It had been a long time since Porthos had last walked up this drive. There'd been a time when he'd been packed off here every summer, his mother too busy holding down two jobs to be able to look after him through the holidays. At the time he'd hated it, hated feeling like the poor relation, hated his cousins, the posh la Fère boys.
Thomas had been a golden-haired little angel to look at, but spiteful with it as soon as the adults were out of the room. Athos, whilst closer to Porthos' own age, he’d found shy and boring, his nose constantly stuck in a book. Porthos had been a robust child, and would have liked nothing better than to spend his summers playing football and building treehouses with them, but he usually ended up alone.
As soon as he turned thirteen he'd convinced his mother he could look after himself during the day, and had never had to come again. His aunt and uncle raised no objections to this, a fact he had a sneaking suspicion had a lot to do with his parting act of revenge, which had been to nearly drown Athos in the fishpond.
He'd seen them only once since then, when Lord la Fère had died. Thomas, who must have been sixteen by then, had grown into movie star looks and clearly hadn't acquired any nicer a nature. He'd walked right past Porthos and pretended not to know him. Athos, at least, had stopped and acknowledged him. A student of eighteen, his hair had been too long and lank, and he'd been thinner and more anxious looking than ever. Porthos had remarked to his mother that Athos now looked like a particularly unattractive girl. The fact that Athos had accidentally overheard this had been a mild source of guilt, at least up to the point it transpired they'd been left nothing in the will, despite the fact Porthos' late father had been Lord la Fère's brother.
Fuck the la Fères, he'd thought then. Fuck the lot of them. When Lady la Fère had died a few years later, he hadn't bothered to even reply to Athos' letter. His own mother was ill by then anyway, and Porthos had had no time or sympathy to spare for the loss of somebody else's.
Why was he here now, he wondered. Why hadn't he ignored this letter, as he had the last? It wasn't as if he'd ever liked Thomas. Typical bloody Athos too, he thought, sending a formal letter rather than phoning or emailing like any other member of the human race would have. He was probably desiccating into his father already.
Perhaps it was the shock of it. Losing parents was hard enough, but at least it was in the natural order of things. Losing a brother - especially a younger brother - and in such hideously scandalous circumstances - Porthos couldn't imagine what it was like. It had dawned on him too, that Athos was the only family he had left now. Maybe it was time to mend a few fences after all.
Approaching the house, Porthos was finally able to appreciate it with an adult eye, and felt a pang of regret that he hadn't made more of it as a child. He'd always thought of his cousins as unwelcoming, but he suspected that he'd been resentful and surly himself and unwilling to make friends.
The front door was standing open and Porthos walked straight into the hallway. There'd been several cars and a catering van parked outside, and Porthos followed the sound of voices into the old banqueting hall of the original manor house.
A man was directing a group of caterers towards the tables around the edge, whilst apparently trying to give someone directions over the phone at the same time. It was only as he hung up and turned towards the door that Porthos realised with a slight shock of recognition that it was Athos.
He'd grown a beard at some point, and while his hair was still long enough to be brushing his shoulders it was also short enough to be attractively wavy. He'd filled out in the shoulders and hips too, and Porthos hastily blinked away the thoughts he'd been having a second earlier, whilst checking out what he'd taken to be a stranger's very nice arse.
"Porthos! You came." Athos looked both pleased and startled, and Porthos realised he'd forgotten to actually send the reply. Athos hadn't included an email address or phone number on the letter, so Porthos had written back, but then carried the letter around for a week while consistently failing to buy a stamp. He suspected it was still in the inside pocket of his other coat.
"Hello Athos." Porthos held out his hand, and Athos shook it firmly. He wondered what Athos made of him. He'd changed too - daily sessions at the gym had seen to that, and he had a neat beard and moustache of his own.
"God, look at us," Athos said softly. "When did we grow up?"
Porthos shrugged. "It sort of sneaks up on you, doesn't it?"
Athos' phone went again, and he made an apologetic face and answered it, launching into another set of directions.
"It's amazing anyone ever finds us here," he sighed, hanging up again. "Or it will be, if anyone manages to follow my directions."
"Many coming?" Porthos asked, following Athos back out into the hallway.
"God knows." Athos sighed. "A few of his friends, those that stuck by him. I imagine some will come out of sheer curiosity." He sighed. "God I need a fag. Do you mind?"
Porthos shook his head, and followed Athos out to the back of the house where he perched on a crumbing balustrade and lit a cigarette. He offered the packet to Porthos, who waved it away, sitting carefully beside him on the lichen covered stonework.
"Whole place is falling apart," Athos said darkly, kicking at a patch of loose masonry and watching it crumble down the steps. "I know how it feels."
"You look pretty together to me," Porthos said. He was impressed in fact by this new version of Athos. He'd expected to find him overwhelmed and desperate for help, but he seemed to be organising everything with a weary competency.
Athos looked at him through the thin column of smoke. "I suppose you do know the circumstances?" he said suddenly.
Porthos nodded, and Athos sighed. "Good."
"It was a terrible thing to happen," Porthos said carefully.
"Brought it on himself," Athos muttered.
"You think he was guilty then?"
Athos shrugged, sucking in a last lungful of smoke and grinding the end out beneath his shoe. "The courts found him guilty. They ruled it was self-defence. End of."
Athos stood up and brushed ash from his trousers. "Not really. But I've promised myself if I can get through today then I can get shitfaced afterwards, so there's light at the end of the tunnel. Even if it's the whisky train."
"Is there anything I can do?" Porthos heard himself offer.
Athos looked back at him, and half smiled. "If any reporters turn up?"
"Punch 'em?" Porthos guessed with a grin.
"No. Stop me from doing it."
The funeral itself was mercifully brief. Held in the village church, Thomas de la Fère's ashes were interred in the family vault in the presence of his brother, his cousin, the vicar, and just five other friends and acquaintances. By the time the funeral party had got back to the house for the wake the number had swelled to almost twenty, and Porthos was confused as to where half of them had come from.
"Free food at the Hall? The village has never been one to pass up that kind of opportunity," Athos told him with a grim smile. "Regardless of what Thomas was accused of."
It explained the vast amounts of food Porthos had seen them bringing in earlier, and his admiration for Athos' command of the situation was growing by the second.
There was a commotion at the door, and Athos excused himself to find out what was going on. Porthos drifted after him, in case he needed help.
"...is a private gathering for friends and family only," he heard Athos say in a polite but tightly angry voice. "And I'll thank you to respect our privacy at this difficult time."
"Do you have any comment to make on the murder charge being overturned Mr la Fère? A verdict of self-defence means that your brother - "
"Out." Porthos planted himself deliberately between Athos and the reporter and folded his arms.
"And who are you sir?"
"I'm the man telling you to get out," Porthos declared. "I'm also the man who's going to carry you down the drive over his shoulder and feed you your own notebook if you're not out of here in thirty seconds."
"Are you making a threat - "
"Oh no mate. It's a promise. In fact scratch that, if you're not out of here in twenty it's going up your arse. Sideways."
Conceding the field with bad grace, the reporter turned and left, Porthos following them all the way down the drive to make sure.
When he got back Athos had disappeared. After a moment's consideration Porthos traced him to the rear verandah where he was smoking again and looking dismal.
"They're bad for you, you know," Porthos remarked, sitting next to him.
"Thomas didn't smoke. And yet I seem to have outlived him," Athos said gloomily, but he stubbed it out halfway down. "Thank you," he added, giving Porthos a sidelong glance. "For what you did back there."
"No problem. Bunch of bottom-feeders."
"I thought I'd kept the details of today pretty quiet, but I guess there's always someone ready to talk to the press," Athos sighed. "God I wish they'd all just leave so I can close the place up again and pretend I'm not here."
Porthos leaned over and rubbed his back comfortingly. "Come on. Let's leave 'em to it, go for a bit of a walk, eh?"
They wandered through the grounds, Athos smoking again but looking a little happier now they were away from the awkwardly subdued atmosphere in the house. As they walked past the fishpond he flicked his cigarette butt into the water and Porthos snorted.
"Bad for the fish."
"I don't think there's any left," Athos said. "Might be a few frogs." He smiled faintly. "You know, last time we were here you tried to drown me. Should I be worried?"
Porthos gave him a sheepish grin. "I was kinda hoping you didn't remember that."
"Scarred for life. Persistent phobia of goldfish ever since." Athos noticed Porthos' worried expression and broke into a smile. "I'm kidding you twat."
Porthos gave a sigh of relief. "I don't think I was very nice to you as a kid."
"You did seem to beat me up a lot," Athos mused.
"Yeah, well, you were terminally wet."
"Especially after the pond." Athos gave him a crooked smile and Porthos laughed.
"I'm sorry," he said. "For all those bruises I gave you."
Athos shrugged. "I was a smug little shit. I probably deserved them." He sighed. "Thank you for coming today. I really didn't think you would."
"Yeah, well. Family's family, right? You're all I've got now." They moved on, between tangled rose hedges and leggy banks of lavender. "Is that why you invited me?"
Athos nodded slowly. "I suppose I needed someone neutral," he said quietly. "The rest that have come today, the ones who stood by him - they're the ones who either refuse to believe he was guilty of what he tried to do, or think he was justified in it. And I just - I don't know what to say to either of those."
"You believed he was innocent at first, didn't you?" Porthos ventured, fairly sure in one of the earlier newspaper reports he'd seen a quote to that effect.
Athos looked at him helplessly. "He was my little brother. Of course I didn't want to think he was capable of something like that. I was convinced she'd made it all up." He looked away, fumbling for his cigarettes again. "Does that make me as bad as Thomas?"
"No. Of course it doesn't." Porthos reached out and stilled Athos' hands, wrapping his own around them. "Family's family, remember?"
"I wish I'd never spoken to the press," Athos admitted. "Now they won't leave me alone. I just want to hide until it all goes away."
Porthos gave him a sudden smile. "I've got just the place." He turned and lead Athos deeper into the garden, refusing to answer his puzzled questions.
At the end of the formal gardens was an old walled orchard, a tangle of apple trees and ivy in one corner growing into the roofless remains of an old barn. Porthos pushed back the hanging strands and pulled Athos in after him.
"Where the hell are we going, down the rabbit hole?" Athos asked, half-laughing but willing to be lead.
"Nope. Up the hidey-hole," Porthos announced. "Look, I think it's still here. Come on." Testing the branches carefully, being considerably heavier than he'd been as a twelve year old, Porthos hauled himself up into the canopy, feeling the tree shake as Athos climbed up after him.
To Porthos' delight, the planks and rafters he'd hauled out of the old barn long ago and wedged in the branches were still firmly in place and he sat down with his legs dangling down through the leaves. Athos settled next to him looking bemused.
"How did you know this was here?"
"I built it," Porthos admitted. "I used to come up here to hide from you lot."
"Oh Porthos." Athos leaned against his shoulder. "I'm sorry if we ever made you feel unwelcome," he said softly.
Porthos shook his head. "Water under the bridge now, ain't it? Goldfish an' all. Nah, I think I just felt like I didn't fit in. Anywhere, you know? Wasn't just here."
"I know what that feels like," Athos said heavily. "I always felt like I was different somehow. Even from Thomas." He gave Porthos a sideways glance. "Turned out I was," he said carefully.
Porthos frowned at him, then caught on. "You're gay?" Athos nodded, looking vaguely nervous, and Porthos grinned. "Snap."
"You?" Athos stared at him. "But you're - "
Porthos burst out laughing. "What, you can't be gay and fit at the same time? You want to spend some time in my gym, believe me. It's an eye opener."
Athos blushed and Porthos slung an arm around him, still laughing.
"Don't laugh at me," Athos protested, and suddenly he sounded like a small boy again, which made Porthos laugh all the harder. "Shut up! Or I'll push you out of the tree," Athos declared, starting to laugh himself.
"I'd like to see you try. C'mere, I'll give you a Chinese burn."
They jostled each other until the planks creaked alarmingly, then grabbed at each other in sudden fright as one of the old pieces of timber splintered and fell away to the grass below.
"Shit," Porthos laughed, clinging onto Athos' sleeves, one foot wedged into the angle of a branch, with Athos' arms clamped firmly around his waist in self-preservation. "They nearly needed another funeral then. A double one."
"Don't be awful." Athos laughed, breathless, pinned half beneath him. Porthos gazed down at him and smiled.
"You wanna see how awful I can be?"
"It's not going to involve the fishpond is it?"
Porthos shook his head, then, without taking his eyes from Athos, leaned down and kissed him slowly on the lips. He felt Athos shudder bodily beneath him, then suddenly they were kissing each other frantically, bruisingly hard.
Gasping for breath they pushed against each other, heedless of their precarious position high up in the tree. Hidden by the branches from the rest of the world and carried away on the adrenaline of it all, the tensions of the day spilled over into a desperate frenzy of kisses.
It was soon awkwardly obvious they were both hard, their loose suit trousers doing nothing to disguise their erections. Porthos bore down on Athos, using his weight to hold him in place and rubbing insistently against him, making him groan.
"Athos? Athos where are you? We're leaving now." A woman's voice drifted to them through the gardens and they froze.
"Shit." Athos tried to get a hold of himself, pushing Porthos back and scrubbing a hand through his hair, pulling out leaves and bits of twig.
"Just let them go," Porthos pleaded, but Athos was already scrambling down through the branches.
"What the fuck were we playing at?" Athos hissed up at him.
Porthos slithered down off the makeshift platform and jumped down beside him. "Having fun?" he said hopefully, but Athos gave him a despairing look and started back towards the house, trying to wipe the lichen stains off the seat of his trousers.
Porthos followed Athos back indoors, and for the rest of the afternoon did his best to be helpful and supportive. The looks Athos gave him said he appreciated it, and when the last of the guests had finally been herded out of the front door, Athos closed it behind them and leaned his forehead against it wearily.
“You okay?” Porthos asked, reaching out to knead Athos’ shoulders. Athos leaned gratefully back against his chest and Porthos wrapped his arms around him, hugging him tight for a moment. After a second he risked giving him a kiss on the neck, but Athos immediately pulled away.
“Porthos,” he sighed reprovingly, but there was a slight smile on his lips despite himself. “We can’t.”
“What do you mean why not? We’re cousins. By blood. It’s not right.”
“So? It’s not like we’re going to produce little inbred babies, is it?” Porthos argued, but Athos just looked at him, and he sighed. “Would you rather I buggered off as well? If I go now I can probably still catch the last train back.”
To his relief, Athos shook his head. “No, you’re alright. Actually – I’d rather not be here on my own tonight. Is that cowardly?”
“Not at all.” Porthos took him back into his arms, and for a second Athos let himself enjoy the embrace. Before Porthos could try his luck again, Athos pulled back and took him by the hand.
“Come on. Stop being a bad influence and help me clear away the rest of the food.”
Together they cleaned up and put things away, setting out crates of empty plates and serving platters to be picked up by the caterers in the morning. When everything was finally shipshape they retired to the rear parlour. This was the one room Porthos remembered with fondness from his childhood, stirring memories of eating buttered toast in front of a cosy fire, and feeling warm and clean and full.
“Can we light the fire?” he asked on impulse.
Athos looked at him in surprise. “It’s July.”
Athos shrugged. “If you want. Why not? God knows when the chimney was last swept though, so if the place burns down I’m blaming you.”
Having managed to get a respectable blaze going they settled on the couch with plates of various finger food rescued from the buffet leftovers and two bottles of wine.
“I guess this is all yours now then?” Porthos ventured, when the fire had burned down to a warm glow, and they were finishing up the second bottle.
Athos gazed distantly into the glowing embers, and sighed. “I only opened the place up for the funeral. Thomas owned half, and would never hear of it being sold, but I don’t want it. What would I do, rattling around here on my own? No, at least I can get rid of it now.”
“That’s a shame,” Porthos said, and Athos looked at him in surprise. “I mean, I wish I’d appreciated it a bit more as a kid, you know? It’s a fantastic old place.”
“Then have it,” Athos said, with a stifled yawn.
“Have it. It’s yours. I give it to you,” Athos announced.
Porthos laughed. “You’re drunk,” he accused with a smile.
“Not nearly enough,” Athos sighed, staring into his empty glass and then up at Porthos.
They held each other’s gaze for a long moment, then Porthos took the glass out of Athos’ unresisting hand and set it on the floor, before cupping Athos’ face and kissing him softly.
“Porthos, we can’t.” Athos mumbled a token protest but he was already reaching for him, drawing him closer. They slid down on the old Chesterfield, kissing intently, wrapped in each other’s arms.
This time Athos didn’t pull away, and Porthos wondered if it was the effects of the wine or in the end only despair that had made him shrug off his earlier objections.
“Take me to bed,” Athos breathed, by now sprawled on the couch with Porthos lying on top of him, breathless from kisses and achingly hard.
“Are you sure?” Porthos asked, frowning slightly even as he kissed him again, wanting him, loving him.
“The world’s gone mad,” Athos sighed sadly. “Why fight it?”
They moved upstairs, into the guest room that Porthos had been given. It wasn’t the bedroom he’d slept in as a child, and he was glad for all sorts of reasons.
Undressing, they came back together beside the bed, standing naked in each other’s arms and kissing as if they could breathe each other in. The sky was still light despite the hour, and the air warm on their skin as they finally sank down together in a passionate embrace.
If Porthos had worried at first that Athos was only doing this because he was drunk or melancholy, his doubts melted away as the minutes slid by. Athos was eager, his touch urgent and encouraging, and if there was an edge of desperation to it all, it only made things sharper and brighter and more intense.
Having seized possession of the contents of Porthos’ spongebag, Athos had proceeded to push him back amidst the pillows, roll a condom onto him, slick him up and promptly straddle him. Head thrown back, he rode Porthos’ cock with his eyes closed and lips parted, and Porthos gazed up at him with something like stunned adoration.
For his part, in between exploring Athos’ taut, straining body with gentle hands, Porthos worked Athos’ cock with enthusiasm, sitting up as they both moved closer to orgasm so that he could take Athos into his arms. They were still kissing as they came, locked together and shaking, too far gone for words.
Later, they lay beside each other with just a sheet to cover them, loosely holding hands until sleep stole over them.
In the morning Porthos was afraid that Athos would have run away, or be wracked with remorse, but he was still lying there, watching him from the other pillow with a faintly self-deprecating expression of amusement.
“Hey.” Porthos smiled at him and slid his hand across the pillow until it reached Athos’.
“Good morning.” Athos threaded their fingers together, and smiled.
“No regrets?” Porthos checked.
“Life’s too short.” Athos let his head fall back, and sighed. “Could do with a cigarette though.”
“Life’s short enough.”
Athos laughed quietly, and Porthos propped himself up against the headboard, still holding his hand. The curtains were open, and he could see roses through the leaded window panes, nodding in the morning breeze.
“You really shouldn’t sell this place you know,” Porthos murmured.
“I’m not. I’m giving it to you,” Athos said. “I’m serious!”
Porthos frowned at him, then laughed resignedly. “I’d never be able to afford the upkeep on a place like this. Thanks though.”
“Maybe I should sell it then. Split the proceeds with you.”
Porthos rolled over and looked at him. “Or maybe we should both live here,” he suggested. “Together.”
Athos looked startled. “What as? Cousins?”
“No.” Porthos moved closer, and kissed him. “As lovers.”
“Why? Who’s going to know? Or care, for that matter? Nobody round here’s going to remember me, or put two and two together if they did. Go on Athos, why not? Say yes.”
“You are insane. This is insaner than when you pushed me in the pond and sat on my head. We’re related for fuck’s sake.”
“We’re only cousins. It’s not illegal.”
“It’s hardly the done thing.”
Porthos grinned, pushing the sheet back and climbing on top of him until they were lying face to face, and both reacting instinctively to the proximity.
“Say yes.” Porthos kissed him again, slowly and deeply, and Athos groaned.
“This isn’t fair.”
“I know you want to. I can feel you want to. Say yes.”
Athos sighed. “Yes. Fine. Happy?”
Porthos pulled back a little and looked at him.”Really?”
“Yes. Really.” Athos wound his arms around Porthos’ waist and wriggled against him just enough to make Porthos catch his breath. “I mean, we hardly know each other, and it’ll all end in disaster, but yes. Why not?”
“It won’t end in disaster,” Porthos promised. “We won’t let it.”
“If you say so.” Athos pulled him back down and kissed him.
“Damn right I say so. Am I going to have to sit on your head again?” Porthos threatened with a grin.
“No.” Athos slid a hand down between them and smirked. “But you can sit on my face if you like.”