James drifted awake slowly, the real sensation of bedclothes against his skin merging with the memory of it from the night before, and the remains of a dream. He felt so comfortable. His sleepy thoughts floated to the previous night. He remembered coming home from work tired after a day of paperwork with a sore back and a headache, and Martin taking care of him with gentleness and patience that weren’t really warranted. He remembered the massage, Martin’s skilled hands relaxing his sore muscles and somehow managing to chase away even the headache (maybe it was the ibuprofen, but James preferred to think it was Martin). He could still feel Martin’s hands on him, and then his lips, and the knowledge that if he reached out Martin would be there was so satisfying.
Maybe he moved or made a sound, but when he finally opened his eyes, Martin was looking right at him. He was sitting propped against the wall with a worn paperback in his lap, and mornings when Martin was the first thing James saw were always so much better than those when he wasn’t.
“Morning,” he said, though it came out as not much more than a croak.
Martin smiled down at him, and his hand came to bury itself in James’ hair.
“Hello, darling. How’re you feeling?”
“Much better,” James said, tugging at the hem of Martin’s t-shirt to wordlessly persuade him to lie back down. Martin understood and settled on his side, facing James and never taking his hand away from his hair. He leaned in to press a quick kiss to James’ lips, and James caught a whiff of toothpaste on his breath. So Martin had already got up, but he’d gone back to bed to stay with James. He was so sweet.
“Do you know you’re going grey?” Martin asked, stroking through James’ hair. “On your temples.”
“I was just about to point out what a nice and caring boyfriend you are,” James chuckled. “Now you’ve ruined the impression.”
“Oh no. I try very hard to be a good boyfriend, you know? Can I make it better by saying that the grey makes you look very distinguished?”
“Hmm. Okay, I think I can accept that. You’re still a wonderful boyfriend.”
Martin smiled a lovely smile, and blushed slightly when he realised that James was serious. Martin’s capacity to blush was unlimited and adorable.
“Thank you,” he mumbled, leaning in to kiss James again. This time he didn’t withdraw again but shuffled closer, dropping another kiss to James’ cheek.
“You’d make a wonderful husband, too,” James said, because clearly his brain was still asleep. He’d been so determined not to bring this subject up until the perfect opportunity arose, not to spill it out at Martin without any kind of preparation.
Predictably, Martin’s hand in James’ hair stilled immediately and his eyes went very wide. There was no telling whether he was just surprised, or if the suggestion was unwelcome. James had always known that that there were only two ways Martin could react: either he’d panic because he didn’t want to marry James but didn’t want to hurt his feelings, or he’d panic because he did want to marry James but didn’t believe he’d understood the question correctly – James had given up hope that Martin would ever stop expecting the worst. That was why James had wanted to do it carefully, and now he’d ruined it.
“Wh-what?” Martin squeaked.
On the other hand, maybe there really wasn’t an inconspicuous way to find out how your boyfriend felt about marriage – James certainly hadn’t thought of any so far. Maybe it would be best to have it out of the way so James could stop worrying about it at random intervals. And really, there wasn’t any objective reason why Martin should say no, was there? He loved James, and no one was capable of greater commitment than Martin. But there was still the possibility that Martin would find the idea of marrying another man too… gay for his liking.
“It’s all right,” James said soothingly. “I’m not… asking. But you could think about it. See if it’s something you’d like. And it’s fine if you… wouldn’t, of course.” Why was this making him so nervous? Martin was supposed to do all the blushing and stammering for the both of them!
Martin stared at James for a moment that felt like ages, before opening his mouth and making a very good job of the stammering. “You – you c-c-could ask, though.”
It was James’ turn to be left momentarily speechless. Martin wouldn’t say that if he wanted to say no, would he? Which meant he was going to say yes. He was going to say yes.
“Will you marry me?” James said and held his breath, trying not to drown in the conflicting feelings of nervousness and anticipated happiness.
Martin let out a breath that was something between a relieved sigh and a huff of laughter.
“Yes, you fool. Of course I will. Yes. Yes.” He pulled James’ head in, dropping clumsy kisses everywhere on his face without trying to aim. James laughed – there wasn’t any other possible reaction to the sudden surge of happiness. Then he held Martin still and kissed him properly, turning on his back and pulling Martin with him. Martin went willingly, crawling almost on top of James and kissing him hungrily.
“Did you really think I could say no?” Martin said when they broke apart.
James shrugged – as much as it was possible to shrug with a pilot sprawled all over him.
“Well, you said it yourself – I’m going grey. I thought maybe you wouldn’t want to spend the rest of your life with a grumpy old man.”
“Oh, shush. You aren’t old and you’re grumpy about one day a year. And besides, I’ll still want to be with you when you are old, and grumpy on a much more frequent basis.”
The morning sunlight coming in through the window caught in Martin’s hair and made it look golden: he was so beautiful, and sweet and kind and endlessly loving and he wanted to marry James. James had dozens of years ahead of him when he could be with him and love him and take care of him.
“I love you.”
“I love you too,” Martin said, shifting a little to snuggle against James’ side. He pressed himself as close as possible. It was incredibly endearing, how much Marin liked to be close to James. Sometimes James doubted that he deserved all of Martin’s affection – sometimes it seemed that Martin hadn’t had the chance to give his affection to enough people so it was now all James’. Sometimes it made him feel a little guilty, like he lived off the fact that Martin had been so alone for most of his life. But he also knew that he made Martin happy, and that was possibly the best thing that had ever happened to him. And now he had the rest of his life to continue trying his best to make Martin even happier.
“What are you thinking about?” Martin asked.
“A lifetime with you,” James said with a smile, and he squeezed Martin’s shoulders as a thought occurred to him. “You know, I never told you… I’m so glad that you didn’t tell me about your… sexual orientation or whatever, at first. I resented it at the beginning, but I don’t anymore. We wouldn’t have this if you had told me.”
Martin lifted his head to look at him, his face serious. James knew that he didn’t particularly like this topic of conversation, but he suddenly needed him to know that the five agonizing hours when he thought he’d been heartlessly used and misled, and the few months that followed when doubt gnawed at him despite how much he tried to stifle it, it was all worth it. So much more would have been worth it.
“I’m not… proud that I did that,” Martin said quietly. “But I’m glad, too. So glad. You’re the best thing in my life. I’m sorry that I…”
“No,” James interrupted him, placing a finger on his lips. “I didn’t say it to make you apologise. I just want you to know. That I don’t regret anything.”
Martin laid his head down again, burying his face in James’ shoulder.
“You are amazing,” he said, his voice muffled against James’ shirt. “I love you and I can’t wait to marry you.” He nuzzled James’ neck, and his fingers stroked through the hair on James’ belly. James was beginning to think that it had been very clever of him to accidentally propose while in bed, but then he realised that he’d forgotten about a crucial part of the proposing process – that it was supposed to be done with a small velvet jewellery box in hand, not at the bottom of one’s sock drawer.
Martin didn’t seem to mind – admittedly, the jewellery box probably wasn’t all that necessary, especially when you were proposing to a man. But James liked doing the extra little things, especially for Martin, who asked for so very little.
He lifted Martin’s chin to kiss him. He might as well pretend that he hadn’t forgotten.
“I have something for you,” he said, trying to sit up, but Martin didn’t let him.
“You’ve already given me everything.”
“Not an engagement gift.”
Martin shifted and allowed James to sit up. “A diamond ring?” he asked, half joking, half anxious, as if he actually thought that it might be true.
James shook his head. “Something much better,” he said, hoping that it was indeed better. He’d considered a ring for a moment, but they’d both have wedding bands and one ring was probably enough for a man who never wore any jewellery. A watch would have been a good option, he’d thought, but he’d already given Martin one that he treated almost like a pet. Finally he’d decided on an engraved tie clip that would go well with Martin’s uniform. Martin liked everything that went well with his uniform.
He got out of bed and rummaged through his drawer until he found the sleek black box. He felt a slight trepidation when he handed it to Martin, even though he was almost sure Martin would like it.
Martin looked at the box for a moment, as if trying to guess what was inside, and then he opened it. A smile appeared on his face almost immediately, and he looked up at James, beaming.
“You’re such a romantic,” he said, running his fingers over the engraving.
“You like it?” James had to ask, even though it was pretty obvious from Martin’s expression, and he climbed back into bed.
“Yes! It’s lovely! It’ll look great on my uniform tie.” He looked back at the clip for a moment, but then his smile faltered. When he lifted his eyes back to James, he seemed almost guilty. “But I didn’t get you anything.”
Oh, Martin. He always had to find something to worry about.
James moved to him to kiss his forehead.
“You’re not expected to. And you couldn’t have known I was going to propose, could you?”
“No, but when I thought… I wanted to as well, but I didn’t think… It didn’t occur to me to buy anything.”
It took James a while to realise what he means.
“You mean you wanted to… propose too?”
“Yes,” Martin said shyly, as if admitting a breach of rules. “But I don’t—I’m glad that you did it, I would have… thrown up on your shoes, or, or asked you to pass me the salt instead, it would’ve been horrible…”
“It would have been perfect.” Somehow this means even more to James than Martin saying yes. He imagines how it would have gone, with Martin blushing more than ever and getting on one knee, and a part of him wishes he’d held his tongue.
“No, it wouldn’t,” Martin said resolutely. “And it would have taken me ages to work up the courage. Trust me, this is better. So much better.” He smiled at his tie clip and then at James, which effectively dispelled all the traces of regret James might have felt. He was lucky that Martin was too honest to abuse his power to get James to do absolutely anything with that smile. Or maybe he hadn’t realised he had that power, which was just as likely.
“I admit that the choice of location was some very good thinking on my part,” James grinned, lifting Martin’s shirt slightly with one finger. “Very convenient, don’t you think?”
“I’m afraid there is a slight problem with your plan.”
James frowned. “I thought you didn’t have to be at the airfield until noon?”
“Yes, but I promised Lancelot we’d go for a walk when you wake up,” Martin shrugged apologetically. “I think we’ve kept him waiting long enough.”
“He’s a dog. He won’t mind.”
“Ha ha, you can’t fool me! I know you’d throw me out of the house if I disregarded Lancelot’s wishes.”
“Not out of the house. Out of bed, maybe. And only for a while, because then I’d miss you.”
Martin moved to carefully deposit the tie clip box on the bedside table, and then turned back to James, his face very close.
“I’ll be back in the evening, though,” he said in a low voice, his breath ghosting over James’ lips. “And then I’ll be all yours.”
One thing was certain: when he put his mind to it, Martin definitely knew how to use that gorgeous voice of his.
“I like the sound of that.”
“You’re very predictable in what you like,” Martin said with a small laugh. He seemed to hesitate slightly, and then he added with a grin, “You know, I think we shouldn’t make Lancelot wait too much longer, so it would be in his best interests if we showered together.”
Only two times in Douglas’ memory had Martin arrived at the airfield later than he did. The first time was when his sister had a baby, and the second when his van broke down on the way, so when Martin was late for the third time (late in his terms, of course – in everyone else’s understanding he still had more than five minutes to be on time), Douglas didn’t know whether he should be worried or just shocked. It was Martin,however – the man who had managed to lock himself out of his house, have his wallet stolen and get a food poisoning all in one day – so Douglas should probably prepare himself for some kind of disaster that he (who else?) would have to solve.
When Martin finally arrived, he didn’t look like anything bad had happened – in fact, he looked insufferably smug. Though that didn’t bode particularly well either – Martin usually looked smug only when he’d managed to overlook a fatal flaw in his plan.
“And what has made sir so late, if I may inquire?” Douglas asked. Better find out what this was about before Carolyn came in shouting that Martin had insulted a client again.
“I’m late?” Martin squeaked, looking at his watch in panic, because obviously there was nothing worse on earth than being late for work. He relaxed when he saw that he still had four minutes in hand, unbuttoned his jacket and put his hands in his trouser pockets. “Well,” he said, shrugging slightly, “I had better things to do than your paperwork.”
It was extremely suspicious. Martin would never leave his jacket unbuttoned when standing – because it made one look “slack and unprofessional” – and there was a chance that he considered putting his hands in his pockets at the same time a minor criminal offence. Of course Douglas saw immediately what this was about – Martin was wearing a new golden tie clip, and he clearly wanted Douglas to remark upon it. Being Martin, he couldn’t just say, “Look, Douglas, I’ve got a new tie clip,” oh no, he had to strut around like a peacock attempting to set a new world record in ridiculousness. Well, if he was so keen on amusing Douglas, Douglas wasn’t going to ruin his fun by doing what Martin wanted him to do. It would be more interesting to see just how desperate Martin would get and what new levels of extreme silliness it would make him reach.
Douglas put on his best bored face and reached for his phone, not sparing one more glance at Martin. He wanted to ignore him for some minutes, but then Arthur burst in and ruined his plans.
“Hi chaps! Douglas, you’ve got to help me!”
Douglas raised an eyebrow, not failing to notice Martin’s disappointed look when Arthur barely looked at him. “Have I?”
“Yes! Do you know Sally, from customs?”
“Yes,” Douglas drawled.
“I think she likes me!” Arthur said excitedly, almost bouncing a little.
“She’s married,” Douglas pointed out. “To a woman.”
“I know! I think they want me for a threesome! That’s brilliant, isn’t it?”
“Undoubtedly,” Douglas said. “Why would you need my help?”
“Because I’ve never had a threesome! But you have, haven’t you?”
“If it’s a humanly possible sexual practice, you can bet I’ve done it, and been fantastic at it.”
“That’s what I thought! So maybe you could give me some tips!”
“Really,” Martin said, his face turning a particularly hideous shade of red, “couldn’t you save this kind of talk for after work?”
“I’m sorry, Arthur,” Douglas smirked. “I forgot about Martin’s delicate sensibilities. We mustn’t discuss such shocking matters in front of him.”
“It’s unprofessional,” Martin hissed.
“But Skip!” Arthur said plaintively. “We were at work too when you told me about…” he stopped himself, not because of Martin’s suddenly alarmed expression, but because he noticed the tie clip. “Wow! Where did you get that?”
“It was a gift,” Martin said with a pleased smile.
“It’s really nice!” Arthur bowed his head to examine it. “M-R-S,” he read the engraving. “What does that stand for? What’s your middle name?”
“Alexander,” Martin said questioningly.
“Oh. So it’s not your initials.”
“What? Of course it isn’t, Crieff doesn’t begin with an S!”
“But the S could stand for Skipper!” Arthur said, as if it should have been obvious. “Ooh! It could stand for Martin, Real Skipper! Or… Responsible! Or Reliable!”
“Or Rigid,” Douglas offered. Martin glared at him. “Or,” Douglas continued slowly and with emphasis, to prepare ground for his big revelation, “it could be the IATA location identifier of Marseilles Airport.”
Martin’s blush deepened. “I – yes. It is.”
“Wow!” said Arthur. “Brilliant! But why Marseilles? Why not Fitton?”
Douglas settled more comfortably in his chair. He had a good idea where this was going.
“Well,” Martin said and cleared his throat. “That is. It’s from, from James. And the airport in Marseilles is where we first talked.”
“Aw, that’s very romantic!”
“It it, isn’t it?” Martin agreed enthusiastically, giving Douglas a dark look, as if daring him to disagree with it.
“I wonder what the occasion was for such a romantic present,” Douglas said. “Was it perhaps the same occasion that made you late today?”
“I wasn’t late!” Martin spluttered. “But – yes. You’re right.”
“I usually am.”
“James…” said Martin, then stopped and cleared his throat again, looking at them with a mixture of nervousness and pride on his face. “We’re getting married.”
Arthur made a sound that Douglas wouldn’t have thought could be produced by a human, and enveloped Martin in a hug with such a force that he nearly knocked him off his feet.
“Skip, that’s brilliant! Can I make your wedding cake? Please, Skip! I always wanted to the figurines on top, they’re brilliant!”
“I don’t think those are edible, Arthur,” Martin mumbled.
“I could make them edible!” Arthur exclaimed. Douglas sincerely doubted his words, but Arthur looked about to self-combust from sheer joy, so he didn’t say anything. “And I can wear my brilliant dinner jacket! Mum never lets me wear it anywhere because it’s only for really, really special occasions, and Skip’s wedding will be the most special occasion ever!”
“Undoubtedly,” Douglas said, and he was about to offer his congratulation and thus shut Arthur up, when Carolyn entered and all chances of Arthur shutting up were lost. On the bright side, he wasn’t talking about threesomes.
“Mum! Skip’s getting married! Can the wedding be in our garden please! I could organise everything!”
Carolyn used her secret superpower to remain absolutely calm when faced with the full force of Arthur’s unrestrained enthusiasm.
“Oh,” she said simply, looking at Martin appraisingly. “I knew this day would come.”
“You could at least pretend to be happy for my sake,” Martin huffed. “And I don’t want the wedding to be in your garden, that was Arthur’s idea! Not that I don’t like your garden, I mean, obviously, but I never said I wanted…”
“I am happy for your sake,” Carolyn interrupted him. “I am, however, not so happy for my sake, and my company’s sake.”
“What? I’m not leaving,” Martin said.
“Of course you aren’t. But I can’t let you try to balance two jobs and a family life, so you’ll have to stop with your ridiculous man with a van business. I won’t have you blaming me for the failure of your marriage.”
“My marriage isn’t going to fail!” Martin said immediately, but then he stilled and his eyes went wide. “What… are you saying…”
“I’m saying that I’m going to pay you, yes,” Carolyn said, rolling her eyes. “Try to keep up.”
“You’re going to pay me,” Martin repeated, staring at Carolyn disbelievingly. “In money?”
“No, Martin, in cattle and produce. Yes, in money, you silly man. Pound sterling.”
Martin continued to stare at her, glancing at Douglas as if expecting him to shout “April fool’s”. When Douglas didn’t, Martin opened and closed his mouth before finally saying, “Thank you, Carolyn.”
Carolyn waved her hand dismissively. “You have been nagging me about it for years. And we’re doing rather well at the moment, considering. Of course it means that all trips now run on an even tighter budget than before, and every unnecessary diversion is going to be cut from your salary.”
Martin’s face morphed into the most ridiculous grin ever seen, and he actually jumped.
“I’m going to get paid! And married! I’m going to be a paid professional married pilot!”
“Wonderful,” said Carolyn dryly. “Now, listen. Mr Woodhouse just called that they’re going to be late. Which means that Arthur is to going to try and get the stain off 3A before someone thinks it’s blood.”
“It is blood, though,” Arthur pointed out.
“Yes,” Carolyn said with her most frightening smile. “But we don’t need the passengers to know that you’re a danger to their health. In the meantime, Douglas, please do one of your tricks so that Martin looks less deranged when the clients arrive.”
“I don’t –“
“Yes, you do,” she said briskly, but then her gaze softened for a moment. “Congratulations, Martin. Don’t make a hash of it.”
“I won’t! Why does everyone always think that I muck everything up?”
“I don’t know,” Douglas said slowly. “What reason could we possibly have?”
Carolyn and Arthur went to deal with the blood stain, and Martin shuffled his feet, looking at Douglas a little defiantly, like a boy expecting to be reprimanded by his father for a mischief that he considers justified.
“So,” Martin said awkwardly.
“So,” Douglas said. “It appears that today is your lucky day.”
“You… think so?”
“Based on the extraordinary and slightly frightening display of good spirits just now, it would be rather silly of me to think otherwise, wouldn’t you say?”
“So you don’t… disapprove,” Martin said haltingly, and it occurred to Douglas that his opinion actually mattered to Martin. He wanted Douglas’ approval. How had he never realised that before?
“Well, that will depend on whether Carolyn decides to cut my pay in order to pay you. But in essence, no, I don’t disapprove.”
“You know I meant the… the other thing.”
“I might not have the best experience with the institution of marriage, granted, but why on earth should I disapprove of something that makes you happy?”
“You did disapprove… before.”
“Yes. Before, when I thought it was going to end in a guilt trip of gargantuan proportions. Since then, I’ve had the dubious fortune of listening to you jabber away about the one hundred and one wonders of James Langley, had to look at your goofy grin for at least half an hour after every time you ended a phone call with him, and witnessed the two of you behaving like cartoon characters with hearts for eyes so often that I now suffer from hyperglycaemia. As far as I can tell, you are almost disgustingly happy together. Trust me, if I disapproved, you would have noticed a very long ago.”
Martin looked at him with suspicion for a moment, and then smiled.
“That’s… I’m glad. I’m really… glad.” Eloquent as ever.
“As you should be. You know that my blessing is essential for the success of any risky endeavour, which marriage certainly is.”
“I need to call James.”
“Of course you do. It must be almost an hour since you last talked.”
“Oh, shut up! I need to tell him about Carolyn!”
He rushed out of the Portacabin to make his phone call, which was unlikely to make him look less deranged, but Douglas supposed that today, he was allowed.
It was late when Martin returned home, but he wasn’t feeling tired at all. All day he’d been floating on a cloud of happiness, to the point that it made him almost anxious. He found it almost impossible to believe that this was really his life, that he had all he’d ever wanted, and he half expected some kind of disaster to happen. But it didn’t, and he was really going to get paid for his work and he was going to marry the person he loved more than he could say and the only thing he had lacked all day was James by his side.
But now he was home, and James wasn’t doing anything revolting like feeding Cleopatra live mice (which he was specifically instructed to only ever do in Martin’s absence), so he could go straight to him and do his favourite thing in the world – wrap his arms around James’ waist and hold on tight. James let out a soft huff of breath which meant he found Martin endearing, like he always did whenever Martin made a beeline for him straight after coming home. Usually Martin did it when they had been apart for days; never before because of a steady buzz of joy running through his veins. He wanted to tell James how happy he felt, but he couldn’t do that anymore than he could tell him how much he loved him.
He loosened his grip slightly and tilted his head back to kiss James, slow but thorough, and he put every emotion bubbling up inside him into the kiss, knowing that James would understand, because he always did. James kissed back in the way that meant he’d been thinking about Martin all day.
“I got wine and that cheese you like,” James said when they broke apart. “If you’re not too tired to celebrate.”
Martin smiled, shaking his head and saying nothing. He looked at James’ kind face, the small wrinkle between his eyebrows that never quite disappeared anymore, the mole under his left ear, the streaks of grey in the light brown hair of his temples. Martin wondered how quickly the greying was going to progress, and his skin tingled with the knowledge that he was going to be there to see it.
Just like every time Martin wanted to do nothing but look at James and James wasn’t sleeping, James had to say something that made Martin look away.
“I’m so proud of you, you know.”
It was far from being the first time he said something like that, but Martin suspected he’d never grow fully used to praise, so freely given and honest.
“I haven’t done anything,” he mumbled. Getting paid for doing one’s job wasn’t exactly an unheard of achievement.
“You’re a good pilot,” James said. “Not even Carolyn can pretend otherwise. I’m proud that you held on until you proved yourself to her, and that you’ll finally get what you deserve.”
Martin felt that he already had far more than he deserved, but he didn’t say anything because he was sure that it was one of those topics that he and James always disagreed on. He kissed him briefly instead.
He leaned his head on James’ shoulder, feeling his arms tighten around him.
“I want the wine and cheese,” he murmured. “And… other forms of celebration. But right now I don’t really want to move.” There just wasn’t anything better than James’ hugs, it was as simple as that.
He felt James’ lips in his hair.
“Let’s not, then,” James said, and held on.