"Douglas, do you have--" Martin paused as he stepped onto the flight deck and looked around. There were piles of books stacked beside and behind their seats. "Dictionaries?"
"As a matter of fact," Douglas replied smoothly, "I do have dictionaries."
"I can see that. I think the question is why."
"They seemed like the perfect gift for a friend who felt his vocabulary was lacking."
"Having difficulty understanding Arthur's cabin address doesn't mean my vocabulary is lacking," Martin said snippily. "And two dozen dictionaries is stretching the joke too far."
"Then it's fortunate that they aren't for you."
Martin frowned. "They're not for Arthur, are they?"
"No. It would be cruel and unusual punishment to inflict Arthur with a dictionary on passengers. We all remember the Word-a-Day calendar."
"The day he used calamity?" Martin asked, grimacing.
"I was actually thinking of plunge. Although inscrutable was also memorable."1
"Nobody's meal should be inscrutable," Martin agreed. "But that doesn't explain the dictionaries. Oh, unless they're another 'gift' for a long-lost friend. But dictionaries, Douglas? Really?"
"There is a friend of mine that is particularly fond of them, as strange as it sounds." There was a pause, as ominous as all of Douglas's pauses. "Although I'm sure we could think of something stranger."
"Hmm," Martin mused, trying to think of a good example.
Douglas gave him a disbelieving look. "You've flown pianos around the country and given your boss a fishcake covered in lit cigarettes for her birthday. How can you have difficulty citing an example of strangeness in your life?"
"It was only the one piano," Martin corrected primly, "and there were extenuating circumstances. Although you acting like an utter clot is probably one of the strangest things I've witnessed."
"We agreed not to talk about that."
Martin nodded, because they had. Douglas had paid for the fuel and confessed to Carolyn, and Martin had surrendered bragging rights. Jet fuel wasn't cheap, so he'd had to decide between having something to hold over Douglas's head or being able to eat for the next year. It hadn't been an easy decision.
"You really can't think of something stranger?" Douglas asked, raising an imperious eyebrow.
"I'm trying, I'm trying."
"What about Herc's new car?" Douglas suggested, in the tone of someone desperate to gossip maliciously. It was his default tone when it came to Herc.
"What about it?"
Douglas grinned, the particular smarmy grin that was usually reserved for Berling Day. "You didn't see it? Last Tuesday?"
"I was busy."
"We were on standby. You were literally being paid to sit around and do nothing."
"I was reading the updated safety protocols as required by regulation. As you could have been doing."
"I assume they haven't changed the basics. Keep the plane in the air, try not to hit any mountains?"
Martin sighed. By now, he should know better than to try making Douglas do something he didn't want to do. Reading detailed, long-winded regulations that even Martin found a little dull was never going to happen. "Essentially. Although they didn't specifically mention mountains."
"Be a lot easier to read if they did. But back to the salient point: Herc's car. Herc's brand new, Alfa Romeo, midlife crisis sports convertible is pink. Not a pale, tasteful pink, the blush of a rose or the first hint of dawn. No, it's the bright neon colour associated with highlighters and bad 80s fashions," Douglas said, and then told him of the big reveal and Carolyn’s reaction.2
“He bought a brand new car to drive Carolyn around in something she’d hate?”
“Probably had to pay extra for the paint,” Douglas agreed wonderingly. Douglas disliked looking ridiculous far too much to pay money for it. “Barbie pink is hardly a standard colour.”
"I think that only proves that Carolyn and Herc are very strange," Martin said after a moment.
"And perfect for each other. It would be cruel to inflict them on anyone else." It was a badly kept secret that Douglas was a romantic, even if his tone was snide. Douglas was the walking personification of sarcasm and self-interest, but he also had a protective streak three miles wide, especially when it came to Arthur. For all the smarm and arrogance, he could be very charming and unexpectedly kind, until he ruined it with scheming ulterior motives and a pathological need to win.
He was definitely the strangest thing in Martin's life.
Martin might have been staring, because Douglas gave him an odd look. "Still stuck for an example of strangeness?"
"I can think of one thing," Martin said, realising he was probably about to do something extremely stupid. Or brilliant. Or brilliantly stupid. It was hard to tell. "It's more of an action than a story."
Douglas gave an impatient hand wave. "Go on."
Martin was suddenly glad Carolyn was stuck in traffic. Otherwise, they'd be flying by now and he couldn't...
He pushed himself forward and landed a kiss right on Douglas's mouth.
Either Douglas had been expecting it or he reacted very quickly. He slid one hand around Martin's shoulder and raised the other to Martin's cheek. With a warm, dry palm cupping Martin's jaw, he guided the kiss into something that left Martin breathing hard when he pulled back.
"Falling for my charms isn’t strange," Douglas said, sounding more self-satisfied than any human being should. "It's predictable."
"Me, easily getting what I want? Strange."
Douglas raised an eyebrow at Martin's giddy tone. "Not easily. We've got an eleven-hour flight ahead of us. Your bad timing is also predictable."
"I'm not the one with a friend waiting for dozens of dictionaries."
"Help me unload them," Douglas said, voice warm as ulterior motives dovetailed, "and I'll make it worth your while."
Martin tried not to grin. He almost succeeded. "How?"
"I'll think of something,” Douglas promised. “Assuming Carolyn eventually arrives and we finally take off."
Martin sighed in frustrated agreement. "Did you hear about Arthur's dressage debut?"
Douglas grinned. "Tell me all." 3