Chapter 1: First Date
It took a lot of nerves for Henry to ask Martin out to dinner. He stammered his way through an offering of a date, his hands sweaty and shaking as he talked, setting himself up for rejection with every word he managed to pronounce. Even with the buzz of euphoria (He said yes! He said yes!), this was soon followed by the distressed realisation that he had absolutely no idea about how to go about what was apparently to everyone else such simple social protocol.
Their first date is middle of the road by most stretches of the imagination. Not that it doesn't work out: Martin stands awkwardly in a smart shirt and jeans at the time they set, and Henry thinks he looks amazing, tugging on his own cuffs and feeling inadequate, but when they're seated his nerves disrupt his speech every time his brain calls attention to the fact that he is out on a date with the pilot across from him, his sentences stuttering into each other, giggling anxiously at his own jokes and beating himself up on the inside after every comment (Nice hair?! Nice hair, what the hell were you thinking saying that, you stupid, stupid...). He can tell Martin's as about as wound up as he is; the pilot keeps running his hands through hair, laughing too loudly and a wary tenseness to his posture, as though he expects someone to shout 'April Fools!' at any given moment, eyes darting towards the door for a quick escape should his prophecy come true.
Reservations aside, they manage to make comfortable conversation aside from the perfunctory small talk, and Henry's pleased that they both can relax over talk of flying and aeroplanes, Martin perking up and discussing avidly different types of light aircraft, while Henry interjects with his own preferences. He knew Martin was a pilot of course, and he himself is a fan of planes, especially of older historic models like Lancaster Bombers and Spitfires, but he finds that half the pleasure of the topic is seeing Martin's face flush with excitement, the lines around his eyes crinkling as he makes grand gestures with his hands to add to his argument. He knocks over the salt cellar at one point, immediately halting his demonstration with a look of embarrassment and self-horror, but Henry quickly saves the situation by claiming the cellar as a casualty of warfare, and they both laugh and mimic bomber squadrons with their hands before someone shushes them for being too noisy and they can't help giggling at how childish that was.
They both agreed at the start of the meal that it might be better if they both paid for their own meals, and Martin readily agreed. He orders small and light however, claiming when asked that he isn't really that hungry (although Henry would never have thought it looking at him, skinny as a rake like he was), and shakes his head vehemently when Henry offers to get him something extra. Henry maybe thinks Martin just doesn't want to have to stay any longer than he has to, but as the night goes on, he doubts it somehow; they get on well, and mishaps aside with the seasoning, the night flows by with good conversation, a glass of wine and a water for Martin.
It feels like it's not long before they're putting their coats on to head back home, stepping outside the door of the restaurant. Henry's only in Fitton for a couple of weeks on business, staying at a B&B, so hopes that the darkness of the streets coupled with that one glass of alcohol wont stop him finding his way back to his lodgings.
“Well...” Henry starts gawkily, scuffing his newly polished shoes on the pavement, wishing his trousers had real proper pockets so he could burrow his hands down away from the cold. “I had a-a nice night Martin, thank you.”
The pilot flushes under a street light. “Yeah. Me too. Better than expected. I mean – not that I wasn't expecting a nice night, course not, just it was nicer than I had hoped for.”
“We could go back to your place for coffee?” Henry says, then blanches.“I-I-I mean actual coffee, not that weird euphemism for sex people use in films, although if you wanted to, not that I'm asking of course, just if you were interested, but not if we both mean just coffee-coffee, 'cause then we'd just have coffee-coffee and it wouldn't be anything to do with sex, and oh bugger, I'm really making a mess of this aren't I?”
Martin smiles faintly, and touches his arm, clunkily patting it in what is meant to be a comforting action, as though he's been running through the motions of how to establish minor physical contact in his head before actually doing so.
“That'd be nice.” he mumbles self-consciously. “Just... my flat's not the best place...it's a bit...” he scrunches his face up like he's trying to figure out how to word something before he simply blurts out: “It's getting renovated see... so there's all sorts of dust and paints and things like that. Not very good for coffee. It'll end up tasting like plasterboard.”
It doesn't occur to Henry that the man might be ashamed of where he lives. He laughs too high-pitched and bites his lip, the conversation suddenly drying up, silence lingering for a couple of seconds too long to be natural, until he finally manages to say:
“Well, I guess I'll see you again?”
Martin nods fervently, reminding Henry of one of those nodding dogs that you stick on the dashboards of cars, only with a mop of curly ginger hair instead. “I-I'd like that. I'll call if you like? We can meet up again?”
Henry nods, then strays for a moment, rocking on his feet, wondering if this is the point when he should kiss Martin goodbye, not quite sure how to go about it. Is he meant to just go for the cheek? – oh but what if he misses and kisses him on the lips, and that would be too forward, wouldn't it, and that'd make this so much mortifying than it need be. In the end, he gives up, and waving the pilot a goodnight, starts back to the B&B a couple of streets away, thinking Oh god, I am such an idiot to think this might have worked out.
He doesn't expect Martin Crieff to ring him back. Definitely not to clumsily make enquiries about another date.
But he does.
The second date, in contrast to the first, is much better. They go to a movie, and afterwards, they hop over the gates of the park, and they lie on the cold grass, Henry tracing out the constellations he recognises from his night-watching back in Dartmoor, Martin repeating the name of every star with a quiet sort of reverence.
And, when they actually both pluck up the courage to kiss, it becomes – as Arthur Shappey would put it – actually quite brilliant.
Chapter 2: Part 1, The Brother
There's a knock on the door one Saturday in summer. Henry shifts in Martin's hold, arching his back slightly to stretch out, and shuffles across closer to his human pillow, burrowing into what corners he finds, snuffling a sleepy 'morning love'. Martin simply groans in a guttural half-awake sound of dissatisfaction, and makes a sleep-deprived version of 'go away' to whoever is at the door, more a burble of sound than anything else, but the intent behind it is clear. That done, he resumes his former position, namely with all of his limbs wrapped around whatever part of Henry he can find in a form of unconscious clingy possessiveness not unlike an octopus. Henry however is used to this enough by now, having stayed over at Martin's enough weekend's to have started to miss the invasion of space when the pilot isn't asleep beside him, and smiles contentedly, feeling slender fingers threading through his ruffled hair.
“If they think I'm getting out of bed at this hour with such a gorgeous man next to me...” Martin buries his head into the nook of Henry's shoulder, snuffling the rest of his words, not quite up to finishing his sentences yet at such an hour of the morning.
“You flying today?” Henry asks. He hasn't yet met the elusive crew of MJN air, but it's the only people he would imagine are paying a visit. The landlord has a distinctive tap-tap-bang-bang knock he does, the severity of the bangs indicating the rate of rent that is yet to be paid, and the students, rare as their visits are, never knock. Henry's found that out on more than one slightly awkward occasion.
The knock comes again, insistent, a bang-bang-bang, followed by a voice.
“Wakey wakey Marty! You just going to leave me waiting out here on the landing?”
The first thing Henry notices with a detached sort of interest is that the caller said 'Marty'. No one he is aware of calls the pilot 'Marty'. The man hates it as a nickname with a scowling unexplained dislike, quick to correct anyone who would try to use it as a diminutive, and it sounds jarring, not bad per se, but like it's not really referring to the lanky young man next to him, like it's meaning someone else.
The second thing Henry notices – because really it would be hard not to – is that Martin stiffens, his entire body stilling as though mimicking wood or a deer in headlights, before he is bolting out of bed with an unnatural speed and roughness, jostling Henry and throwing the covers back as his feet hit the ground.
“Shit.” Martin makes a panicked whimper in his throat. He swears again, and it must be bad, because he rarely swears at anything that isn't serious (Henry's learned to judge the scale of disasters by the level of expletives that Martin uses: 'damn' is burnt the toast bad, moving up through 'for god's sake' (losing his van keys yet again) and 'bloody hell' (accidents brought on by his inherent clumsiness, like tripping over his own feet and banging his shins on the side of the bed). 'Shit' it seems, is some level of apocalypse akin to losing one of GERTI's wings.)
This panicked Martin is a newer version that Henry's never experienced. His skin isn't flushed and reddening like the slow tidal wave of colour that usually washes up his cheeks in a crisis, and he's not shouting out his distress; if anything, his voice is strained but altogether too quiet, compressed down with great difficultly. Henry would definitely rather have the usual Martin back, because this new one is too strange with its differences, drained pale so his freckles are even more prominent, wringing his hands like he's trying to clean them on the air, bouncing on his feet as though he's weighing up which direction to bolt in. “Maybe if we're quiet, he won't know we're in, he might think we aren't here....”
“I know you're in there Marty!” the voice shouts again. It's almost teasing. “Your students said you were up here.”
“C-c-coming.” Martin shouts back to the door, and then throws his hands up in distress, holding his hair in his hands, clumps of ginger curls in his fists, a paroxysm of near terror on his face. He stutters to find the right words, eventually regressing to just swearing again before his brain can kick in with actual speech. “Shit... shit, shit, what am I going to do? Y-You've got to hide, or leave, or... I don't know, vanish, just... you can't be here... Oh god, shit, shit.”
“Why?” Henry's sat up now and wide awake, manoeuvring himself so his legs are dangling over the side of the bed. Any hopes for a Saturday morning lie-in have evaporated with the good mood, and now his main concern lies with his boyfriend, who is pacing in short lines and half circles and paling faster every second, his breathing close to hyperventilating. “What it is? What's wrong?”
“Oh god, it – it's Simon...Simon, my brother, and I never, I never thought he'd even think to come here....He never visits, never, ever, so why now? Why today? ...And oh god, he doesn't know, doesn't know I'm.... a-a-and he's going to find out, and he can't...”
Martin appears to be in the first stages of an oncoming seizure, all trembling hands and the negative shaking of his head as though to deny his own current reality. Granted, the pilot's never been the most stable of characters when it comes to stress, liable just like Henry is to bouts of overriding nervousness when out of his depth, but he's never seen the man so agitated, like he wants suddenly to do nothing other than melt into the plasterboard walls, secrete himself in a small crevice to hide from his brother.
Henry simply does what comes naturally, not quite sure what else he can do to fix this (He only knows he wants Martin to feel safe, to smile at him goofily like he always does, like Henry is the centre of their own small universe, not look like he does now, eyes wide with an inexplicable sort of fear, his words just short of babbling nonsensically in panic).
He stands up from his seated position, placing both his hands on Martin's shoulders; partly to ground him from his erratic motions of moving this way and that, to force him to stand still for simply one moment so they can work this out, so that Henry can help him; partly to reassure him with the contact of another human being inter-cutting his frantic internalizing.
Martin does thankfully slow down, eyes whirling round to meet his boyfriend's, half frightened and half beseeching (and that desire to help, to protect, to be there for the pilot strengthens, billows up, disparate strands of affection plaiting together to forge something stronger. Because Martin does not have to face whatever this is alone, does not have to because Henry will not let him, not now he is here for him).
“He doesn't know you're in a relationship with a man?” Henry murmurs slowly, testing to see if he has guessed correctly. Martin hangs his head, nods miserably.
“I never told my family I was gay.” he whispers. “They wouldn't...wouldn't have approved.”
His stricken face reminds Henry of himself for a moment. Standing in the clearing of the moor, eddies and tides of mist swirling around his ankles, dampening the hems of his trousers, his feet planted on boggy ground not out of choice but out of terror. Steeling himself for something to reach out of the shadows, all teeth and red eyes, some monster to lunge at him without being able to do anything to stop it. Martin has the same frozen look, like a man before the firing squad awaiting his own execution. It is breaking Henry's heart.
The door knocks again, impatient now.
Someone saved Henry from his demons. Brought them out into the clear light of day to see what they really were, that there was nothing to be frightened of, that it could be defeated.
And now Henry will do the same for Martin.
“I can hide if you want me to.” he says quietly, moving in close and meeting Martin's eyes, “I will, if it makes you happy. But do you want to be doing this all your life? Hiding from the things you're frightened of?” (Henry thinks of dark moors, and his father screaming, and the panting, growling breaths of the hound bearing down on him) “Or do you want to face them, right here, with me?”
“I-” Martin glances around wildly. “I-I don't know...”
“Are you ashamed of me Martin?” Henry asks suddenly. There is no volume in his words. No anger or interrogation, it's not demanding anything. The pilot frowns, surprised at the frankness of the question, evidently confused but understanding seeping gradually into his expression.
When Henry asks whether he is ashamed of him, he does not mean just him as a man, he isn't asking whether Martin is embarrassed about him as a boyfriend. Instead, it encompasses everything they stand for – their relationship, their loyalty to one another, their right to choose who they want to live, Martin's right to love who he wants. 'Are you ashamed of me Martin?' means by extension 'Are you ashamed of what we have Martin?' and 'Are you ashamed of who you are Martin?'
And the pilot has an answer for these questions.
“No...” Martin replies tentatively, like it's a realisation to him, being almost comfortable in his own skin, panic receding from its manic manifestation into more an undercurrent of stress calmed from its turbulence by Henry's words. “No. I'm not. Not of you. Never.” He takes Henry's hand from his shoulder, and holds it in his own grasp resolutely, the grip tight and firm. “I am not ashamed of you, a-and I am not ashamed of us.”
He leans forward, resting his forehead against Henry's for a second, forcing his breathing to slow, readying himself for the storm.
“I am not ashamed of us.” he repeats.
Simon laughs of course when Martin opens the door, more out of shock than anything else. The pilot stands tensely at the door, teeth grinding out the perfunctory greetings of hello, and behind him saying nothing at all is the third man in all of this, Henry, still dressed in a t-shirt and boxer shorts and looking quite rightly like he's just got out of bed.
Simon grins mockingly at first, like the scene is a comedy, one of accident and bad timing, where one party says 'It's not what it looks like!' and the other humiliates them mercilessly with poor jokes in bad taste. And then he realises that in this scene no-one will be laughing or playing the fool, that it is serious, that Martin is holding another man's hand so tightly his knuckles stain white.
“Simon. This is Henry.” Martin shifts on his feet and a small fluttering of bravado causes him to raise his head from where he's been trying to coil in on himself, fixing his older brother's gaze. “He's my boyfriend.”
Simon's blooming disgusted expression makes him want to shrink down into nothingness. His brother starts then. Like he had expected. Disbelief and anger, the twin emotions mirrored in every word he now speaks; vicious and cutting and designed to maim. It is only Henry's hand grasped tight in his own that stops him from running away, and even as Simon's words grow crueller, louder, drenched in disappointment and derision, (“It's fucking sick Marty, you know that? There must be something wrong with you – always thought there was, you fucking queer”) the other man's hand still remains, squeezing back.
I am here, that hold promises. I am not leaving. I will never leave.
“I-I think you should go Simon.” Martin stutters out in a trembling voice thick with hurt (and they're only words that Simon is saying he knows, that they mean nothing, that they are wrong, they are ignorant, but they are words that dredge up every inadequacy he's ever held that his brother knew how to manipulate, all his failures, all his weaknesses). He can feel Henry standing a sentinel next to him, and he finds his voice getting louder slightly, his boyfriend's presence giving him the courage he needs. “Leave. Please.”
Simon sneers. “Jesus you're pathetic aren't you? Always a disappointment to everyone Marty. Wonder what Dad would have said if he knew his youngest son was a bloody poof...”
“You will leave.” Martin says again, shakily, blinking rapidly, unable to meet Simon's eyes. Stop talking, he thinks, please, please, it hurts and I can't hear any more because then I might start to think that maybe you are right after all
“I don't think you are wanted here anymore.” Henry steps in coolly, moving to stand closer to Martin and nearer to the door, a pseudo-barrier between his boyfriend and Simon. The older Crieff brother is taller than Martin, a threatening figure formed with all the indications of anger, and any other situation would have Henry stammering and apologetically trying to request him leaving as politely as possible, if he barely even spoke at all. But this man isn't deserving of his courtesy. This man is saying all those words, all those horrible, nasty, bruising words, to Martin, wounding him, dragging him down when the two of them have worked so hard bolstering each other up against the damages the world gave them. “So get out.”
“You dare try and tell me what to do, you little...!” Simon starts, furious, but a voice from the little landing just prior to the last ten steps up to the attic room cuts through.
Henry looks over Simon's shoulder. A cluster of students have seemingly been roused by the intruder's shouting, and have gathered in a show of solidarity, intent on doing something about it. It was Terry that shouted, a six-foot punk with a spiked red Mohawk and thick soled leather boots, and although Henry knows he's one of the quietest of the group through their fleeting acquaintance as they pass on the stairs when Henry's visiting, he certainly looks the most physically imposing of the lot of them.
Terry directs his next question at Henry now he's got his attention.
“This guy causing you trouble, Henry? You want us to get rid of him for you?” He flicks his head at Simon, who appears all of a sudden less vocal than he was before with the appearance of six or seven protective students, gathered in a mob-like group with a threat clear in their offer. There is a blush of warmth at the centre of Henry's heart, and he thinks with a certain amount of pleasure that for a man who seemed so isolated, Martin obviously does have people to care for him in their own way, who are willing to stick up for him, defend him at a moment's notice.
“It's alright, Terry.” Henry calls back down, then glares daggers back at the elder Crieff brother. Martin's hand is grasping and sweaty in his own. “Simon here was just leaving.”
His tone brooks no argument, and Simon growls before deciding he'd rather not take his chances staying, not when he's outnumbered and outmatched. Terry most definitely looks like he'd do some damage if he got into a fight.
“You've made your choice.” he hisses at Martin who quails faintly under such a venomous gaze. “Just don't expect any support from me.”
“I never did.” Martin glances up at his brother, and there is misery in his eyes even as he readjusts his grip on Henry's hand to reassure himself. “So go.”
Simon turns tail, striding down the stairs without looking back at his younger brother, and as he does so, Henry watches as the students jostle over to let him past, before huddling round to block his return, a moving barricade that makes to usher him quickly out of the house. Terry looks very tempted to push him down the stairs as he goes, and gives Henry a nod and a quick concerned once-over of a trembling Martin before following the group to make sure that the job's done properly and that he wont be coming back. Henry half imagines they'll put a mug-shot of his face on the fridge in order to recognise him if he comes round again and to bar him from the premises.
“Are you ok?” Henry murmurs, focusing his full attention onto Martin, a limp and exhausted statue, pallid and quiet. The man shakes his head silently, and there are tears in his eyes that are starting to spill over onto his cheeks, and Henry doesn't think as he pulls his boyfriend into a rough hug, trying to tell him without saying anything that he wishes he could make this better, he wishes he could help this hurt less. Martin clings to him like a drowning man, fingers digging into his back, clutching to him like they're one person, like there aren't any gaps between the two of them to make them distinct and separate.
“I will be.” Martin says into the space between Henry's neck and shoulder, breathing out a soft sigh. He isn't shaking anymore. “Just.. stay with me?”
Henry smiles gently, pressing a soft kiss to his forehead.
He feels Martin smile against him. It's a start at least.
Chapter 3: Part 2, The Family
Douglas considers himself quite fluent in the body language of a certain Martin Crieff. Granted, he's not a mind-reader, (though he professes to be often just to rile up his captain), but being cramped in a small cockpit together for hours and hours on end lends itself well to being able to strike up friendships or make things very awkward very quickly. While the nervy up-tight captain didn't first appear to be the sort that Douglas would easily get on with, neurotic and wound up as he first appeared, they’ve made their own odd friendship, the two of them. Their original doubts regarding the other's air-worthiness have been smelted down from their original animosity and forged anew in word games and bad jokes and those few talks they have in the seclusion of the cockpit; when they're staring at the immovable horizon and revealing ever so slowly the patched up places in their characters, the black marks and the burrowed dissatisfactions.
There are things Douglas will never repeat to anyone else, locked up in the black box of his head: how seeing his children so little hurts sometimes, how they're finding other figures in their stepfather's that they call 'Dad' instead of him, other men to patch up grazed knees and tell them stories, and that pain like a crack down the centre of his sternum that never really lessens.
Yet over the years, he's found himself telling Martin about Helena, his daughters, his drinking. It tumbles out when he can't keep it in any more, can't hold his head up and pretend that it doesn't affect him, pretend he's the all powerful sky god because some days he feels very very human and filled with all the regrets and hurts that that humanity entails. Martin is an oddly suitable sounding board, curiously attuned about his first officer's moods when it's something Douglas really needs to get off his chest, and Douglas knows with an iron-clad certainty that whatever he tells Martin will never be repeated outside of the cockpit. He didn't know truly until that night when the captain turned up at his door, unwittingly stumbling into his personal web of lies, the extra epaulettes and Helena's misconception of his rank. His eyes had widened, speech stuttered slightly and Douglas had fully expected Martin to say something. For the man to whom the belief that he was the captain was paramount above all else, that moment had been the perfect chance to get one up on Douglas, after all the taunting and teasing, after always coming second best in everyone’s eyes.
But Martin went home that night without saying anything at all. And in the months that follow, Douglas finds his trust for his captain growing, not something he'll ever admit to, not something that he'll ever let Martin know out loud, but it recalibrates his views of the man, learning to look past the regulations and to-the-letter accordance to the rules, and instead seeing a young man who is quietly just desperate to seen as something other than a failure, but resigned to a lifetime of never achieving it.
And just as Douglas is aware that Martin will never repeat what he tells him, so he makes himself a promise that the failings that Martin admits over the hum of the engines and in the light of the skyline will never be added to his arsenal of teasing. When Martin mumbles out his money troubles, the constant struggle to stay financially afloat, the poor relationship with his father, Douglas nods and stores these facts away, never to be said aloud with the company of anyone else.
It is because Douglas knows the younger pilot so well that he notices that over the past number of months, something has changed in the man. The changes are slow growing, so subtle at all that if Douglas hadn't been as attuned to Martin as he was, he may not have noticed them at all. They move slowly, like a steady erosion, but they are certainly there, making their mark without fuss.
Douglas notices one day when they've stopped over at a hotel in Köln ( Carolyn being cheap enough to only pay for one room with two single beds) that Martin's definitely put on weight, the captain pulling a t-shirt over his head as he changes into his nightwear. The younger man is never going to be big, his bone structure never anything other than skinny with jutting out hips and sharp elbows, but it doesn't look like Douglas can play the xylophone across his ribs anymore. The older man notes with a paternal satisfaction that the pilot has stopped needing to use a belt to hold his uniform trousers up about his waist, and wonders whether the van business is going through a boom season. The younger man still devours the hotel breakfast with the vivacity of a hoover of course, but Douglas supposes that old habits die hard, and at least it's no longer with that half-starved desire to hoard as much food as possible to deal with the lack of it later on.
He also smiles more. That's one of the things Douglas notices the most. He appears almost eager to finish up the flight-plans and paperwork to return back to his flat – a tiny dingy affair by any stretch of the imagination from what Martin's told him about it – making Douglas wonder why exactly Martin would be so happy to be going back to what he imagines is a glorified broom cupboard. He also checks his mobile for messages as soon they land at their destination, flicking the brick of a model several years too old on and tapping his fingers while waiting for the start-up screen to fade.
Whatever he receives (and there never appears to be a day when there isn't something awaiting him, the quiet 'ting' of a message in his inbox, or even an automated call informing him of a voicemail), it makes his whole face light up as he reads or listens to what is there, his worry lines smoothing out, any foul mood or jittery irritation if the flight hasn't gone too good dissipating into nothing as though it was never there. The look on his face sticks with Douglas. He remembers he used to smile at his wives like that.
It's the look of someone stupidly and hopelessly in love. God help him.
He mentions this to Carolyn after a flight, when they're both watching Martin grin to himself as he walks over to his battered old van to go back home. She's of course noticed it as well, eagle-eyed and world-wise as she is, but upon converging both of their data on the recent changes in their usually luckless captain, neither of them appear to know the identity of this mysterious romantic partner. Martin has been strangely tight-lipped on the matter: Douglas would have thought that when the man who was so often unfortunate in most aspects of his existence finally managed to pull someone and keep them, he wouldn't have stopped talking about his new-found happiness for days and days, beaming with pride and generally conveying all the soppy romantic sentiments usually reserved for twittering pre-teens.
“They seem to be making him happy,” Carolyn says thoughtfully as they observe the van shuddering away off the airfield, “but I still wish we knew who it was. I want to be sure he's being treated right. Just as his employer, you understand.” she adds with a stern look at Douglas when he raises an eyebrow. “It's my duty as CEO to know about these things. I can't have my pilot's doing anything stupid like falling in love if they've chosen an unsuitable partner, who is just out to break their heart and make them therefore unfit to fly. It's bad for crew morale. ”
Douglas finally gets his chance to assuage his curiosity about the source of Martin's sudden change in attitude when, after a flight back to Fitton, he notices Martin has left his captain's hat on top of the altimeter (with the usual indulgence of gold-braid smothering almost any hint of navy fabric). Seeing his chance, he gets the pilot's address off Carolyn, the older woman choosing to keep her silence on the matter and handing it over with a sharp look that makes its own demands on how the information is used, and drives over in his Lexus to Parkview Terrace.
“I'm here to see Martin.” he tells the student who answers the door; a tall red haired punk with a leather jacket who studies him critically, a sullen defensive look rising on his face.
“What d'ya want with him?” the student questions gruffly, arms folded. Douglas doesn't really feel like he has time for the Spanish Inquisition, not really intimidated by the ensemble before him (he's survived med school and Air England, there is nothing this man can do that would scare him), and so sighs at the man theatrically, bringing the hat forward and spinning round in his hands.
“He does get awfully antsy without his hat,” he supplies, trying not to sound too sarcastic, though it's difficult to break a habit of a lifetime. “I am simply dropping by to see him and return his property.”
“You a friend of his?” The young man apparently isn't letting him though, if anything moving further to the door arch to block any view of the inside of the premises. It's like dealing with the house guard dog, Douglas thinks, getting slightly annoyed at having to stand outside in the cold, stamping his feet slightly and shifting his weight, recalling fondly the heated air conditioning back in his Lexus.
“I'm his co-pilot.” he bites out. “I spend five days a week trapped in a small metal box with the man, I think it'd be a poor effort on both our parts if we hadn't struck up some sort of an accord. Now, are we finished playing twenty questions? Or do you need to frisk me first before I'm allowed to cross over the threshold?”
“Who is it, Terry?” A female voice shouts from a door off to the left.
“Friend of Martin's.” The student – Terry – shouts as a reply, giving Douglas another serious once over with his eyes, before calling back, “It's ok, he's safe.”
“Sorry 'bout that.” he grunts as an apology to Douglas, moving to one side to let him into the entrance of the student house, the hallway decorated with photos of what he guesses is the students, all gathered in various smiling positions; some at parties, some at day trips etc. Douglas smirks as he catches a clearly uncomfortable Martin being dragged into the frame of some of them. “Had a small bit of trouble couple of weeks back.” Terry gestures up the stairs right in front of them with a nod. “Third floor, first door at the top.”
Douglas wants to ask what exactly constitutes as 'a small bit of trouble', but consigns the question away for a later date, his focus mainly on the answers to a stronger curiosity, and makes his way up the stairs. It's hard going – Douglas wonders exactly how many stairs it is possible to squeeze inside one house – and the top floor when he gets to it is dark, the only light bleeding out in through the gap between the floor and the bottom of the door on the left.
Douglas knocks, and then knocks again after a few moments when there's no response. He can hear music seeping out through the door, and the indeterminable mumble of voices washing over it, and assumes Martin hasn't heard him. He hasn't come this far to go back, so, with hat held in his hand, he tries the handle of the door, and, finding it unlocked, heads inside.
The flat is as small as he expected. There's a battered sofa-bed squished over on the far side as he walks into what he assumes is the main living room, the duvet folded into a neat pile against the side, pillows leant up alongside them, a baulky TV on a wooden stand marking the other side of the wall. It's barely bigger than Douglas' entrance hallway with the addition of the furniture. There is a surprising number of books to accompany this however, a rickety floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that appears to be propping up the walls overstuffed with cheap paperbacks, well-used with bent spines jutting out, an overspill down at the bottom, with piled collections of novels raised up like little islands from the floor.
A CD player has been plugged into the wall socket, the newest thing in the flat, whose wallpaper where it still hangs looks like it's been plucked straight from the seventies, definitely not belonging to Martin, too sleek and new, months rather than decades old. The music he heard echoes of out on the landing plays out strong and clear; something folksy, built up with a steady beat of a guitar being strummed and sounding out a regular tempo, the quick notes of a fiddle darting in and out of a traditional ballad.
In the centre of the room is the captain he was searching for. Barefoot on the worn wooden floor, ginger hair all messy and unbrushed, he is holding someone else in a tentative grasp, one hand at their hips and the other held out to one side. It appears as though the stranger is teaching him to dance. Douglas adds this to his list of teasing material, the image of the flat-footed captain planting his feet this way and that and stumbling over them in an effort to co-ordinate himself. The gods, he thinks, are smiling down on Douglas Richardson today for delivering him such a gift.
“This is the worst possible music you could have picked.” he hears Martin half-heartedly complain. “It's too fast.”
“Just because you can't dance, love.” replies the decidedly male voice. Douglas has a moment of blinking in faint surprise before this fact is quickly accepted and assimilated. It's not like it really matters what sex he is. “I'll have you know, this is some classic folk. Perfect for dancing.”
“Maybe when drunk. You just like the artist's because he's from Dartmoor.” Martin grumbles, but it's clear he's not serious, stamping his foot to the beat on the music player, swaying not with grace but certainly with enthusiasm. “I think you're only doing this to show off your fancy footwork.”
“Would I?” the voice laughs, and then lets out a high-pitched shriek as Martin swings him all the way down, nearly losing his footing and scrabbling to hold onto his partner, the captain grinning with the sort of active contentment Douglas has rarely seen grace his face. It's.... nice to see Martin so calm. Relaxed. Dare he say it in his cynical old heart, but verging on blissfully happy.
He's loathe to break up what is clearly a display only meant for two people, but he can't stand there watching any longer without interrupting, feeling more an intruder than an impromptu visitor, so coughs loudly.
Both of them jump, and Martin whirls round at the sudden intrusion.
The expression that flits across his face makes Douglas wish for a moment he had never come. That he'd waited to give the hat back, that he hadn't been so intent on appeasing his own wondering nature. Because in that split second, he understands exactly why Martin didn't say anything to him, didn't say anything to Carolyn or Arthur, why he didn't share the source of his happiness when it was so obviously the best thing to happen in so long. The emotion that makes itself quickly so prevalent is not shock or surprise, it's darker, reaches deeper, a twisted gnawing thing that knots up Douglas' words for a moment.
When Martin catches sight of Douglas, flinching as he sees who is standing there, it is despair that so colours his face into a near-white complexion. He stares at Douglas fearfully like he's waiting for some sort of reaction, and it occurs to Douglas that this moment might have happened before, another set of eyes staring on with judgement, another damning sentence to the sight before them. It's just two men dancing, Douglas knows, two men stupidly twee and sickeningly affectionate, but it's not like that to other people. Other people who maybe didn't know to keep their mouth shut and opinions to themselves, who maybe told Martin exactly how much it disgusted them, how disappointed they were.
And of course Martin thinks that this will simply be another version of that.
The music clicks off, the final track on the CD. Martin says nothing, his whole body tensed up (and that hurts Douglas, knowing that Martin is waiting for him to start playing judge and jury, knowing that his friend thinks that this is the cornerstone of some ruin that his subsequent words will build, that Douglas will walk out and say nothing, or make some cutting remark and all of it liable to break down the faint barriers he can't sustain against such deliberate aim). The other man moves to one side, coming clearer into focus; about Martin's age, dark haired, stubble coating down the sides of his face and under his chin, shifting nearer to the pilot almost unconsciously.
“You forgot your hat.” Douglas breaks the silence first, bringing the article up for both men to see. “Dear me, Martin, it wouldn't do for your young man to not see you in your finest. I do hope you've been putting that uniform to some good use.” He smirks, and Martin blinks, a frown creasing his forehead. He wasn't expecting that, it's achingly obvious.
“Er... T-thanks.” he stutters, shuffling forward and retrieving the hat outstretched in his first officer's hand, cautiously, as though he expects Douglas to bite, waiting for that moment he is so sure he coming.
“You not going to do introductions?” Douglas asks after the tense quiet gets too much for him to deal with, the pilot still staring at him like he's an unexploded bomb. Good grief, is Martin not going to get the memo that he really couldn't care two hoots about the gender of his partner. “Or am I going to have to guess the name of this fine gentlemen?”
“Em,” Martin blinks again, this time in surprise, the damnation he is clearly waiting for never comes. “Er... yeah... Douglas, this is Henry. Henry, Douglas.”
“Pleasure to finally meet you.” Douglas steps forward, and holds out his hand, which the newly introduced Henry shakes politely but warily. The handshake is firm however, not nervous or sweaty, that's always a good sign. “Martin's been rather secretive about your existence, you must forgive an old first officer's curiosity in wishing to discover whether you actually existed.”
“Martin's mentioned you.” Henry says, and then a smile crinkles into something more filled with humour, “Are you the same Douglas of Birling Day fame?”
The rest of the night is taken up regaling an interested Henry and a protesting Martin with some of his Air England stories, embellishing the MJN tales at every turn just so Martin can pipe up with an indignant 'That's not what happened!. He also tries subtly to find out more about the quiet dark haired young man, slate grey eyes self-conscious as he answers Douglas' questions. Henry Knight, (and oh, Douglas is going to have so much fun making 'knight in shining armour' jokes) it turns out, seems to be every bit the gentleman he first appeared, and as Martin relaxes, it is clear that the affection the pilot holds for him is very much reciprocated. Douglas pretends not to notice the exchanges the two pass between each other like their own language of code, corners of lips quirking up in a smothered smile, fond words and soft trailing touches when Henry passes Martin a cup of tea in a green mug before he gives Douglas the next mug, and Martin nigh on glows whenever Henry absent-mindedly calls him 'love'. But see them the first officer does, and each one lightens his heart. He remembers what it was like to have someone look at him like that.
“You wouldn't be a wonder, and get me a glass of water, would you Martin?” he asks part way through the night. It's getting late, but before he goes, there are some things he needs to attend to first. His duty as a first officer as it were.
Martin appears confused, but nonetheless nods, and taking out the empty tea mugs, moves off into the tiny kitchenette to the side out of the way. Leaving Douglas alone with Henry.
Douglas shifts in his seat on the sofa, and looks seriously at the young man.
“I suppose you know that this is probably the moment where I'm meant to give you 'The Talk',” he puts the final two words in air quotations, talking low in case Martin is listening in (to be honest, there isn't actually that much space between the kitchenette and the living room) “And granted, I usually would do. I don't pretend I know you very well, but I know Martin enough to say that he's had a hard enough time in his life to deserve a bit of a break.”
Henry moves his head in a unspoken affirmation, but remains quiet, leaning forward in his seat, sensing there is more to come. Douglas continues briskly.
“You're good for him. Any idiot with eyes can see that. And if you're making him happy, that's good enough for me.” His eyes harden, and the even lower voice that follows is the voice of a father, who knows what it is to have children and see them grow up and fall in love, what it is to want to protect them from the ways their hearts can hurt them. “But if you do anything to change my high opinion of you, then I don't have to tell you that I will make you regret it if you hurt him.”
“I understand.” Henry says, and Douglas is pleased by the honesty in the young man's voice. He seems a decent enough lad. “But you have nothing to worry about. I wont hurt him. Ever.”
“Glad to hear it.” Douglas replies, and gives a short nod of his head in recognition of the other man's words. “Then I entrust him into your hands.” He hears Martin's feet scuffing the floor as he makes his way back into the room, and raises his voice, adding a joking tone to it. “Just make sure that you two don't play too rough, mind you. I'll know if sir finds it hard to sit down when he's flying.”
“Douglas!” Martin's voice is scandalised, red heating up his face, as he holds the full glass of water in his hands. Henry goes a faint pink as well, coughing awkwardly. The two are clearly well matched in their embarrassment.
Douglas stands, brushing out the creases in his uniform trousers.
“I'd better be heading off. It's getting late, and I'm sure you two have things to do that require my absence.” He winks at Martin, and the pilot flushes a deeper crimson. He relishes the next flight they have together. He's thinks he'll try and set a personal best for how many innuendo’s he can make in one journey, maybe make a word game of it. The mere idea promises to have entertainment levels that far exceed that of even the Travelling Lemon. “Night Martin. See you on Monday.”
Martin stammers out a quick goodbye, clearly wondering why he had gone to get Douglas a drink when he was so quick to say his farewells. Douglas closes the door of the small flat behind him, pulling his coat further around him, and checking his car keys in his pocket.
“What was he saying to you?” he hears Martin asks worriedly through the door. Henry chuckles fondly as a response.
“Nothing to concern yourself over, love.” the other man says, fondness evident in his tone. “He was just making sure I wasn't going to run off with your fortune, you being the poor pure maiden and I, the charming rogue, intent on taking advantage of your innocence.”
“No. But you'll never know for sure will you, fair maiden?”
“I am definitely not the maiden here.”
“You're quite right. No maiden is so poor at dancing.”
“Hey! Come here, you!”
Douglas walks away then back down the stairs, away from the sound of laughter, and cries of 'Stop!', seemingly from Henry as he squeals and laughs uncontrollably while gasping for breath, Martin replying “Never knew you were so ticklish for a charming rogue”. The first officer smiles fondly as he leaves. His work here is done.
Martin will be ok. Douglas is sure of it.
But he will definitely be expecting a wedding invitation when the time comes.
Douglas' smile widens as he wonders exactly how scarlet Martin will go if he tells him that. He'll have to find out.
Chapter 4: Nightmares
They are ok some days, the nightmares. Sometimes, Henry drifts off in a hazy cocoon of warmth, a sleeping body pressed up next to him, and his head is blissfully quiet, a blank slate that is peaceful in its absence of anything at all. Or else his night is filled with the scattered normal dreams that everyone else has – the fragmented conversations, the seemingly normal scenarios, the bizarre ones with wings or super-powers or set back when he was at school – normal manifestations of an active subconscious. Every one of those nights is a small but solid success to him.
They are more common than they were before, and he's still getting used to the novelty of managing a full nights sleep without being disturbed. He hasn't visited his therapist since he saw the dog – the real dog, smaller than he would have thought, not glowing, not with fearful red eyes, not readying to rip him limb from limb – lying with a bullet in its head, his trials over after so many years of wallowing within a limbo of crippling self-doubt and a tattered emotional stability. Any after-care he has needed has been subtlety been taken over by Martin without the man even realising it, the companionship, the solidarity, and he wonders what the therapist would have said if he told her that a prescription of some of Martin's kisses have done far more for his anxiety issues than any of her pills did.
But the old dreams still come back, like a scar that will never truly heal, new skin threading over it but the tissue still mismatched in shade from the surrounding flesh. It might always be there in some way.
And tonight they are bad.
His own breathe exhales out in front of him, billowing in the cold, and in his head is the slaughterhouse screams of his father, struggling, writhing, agony ripped out from his hoarse throat – it is just a man, he tells himself, just a man you will see there – but when he looks, it is the hound that stares back. Charcoal fur matted with dirt and blood, growling with a death knell, low and threatening, slobber dripping from a scarlet maw in which vicious teeth are sharpened to points – it is not real, it was never there – and it barks once before it lunges at him. Claws shredding the sleeve of his jacket, swiping across his face, through skin as though it's tissue paper, and he's screaming in pain and fear, and he wants it to stop, wants to shout for his dad, but the man is already lying dead on the boggy ground, and Henry is so so alone as the hound's foul teeth clamp around his throat...
He wrenches his eyes open. The imagery of the hound, the stench of its breath on his face, the copper tang in the air, all fade into an unbroken dark. There is no death here.
I am not in Dartmoor anymore, he reassures himself, slowing his breathing, working on regulating the rhythm so he can get his breath back, I am safe.
He tells himself this, but his heartbeat is still erratically fast, fight-or-flight instinct well and truly kicking in, sweat sheening across the skin of his forehead. And though he knows there is nothing there, his eyes scan the darkness for what he is so sure is going to jump out at him, tear him down, rip him up.
There is a shifting beside him, a creak as the sofa bed dips and moans, and he looks around to see Martin open his eyes, bleary and thick with sleep to squint at Henry. A soft frown creases his forehead as he realises what must have woken Henry.
Martin knows that some nights there are dreams like this that will wake Henry up with a cry in his throat and a shivering through his body that is not from the cold, but he has never yet asked what happened all those years ago, and Henry is not quite sure he is ready to explain to anyone quite yet, the wounds too raw still and the words too hard to say. Martin had smiled in his own self-conscious way when Henry had stumbled over his sentences in an effort to put his request not to pry into words, and said quietly that if Henry ever wanted to talk about it, he would be there to listen, and if not, then he would gladly wait until the other man was ready, even if he never found out what it was.
Wordlessly, the pilot shuffles nearer, wrapping one heavy arm over the other man and pulling him in close so that there is barely any gap between them. His fingers whisper across Henry's wrist before they find his shaking hand, and he laces Henry's fingers with his own and draws it against the other man's chest in a near approximation of a one armed hug. Henry knows that he'll wake up in the morning with the pilot draped all over him, tangling their legs up, erasing any concept of space between them. That is never a bad thing, he smiles to himself, as Martin presses a sleepy kiss to a spot above Henry's ear, murmuring a “G' back to sleep” barely understandable it's so quiet.
The pilot falls steadily back to sleep within a few minutes, emitting soft light snores against Henry's neck, burrowing nearer as though trying to absorb any body heat he can by maximising proximity. It must have been a long flight yesterday, Henry thinks, and he resolves to let the man have a lie in the morning (or later today, as it technically is) for as long as possible. Henry doesn't look round for fear of jostling the man and waking him up, but he knows what he'd see if he did: Martin with his mouth slightly open, his face withholding none of the stresses and concerns it does in waking hours, nuzzled into his neck in his usual overtly affectionate manner.
It's too late for Henry to worry that he's stupidly, hopelessly in love with this man.
Martin, who hogs the bed space, clutching limpet-like at sources of heat, who drives a beaten-up van that runs on jump-leads and the power of hope, who lives in a miserable attic that Henry's somehow started to consider a second home, without fuss moving in his CD player, some of his books (nothing like Martin's collection of course – the man could start a small library), his clothes hanging in the wardrobe and his shaving foam in the bathroom cabinet.
Martin, who smiles like he's discovering how to for the first time, who when they're on the sofa watching a film will run his fingers through Henry's hair or interlock their fingers and at random intervals will press his lips to the side of Henry's head when he thinks he's gone to sleep. Martin, with his grin always achingly wide, eyes surprised when Henry kisses him without cause or tells him he loves him, as though he doesn't quite believe yet someone is talking to him and only to him. Henry gets the feeling that Martin's never received much in terms of verbal and physical affection before.
That bothers him sometimes, when Martin has dark moments of self-doubt, when he is so sure he will wake up one morning and Henry wont be there, or when they fight about stupid insignificant things and the pilot thinks that means Henry will leave him, that he's done something wrong and ruined this; a distraught look that spiders across his face that makes Henry forget about their fight immediately and tell him Of course, I'm not leaving, love. Stuck with me now, aren't you? It makes him angry – not at Martin, never, never at Martin – when these moments show up how insecure the pilot is about this, how all his relationships before seem to have let him down or used him, before it just bolsters his own firm resolve to stay as long as Martin will have him, to take up space in the bathroom and use the hot water and share half the bed, to make this beautiful man know exactly how much he is loved.
Henry takes longer to drift off back to sleep, shaking off wakefulness and succumbing to his own tired body's wishes. Any recollections of the nightmare are now blunted by the enveloping hold around him, the heartbeat he can feel pressed up against his back, the sensation of feeling completely and utterly protected.
I am safe, he thinks again, and this time knows it's true.
He dozes off into a dreamless nothingness, not to the snarls of a growling hound or his father screaming, but to Martin snuffling in his sleep.
Chapter 5: Grief
The train to Euston from the Exeter Station is delayed, according to the mechanically apologetic female voice over the tannoy, apparently due to over-running works on the line, but then Martin hadn't really expected anything otherwise from the British Rail System. The two of them linger on the platform, Henry agitated and obviously so, hands itching to reach for the packet of cigarettes in his top pocket but knowing he wont get a chance to smoke one, damn those laws regarding public places. He's started muttering under his breath, moaning the train, the weather of a sweeping drizzling wind that tousles his hair with a damp hand, all of it transference from what he's really bothered about. Martin for a moment stands self-consciously on the platform simply watching him, unable to do much at all other than squint at the display board to read the upcoming train times, before in a moment of rare decisiveness he slips over by Henry's side, joins their hands, murmurs “Don't worry, it wont be long now”.
Henry doesn't calm completely from his pent up state, still twitchy, still irritated at the unreliability of the trains and how every day there seem to be bloody works on the line, delays because there was a sodding leaf on the tracks or something, but he squeezes the hand in his own as a gesture of something they haven't quite worked out yet: a 'thank you', or a 'I'm glad you're here', both of them merging at once into a grateful touch. Martin skims his thumb over a tense knuckle, and Henry realises a small huff of air, deflating slightly, and the two of them say nothing as they listen to the dangling bells intimating an announcement in the hope it might say something new this time.
Martin doesn’t ask why he's standing here on an open air platform, three hours since he woke up this morning, no flights, no van job, just envisaging a whole day spent with his boyfriend. Three hours ago, he had plodded in slow lazy steps downstairs to see Henry with his head buried in a morning broadsheet, immersed in a world of stocks and FTSE, had made them both coffee and mopped up with a towel the hot water that had splashed from the kettle, passing Henry's drink over with a sleepy good morning kiss. Martin doesn't know why the photograph on the front page of Henry's paper: an arrogant looking man, dark haired and dark mannered, an intense look in his eye as he had glanced over at the camera as though merely bored by the whole proceedings, had stirred up such an expression of distress in Henry, why it meant he had bundled himself out the house nearly immediately with the declaration that it was of the utmost importance that they caught the next train to London, with Martin rushing behind him out of the door, remembering to bring the essentials of money and coats that Henry in his haste had forgotten.
Henry as yet has not been forth coming with any answers, is wrapped up in his own head, merely a 'hmm' of acknowledgement or his own visual signs: fidgeting and muttering away under his breath, and so Martin keeps his curiosity to himself; strays along the yellow line through the platform, running through flight plans in his head and keeping a quiet eye on his boyfriend in case he is needed.
The train does come eventually, and once seated Henry thankfully dozes off for a couple of hours, head on Martin's shoulder, snoring softly with his mouth partly open, and giving Martin a cramped shoulder after a while. They're on a table seat, and Martin starts up a conversation quietly with the woman across from the two, who appears to be in a similar predicament: her girlfriend is using her shoulder as a make-shift pillow, the armrest jutting against her chest as she nuzzles up against her. The woman strokes her hair away from her face, looping it around her ears in a delicate motion as she indicates Henry with a nod of her head, mouth wide and snuffling on Martin's shoulders and smirks “You too, huh?”
It's a nice enough chat on the way down. Martin and the woman talk, and their conversation stems from a starting discussion of how they're being used as glorified comfort blankets for their significant others, to more general topics suited to long train journeys, like unemployment levels and the government. The woman, who introduces herself as Tania, gestures at the four of them all sitting on a plastic table, jokingly claiming that they should stake that area as 'queer corner'. Martin laughs, trying to muffle it so as not to jostle Henry and the light humour distracts him from the problems he possesses at hand: how Henry's worry lines had deepened and his hands became so flighty and agitated and how whatever it is, it is nothing he can fix.
Tania and her girlfriend get off at Vauxhall, and it's not long before they finally reach Euston, Martin shaking a tired Henry awake to say they've arrived. They manoeuvre their way off the train to reach overground, Henry rubbing his eyes free from tiredness, the cold air that hits them as soon as they come out of the underground seemingly doing him some good, brushing the sleep away so that he seems alert once more. Martin's doesn't often find himself in the big city, not only the lack of funds to even afford to get there, but also preferring the quiet confines of Fitton, so the mass exodus of people unnerves him to an extent, but Henry seems to have his bearings as to where they're headed, and together they walk to the underground at Euston Square to catch the tube along the Metropolitan line.
It's hitting on elven now, and even still, it is packed with bleary-eyed commuters and obvious tourists, the seated sullen-seeming businessmen who cast a disdainful eye at Martin with his wild bed-hair and patched up jeans when they pass. Martin flushes, averting his eyes self-consciously, but Henry gives him a conciliatory smile, touching the pads of their fingers together. It's not enough to reassure the pilot that Henry is back to his old self again, for his gaze still flits to his watch anxiously, his feet drumming an uneven tap drowned out by the roar of the rail, but he is contented with the gesture of solidarity nonetheless.
It is only a couple of stops till they hit Baker Street Station, and Martin follows quickly when Henry moves to alight onto the platform.
“Baker Street?” He asks questioning, a hopeful tint to his words, hoping to prompt an answer or even an explanation from Henry. Such things are not to be however, as his partner just nods distractedly and says no more other than to give directions under his breath, leading them out and down onto the main street. They walk for a couple of minutes, with only the lull of pedestrians, Martin apologising at every knock and getting no quarter in return, and then Henry stops dead, standing stock still outside the black painted door, the number plates in the centre a burnished gold spelling out the door number: 221.
Henry gnaws on his lip, flexing his fists loose then tight before seeming to come to an internal conclusion. He steps forward and knocks loudly with two taps onto the hard wood. He waits for a few minutes, shuffling from foot to foot while Martin stays quiet in the background, but no-one responds, so he knocks again and then bends down to flick up the letter slot.
“Doctor?” he calls through, his voice carrying into the house. “Dr. Watson? It's... it's Henry Knight... You might not remember me – from Dartmoor? Baskerville?”
It takes another few minutes, Martin drumming out an anxious rhythm on the side of his leg with his finger, but then there is a responding shout of “Coming!” from behind the door, a slow thumping sound like someone making their way down creaking stairs, (“Just a minute, hold on!”), and then the wrenching sound of the lock turning.
A hollow man, more wraith than human being, opens the door.
“Henry?” he asks, brow furrowed with some confusion. “What are you doing here?”
Henry and the occupant of 221b Baker Street (“Please,” he says to Martin with a smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes, shaking his hand in a firm grip, “None of this Dr. Watson business – far too formal. It's John, just John.”) appear to know each other from sometime back. They greet each other with the air of men who had hoped to meet under better circumstances, a rough hug from John after Henry mumbled out some faint condolences that didn't quite seem to say what they wanted to, but the doctor understood nonetheless.
Martin feels rather superfluous as John busies himself making the three of them tea, limping into the kitchen with the help of the cane at his side, a tremor in his right hand as he pours hot water from the kettle (“I hope you don't mind black, er- Martin, isn't it? Just I've got no milk in. Haven't seen much need recently.”). He sits quietly on a wooden chair drawn up from the kitchen, balancing his mug on his knees with a steadying hand, as the small talk starts – “You've put on some weight Henry. That's good, very good. You had any more... em, problems? Flashbacks, relapses, that sort of thing?” (Martin stores this away in the small file in his head marked 'future conversations', and keeps his head down, sipping his tea and burning his lips) – and then stutters to a halt under the weight of a dead man hanging over both of them.
Henry and John talk in low voices about another man, 'Sherlock', who Martin pieces together was the man whose photo was splashed so lovingly across pages one through four of the broadsheet this morning. It's all a bit over Martin's head, and, feeling he wouldn't be welcome with intrusions at this stage, instead takes the opportunity to study the new man further.
He has the face of someone who looks like he had been truly happy once, the sort of shades across his cheeks that the loss of that happiness leaves behind, the sort of sadness engraved into the hollows of his eyes the kind that hasn't always existed, has been forced upon him rapidly and without warning. There's a look about some people, Martin's always found, the one people have when life hasn't been overly kind, has heaped on tragedy after tragedy and left the soul to muddle through the mess. Maybe this last tragedy was the final one that broke down all the barriers, the defences of strength built up over years. Martin's been building his own walls for so long, recognises them for what they are: his difficult family life, his personal failures, his poverty and struggle to achieve – they are not the same bricks that John has used, but they end up with the same mould of grim determination, only John's wall has finally began to crumple under the strain of something too big for him.
John Watson smiles at something Henry says, and it only serves to make his distress more obvious: it breaks up the thin, pale lines of his face and half heartedly fixes them back into a cheap imitation of feeling.
"He lost his partner" Henry murmurs softly in response to Martin's question (“Henry – is he – is he alright? He doesn't look well”), when John takes their empty cups back to the kitchen. "Suicide. Not expected.”
Martin thinks about this silently, eyes cast down in, brow furrowed, as the other two men hammer out their own demons. He thinks about John Watson and his quiet military stance, like he's been through more wars than one, his trembling hands and the cane by his side, his eyes that look so empty and sad even when he's smiling, seeming for all the world like it's an effort to get up every day, but doing without a murmur of complaint because it's the only thing stopping him from slipping away altogether.
Martin wonders what it must be like for one soul to be ripped into half a man, stumbling around robbed of the rest which made it whole. He wonders what it would be like if he lost someone who means as much to him as this Sherlock Holmes, who he will never meet except through second-hand memories, meant to John Watson. He wonders if this was how it would be if he lost Henry.
He imagines cold rooms and the bed too wide for him, duvet smothering him, thinks of going back to his lonely flat and hiding away from the world in the little motions to keep himself busy, flight plans and Douglas' paperwork and all in the aid to forgetting momentarily. Every silence welling up to proclaim the knowledge that something is gone and is never coming back, the absences heavy, crushing down, compacting an empty niche in his chest. And that fear hurts far more than he thought it would, deeper and more violent, because he thought once that he would always be alone, that he would always be just Martin, marooned on his raft watching other rafts on tranquil seas brimming with people and friends and family sail past. Thought he was independent and self-contained out of habit, that he was his own man, and while that never had amounted to much, he wouldn't have to rely on anyone else for anything, would never do anything as stupid as falling in love.
But that's all wrong now, mixed up, changed and turned on its head. He has Henry, and they're a unit, a partnership. He is Henry's as much as Henry is his. He wonders if this was what John and Sherlock were like, inseparable and fully formed, the perfect compliment, and he can tell that this is true if he looks hard enough, because the man called John Watson is only a ghost half formed, missing some vital light, the emptying of something which had filled him from the inside out and now has drained away.
And should Martin lose Henry... He would be nobody's. Have no-one.
He barely notices that Henry is saying his goodbyes quietly after a couple of hours (“I'll fight this John,” he is saying, “whatever they're saying about him, I will stand up in court and swear by him and what you two did for me if I have to. That wasn't trickery of his, I know it. He was a decent man, didn't deserve this media circus bullshit.”). John goes quiet and thanks him with a hoarse voice, and Martin doesn't understand what is being said in response or what this all means, and wont unless Henry chooses to tell him. His mind is currently engaged in a sickening cycle of fear, his heart too obvious and heavy in his chest, his hands wringing his sleeves and disrupting the cuffs where some of the material has frayed into strands under his ministrations and shoddy workmanship.
The indication he gets to startle him out of his reverie is a sudden “You coming?”, and Martin flushes red, knowing he's just been standing there staring, but John doesn't seem to have noticed, shaking his hand genially with a half-formed smile existing solely for politeness' sake. Martin gives his final farewells awkwardly, not knowing what he can quite say in this instance, understanding that nothing much will make an impression to the doctor except the grief and the effort of pretence, that whatever he says wont matter because it's hard for anything to matter to John anymore.
He leaves 221b Baker Street with a lump in his throat, and the fresh air on exit he breathes in as though he's just been stifled.
“You alright, love?” Henry asks quietly as they walk along the commercial buildings that range down Baker Street, turning onto the Marylebone Road as they get further down. He's glancing at him with a certain degree of concern, and Martin thinks idly that this is a reversal from this morning, when it was the other way around. Henry's steps are lighter now, more determined, like he's found his answers, whereas Martin has become lost in his own head, unmoored and subject to the tide.
“Uh-huh.” Martin gives a sound of affirmation which he doesn't mean, but Henry doesn't pry for a moment. He links their fingers, and Martin clutches with his own sweaty hold, feeling faintly nauseous.
“It's getting on for nearly five.” Henry changes the topic, bringing his arm up to check the face of his watch. “Do you want to get the train back? It'll get into Exeter at about seven then... dunno, I'm guessing at about half an hour to forty minutes to get back to the house?”
Martin nods, makes another sound in his throat to indicate agreeing, and he feels them change direction to head for the nearest tube to take them back to Euston Station. He doesn't want to be here anymore. The streets are too full and too brash compared to the quiet of Fitton and Dartmoor, and he can't help but think of John Watson, that man's face and all its collected misery recurring as a mournful apparition in his head, a half-dead ghost imprinted on his eyelids.
He is suddenly terrified he might lose this. Lose Henry. That his abysmal luck will triumph once again, and it will be him going through the motions every day like he's getting better, dealing with his grief, like he's moving on when he so clearly isn't. That Douglas and Carolyn and Arthur will gather around him and prop him up, and however much he wants it to be, it wont be enough to keep him upright.
That it will be him shuffling to a graveyard every chance he gets to talk to a slab with Henry's name stamped into it.
They catch the train with little difficulty, and against all the odds of the evening rush hour, manage to snag two cramped table seats opposite a man and his crying toddler, who gurgles and keens behind a yellow dummy, and a suited businesswoman with headphones jammed into her ears tapping irately on her laptop keys. Henry shuffles closer to Martin, pressing them close with elbows touching and shoulders bumping every time the track jumps and the pilot is grateful even if he doesn't say anything.
They don't say much on the way back, short, sporadic conversations about banal things like the train system and the weather and whether Martin's working tomorrow, but it's clear that Martin's mind is on other matters and far away, and Henry doesn't force it.
If he notices that Martin has clamped the edge of his sleeve under his fingers, a steadying grip that reassures him that Henry wont slip away from him at any moment, the other man doesn't say anything. And when Martin leans his head on Henry's shoulder, and winds his fingers far too tightly into the other man's grip, he doesn't say anything either. Just holds on to the hand that is grasping in an effort to keep him without knowing why it's holding on so hard, and presses a dry kiss to Martin's head, telling him softly to have a nap while they've got the time.
Martin sleeps disjointedly, knocked in and out of sleep by the jolting of the train switching tracks. They get into Exeter at nearly half eight due to system delays, and it's another half an hour by taxi back to the house, Henry fishing his keys out of his pocket and letting them in.
“Looks like it's going to get stormy out there.” Henry says conversationally gesturing out the window. Martin nods as a form of acknowledgement, shoulders sagging as he takes off his coat and hangs it on the rack to the side of the door. He hears Henry say “I'll make you a cuppa, love?” and feels himself nod again, but his thoughts have gone down darker avenues while he hasn't been watching, and its hard to drag them back into the light again. I am home, he tells himself. Safe. There is nothing going to harm us here.
(He sees his cold attic devoid of colour, faded greyscale like photographs left out in the sun too long, sees himself almost blending into the walls, a mimicked shade of nothing.)
“Two sugars, love?”
(Creaking bed too big for him, the lingering smell of sneaky cigarettes out the window long faded, and when he puts his uniform on in the morning, straightening it in the mirror, there is no-one there to whistle and press a kiss to his neck and call him gorgeous.)
He swallows, his mouth dry. “Just one, please.”
(A silent mobile and uneventful layovers in faraway places, no one there to tell him they missed him, no one waiting back at home to make him a cup of tea – even Henry's overly-milky, drenched in sugar tea that makes him smile even if it's horrible.)
Stop it, he tells himself. Now.
It works only for the most part.
He trudges into the kitchen, feeling foolish just standing outside in the hallway. Henry is humming a song Martin doesn't recognise, grabbing the container that holds the teabags with a practised hand, throwing them into two separate cups as he adds the hot water from the just-boiled kettle.
“Hmm?” Henry glances up, a smile forming on his lips that withers when he reads the expression on Martin's face. “What is it, love?” he asks immediately, abandoning the tea to the sideboard with barely a second thought, moving over to the pilot, standing in close, the tips of their feet almost touching. “What's wrong? Please, love. Tell me?”
Martin gives a shaky breath, trying not to think about it all, trying to be bigger than this, better than this, frightened of the shadows of things that might never happen. And then it's all too much for him to handle alone, filling him up and spilling over, and he's wrapped his scrawny arms tight around Henry's neck, and Henry doesn't understand what's happening, of course he doesn't, but mirrors his stance without question, clings tightly to the desperate captain because he guesses that that is what the man needs.
(Empty rooms and empty beds, and cold nights alone, and Martin clutches to Henry like a drowning man.)
“I want you to promise me something.” Martin says, tilting his head so his words aren't muffled by the way he's pressed against Henry. “I-it's silly and pathetic, and it'll sound childish, but just.... Don't ever let me lose you, you hear me? N-not like that. Not like John lost – lost his partner. Don't do that to me. Ever. Please.”
“I wont.” Henry says, half shocked, and half placating, “Martin, I wouldn't, I wouldn't even think – no, I would never, never do that – God, was that what you were thinking about? Oh, Martin...”
And Henry holds the two of them for a long while, rocking gently from side to side, Martin's fears receding with the warmth of the embrace. He mumbles something about the tea getting cold, and Henry gives a short laugh that the pilot feels through the man's chest and mumbles 'Sod the tea' in a fond voice, lifting his head and glancing at Martin. The look is hard to define in words, like he is looking at his pilot and he is something precious, something glass and handmade and priceless in the right hands.
“I won't.” Henry says again, serious this time, like he's making promises in the dark and hoping he'll be able to keep them, and Martin knows that it's out of both of their control anyway, but believes Henry regardless. Henry wouldn't lie to him.
They argue like every couple does. Henry will throw up his hands and make grand gestures, cutting swathes through the air with his palms, or else clench his fingers in his hair and tug when he's trying to make a particularly salient point. If it's a serious argument, not of the not-doing-the-washing-up kind but more important than that, his voice will pitch higher, near to squeaking sometimes if he's spectacularly frustrated.
Martin is also a fluttery arguer, hands wringing, exclamations in an irate tone, his face reddening the longer his displays of extended speech go on for. Neither of them are the brash sort who square their shoulders and puff out their chests in a display of dominance, it's more the sorts of sudden bursts of frustration which are quickly let out and then just as quickly resolved. Often they are fairly small things, minor irritants that pass by with only an exasperated comment.
Martin complains about how Henry is the worst bed-cover hogger in possibly the entire history of the world, or how he stares at the TV when it's on and in doing so allows his dinner to go cool, or even how he'll always use up the hot water by giving full length musical renditions in the shower. He doesn't like the fact that Henry smokes (and he can always tell when the taste lingers after their kisses), but then it's stupid to assume either is perfect. Martin too has his bad habits; how he always drinks the orange juice straight out of the bottle, his meticulous planning of everything instead of sometimes leaving things to chance, how he never wears socks around the house, so when he gets into bed and curls into Henry's side, when their feet touch it is freezing. All these little things make them up, patchwork men with their odd edges slotted into each other, and they wouldn't change any of these things, not really. No, what they really fight about, when it comes down to it, is money.
Martin's too proud for his own good, Henry sometimes thinks, and even says when they're in full swing about one thing or another. He should just accept some financial help every once in a while, because it doesn't cheapen him, or make him a kept man, or any of the things he knows Martin worries himself over. He doesn't like the fact that nearly every other day when he's not flying, the pilot is exhausting himself carrying boxes from his van, his limbs tired and back sore, and even then staying back at the end of his shift at MJN, working too hard for barely any return for his efforts. He worries, of course he does, and bloody hell, Martin won't let him help him, will always just say that it's fine, that he's on top of it all, even when his shoulders are stiff with overuse and his eyes show the clear evidence of a full three days working even on top of jet lag.
Martin will always respond to these with the snappish comment that he can manage, thank you very much, how he doesn't want help because he doesn't want anyone thinking he can't work such things out like a grown man. He thinks sometimes that Henry isn't quite able to understand what it's like having to ask for money, how humiliating it can be, how it makes him weigh up what's more important every time he wants to buy something in his head: rent or sandwiches for lunch, rent or heating bill, sometimes even rent or petrol, what with pricing shooting up. He doesn't quite know how to put into words that his dignity is one of the few things he can cling to without having to go begging for help. He sometimes can't even afford the petrol for this drive across to Dartmoor, and he hates bringing Henry back to his own flat because he knows in his heart that while it's his home, the fact still remains that it's a horrible cramped old place that rattles in the winter, nothing like Henry's spacious house with central heating and hot water, and well-stocked fridges of everything under the sun that isn't pasta and beans.
They don't fight often, but when they do, it is nearly always about this.
Tonight, it's gotten to the stage where Martin's become so stressed and uptight he's had to leave the room, throwing his hands in the air and calling Henry bloody impossible, Henry shouting back that he's one to talk, isn't he? Henry fumes not-so-quietly for a while, before the first strains of guilt start weaving through his anger, and he ends up knocking tentatively on the bedroom door (they're at his house, so technically it's his room, but Martin's shut himself in there and he's trying to test whether the pilot has cooled off or not). This is how all of their fights end, short lived as fireworks, one of making the move to put pride behind them, sneaking back to the other with mumbled sorrys and eyes cast down and both apologising. They rarely stay mad for long, the capacity for long grudge-holding not in their natures, too settled with each other to find much comfort in self-administered absences apart, and the one night where Martin demoted himself to the sofa downstairs, it took only until half eleven for Henry to slink back downstairs and tell him it was cold upstairs without him, scuffing his toes anxiously on the carpet, the pilot not even resisting as he returned apologetically to their shared bed.
“Martin?” he murmurs tentatively, and opens the door by slowly turning the handle, peeking his head around the frame. The pilot hasn't jumped off the bed ready to restart their argument again, quite the opposite: he's sitting on the side of the bed nearest the door, staring down at his bare feet skimming the floor, lanky legs swinging wretchedly. Henry gives a sigh without anger, coming into the room and perching himself on the side of the bed next to Martin, finding his cold hand and threading their fingers together.
“I'm sorry.” Martin says miserably, and it's almost a whisper, ashamed of his conduct like he always is, even though Henry never blames him, knows he doesn't mean it. “I didn't mean to shout.”
“I'm sorry too.” Henry replies without anger, and they shuffle closer together, Martin resting his head against Henry's shoulder in a gesture of affection and forgiveness.
They sit quietly for a few moments. There's a high wind tonight on the moors, and it tremors over the window catches, the sleek glass doors. But in here, in this room, they are filled with their own sounds; the pulse under their skin, a lazy lub-dub of a heartbeat, breathing layering breathing so neither know whose air is whose.
It is Henry that shifts from their created haven first, the pilot raising his head quizzically as the other man moves the hand not attached to Martin over to root around in his jacket pocket. His fingers clench hold of something, obscured in his palm as he pulls it out.
“Guess it's a bad time to bring it up,” he says, licking his lips, and he's suddenly a little bit nervous, that pulse under his skin a little bit faster, that heartbeat a focused thrum in his chest. “but I had a surprise for you. I was going to do this later, but maybe it's about time yeah?”
He passes something over to the pilot, opening his hand and tucking something against his palm, smiling as he does so, biting his lip nervously all the same.
Martin stares at the key in his hand as though not quite recognising what it is. He fingers the jagged edges, the long strip of metal, the hole near the top where it would slot onto a keyring.
“I don't understand.” he glances up at Henry finally, his voice sounding just slightly lost, like he's not completely sure what this means. Henry coughs, and worries his top lip with his teeth, coughing again before continuing.
“It's for a house.” he says quietly. “Just a small place outside Fitton, near enough to the airfield for you... I mean, you wouldn't have to spend loads on petrol getting there. It's not completely finalised, I mean, if you don't like it or if you think this is too fast or anything, I can return the deposit, and that'll be the end of it...”
“You bought a house?” Martin asks slowly. His fingers play with the key, and he looks up at Henry and there is so much on his face that it's a jumble, unreadable, and Henry isn't sure whether this is the best thing he's ever done for them or whether he's just made a monumental cock-up.
“For us – I mean, if you want to.” Henry replies, hesitantly, and then, takes a deep breath. “Thing is, I know I snore, and that I'm incapable of doing the hoovering or the washing up, or that you have to tell me to give the covers back at night, and not to just make my meals out of the microwave, but I... I really want you to live with me Martin. I... I want there to be an us for... for, well, as long as you will have me... and... god, I'm really making a right mess of this aren't I.....?” He breathes out again. “I want to be with you, and I want to have a future with you, and I would really really like to make this first step with you.”
“What about this house?” Martin gestures around them. “This is your home, Henry.”
“It's a family house. I'm not selling it, but there's... too many ghosts there. Too many things I want to forget. I want to start again, and I... I'd like to do that with you, if you'll let me.”
“You mean that?” Martin's voice is that disbelieving quiet tone, the one that's wondering what Henry could possibly see in him, the one that's asking why he hasn't left him yet, why he hasn't got bored. Henry wraps his fingers around Martin's again, pressing his lips to the mop of his head tenderly and says “Of course I do, you idiot”, promising Martin a forever without words.
“The thing is, Henry,” Martin whispers as they lean close together, a grin growing on his face until it floods him with light all the way through his eyes, “All those things that you said, the snoring and the cover-hogging, and how you don't know how to work an oven, all those things are exactly why I would want to live with you. B-Because they make up you. And that's all I want, w-w-when it really comes down to it. You. ” He flushes red, as though embarrassed at his outburst, self-consciousness seeping into his tone, but Henry beams back, and kisses him, and Martin hums in the back of his throat with happiness as he arches his neck for a closer union, his hands clenching round that key still imprinted against his palm.
“Is that a yes then, captain Crieff?” Henry smirks when they eventually part, and the pilot grins back, face gone as red as his hair.
“I think so.” Martin says, and there's a teasing quality in his voice now, coltish and deliberately so. “I mean, I'd prefer it if you didn't snore so much...”
“Oy!” Henry shoves him playfully, then pulls him closer and covers his mouth with his lips again. It seems to do a good job in shutting him up.
Thank you for all the kind people who have left comments - you are all brilliant =).
Hopefully this wont be the last time I write about these two boys (I think I promised chess_ka some form of a sequel...? ;-)), so fingers crossed that'll come to light at some point in the near future.