"There you are, Arthur," Martin said as he entered the passenger cabin of the emptied plane to find Arthur sitting with a rather hunched posture in one of the seats. "We've been looking for you everyw... Arthur, what's wrong?"
Turning his flushed face away from Martin, Arthur's voice was unusually quiet and a little hoarse. "Nothing, Skip." Clearing his throat and making a quick movement that looked very much like wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, Arthur finally turned his head and looked... at Martin's chest. "What did you need?"
Opening his lips, but not immediately having words to say with them, Martin stared at Arthur's reddened eyes and splotchy pink cheeks. "I... Arthur, I didn't need anything, actually. We were just looking for you so we could all go to the hotel now, but something’s wrong.”
“What’s wrong?” Arthur asked, blinking rapidly as he looked up at Martin finally, out of habit, no doubt.
“You tell me,” Martin said, crouching down next to the seat and putting his hand on Arthur’s arm. “Was that French man in row ‘D’ rude to you again after Carolyn had a talk with him?”
Arthur shook his head, eyes dropping.
“But, if not that, then—” Martin was interrupted by Douglas.
“You found him? Ah, excellent. Indeed the last place we’d expect, just as I said.” Douglas entered, putting his fists on his hips and sounding drawlingly impatient. “Well? Forgot something, did you, Arthur?”
Another shake of Arthur’s head, his gaze dropping to his knees and his lower lip protruding just a bit. Martin frowned, and then turned to look at Douglas with what he hoped was a ‘do you see that there’s something wrong?’ sort of expression and tilted his head at Arthur.
“Arthur,” Douglas said in that lilting way he had, the one they all knew meant he had caught on there was something someone was hiding and he was going to get it out eventually, so they might as well give now and save themselves the badgering. Sky Gods could be annoyingly persistent and snarky the whole time they were being patient at one.
“It’s nothing, really,” Arthur protested, but his voice cracked on the last word.
Glaring at Douglas as if he were somehow at fault, Martin gentled his voice. “It must be something, Arthur, or you wouldn’t be upset.”
“I’m not… I don’t…” Arthur made a frustrated sound. “Oh, I can’t do it. I can’t think up a good lie right now!” His lip quivered and he turned his face away again with a small sniffle.
“We only want to help, Arthur,” Martin said, glancing up to find Douglas was right beside him now.
“Was it that French bastard again?” Douglas asked.
Even as Arthur shook his head, Martin replied without looking up at Douglas, “No, I asked that already.”
“Arthur?” Douglas pressed and Arthur sniffled a bit louder and put his hand over his mouth.
“I don’t want to make you angry with me again!” Arthur mumbled from behind his hand.
“Angry?” Martin repeated.
“Again?” Douglas chimed in immediately afterwards. “What… is this about that nonsense with the cheese tray?”
Arthur’s head dipped in a few jerky nods.
Martin patted Arthur’s arm, still under his hand. “You… didn’t intend to drop it, we know that.”
Douglas sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Arthur, if you can’t tell by now when we’re just teasing you—”
A strangled little sound came out of Arthur’s throat, cutting Douglas off mid-chide.
Douglas’ face pulled into a frown of concern, but it was Martin who spoke a little hurriedly, perhaps trying to beat Douglas to the punch. “Arthur was it… w-was it us giving you a hard time? Did we hurt your feelings?”
With another sound that was a little louder and more certainly a strangled sob, Arthur said in a tight voice, still muffled by his hand, “…called m-me a c-clown…” Arthur shook his head, shoulders heaving with sobs that didn’t get past his hand.
Martin was confused, they’d called him ‘clot’ and ‘idiot’ and more, though he’d always seemed to know—at least usually—that it wasn’t meant to hurt, but why…?
With a soft hum of enlightenment, Douglas put his hand to Arthur’s head and smoothed his hair a few times, “Arthur, did your dad used to call you that?” Arthur’s head bobbed a little, but not enough to dislodge Douglas’ hand. “Oh, Arthur,” murmured Douglas, voice softer and regretful, he’d been the one who said it first; he’d suggested Arthur had become a steward because the circus wouldn’t have a clown that couldn’t juggle. Martin had played off it, true, but Douglas had actually said it.
“Ohh,” Martin said softly, sounding similar to Douglas as he unintentionally echoed him. “Oh, Arthur.”
“I kn-n-now you didn’t… d-didn’t mean it that w-way,” Arthur said through uneven catches in his breath and a couple more sobs that escaped him.
“No, no, I understand,” Douglas assured him. He touched Martin on the shoulder and the captain moved aside so Douglas could edge past Arthur’s knees and sit on one leg in the seat next to him. “Arthur,” he said sombrely, again resting his hand on Arthur’s head until Arthur looked up at him, then he let it fall to Arthur’s shoulder and squeezed lightly. “I apologise for being unkind, Arthur. I would never have said it had I known.”
“I’m sorry, too, Arthur,” Martin said, running the hand on Arthur’s arm up to that shoulder and rubbing it soothingly. “We went a bit too far. I think maybe we oughtn’t joke around with you by calling you names anymore.”
“I know you don’t usually m-mean them, S-skip,” Arthur protested.
“We do get exasperated, Arthur, but there’s a line between joking and hurting,” Douglas argued gently. “If you have to say ‘usually’ then we’re crossing that line sometimes, like this time, and that’s not right.”
Though Arthur shook his head, Martin kept rubbing his shoulder and cut in before Arthur could—probably—argue further. “No, we’ll try not to do it. And if we slip up, you should tell us something like… like… ‘hey, guys, that’s a bit mean, could you not call me that?’ or… you know, something along those lines.”
“Really?” Arthur asked, sounding very young.
“Yes,” Martin confirmed, nodding and catching Douglas’ eyes. “We’re all on the same team here, after all. We should remember that.”
Rolling his eyes, lips quirking in acknowledgment, Douglas nodded. “Yes, I suppose we should.” He gave Arthur’s shoulder another squeeze and a bit of a gentle shake. “Can you forgive me, Arthur?”
“And forgive me, too?” Martin asked, his hand still on Arthur’s other shoulder. “Still friends?”
Sniffling a bit, Arthur swiped at his eyes and cheeks with his hand, nodding. “Oh, yes, Skip. I don’t think I could stand it if we weren’t all friends.” He turned to Douglas. “Sure I forgive you, Douglas.” Turning to Martin again, he added firmly, “And you, too, Skip.”
“Thank you, Arthur,” Douglas said, smiling a little.
The next moment Arthur had leaned over and pulled Douglas into a big, tight hug. Douglas made a sound of startled protest, but then went with it, hugging Arthur and patting his back.
Martin looked on with a crooked, sad little smile, and stood up, ready to go when the other two were done; however, as soon as he released Douglas with a tentative little smile, Arthur turned to Martin and rose.
“Skip?” Martin’s dark ginger brows rose and Arthur made a little snorting sound before stepping closer. “You have to hug after an apology, Skip. It’s the law.”
For a second Martin’s expression showed confusion, but then he smiled and, before he could reply, was pulled into just as big a hug. With a quiet little breath of a laugh, Martin returned the hug, rubbing Arthur’s back fondly. “Wouldn’t want to break the law, after all,” he said into Arthur’s shoulder.
“Gosh, no. That would be unthinkable,” Douglas rumbled with humour evident in his voice. “Come on, then, we’ve a seedy hotel to check into and then dinner to wrangle. If one of you can find us a sushi place, I’ll treat.”
Arthur’s eyes lit up as he stepped away from Martin, and he smiled with very nearly his usual enthusiasm, exclaiming, “Brilliant!” before leading the way toward the exit. Douglas and Martin followed along behind him, both wearing similar affectionate smiles.