Carolyn had been stroppy when Martin had called to give her the news that she might be looking for another pilot. Though, Martin thought, good luck finding one that’ll work for free. After an awkward period trying to explain, he gave the phone to his mother. A few minutes conversation passed while Martin slumped in a chair at the kitchen table, listening to the occasional squawks from the other end of the line as Wendy explained. She returned the phone to him, pressed a kiss to the top of his head and left him alone.
Carolyn’s voice sounded a bit shaken. “Well. A pilot asking for indefinite time off because he’s going to elope with an immortal. This is a first.”
“For me too,” said Martin and winced at stating the obvious. Any hope he’d had that the events of that day had been a horrible hallucination had been dispelled. A terse email had come from Hermes, stating the exact location and time. Three days. Three short days to get his affairs in order and resign himself to the inevitable. “Anyway, it’s not an elopement. My family will be there. To... to give me away.”
“That’s nice,” said Carolyn. “I’d want my nearest and dearest at such an event myself. I think.”
Martin swallowed. His mother had decided they weren’t going to tell anyone until - well, until afterwards. ‘I’m not saying it won’t work out, love,’ Wendy had said in her hopelessly cheerful way. ‘But better safe than sorry.’
It wasn't as if Martin had that many close mates to see him off. But it was depressing how few he’d get to say goodbye to before he was leg-shackled to a horror. He cleared his throat. “I don’t suppose...?”
She picked up his drift right away. “Yes, of course. As your employers, we at MJN Air would be honoured to accept your invitation, Martin. What time is it to take place?”
“Well, just after the sun sets, at, er, at the edge of the cliffs in Dover. Around nine.”
“No, silly man, the reception! Of course you’re having one?”
“Well, we tried getting a booking at the White Cliffs Hotel in St. Margaret’s but -”
“Let us take care of that. Well, I say us, but I mean Douglas will take care of it.”
“Douglas?” Martin felt off-balance at the speed Carolyn took control.
“Yes, Douglas Richardson. You haven’t met him yet, he’s to be your first officer. I plucked him out of the gutter just this week - fired for smuggling from Air England. But he does have a way about him and anyone with a near-criminal background is sure to have a number of tricks up his sleeve. Much to your benefit, Douglas works for me now, so if I say hop, he’ll get you your reception.” Her tone was smug.
Martin was both amazed at her generousity and flabbergasted at her optimism. She spoke as if this Douglas really were to be his first officer instead of being promoted over Martin’s soon-to-be deceased - or worse - body.
“I don’t know what to say, Carolyn.” Martin rubbed his forehead.
“No need for thanks, Martin,” she said, brisk and unsentimental. “Just don’t get so caught up in the honeymoon that you forget you’re my pilot now. I’ll expect your call not a week after the wedding, understood?”
Martin found that in spite of everything he was able to laugh. “Yes, Carolyn.”
[The 5th day of Boedromion, year 4 of the 696th Olympiad, early autumn]
And that was how Martin found himself sitting at a bar table in the White Cliffs Hotel with a gin and tonic sweating in his hand. The mysterious Douglas had not only arranged a lovely evening dinner reception, but had even managed to book two family suites for the night in the supposedly full-up hotel.
It was also because of Douglas' suggestion that Martin was getting an impromptu stag night. His mother, Carolyn and his sister Caitlin had retired to one of the apartments to ‘let the boys have their fun,’ as Carolyn phrased it. Now the odd foursome sat ‘round a table in the hotel’s bar, sans the usual trappings of a pre-wedding send-off. Simon sat nursing a pint and looking in turns both bewildered and irritated at Arthur Shappey’s bizarre conversational non-sequiturs. Douglas lounged in his chair looking relaxed and.. and all lord-of-the-domain-ish. Ugh. Martin gulped at his drink.
Douglas was - well, not the seedy smuggler Martin had half-expected. No, Martin thought with a pang, he looked and sounded like everything Martin wished he himself could be. Tall, handsome and ageing well with it, with a rich authoritative voice. It was unfortunate that what came out of his mouth was so obnoxious. The man was so self-assured, it bordered on being insufferable. He had made Martin feel an inadequate tit right from the go. Following their introductory handshake Douglas had looked him up and down, a smile curling the edges of his mouth.
“Well, well, my captain! And soon-to-be God-Consort! I do hope you won’t forget us lowly beings after you’ve ascended that social ladder to the heavens.” He chuckled, and Martin had hated him.
“Yes, very funny. It’s fine for you to laugh. You’re not the one facing a wedding night with some… some thing,” Martin snapped.
Douglas lifted a supercilious brow. “Me, marry an immortal? Heavens forfend! But as for spending the night with one...”
“Oh, please,” Martin groaned. Of course Douglas would have, he looked just the type.
“Wow,” Arthur said. “Have you really, Douglas? Which one?”
“You mean, ‘which ones,’ Arthur,” Douglas replied with a wink. “I’d love to say, but a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.”
“Yes, thank you, Douglas, now the entire lobby has heard what a shining example of virility you are, let’s have dinner,” Carolyn said with a roll of her eyes. She took the bemused Wendy Crieff’s arm and steered her away. “Now, Mrs. Crieff. Why don’t you tell me about Martin when he was a little boy?”
Wendy smiled in fond remembrance. "Oh, he was a dear little thing, bright as a new penny. He always loved planes. Why, when he was five years old, he once told me..."
Martin groaned aloud. "This isn't happening. Tell me my mother isn't telling my soon-to-be boss embarrassing baby stories."
Arthur looked confused. "I'd love to tell you that, Skip. But I’m pretty sure she is."
Martin blinked as the glass in front of him disappeared, replaced by a full one. "No, really, I've had enough," he said.
Douglas smiled. "Call it a nightcap, then, my captain."
"I wish you’d stop calling me that," Martin said. Douglas had come down in the world if he’d been a captain with Air England, but there was no need for him to take the piss. Martin didn’t need it. Not tonight. “Aren’t you having anything?”
“Alas. Haven't touched the stuff in, oh, eight years now. So much easier to do one’s job and remember all the regs when one isn’t hungover.” Douglas looked secretly amused, perhaps at the thought of Martin’s upcoming pain.
"But you are our captain, Skip," Arthur said. "I'm glad we have a real skipper! Mum was worried about not having enough pilots." Martin couldn't help smirking at Douglas over Arthur's support. At least someone thought he was captain-like. Skip. He liked the sound of that.
“Actually, Arthur, having ‘Skip’ is a bit of a windfall for our little airline,” Douglas drawled. “Just consider: married to an immortal. All that power behind him. The wealth. Never a need for a salary. He might even get his own toy plane. He doesn’t need a job. MJN will be lucky if he stays on.”
Martin glared at Douglas. But Arthur was undampened by Douglas’ suggestion that Martin would soon be too lofty for their little company. “I guess we are lucky! It’s going to be great!”
"Arthur, we don't know if Martin is, erm," Simon said, unsure how to break it to the cheerful young man. "We’re not sure if Martin's going to be able to keep his job after the wedding."
"What, you mean like a lady getting married and giving up her job to stay home and have babies?" Arthur asked. Martin shrank lower in his seat as Douglas rocked with silent laughter. "Oh, I'm sure Skip's husband won't mind if he keeps flying for us!"
Simon opened his mouth but nothing came out. Martin felt a flush climbing his neck. The image of himself in a frilly apron covering a baby bump inserted itself in the forefront of his brain and was refusing to be dislodged. "Arthur, I have to say that... I mean, with two men - well, I assume it’s a he and not just an it...”
“What our captain means,” interjected Douglas, “is that a bouncing bundle of joy isn’t likely to happen."
"I know that," Arthur said. "Still, being a housewife would be kind of brilliant, wouldn't it? Maybe you should try that, Skip. You get to stay home all day and play video-games. Oh, and cook! I love trying out new dishes. Wait till you try one! I invented The Green Omelette. Though now I remember, I didn't mean to do that. Snoopadoop took hers outside and buried it in the garden."
Simon had to smile at that, while Douglas covered the side of his mouth and shaped the words, 'No, no, never,' in Martin's direction.
"Martin's never been interested in anything much except aeroplanes," Simon said, dragging the conversation back to less fanciful grounds. "He told us he wanted to be a pilot when he was six years old, can you imagine."
"Yes, what was that your mum was telling Carolyn?" Douglas asked, relishing his question. "That you’d wanted to be an aeroplane? Whatever changed your mind?"
"A god," Martin snapped. Simon lifted his eyes to the heavens and took a drink, grinning.
"Oh, go on, Martin," Douglas said. "The horrible immortal said you couldn’t become a cute anthropomorphic machine and have adventures? Terrible the way children's programming tells such scurrilous lies to the young. Were you much disappointed?"
"No, thanks, I'd rather not tell you if you're just going to mock me for it." Martin took a gulp of his drink and glared.
"Please, Skip, I want to hear!" Arthur said. Martin shook his head, and wished he hadn't as the room tilted.
"I'll tell, since Martin doesn't want to," Simon volunteered. "So, I'd taken him to the park with me where I could play football. There was no way Martin could play, being just a tiny thing. I left him at the swing set."
"A tad irresponsible, wasn’t it? Leaving him alone?" said Douglas.
Simon took a sip and shrugged. "There were lots of other children and parents there - I thought he'd be all right. Forgot about him. By the time I remembered, it was getting on to tea time and he was gone. Ran all over the park looking for him."
"Frightened of what our parents would say when you came home without me," Martin muttered.
"What happened then?" Arthur wanted to know.
"Nothing," said Simon. "I found him across the road in a farmer’s field, for Hera’s sake! He said he'd been playing at being an aeroplane and talked to a god. 'But I'm not going to be a plane any more, Simon,' he said. 'I'm going to be a pilot now.' And now? Now he is. The damnedest thing." He lifted his glass in a small salute to Martin, who blinked.
"But that still doesn't explain, Martin." Douglas couldn't leave it alone. "What did the god say?"
"Yeah, Skip! Finish the story," Arthur said.
"Oh, fine," Martin said. "Nothing to tell, really. I walked right into him." Arthur grinned in delight at this. Douglas merely raised both brows. "He’d just landed right there in front of me, but I hadn’t noticed. Had this purple cloak slung around him. He asked why I was alone. I said I was an aeroplane, and the others, erm, didn’t like my game. Of course he asked, ‘Why an aeroplane?’ I said I wanted to fly."
"Flying's brilliant," agreed Arthur, sucking at his pineapple juice. Encouraged, Martin went on.
"He asked why I didn't pray for wings. Pretty stupid, only gods get wings, and I told him so. Made him laugh. But he said I couldn't be a real aeroplane."
"And that's when great tears began rolling down your little face," Douglas suggested but Martin scowled at him.
"No, that's not happened. This is my story, all right?" Douglas held up a placating hand and gestured for him to continue. Martin went on, "Okay, I didn't take it well, but there was no crying. So he said - and I've always remembered it. He said, 'Why settle for being an aeroplane, when you can be a pilot and fly the plane? That way, you can take people flying with you and you won't be alone.'"
There was a short silence while they absorbed this. Douglas’ lips parted and he looked at Martin with his head tilted.
"Wow," said Arthur, his mouth open. "I never thought of gods being lonely." Simon snorted at this.
"Do you know which god you met?" Douglas asked.
Martin started to nod, changed it to a head shake and decided he'd better stop doing that. He felt boneless and more than a little drunk. It was a pleasant sensation. "Nope,” he lied. “Never asked. He had wings and this purple cloak." In fact, the god had introduced himself, but he wasn't so drunk that he’d give that ammunition to Douglas. It was bad enough Martin’s prayers to his god had been wasted. "Of course I thought that the idea of being a pilot amazing. And he smiled at me and called me a bright little spark. Tousled my hair and left. And that's when Simon found me."
"I didn't see any thing," Simon said.
"A pity," Douglas said. "The mystery will haunt me for evermore." Martin eyed him but Douglas' probable smirk was hidden as he lifted his glass.
"Oh," Arthur complained. "I want to hear another story."
"Under normal circumstances I myself would be more than happy to gratify you, Arthur, but tonight is for Martin," Douglas said. "And so, I'd like to propose a toast, on this, the night before his wedding."
Martin struggled out of his chair with the others, the reminder of his marriage dropping like lead into his stomach. The effort of smiling was too much and it slid from his face. He swallowed. Douglas lifted his glass and looked straight at him. Martin braced himself for a ribbing.
"Here's to my captain," said Douglas. "May he ever have the wings to fly as high as he dreams, may the gods always grant him such wisdom, and may he find happiness." Martin's eyes widened at this simple and sincere toast, but hastily lifted his glass to clink. "To Skip!" "Here, here, Martin! The best to you, little brother." They drank. Martin gasped for air as the burn settled low in his stomach.
They settled themselves again and Douglas gave Martin a smile. "Now, Captain Crieff. As this little gathering is in your honour, what do you want to talk about?"
Martin fidgeted. "I don't know."
"I do," said Simon. He sounded disgusted in the way only an older brother could, but he was smiling. "You only ever want to talk about aeroplanes."
"I don't," Martin protested. "I can talk about... about lots of other things! Other than planes."
"Nonsense," Simon said. He slapped the table as if to settle the matter. "Go on. Let's hear about the planes you're going to fly."
A lump settled in Martin's throat. Simon had never been anything but disinterested if not dismissive whenever Martin had talked of his plans for becoming a pilot. Gods, he must be worried about me, Martin thought. He cleared his throat. "Well... well, there's this one plane." He waited for Douglas to ruin things by saying how MJN’s entire fleet was this plane, but Douglas settled back in his chair with an expression of attention. "It's a Lockheed McDonnell 312."
"G-ERTI!" said Arthur. "That's what we call her," he explained to Simon.
"I'm looking forward to flying her," Martin said, pushing aside the thought that he might not ever get the chance. "She's an older model, not many of of the 312's left. Analogue controls, nothing digital, so I'll have to pay more attention, but I’m looking forward to learning her quirks. Her fuselage and nacelles were manufactured in Belfast, you know..." The liquor had loosened his tongue and the trivia just streamed out. He didn't care that he was babbling, just that he was with people who seemed to care.
Arthur listened with the odd interjection of, "Wow, you're really smart, Skip!" or "I didn't know that, that's brilliant!"
Simon just listened, nodding as if he understood everything Martin was saying.
And Douglas sipped his drink. He didn't interrupt or make any more snarky comments. He only kept his gaze on Martin's face, a faint smile curving his lips.
Douglas unwound the arm Martin had slung over his shoulders as they'd manoeuvred the stairs to his room in the family suite. Simon had taken the master bedroom. Arthur had been more than happy with the fold-out sofa bed. He thought it 'was just like staying over at a big family do, like Christmas or one of those things where there's too many people and not enough beds!’
Douglas had forborne to mention that the situation was exactly like that. In the short time he had come to know Arthur Knapp-Shappey, he understood that quite often explanations were either an exercise in futility or a waste of breath. He turned Martin around to face him. "There you are, captain. Bed’s right behind you. Time to come in for a landing."
Martin fell loose-limbed back on the bed with a bounce. He groaned. "Oh, sweet Iris, the light keeps going round and round." He flung an arm over his eyes to block the sight and moaned again. "This isn't helping. Now the whole room is going."
Douglas looked with amusement at the slight figure lying on the flowered spread. "Perhaps that second nightcap was a mistake. My captain doesn't have enough body mass to keep up with his thirst."
Martin flapped his free hand at him. "'m not small," he muttered. "Just... below average."
"I'll take your word for it," Douglas said but the joke passed Martin by. Douglas snorted and knelt to begin working off Martin's shoes. Martin twitched and giggled when his socks were pulled free.
"Ah! Stoppit. Ticklish."
"So I see," Douglas see. "But first we have to make you more comfortable. You'll be sorry otherwise in the morning." He began working open the fly of Martin's jeans, brushing away Martin's weak hands and slurred protests of, 'No, c'n do it m'self.'
"Yes, yes," Douglas soothed. "My captain is a capable one, I’m sure. However, it will go a lot faster if the first officer takes the controls this time. Up." Martin obligingly arched his back as directed and Douglas tugged the jeans over his hips. Douglas bit the inside of his cheek as he noted in passing that small though Martin was in stature, in one area the gods' blessings had been generous. He folded the jeans and set them aside.
Martin lay boneless on the bed in his old t-shirt and a pair of blue boxers, legs akimbo and eyes half-lidded as he stared at the ceiling. His bright hair was mussed and there was an alcoholic flush staining the pale skin of his cheeks. The nervous tension that characterised Martin's every interaction and make him awkward seemed to have dissolved. He looked, Douglas decided, utterly fetching. Douglas swallowed and dragged his thoughts back to practicalities.
"Come on, let's get you up where you belong." He levered Martin's legs up until he lay more or less on the bed and helped him sit up against the pillows.
"Don't wanna sit. Wanna sleep now." Martin's tone was querulous.
"In just a few minutes. I'll get you some water."
"Water first, and paracetamol," said Douglas in his best I-am-in-charge-here voice. He turned away.
"Changed my mind. Don't wanna sleep. Next thing is waking up," mumbled Martin. "Was happy tonight. It was good, wasn't it? Thanks, Dougl's. Was... was nice. Good way to end."
Douglas hesitated but left the room. He found the tablets in his overnight bag and returned with a glass. Seating himself by Martin's hip, he held out the tablets. "Take these. Drink all the water. I'll leave more on the table here. It's a damned good thing your wedding's tomorrow evening. If I'm not mistaken, you're going to have one hell of a head in the morning."
Martin took the tablets and sipped water like an obedient child. Douglas rose and busied himself switching on a lamp and turning off the light. The dimness was welcoming and warm. He turned back to see Martin watching him with those odd pale eyes, the half-full glass held loosely in his lap. Lamplight fell on one side of his face, outlining the curve of a sharp cheekbone and highlighting the dark smudge beneath an eye. It was obvious the lad was dreading his union. On the whole, Douglas decided, he couldn’t blame him.
"Why me?" Martin said in a defeated tone, the words now clear of any drunken slur. "Why me, Douglas."
Oh, we’re past the room-spinning and into the maudlin stage. Damn. Douglas couldn't leave Martin in this state. His captain appeared just the type to worry himself to the point of vomiting. Douglas dredged up his best bedside manner and sat back on the bed, nudging the wastepaper bin closer with his foot, just in case. He cleared his throat. "It's hard for mortals to understand the gods' reasons sometimes, Martin. I can't explain."
"Don't think it's a god," mumbled Martin, looking at his glass. "The Oracle said it was a creature."
"Well, compared with your own human self, all immortal beings are 'creatures'. And as for Oracles? High on fumes and full of elliptic prophecies most of the time."
Martin refused to be comforted. "I'm going to die."
"Aren't we all, eventually? It's the in-between parts that are so interesting," said Douglas.
His jocular tone struck a sour chord in Martin. "The part where I marry an ancient fiery thing I'd rather pass on. So don't tell me it'll be all right. You don't know."
Stung, Douglas began to rise. "Fine, I won't. I'm not a fortune-teller."
"No, wait, Douglas." Martin sat upright, sloshing water. "I didn't mean it like that."
Douglas settled himself again. "All right. You're apprehensive.” His forehead knotted as he considered what to say. It wasn’t easy, this comforting business. “But Martin, everyone is, before great change in their lives."
Douglas waited. Martin rolled his head to look away. “I have no idea what’s going to happen. And... and I’m afraid, Douglas.”
Ah. That was a thorny one. “The future in every marriage is a mystery. Still, marrying a stranger is enough to give anyone pause,” Douglas offered. “Best not to speculate on it too much.” Martin hiccuped a laugh and looked back to him.
“The horrible thing is, I probably could manage, if only...”
“Yes?” Douglas encouraged. Martin’s lips tried to form a smile and failed.
“It’s stupid. All I ever wanted was flying. And if I can’t have that after... after, then I’d rather be dead. Because where would I be? Trapped. For the rest of my life.”
Douglas tilted his head. “And he won’t let you? You think he'll be that possessive?”
“Ridiculous, isn’t it,” Martin said. “I mean, look at me.” He shrugged.
Douglas had looked, and did again. He estimated that there was nothing profitable that could be said at this point. Martin wouldn’t believe it if Douglas said that Martin had his own particular attractions. The silence stretched again.
"I argued with him."
Douglas lifted a brow. "Martin! You shock me. You, argue with a god?"
"I told him no. I told him he had to let me keep my job," Martin said.
"And he agreed?" Douglas was tickled at the wry smile that curved Martin's lips. “Well done. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Yes, but... but the oath was so vague!” Martin’s fingers tightened on the water glass. “He could change his mind any time. Immortals aren’t like us! I don’t want to spend my life hoping he’ll change it back again. And why can’t I see him before the wedding? He must be so horrible that no one in their right mind wants him! The Oracle did say he was terrible.”
“Well, Aphrodite married Hephaestus and he’s no looker,” Douglas said. “Let’s give your groom the benefit of the doubt for the time being. As for the promise you extracted concerning your future in flight... well, it’s all of a piece. You wondered why you were chosen, yes? That’s your answer right there."
"No, why. You asserted yourself. Somewhere inside that unassuming mortal body is something which made you worthy of notice. That's why you were chosen."
“Wonderful. I stand up for myself for once, and -”
“No, Martin,” Douglas said, voice sharp. “Pay attention. If the matter of your future in flying is ever in doubt, stand up for your rights.”
“Argue with a god? That should go well, I don’t think. I’ll be turned into a tree or something.”
“Well, it’s a poser,” Douglas admitted. “But there is that promise. You took a stand and managed to change his mind once. I’m sure you can do it again.”
"You think so?" Martin's lips were curved, but his eyes gave him away. Dread lurked in the grey depths. Douglas had to admire the brave front Martin was trying to maintain, as painful as it was to witness. Oh, well. Martin would have to go through with his nuptials and discover the truth about his spouse himself. He gave Martin his best trust-me smile.
"Martin, you may be capable of more than you realise. I, for one, expect that soon you'll be flying the friendly skies with me at MJN Air." Douglas flipped a mock salute. "My captain."
"Douglas, you don't have to call me that. We're not flying now." Martin looked away. Was that a blush, or just the drink turning his face such a charming shade, Douglas wondered.
"As you wish." Douglas wrapped his hands around Martin's to guide the glass to his lips. "Now drink up."
Martin complied, and slid down with a sigh as Douglas flipped up the side of the bedspread to cover him. Douglas fetched more water and set it by the bed. Martin's eyes had closed, his auburn lashes ridiculously long on his cheeks. But they opened again as Douglas moved to switch off the lamp. "Don't. I don't want it dark. He’s dark."
"Erebus and Nyx will keep you safe," said Douglas but he dropped his hand. "Sleep. Don't forget the water in the morning."
"Right," said Martin. His voice was thready and almost inaudible, halfway to slumber. "G'night, Douglas."
Douglas walked to the door and looked back at the small figure Martin made curled under the bedspread. A faint snore was already beginning. Douglas huffed a silent laugh and kept his voice low.