The dawn chorus was in full voice as Athos walked slowly along the bridle path. The sky was clear, gradually brightening from a pink sunrise to a pale blue, and after months of smoke and noise and exhaustion, the sharp, clean air was like a tonic. The trees were coming into leaf overhead, forming a hazy green tunnel, and the hedgerows were studded with the yellow gleam of primroses.
Athos had never really been one to take time out to appreciate the wonders of nature, but this morning he found he was glad he'd approached the house from this direction, rather than heading directly up the drive.
And there was the house, just coming into view. Athos paused at the break in the treeline, staring down at the manor. Charred, blackened roof trusses stuck up from crumbling stonework like the ribcage of some giant beast. He sighed, remembering the night it had gone up. He could practically see the smoke still rising into the morning air.
No. Wait. There was smoke rising.
Athos frowned, staring down at the west wing, where a thin line of smoke was very definitely rising from the kitchen chimney. That part of the house was the most intact, but there shouldn't have been anyone in it. There shouldn't be anyone here at all.
Silently, Athos moved back behind the treeline and made for another footpath he knew of that would take him down to the house between two hedges, out of sight. Whoever was in residence wasn't necessarily someone who wished him ill, but he hadn't stayed alive this long in his line of work without taking precautions.
Reaching the house, Athos let himself in at the garden door and moved soundlessly up the stone-flagged passage. Now he was inside he could smell toast and his stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn't eaten since the day before. He'd been travelling most of the night, eager to reach home, such as it was. The fact that someone appeared to have beaten him to it made him quietly furious, and he drew a handgun from the holster under his jacket.
He was edging towards the kitchen door. There was a light on and he assumed whoever was intruding in his house was inside, but then the sound of a toilet flushing came from close at hand and Athos spun round, bringing the gun up to cover the door to the cloakroom.
It swung open to reveal a man Athos had never seen before in his life. Tall, muscular, dark-skinned, and with a curly beard and hair that was edging out of bushy and into unkempt, he had a slice of toast in one hand, and was trying to do up his trousers with the other.
When he looked up and saw Athos holding a gun on him, several levels of confused panic passed across his face, as he tried to cope with trousers and toast at the same time his brain was screaming instructions at him to put his hands up.
In the end he jammed the toast into his mouth and raised his hands. Unfortunately this meant his jeans promptly fell down around his ankles, revealing a natty pair of black boxer shorts with red hearts all over them.
Athos stared at him. "Who the hell are you? And what are you doing in my house?"
The intruder tried to answer, staring at him in wide-eyed alarm and trying to mumble something through the toast held between his teeth. He made a move to take it out, then remembered the gun and hesitated.
Athos gestured irritably and he gingerly removed the toast.
"My name's Porthos. I just needed somewhere to stay. I didn't think anyone lived here."
"You're trespassing." Athos looked him over critically. He certainly didn't look overly dangerous, but Athos wasn't taking any chances.
"I'm sorry. I didn't think anyone would mind. I've been here for weeks, nobody's been near the place."
"Didn't you see the signs?" There'd been large keep out signs all over the main gate. Athos had put them there himself.
"Well, yeah." Porthos looked sheepish. "I just hoped that meant I'd have the place to meself. Look, can I pull my trousers up?"
"No." Athos was still holding the gun on him, although rapidly coming to the conclusion he was in no danger. "I still don't know who you are or what you're doing here. Where are you from? You're not from round here."
"Oi!" Porthos looked indignant. "Don't be fucking racist."
Athos gave him an exasperated look. "I meant, you're not local. Or I'd know you. I wasn't asking for your genealogy. You could be from Croydon for all I care."
"Croydon!" Porthos looked more insulted than ever. Athos smirked.
"Well forgive me for being judgemental, but you don't exactly scream Primrose Hill. Also, who the fuck takes their breakfast into the toilet?"
Porthos looked at the toast in his hand and shrugged. "Plenty of people," he said defensively.
"Name six." Athos sighed, and lowered the gun. "Oh for God's sake, do up your trousers."
Porthos stuffed the toast back into his mouth and pulled his jeans up hastily, giving Athos a wary nod of gratitude once they were firmly zipped and buckled.
They stared at each other, and Porthos fidgeted nervously. "So now what?"
Athos considered. "Now? You make me some of that toast." He raised the gun again. "But first of all you're washing your fucking hands."
The kitchen was warm and cosy, and Athos seated himself at the table, keeping a close eye on Porthos while he moved around toasting a couple of slices cut from a fresh loaf. There was no electricity in the burnt out building, but Porthos seemed to have got the range working.
"You still haven't told me who you are."
Porthos looked shifty. "Yeah I did."
"Porthos." Athos gave a sceptical snort. "Surname?"
Porthos hesitated. "Du Vallon." He glanced at the gun lying near Athos' hand on the table, and chewed his lower lip. "So who are you?"
"I've never heard of anyone being called Athos before."
"No? Well I've never heard of anyone called Porthos," Athos pointed out dryly.
"Yeah, well. Fair point." Porthos turned hastily back to the toast. "You want jam?"
"Oh. Yes, please. Thank you." Athos had taken his phone out and was tapping something in. Porthos warily took a seat opposite, and poured them both a cup of tea.
Athos took an absent-minded bite of his toast, and then nodded with approving surprise.
"Is this bread home-made?"
"Yeah." Porthos managed a smile. "It's not as hard as people think."
"Thank you." Porthos covertly studied Athos while he was preoccupied with his phone. He was good looking in a stern sort of way, but there were dark shadows under his eyes. Bruises, too, Porthos realised, catching sight of a welt on Athos' wrist where his sleeve had slipped back. It almost looked like he'd been manacled.
"So what happened to the house?" Porthos ventured, half worried that he was going to be accused of setting fire to it, although Athos hadn't seemed surprised at its condition. What kind of man lived in a burnt out ruin, he wondered.
"I got divorced," Athos said, still scrolling through his phone.
"It didn't go well." Athos looked up, and frowned. "Curious."
"I can't find any mention of a Porthos du Vallon. I can, however, find an entry for an Isaac du Vallon, currently on the wanted list for a number of crimes, including - " he scrolled again. "Armed robbery, handling stolen goods, breaking and entering, and - oh dear. Manslaughter? Oh Porthos." He shook his head reprovingly, and Porthos sat up, hot with alarm and indignation.
"It wasn't me! I didn't do it!"
Athos just slipped his phone back into his pocket and picked up the second slice of toast. Porthos wondered what the hell kind of databases he had that kind of access to, to find him that quickly. Was he police? But police didn't go waving guns around on the whole, not in this country. He belatedly realised Athos was waiting for him to expand on his outburst, and sighed.
"We were turning over a warehouse," he admitted, picking up his mug of tea again on the grounds Athos at least hadn't made any move to arrest him. "There wasn't supposed to be anyone there, but they must have changed the roster at the last minute. Suddenly there's this old security guy coming at us, he must have been seventy if he was a day. Well Charon went and twatted him one, didn't he? He swore he only meant to knock him out, but suddenly we've got a corpse on our hands, and the filth are pulling up outside."
"So you made a run for it," Athos suggested neutrally.
"Yeah. And I got away too. Charon wasn't so lucky, they nicked him half a mile down the road." Porthos sighed gloomily. "As far as I can tell he squealed like a stuck pig in return for a lenient sentence. Except he wasn't going to get that if he was going down for murder, was he, so he told them it was me."
"You could have handed yourself in. Told them otherwise. There must have been forensic evidence to support it, at worst it would have been your word against his," Athos said.
Porthos rested his chin in his hand and gave Athos rueful eyes. "Except his testimony put away a whole lot of other people further up the food chain. Important people. If I came along and suggested he'd been lying about any part of it, the whole thing'd unravel. They're not going to be interested in the truth, trust me."
"So you're hiding out here," Athos concluded.
"And making your own bread, to avoid using your bank card or being seen in the shops too often," Athos guessed. "How very enterprising." He looked thoughtful. "How long before your money runs out?"
"About another week before I need to start learning how to skin a rabbit," Porthos said gloomily.
Athos smiled. "It's not as hard as people think, although you do tend to need more than one to fill you up."
Porthos laughed in surprise. "Do you believe me then?" he asked curiously.
"Yes. I think so." Athos considered him shrewdly. "You don't strike me as a killer."
"Known many have you?" Porthos asked sarcastically, but Athos just looked at him, and he suddenly remembered there was a gun on the table. "Who are you?" he asked.
"Does it matter?" Athos sighed, leaning back in the chair and stifling a yawn.
"Suppose not." Porthos watched Athos yawning again, and realised he was on the verge of exhaustion. "You look knackered."
"Thank you," said Athos dryly. "It's been rather a long night."
"Why don't you grab some sleep?" Porthos suggested. "Do you need a blanket or something?"
Athos looked surprised by the offer, then smiled. "Angling for an invitation to stay?"
Porthos looked embarrassed. "That obvious, huh?"
"Not overly subtle," Athos smiled. "And thank you, but I have a sleeping bag." He hesitated, clearly torn between the idea of sleep and the fact that it would leave him defenceless in the company of a comparative stranger.
"I promise I'm harmless," said Porthos, trying and mostly failing to look it. "I just need a place to lie low for a bit?" Clinging to the fact that Athos hadn't seemed to be remotely bothered by his criminal record.
"You can't hide here forever," Athos pointed out, then sighed. "Oh alright. If you don't mind, I will. I need to sleep before I drop." He paused. "Have you made somewhere up as a bedroom?"
"Yeah. Through here." Porthos lead him into what had once been the scullery. There was an old mattress on the floor, with a sleeping bag and thick woollen blanket, a duffel coat, and a worn but comfortable looking pillow.
"It's not much, but you're welcome to it," Porthos offered. "I just got up, so you won't have to share."
Athos looked amused. "Thank you. And trust me, it looks wonderful. I've been sleeping on the ground for the last couple of months, and I'd been planning on bedding down in one of the cellars, if none of the rooms were intact.
Porthos looked startled. "Didn't even know there were cellars," he said, making a face at the thought of sleeping underground in the dark with probable spiders.
"The entrance may have been blocked off," Athos conceded. "This whole place is a deathtrap."
"This bit seems alright," Porthos said. "You get some sleep, eh? I'll be out here, looking up recipes for rabbit."
When he'd gone out again Athos closed the door and dropped his bag next to the mattress, sitting down and trying not to groan as various aches and pains made themselves known. Still not a hundred percent sure of Porthos, he decided against undressing, settling for pulling off his boots and his jacket. He lay down on top of Porthos' sleeping bag, pulled his own over him like a blanket, slipped the gun under the pillow, and was asleep within minutes.
"Athos? Athos!" Porthos reached out hesitantly to wake him. His hand had barely touched the man's shoulder when suddenly he was sitting up and there was a gun in Porthos' face.
"Woah, woah, woah!" Porthos threw himself backwards, sprawling across the floor. "It's me, it's me!"
Athos blinked at him, disorientated and shaking slightly - although the hand with the gun was perfectly steady Porthos noticed.
"What are you doing in here?" Athos demanded suspiciously.
"You were having a nightmare," Porthos said. "I thought you might want waking up."
Athos stared at him, then to Porthos' relief, lowered the gun.
"Sorry. Was I shouting?" Athos rubbed his face, fingers rasping over stubble.
"More whimpering really," Porthos told him, and Athos gave a pained laugh.
"How very manly." He slipped the gun back under the pillow, and Porthos relaxed.
"Are you hungry? I made some lunch if you want some?"
"Thank you." Athos sat up, stretching his shoulders. "How long have I been asleep?"
"About five hours. It'll keep, if you want to grab a bit more?"
"No, I'm fine." Athos pushed back the sleeping bag and yawned. "Is the water still connected here?" he asked, recalling the toilet flushing earlier.
"Yeah. Only cold though. If you want to wash I can heat you some up?"
"That's very kind of you."
"Trying to make a good impression," Porthos admitted.
Athos gave him a faint smile. "Working so far."
Half an hour later Athos reappeared in the kitchen, looking rather more awake and somewhat neater of beard. He'd left his jacket on the bed but was wearing his shoulder holster, and Porthos eyed the gun nervously as he handed Athos a bowl of stew.
"Rabbit?" Athos guessed, and Porthos laughed.
"Bean, mostly. It fills you up but I confess it makes you fart something chronic."
Athos smiled. "If that's the worst thing I have to worry about, I'll take it. Where I've been for the last few months the biggest danger from the food was dysentery."
Porthos looked alarmed. "Where were you, the Middle Ages?"
"Not far off." Athos tried the stew and nodded. "This is good. You're quite the chef."
"Had plenty of time to practice while I've been stuck out here," Porthos admitted, putting a pot of tea down on the table between them and pulling up a chair.
They ate in companionable silence for a while, dipping chunks of the bread into the bowls of stew, and afterwards sat back with a second mug of tea.
"Where do you get the milk?" Athos asked idly. "If you're avoiding the shops?"
"There's a farm stall just down the road," Porthos told him. "In the hedge. I get milk and eggs and veg and stuff there. Put the money in the honesty box. Means I don't have to see anyone."
Athos gave a quiet laugh, and Porthos frowned at him. "What?"
"Nothing." Athos smiled into his mug. "Just - you're wanted for armed robbery, but you put money in a rural honesty box."
"Well - yeah." Porthos looked affronted. "That'd be wrong, wouldn't it, not to? That'd be like - the bad kind of stealing."
"The bad kind of stealing," Athos repeated with a straight face, and Porthos huffed at him in embarrassed confusion.
"You know what I mean."
Athos nodded. "I do know what you mean," he agreed peaceably.
"I'm not saying there's a good stealing," Porthos added defensively. "Just - "
"Big corporations, people with insurance - not so bad?" Athos guessed, and Porthos nodded.
"That sort of thing, yeah. And for the record, it wasn't armed robbery, it wasn't a real gun. It was a replica."
"Still liable to get you shot if the police think it's real," Athos pointed out, and Porthos sighed.
"Yeah, I know." He looked at Athos curiously. "You're not police then?"
"Army?" Porthos guessed.
"At one point."
"What then? Covert ops, sort of thing?"
"Sort of thing," Athos agreed, and Porthos frowned at him.
"Don't give much away, do you?"
Athos smiled at him. “Well I could tell you, but then - etcetera, etcetera."
Porthos snorted with laughter. "Fair enough." He stared thoughtfully at Athos' gun. "You ever kill anyone? Really?"
Athos hesitated. "Yes."
"More than one?"
Porthos' eyes widened. "How many?"
Another pause. Porthos had the horrible feeling he was counting.
"Christ." Porthos stared at him, then frowned. "That's very specific."
"It's the sort of thing you remember," Athos said dryly.
"Do they haunt you?" Porthos ventured, after Athos had been staring into his tea for some time without speaking.
Athos looked up again, surprised. "No. I am very clear in my mind that every one of them thoroughly deserved it."
"Then what gives you nightmares?"
For the first time, Athos looked shaken. "The ones I couldn't save," he said quietly.
Porthos didn't know what to say to that, but Athos set down his mug and pushed it away. "Is there anything to drink?"
"Alcohol you mean? I've got a few cans of lager?"
Athos made a face. "Mmmn. Let's see if we can do better than that, shall we?" He went over to a section of pine panelling and to Porthos' surprise flipped open a hidden panel revealing several rows of nails hammered into the wall behind, some with keys hanging from them.
Athos picked one, examined it, then slipped it into his pocket. "Do you have a torch?" he asked. Porthos nodded. "Could I borrow it?"
Full of curiosity, Porthos followed Athos deeper into the house. This entailed a certain amount of climbing over and beneath charred and fallen beams and masonry, but Athos seemed to know where he was going.
Eventually they reached the spot Athos had been making for, and after surveying the wreckage critically he heaved a sheet of panelling away to reveal a door which he proceeded to unlock with the key, kicking debris away so he could pull it open. A set of steps lead down, and Porthos peered over his shoulder with interest.
"Is this the bat cave?"
Athos smirked. "Better than that. It's the wine cellar. I'm hoping it's intact."
He went down the steps, shining the torch ahead of him, and Porthos followed carefully. In the room below were several bottle racks, and Athos regarded them with a certain satisfaction.
"Were you really going to sleep down here?" Porthos asked, looking around them dubiously.
"What's wrong with it?" Athos asked. "It's dry, secure, and the refreshment opportunities are excellent." He drew a bottle out of the rack and brushed dust from the label.
"I don't like spiders," Porthos admitted, ducking sharply as a cobweb brushed across his face.
"Don't worry, I expect the rats have eaten them all," Athos said vaguely, pulling out a second bottle.
Porthos snorted. "Rats don't bother me," he said. "Plenty of them around while I was growing up."
Athos looked over at him. "One of the strange things both ends of the social spectrum have in common," he remarked with a smile. "A tolerance for rodents in their housing."
"You're not a lord or something are you?" Porthos asked suspiciously.
"Here, take these," Athos said, thrusting two bottles of wine into his hands and turning away to select two more without, Porthos noted, answering his question.
Loaded with bottles, they made their way back up the steps, and Athos locked the door again. Porthos was relieved to be out of the cellar, and followed him thankfully back to the kitchen where they uncorked the first bottle and settled into chairs beside the warm range.
After a while Porthos took out his phone and started looking for details on the history of the house. He might not have access to whatever resources Athos did, but he figured he could probably get what he wanted with a bit of strategic googling.
"They can track you using that you know," Athos said conversationally.
Porthos looked up. "It's not in my own name," he retorted. "I'm not quite as stupid as I look."
"Well, that's a relief."
Porthos glared at him. "You know what I've got here? Newspaper article from a couple of years ago, about this place going up in flames. Says it was owned by one Olivier de la Fère."
Athos looked at him impassively. "And?"
"Not from round here then, are you?" Porthos jibed with a certain satisfaction. "Not with a name like that."
Athos conceded a smile. "Very old Norman family," he murmured. "Been around these parts for generations."
With an unspoken truce in place on the thorny subject of names and identity, they embarked on a second glass.
"So are you staying long?" Porthos asked.
Athos raised his eyebrows. "Trying to get rid of me already?"
"Just making conversation."
"I'm between jobs."
"Wouldn't you have been more comfortable in a hotel or something?" Porthos frowned.
"I wanted to drop out of sight for a while," Athos admitted. "Lay low for a bit."
"You and me both," Porthos murmured, and they shared a slight smile.
When they opened the second bottle, Porthos broached something that he'd been turning over in his mind for some time.
"I've been thinking."
Athos looked up. "And there was me thinking that burning smell was just the house."
Porthos made a face at him. "I'm serious. When you go away again - back to work or whatever - you could do with someone here to keep an eye on the place for you, right?"
"Keep out trespassers you mean?" Athos said wryly, and Porthos frowned.
"Well. Yeah. Exactly. And generally look after the place. Start cleaning up a little maybe." Porthos thought about the bat cave wine cellar and brightened. "I could be your Alfred."
Athos snorted. "Why do I get the feeling that if I'd suggested you might like to be my butler, you'd have accused me of being racist again?"
"Because it bloody would have been," Porthos shot back. "Anyway, I was thinking less butler, more - sidekick."
"I hate to disappoint you but I am very much not a superhero," Athos sighed gloomily.
"You're not a supervillain are you?" Porthos checked, and was pleased when Athos laughed.
"No. At least, I hope not. I try to stay on the side of the angels. However questionable my methods may occasionally be."
"So how about it?" Porthos urged, deciding that if Athos really was some kind of government-sanctioned assassin it was probably best if he didn't ask too many questions.
Athos regarded him silently for a while. "I'll think about it," he conceded. "I mean - I have only just met you."
"Don't you trust me?" Porthos poured Athos more wine and grinned at him.
"I don't trust anyone."
"That's no way to live."
"Says the man hiding from the law with the prospect of rabbit kebab in his immediate future."
Porthos looked uncomfortable. "Yeah, well my life hasn't exactly worked out the way I pictured it," he muttered. "But then, there weren't a whole lot of options for me, growing up."
"Could have joined the army?" Athos suggested. "Lot of scope there."
"Charon had all these big plans for us," Porthos sighed.
Porthos glared at him, then gave a reluctant laugh. "Brixton, if you must know. But we was going places."
"Jail, by the sounds of it."
"Piss off." Porthos kicked off his shoes and propped his feet up on the warm door of the old cast iron range. "We looked out for each other, you know? Ever since we was kids," he added more softly.
"Until it came to the crunch," Athos reminded him, and then winced at his unfortunate choice of words.
"Yeah." Porthos looked sad, and Athos leaned over and topped up his glass.
"Oh, go on then," he sighed. "You can stay."
"Do you mean that?" Porthos stared at him eagerly, not quite daring to hope.
Athos shrugged. "Why not?" He studied Porthos over the rim of his glass. "I suppose you'll want paying."
This was more than Porthos had dared hope for. "Well - that would be - I mean, if you're sure?" he stammered. "Enough to keep body and soul together would be very welcome."
Athos considered him silently for a while, then seemed to come to a decision. "If you meant what you said about clearing the place up - I could let you have something for that I suppose."
Porthos agreed immediately, and for a while they discussed what might be done with the ruined house. Most of the main block was beyond salvage, but the wing they were in was largely intact. It had lost its roof, and suffered smoke and water damage, but structurally it could probably be made habitable again.
"Did you grow up here?" Porthos asked, as they shared out the rest of the stew for their supper.
"Yes." Athos sighed. I suppose that's why I couldn't bring myself to get rid of it. I should really have sold it off, but I couldn't bear to."
It revealed a streak of sentiment hitherto unguessed at, and made Athos seem a little more human. Porthos had been trying to puzzle him out, and so far Athos had come across as remote and rather cold.
By the time they'd drunk all four bottles that they'd brought up from the cellar, Porthos was feeling distinctly pissed. Athos, to his annoyance, looked barely affected.
"Where does a little thing like you put it all?" Porthos frowned.
"Little?" Athos sounded indignant, but also mildly amused. "I'm not little. I'm six foot."
Porthos gave him a toothy grin. "You're little compared to me." He yawned. "Want to toss for who gets the mattress?" It was technically Athos' mattress, Porthos had dragged it down from one of the upper floors. He hoped Athos wouldn't accuse him of looting.
"I don't mind sharing?" Athos made the suggestion quite off-handedly, but Porthos gave him a hard stare. Athos caught the look, and smiled faintly. "I promise your virtue is safe with me."
Porthos cleared his throat, embarrassed. "Yeah, alright. Why not?" He yawned again. He wasn't used to drinking wine, certainly nothing as good as this had clearly been. "I'm guessing we've not been drinking six quid bottles from Tesco?" he smirked, nudging one of the empty bottles lying by his foot, so that it rolled clanking across the floor.
"I'd guess closer to sixty," Athos said with his customary tone of indifference, but Porthos looked startled.
"Jesus. Have we just drunk - " he tried to do the maths in his head, but was too pissed.
"Two hundred and forty quid's worth of wine?" Athos supplied. "Probably." He shrugged. "It's meant to be drunk. Don't see the point of hoarding it."
Porthos opened his mouth to say thank Athos for his generosity, but was ambushed by another yawn. And he suspected in any case that it was more that Athos simply didn't care.
"You're a strange man," he said decidedly, toasting Athos with the dregs in his glass. "But I'm not complaining."
Athos gave him another one of his half-smiles, and Porthos reflected that he'd have given a lot to know what was going on behind those eyes.
By the time Athos was ready for bed Porthos was already fast asleep and snoring, sprawled untidily on his back as if he'd simply toppled there from a standing position. Athos considered him for a moment, then gently repositioned Porthos' outflung arm to give himself enough space to join him.
Porthos huffed and snorted in his sleep, but didn't wake. Athos zipped himself into his sleeping bag, shuffled onto the narrow strip of mattress available, and turned off the battery lantern that had been lighting the room.
He lay there in the dark, reflecting on the unexpected developments of the day. He hadn't anticipated finding his home occupied, and certainly not by someone like Porthos, but in a strange sort of way Athos found he didn't mind. It would have been a melancholy homecoming had the place been deserted, and however blasé he'd been earlier, sleeping in the cellar would have been deeply unpleasant.
Athos turned onto his side, the uncurtained window a paler square in the darkness. He remembered lying in the fields beyond as a boy, staring up at the stars and marvelling at how big the universe was. Now he was in his thirties, and the world sometimes felt depressingly small. He'd been to some of the remotest corners of it, and seen some of the worst things that human beings were capable of doing to each other. He liked to think in his own small way he was trying to make a difference, but sometimes his few and hard-won results hardly felt enough to keep him going.
The stone-floored room was stark and unheated, but he'd slept in worse places and beside him Porthos was radiating warmth. Athos felt himself sliding gradually into sleep.
Athos struggled out of unsettled dreams, to find himself pinned down. Fighting off a moment of panic he finally managed to force open gluey eyes and remember where he was. Home. Safe.
At some point in the night Porthos had rolled over and thrown an arm around him, which accounted for the fact he was currently pinioned. Athos took a long breath and let it out slowly, consciously relaxing again. Porthos himself was still fast asleep; the change in position had seemingly put paid to his snoring and he was now snuffling quietly against the back of Athos' neck.
It had been a very long time indeed since Athos had last woken up with anyone's arm round him, and the thought was like a fleeting pain in his soul. He lay there quietly, allowing himself to enjoy the cosy proximity of the other man and feeling mildly guilty about it. It wasn't sexual, he told himself. Porthos was just an unwitting source of comfort to his ragged nerves.
He could tell the moment Porthos woke up. The sudden intake of breath and the way he went rigid from head to toe. With infinite care, Porthos gingerly removed his arm and rolled away with a muted sigh of relief.
Athos feigned sleep, having no wish to embarrass Porthos, or for that matter raise the question of why he hadn't moved away himself. He kept his eyes closed as Porthos climbed off the mattress and shuffled out into the kitchen, only opening them again after the click of the door signalled he was now alone. Athos turned onto his back with a sigh and stared blankly at the ceiling.
Dressed and washed, they breakfasted together in near silence, communicating via a series of occasional grunts and gestures that sufficed to indicate who wanted the jam, and whether more tea was needed. Athos would have been the first to admit he wasn't at his best in the mornings, and Porthos seemed to be quite badly hungover, so both men were grateful to discover no taxing attempts at conversation were required.
"So how long d'you reckon you'll be around for?" Porthos ventured some time later, when they were on their second pot of tea and both feeling marginally more human. "Till they give you another job?"
Athos smirked at him. "You are trying to get rid of me!"
"No." Porthos looked embarrassed. "Just wondered."
Athos shrugged. "I go where I'm needed, when I'm needed. That might be weeks from now, it might be only days."
"Not much of a rest, if that's the case," Porthos observed, thinking Athos looked tired and frazzled. His hands tended to move restlessly, fingers twining together or tracing the outlines of any objects lying within reach. Porthos wondered if he knew he was doing it.
"I like to keep busy," Athos said. "Too much time for reflection isn't necessarily a good thing."
"Had plenty of time to reflect since I've been stuck out here," Porthos admitted.
"And you've decided to turn over a new leaf?" Athos smiled.
"I wish." Porthos sighed. "But who's going to employ me with my record? Only work I'll be able to get is going to be from those who don't ask too many questions. And there's generally a reason for that."
"I thought you were going to do up my house for me?" Athos murmured.
Porthos looked at him. "To be honest, I thought you might have changed your mind, having slept on it." He smiled slightly. "No man should be held to a promise made while he's drunk."
"I wasn't drunk," Athos said mildly. "And the offer is still there if you want it."
"Of course I do!" Porthos looked awkward for a moment, then honesty finally compelled him to admit - "But what do I know about renovating houses? Bugger all."
"Then find someone who does," Athos said simply.
Two days passed. Whilst not exactly yet friends, they regarded each other with a wary interest, like two cats forced to share a territory. Athos would disappear for hours at a time, leading to Porthos to wonder what he was up to until he came across him fast asleep in the spring sunshine, curled into a bend in the hedge. He'd been vaguely conscious that Athos was a restless sleeper, but out here in the sunlight he finally looked peaceful, and Porthos tiptoed away again without disturbing him.
They'd also spent quite a bit of time together, going over what might be done to the house. Carefully exploring the upper rooms, on the first day they'd come across the mostly complete remains of another bed. Athos had made a half-hearted suggestion that they should take the mattress downstairs, conscious that Porthos might not like sharing. Porthos though, had prodded the mattress dubiously with the toe of his boot and declared it was probably full of mice, and the matter had been dropped.
Wandering around the place, re-familiarising himself with its nooks and crannies, Athos discovered a battered old white van parked at the back of the log store.
"Is that your van out back?" he asked Porthos when their solo orbits brought them back together again for lunch.
"Yeah, don't work though," Porthos said gloomily. "The battery's flat, and there's no electricity out here. Why, did you want to go somewhere?"
"I was thinking of going to stock up on some groceries," Athos said. "I'm eating all your food, I should replace it. There's a shop in the village though, I'll walk down this afternoon."
True to his word he reappeared later with rucksack and carrier bags bulging with groceries, and Porthos felt guilty.
"Sorry, I should have come with you. I just worry that I'm going to stick out like a sore thumb round here."
"Don't worry about it." Athos gave him a sideways glance, and a small smile. "And it's not quite the back of beyond you seem to think it is round here. I'm ninety percent sure they wouldn't lynch you."
Porthos threw the dishcloth at him, which hit Athos full in the face, and Athos instinctively reacted by hurling back what he was holding in his hand. Unfortunately this was a jam tart he'd just taken out of the box and it slapped firmly against Porthos' cheek and stuck there for a second before sliding stickily to the ground.
They stared at each other for a second in affronted surprise, and then both burst out laughing. Athos used the dishcloth to wipe the jam off Porthos' face, and Porthos flicked the soap suds out of Athos' hair.
The amused truce was interrupted by the chirruping of Athos' phone, and he pulled it out of his pocket with a frown. Porthos just had time to glimpse the display before Athos picked up.
"Hey." Athos turned slightly away, and Porthos bent down to clear up the remains of the jam tart, telling himself he was just being tidy and absolutely not using it as an excuse for eavesdropping. Not that Athos' side of the conversation was exactly illuminating.
"No, you're okay, go ahead." Athos listened for quite a while, saying nothing but the occasional "uh huh", then with an apologetic glance at Porthos let himself out the back door and went to stand outside to carry on his conversation.
When he came back in, Porthos gave him a rueful smile. "Somebody sent up the bat-signal, right?"
Athos nodded. "Sorry. I have to go."
"Right now?" Porthos was startled.
"Yes. I need to be in London by tonight. I'll cut across the fields to Fontwell, I can pick up the branchline from there." Athos disappeared into the back room to pack his things, and Porthos stared disconsolately at the closed door. He'd started to rather enjoy having company.
When Athos emerged a while later Porthos silently handed him a bag of food. He'd made him a sandwich and put in an apple and two of the jam tarts. Athos looked startled, then smiled.
"Thank you. You didn't have to do that."
"I'm guessing it's lesson one in butler school," Porthos grinned. "Not letting your employer go hungry."
Athos took it gratefully. "I'll be in touch, about arranging the money," he said.
"How do I contact you?" Porthos asked. "If I've got questions or stuff?"
"You don't," Athos said regretfully. "I mean - you can't." He patted Porthos briskly on the arm. "You'll be fine. I have every confidence in you."
"Well - when will you be back?" Porthos asked, following Athos outside.
"Honestly? I don't know. Maybe not for a while." Athos stowed the food in his rucksack and settled it on his shoulders. "Thank you, for everything."
Athos turned back enquiringly, and Porthos flushed. "Be careful."
Athos gave him a slight nod. "Always."
This time there was a smile. "Au revoir." Athos touched his finger to his temple in a simple salute, and then he was gone, striding down the path towards the far woods, brisk but unhurried.
Porthos stood and watched him recede into the distance. He'd decided that Athos wasn't going to look back, but as he reached the treeline the tiny figure paused and turned back towards the house. Porthos immediately felt a hot flush of embarrassment, knowing he'd be quite visible against the pale stone walls, and Athos would know he'd been watching him all this time.
To his surprise, Athos raised a hand in farewell and Porthos waved back instinctively. Then Athos turned, and was lost from view between the trees.
For days, Porthos heard nothing. He was starting to think Athos had changed his mind, although this conclusion was tempered both by the worry that something had happened to him, and also by the more remote possibility that Athos was in fact some kind of con-man, and that everything he'd told Porthos had been utter bollocks.
The argument against the latter case mostly lay with Athos having known where the key to the cellar was kept, although technically that still didn't prove it was actually his house. Porthos had spent a good ten minutes trying to re-open the hidden panel before he managed to hit the right spot, and he was gratified to discover Athos had replaced the cellar key on its hook. Not that he had any great craving for a bottle of wine, but it showed a level of trust on Athos' part that Porthos wasn't about to clear the place out.
A week passed with no news. Porthos had given Athos his phone number, only realising after the man had gone that Athos had contrived not to give his own in return.
One morning Porthos was lingering over a mug of tea and putting off the moment when he'd have to go and lug more fuel in from the woodshed when he heard the unmistakeable sound of a motorbike. At first he assumed it must be coming from the road, until it occurred to him that the drive was so long and winding that he'd never noticed any passing traffic noise the whole time he'd been here.
Cautiously, Porthos got up and peered out of the window. Sure enough a motorcyclist was approaching up the drive, pulling up before the house in a showy spray of gravel.
Porthos' first thought - hope, even - was that the unidentified rider was Athos, although the ostentatious arrival somehow suggested not. The rider pulled off their helmet and for a second Porthos thought it was a woman as long hair tumbled out, but then they turned towards the house and he realised it was a slim young man.
Having been essentially hiding out here, Porthos' first instinct was to keep out of sight, until he remembered that he was now also supposed to be guarding the place against intruders. He steeled himself, and strode out to accost the new arrival.
From the glimpse he'd caught from the kitchen window Porthos had thought the boy barely more than a teenager, but close up he guessed mid-twenties. He was staring up at the ruined house with an open curiosity that put Porthos' back up.
"Can I help you?" he asked gruffly.
Porthos relaxed a fraction. Not the police then. "Yeah."
The boy reached into his pannier and drew out a stiff-backed buff envelope, and held it out. "For you," he said deliberately, when Porthos made no move to take it.
"From Athos?" Porthos realised it had to be, finally accepting the envelope, and wondering if it was money. "Do I need to sign for it or anything?"
This suggestion earned him a scathing look and he cleared his throat. "No. Right. Er - thanks. Did he say anything?"
The boy gave him an odd look, then shrugged. "Only for me to see that you got it." He put his helmet back on and straddled the bike, clearly intending to be off as quickly as he'd come, and Porthos found himself scrabbling to hold on to this one link with Athos.
"Hang about - look I don't even know your name. Is - is Athos alright?"
"Far as I know." Dark eyes considered him frankly. "Inquisitive, aren't you?"
Porthos bristled. "Sod off then."
This actually earned him a grin. "My name's d'Artagnan. And I'll thank you not to tell Athos I told you." With that he flipped the visor down and kicked the bike into life, roaring away in another spray of gravel that had Porthos leaping backwards out of the way and cursing.
"Little shit." He watched the bike disappear down the drive and then frowned at the envelope in his hand. There was nothing written on the outside, other than a 'private and confidential' watermark in red ink.
Porthos took it inside and made another cup of tea before sitting down at the table with it and prising it open. To his surprise three smaller envelopes fell out, all blank and all sealed.
Selecting one at random Porthos opened it with a table knife. By this stage he wouldn't have been surprised to encounter an even smaller envelope, but inside was a folded sheet of paper. He drew it out carefully. To his surprise it was a letter giving formal written authority to Porthos du Vallon to make such changes to the structure and fabric of the house and grounds as he saw fit, and granting him tenancy until further notice. It was signed Olivier de la Fère.
He read it three times in increasing surprise, and wondered distantly if the annoying young man on the motor bike knew Athos' real name - and for that matter, whether d'Artagnan had been his. It seemed rather unlikely. What had been the third odd name he'd glimpsed on Athos' phone - Aramis? Were these Athos' friends, colleagues, brothers in arms? Porthos found he wished he'd taken the opportunity to question Athos more about what he did when he'd had the chance.
Lost in a reverie, Porthos suddenly realised there were still two envelopes to go. Neither looked full enough to contain money, and Porthos had the thought that it was all very well being given permission to work on the house, but without any accompanying funds it wasn't going to happen. In fact, without money soon he'd be forced to leave here entirely.
One of the remaining envelopes had something stiff inside, and Porthos opened this one first. If the letter of tenancy and delegated authority had surprised him, this left him with an open mouth. It was a bank card and account details in the name of Porthos du Vallon.
Hurriedly he ripped open the third and final envelope, too impatient to be careful, and found an accompanying letter from the same bank, with details of his pin number.
He stared at them. By issuing everything in the name Porthos rather than Isaac, Athos had effectively granted him a new identity.
"How the hell did you arrange these?" he murmured, turning the card over in his fingers, and wondering how much money was in the account. "Who the hell are you?"
The only question it was currently possible to get an answer to was how much money he had access to, so Porthos ventured down to the village. There was a small branch of the same bank that had issued the card - presumably why Athos had chosen it - and while it was currently only open two mornings a week, there was a cashpoint in the wall outside.
Feeling more like a criminal than when he'd actually been one, Porthos fed in the card and nervously keyed in the number. It gave him access with no problems and Porthos felt some of the tension bleed out of him, realising he'd been subconsciously waiting for alarms to go off, or policemen to come running.
He selected 'view balance' - and stared at the screen. At first he thought he was reading the decimal places wrong, but no, it clearly said £30,000 available funds. Mouth dry and heart racing, he printed off a receipt, reclaimed his card and walked rather unsteadily to sit on a bench under some hanging baskets on the far side of the road.
Thirty grand. He'd been expecting perhaps a few hundred. It crossed his mind that he could clear out the account and - and then what? He faltered. Quite apart from the question of betraying Athos' trust, where would he go? With that kind of money he could hire a decent lawyer, but that still didn't guarantee he'd get anywhere, and he'd still be facing jail for his part in the robbery. If he stayed put and did what he'd promised - he had a whole new life waiting for him here, handed to him on a plate.
What kind of man gave this kind of money to a virtual stranger? And one who'd already confessed himself to be on the wrong side of the law, at that? It seemed to be the act of either a trusting fool or someone with more money than sense, and Athos had struck him as neither. Perhaps, then, it was merely an extension of the impulse that had driven Athos to be so generous with the contents of his wine-cellar - that he simply couldn't bring himself to care. Money was the means to an end, whether getting drunk or having his house returned to a habitable condition, and if he lost some along the way then so be it. It spoke of a certain numbness of spirit that made Porthos want to shake him and hug him in equal measure.
It finally occurred to Porthos then that he'd been so taken aback by the amount that he hadn't actually taken any money out, and he started laughing. Getting a funny look from a passing old lady made him sober up and take a hold of himself. He strode back over to the cashpoint and drew out fifty quid. Part of him was still somehow expecting something to go wrong, but the money slid smoothly out with no trouble. He folded it into his wallet and headed for the pub next door.
Having been living extremely frugally for weeks, Porthos ordered a pint of lager and a plate of steak and chips, and decided nobody on earth could hold it against him. Once he'd polished off the lot, plus a bowl of rhubarb crumble and custard that he ordered on impulse having seen a portion being carried past to another table, he felt decidedly more at peace with the world and ready to face anything.
He turned his mind to the question of the house. Whilst thirty grand was more money than he'd ever had in his life before, he suspected that in terms of renovating an old fire-damaged manor house it was a drop in the ocean. For all he knew the building was listed, which would make it even more complicated. He needed someone who could tell him what was possible, and how much it would cost. At least then he could draw up a plan of work, and if more money was required, he would at least have proper quotes and things to present Athos with, whenever he came back.
Fired with a new enthusiasm that was only partially due to the lager, Porthos nipped across the road to the general store and bought a notebook, accounts book, and a pen, before returning to the pub and ordering another pint.
Resuming his seat, he opened the accounts book and wrote a number of headings on separate pages - House, Welfare, and after a moment's consideration, Expenses. He wasn't sure how much Athos had intended him to take for personal use, or if he was entitled to draw a salary, and figured the best thing he could do would be to keep a strict record of everything he spent, and let Athos decide if it was fair. He carefully wrote in the price of his meal and drinks under 'welfare', with today's date, and then added another line for the notebooks and pen under 'expenses'.
If he was going to be ferrying building materials and things about he'd need to get his van fixed, and intended to put that down under expenses too. And maybe get a cheap laptop or something, so he could run this project properly. Having a proper internet connection at the house would help immensely.
Noting that he didn't even have a phone signal in here, in the absence of any decent modern technology Porthos went over to the bar and asked if they had a Yellow Pages he could borrow. What he needed first, Porthos decided, was a competent surveyor.
Three quarters of an hour later, Porthos was feeling slightly less positive. He'd copied down the details of several building surveyors and architects in the vicinity, and moved outside to a picnic table in the sunshine, where he could pick up phone reception. He'd made several calls, but the level of fees alone that everyone was quoting made his heart sink. He'd lose a huge percentage of his available funds before any works even started.
"Forgive me, but I couldn't help overhearing."
Porthos looked up in surprise to find a man standing over his table. Salt and pepper hair and a well-tended moustache gave him the look of a retired colonel and Porthos' initial reaction was to wonder what he'd done wrong.
"Sorry, was I disturbing you?" he blurted, but to his relief the man shook his head.
"No, no, not at all, sorry I didn't mean to startle you. Am I right in thinking you're working on the Hall for the Count de la Fère?"
I knew he was a bloody lord, Porthos thought irritably. "Um, yes that's right."
"My name's Treville. I run a scrap and reclamation yard on the edge of the village, but in my younger days I was a structural engineer and surveyor. Still registered. I've known la Fère for years, he's a good man - I wondered if I might be of service?"