The dirigible's official name, painted in flowing crisp lines on the outer fabric of the semi-rigid airship, the letters stretched over a swollen framework bloated with helium, is Gertrude. Ten years previously, she had been the pride of the Earl Shappey's fleet, one of the proudest airships to cut through the aether; wooden slatted belly, keel frame inter-spaced with circular portholes that when in flight, look out onto the cloud planes and beyond, gleaming empennage and airscrews endowing her with all the necessary components for flight. The gleam has dimmed somewhat over the years, the paintwork that varnishes the belly a weathered brown with its original cedar wood showing through, steam-powered with fore and mizzen mast jutted out, the sails almost patched from bedlinen, it's become that bedraggled. These days, she goes by the affectionate name of Gertie.
Right at this moment, she is tethered to an airport off the coast of Brighton, lingering in the air with her keel skimming the ground, awaiting their only client of the day. Air travel used to be for mostly for the richer classes and there's still a higher percentage of society men and women wanting a chance to observe the wonder of dirigible flight, but pickings are slim on the ground now with that damned man Zepplin's accursed invention of his aerostat, so the small company who man Gertie to the best of their ragtag ability take what they can to afford the expense of lifting off the ground.
Right now, half hidden under one of the propulsion systems and tinkering with the gears, is her captain. His hands and overalls are slick with grease, a fine sweat gathered on his brow, and he whistles an old tune he used to know the words to, mumbling along with the snatches of phrases he does recalls off-key and blissful in his solitude.
Pausing for a moment, he scratches an itch on the line between flesh and metal plating; a split pocked with thin rivets that delineates the edging under his mechanised eye. The plating starts near on the side of his forehead, dipping down to swallow up his original flesh-based eyesight, back down to take out a portion of his cheek and his whole right ear. The job wasn't badly done for the little money he had to pay for it, and the sawbones that got him didn't do a shoddy job of salvaging that side of his face, restoring his hearing on both sides even if one ear makes him slightly dizzy with sudden motions. All of this happened in an incident he has never revealed to anyone; still, it's something he's painfully ashamed, his defective form a stigma he tries hard to fight against, wearing an eye-patch over his replacement eye to try and lessen the stares he gets from the curious and disgusted alike.
Someone is calling his name from outside of the niche he's dug himself into under the ship.
There are few men who call him by his Christian name instead of the more formal greeting of Crieff. Martin sits up abruptly, only to bang his head sharply on the wooden lip of the rudder, cursing blue murder as he scrambles out of his position under the floating keel, rubbing his head grumbling.
When he looks up, good eye blinking in the sudden light, mech-sight covered as always by cheap black cloth, Diego is there standing before him. Sprite-smile adorning his face, hair damp with sweat and engine oil, wiping his hands on a rag which he stuffs back into his pocket before he offers his palm to Martin. The pilot takes it gratefully.
“Thought you were on ground-leave?” he questions the man before him. He tries not to stare too much; attempts to gather all the data he wants in a sweeping shy gaze; weathered skin treated by sun and aether, black hair fringing his forehead, brown eyes smiling at Martin like he's looking all the way through him and seeing everything all at once. “It wont be long before we get another shipment, then it might be months on deck without going shore-side. You know what the Lady's like.” The Lady, being the oft-used term (but never to her face) in reference to the proprietor of this business, Countess Knapp-Shappey, divorcee from Gertie's former owner, an instance that had caused quite the society scandal at the time.
“Ah, but señor,” The boatswain grins like he's tempting the devil, and Martin feels overdressed, even when he's already stripped down to his undershirt and canvas field trousers what with the rare heat. He feels even more so when the Spaniard leans forward, far too close to appear simply friendly, toying with his brace-straps, muttering low like his words are as filthy as the oil on his hands, “I would much rather spend ground-leave with you.” His intention is quite clear, and Martin wants to clear his throat, step slightly away, feeling too exposed here, on the airfield where anyone could walk in on them.
He casts his eyes around, licks his dry lips unconsciously. No one is in sight. Gertie is mostly patched up and secure, her rusted bulk as steady as its going to be, and he wants this, selfish as he is, wants it right now where anyone could see and denounce them sodomite. He's never been good with things like this, touch and sensation and affection, gaining too little in his early years to reciprocate them in his later; but now, he wants his fingers to run through those dark strands of hair, wants to brush them along the five o'clock shadow of stubble along the Spaniard's jawline, trace the grooves on his upper left arm, the shift in texture between calloused skin and iron, the buzzing of hissing pistons, a faint trace of released gases. The two of them, clockwork men patched up with cogs and steam.
“My cabin, five minutes?” he says, and Diego groans and pushes up closer, shushing his sounds of protest (what if someone sees, what if they get caught?), says slickly that five minutes is far far too long, that Martin can't expect him to wait, not looking like that, so buttoned down, so undone as he is.
The boatswain moves his hand, gently skimming his thumb over the metal plating on the side of the pilot's face, the skin parallel to it flushing a deep red as Diego tucks his finger under the strap of Martin's eye-patch, pulls it up slowly so his eye is revealed, puckered scarred skin, paler than the rest of his flesh, around an embedded circular imitation of a socket; brass framed glass lens and telescopic view in place of the cornea, whirring softly as an undercurrent of sound. Martin swallows, and attempts to cast his eyes downward, embarrassed, but Diego holds his head upright, meeting his eye solemnly.
“Hombre guapo.” He says, softly, gruff accent shaping words in a foreign tongue. “You, Martin. Handsome man. No look down. You have nothing to be ashamed of, you hear?”
It must be something in his chest, hot and bright like a stoked up furnace, but whatever it is, Martin, with both eyes fixed on the grinning Spaniard, is emboldened, sparking with indecent love – and oh, how it burns in him – grabbing Diego by the sleeves of his cotton work shirt, propriety be damned, kissing him hard, feeling the man grow pliant under his lips, hearing the trill of pistons as Diego moves his hands up, wraps them round Martin's waist. In this moment, he forgets the growl of his hungry stomach, the countless worries on his mind and the fear that this love might end up killing him, that one day they wont be careful enough. They stumble aboard into Gertie, a clash of lips and teeth and low giggling mixed with lust as they fall into the captain's cabin, and Martin loses himself in skin and heat and the after-trace of stream, someone saying his name reverently like they're wording a hallelujah.
Martin's always been secretive about his injuries. The fractured mix of steel and skin that adorns his face, makes him direct his head down to the pavement, following the crinkled lines of the floor that slink lazily from step to step instead of meeting anyone's eye, lest they see his trophies of disaster, the circular insert where a watery blue eye should sit, the evidence of his own crime scenes when he catches his own frightened eyes on a hallway mirror, the ghost of his own face trapped in glass.
Ever since it happened, he has preferred to take care of the maintenance of his eye himself, cleaning and winding the torsion spring, dilating then reducing the aperture, a daily chore he does with only half a thought to it being done well. It is as though the chore is some form of penance for past sins he has not yet atoned for, treating his scars like everyone else has done; trying not to look, averting their gaze, not intentionally cruel but hurting anyway; their stares, whispering, pointing at the curiosity as he walks down the street. The plating that covers part of his forehead, his cheek, the rudimentary mould of an ear in place of his old, and his falsity of an eye in its brass socket; they are a blemish on him, a ruinous mark, a stamp of misfortune. A sign that God had excluded him from any election of grace; him, a damned man scarred and marked with metal.
This is what he has always thought. That is, had always thought. It's been different since Diego arrived. Better. Happier. The boatswain slipped quietly into his life with a devil-may-care smile and a voice made for laughter, becoming familiar as songs and stories to him, becoming intrinsic, Martin's days broken up by the deep voice of a man with no anger in him, tapping his metal foot in time to a shanty, the leg of an automaton fitted to the stump of his flesh at the knee.
He never speaks with negative emotion about his leg. Whereas to Martin his mechanics are a symbol of bitter shame, failure, dejection; to Diego, his loss just is. The accident which took his leg, caught in a factory machine when he was nine, cannot be changed, he says, with a shrug, and he thanks God with heartfelt praise that there was a doctor at Marshalsea debtors prison where he and his father had lived who had an interest in the advancements of automatons, who had saved him from crutches all his life, forced to beg on the streets for cast off ha'pennies.
He tells Martin this, his own quiet histories, on an afternoon in April, the sky slaked with cloud, wind-force grounding them from flying until it lessens, hissing around chimney pots and making the slate on the roof jostle. They've barricaded themselves into Diego's garret attic, settled up above a bakery, the thick smell of bread and cinnamon spiralling up through the thin floorboards, their backs against towards the metal grille of the small fire they've sparked from kindling, thick gloves blanketing their fingers.
Martin nods intermittently as Diego speaks, and then, when his tales are done, overcoming his shyness, asking with a murmured question, whether he can look. He ends up examining every inch of the leg; its smooth planes and pulleys, leather underlay sharing space with copper and brass, the dials of pressure and gauges flickering when he adjusts his muscle. He slowly works out the way it hooks against Diego's stump of his upper leg like a prosthesis, unclasping it to observe with fascination the inner workings, the features of a reciprocating engine for rotational movement, the pistons, the chamber where the water is heated, the cogs that act as rotors and generate heat. His fingers trail the overlaps of the copper plating, the sleek line of thigh and Achilles tendon, the slant of the rudimentary shape of his foot. Martin has never considered anything like it as beautiful before, but it is: an example of the triumph of man's advancements, his engineering, his skill. It is not perfect of course; there is no allowance for individual movement of the toes, and often the prosthesis rubs at the skin it is attached to, but there is something simple in its refinements, something special.
They talk about it in low intimate voices, the candlelight refracting over their skin, picking out the highlights of metal, all their patched up places. If Diego notices that Martin obviously avoids talking about the circumstances of his own injury, he doesn't mention it or push, but as they discuss their differences to men fully flesh, with none of these fixtures or additions, Diego comes across as a man uncaring about how people see him, disregarding of the prejudice that's widespread regarding anyone with mechanised mods and treatments. And that attitude in turn makes Martin's heart flare up with hope, think that maybe his injury doesn't have to define him, make him any less of a man, any less of a captain. Diego tells him that he should be proud, being a captain of an airship despite it all, and right then it doesn't matter that Gertie's a battered old girl, or that he gets paid barely enough to live on, or that sometimes he feels like he's not good enough: right then his cheeks flush redder then his hair and he beams so hard he almost bursts.
And the next time Martin catches his image in the window of a shop, or in the glimmer of the washbasin, he looks properly at his own reflection instead of averting his eyes. He still notices the things he is unhappy with, the way the flesh crinkles and bunches around the socket, the mismatching of black shutter lens and his natural wide blue eyes. But it is better, infinitely better than before, Diego's voice calling him handsome in his head, and he walks away that day with his eye-patch scrunched deep in his waistcoat pocket and his head held high like a proper ship's captain.
Douglas Richardson is a former socialite of rather dubious infamy, a reputation which he had dedicated a large number of years to creating and maintaining. He had been an illustrious captain of the figure head of her Majesty's fleet, commander of a company in the air force before he had settled down to a vigorous civilian life the subject of many a gossiping mouth. He had breezed through life with grace and a silver-tongue, charming giggling young ladies, surrounding himself with the epitomes of class and sophistication. But he played too smoothly despite his status, jagged edges to contrast his sleek nature, was as comfortable in gambling dens and public houses overlooking the slums of the St Giles Rookery, drinking in the company of charwomen and guttersnipes as he was in stately homes and gatherings, laughing in the company of generals and majors.
It wasn't very long before tales of disrepute started to filter through the whiteness of his home life, rumblings of association with pirates and smugglers and other such underclass company not fit for a man of his social standing. The kind of stories which followed his name were shouted out by the patterers and news-hawkers from street-corners from the Strand to Elephant and Castle, and Douglas, always priding himself in knowing when to back down, slipped underground and accepted a position on-board the air ship Gertrude, the runt of the ship dock and languishing in the ever impending financial ruin of the crew foolish enough to fly here.
It is a strange hodgepodge of individuals that Douglas has grown to call his comrades. The proprietor, Countess Knapp-Shappey, is his employer, shrewd and sharp, a rare woman enfranchised from the rights of her former husband. Her son, a cheery and oft-contented fellow, Douglas has rarely seen without a smile on his face, the sort of strange kind of man granted rarely in life who is entirely without any prejudice at all, conversing in equal contentment whether with their upper class customers or the scullery maids at the public house on the ship dock. He insists on being known by his Christian name of 'Arthur'; being called Shappey makes him, in his words, sound too much like his father. While Douglas was initially discomforted by the immediate familiarity of Arthur calling him 'Douglas', seemingly ignorant of the more acceptable last-name reference, it is something he has grown to preferring over the more severe 'Richardson'.
To make up their disparate band is the captain of their barely-airworthy vessel goes by the title of Martin Crieff. Precise and fussy in manner, many years Douglas' junior, the first officer often wonders whether Crieff hails from some strand of Irish stock what with his adornment of fiery hair and pale freckled skin, which flushes a bright red embarrassment with little encouragement on Douglas' behalf. Despite his protestations of command and captaincy, Crieff more often than not is a nervy and self-conscious man, very much aware of his own scars: the mech that takes the place of one eye, the plating which patches up the withered skin beneath.
Martin Crieff is the man who right now, Douglas is screaming at through the squall of the sky.
“It's too much on her!” Douglas staggers up onto the main deck from below, his feet sliding on the rain-slick floor, his standing unsteady and wavering at every buck of the ship. He has to grapple a couple of times with the vicious force of the wind in order to move forward, the airflow that forces his hair back against his head, his body tensed against it, shoulders hunched and head tucked low as he makes his way towards his captain.
Martin's hair is drenched to his scalp, and he's had to pull his goggles up from off his face to see properly, the lenses obscured by the water, his skin equally coated with trailing rivulets of rain. Gertie's banked hard into a storm cloud, the whole sky a mess of grey and gathering storm clouds, and they're all paying for it now, propellers whirring under them, the wood of the masts wailing as the air whips through them, their valiant captain struggling to maintain control as Gertie groans under the wrath of the sky.
They shouldn't have come on this accursed trip, Douglas scowls to himself. The weather warnings were in place, they'd known it was likely a storm was coming even before the barometer started to flicker its needle. But the client was insistent, promised a lot of sorely-needed money, said he couldn't miss the astronomical value of seeing the constellations at the height of the Summer Equinox, and from the deck of an airship, outside of the blanket of smog and pollution that blinded the sight of the horizon from most cities. They'd needed the money, and Carolyn had agreed to their transaction, and now Douglas curses such damn fool-hardy men and their ignorance in the face of Nature so much grander then them, not to be trifled with, how because of that presumption they are now very much in danger of being brought down from out of the sky.
Douglas sways dangerously over near the starboard side before he manages to wrap his hand around coarse rigging of the shrouds, his hand slipping down before he clenches his grip, uses his post as an anchor before he finally reaches the quarterdeck where the helm stands resolute against the battering and rolling of the ship.
“We need to get below deck!” he shouts over the screaming of the rain, barely able to open his eyes enough through the barrage of water to see the captain, hands wrapped steadfastly around the spokes of the helm so as not to be flung over the bulwark, trying to steer Gertie out of the storm, or at least keep her flying long enough to land.
“Get Arthur and Carolyn down into the hold with the client!” he hears Martin bellow back, sounding half-drowned, tugging on the whipstaff with uncharacteristic viciousness arisen out of desperation, the rudder groaning under his ministrations. “Tie down everything we need, and make sure the furnaces are stoked, then get yourself out of this godforsaken storm.”
“You can't stay up here...!” Douglas exclaims in frustration, but Martin turns to face him with grim determination, wiping rain from off his face, fronds of his red hair dripping down into his eyes, his mechanised eye bared against the weather, the aperature widening, compensating for the poor light, the deck illuminated only by moonlight and the lanterns swinging erratically on their posts. “It's hell out here, you're going to get yourself killed!”
“Someone's got to steer her, man!” Martin shouts over at him, wrenching the wheel around. “There's a port three miles Northwest by the charts, if we can stay steady until then we're out of the woods. Your duty is to this ship's crew, Douglas, as is mine. I will do everything I can to keep the old girl flying, but I need you to get Carolyn and Arthur out of the wardroom into the hold, make sure they're safe.” He holds Douglas' eyes for a firm moment, posture straight, bolstered against the assault of the wind, and with his uniform sodden through with rain, his hair dripping water onto his face, his voice hoarse with shouting, it is odd that he's never seemed more like the ship's captain till now.
“Don't make me order you Douglas.” Martin says, and it would almost sound quiet if he didn't have to shout to be heard. Douglas finds himself nodding without contention, his role as the first mate slipping across him, taking over – follow the captain's orders, secure the ship, get everyone below, keep the propellers going if he has to grab armfuls of coal to fling into the furnaces, because by the gods if Martin's going to face the storm out here on deck, tipping the bow into the wind to keep them stable, Douglas can damn well take care of everything else.
The call is almost lost, torn away by the howl of the wind, but Douglas hears it, whips his head around to see Diego the boatswain, who must have been on this watch before the storm hit, scrambling up from the Gertie's stern, his journey perilous. He loses his footing in his haste, his leg buckling and only the weight of his prosthesis holding him upright so that he has to cling to the mizzenmast before he manages to makes his way up to the two officers.
“Draw back to the hold Diego!” Martin shouts, motioning the boatswain away. Douglas might be mistaken, his hearing impeded by the racket around him, but there is almost a note of panic in Martin's order, a ring of something not quite held in check. Martin's eyes widen imperceptibly as the dirigible groans again, slammed again by a pained gust that threatens to spin her to the side, almost windbound now with the sudden change in direction, and Douglas surges forward and both men grapple with the wheel to keep her steady, panting when she straightens again. Diego moves closer, his leg pumping its pistons harder, the steam visible even in the near dark, and Martin shouts like a desperate becalmed man for him to get back.
“Like hell!” Diego counters in return, accent thick with defiance, standing right up close to Martin. “Someone need to thrice sails. I stay with you, help.”
“We're going bare sail already.” Martin counters angrily, wanting him away “You wont be helping me, there's nothing you can do up here. Douglas, get him out of here for God's sake!”
“Maldito inglés imbécil!” Diego curses in his native tongue, harsh and furious, Douglas doesn’t know the language but he gets the anger behind it, watching as the Spaniard dallies, unwilling to leave the captain alone on the deck, fiercely loyal and fool-hardy barely distinct from each other.
“Douglas!” Martin shouts, insisting, and it's almost a plea to his ears, begging, and Douglas for a moment wonders why, why Martin is so desperate that the boatswain not be here, be below, be as safe as he is going to be rocked in a storm. The sky growls, and all of a sudden, the world is illuminated as lightening forks in the east, throwing into relief the palpable fear on Martin's face. “Diego, go help Douglas with the engines, the propulsion wont hold out if it's not generating enough power. Go man! That's an order!”
“Damned English imbécil.” Diego repeats again, but softer, and Douglas hears the resigned acceptance in his voice, the way it's dappled in regret that this choice has to be made.
Douglas starts to move away for the boatswain to follow on after him, stumbling from grip to grip, fingers clenching the shroud, then the rigging, before he turns his head back to call to Diego once more. What he wasn't expecting to see, not the sort of thing an upstanding gentlemen like himself quite considers being likely to happen, is Diego holding Martin right up close, grabbing him roughly against him and bruising their lips together, a hand curled around the nape of his neck, the captain mirroring the desperation, his mouth moving in words that Douglas can't hear. The two clinging together as the one safe port in this storm, grasping one another as Douglas once held his many fiancées, their foreheads pressed against each other. It's so intimate, a surreal motion of silence in a world of sound and fury, and Douglas can barely hold together his shock for a second before rational sense takes over. Now is not the time to question things. He calls over:
The two at the helm move away, hands lingering against hands, drifting away from each other, and Martin nods at Diego only once, but it's enough to communicate without words what he means, his face determined with his eyes still filled with a rending melancholy. And Douglas reads that look like a man can read the stars for his heading, knows that it's because there is every possibility that Martin wont be able to manage to save them, that they'll capsize and be blown off course or the helium will ignite and they'll spiral down in flames, or the storm will bail him overboard into nothingness. Martin is looking at Diego like he's the last image he ever wants to see.
“Keep them safe Douglas!” Martin shouts over as a final request, his feet braced and knuckles going white at the wheel, the spray making his skin shine sleek, turning back to the job at hand. Douglas knows what he is asking are two different things – take care of my crew Douglas, make sure they're safe, keep Gertie flying, but God take care of Diego I beg of you, because I'm entrusting my heart to your keeping.
“Aye aye Captain.” he responds without an inch of insincerity, agreeing to adhere to both requests, perhaps the only time in his life he's used Martin's title without condescension. The captain stands at his post as Douglas turns away, the thunder foretelling of more lightening to follow, and dragging the tailing Diego behind him, Douglas makes his own fervent prayers under his breath, beseeching to God that they'll all make it to see the horizon.
Douglas will overhear the two men talking later, after the dirigible has hit port with a jolting shudder, the masts near to splitting, whining and creaking, and their captain with just enough strength left in a spent body to lower the anchor and ground them, help from the dock swarming round to tether them down.
Douglas, already having bolted from the hold at the whistle of the landing bell, to appease immediately his concern for his captain, Diego not a foot behind, comes into his own then. He sees the fine sheen of sweat across Martin's forehead that's nothing to do with the rain and more to do with near-crippling exhaustion, his hands still clenched to the helm like he can't bring himself to let go, and takes over proceedings with a slick aplomb. The wind's still high, but it's manageable now that they've touched ground, and it is now Douglas' job to make sure everything is as it would normally be. They'll have to give Gertie a once over for damage before they even consider flying her again; the masts repaired and the bulwark resealed, so for the moment, the first officer deals with the jobs he usually leaves for Martin – unloading the cargo to be taken away by the postal service, setting down their still very green and air-sick client who mumbles a nauseous thank you and who is very unlikely to be setting a foot skyward any time soon.
“Diego?” He calls out to the boatswain, beckoning him towards him. The Spaniard manges to tear his attention from helping the grounds crew unload the boxes and crates, keeping his gaze half fixed on Martin out of the corner of his eye, who Arthur is flitting around with a barely contained excitement, mixed with a faint worry (“That was brilliant Skip! It was as if Douglas had done it! I say, are you quite alright? You look dreadfully pale”) and focuses on Douglas, striding towards him.
There's a faint tenseness to the set of his pulled-back shoulders, hands clenching, unclenching, his head raised as though with determination as his leg taps across the concourse, giving a slight clang as the leg comes up, then down again. Of course, Douglas realises then, considering the phenomena of the Spaniard's current attitude, usually so cheery, Diego will recall that Douglas was witness to his sudden outburst on board, desperate and illegal, and liable to send both men to gaol in irons if Douglas had been of a more vindictive type. Diego is now waiting for the condemnation, accusations, the calls of his own private blasphemy, and holds his head up proudly as though daring the man in front of him to denounce him.
Douglas could. It would be so easy, speaking the right words to the right people, hinting, the peelers knocking at their door at all hours and taking them away. But he wouldn't. For all his skulduggery, for all his jokes and schemes, Douglas has seen a whole wide world of things unexplainable, a menagerie of debauchery and passion and poverty, and within these twisted lessons that he learns, he cannot bring himself to condemn something so gentle as love, the most harmless of all perversions. What is between Diego and Martin he can't understand, but it doesn’t mean he has been given any superior right to persecute, doesn't mean he can cast out judgement.
Diego is standing there waiting for an executioner who will never come.
“Go and see to Martin.” Douglas says finally, nodding over to indicate the drained captain, who is almost swaying with tiredness, his legs near to buckling, standing off to one side slumped against the wooden slats of Gertie's hull. Diego's eyebrows raise, pleasantly surprised, reading Douglas' face, his intentions for any hint of dishonesty. He would have been so sure, Douglas thinks with a soft tang of sadness, that he was going to suffer for his crime of loving another.
Not finding any indication of trickery, Diego inclines his head with a faint grateful smile curling on his lips, a thankfulness in his gesture, before he does his duty as both a crew member and a lover, and makes his way over to Martin to fulfil Douglas' request. The Spaniard gently takes Martin's arm, the pilot leaning against him with his eyes half closed like the man is the only post to keep him standing. Diego's face is black with soot around the frame of his goggles from the furnaces, the dust smeared on his forearms and on the cuffs of his plain shirt from when he had to roll them up, and there is a scorched line of rope burn across Martin's palm from where he's been flung off his feet from the storm and has had to grab the rigging. The captain's leg must have been hurt by a fall, for he limps slightly as he walks, Diego muttering something low in his ears that Douglas is not privy to, his own leg trailing lazy steam as a will-o-wisp behind them. Both are propping each other up, giving in to momentary sentimentalism, the calming of their fears, and even though they do nothing more than hold each other, arms over shoulders and hands around waists, to a watching Douglas it is oddly intimate now he knows the true nature of their touches.
Carolyn hasn't managed to secure lodgings for them here, considering the sudden and unintended nature of their stop, but even she agrees that they'll stay land bound for the rest of the dawn to pass rather than flying back to Fitton, unsure as to whether the storm bank has dissipated yet. They've slept on ship before, and Arthur is enthusiastic about the prospect of sleeping in a hammock, extolling the virtues of how it's part of the great secret to happiness, along with tossing apples and going to the Turkish baths. Douglas for one will find comfort only in so far as it will be a place to rest his weary bones.
He passes the captain's cabin on the way to his own, head filled with thoughts all dead set on a long hearty rest. The cabin is nothing as spacious as his property back home, but it is suitable for the night and for its intended purpose, and it is only the low murmured voices of Martin and the boatswain from inside the cabin that make him linger, curiosity getting the better of him such as it always has.
“You stupid man, you know that?” That's Diego's voice he picks out, slow and filled with tenderness rather than any inkling towards anger. Douglas slides closely, searches out a crack between door frame and wainscoting where he can glance in with a squinted eye at the scene; Martin and Diego sitting up on the small single bed against the side, crushed right against each other in a settled coalescence of limbs and clothes. “You could have died.”
“Everyone dies some day.” Martin mumbles. His eyes are closed, head rested on Diego's shoulder, visibly less unstrung than he was before as he allows himself to be held in the other man's arms, all his strings cuts, his lungs pumping air in and out of his lungs in a slow rhythmic motion.
Diego snorts, derisive. “Not me. I plan on living forever.”
Martin gives a short laugh at that, quiet but still tangible as sound, and the openness of it surprises Douglas from his post as listener; it's warm and unchecked, entirely unselfconscious. Martin usually laughs like he feels he's not meant to, like it's a forbidden luxury he isn't permitted, but here, it's a subtle indulgence, a freedom allowed to himself entirely without reproach.
Diego smiles, seeming to like hearing Martin laugh. He runs his fingers through the man's curls, twisting them carefully around the circumference of his fingers before unwinding them again. “So don't you shorten my plans by doing stupid things like that, you hear me?”
“Someone needed to take control of the situation.” Martin says defensively.
“Sí, I know that. I not get at you. You were magnifico.”
“Really?” Martin half sits up at that, observing Diego's expression like he's not quite sure whether the man is mocking him or not.
“Sí” Diego replies back, a light glow of pride in his eyes. “Magnifico.”
Martin colours a faint pink at that, beaming with his own rare blossoming of pride, a self-satisfied sensation, of having worth, of having done something right to the best of his ability. “I did do alright didn't I?” he murmurs softly, smiling to himself as though he can barely believe it himself.
“More than alright, Martin. Only... no worry me like that again. I thought I... would not see you again” Diego avoids Martin's eyes for a moment, and Douglas can't see his expression from his position peeking through, but when he does get a glance at it, he reads it for what it is: a kind of hardened fear, the sort that expects tragedy but rages against it with every laboured breath, vicious loyalty and burning protectiveness.
“I'm sorry Diego.” Martin replies, sounding as though he means it, apologies in every syllable, and presses a kiss to Diego's temple, laying them down against the skin like penances until Diego grasps his hands to him, forgives Martin for the moment, until the next time, and the next time, and the next, both knowing deep down that theirs is not a life where the safe option is always possible.
They lie there for a few moments, not talking, and Douglas contemplates leaving his self-appointed vigil until he hears the sound of his own name being mentioned.
“Douglas knows now, doesn't he?”
The first mate shifts, wondering if they can hear him outside, for a fearful moment thinking they've caught him eavesdropping on them, his brain ready with all sorts of lies and excuses as to why he has been standing there. There's a resignation in Martin's voice that he's not quite comfortable with, a kind of weighted sigh that expects too much, the fearful whisper of a condemned man at the bar.
“I see no problem with this.” Diego replies.
“That's until he gets the marshals knocking on the door.” Martin squeezes his eyes shut, biting his lip. He sounds like he's going to the gallows. “God above Diego, what if he tells? What do we do?”
“Martin, amorcito, I no think there is anything to be worried over.”
“It might seem like nothing, but I have no intention of spending my days in gaol or transported to some godforsaken island, nor watching you suffer the same fate because of my transgressions. You know what they'd do with people like you and me. You know what the consequences are.” Martin buries his head against Diego's neck, distress blotching his pale face redder. He sighs, ragged and faltering, and his fingers curl around the fabric of Diego's undershirt, wanting contact to be ever nearer, reassurance in minute touches and imprints on skin and cloth.
“I don't want to run away again.” he breathes out, too many stories in his words, too many bad memories. “We're always running away. Jumping ship when someone gets too close, when we aren't careful enough, and I thought that here, finally, finally we'd be safe.” Diego strokes a finger over the metal plating on the side of Martin's face without interrupting, soothing, reassuring. Trying to heal scars that might not ever completely fade, trying to fix a whole lifetime of disappointments with only fragile words as his instruments.
“It feels like home here.” Martin continues, “Carolyn, and Arthur and, and damn even Douglas. Like a family. Like a family should feel like.” There is far too much history in that statement, and Douglas shifts, discomforted with his actions, that he is breaking his trust by standing here, that Martin should expect so little of him, shame curling in his stomach as he realises that the fear is entirely justified, that Douglas has never given him any quarter with which to think he may been accepted by the older man.
“Martin, Martin, shh,” Diego murmurs, pulling the younger man closer, pressing a kiss to the bronze of his temple. “Querido, there is nothing to be scared of. Douglas will not say anything, I know he will not. This is home now for us, sí? This ship, this crew, me and you. We are going nowhere. No need for us to run away anymore.” His voice dips slighter, fond, muffled by the the wooden wall. “Now close your eyes and sleep, love. You will be tired. I will be here when you wake up.”
Douglas does not know that this is a ritual forged out over many night times. Martin will ask for a promise as though every time he expects another answer, Diego replying as though he never imagines he will respond with anything else, and that's the way this always goes. It's not a weak, or foolish gesture, it's just the slow healing of a man knocked down too many times to have a smile on his face when he gets back up. And the way Diego replies, earnest, trusting, as though he's thrown his all into this with both eyes closed in case it all goes wrong, as though he's not used to loving anyone so deeply, so openly; neither of them quite over the simple pleasures of falling asleep in someone else's arms.
They don't say I love you to each other, not tonight, because it's already been said: in the rub of fingertips against the skin of a forearm, twisted up against each other, metal gleam smothered by the messed up blanket over them, the way that space appears irrelevant, Martin's eye patch left on the bedside table, scarred skin bared uncaring. The way they display themselves whole, their marks and scars and wounded places, and believe that they will not be seen any differently because of them.
The two might have said more to each other, Martin with his head leant against Diego's shoulder, the Spaniard's fingers trailing through the captain's hair, but Douglas does not stay to hear it. This is none of his business now, these twilight hours with talk in secret tongues and the language of unspoken companionship is not the place for his intrusion. And Diego is right in the respect that Douglas will not breath a word of this to anyone. He will hold his silence and his tongue, no jokes, no sly remarks, no teasing to wind Martin up, no plying of his usual trades because this is too delicate for such heavy handedness. Martin would freeze, coltish, at any mention of it, eyes glancing, wide, far too vulnerable for a man so young in years; Diego would stiffen, proud but wary, and warn Douglas off with a glare to back down. This is not his place to interfere, and he has no right to pass his judgement upon any man, least of all for reasons of love. Their secrets will remain so, theirs should they ever wish to share them.
Douglas creeps away from the undertone of sleep-slow talking, smiling softly as he makes his way to his cabin. There will be wide clear skies tomorrow. He can just tell.