Douglas shook his head at the figure slumped in the co-pilot's seat. "Do I take it that you would prefer not to take our glorious craft way up into the blue, blue sky this morning?"
"If you wouldn't mind," Martin said, with more than a hint of embarrassment. "I just think- it would be fine, of course, but I'm not feeling terribly well this morning."
"No. I can see that." Douglas regarded his captain thoughtfully. There were in his experience three main reasons why a man might emerge from an Amsterdam sleepover looking like hell. He imagined that Martin would consider the ingestion of alcohol or drugs on a night before flying morally equivalent to second degree murder at the least. Which left, unlikely as it seemed, the third.
Except that Martin didn't look like a man who'd had a good time. No... Douglas looked closer. He looked rather more like a man who'd had a good time for several hours and then discovered that he wasn't having a good time after all. Douglas sighed. How like Martin. He say down, flipped a couple of switches. Pre-flight checks.
"That thing on your head, Martin," he started conversationally, "The one at a particularly unjaunty angle this morning. It does have three uses, you know."
"What are you talking about?" the other man enquired, irritably.
"Your hat, man, your Hat. The first and most important is of course to give you that frisson of self importance when you look in the mirror in the morning, without which I have no doubt the knowledge of your inadequacies would have overcome you years ago. The second is to distinguish you from lesser persons such as cabin crew and of course the humble co-pilot so that everyone knows who to blame when the shit hits the proverbial spinning device."
Martin didn't seem exactly hanging on his words but he wasn't going anywhere so Douglas continued.
"But the third purpose of the Hat is to ensure that when we stay at a large hotel almost entirely occupied by other airline staff and you end up making a close acquaintance among non-MJN and doubtless rivetingly attractive cabin crew, you, as the Man with the Hat, are the one who, should there be any loving and leaving to be done, is the one to do it, not the one to whom it is done."
He wondered if Martin was actually up to following the grammar of that sentence. It would have been a pity to have wasted it. For the moment he let it simmer while they got on with the day job.
"It wasn't." Over the English Channel Martin finally seemed to have found his voice.
"Oh?" Now that was interesting. What had Martin been up to? "You do know that Julia Morgan got married six months ago? I got caught in a bar in Troyes with her husband and was bored senseless by the honeymoon snaps."
Martin gave him a look of what was probably intended as disdain but looked more like a stomach ache. "It wasn't Captain Morgan."
"Really? Her co-pilot seems a delightful lady, but, to be honest, I see her more as the motherly type. Or possibly grandmotherly. But it takes all sorts."
"Oh for...no, Douglas. Just no."
"Then you have me baffled, dear boy. You didn't seduce a chambermaid, did you?"
The long silence made him think he'd hit the nail on the head. Disappointingly mundane. Then somewhere over Dover Martin spoke, eyes firmly on his deeply uninteresting instruments.
"For someone who claims to be such a man of the world, you can be remarkably blinkered sometimes, Douglas. There were other pilots staying over last night, you know."
Oh. Oh, indeed! That had come out of clear blue sky, as it were. Martin? Really?
"Well. You are quite right. I clearly made an unwarranted assumption and I apologise." Now he was definitely curious. "So who...?"
"That's really none of your business." Martin was still facing forward, a flush spreading across his neck. "As you so astutely observed, last night could not be considered an unalloyed success. I have no intention of airing my feelings on the matter publicly."
"I barely need to point out that this is a two person aeroplane cockpit with, bizarrely enough, precisely two people in it. Not remotely public."
"Anything that's said to you might as well be announced to the world, Douglas. You'll only use it to embarrass me. I'm not going to discuss it any further."
Douglas was rather hurt. Tease, possibly. Josh, maybe. Embarrass was definitely too strong. And he was capable of perfect discretion.
"I can promise you absolutely that nothing you say will go further than you and l. Come on, Martin. You look like a man who needs to unburden his soul." Martin could, in Douglas's experience, usually be induced to talk about himself fairly easily, which made this hitherto unguessed at revelation all the more surprising.
"Are you really telling me that all that speechlessness in the presence of a pretty woman, or indeed any woman, was just a ruse? Because it was remarkably convincing."
Martin shook his head, clearly resigned to having the conversation now he'd started. "No. It's not that I prefer...it's just easier. You know. I'm no good at talking to women. I never know what to say. I get in a muddle. And if I do somehow manage to ask them on a date they always say no. Men- some men anyway- are simpler. You just let them know you're available and they take you up on it or not."
Douglas wrinkled his nose slightly. "That doesn't sound particularly romantic, if I can say so."
Martin laughed, bitter-edged. "Surely that doesn't surprise you, Douglas? I have the most unromantic existence that it's possible for an airline pilot to have; shabby, desperate and surrounded by people who get their kicks out of laughing at me. Why should you expect my sex life to be any different?"
He sighed heavily. "I've changed my mind. I don't want to discuss this any further and I'd be grateful if you didn't refer to it again. Something starting with C."
"Cloud? Cirrus? Cumulus?" Douglas did as he was told for once, but his mind was racing.
He thought about it some more that night, in the quiet flat he was renting while his latest marriage disintegrated. By the time he was ready to sleep he'd reached a decision.
Next morning Martin was nervously defensive. Douglas urbanely failed to notice, found something entirely different to prickle the man about, and by the end of the week Martin seemed ready to relax, at least as much as he ever did, clearly believing that Douglas had no further interest in the matter.
Few things were further from the truth. Martin really didn't want to talk about it; fine. Douglas would be the soul of discretion. That didn't mean he couldn't make a few quiet enquiries of his own.
Such discreet investigations over the next few weeks led him to a name. Peter Clough. Captain Peter Clough, of the four-plane charter company GoFlyIt, operating out of Liverpool. Late thirties, good looking, with something of a reputation for young men and heartlessness. Douglas knew him by sight, having played a few hands of poker with him but didn't recall ever having anything resembling a conversation with the man. He dropped the name Clough casually one day, saw Martin blanch. Peter Clough it was then. Probably not the only one, but he'd do for starters.
There was a nice girl at GoFlyIt's office who might be prepared to be helpful. Douglas considered various stories to spin, settled on something startlingly close to the truth. A friend of his among the cabin crew at Air England had personal reasons not to want to encounter Captain Clough for the next few weeks. Would it be possible to let him have sight of the man's hotel bookings so he could keep the two of them apart? His friend was really very upset indeed.
Fortunately Janet understood entirely. One of their stewards had just handed in his resignation, and he hasn't been the first. It shouldn't be allowed, really it shouldn't. Douglas agreed and gave her his email address. And if she ever wanted to enquire in person about his friend, Douglas would be delighted to give her a call next time he was in Liverpool and take her for a drink. It never hurt to have options, he thought, transcribing her mobile number into his small black book under L. It wasn't like he was still married to Helena; not meaningfully, anyway.
Janet, bless her, blind copied him into Clough's schedule. The list appeared regularly in his email every week, though after a month or so he suspected the girl had probably forgotten that he was getting them. It was a tedious wait; charter flights went all over the place and there were far too many ways in which two pilots could miss each other overnight. Douglas was keenly interested in Martin's demeanour whenever there were other flight staff around, but Martin showed no signs of being anything but his normal self, which was to say obsessive, clumsy and over-defensive.
There had been one hotel in Benidorm and a chap who seemed remarkably eager to listen to Martin's interminable flying stories, but Douglas couldn't work out if he was just another aeroplane geek. Martin had been in a reasonably sanguine mood the next day, so Douglas had classified the encounter as harmless, if indeed anything had occurred at all.
It was about four months after Douglas started getting the schedules through that he finally found a possible point of intersection. It meant getting a couple of their own trips swapped round, but Douglas wasn't going to let the small matter of Carolyn's clients get in his way. On Tuesday morning they waited an hour or so on the runway for the stag party to Madrid, only for Carolyn to come storming into the cockpit, absolutely livid.
"Would you believe it? I changed the date, they said. I did! As if I don't know when my plane is chartered! Bunch of lousy drunkards! Tomorrow, apparently, but we can't fit them in of course because Thursday you're taking that equipment out to Durban and that has a deadline which we have promised to meet. I shall never get them to pay the balance up. If there is any justice in the world, which there isn't, obviously, he'll get left at the altar, at phenomenal expense, because Soon to be Mrs Idiot can't read a calendar either!"
She sighed, winding down. "At least I got a deposit. Get out of my plane. I'm not paying you to look out of the window. I suppose you'd better come back on Thursday."
Douglas shook his head sympathetically. "That's customers for you. What a shame we have to lose the job. Though I suppose..." He trailed off, thoughtfully.
"Don't trail off thoughtfully, Douglas. It doesn't fool anyone.
Tell me how I'm going to keep my horrible clients and their delightful money."
"Well, it might be worth checking if the farming equipment is ready to ship. It could probably be stored in Durban airport for a couple of days if we took it out today. Reschedule the Madrid run for tomorrow afternoon and we'd still have over 12 hours between flights. It might cost a bit extra, but your idiots won't find another charter flight for tomorrow easily. I'm sure the adminstration fee for their mix-up would cover that, with enough to spare to pay for a decent hotel in Madrid, for a change."
Carolyn looked thoughtful. "That's a good idea. Not the hotel, of course; there's nothing wrong with the El Pais; even real airline staff use it. Close to broke real airlines, obviously, but still. I'll find out about the cargo, get back on the phone to Clueless, and talk to Durban. I'm still not paying you to sit up here though. Get me a flight plan for Durban then come down and hang around waiting patiently for orders at your own expense."
"Thank you, Douglas. Have a bonus." Douglas murmured at the retreating back, for Martin's benefit, ensuring that no hint of real satisfaction got through. That had all gone rather well.
Oddly enough, the equipment was ready to ship, almost as if the client had been anticipating the earlier date. The stag party continued tenaciously to argue that someone from MJN Airlines had switched dates, but after Carolyn had been ferocious at them for at least an hour and a half they gave up and agreed an extra fee that had her positively jovial all the way to Durban. Fortunately after a run in with the airport warehouser that wore off leaving no perceptible trace.
The trip to Madrid was as uneventful as shepherding a dozen drunk men across Europe was ever likely to be. Douglas had thought about finding a pretext for leaving Carolyn behind, but they'd taken stag parties before and the image of what might hapen to Arthur, stewarding unchaperoned, was too messy to contemplate. Martin seemed relatively blithe, but then he hasn't seen the GoFlyIt schedule. Douglas was quietly anticipatory.
Madrid airport was fortunately huge, and not all the charter flights got put together. By the time Carolyn signed them in at El Pais Douglas was pretty sure that Martin was still unaware of the presence of his nemesis.
"I'm taking Arthur out to see some Culture." Carolyn announced. "Being pilots, you won't have any idea what that is and I am not interested in widening your horizons. Do whatever it is pilots do when gathered in aimless drifting flocks and don't even think of putting any of it on room service or I will switch off your airconditioning and leave you to die like those dessicated cattle that you see on the news. Four pm tomorrow, sharp."
"Have a pleasant evening yourself, Carolyn. See you tomorrow afternoon. Eight pm in the bar, Martin?"
"Twenty hundred hours, check. They do semi-decent tapas here, I seem to remember."
"Rather more of the semi than the decent, but it's too hot to go looking for anywhere better. Semi-decent will have to do."
By seven thirty Douglas and a glass of orange juice were ensconced in a corner of the bar with a good view of both entrances. Ten minutes later Captain Peter Clough, spotless in open cotton shirt, came in, on his own.
Douglas downed the orange juice swiftly, joined the man at the bar. "Peter, isn't it? Still with that charter outfit? Let me get this one, and I'll win the price off you later."
"You'll end up paying twice over that way." Clough glanced at his watch. "We're not flying till late morning; plenty of time for a whiskey. Thanks."
By the time Martin appeared Clough was well in his stride and Douglas's view of him as an arrogant prick were confirmed several times over. He'd stopped even trying to keep his flattery subtle; Peter took it all as his due.
"Ah, Martin!" Douglas lifted a hand. "Over here! Have you met Captain Martin Crieff, Peter?"
Martin slowed as he saw who Douglas was sitting with. "I think I've forgotten..."and he started to turn back.
"Martin!" Douglas was firm. "Come and meet a fellow charter captain."
"Oh, I know Captain Crieff!" Clough's voice was well on the way to a sneer. "Like a bad penny, aren't you, Martin? Always turning up where you're not wanted." It could have been a joke, if Douglas hadn't seen Martin's face.
Martin swallowed, "Douglas. I came down to say I've got...I've got stuff. Stuff. Tonight. Now. Right now, in fact. Very important stuff."
Douglas had no intention of making Martin stay. He waved a casual hand. "Fine. Off you go. I was about to suggest to Peter that we go out to find some decent food anyway." 'Peter' was a good name for this; one could purr it, slowly.
And dear but that was Martin's absolute worst kicked expression. Douglas turned his head back to Clough, apparently indifferent. "I've got the number for a quiet place round the corner, tapas to die for. Shall I make it a table for two?"
Clough was watching Martin's stiff legged, stumbling retreat. " Sounds great, Doug. How on earth do you put up with that idiot?"
"He has his uses," Douglas drawled. "I find the trick is to make sure that he isn't in a position to talk." And Peter's unpleasantly knowing laugh, he decided, sealed it.
"What the...?" Peter Clough ripped off the silk tie around his eyes, glared at Douglas reclining on the double hotel bed.
"Word of advice." Douglas slid the camera back into his jacket pocket. "In my considerable experience, if two people are in a hotel room and only one is naked..." He raised an eyebrow. "Sorry, almost naked. The hat really does look quite ridiculous, by the way. And the other is fully clothed, it's the one still dressed that has been calling the shots. Literally, in this case. Do feel free to put some trousers on. I can assure you that thing's not nearly as attractive as you seem to believe."
"Are you trying to blackmail me?" Clough grabbed his trousers.
"In this day and age? Perish the thought. You've done nothing illegal or or immoral, after all. Should these photographs come into circulation what would happen? You wouldn't lose your job, or make the papers. No-one would even be remotely surprised."
Douglas swung his feet off the bed and stood up. "They'd just laugh. I thought maybe one a month; that would take us into 2013."
"What do you want?" Peter was sullen.
"I want you to leave Martin Crieff alone. And I want you and your friends to be civil to and about him. That's all."
He smiled at the captain. "But I'm not unreasonable. You can say anything you like about me."
He was still smiling as he walked out.
Martin was sulky at breakfast. Douglas got him a large black coffee and pretended not to notice.
"Where's your friend?" Martin muttered, eventually.
Douglas shrugged. "Avoiding us, hopefully. Thoroughly dull little man." He shook his head. "Seems they'll make anyone a captain these days."
"You were friendly enough last night," Martin accused.
"I'd heard a rumour of a vacancy coming up in GoFlyIt. Checking out the territory."
"And was there one?" Martin sounded alarmed at the idea.
"No. Crossed signals. Didn't stop me wasting half the evening with that idiot." He couldn't quite resist a small dig. "He's got a reputation as a charmer but honestly anyone remotely intelligent would see past him straight away."
To which Martin could apparently only nod.
Three weeks later they were back in Amsterdam., with no GoFlyIt planes in evidence. Douglas went out for a meal with a couple of Air England friends, skipped the bar in favour of an early night. He'd sorted out Martin's little problem; his captain didn't need watching any more.
Douglas was woken by a quiet but insistent hammering on his door. Just past 1 am. He dragged the door open.
"Martin! Anything wrong?"
"You could say that." The younger man pushed past him. "Just close the door, please." His voice was shaking.
Douglas had a sudden unpleasant image. "Lord, has someone done something to you?"
Martin's look was pure venom. "No, Douglas. No-one has 'done' anything to me. What I want to know is what you said to Clough?"
Oh. Shit. Douglas feigned confusion. "Clough? Oh, the GoFly guy. Haven't seen him since Portugal. Was it Portugal? Somewhere hot, anyway."
"Bullshit!" Martin's voice was high and wobbly. "What did you tell him, Douglas? What were you really doing with him?"
Douglas sat down on the bed. So Martin had found out. It wasn't the end of the world."
"Very well. I took him out so I could tell him to leave you alone. I didn't tell you because I thought you might find it embarrassing."
"Embarrassing!" Martin's voice went up to a squeak. He took a couple of breaths, trying to calm himself. "It's a little more than embarrassing but you probably just find that funny, don't you? You don't care what you've done to my life?"
Douglas shook his head. "Find what funny?" This seemed an extreme reaction to a bit of help.
"Like you don't know." Martin was bitter.
"I don't. You didn't want anything to do with Clough and his friends, did you? For God's sake, Martin, you can do better than that."
"Not any more, I can't," Martin's voice was shaking again. "Word is out there. Martin Crieff's dating his co-pilot and the guy's got serious jealousy issues."
Douglas fought not to laugh, failed.
"I'm sure my pathetic travesty of a social life amuses you enormously," Martin hissed, "but you have just single-handedly ensured that I will never get laid again. Thank you very much, Douglas!" And he stalked out.
Silence. Douglas sighed, tried again. Martin hadn't spoken to him on the way back from Amsterdam, except where absolutely necessary. Two days later they were on their way to Toronto and the trip was going the same way.
"Look, Martin, it's simple. We just need to break up."
"All right, I'll say it. It's not you, it's me. We've grown apart. I just need my own space..."
He saw the twitch of the mouth, but only for a fraction of a second. "Very funny." Martin snapped. "Is it too much to expect you to take this at all seriously?"
"Yes, actually, it Is. Half Europe's aviation industry apparently think that you and I.... please tell me I get to be on top, at least. I've never really fancied the alternative."
Martin was frowning at him. "You've never fancied...you've never slept with a man? Really? I thought you'd done everything."
Douglas shrugged, oddly self-conscious. "No." It had never seemed like an admission before.
"No, of course not. Red blooded heterosexual that you are. You'll have to find some way of restoring your reputation from the taint of queer."
The anger in Martin's voice had been replaced by that bleak desperate assessment that Douglas had only ever heard from him two or three times in the years he'd known him. His own anger was suddenly sharp with everyone who has ever forced their way past Martin's good nature to leave this behind.
"My reputation can only be enhanced. I am after all sleeping with the company's senior captain. You're the one slumming it with the lower ranks." He grinned at Martin. "In fact, I think maybe we should give this relationship another try."
"What do you mean?"
"Give me a month before you cruelly cast me aside. In four weeks time I'll have turned this to the advantage of both our reputations and engineered a graceful exit."
Martin was staring at him. "We can't go out together for a month!"
"Why not? I don't suggest we make a big thing of it on Gertie. Carolyn would not approve. I imagine Arthur would be ecstatically happy for us, which is even more frightening. But the odd appearance in the bar...I can do something with that, if you're game."
Douglas had not the remotest idea how he was going to come out of appearing to sleep with Martin, of all people, with any credibility whatsoever, to be honest. He might well have to emigrate to South America and change his name. But he'd interfered once and appeared to have screwed it up badly. He couldn't think of any way to extricate himself directly from this mess without leaving bloodied strips of Crieff to the airline hyenas.
Martin was looking at him now with growing hope. "I suppose we could do that." And, hurriedly. "I would expect still to get the respect due to your captain at all times."
"Not lessened a jot," Douglas assured him. "Of course, being the captain, I imagine you'll be taking me out to dinner in Toronto. Somewhere nice."
It never hurt to give Martin something to fuss about. By the time they landed they'd be going halves on a pizza as usual but there were another six hours to go, and Douglas had to entertain himself somehow. He tipped his chair back, stretched his legs and watched his temporary imaginary boyfriend splutter. It was going to be an interesting month.
"This isn't working!"
"Relax, Martin." Douglas squeezed his shoulder once, reassuringly. "It's working fine."
"No it isn't. We just both look ridiculous and...erk!"
It had just occurred to Douglas that he now had the perfect way of shutting Martin up. He pinned his captain against the wall of the bar and pressed cool lips up to Martin's open mouth, held him there for a few seconds and let go.
"That definitely worked," he said, with satisfaction. Half the people in the bar were watching them open mouthed. "Shall we make a dignified exit at this point? Yes? Goodnight then, Captain."
A couple of nights later he had the chance to repeat the process in Berlin. Twice. Martin seemed to have accepted the necessity of the disguise; if he realised that Douglas was doing it to silence him he didn't admit it. Douglas just thought it was wonderfully effective.
Which was why the fourth time it was in the deserted plane. Martin was fussing about paperwork and what Douglas had failed to do with it. Without thinking much Douglas pushed him up against the back of the cockpit and kissed him quiet.
Martin froze for a few seconds then pushed him away. "Douglas!" His voice was shrill. "What are you doing! There's no-one here!"
Oh. No, there wasn't, was there? Whoops. He raised an eyebrow, coolly. "Keeping in character. Very important to the success of any long term deception."
"Not while we're working. Absolutely not! It's deeply unprofessional, Douglas. If we really were then it would be even worse. As your captain I absolutely have to put my foot down at this point. No." Martin's voice had got faster and faster.
"All right! Calm down. It's only a game."
"i know that," Martin snapped. "Just behave with some decorum for once. One of us at least has some professional standards!" He turned back to the paperwork. "As I was saying..."
Douglas laughed to himself silently and bore the rest of Martin's fussing with equanimity.
"You're really not trying, are you, Martin? Come on. You're dating Douglas Richardson now, lucky dog that you are. Men and women cry into their pillows every night dreaming about your good fortune. Put a little more conviction into it."
He'd slipped his arm around his reluctant partner as they sat in a dark corner of the hotel bar and had just had his stagy efforts to snatch a kiss foiled. Heaven help his reputation if anyone was watching that. Rebuffed by Martin Crieff, for heaven's sake!"
"Conviction?" Martin hissed. "I'm not trying? Come on, Douglas, you're the one behaving like a shy sixteen year old."
"What are you talking about? I'm the one who..." He was cut off abruptly by Martin's mouth and, a second later... God, that was a hot tongue pushing between his lips. Hell with that; he was not going to be outdone by Martin! He wrapped a hand around the back of the man's head and applied thirty years of experience to kissing his captain extremely deeply and thoroughly back again.
Martin made a muffled noise and grabbed Douglas's knee, tight. He could beat that one; his free hand dived down to close around a surprisingly shapely buttock, tugged their bodies close together. A second to register that they were both actually rather enjoying this before Martin punched him hard in the chest, struggled up and away.
Douglas let him go, sat back, picked up his drink. That was...unexpected. He had some thinking to do.
A couple of hours later he was knocking on Martin's hotel room door.
"Go away, Douglas!" came faintly from inside. He knocked louder. "Open the door, Martin. We don't want a scene in the corridor, do we?"
The door was yanked open. Despite it being well after midnight, Martin was still fully dressed. He looked rough; puffy eyed and pale. Douglas was uncomfortably reminded of that morning in Amsterdam.
"You don't know why I'm here, yet."
Martin sighed. "Douglas. You've decided that you're curious about gay sex after all, and since I'm clearly desperate for it, you think you might as well come round here and experiment. "
Oh. Douglas found himself cringing inwardly.
Martin shook his head at the silence. "There are one or two areas of life, Douglas, in which I do have more experience than you. Go away and we'll pretend this never happened." He shut the door, firmly.
True to his word, Martin said nothing next day. They took a cargo for Edinburgh, played a bit of Air Control bingo, had an argument about whether cockroaches were really immune to radiation and agreed that there was nothing worth watching on the TV that evening. Just before they needed to start landing procedures Douglas took his chance.
"Fitton Odeon is showing The Aviator tonight."
"Oh." Martin's hand was on the com switch.
"Would you like to see it?"
The hand dropped. "What?"
"And maybe a meal, afterwards?" Douglas deliberately deepened his voice. "Somewhere quiet, with no-one at all watching us, for a change. My flat, for instance."
"Are you asking me on a date, Douglas?" Martin sounded cautious.
"Isn't that how it's done? As compared to, for instance, turning up in your hotel room uninvited in the early hours, which no gentleman would dream of doing."
"No, they wouldn't. We're working, Douglas. We should be focussing on the job. Ask me when we're off shift."
"Very well. I will." He didn't have much doubt of the answer, now. He glanced over at Martin talking his way calmly through an exchange with Control, cheeks unblushed. Apparently he'd just found the one thing in the world that didn't throw Martin Crieff into a tailspin. Who'd have thought it?
It promised to be an extremely interesting evening indeed. Evening, and maybe night, and probably nothing more- Douglas thought, recent experience notwithstanding, that women were almost certainly more his thing- but Martin knew that. He doubted that they'd fall out about it.
Of course there was still the small matter of his reputation. Still, he'd fix that, somehow. There was always a way of fixing things, after all. He sat back in his seat and smiled at Martin. "Let's get this girl on the ground then, and then you can show me how to fly."
"Don't try that smooth stuff on me, Richardson," Martin retorted, "I've known you far too long for that," but he was laughing. Which was definitely, overall, a win for Douglas. As one might, after all, expect.