Porthos sat bolt upright in bed, bathed in sweat and fighting for breath, only relaxing by inches as the horrors of his nightmare gradually faded away and he found himself safe in his own bed.
Pushing the covers back he walked over to the basin and splashed cold water on his face, heedless of the chill in the room. The sun was only just starting to peek through the curtains, but he knew he'd get no more sleep that night - had got precious little in the first place, working until well past midnight to put off the moment when he'd have to turn out the light.
He peered at himself in the mirror. There were shadows under his eyes from lack of sleep, and in the low light his skin seemed to have a greyish tinge to it. Porthos groaned, rubbing his face and slumping back down onto the narrow bed, his head in his hands. He didn't know how long he could go on like this, but also had no idea how to make it stop.
Pulling a dressing gown on over his pyjamas he padded down the corridor to the shared bathroom and ran a bath, hoping to soak away the lingering feeling of oppression. The rest of the floor was quiet, none of his fellow students being awake yet, and he eased thankfully into the warm water, letting his thoughts drift to happier things. He was due to meet Athos later for lunch, and the prospect successfully lifted his spirits out of their gloom.
Porthos let his hand drift down under the water, teasing himself to a state of semi-hardness as he thought about Athos and the things they'd done together. There was unlikely to be much scope for misbehaving over a decorous lunch in one of the city's tearooms, but he'd kept his afternoon clear in the hope that Athos might have plans that exceeded an egg and cress sandwich.
They'd reached something of a compromise lately - Athos was still wary of Porthos being seen to stay in his rooms overnight, but he had tried to make it up to him with a certain amount of furtive afternoon sex. To Porthos this felt even more exciting, but he was aware it still made Athos a little uncomfortable. Porthos didn't know what the answer was, but for now it was sort of working, so he wasn't going to poke at it.
He slid a little deeper in the water, drowsy and warm. His eyes drooped, his hand drifted away from his groin to rest against the side of the tub. It wasn't the largest bath in the world, and Porthos shifted a little to get comfortable. His shoulders were restricted, and his knees a little bent, and he banged his elbow as he tried to stretch out. The pain made him open his eyes, but they opened onto unexpected darkness, and his searching hands abruptly met rough stone not smooth ceramic.
Suddenly frantic, Porthos tried to sit up but banged his head with a dull thud on a hard surface and found himself plunged back beneath the water. Hitting out with hands and feet he discovered he was trapped, shut up in a stone coffin, and one that was full to the brim with water.
Lungs burning, he tried to fight the urge to scream for help and thereby let the water in. Beating upwards with his fists and on the verge of utter panic, suddenly Porthos found himself thrashing in free air, sitting up in the bath and sloshing water all over the floor.
Porthos sagged against the side, taking deep shaking breaths. He'd fallen asleep, that was all, his short night's rest catching up with him and the nightmares waiting for him just on the other side. He pulled himself out with a shudder and towelled off quickly. Sunshine and fresh air, that was what he needed. And coffee.
The gusty spring breeze had a sharp edge to it, but the sky was a clear blue, there were bright flowers in tubs all around the square, and Porthos felt his mood lift accordingly.
He'd dressed smartly for his lunch date with Athos, still self-conscious about appearing in some of the more up-market establishments and nervous of looking out of place. Porthos fiddled with his cufflinks while he waited. They were set with discreet but flawless square-cut emeralds, a Christmas present from Athos that Porthos had scolded him over but adored to pieces, and he wore them whenever he could.
Porthos looked up to find Athos hurrying towards him across the square. In a tweed jacket and ancient woollen scarf, with hair that was desperately in need of a trim, he was the very image of a scatty professor, and Porthos found himself grinning helplessly at him as he approached.
"Hello. Sorry, am I late?" Athos was slightly out of breath, and Porthos had to resist the urge to fling his arms round him and give him a hug.
"No, you're alright, I was early. How's things?"
Athos rolled his eyes. "I thought d'Artagnan's year was bad. I've spent the entire morning trying to coax one half of a seminar group to say anything at all, and to get the other half to shut up. I need lunch. Preferably with wine. And very possibly cake." Athos slipped his arm through Porthos', a simple gesture that made Porthos' heart swell with pleasure. "Come on, I'm buying."
They went to a nearby cafe and ate heartily until both were in a happily sated torpor.
"Are you busy? Can I show you something?" Athos murmured as they practically waddled out of the door afterwards, toying with the frayed end of his scarf and not looking up.
Porthos nudged him. "Anything you like," he agreed with a smirk.
Athos smiled at the suggestive remark, but still looked unaccustomedly shy, and Porthos frowned at him. "What's up?"
Athos said nothing, but lead him down a succession of side streets until they came to stand outside a row of cottages much like any other in the town.
"What am I supposed to be looking at?" Porthos asked, sensing that they'd reached their destination but still none the wiser.
"Number three," said Athos. "I've - taken a lease on it."
"You what?" Porthos stared at him in surprise.
"I finally got the remaining money through from the sale of the Hall," Athos explained. "It meant I had enough to look at somewhere - well. Off campus, as it were."
"You like living in the university though," Porthos blurted.
Athos shrugged, hunching his shoulders a little and sticking his hands in his jacket pockets. "Not very discreet though, is it? Out here - well, I - suppose I figured we could do what we liked a bit more."
Porthos stared at him. "You did this for me?"
Athos shrugged again, but nodded at the same time, looking increasingly nervous and embarrassed.
Porthos looked up and down the street to make sure they were alone, then leaned in to whisper in Athos' ear. "I bloody hope you've got the key on you, because otherwise I shall be forced to kiss you in the street."
Athos gave a startled laugh, and finally looked up at him. "You don't mind? You think it's okay?"
"Mind?" Porthos looked incredulous. "Athos I think it's amazing. You're amazing." That Athos would do such a thing - had done such a thing, quietly and without saying anything, so that they could be together, blew Porthos' mind. He'd been worrying that he was pressuring Athos into risks he didn't want to take and here was Athos, calmly finding the solution.
Porthos couldn't help himself, he slid his hand into Athos' and squeezed it. Athos gave him a look somewhere between guilty and pleased, and returned the pressure of his fingers for a moment before withdrawing his hand. As this was only to produce a door key from his pocket, Porthos didn't mind.
"I met the agent this morning, it's why I was running late," Athos explained, letting them in.
The rooms had the slight mustiness of those that had sat empty for some time, but overall Porthos thought the cottage was charming. There was a sitting room with a large hearth, a little kitchen, and beyond that a bathroom with a sloping roof that was clearly a later addition. From the sitting room a stair wound up to the first floor and two bedrooms, a larger one at the front and a smaller second one at the back.
"At least it keeps up appearances," Athos said a little sheepishly. "If anyone comments on you staying over. I can always use it as a study."
Porthos wound his arms around Athos' waist and pulled him in for a kiss. "You, are incredible," Porthos announced. "Have I told you how much I love you lately?"
Athos blushed but he didn't pull away, rather he leaned into Porthos' embrace and kissed him back just as fervently. It was a good kiss, and it lasted a long time, leaving them smiling helplessly at each other and feeling fidgety with desire.
"Pity there's no furniture," Porthos grinned. "If there was a bed I'd have you right here."
Athos laughed, and took his hand. "Why don't we go back to my rooms?" He lead Porthos over to the stairs then looked back over his shoulder with a mischievous smirk. "You can help me pack."
As they walked in through the college gatehouse, a respectably attired lady stepped out of a door as they passed and called after them.
"Professor la Fère? There's a telephone call for you."
Athos exchanged a surprised look with Porthos. "You go on ahead," he said. "Light the fire if you want. I'll catch you up." He disappeared into the gatehouse, and Porthos wandered on alone.
He let himself into Athos' rooms which were, as Athos had predicted, rather chilly. Porthos got down on his knees by the grate and laid a fire, settling back in Athos' armchair with a sense of satisfaction as soon as the crackling flames took hold.
Athos found him there a few minutes later, head back and fast asleep. He smiled, taking the rug from the couch and draping it gently over Porthos' lap before settling at the table in the window with some letters.
He'd been working for about ten minutes when he became aware of Porthos mumbling in his sleep. Athos looked over at him, his fond expression turning into a slight frown as he realised Porthos sounded rather unhappy. Little protesting noises were escaping his lips, and Porthos' head was twisting from side to side in apparent distress.
Athos got up and went to him, bending over Porthos and patting his hand gently.
"Porthos? Porthos, wake up."
Porthos woke with a start, staring at Athos for a second with unseeing eyes before taking in his surroundings with a gasp of relief that was close to a sob.
Athos sat himself down on Porthos' lap and wrapped his arms around him in concerned reassurance. "It's okay," Athos murmured. "It was just a dream. Just a bad dream, that's all." He stroked Porthos' hair and hugged him tight, taken aback by the way Porthos clung to him and buried his face in Athos' jumper.
After a while Porthos pulled back looking embarrassed, but kept Athos firmly seated in his lap. "Sorry," he muttered, clearing his throat. "Daft of me."
"Are you alright?" Athos asked softly. "You're not working yourself too hard are you? I know you want to do well, but you have to take care of yourself too. I didn't like to say before, but you're looking terribly tired."
Porthos looked up at him, expression tight and drawn. "I didn't get much sleep," he confessed. "I didn't go to bed until past midnight. I was - putting it off."
"Putting what off?"
"The moment where I have to go to sleep," Porthos admitted wearily. "I keep - dreaming."
"Bad dreams?" Athos asked, taking his hand and kissing Porthos' knuckles.
Porthos hesitated, then nodded. "The details change, but the basics are always the same. I'm trapped somewhere. Underground, mostly. The walls are closing in on me, and I can't go back, can't go forwards. Sometimes I'm buried. I can feel the earth falling into my face." Porthos gave a convulsive shudder, and Athos looked increasingly worried.
"You were having nightmares at Christmas," Athos said slowly. Porthos nodded, and he frowned. "Porthos - are you saying you've been having nightmares all this time?"
Porthos nodded again, hanging his head. Athos stared at him.
"But that's nearly four months! Why didn't you tell me?"
Porthos shrugged tiredly. "Not like there was anything you could have done about it. Anyway, it wasn't every night at first. It's - been getting worse," he admitted.
Athos looked stricken. "This is my fault. It's because of what happened to you at the house. I should never have taken you there."
Porthos scowled. "You see? This, this is exactly why I didn't tell you. I knew you'd blame yourself. It's not your fault Athos. It's just not."
"I'm sorry." Athos leaned against Porthos' chest and hugged him gently. "I hate to think of you suffering alone. You should have told me before."
Porthos kissed him on the cheek. "Didn't want you to think I was angling for more nights in your bed," he sighed.
Athos groaned. "Oh Porthos." He leaned their foreheads together, until Porthos broke the moment by leaning up to kiss him on the lips.
"Enough about my problems," said Porthos with a determined smile. "What was your mysterious phonecall about?"
Athos sat up, and looked perplexed. "It was Aramis," he said.
"Aramis! What did he want?"
"It's about d'Artagnan," Athos told him. It was Porthos' turn to groan.
"Oh God, don't tell me they've broken up again?"
Athos shook his head. "No. According to Aramis - well. He claims d'Artagnan's disappeared."
"Disappeared?" Porthos was startled. "What do you mean disappeared?"
Athos shrugged. "He was supposed to meet him in London for the weekend, and never turned up."
"Well - did he just forget, or - ?"
"He's been out at the monastery on the old St Albans road all week, he's been helping catalogue part of their library. Apparently Aramis put a call through to them when d'Artagnan didn't turn up and they haven't seen him either, they'd assumed he'd left." Athos pursed his lips. "He's not in his rooms here, I checked on the way back. And the others on his floor haven't seen him."
"Maybe he just got a better offer," Porthos suggested, and Athos gave a wry smile.
"I'm afraid that was my first thought. D'Artagnan's a smart lad, I'm sure he can take care of himself whatever he's up to. You on the other hand - "
"What about me?" Porthos looked affronted.
"You need sleep." Athos stood up and held out his hand with a smile. "Come on. Let's go to bed. I reckon I can wear you out enough first that no bad dreams have got a fighting chance."
It was dark when Porthos woke up alone in the bed, but there was a lamp lit in the outer room, and he could hear Athos moving around. He squinted at the clock, which seemed to say ten past eight. He'd been asleep for about four hours then, and realised with a shock of relief that there'd been no nightmares.
Having undressed and climbed into bed together they'd made love with a quiet passion for an hour or more, after which Athos had held him and soothed him until Porthos had fallen asleep in his arms.
Now, Porthos reluctantly clambered out of the warm bed and hunted for his clothes. He'd left them scattered on the floor in his haste, but discovered Athos had since folded them neatly away on a chair.
"Leaving so soon?" Porthos turned to find Athos leaning in the doorway, smiling at him.
"Would hate to outstay my welcome." Porthos was conscious Athos found it a source of supreme discomfort to have him here overnight, and had no wish to put his reputation at risk. The sooner they could take advantage of that cottage the better.
"Stay, won't you?" Athos said quietly. "The curtains are closed and no one will imagine you've been here all day. I'm not expecting any visitors."
Porthos sat gratefully back down on the edge of the bed, and Athos came over to him. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes. Thanks to you." Porthos took his hands and drew Athos down onto his lap. "You're obviously my lucky charm."
Athos smiled and kissed the top of his head. "Are you hungry? I've made some supper, would you like me to bring it in?"
"You're an angel."
"A charm and an angel? My, I am doing well today," Athos laughed.
Porthos grinned. "Don't forget devilishly handsome."
Athos snorted and got up, leaving Porthos to scramble back under the covers.
"Flattery will get you nowhere," Athos told him sternly, but he was smiling as he left the room.
"I'm hoping flattery will get me dinner," Porthos called after him, and settled back with a contented sigh.
For the rest of that night Porthos mostly slept well, waking once in the small hours in a shaking sweat, but with only hazy memories of the preceding dream. Athos had reached out for him, still half-asleep himself, and pulled Porthos into his arms murmuring reassurances.
In the morning Porthos felt more refreshed than he had for a long time. It wasn't that he didn't dream when he was with Athos, he realised, but that he was less scared of going to sleep in the first place.
The following day kept them both busy with classes, but as evening fell they happened to cross paths in one of the quadrangles. Athos was in the middle of eagerly telling him that all was finalised with the cottage and he could move in whenever he liked when Porthos frowned and touched his arm, nodding towards the gatehouse.
Athos turned to see what had caught his attention. "Hmmn. He turned up then."
Walking under the arch from the road were d'Artagnan and Aramis, deep in conversation. In fact it looked very like an argument, until d'Artagnan caught sight of them and headed over with Aramis trailing behind, looking exasperated.
"What have you been up to, you little scallywag?" Porthos grinned.
D'Artagnan looked surprised. "What do you mean?"
"I telephoned Athos," Aramis said quietly. "I thought you might have come back here." D'Artagnan swung round on him with a surprisingly fierce glare.
"What, now you have a network of spies to keep an eye on me?" He threw up his hands in frustration. "I'm going to my room. I need a change of clothes. And a less oppressive atmosphere." He stormed off, leaving the others staring after him in some surprise.
"What happened?" Athos asked quietly. Aramis sighed.
"I don't know. He won't tell me. Or at least - " he hesitated. "He says he can't remember."
"Can't remember?" Athos echoed in astonishment.
"That's what he says." Aramis rubbed his face wearily. "Two whole days unaccounted for. And when I try and press him about it he just gets angry and defensive."
"I hate to say it, but - do you think he might have been with someone else?" Athos ventured.
Aramis shook his head slowly. "Honestly, I don't think he was. I think he would have told me. It's not like I haven't had my own lapses, it wouldn't have been a problem."
"You think something happened to him then? Some sort of trauma, that he's perhaps blocking out?" Athos asked worriedly.
"That's what I'm afraid of." Aramis sighed. "I don't know, he seems physically fine, but - he turned up at my door late this morning demanding to know why I wasn't at the station to meet him. He didn't even realise what day it was, Athos. How can a man lose forty eight hours of his life and not even notice?"
"Beats me." Athos and Porthos exchanged a baffled glance. "Would you like me to have a word with him?" Athos offered.
"Would you?" Aramis sounded grateful. "He might be more willing to talk to you. I just seem to be rubbing him up the wrong way."
Porthos gave an involuntary snigger and Athos stepped on his foot.
"Of course. Are you going back to London?"
"No, I'll stick around for a couple of days I think," Aramis told them. "I'll take a room at the Royal. Just until I'm convinced he's really okay."
"That's good, you can help with the furniture shifting then," Porthos said cheerfully. Aramis looked confused, which lead to them having to explain all about the cottage.
Aramis proved enthusiastic, and promised to stick around for as long as he could be of help. "It'll make it look less like I'm hanging about to keep an eye on d'Artagnan, too," he declared cheerfully.
"What?" D'Artagnan spun in the hallway and glared at Athos who'd just stepped out of the library behind him. Athos just stared at him with a level gaze until d’Artagnan winced. "Sir," he added awkwardly.
They'd been through a lot together over the last eighteen months, and it was hard at times to remember that in public at least, the appearance of a teacher/student dynamic must be maintained.
"Are you busy this afternoon?" Athos asked politely. D'Artagnan shuffled his feet, looking mutinous. It was Saturday, so Athos would know he had no classes.
"I was hoping you might be able to give me a hand packing some things," Athos told him. "I have taken lodgings in the city."
"You're moving out of college?" d'Artagnan asked in surprise, his defensive demeanour dropping away as it seemed Athos wasn't intent on quizzing him on his recent disappearing act.
"Yes. Not far. Just - far enough for a little more privacy."
"Oh, right." D'Artagnan suddenly caught on, and nodded hastily. "I see. Good plan."
Athos gave him an amused smile. "I'm glad you approve. So you'll help me pack?"
"Yes, of course."
"Thank you. Much obliged. I'll see you later then." Athos turned to leave, then looked back. "Oh, Aramis is staying to help too. He and Porthos have hired a van to move my furniture." Before d'Artagnan could protest or change his mind, Athos had hurried off in the opposite direction.
To d'Artagnan's relief, when he knocked on the door that afternoon Athos was the only person in residence.
"Hallo. Thank you for doing this, it's a big help," Athos said warmly, ushering him inside. "Not that I have a great deal of stuff, half the furniture belongs to the college anyway, but it'll be so much quicker with four of us."
"No problem." D'Artagnan looked around the room with a slight pang of sadness. He had many fond memories of cosy winter evenings spent in here by Athos' fire. It looked quite different with half the books taken down from the shelves and a dusty patch of floorboards where the settee had stood.
"You will be just as welcome at the cottage," Athos said quietly, as if reading his mind. D'Artagnan flashed him a grateful look.
"Where would you like me to start?"
"There's a couple of empty tea chests over there, could you start putting the rest of the books in them please? Porthos maintains he can lift them even when full, and who am I to argue?"
For a while they worked in companionable silence, interrupted only by a porter knocking on the open window to hand Athos his post. He dropped the small pile onto the sideboard and resumed his packing.
"That's a point. I'll need to get my post redirected," he frowned. "Or I suppose they could always hold it for me at the porter's lodge. I'll still be here most days after all."
"Is Porthos moving in with you?" d'Artagnan asked cheekily. Athos threw a nervous look at the open window.
"Not on a permanent basis," he said, rather more quietly. "But - it will certainly make his visits less obvious, yes."
"I spent a lot of evenings here alone with you," d'Artagnan pointed out. "You never worried people thought you were sleeping with me."
Athos gave him a sharp look, then sighed. "I suppose a guilty conscience makes one inclined to be a lot more paranoid," he admitted. "Talking of guilty consciences - is there anything you want to tell me?"
"What do you mean?" d'Artagnan asked indignantly.
Athos stopped packing for a moment and brushed dust from his hands, leaning back against the shelves. "You went missing for two days, according to Aramis," he said quietly. "He was worried about you."
"I'm fine," d'Artagnan said stiffly. "You can see that."
"Where were you? With another man?"
D'Artagnan looked up sharply. "Is that what Aramis thinks?"
"No, he says you don't remember. And seems inclined to believe you. I, on the other hand, confess to being less charitably inclined."
For a second d'Artagnan looked furious, then sagged in defeat. "It's true though," he said miserably. "I really don't."
Athos frowned. "What happened? I mean - what's the last thing you do remember? And the next? Take me through it. Two days - that's a long time. Are you hurt?" he added gently.
D'Artagnan shook his head. "No. At least - no."
"Tell me?" Athos coaxed. "You can, I promise. I won't tell Aramis, if you don't want me to."
D'Artagnan looked at him, clearly conflicted. "It's not like that," he sighed finally. "It's trivial, really. I just don't know how I got it." He held out his left hand. Across his palm was a dark cut mark, scabbed and painful looking. Athos winced.
"That must hurt."
"Stings like crazy. And itched all night." D'Artagnan sighed, throwing himself down into the one remaining arm chair. "Alright. Here's what I know. I was in the abbey library, working on that blasted catalogue."
"The blasted catalogue that forms an important part of your dissertation?" Athos interjected mildly, pulling across a dining chair and sitting down. Athos had arranged for the placement himself, and was now feeling guilty to think that something had might have happened to d'Artagnan because of it.
D'Artagnan gave him a sheepish look. "Yeah, that one. Anyway, I suppose I wasn't really working that hard. I was thinking about meeting Aramis, and how soon I could leave."
"Diligent as ever," Athos said dryly. "Go on."
D'Artagnan shrugged. "That's just it. I don't know. My mind was wandering - I guess maybe I fell asleep. Next thing I know there's this pain in my hand, and I've got a huge cut there. I assumed I must have done it on a nail or something, maybe I slipped when I dropped off."
Athos frowned. "You were still in the library at this point?"
"Yes." D'Artagnan looked at him pleadingly. "I'm not making it up Athos, I swear. I cleaned up the cut and put a bandage on it, tidied up the papers I was working on, and left for London. Waited ages for Aramis at the station, then got a cab to his house. At which point I discover it's Friday not Wednesday. I mean - I know time passes slowly when you're surrounded by a bunch of mouldy old monks, but I'm certain I didn't get that confused."
"How strange." Athos rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "Was it bleeding?" he asked suddenly. "The cut? When you first noticed it? I mean, was it a fresh wound?"
D'Artagnan blinked at him. "No," he realised. "It was already scabbed over."
"So it had happened some time before you came to then," Athos mused. "Hours before - maybe even a day or so?"
"I guess." D’Artagnan looked miserably at him. "What does it mean? Am I going mad?"
"Oh, I doubt that." Athos got to his feet and clapped him on the shoulder. "I doubt that very much. Tell you what, why don't we have a nice restorative cup of tea?" He looked round the room, frowning. "Assuming I haven't packed the teapot, that is."