you hurt? Have you burnt yourself?"
Athos still didn't reply, but Porthos reached out now and slowly took hold of his arm. Turning it slightly he found a livid red mark on the pale skin, and also discovered that Athos was shaking.
"Here, come here, let's get that under cold water," Porthos urged, slipping an arm around Athos' waist and helping him to his feet. He guided him over to the big Belfast sink and turned on the tap, moving Athos' wrist under the flow and holding it there.
Athos gave a shudder and looked up at him, as if the shock of the cold water had brought him back to himself a little.
"Yeah, it's okay. Don't worry, I don't think it's a bad burn, but it'll probably sting for a bit. You got any cream or anything we could put on it?"
Athos frowned, then nodded, seeming to accept Porthos' presence here without question.
"Upstairs," he said. "There's some savlon by the bath."
"Okay, I'll find it. You keep that arm under the cold water, okay?" Porthos waited till he nodded, then hurried towards the stairs.
Glad that his guess regarding the purpose of the inner door had been right and he hadn't just tried to walk into a cupboard, Porthos made his way up the steep winding staircase feeling vaguely guilty at the fact he was just as curious to see upstairs as he was keen to help.
Stepping out on the first floor, Porthos discovered that this too was mostly one big room. There was a big iron-framed bed, the bedclothes still rumpled as if Athos hadn't been up long. On the other side of the room on a slightly raised dais was a big old fashioned roll-top bath with claw feet, and a fold-out painted Japanese screen standing to one side.
Porthos headed for the bath and basin, finding a couple of small wicker baskets on the windowsill, one of which was full of jumbled toiletries. The second one held a surprising number of pill bottles, and Porthos frowned to himself before spotting and grabbing the distinctive blue tube of antiseptic cream.
Before heading back downstairs he took a last look round, curious at finally getting to see what was up here. Another door stood partially open, revealing a toilet with a spectacular view of the lake and Porthos smiled, thinking what a fantastic spot for contemplation it was.
Abruptly remembering Athos was waiting for him below and probably wondering what he was up to in his bedroom, Porthos hurried back down the stairs. Athos was still standing dutifully at the sink, and let Porthos carefully pat his arm dry and apply some of the cream before wrapping it in gauze.
"There. Should be good as new by tomorrow," Porthos told him cheerfully.
"Thank you," Athos said distantly, still seeming rather out of it. He looked helplessly at the mess on the floor, and Porthos took pity on him.
"Come on, let's get you sat down, and I'll clean up all this, yeah?"
"Oh - you don't have to - " Athos protested, colour rising in his cheeks, but Porthos was firm.
"Rubbish. Come on, here you go." He helped Athos over to the couch then set about mopping up the spilt tea with fistfuls of kitchen roll, before sweeping up the pieces of broken teapot and dumping them in the bin.
"There. All done." Porthos sat down beside Athos and tried to catch his eye. "Are you okay?" he asked quietly. "Was it very precious? The teapot, I mean?" he clarified, as Athos frowned at him in confusion.
Athos gave a jerky shake of the head. "No, no, not at all. It was just - a shock, I suppose. The noise, and mess. I - I get so clumsy, sometimes, you see. And then I don't always quite know what to do. My brain goes all squirrelly," he explained dolefully. "I'm sorry. You must think I'm such a fool."
To Porthos' horror he realised there were tears in Athos' eyes, and he cleared his throat hurriedly.
"No, not at all, don't be daft. Look, why don't we go for a walk? Bit of sunshine and fresh air probably do you good, calm you down a bit."
Athos looked grateful but embarrassed, and was clearly about to refuse on principle so Porthos stood up and offered him his hand. "Come on. Let's go and pick you some fresh flowers."
Athos gave in, but he got up by himself. "You're very kind," he said quietly. "I don't want to be a nuisance."
"Who's being a nuisance? Gives me an excuse to put off the stinging nettles, don't it?" Porthos grinned, and was gratified when Athos smiled back.
"Alright. Thank you."
They strolled slowly through the gardens, and Porthos was pleased to see some colour come back into Athos' cheeks. He cut a selection of flowers and foliage as they wandered, building up an attractive bunch for Athos' kitchen table.
"So - you've been ill?" Porthos ventured, after they'd been talking idly about safely neutral things like the weather and the gardens for some time. Athos immediately looked anxious again and Porthos lost his nerve. "Sorry. None of my business."
They walked on in silence for a while, stopping to lean on the parapet of a bridge that crossed an arm of the lake, where the dark shadows of fish could be seen slipping through the depths below them.
Athos looked sideways at Porthos, and seemed to make up his mind.
"I've not been ill," Athos said slowly. "Not exactly. Truth is, I - had something of a breakdown," he admitted.
"Oh." Porthos immediately felt bad for pressing. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"I came here to - try and put myself back together a bit," Athos confessed. "I thought not being around people would help."
"Sorry," Porthos said. "Should I leave you alone?"
"No, no, I didn't mean that," Athos protested. "Sorry, that came out wrong. I'm very grateful for your help, I'd probably still be sitting on the floor crying if it wasn't for you."
Porthos shifted awkwardly. "You don't have to be grateful," he said. "Anyone would've done the same. I'm just glad I happened to be passing."
"Me too." Athos managed a faint smile, and Porthos grinned at him.
"You know what we should do?" he asked suddenly, glancing down at the water.
"Poohsticks," Porthos declared triumphantly.
It was a somewhat chaotic game, as the current in the lake was negligible and driven entirely by a small stream that exited some distance to the east, but they both had fun and by the time they agreed on a draw and headed back to the cottage, Athos was looking a lot brighter.
On the doorstep Porthos handed him the flowers - a slightly reduced bunch, as several of the more wilted ones had been sacrificed as poohsticks.
"I'd better get on," he said, adding, "but I'm always around, if you want anything. Come and bang on my door if you need to." Thinking that if Athos was prone to paralysing emotional breakdowns at the drop of a teapot, he might appreciate knowing there was someone he could call on.
"Thank you." Athos fussed with the flowers rather than meet his eye. "I'll try not to be a nuisance."
"Oh don't worry about that," Porthos said breezily. "After all this time on me own it's quite nice to have someone to talk to."
"Even if he's a pathetic excuse for a human being?" Athos sighed.
Porthos grinned at him. "Even then."
Despite the fact Porthos thought they'd got on rather well that morning, he didn't see Athos again for several days, even to wave to, and found himself worrying whether the man was alright.
He vacillated over whether to knock on his door or not, having no wish to inflict his company where it wasn't wanted, but on the other hand experiencing a growing need to be sure Athos was okay.
What he needed, Porthos decided, was a valid excuse.
He found it the next morning, having driven into the next town to visit the farmer's market. Inspiration sat waiting on a gaily coloured stall outside the town hall, and he drove home with it nestled on the passenger seat of his pick-up truck.
Having dropped his shopping off at home, Porthos cleaned himself up a little and walked down to the folly. To his relief Athos opened the door promptly to his knock, although looked remarkably surprised to see him considering Porthos was the only other person in the immediate vicinity.
"Hello." Athos gave him an uncertain smile.
"Hi. I don't mean to bother you," Porthos said hastily, realising that Athos seemed perfectly fine and was probably just busy trying to get on with the business of being a hermit. "It's just - well, I saw this at the market this morning, and I thought, er, I thought you might like it."
Porthos held out the box he was carrying, and after giving him a rather odd look, Athos took it. He lifted up the lid and Porthos was relieved when he instinctively smiled at the contents. A white teapot with a pattern of bright blue polka dots.
"How thoughtful. But you didn't have to do that?" Athos looked up at him, and Porthos shrugged.
"I know. But - yeah. I did. So, um. Yeah."
"You're very kind." Athos' initially hesitant smile was warmer now, and he bit his lip. "I'd better offer you a cup of tea then, hadn’t I?"
"Oh, you don't have to," Porthos said quickly. "If you'd rather be left in peace..?"
"No, really, it's fine," Athos ducked his head self-consciously. "Please. Come in."
Porthos followed him inside. It was cooler today, less conducive to sitting outside, and Athos waved him to a seat at the table.
"I should apologise," Athos said in a low voice, once the kettle was filled and heating on the hob. "For my shameful display the other morning."
Porthos looked up in surprise, and realised with a pang of sympathy that Athos had probably been avoiding him ever since out of embarrassment.
"I dropped an entire fried breakfast once," he offered, apropos of nothing. "I nearly cried like a baby. So nobody's gonna blame you for having a funny turn over bollocksing your best china. Especially given how you scalded yourself." He frowned, remembering. "How's your arm?"
"It's fine, thank you," Athos nodded. "Probably would have blistered if it wasn't for you, so thank you." He sighed. "I'm not very good at looking after myself, sometimes."
"Well, I can't claim to be much better myself," Porthos admitted with a grin. "Adulthood seems a stretch, on a worryingly regular basis. But what I hopefully do get points for, is the fact that I also bought cake at the Farmer's Market this morning. How do you feel about lemon drizzle?" Porthos swung the plastic bag he'd been carrying up onto the table with a light thump.
"You have been busy." Athos seemed a little bewildered by the attention, but at least he was smiling.
Over tea from the new pot and thick slices of lemon cake, they talked quietly for nearly an hour. Porthos quickly noticed Athos tended to deflect questions about himself and so led the conversation in less sensitive directions.
Athos seemed happier listening than talking, and let Porthos rattle on at length, nodding in all the right places and refilling his cup when necessary.
Eventually Porthos realised how long he'd been sitting there for, and was mildly embarrassed at taking up so much of Athos' time.
"Sorry, you must think I'm a right slacker," Porthos said, feeling suddenly paranoid. "I should let you get on."
"I'm not exactly busy," Athos pointed out. "It's nice to have someone to talk to occasionally."
"I think I've been doing most of the talking," Porthos laughed. "You should tell me to shut up."
"Not at all." Athos walked with him to the door. "I just hope you don't think I'm terribly dull."
"Course not." In fact, Porthos was intrigued. He'd now spent some time conversing with the man and still knew virtually nothing about him. "Well, see you round eh? Come and say hi."
"I will," Athos promised. "Thank you."
True to his word and slightly to Porthos' surprise, Athos did indeed come over to say hello the next morning while Porthos was head down in a border and swearing at a particularly recalcitrant weed. Finally hauling it up by its roots he hurled it over his shoulder without looking and only turned round when he heard the muffled yelp.
Athos was standing on the path with a soil-spattered shirt, holding the offending groundsel in one hand.
"Shit, sorry!" Porthos waded out of the flowerbed and took it from him, dropping it into the wheelbarrow. He brushed the worst of the dirt off him, until Athos stepped back with a protesting hand.
"Really, it's fine, I shouldn't have been standing there."
"Should have looked where I was chucking things," Porthos apologised. "Lively little buggers, some of them," he grinned, relieved that Athos wasn't annoyed.
"So I see."
"All organic," Porthos said proudly, waving an expansive arm at the rest of the garden. "I found a shed full of poisons and shit when I came here, but I don't like to use that sort of thing. It's more work doing it by hand, but it's more rewarding. And its not like there's anyone here to complain if the weeds get a bit ahead of me."
"I'm not sure I'd know a dandelion from a dahlia, so as long as the weeds are blooming it all looks good to me," said Athos with a slight smile.
"I'll pick you a bunch of dandelions next time then," Porthos laughed.
"I was wondering if - if you had time for a cup of tea?" Athos said hesitantly. "You left the rest of that cake behind, and, well, it seemed rude to finish it off myself."
"Ah, cake and cup of tea, two of my favourite words. How can I refuse?" Porthos said enthusiastically, wiping his muddy hands on his jeans.
Athos looked a little nonplussed, as he quite often did when faced with Porthos, never quite sure how to answer some of the things he said, but he managed a smile anyway, and they walked slowly through the gardens together, enjoying the sunshine.
"I love it here," said Porthos happily. "Is it wrong to hope the owners never come back?"
"Would that be such a bad thing?" Athos asked.
Porthos shrugged. "Wouldn't be all mine any more would it? Garden's'd be full of guests and children and stuff. They'd need more gardeners too, to keep it properly. Probably get rid of me altogether."
"Don't see why," Athos said loyally. "You seem to be doing a fantastic job."
"Do you know them? The owners?" Porthos asked suddenly, as it occurred to him Athos had in all probability some connection to them to be here in the first place, and he possibly shouldn't be complaining.
"We've met," Athos said, after a slight hesitation.
"Oh. Right. You don't know if they're likely to then? Come back I mean?"
"What did they tell you?" Athos asked, unlocking his front door and leading the way inside.
"Nothing, really," Porthos said, puzzled. "All my dealings go through an agency. I don't even know who the owners are, only that they shut the place up and went away about a year ago."
"A whole year. Is it really?" Athos said distantly, staring out of the window over the sink, gaze fixed somewhere over the lake.
"They were friends of yours then?"
"What?" Athos shook himself, and remembered he was supposed to be filling the kettle. "Oh. Yes, I suppose."
"They let you use this place, I mean?"
"Yes. Sorry, look, would you mind if we changed the subject?" Athos asked, looking suddenly anxious.
"Uh, no, course not. Sorry. Didn't mean to be nosy."
"That's alright. I just - um, sorry, would you mind seeing to the tea, I just need to, uh - I'll be right back." Athos slipped away upstairs and Porthos assumed he'd gone to the loo, except he didn't hear a flush. He suddenly remembered the basket of pills, and wondered guiltily if that was the refuge Athos was seeking, and if he'd driven him to it.
Athos was gone for a few minutes and when he came back he looked a little calmer, if slightly embarrassed. Porthos made no reference to his sudden exit, just poured him a cup of tea with a cheerful smile.
"Hope you don't mind, I poked about in your cupboards to find some plates," Porthos said, pushing a slice of cake towards him.
"Well I don't think there's anything very confidential in any of them," Athos conceded with a smile. "Although I did have to evict a family of mice from one when I moved in."
Porthos laughed. "I think I've got mice in my place," he said. "All sorts of scrabblings at night. I have to keep the cheese in a safe," he added with a straight face, and Athos gave him a startled look that softened into a reluctant smile.
"You're daft," he said, and Porthos nodded acceptance.
"Sorry. Always have been. It's a failing. Here, do you think I could hire a mouse-whisperer?"
Athos' smile widened and Porthos grinned back at him, glad that he'd cheered him up. There was something terribly fragile about Athos that somehow made Porthos want to wrap him in protective blankets and keep him safe. The man never seemed to laugh, for a start. He smiled, with varying degrees of bemusement at whatever rubbish Porthos was coming out with at any given time, but that was all. Porthos wondered what he'd been through, and how well he was actually coping.
When Porthos went back to work it played on his mind a little, picturing Athos all alone in that cottage with nothing but his perhaps uncomfortable thoughts for company. He was used to a solitary existence himself but even Porthos craved social interaction from time to time. Athos never seemed to leave the grounds, had told Porthos that he had his groceries delivered. He didn't even have a car.
Porthos wondered if he was hiding from someone, or only from himself.
Over the next couple of weeks they repeatedly fell into each other's company. Sometimes they would walk through the grounds together, sometimes they would just sit and drink tea.
On one especially warm evening, the air heavy with the scent of flowers, Porthos brought a bottle of wine across and they sat on the deck watching the sun sink behind the trees and the bats swooping over the water.
He stole a glance across at Athos, sitting quiet and pensive in the dusk. He seemed sad but self-contained, and Porthos couldn't help wishing he would let him in a little more. He wondered if Athos had a therapist, but he'd never mentioned one. Not that Athos had ever referred to the fact of his breakdown at all after that first time, and Porthos sensed he was embarrassed by the thought of it.
Athos looked up just then, and caught Porthos watching him. Porthos smiled guiltily, half-expecting Athos to run away in flustered alarm, but he just smiled back, as if the calm softness of the night and the water had somehow seeped into his soul.
As Porthos walked back alone through the garden that night he examined his feelings, and realised with a heavy sense of inevitability that he was falling for the man. He'd always had a bit of a thing for lame ducks, and it had never ended well. But he lived in hope.
He didn't even know if Athos was gay, he'd been as tight-lipped on the subject of past relationships as he'd been on everything else. Porthos' instincts said yes, but he'd been wrong before.
As he climbed into bed, leaving the curtains open to let the almost-full moon shine into the room, Porthos pictured Athos lying in his own bed watching the same moon, and sighed wistfully.
It could only be a fantasy, he knew - regardless of Athos' preferences, he was obviously hardly in a good place to embark on a relationship and Porthos didn't want to accidentally screw him up even further. But as he fell asleep it was picturing Athos, still smiling at him through the half-light.
The following morning Porthos was working in the walled kitchen garden, digging over a few of the beds. With the house unoccupied there'd been no vegetable crops laid down this year, but there were still a few things worth harvesting and he liked to keep things neat.
Stopping for a drink of water, he dug his watch out of his pocket and checked the time. It had just gone eleven, and he considered his options. He could walk back to his cottage or he could wander down to the folly and blag a cup of tea from Athos. Athos was considerably closer, and so he stacked his tools neatly and started walking down towards the lake.
As he went, a movement further down the slope caught his eye and he looked up, assuming that Athos was out for a walk and intending to intercept him. To his surprise, the man striding away from the cottage was a stranger to him, and it was only when he noticed the big black bag the man was carrying that he recalled Athos mentioning his doctor.
Porthos watched as the man walked up to a car parked at the end of the gravelled track leading round the house. Wrapped in a long dark coat despite the hot sun the man seemed somehow like a bird of ill omen, and Porthos couldn't suppress a shudder.
He wondered if he should leave Athos in peace after all. He might not be in the mood for visitors right now. On the other hand Porthos thought, he might be in need of a friend. Given that he was almost there in any case, he decided to walk past and play it by ear.
The door to the folly was closed as Porthos drew level, but one of the upstairs windows was open, and as Porthos stood there wondering whether to knock something came flying out of it as if hurled with great force and hit the grass near his feet with a rattling crack.
Porthos jumped and stared at the object in surprise, realising it was a pill bottle.
"Oi!" he called up at the window. "Missed!"
Athos' face suddenly appeared in the opening, looking pale and startled. When he saw Porthos standing there, his eyes widened. "Fuck," he said, and promptly disappeared again.
Porthos waited patiently, and sure enough a moment later the door was hauled open and Athos dashed out. His first instinct was not to speak to Porthos, but to scan the ground around him urgently, and snatch up the pills with a low moan of relief, stuffing them hastily out of view into his pocket.
"Sorry," he muttered, glancing up at Porthos and quickly away again, as if he couldn't bear to meet his gaze. "Didn't know you were here."
"That's okay. Thought it might just be revenge for the weeds the other day," Porthos joked, but Athos shook his head convulsively.
"Sorry," he said again. "Sorry, I - oh God."
"Hey - it's alright." Porthos reached out in concern and laid a soothing hand on Athos' shoulder. The man was shaking like a leaf and Porthos couldn't help it, he drew Athos into a hug. Athos leaned against him passively, his hands resting on Porthos' chest, and his fast, nervous breathing gradually evened out as Porthos gently rubbed his back.
Eventually Athos found the strength to look up, and Porthos smiled at him. "You okay?"
Athos sighed. "That, is a very complicated question." He pulled reluctantly out of Porthos' arms, blushing slightly.
"Then why don't you make me a cup of tea and tell me all about it?" Porthos suggested cheerfully. Athos immediately looked anxious again, and he hastily revised his offer. "Or, you could make me a cup of tea and I could just tell you all about how I nearly just put a garden fork through me welly because I was watching a dragonfly?"
Athos raised a faint smile at that and nodded, leading Porthos indoors.
By the second cup of tea a healthier colour had returned to Athos' face. Porthos had obligingly rambled on about inconsequential things until he'd relaxed, and was pleased to see he looked a little better.
"So. I suppose you saw my visitor?" Athos asked quietly, after a while.
Porthos looked at him in surprise, He'd expected Athos to avoid the topic completely, but was pleased that he apparently felt strong enough to discuss it. He nodded.
"I'm guessing that was the quack?"
Athos nodded silently.
"Everything alright?" Porthos ventured. "For a given value of alright, anyway," he added. Athos smiled at the distinction, but looked down at his hands and sighed.
"It's just - every time I start thinking that maybe I'm getting a little better, and maybe I can think about not having to take so much medication," he said shakily, "every time, he comes along and tells me nothing's changed. And it's so hard."
Athos looked and sounded like he was on the verge of tears, and Porthos dragged his chair round the table until he was sitting next to him.
"Hey, come on, it's alright," he said comfortingly, putting an arm round Athos' shoulders. "If you're feeling better in yourself, isn't that the important thing?"
"I guess." Athos sounded defeated, and Porthos hugged him.
"Course it is. Look, if he's just dosing you up and you're not happy with it, why don't you get a second opinion?"
Athos shook his head miserably. "It's complicated. I can't."
"Why not?" Porthos frowned. "Is he even a proper psychiatrist, or just a medical doctor?" he asked, then winced. "Not that I'm saying you need a psychiatrist."
Athos gave him a tired smile. "I was an in-patient," he said carefully. "For a while. Before I came here. A - private hospital."
Porthos nodded understanding, of the unspoken nature of said hospital. "And he's from there?"
"Yes. He's - monitoring me. My progress. Or lack of."
Athos looked mortified by these confessions, and Porthos rubbed his shoulder reassuringly.
"Look, you're not doing so bad, are you? You keep this place going okay, you cook for yourself, you're always up and dressed and out in the fresh air. That's not a bad start is it? And if you think you're feeling stronger, then all the quacks in the world shouldn't tell you otherwise. Fuck 'em."
Athos managed a smile. "You're very kind."
"And you're too hard on yourself." Porthos tucked a stray strand of hair back behind Athos' ear and smiled at him. For once Athos didn't look away, instead stared back Porthos with eyes that were full of bewilderment and a tentative hope. Porthos had to resist the sudden urge to lean forward and kiss him.
"Why don't we make a fresh pot of tea, eh?" Porthos said firmly. "Then you can come up to the kitchen plot with me, there's some gooseberries need picking. You can do that while I try not to mangle my own foot in the veg beds okay?"
"Okay," Athos said obediently, with a faint smile. Porthos got up to fill the kettle, and ruffled Athos' hair affectionately as he went.