"Look at him." Aramis sat back in his chair and gestured disgustedly with his glass. "Drunk as a skunk and still the women are round him like flies."
In the seat opposite, his friend and work colleague Porthos looked over at the man Aramis was indicating with amused interest. "That sounds distinctly like jealousy to me," he said with a smirk.
"It's bloody not!" Aramis lied indignantly.
"Who is he anyway? What's he ever done to you?" Porthos asked, entirely used to Aramis' rants and not really taking much notice.
"Athos? Old friend," said Aramis, somewhat to Porthos' surprise. "I was at uni with him. He shagged his way through that, and all."
"But you're not jealous?" Porthos teased. "Not remotely?" Noting that the object of their attentions now had a stunning dark-haired woman sitting on his lap feeding him sips of what looked like either gin or vodka, but almost certainly wasn't water.
"I just think he should have more self-respect. Someone should teach him a lesson," Aramis grumbled. "Get him to knock off the drinking before he does something he regrets."
"Like what?" Porthos asked, starting to feel vaguely sorry for the man at being the object of Aramis' rather hypocritical polemic.
Aramis shrugged. "I dunno. Gets someone knocked up, or catches something horrible. Look at him, he hardly knows which way's up. One of these days he's going to end up bent over a sink in the gents being buggered by a big hairy trucker called Malcolm. And it would serve him right."
Porthos sniggered. "If you know one, hook me up?"
Aramis eyed Porthos thoughtfully. "You know, I've got an idea," he ventured with a slow smile. "How would you feel about helping me out with a little prank?"
"Why do I get the distinct feeling this is going to involve me doing a trucker impression?" Porthos asked. "I'd rather not be done for assaulting someone in the bogs, thanks all the same."
"No, no, nothing like that," Aramis assured him. "He's my mate after all, I hardly want to hurt him, do I? Just - give him a little shock." He looked speculative. "Look, by the time Athos gets home he'll be wasted, chances are he'll pass out straight away. And I've got a spare key to his flat, 'cause the stupid bugger's always locking himself out. What do you say to just - getting into bed with him? He'll wake up next to you and have the world's biggest freak-out."
"And that's supposed to be funny?" Porthos asked rather dubiously.
"Funny? It'll be fucking hilarious," Aramis urged him. "Go on. Maybe it'll teach him not to get so shitfaced he blacks out."
"And when he calls the police on me?" Porthos frowned. Aramis waved his concerns away.
"Well obviously you can tell him the truth after a bit. Just bluff it out long enough to give him a scare. What do you say?"
Porthos' first instinct was to refuse, but he was quite drunk himself by this point and Aramis was very difficult to say no to in this kind of nagging mood. Maybe it would be kind've funny, he conceded. And besides, if Athos went home with any of the women he was currently draped over, it wouldn't be possible in any case.
Contrary to appearances and slightly to Porthos' surprise, when chucking out time came around Athos kissed at least three different women goodbye but set off for home on his own.
Porthos and Aramis followed at a discreet distance, but Athos was clearly oblivious to his surroundings and frequently bounced off railings and walls as he went, at one point apologising to a telegraph pole.
Arriving at their destination, after some considerable effort Athos finally managed to get his key in the door and disappeared inside. Aramis pulled out his own keys and slipped a couple off the ring.
"Here you go," he said in a low voice. "That one's for the front door, and the other's Athos' flat - he's on the second floor. Apartment 3B. Give him a few minutes to fall asleep then do your stuff."
"He's not likely to take me for a burglar and shoot me is he?" Porthos wondered apprehensively.
Aramis clapped him on the back cheerfully. "You saw the state he was in. He'll be dead to the world, I guarantee it. Let me know how it goes, eh? I want a blow-by-blow account. If you can get a photo of his expression, so much the better."
Still harbouring certain misgivings, after a while Porthos let himself into the house and made his way up to the second floor. It had obviously been quite an impressive dwelling at some point in the past, but had been divided up into flats, two per floor. He found flat 3B and listened at the door for a second before knocking softly.
When there was no response, Porthos eased the key into the lock and let himself in. To his relief Athos had left the light on in the hallway, he'd been afraid he'd have to grope his way round unfamiliar rooms in the dark.
"Hello?" he called out quietly. If Athos was still up, he wasn't exactly sure how he was going to explain his presence, but it was better than walking in on him unawares. Apart from the distant hiss of a refilling water cistern the flat was silent, and he carefully crept further in.
A pair of shoes lay haphazardly discarded in the hall, and Porthos found they were followed further along by a pair of socks, a pair of jeans, and a shirt. The trail of clothes lead him to a bedroom door with a t-shirt hanging off the handle, and a pair of pants lying on the carpet just inside.
Beyond, Porthos could just make out the shape of a man lying in the bed, who judging by his deep and steady breathing was fast asleep.
"Athos?" he ventured quietly. The sleeping figure didn't move, and Porthos sighed. It was now or never. It occurred to him that he could just go home and tell Aramis he'd done it, although that would be rumbled as soon as Aramis mentioned it to Athos afterwards.
On the other hand, it was a fairly harmless joke, and home for Porthos was quite a long walk in the other direction, whereas if he went through with it he could get into bed right now.
Making his mind up, he quickly took off his clothes and left them strewn across the floor in an approximation of someone who'd undressed in a fit of frantic passion. Pulling back the duvet, he slid carefully into bed next to the happily slumbering Athos and closed his eyes.
When Porthos awoke it took him a moment to remember where he was. As recollection returned in the absence of the beer buzz from the night before it brought with it a certain sense of alarmed embarrassment, and he sat up with the intention of making his escape as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately Athos chose that moment to wake up himself, and their eyes locked across the pillow.
Figuring he might as well go through with it now he’d been caught, Porthos gave him a sheepish grin. “Morning.”
Athos was staring at him like a rabbit in the headlights, and Porthos wondered what was going through his head.
“Athos?” he prompted, when Athos continued to do nothing but stare at him fixedly. “Are you okay?”
Athos opened and closed his mouth a few times, then cleared his throat. “Sorry, I, er - ” he mumbled, lost for words and clearly desperately trying to recall the night before. “Oh God. Sorry.”
“What for?” Porthos asked with a curious frown. This wasn’t quite the reaction he’d been anticipating, and not the one Aramis had predicted either, he guessed. Athos wasn’t having hysterics or looking scared or disgusted – in fact he just looked embarrassed.
“I, er- I can’t remember your name,” said Athos quietly. “I’m so sorry.”
As he’d never known it in the first place, this wasn’t surprising.
“That’s alright. It’s Porthos.” Porthos smiled at him. “Is everything alright? You look a bit – confused.” He’d been going to say freaked, but he realised that wasn’t true. For someone who’d just woken up in bed with a complete stranger Athos was in fact remarkably calm. Maybe it happened a lot, Porthos thought. Although presumably it was normally with women.
“Did we – last night, did we – you know?” Athos asked hesitantly.
“I’ll say! Don’t you remember?”
Athos looked wretched, and shook his head. “Sorry, no. I can’t remember anything. I don’t even remember getting home.” He winced, rubbing his temples. “Where did we - ?”
“We met in The Wren,” Porthos told him. “You were well up for it. You really don’t remember?”
Athos shook his head. “I’m so sorry,” he breathed. “God, what must you think of me?”
“I should be the one apologising,” Porthos said, reflecting that that was about the first truthful thing he’d said since waking up. Athos looked at him curiously, and he shrugged. “If I’d realised you were that drunk...well, I guess I wouldn’t have taken you to bed.”
Athos waved his apology away with a feeble gesture of dismissal. “Don’t worry about it,” he sighed. “It was my fault. I shouldn’t have drunk so much.”
“Don’t know when to stop, eh?” Porthos said, but Athos gave him a surprisingly sad look.
“Oh, I know exactly when I should stop,” Athos said softly. “I just can’t.”
He looked suddenly so miserable that Porthos reached out instinctively to put an arm around him. To his surprise Athos leaned into him without protest, at which point Porthos remembered they were both naked. Startled, he almost froze, then remembered that as far as Athos was concerned they’d just had sex and there was no reason not to be intimate with him.
“Hey. It’s okay.” Porthos gathered Athos into a hug and automatically kissed him on the forehead. He was at a loss to know what to do. This wasn’t panning out at all like he’d anticipated, and all he seemed to have achieved was making Athos sad. But to tell him the truth now – how awkward would that be? They were sitting there with their arms around each other, stark naked and vulnerably honest – at least in Athos’ case.
“I’m sorry.” Athos finally pulled away, looking embarrassed again. “I’m being a dreadful host. Would you like a cup of tea?”
Porthos blinked at him, taken by surprise. “Uh. Yeah. That’d be nice, thanks.” Before he could look away Athos had climbed out of bed and Porthos was suddenly presented with a full frontal. He knew he was staring, and Athos’ blush said that he’d noticed, but although he picked up his dressing gown he didn’t put it on until he’d left the room.
Porthos flopped back against the pillow and groaned. “Aramis you cunt,” he muttered under his breath. “What have you got me into?”
He should make his excuses and leave. No, he should tell Athos the truth and let him throw him out. What kind of bastard let a man go on thinking he’d had drunk sex with a stranger? The kind of bastard who made him think it in the first place, Porthos realised with a wince of shame.
Porthos got up and pulled his boxers back on, venturing out across the hall and into the bathroom where he took a much needed piss and washed his hands and face. Having made up his mind to get dressed and leave, as he emerged from the bathroom Athos was coming back with two mugs of tea.
“Sorry, I didn’t ask if you wanted sugar?” Athos said, handing him one of the mugs before he could decline.
“Oh, er, no, thanks.” Porthos took a deep breath. “Look, I should go.”
“You don’t have to?” Athos said, blindsiding him again. “Come back to bed and drink your tea, at least.”
Porthos found he was following Athos obediently back into the bedroom. “You don’t even remember last night,” he pointed out. “You can hardly want me to stay?”
“Doesn’t mean I want you to go either,” Athos pointed out, and Porthos realised with a faint shock that Athos was discreetly checking him out.
Porthos gave in and climbed back into bed beside him. For a while they sipped their tea in a surprisingly comfortable silence, then Athos looked round at him cautiously.
“Can I ask you something? I don’t want you to take it the wrong way, I guess I just have to know, or I’ll fret. We did, um – we were safe, right? Last night?”
Porthos caught on and nearly choked on his tea. Oh for God’s sake tell the man the truth, he told himself fiercely. He’s worrying about having unprotected sex with strangers and it’s your fault.
“Yeah, course we were,” Porthos heard himself say instead. “Don’t worry, I used a condom.” He winked. “Two.”
It was Athos’ turn to choke on his tea.
Half an hour later Porthos was dressed and saying his goodbyes. He’d decided by now that to tell Athos the truth would be more humiliating for him than to carry on believing the lie, which he seemed surprisingly sanguine about.
“Well, thanks for the tea, eh?” Porthos smiled at him. “And the rest. See you round I guess.”
“Actually,” Athos hesitated, looking suddenly unsure of himself. “I don’t suppose – I could see you again?”
Porthos stared at him. “What?”
“Well, you know, I’d quite like to spend an evening with you that I actually remember,” Athos said with a shy smile. “If, you know, if you were interested?”
“I – I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Porthos stuttered, then hated himself as Athos’ face fell.
“No, right. Of course. Sorry. Why would you?” Athos was saying, looking mortified. “What would you want with a drunken loser like me?”
Porthos groaned inwardly. “No, wait, look, okay. Yes. Why not?”
Athos gave him a wary glance. “Oh God, if that’s just pity please, don’t - ”
“It’s not!” Porthos laughed. “It’s not. I promise. I changed my mind, okay? I like you. I’d like to see you again. How about dinner, tonight?”
“Yeah. Really. Pick you up at seven?” Porthos waited until Athos nodded, looking stunned, then leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “Catch you later then.”
Porthos took the stairs down in a thoughtful mood. To his surprise he realised that he liked Athos immensely, and hoped that their date that night actually went well. Aramis might unintentionally have done him a favour there. The only potential fly in the ointment was the fact that their entire introduction was based on a lie of hideously epic proportions, and if Athos ever found out – well it just didn’t bear thinking about.