Martin sat on the edge of his bed in his Toronto hotel room, running his fingers over his captain’s hat. Did it smell of lemon? He picked at a piece of tape still stuck to the fabric. He’d given his impassioned speech on being a professional pilot to Nancy Dean Liebhart - with a lemon taped to his hat.
Martin was cold and defeated. Never had he looked less like a real pilot than he had during the gods-cursed flight to Qikiqtarjuaq. It threw the ‘landing with brakes on’ into the shade. Martin rubbed at a sticky patch left by the tape over and over until it smeared. He’d thought that perhaps Douglas and he were friends. He should have known better.
Martin swallowed. Nothing on this realm would move him from this room tonight. He’d use his card for once and order up from room service. He liked having dinner out with Arthur, Carolyn and Douglas after flights but right now he couldn’t face any of them.
Martin stroked the braid on his hat, unseeing. Douglas’ words slid through his mind again, a a cutting retort so keen Martin hadn’t even realised how much he was bleeding until now.
‘What actually separates professionals from amateurs, Captain Crieff, is being paid to do the job – the way Carolyn pays me.’ Douglas’ voice had been hard. The rest of the sentence, though unspoken, may as well have been shouted. And you, Martin Crieff, are an amateur. You work because your husband is indulgent of your little mortal whims.
Fine, so Martin didn’t need the money! Carolyn had once alluded to the fact that paying just one pilot’s salary helped keep the company afloat. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that until today Martin had been a professional pilot. In his mind, at least, until Douglas had torn down that illusion.
Martin’s hands tightened on his hat until it threatened to crumple. He set it aside. Douglas wasn’t entirely to blame. Martin shouldn’t have told Nancy he’d discipline Douglas. Gods, why had he done that? To Douglas, an experienced and skilled pilot, being upbraided by a captain twenty years his junior had to be unbearable. But Martin wanted so much to be seen as a professional pilot. He had a bone-deep need to appear capable, knowledgeable and as authoritative as, well, as Douglas. Okay, he was a stickler for rules and procedure, but that was only good sense. But it was impossible to act the captain with Carolyn and Douglas.
Douglas. Douglas, who had tricked him into the mortifying cabin address not once, but twice.
Why had Martin gone along with it, gods, why had he not just reversed the tables by saying, ‘Apologies, ladies and gentlemen, I’d just like to make a correction. Far from being French, I was born in Wokingham. My first officer is a tad forgetful. His age, you know.’ That would have shown Douglas! But that was the story of Martin’s life. The fit of his hind-sight goggles didn’t even pinch much any more, he was so used to things going wrong.
The thing was, Martin knew he was insecure. Douglas was just so… perfect. Forget about the chain of command, he had a snowball’s chance in Hades of impressing his authority on Douglas. The only times he’d ever managed it was because Douglas let him. And that was just - humiliating. The remembrance made Martin small. And sad.
The thing was, in spite of Douglas’ casual ways, Martin did admire Douglas’ abilities and experience. How could he not? But Douglas didn’t respect him. Amazing how that hurt.
“Captain Perfect,” Martin said aloud. “The consummate professional.” He rested his elbows on his knees and put his face in his hands.
His phone trilled. He let it ring several times before pulling it out. “Hello.”
“Martin,” his husband said. His mellifluous voice was dimmed by the small speaker but still rich and otherworldly. “It’s dark here, and the bed is a lonely and cold place without you here to warm it.”
“You don’t notice the cold, I do,” Martin said.
“True,” his husband said. “I find myself becoming inured to having icy feet thrust against me in the night.”
Martin laughed a little. “Yeah.”
“How was your flight?”
Awful. “Fine, fine. We - we saw some bears. They were fine. Arthur was thrilled. It was fine.” Douglas nearly crashed us and I begged him to stop like a frightened child while an entire plane listened.
The line hummed between them.
“Four ‘fines’. Patently, you’re not,” his husband said. “Darling, what’s wrong? Are you all right?”
“I’m the same as always,” Martin said. An amateur. A failure as a pilot and a professional. He coughed to clear his throat of growing thickness.
“I miss you,” Martin said with unexpected honesty. It was true, but he’d never said it before.
This did not go unnoticed. His husband sounded more concerned. “I’ll come to you. Give me some time -”
“I’m fine, you don’t need to worry about me.”
“And now you’ve managed to make me more worried. Martin, I want to be there with you. You obviously need me. I want to help.”
“Oh.” Martin swallowed. “You’re… you’re great. I don’t think I’ve told you that. But I’ll be okay. I don’t want to put you to any trouble. You can’t rush into other gods’ territories just because your husband is a bit down.”
“I’ll dare it. I want to see you, love,” his husband said, voice low. “I hate that you’re alone just now.”
There was a soft knock. Martin jolted. “Sorry, there’s someone at the door.”
“Martin...” his husband said.
“I’ll call you back,” Martin said, standing up. “Just give me a minute, okay?”
Martin clicked off the phone. The knock came a second time, louder. Martin peered through the spyhole and his mouth firmed. He unhooked the chain and opened the door. Douglas stood outside, hand raised to knock a third time. Martin held the door half-closed, blocking the entrance.
“Douglas. What do you want?”
“I came to see if you were coming down for dinner,” Douglas said.
Martin looked at Douglas a long moment. Douglas’ eyebrows began going up as the silence stretched. “Martin? Is your answer perchance written on my face with lipstick?”
The joke rolled off Martin’s numb state. “What? Oh. It’s nothing. Was just waiting.”
“For what?” Douglas looked curious. A flicker of loathing licked at the shell coating Martin’s emotions.
“Nothing that will ever come, apparently,” Martin said. “Because this is me, and you’re you.”
Douglas’ brow creased. “Pardon?”
“Nothing. You came to ask - well, it wasn’t a question, was it? You wondered whether I was coming to have dinner with everyone? No. The answer is no. I’m ordering up and charging it to my card.”
Douglas looked taken aback. “Oh.”
Why so surprised, Douglas? All in a day’s work, reducing me to a joke? You just carry on regardless, don’t you. Martin gave Douglas a false smile. “Yes, go on without me.”
“You always like a meal with us during flights. Why not tonight?” Douglas’ eyes moved up and down, as if examining Martin for clues as to his current behaviour.
“You want reasons.” Martin’ tight throat produced something that was not quite a laugh. “That’s funny, the first officer questioning his captain about his choices. And no, we’re not flying now, but it’s not funny. You do it all the time.”
“If this is about the thing with that dreadful travel rep -”
Martin cut across Douglas’ annoyed tone. For once, the words just came straight from his burning heart without stutter or stammer.
“Why won’t I have dinner with you tonight - let’s see. How about, because it was pointed out to me today that I am a glorified hobbyist that flies for fun. Ergo, I can pay my own way. Or, or how about the fact I have no right to Carolyn’s food or anything on the expense account because I’m not really an employee? It’s like some twisted charity - I work for no salary and get meals. Not like some do. Dinner,” Martin spat, “is for crew and professional pilots. And I am not counted among that glorious number, Douglas. Because I’m not a professional. I’m scarcely a pilot. And we both know that I’m not your captain, am I? Not when it matters. So, no, I’m not coming down.”
“Martin.” Douglas looked blank. “Martin, you -”
“Don’t bother,” Martin said. The words hurt his throat. “Happily, as I now understand things, I have the means to stop. I don’t have to be your captain. I don’t have to pretend to have a job flying. And I don’t have to put up with you.” The very idea of quitting made Martin’s stomach turn over, but the damage was done. “I’ll start looking for a new job immediately. Or maybe I’ll just give up flying.”
A strange look passed over Douglas’ face, the start of a grin. Triumph, probably. Douglas would enjoy being a captain again. Martin swallowed around a lump and began to close the door, only to have Douglas throw out a hand to keep it ajar. “Wait a minute. Martin, do you mean that?”
Martin met Douglas’ eyes. “I’ve had enough of your company for one day, Douglas. Go away.” His voice was quiet, shaking a little. He repeated himself with more conviction. “Go away.”
Douglas’ hand slipped from the door. “Fine, I’ll go.” Martin gulped a pained breath and Douglas blinked at the noise. “Martin?”
Martin closed the door. He shot the bolt and rested his head against the door, waiting until he heard slow footsteps moving away.
Martin returned to the bed and lay down, hollowed from his outburst. Oh, gods, this day had been horrible. He longed to hear his husband’s voice just now, with his bad jokes and sweet endearments. He pulled out his phone and dialled. In a fit of lassitude, he put it on speakerphone and rested it on his chest, propping his head on the pillow and letting his arms flop on the mattress.
“Yeah. It’s me.”
“I wish you understood.”
Martin stared at the wall. A corner of the wallpaper was beginning to peel up, he noted. “Understood what?”
“What you mean to me.”
Oh. Martin’s lip quivered. “This - this is out of the blue.”
“You need to hear it.” The wallpaper pattern wavered in Martin’s view and he blinked until it cleared. “You don’t have to believe me now. Perhaps if I told you more often, you’ll understand.”
Martin didn’t know how to respond. “Thank you.” The words were almost inaudible.
“So… your day was not fine. Tell me, if you will. I’m always here.”
“Tea and sympathy?” Martin’s quip was half-hearted and he sighed.
“The latter, assuredly. The former you’ll have to arrange - I can’t work that miracle for you.” His husband’s voice was warm and Martin’s heart lightened a little. “What is that noise, by the way? A kind of rustling.”
“Huh? Oh. You’re on speakerphone. Lying on my chest.”
“Oh, I’m lying on you? That’s a promising position. If only I were.”
Martin almost smiled. “Yeah.” He sighed. “So. Today, we flew some tourists on a tour to see polar bears, and there was this tour representative who said I was very professional…”
The tale dragged out of him in fits and starts, his hands knotting in the bed covers as he re-lived it. His husband listened, for the most part, only asking a few questions to probe out Martin’s reactions to the day’s events.
“You know, all I’ve ever wanted since I was a kid is to be a pilot and fly planes,” Martin said. “My dad said it was a waste of time and money. Some of my instructors told me I wasn’t cut out for it. But I wanted it. I got my license after seven tries.” Martin toyed with the phone. His chest was tight. “The thing is, I never doubted. I stuck to it. But today. Today, for the first time, I… maybe they were right. Even you said I was in the wrong profession.”
“No one takes me seriously. I’m ridiculous. I’m a joke.”
“Martin, no. Never that.”
“You weren’t there.” Martin pressed the heel of his hand to his aching forehead. “You don’t know. Oh, gods.”
“Don’t,” his husband said, voice strained.
“Don’t what? Don’t quit? Don’t stop flying? Don’t start to cry?”
“Don’t hurt so.”
“Why do you care? If you’d seen what an idiot -”
“Because for some reason or other, Martin, I find that when you’re cut,” his husband said, voice cutting through Martin’s rising one, “I bleed. So, don’t. Any of it.”
“I thought you wanted me to stay home and safe.” Martin’s throat ached. “And I - I… I don’t know if I can do this any more. It’s like, like today all that joy I had when I was in the air… It was like something died. And I told Douglas I was leaving and he smiled. I -”
“Sweet, not like this. I won’t deny I wish you were with me all nights, but Martin! Flying… “ His husband’s voice grew quiet. “Flying means so much to you, and I won’t have you diminished or… or dulled, no matter the cost. Sweet, don’t stop spreading your wings. I’m sorry, I haven’t been very understanding about this. I was hoping… well, never mind. But now I see that without flying, you’re not… you.”
“I don’t want to face them tomorrow.
“You do it the way the way you faced your CPLs. And I don’t pretend to understand how you managed to keep going in the face of all opposition, but Martin... Martin, you are the most persistent mortal I’ve ever met. You pick yourself up time and again. It’s one of the things I admire most in you.”
“My dad said it was a pipe-dream, me being a pilot,” Martin said, voice thick. “That I was a fool.”
“Stubborn, not a fool. You persevered, though, and you made it happen. You did that. You can’t let your spark be extinguished by this. And I’d go to Hades and back before I let you give up this thing you’ve wanted… for how long?”
“Since I was a kid.” Martin scrubbed his hot eyes. He debated telling Eros the story but swallowed the impulse. “I decided when I was five I would be a pilot. Crazy, isn’t it.”
“No, it isn’t,” his husband said. “That dream has been the fire within you your entire life, Martin. Tell me instead that you won’t give up.”
Martin controlled his breathing, eyes closed. “I don’t know.”
His husband’s voice grew intense, the speaker phone buzzing with odd harmonics. “This is just a temporary setback. And if Douglas Richardson gives you any more grief, I’ll smite the old blighter. How dare he talk to my consort that way!”
Martin hiccuped a sound that was half-sob, half-laugh. “Don’t.”
“Well, I would. For you. Say the word.”
“You can’t just smite anyone who upsets me. Half of England would be smitten. Smote. Struck down.”
“Smitten for you, dear heart. Now listen. You can handle this, you can handle anything. But you need your rest, and I am longing for you to fly back to me. Now go on. Swear you won’t stop.”
“Okay what?” His husband’s tone was gentle but firm. “Swear on the gods you hold dearest.”
Martin’s chest felt bruised. “Thank you… for, well. I don’t know what to say. For understanding.”
“Yes, okay. By Iris and Eros, I swear I - I won’t give up. I’ll keep flying.”
“Because you love it.” There was an odd finality to the words, but his husband went on in a brisker tone. “Now, why don’t you make yourself comfortable and relax. I’ll tell you a story to send you off to sleep. How does that sound, love?”
It sounded lovely. He was exhausted. Martin shuffled into his pyjamas and laid the phone on the pillow by his head. In a low voice his husband began a tale of Hephaestion and Alexander the Great. Martin drifted to sleep with the rich voice wandering through descriptions of the two as boys riding together through a sun-drenched landscape that blurred into Martin’s dreams.
The bar was dim and cool and just what Eros wanted. His heart was cold and heavy following Martin’s call. He noticed a hopeful woman seated with a rough-looking young man. A date, and not a good one, by the look of boredom on the man’s face. Eros considered the pair, shrugged and moved to stand at their table. “He’s all wrong for you,” he told her. “Bad boys are bad news. But I’ll give you a chance.” The woman blinked up at him, confused. Eros withdrew a pen from his pocket, concentrated and jammed it into the tough’s hand. He squalled and his date jumped to his defense.
“What are you doing, you crazy old coot? Honey, are you all right?” She clutched at the tough’s injured paw. He blinked at her.
“I am now, sugar,” he said, a soppy smile spreading over his face.
“You’re welcome,” Eros said and took a seat at the bar.
“What can I get you?” said the bartender.
“I don’t know. Do you have anything that can change fate? A drink that’ll let me go back in time and obliterate my own stupidity?”
“Drink enough and it’ll work. For a night, at least.” The bartender’s smile was wry. “But then you’ll wake wishing you’d never tried.”
“Wise. Set me up with something I can toy with instead, then,” Eros said. He lifted a brow at the ginger ale that was set in front of him. “What’s this?”
“Free refills for as long as you need to brood, with no hangover.” The bartender looked over Eros’ shoulder. “And for you?”
A hand clapped on Eros’ shoulder. He stiffened as a familiar voice spoke. “Whiskey, neat. I’ll take care of my cousin’s tab.”
“Oh, will you?” Eros glared as Pothos made himself comfortable. “I should bloody well hope so, considering how you stuck me with the bill last time.”
“Nice work match-making back there,” Pothos said. “But that’s not what you brought you out tonight, is it?”
“What are you doing here? Not spying, are you? I’m following the guidelines of our damned wager!”
“The spirit of the rules, yes. Don’t worry, I’m not calling for your forfeit. Not yet.” Pothos sipped his drink. “But why do I always run into you when you’re moody and depressed? Your little mortal hasn’t confessed his eternal love yet? Tsk. You bragged it would take you no time at all.”
“He doesn’t love me.” The statement burned Eros’ throat and he gulped at his ginger ale. “He may never love me, as long as he’s got his aeroplanes.”
Pothos was eyeing him. “You think that, do you? Not like you to give up.”
Eros rounded on him. “What can I do? Martin loves flying more than anything, and I can’t stand to see him made unhappy! I can’t take that away from him. Worse, you’ve made it so I’ll never be content without him, you and your fucking longing! That is the cruelest trick you have ever played, cousin, and I’d love to throttle you for it!”
“You’re an idiot,” Pothos said. “A blind fool. Whoever would have thought the god of love would be so stupid? Everyone on Olympus can see it, but you can’t?”
“See what?” Eros shouted. “Elucidate for me, cousin!”
“Guys.” The bartender was poised. “Is everything all right?”
Pothos raised his hands. “It’s fine. Family. You know how it is. We’ll try to keep it down.”
Pothos waited until the bartender moved off before scooting closer, a gleeful smile stretching his face. “Oh, this is too good, I am a genius, I really am. You can’t guess?”
Eros shook his head, glowering.
“You think the scratch from my bolt of longing is to blame for your emotional predicament?” Pothos slipped a hand inside his jacket and withdrew one of his crossbow bolts. “One of these?”
“You bloody know that’s…” Eros trailed off as his cousin gestured with both hands in a familiar magician’s flourish. A flat length of dull steel gleamed in Pothos’ hand where the bolt had been.
Eros stared. “Wait. Isn’t that…?”
“A butter knife? Yes.” Pothos tossed the blade up and caught it, twirling it between his fingers. “The butter knife you were using on the day we made the wager? Correct again! Are you getting the picture now? I’ve been dragging it with me everywhere for months, waiting for this moment!”
Eros gripped the bar edge of the bar, ignoring how the wood groaned under his grip. “You didn’t scratch me with a bolt of longing. You switched it for the knife.”
“Sleight of hand is such a good skill, don't you think?” Pothos smirked.
“You bastard. You utter bastard. Then what I’ve been feeling for Martin all this time…”
“Was never my doing.” Pothos laughed, bright and high. “Best trick ever!” He caught Eros by the back of the head and pressed their foreheads together. Eros focussed on the green eyes that were both mischievous and pitying. “Do you understand now?"
Eros’ stomach dropped away. “I… I love him.”
“At first sight. You love him. Sorry, but I couldn’t help messing with you.” Pothos released him. “You can stop casting blame on me now, cousin. Now you know all. Happy?”
Eros rubbed away a blur in his eyes. His heart was lead-heavy. I love Martin. “How can you even ask that?”
There was no reply. Eros looked around, but Pothos had gone. “You ungodly little shit,” he muttered. “At least you picked up the tab this time.” Eros waved the notes his cousin had left behind at the bartender. “Another for me. No ice, I’ll be watering it down with manly tears.”
“I hear you,” said the bartender in sympathy and gave him extra paper napkins with his drink. “Family, eh?”
Martin woke before his alarm went off with an improbable scheme in his head and nervous tension singing a low note in his belly. If he pulled it off… well, he’d either get respect from Douglas and Carolyn, or… it would end horribly. Ought he tell his husband? Martin considered. No, not right away. If things went wrong, he’d never let on about his hare-brained idea. His spouse had confidence in him and seemed to think Martin was clever. He’d hate to disappoint him. A successful result would surely impress his husband. Martin wondered at himself for hoping for his husband’s approbation. It’ll please him if I handle this on my own, he decided. I’m supposed to please him, right?
More sleep was impossible - he plugged his phone in to charge and got out a battered copy of Restaurant at the End of the Universe to read. Step one - do nothing.
Martin waited, turning pages without taking them in. His stomach rumbled. After about an hour he got up to rifle his flight bag for one of the granola bars he kept for snacks. He prowled. In a drawer of the bureau, there was a complimentary pad, pen and several envelopes for tips. An thought came to him and he picked them up. He detached the epaulettes from his shirt and held them in his hand, weighing them. The sides of his mouth curled up in a grim smile.
There was a knock. He put the epaulettes aside and answered the door, yawning theatrically. Arthur was there, bag in hand and ready to go. “Skip! We missed you at breakfast, I thought maybe you’d already eaten and Mum sent me collect you. Gosh, are those clouds and little aeroplanes on your pyjama bottoms? I have a set just like those. I bet your husband gave those to you!”
“Uh, yes. He did.” Martin stumbled mentally over the thought that Arthur had the same pair.
“I love mine! Your husband has good taste, doesn’t he?” Arthur beamed. “Ready to go, Skip?”
“Can you give me a little time? I just got up.”
“Wow, you never sleep in. Can you hurry? It’s just that Douglas says there a storm warning.”
“What, the actual weather or Carolyn?”
Arthur shuffled. “Both, I think.”
“Okay, I’ll be right down. Do you think you could get me a cup of coffee? Thanks.”
Carolyn was indeed gusting hard when Martin appeared downstairs. “Martin, we have a schedule to keep! I don’t keep pilots to be decorative aspects of MJN, but to work in a timely manner!”
“Why not?” Martin accepted the cup of coffee and a paper napkin wrapped around two doughnuts from Arthur. “I, um. I think I’m pretty decorative.” In the grand business scheme of things, he was only an unpaid adjunct to MJN’s success, after all. He sipped the bitter brew with a wince.
Douglas chuckled. “Your hat alone adds flare to our drab company.” Martin glared.
“You are a bit like an ornament, Skip!” Arthur said with his usual loyalty. “All pale and small and cute like… like one of those china figurines. Shepherdesses. Sherherders?”
“A slightly rough Beau Peep Brummel,” Douglas commented. “Didn’t my captain have time to shave?”
Carolyn looked displeased. Martin’s ears heated but he bumped Arthur with his elbow. “Thanks, Arthur. You’re ornamental, too.”
“Brilliant! What kind?”
“Yes, what kind?” Douglas wanted to know. Carolyn began chivvying them to the door, impatient with the conversation.
“Suncatcher,” Martin said, then paused. It was true. Arthur wasn’t brilliant, but he spread light and fantastic colours around by his very nature. “You light up MJN.”
“Oh! Sparkly! Thanks, Skip, that’s a really sweet thing to say!” Arthur’s grin was pure sunshine. He nudged Martin back. Martin couldn’t help smiling.
Douglas frowned. “Flirting, Martin? With Arthur? Easy target, isn’t it? And dangerous, considering your marital situation.”
“It’s not dangerous if it’s me!” Arthur protested.
Martin tightened his grip on his cup. “Don’t be jealous, Douglas, just because Arthur thinks I’m more decorative than you.”
“Well, it is Arthur,” Douglas said. Martin’s lips tightened.
In the taxi, Martin found himself edging away from Douglas until he wound up pressed against Arthur. Arthur said nothing but only made comments about the rain and brilliant polar bears. The babble calmed Martin. He freed his hands of coffee and pastries and swallowed a burst of nerves. Here we go. He pulled out the tip envelope and passed it to Douglas.
“Here, b- before I forget.” Martin cursed his stammer.
Douglas took it. “A tip? You shouldn’t have, Martin. For what services rendered did I deserve…” He lifted the flap and stiffened. “These are yours.”
“N- no. No, I don’t think so. They belong to you.” Martin wasn’t able to conceal a trace of bitterness when he added, “They always did.”
“No, I think you’re making a mistake.”
“Me, make a mistake, there’s a good one!” Martin sniped.
Douglas tried to give the envelope back. Martin hastily picked up his coffee. “Arthur, do you want one of my doughnuts?” Douglas scowled at the ploy and flicked the envelope into Martin’s lap. “Douglas!”
“What is going on?” Carolyn said. “Oh, never mind, I don’t care. Whatever squabble or bet you’ve got on, leave it and pay attention. Today’s a full compliment of passengers. Arthur, you’ll…”
Martin stared straight ahead, ignoring Douglas’ eyes on his face.
It pained Martin to do what he did next. When they arrived, he scrambled out of the taxi after Arthur, leaving the envelope with the epaulettes in it on the seat. Douglas snatched the envelope up, face like a thundercloud. “Martin. You forgot this.”
Martin fiddled with his flight bag, not quite able to hold Douglas’ gaze. “They’re not mine. I told you.”
Douglas scowled. “Fine, be that way. I’ll do the walk-around.” He stalked off. Martin blew out a shaky breath and climbed into G-ERTI.
Martin didn’t see Douglas enter the flight deck. He was sitting sprawled in the first officer’s seat, his hat over his face, pretending to take a nap. But he heard him.
“Walk-around’s complete, nothing has fallen off, and - what are you doing?”
The hat was lifted away and Martin blinked up at Douglas’ displeased expression. He shrugged, bringing Douglas’ attention to the bare state of his shoulders. His stomach churned. Ye gods, it was killing him to do this. Still, it was worthwhile for the look on Douglas’ face.
“Haven’t you started the pre-flight checklist?”
Martin rolled his eyes up in thought. “Oh, right. Er. No.”
“No?” Douglas was incredulous.
“You do it.”
“Why? I did the walk-around.”
“Um. You’re the one who strained G-ERTI by dive-bombing polar bears. S- so, you do the list.”
“I shall do no such thing!”
Martin straightened up, his voice heating. “Well, I’m not doing them. So, if you’re comfortable flying in an unchecked plane after the reckless and, and stupid stunts you pulled, go right ahead!"
Douglas considered him. A small smile curved his mouth. Martin stiffened. Here it comes. Brace yourself. Don’t let the voice get to you.
“Oh, but captain,” Douglas purred.
Douglas blinked at the shout. “What?”
“Call me Martin. D- don’t be so formal. I d-don’t need it.” Martin bit his tongue and focussed on Douglas, trying not to sweat. “Or Pilot, or Mister Crieff. It - it doesn’t matter.”
Douglas visibly changed mental gears. “Martin. The thing is, do you feel comfortable, as a pilot, flying in an unchecked plane? Regulations aside.”
Martin wasn’t comfortable with the thought. At all. And Douglas knew it, smile growing wider as Martin squirmed. Douglas pushed again. “It isn’t very professional, after all.”
Martin leapt from his seat as if jabbed and shouldered past Douglas. “Do what you want. You will, anyway.” He fled to the toilet and locked himself in, only coming out when a concerned Arthur asked if he was all right. When he returned to the flight deck, the check list was finished. Douglas was sitting in his own seat.
Martin bit the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning and slid into his seat. “How’s the weather?”
“Sweet, what are you up to these days? You haven’t mentioned how the work situation is going at all.” Eros was worried. It wasn’t like Martin to hold anything back. Eros had worked so hard to gain Martin’s trust and be his comfort and solace, his friend and lover.
Martin’s hand paused in the midst of toying with Eros’ hair. “Why do you ask?”
“Nothing. You’ve been very quiet about the subject,” Eros pursued. “Is there some secret?”
Martin’s fingers resumed combing. “It’s been… all right. Better than before. I’m working on something, yes.”
“Won’t you tell me? Is this to do with why you’ve decided to grow a beard? Not that I’m complaining about that. It’s very decorative and the whisker burn adds a certain piquancy to our activities.”
Martin laughed and bent to rub his cheek against Eros’. “I can’t tell you, not yet. I promise you’ll know when it’s over. I think you’ll like it.”
Eros was dubious but willing. “Have it your way, then, darling. I’m sure you know what you are doing.”
“I hope so, too.”
Their next flight to Sardinia (‘Okay, so it sounds like sardines and gardenia, but I’m pretty sure there’s no such flower, Arthur, thank the gods.’) found Martin late to work and entirely scruffy. His over-long curls were barely restrained by his hat, his tie was missing and his shirt was unbuttoned to his clavicle. Shaving had continued to go by the wayside, which charmed his husband no end. Martin personally thought he looked like a mad artist.
Carolyn had eyed him but said nothing. Now Martin stood shoulder to shoulder with Douglas, hands thrust into pockets as Lord Leverhulme and his family approached. The Lord stepped away and Douglas moved to shake his hand. “A pleasure to have you with us again, Laird. Cave-diving for yourself and yachting for your family? I’m sure you’ll have a splendid time.”
Lord Leverhulme, a stocky man with a shock of white hair and an astonishing grip for someone of his age, nodded and said something. Martin listened, but even when not under the influence of his favourite whiskey, he couldn’t penetrate the lord’s accent. He stepped forward. “Me too. I mean, I’m sure you’ll have a nice trip.” His smile twisted into a grimace as his hand was cordially crushed.
The laird looked Martin up and down and said something in an approving tone. Douglas choked and the laird turned away with speed. “What?” Martin said but before Douglas could reply, the laird was back, dragging a tall young man with a wheat-blond hair. Arthur trailed behind, curious. The laird gestured to Martin and spoke. “What?” Martin said again, bewildered.
Douglas was suspiciously poker-faced. Arthur’s eyes were wide. The young man replied, cheeks scarlet. “Da wants to know if… oh, Da! Odin’s teeth, why do you have to do this to me whenever you find an attractive man? If you’d like to have a cup of coffee with me sometime.”
“Coffee?” Martin yelped at the same time Douglas croaked, “Attractive?”
The laird nodded, white brow lifting. Why not, young man? Isn’t my boy a looker? his expression seemed to say. Ian was - just the sort of Apollonian type that had always been well out of Martin’s usual league.
“Er.” Martin was at a loss. Douglas was no help. Martin could see he was quivering with laughter. Arthur just looked at the laird with hurt puppy eyes. “Hello? My name’s Martin Crieff.”
“Ian Leverhulme,” the man said, shaking his hand. “Nice to meet you, captain.” He grinned an endearing lopsided smile, acknowledging the awkwardness.
“Yes, I am the captain,” Martin said, surprised. “How did you -” He cut himself off.
“Oh, well, it’s obvious,” Ian said. “I mean, just look at you, you look…” He likewise stopped himself speaking further.
The laird rumbled something and Douglas straightened, still smiling. “Yes, the captain does have a certain je ne sais quoi today. Quite… commanding.”
Martin jumped in before matters went any further. “Um. Ian, I would love to… no, no, I mean, I would normally love to but, but I can’t!”
“That’s right, he can’t!” Arthur said. “So you’d better not -”
“What the captain means,” Douglas interjected, “is that he’s married. To an immortal, truth be told.”
“Douglas!” Martin hissed. He turned back to the disappointed Ian. “Yes. It’s, well, I don’t advertise it. Being married to a god! Not the being married part, I don’t want to lead anyone on.” He trailed off, giving up on explaining. “Sorry. Really.” Another time, and I would have tripped over myself to have coffee with you.
“Ah, well, I might have guessed,” Ian sighed. “Pity. Da was right, you’re just my type. Got a good eye, my da.” His eyes drifted from Martin's flaming curls to his stubble and down to the vee of chest revealed by his open shirt. Ian winked. Martin’s face flamed to the roots of his hair. Mouth open, he turned to see Arthur frowning at him and the laird with his brows raised in speculation. Another spate of words flew. Martin looked at Douglas.
“A god, indeed. Yes, my captain is indeed something special,” Douglas supplied. “Too bad for young Ian.”
“How was your flight to Sardinia, darling?” Eros asked. “I’m glad to have you home.” He chuckled. “Sardinia. In my time, it was Sardo. Why mortals had to change it to something that sounds like a fishy flower, I’ll never know.”
“Huh. Weird you should say that, Arthur thought something similar.” Martin shook off the distraction. “It was… interesting.”
Eros hummed in enquiry as he watched red climb Martin’s neck.
“Um. It’s ridiculous. Our client tried to set me up with his son.”
“Was he cute?” Eros asked, tone arch. Martin was so adorable, he thought, the way his nose scrunched up when he wasn’t sure to tell the truth or not.
“Yes, but I wasn’t interested!” Martin said. “I couldn’t, I mean, I would never! Not when I’m in… in… in a relationship, much less married!”
Eros exhaled disappointment quietly. It had almost sounded as Martin were going to say he loved him. Don’t give up hope, he scolded himself. “Thank you, darling. I’m glad you don’t want to give me cause for jealousy.”
“Yes.” Martin’s brow furrowed. “Speaking of jealousy, it was almost as if both Arthur and Douglas were… no, I must have been imagining it.”
“Sweet, please don’t make me wish to smite your coworkers!” Eros joked. “They spend enough time with you as it is!”
Martin reached out and hugged him close, giggling. “You don’t have to worry about that. Trust me.”
“How goes your secret scheme? Can you tell me yet?”
Martin sighed in his ear. “It goes. And not yet. Sorry.”
Arthur was worried. This week had been brilliant! And a bit not brilliant. Arthur loved how Skip was taking time during flights to hang out with him in the galley, chatting and trading turns playing Animal Crossing until Mum shouted them back to work. And it was nice that Skip looked, well, better. Kind of furry and cute. Not so sharp and stiff around the edges like other pilots did in their uniforms. When Douglas had asked whether Martin had slept in his shirt, Martin had said of course he had, did Douglas think wrinkles like this just happened? And Douglas’ face had gone all funny, like he couldn’t think what words to use.
But Douglas had left and Martin had sort of gone all saggy. Arthur hated when people were unhappy, and hadn’t Martin said he was a sparkly ornament? Maybe he could cheer him up, if only he knew what was wrong. Martin was so quiet now. Time to use the special Ipswich training.
He found Martin near G-ERTI. “Hi, Skip! You’re early today! Not that you’re usually not early. Most times you are. But it’s the first time this week! I saw your car. Tea?”
“Yes, well spotted, Arthur.” Martin didn’t sound very welcoming. He accepted the mug Arthur held out but didn’t drink.
Hm. Arthur racked his brain. “You looking forward to today’s flight?”
“We’re on stand-by. Mr Goddard’s kept us waiting two days. Who knows when we’ll fly again?”
“I love flying with you and Douglas. It’s great, isn’t it?” Arthur said. “Still, hanging out in the Portakabin is brilliant too. There’s all the catering stuff to sort, and the papers you and Douglas do, and the word games.” Though there hadn’t been any word games this week. “Are you bored of word games, Skip? ‘Cause Douglas keeps coming up with them, and only me and Mum have played this week. You just keep pretending to sleep or read the flight manuals.”
“No,” Martin sighed. “It’s just… It’s complicated, Arthur.”
“Not that you’re not always brilliant, Skip, but you aren’t as brilliant as you usually are,” Arthur said. “Maybe I can help?” ‘Say something positive, and leave an opening for people to express themselves,’ the trainer at Ipswich had said. “I love helping, you know.”
“I don’t think so, Arthur.” Martin’s shoulders were all hunched. ‘Repressing.’ Or was it depressing?
“Oh, come on, Skip!” Arthur jigged from side to side. “Oh! I know what’ll cheer you up. Wait right here!” He darted off and jogged back with the keys to G-ERTI’s cargo hold. “You want to see something?” He unlocked the hold and gestured. “Look.”
Martin opened the box and stared. “Beer? This is Douglas’, isn’t it. Oh, gods. Douglas is smuggling alcohol? Does he want MJN investigated?” His voice rose.
Oops. Arthur hadn’t meant to upset Skip. “It’s not beer! Well, not real beer.” He pulled a can free. “Look!”
Martin took the can. “Ginger beer? Smuggling ginger bloody beer,” he muttered. “For Hades’ sake, Douglas. You just - you just don’t know when to stop.” He looked Arthur full in the eye. “Arthur…”
“Yes, Skip?” Arthur straightened up. The way Martin was looking at him made him a bit shivery, like Martin was thinking really hard about Arthur. Mum did that too. He did his best to ‘look open for any confidences.’ Martin cleared his throat.
“Arthur, can you keep a secret?”
“Of course, Skip!”
“You remember the polar bear trip? Qikiqtarjuaq?” As if Arthur would ever forget that! He nodded vigorously and Martin went on. “Well, during the flight, both your mum and Douglas - well, they made me… made me unhappy.”
“Oh.” Arthur considered this. “What did they do?”
“I’m not blaming your mum, it’s her plane. Though I think the game of Travelling Lemon was not the best idea. But Douglas…” Martin’s mouth was all pinchy, as if he were remembering something really bad. Like it hurt. “I won’t go into details, but Douglas made me feel like an idiot.”
“Don’t worry about that, Skip,” Arthur consoled. “I feel like that a lot of the time.”
“I can deal with that, Arthur!” Martin said. “But - but he said - well, implied… Anyway. He said I wasn’t a real pilot. Not a p- professional one. And ever since, I just haven’t wanted to go flying anymore.”
Arthur’s brow furrowed with distress. Martin went on, eyes down, “I’m thinking of quitting.”
“Oh, Skip! You can’t! Don’t go - how can I make you stay?” Arthur’s eyes stung. Skip couldn’t leave! He was the best skipper Arthur had known, all nice and clever and funny. “I’ll - I’ll bring you coffee first! I’ll hoover your car! I’ll pray! Give you first crack at the cheese tray always, even before Mum nicks the Camembert!”
“There’s Camembert?” Martin yelped.
“Um, yes, but Mum said I didn’t need to tell you what wasn’t there. Uh.” Arthur flapped his hands. “But Skip, please don’t go! You love flying! And I love having you! That was… that was not brilliant of Douglas to be so mean! Why would he do that?” Arthur sagged. “It makes me feel like when Mum and Dad were arguing and then Mum and I left. And MJN feels like family with you here. Please, Skip.”
Martin looked pained. “I - I don’t know, Arthur. I, uh, haven’t made up my mind yet. But I wanted you to know why I’ve been, well. You know. Thanks for listening. It’s a weight off my mind.”
“I’m glad I helped. A little,” Arthur mumbled. “Wish I could - Oh! I know!” The idea was daring, and a little dangerous and Mum would kill him. But Arthur would dare anything to make Martin happy enough to keep flying and stay. “Fizzball!”
“What?” Martin had jumped at his exclamation.
“That’ll cheer you up! Me and my mates used to play. Well, until I needed stitches that one time.” Martin was looking a bit nervous, so Arthur hastened to explain. “It’s from a brilliant comic called Sam and Max. You use a big stick and someone bowls a can and you bash it!”
“Can of what? That sounds dangerous,” Martin said.
“Oh, you’re supposed to use beer. In the comic you got points for the type of explosion you get when you hit the can, but my friends and I used to make up different rules. You have to try it, Skip. Nothing makes you happy like Fizzball! I’m terrible at sports but even I love Fizzball!”
“Beer?” Martin was starting to look interested.
“Anything fizzy will work, but cheap and evil-smelling beer is best.”
Martin looked at the can in his hand. “Fizzy,” he mused. Arthur almost wriggled with excitement. “Arthur Shappey?”
“Batter up.” Martin grinned. Arthur wanted to cheer..
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