Chapter 1: Barcelona
“And where will we be residing tonight?” Douglas asked. “Have you booked us into a campground under the disguise of ‘rustic country charm’ again?”
Carolyn’s exasperated sigh was clearly audible over the sat-com. “God save me from pilots who think they’re funny,” she muttered. “No, you are in a hotel, provided that you accept the existence of four walls, a ceiling, and a bed as the minimum definition of hotel. You even have your own rooms. More or less.”
“More or less,” Douglas echoed. “Meaning what?”
“Meaning one of you will have your own room, and one will be sharing with Arthur.”
Both pilots made protesting noises. “Carolyn, that is entirely improper,” Martin said. “We are professionals. You can’t just shove us into rooms together to save a few pounds.”
“Martin, I want you to think about how many times we’ve had this conversation. You tell me I can’t do something, I tell you I can, you agree that technically, yes, I can, and then I proceed to do that thing. Is it truly necessary to cover this again?”
“Don’t whinge. You’ll like sharing with Arthur. If I can share a house with him you can certainly survive one evening.”
“What makes you think I’m the one sharing with him?” Martin replied. Beside him, Douglas raised an eyebrow.
“Because I know you, and I know Douglas, and I was not born yesterday.”
“Three excellent points,” Douglas chimed in. Martin sputtered.
Carolyn clicked off, and they shared a wary glance. Martin set his jaw. “I’m the captain,” he said.
“Yes, you are.”
“I’m the senior officer on board.”
“I’m in command.”
“Three in a row, well done.”
“I’m not sharing with Arthur.”
Douglas made a disappointed tsk. “Oh, you almost had four, but you broke your streak. So close.”
“I mean it, Douglas.”
“I’m sure that you do.”
“Mean what?” Arthur asked, popping his head through the flight deck door.
“Ah, Arthur,” Douglas said expansively. “Good news! Tonight, you will get to share a hotel room with one of us in lovely Barcelona.”
Arthur beamed. “Brilliant! Like a sleepover! Can we make a blanket fort?”
“You’ll have to ask Douglas, since you’ll be sharing with him,” Martin said.
“Can we?” Arthur turned hopeful eyes on Douglas.
“Of course you can make a blanket fort,” Douglas said. “I couldn’t possibly sleep without one.”
Arthur bounced on his toes. Martin regarded his first officer with deep suspicion.
“Wow!” Arthur said as they entered the hotel room. “This is even better than the one in Cremona!”
“Depending on your definition of ‘better,’ yes,” Martin replied. He set his bag down on the double bed and sighed.
“It really is, Skip. It doesn’t even have that funny smell!”
“Fair point,” Martin agreed. “It has an entirely different funny smell.”
Arthur nodded happily. “So, why are you sharing with me? I thought it was going to be Douglas.”
“Yes, well, Douglas and I played a little game to see who would share with you.”
“Oh, and you won?”
“No,” Martin said. “No, I didn’t.”
Arthur deflated a little. “Oh. Well, that’s okay, Skip. I don’t mind that nobody wanted to share with me. I bet we can make it fun anyway. Look, there are extra blankets in this cupboard! We could make a really great fort.”
“We’re not making a fort.”
“But Douglas said—“
“Yes, well Douglas isn’t here, is he?” Martin snapped.
“Right,” Arthur said. “Sorry.”
Martin winced at the hurt tone. “No, I’m… you’re right, we can make it fun. But I’m really tired right now, and I’d just like to take a shower and get some sleep. Can we save the fort making for tomorrow?”
“Sure!” Arthur grinned at him, cheer restored. “I’ll just draw up some plans.”
For a moment, Martin considered asking exactly what kind of plans a blanket fort could possibly require, but in the end he kept his mouth shut. That was the sort of conversation with Arthur that could go on a very long time. He shuffled off to the bathroom, casting a dubious glance at the greenish something along the bottom of the shower curtain. If he didn’t look too closely, he could convince himself it was decoration.
He stood still in the shower, letting the water pound his back. At least it was hot; that was something. He rested his head against his arms and closed his eyes, swaying a little on his feet. The rush of the water was loud, but it couldn’t quite drown out the anxious, babbling circle of his thoughts. He scrubbed impatiently at his face. When he finally stepped out of the shower, his skin was pink with heat but he didn’t feel any calmer.
Dressed in soft cotton sleep trousers and a battered old tee, Martin gave his hair a cursory rub with the towel, leaving it sticking up in odd, damp curls. He found Arthur lying on the bed on his belly, feet stuck in the air, wearing pyjamas and watching telly. Arthur grinned at him. “Want to watch this with me?” he asked. “Everything’s in Spanish but you can kind of follow what’s happening. I just make up the bits I don’t understand. That lady is either trying to kill her husband, or trying to steal her friend’s boyfriend. I haven’t decided yet. But she’s definitely not a nice lady. You can tell. She has evil eyebrows.”
Martin gave him a faint smile. “Thanks, but no. I’d really like to get some sleep.”
“Okay,” Arthur said. He slid to one side, making room on the bed.
Martin hesitated, then shrugged and settled down beside him. The room was chilly, especially after his long shower, but Arthur radiated heat. The old mattress sagged toward the center and soon Martin’s hip was resting against Arthur’s side. He felt solid and oddly reassuring.
He dozed, lulled by the murmur of the television and the steady sound of Arthur’s breathing. The next time he opened his eyes, the sky was dark outside the lone window. The television was off and the room was dark, Arthur visible only as an outline in the faint moonlight.
“You awake, Skip?” he asked in a loud whisper.
“Mmm. It’s cold.” He wriggled, lifting the covers, and they managed to get underneath. The sheets were even cooler against his skin and he huddled, trying to curl into the patch of warmth left by Arthur’s body. His knee bumped Arthur’s leg and he jerked back.
“You are cold,” Arthur said. He rolled, his body suddenly pressed all along Martin’s side. His arms slipped around Martin’s waist and gathered him in.
“Hey!” Martin protested, tensing awkwardly. “What are you doing?”
“Giving you a cuddle,” Arthur replied, in a tone that said this was rather obvious but he was happy to explain anyway. “To warm up.”
“Arthur, you can’t just… do that.”
Martin blinked. Arthur was quite warm, and his chest was really very nice to lean on, and his hand was broad and firm on Martin’s back. If he turned his head just a little, it would fit perfectly into the hollow of Arthur’s shoulder. He did, and took a deep breath. Arthur smelled of tea and salt and chocolate. The scent was familiar; a little piece of home in the dingy, anonymous hotel room. Arthur’s hand ran in a long, steady stroke up and down his spine and Martin sighed, relaxing into it. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a proper cuddle.
Arthur wriggled, settling them more comfortably in the cocoon of blankets. His cheek rubbed against Martin’s hair, and Martin slid his own arm tentatively around Arthur’s waist. Arthur made a small, happy sound and squeezed him closer.
“This is nice, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Martin answered. He closed his eyes, focusing on the feeling of Arthur pressed close. Strong hands on his back, the quiet, soothing rhythm of his breathing; even the warm weight of his arm made some small, parched part of him open up and soak it in.
“Better than a blanket fort?”
Arthur smiled; Martin could feel the curve of his cheek against his temple. “Good night, Skip.”
“Good night, Arthur.”
Chapter 2: Trinidad
“You know, I’ve noticed something,” Douglas said.
“Oh good,” Carolyn replied. “I am delighted to hear it.”
Undeterred, Douglas continued, “I’ve noticed that there was a rather familiar aircraft in the next hangar over when we landed.”
Carolyn pursed her lips and swept forward through the hotel lobby, the rest of MJN trailing after her.
“In fact, I’m fairly sure that I recognized the insignia for Air Caledonia.” Douglas said. “Isn’t that a coincidence?”
Douglas and Martin exchanged a meaningful glance. Arthur was a few steps behind, trudging with something less than his usual bounce.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re referring to,” Carolyn said.
“Do you suppose Herc was flying?” Martin asked innocently. “What are the odds of him being here at the same time we are, I wonder? It’s a good thing you decided to come along, Carolyn. Maybe you’ll get to see him.”
“I see more than enough pilots on a daily basis,” she replied archly. “I have absolutely no desire to see another one.”
“And yet, here you are,” Douglas said.
“I am here because Mr. Alyakhin is an important client, and our important clients get our best service. Namely, not Arthur,” she said. “Now, the sooner we check in, the sooner I can go to the beach, and you can go wherever lazy pilots go when they are not lounging about my plane.”
“Ah yes, that ever suspenseful moment when we discover how many rooms we will be crowded into this time,” Douglas said. “Will one of us be saddled with Arthur?”
“You will be relieved to know that I will be sharing with Arthur,” she replied.
“Someday, when he grows up, perhaps he’ll even get his own room,” Douglas said. Martin glanced back at Arthur, grinning, but Arthur was staring at the floor and didn’t look up.
“Dare to dream,” Carolyn said dryly.
Martin stretched out on the hotel bed, taking a deep breath. The room was tiny, but the bed was reasonably comfortable and the warm tropical breeze coming through the window was a welcome change from the grey damp of England. The air carried the salt tang of the ocean, even though the hotel was too cheap to be near the beach.
He picked up his book and flipped a couple pages desultorily. He set it back down with a sigh. Douglas was probably out enjoying the night life, but Martin had learned that the night life wasn’t free. Besides, everyone seemed to be tanned and fit and sparkling with vitality on this island; with his flame red hair and his pale, freckled skin he stood out like a sore thumb. Besides, the time change meant that on his internal clock it was somewhere around two in the morning. Nobody sparkled at two in the morning.
He was tired, but the fading orange and pink streaks of sunlight outside threw him off. Despite the frequent traveling he’d never quite got the knack of sleeping in daylight. The room didn’t have a television; he supposed he should count himself lucky that it had its own bathroom, and that he wasn’t sharing with Douglas. Or Arthur, although that hadn’t been so bad. Rather pleasant, actually.
Martin was just considering his book again when there was a soft knock at the door. Frowning, he got up and listened at the other side. “Yes?”
“Skip? Can I come in?”
“Arthur?” Martin opened the door. Arthur stood on the other side, already dressed in pyjamas, barefoot and curling his toes into the thin carpet.
“Hello,” Arthur said.
Martin stepped aside, letting him into the room. “What are you doing wandering the hotel in your pyjamas?”
“Well, I was staying with Mum, but then she said she needed the room to herself and I should go stay with you or Douglas. And I wanted to stay with you. I know you don’t want me and I’m sorry but Douglas doesn’t want me either and I don’t have anywhere else to go.” He said it all in one rapid breath, the words tumbling together.
“Of course you can stay with me,” Martin said.
Arthur looked up, giving him a relieved smile. “Oh, thanks. There were couches in the lobby but I don’t think they’d let me sleep there.”
“Why did Carolyn kick you out?”
Arthur shrugged. “I think Herc was coming over.”
Martin raised his eyebrows. “Oh really? Douglas is going to love that.”
“Yeah.” Arthur sat on the end of the bed and laced his hands together in his lap, looking down at them. There was something about the curve of his shoulders that Martin didn’t like.
Martin sat beside him, letting their arms brush together. “Are you all right?”
“Oh, yeah,” Arthur said. “I’m fine.”
“You sure? You’ve been kind of quiet this trip.”
“Well, you know, it’s just that Mum told me I’m not to talk to Mr. Alyakhin. Or his clients. Or any passengers that we want to impress.” He gave Martin a plaintive look. “Am I really a terrible steward?”
“Um, well,” Margin hedged.
“I try my best,” Arthur continued. “I really do. Even when the passengers are shouty, like Mr. Hendricks was today. He was very shouty but I brought him his drinks just the way he said. It wasn’t my fault I forgot the lime if he didn’t tell me he wanted it. But Mum didn’t believe me. She said to just stay in the galley and not bother the passengers anymore.”
Martin winced and squeezed Arthur’s shoulder. “No, that wasn’t your fault. I think Carolyn just gets a little… stressed with important passengers. She knows you’re trying your best.”
Arthur nodded. “And you really don’t mind me staying with you?”
“I really don’t,” Martin agreed. “In fact, I’m glad I lost that game with Douglas in Barcelona. It was nice having you with me.”
Arthur brightened a little. “Yeah, that was nice.” He cast a sidelong, hopeful look at Martin. “D’you think we could do that again? Just a bit?”
Martin was already nodding. “Yes, a bit. Come on, then.” He scooted back on the bed and Arthur followed, pulling the blankets aside. They curled underneath and Arthur burrowed close, nuzzling into the curve of Martin’s neck with a long sigh.
The flutter of his breath against the sensitive skin of his neck made Martin shiver, and goose bumps rippled down his back. Arthur apparently took this to mean he was cold and he tugged the blankets closer. Their legs tangled together and Arthur’s hands stroked up and down his spine. Martin breathed in time with the steady caress, feeling something loosen in his chest.
Arthur made a quiet snuffling sound. His fingers clutched at the worn material of Martin’s favorite tee shirt. He showed no signs of letting go.
Martin followed his example, letting one hand trail along Arthur’s back. He discovered that Arthur’s hair was quite soft and spent some time letting it sift through his fingers. The silky slide was hypnotic, soothing. He watched the stars appear through the window as the sky faded to black, and listened as Arthur’s breathing settled into something soft and content.
“Thanks, Skip,” Arthur murmured sleepily.
“Anytime,” Martin said, and meant it.
Chapter 3: Yakutsk
“Is it smaller than a breadbox?”
“No. That’s seven.”
Martin sighed. “Yes, right. Would it fit in the hold?”
“I can count, Douglas,” he snapped.
“Sir’s talents are manifold,” Douglas replied.
Martin rubbed the bridge of his nose. “If I guess it, will you stop calling me sir?”
“What? That doesn’t count as a question!”
“I refute your argument thus: it was a question, I answered it; it counts as a question.”
“I’m not going to get it in five questions anyway,” Martin said.
“On that point we agree.”
“Forget it then. I’ll share with Arthur again, you win.”
Douglas raised an eyebrow. “Your efforts at twenty questions are rather lackluster today,” he said. “One might assume you didn’t especially want to win. That’s, what, the eighth time in a row you’ll be sharing with Arthur?”
“Of course I wanted to win,” Martin retorted. “I just never do. You know that.”
“Fair point,” Douglas said.
They flew in silence for a while, watching the featureless grey expanse of Russia slowly drift by below. Martin caught himself nodding forward and jerked his head up. He rubbed his grainy eyes and took a deep breath. His shoulder gave a warning twinge and he rolled it gingerly, wincing at the motion.
Douglas observed all this without comment, but Martin could just feel him drawing conclusions.
“Nothing,” Douglas said mildly.
“I got enough rest,” Martin said. “I’m perfectly fit to fly.”
“I never suggested otherwise.”
“I do work two jobs, you know. Well… one job, and one hobby. And I had to work this morning before the flight. I know it was during our twelve hours down time but I’m fine.”
“I’m sure you are.”
“I may have wrenched my shoulder a little moving that wardrobe but I can still fly.” Martin could hear the petulant, defensive note in his own voice but he couldn’t seem to make it stop.
Douglas sighed. “Martin, I’m agreeing with you.”
“Yes. Well.” Martin pressed the intercom switch. “Arthur, would you bring me a coffee please?”
“Sure thing, Skip!”
Martin leaned back in his chair. He could still feel Douglas watching him. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “The job this morning was… unpleasant.”
“At least it wasn’t a piano.”
Martin chuckled and gave him a wry smile. “True. I’ve had quite enough of pianos.”
“Me too,” Douglas said heavily.
Arthur popped into the flight deck. “Hello, chaps,” he said. “I’ve got your coffee. You want anything, Douglas?”
“No, thanks,” Douglas said.
Martin turned, reaching for the coffee, then hissed in pain as his shoulder pulled again. He took the coffee with his other hand instead. “Thank you, Arthur.”
“You all right?” Arthur asked. “Did you hurt your arm?”
“My shoulder,” Martin said. “It’ll be fine, just a little sore.”
“Oh, let me get that for you,” Arthur said, and his hands were on Martin’s shoulder before he could protest. His fingers dug into the muscle with firm, steady pressure. It was always a little surprising to realise how strong Arthur was; for all his innocence he was a grown man, taller and broader than Martin himself.
“Mmmmm oh,” Martin mumbled, head lolling on his neck. Arthur kept rubbing with one hand and used the other to spin the chair. Martin’s head rested against his side and he took a deep breath, inhaling the familiar scent. Arthur’s free hand carded through his hair. Martin closed his eyes.
Douglas cleared his throat. Pointedly.
Martin straightened. “Ah, yes, thank you, Arthur. Much better now.”
“Oh, right, okay,” Arthur said, smiling. “Well, I’ve got to do the drinks service. Bye!”
He ducked out, and Martin turned to face ahead. He made a cursory scan of the instruments and rolled his shoulders, pleased to find the motion easier this time. His skin still tingled where Arthur had touched, leaving a lingering warmth.
“Ah,” Douglas said. “I see.”
Martin said nothing. He sipped his coffee with deliberate nonchalance.
“That was nice of him, wasn’t it?”
“Well, Arthur is nice,” Martin replied.
“Yes. Yes he is.”
Yakutsk was, shockingly, not a thriving tourist location. Hotels were sparse, but to Carolyn’s delight they were also very cheap. They all had their own rooms.
The walls of Martin’s room were dull, lifeless beige and the television got exactly three channels, which were all in Russian. It was cold, his shoulder hurt, and he’d reached the peculiar level of exhaustion where everything got a bit swimmy around the edges but he couldn’t unwind enough to sleep.
He dithered a little, but really, not that much. There was no point in telling himself it wasn’t going to happen when he knew perfectly well that it was.
When he knocked on Arthur’s door, it was opened quickly. Arthur grinned and pulled him into the room. “Skip!” he said. “Did you come for a visit?”
“Something like that,” Martin replied. “Is your room warmer than mine? It feels warmer.”
“Don’t know,” Arthur said. “I haven’t been in your room. Want me to check?”
“No, no, stay here.” Martin perched on the edge of the bed. He gave Arthur a hopeful look.
“You’re in your pyjamas,” Arthur said.
“Yes. That’s true.”
“It’s pretty late.”
“Yes it is,” Martin agreed. “And we’ve got a long flight tomorrow. We should really get some rest.”
“Right.” Arthur rocked a little on his heels. “So, um… you should do that?”
Martin shuffled his feet and squeezed the material of the bedspread between his fingers. “Yes. I… I’ll just go, then.”
“You could stay,” Arthur said.
Martin looked up sharply. “I could?”
Arthur tilted his head to one side. His eyes widened in dawning understanding. “Did you come over for a cuddle?”
Asked flat out like that it sounded ridiculous. Childish. Martin ducked his head; he could feel colour rushing to his face. “Ah, well. I may have… yes. Just a bit.”
“Okay,” Arthur said easily. “Come on.” He settled onto the bed, lifted the blanket, and waited.
Martin slid in beside him, already wriggling close to soak up his warmth. Arthur’s arms wound around his waist. Martin made a soft sound in his throat when Arthur’s hand unerringly found his sore shoulder and rubbed it gently. He rested his head against Arthur’s chest and listened to the faint, steady thump of his heart.
He swallowed hard, feeling a hot ache in his throat, and his hands fisted Arthur’s pyjama top. A hand stroked the back of his neck and he let out a shuddering breath.
“When you said just a bit, did you actually mean lots and lots?” Arthur asked.
Martin nodded, his cheek rubbing against Arthur’s shoulder.
“Brilliant,” Arthur whispered.
They were quiet for a long stretch. Martin sprawled as the tension ran out of him and ended up nosing at the soft patch of skin just below Arthur’s ear. Arthur was still idly petting his hair, drawing out the curls and letting them spring back. Eventually, Martin said, “I had a job today. A moving job, I mean.”
“Mmm,” Arthur said. His arm tightened around Martin’s waist.
“Couple of university students moving into a flat. They had to be at least ten years younger than me. They already had jobs, proper paying jobs. Their flat was nicer than any place I’ve lived since I left home.”
Arthur said nothing, but Martin could feel him nod.
“They were both big, looked like rugby players, but they didn’t lift a finger to help me. Watched me shoving all their stuff up two flights of stairs and just laughed. I could hear them making little comments about me the whole time. How my van looked like it wouldn’t last another year and if it didn’t give out, my back probably would, and that was why people couldn’t rely on manual labour to earn an income and needed a university education. Which I have, of course, but I just kept my mouth shut and pushed their bloody wardrobe around the room until they decided they liked it.”
“They they were stupid,” Arthur said.
Martin lifted his head, blinking at Arthur in surprise.
“They were,” Arthur insisted, implacable. “You’re a pilot. You’re the Skipper. That’s better than anything they’ll ever do.”
“You think so?”
“Of course,” Arthur said. “You always wanted to be a pilot, right?”
“And now you are. They don’t know anything. You should have taken me with you. I would have told them.”
Martin gave a soft huff of laughter. “Somehow I have trouble picturing you picking a fight.”
“I would have,” Arthur said stubbornly. “They shouldn’t talk to you like that. And I’d be your helper on any job you wanted. Even another piano. I like helping.”
Martin curled closer. “This helps. You’re helping.”
Arthur stroked his hair. “Good.”
Chapter 4: Fitton
“No, thank you,” Douglas said, not glancing up from his magazine.
“Just a bit,” Martin replied. He looked up in time to catch one of Arthur’s two-eyed winks.
“Right, Skip,” Arthur said. “Just a bit.” He grinned broadly.
Martin felt heat rise in his cheeks and he ducked his head. Arthur bustled away, and Martin focused on his logbook. Douglas’ speculative stare was a weight on his back but he ignored it until it went away.
When Arthur returned, he was carrying an enormous travel mug, brimming full with coffee. “Here you are,” he said, leaning over the desk to set it down. He braced his free hand against Martin’s shoulder, then left it there for a long moment, warm fingertips brushing the back of his neck. Martin turned his head enough for his cheek to rub Arthur’s wrist.
“Anytime,” Arthur replied. He perched on the edge of the desk and swung his feet. “I like stand-by. I mean, flying the plane is brilliant, of course. And getting to see new places with you and Douglas and sometimes Mum, if she comes, that’s brilliant too. But it’s nice to be at home, isn’t it?”
“Mmm,” Martin replied. “I suppose.”
“Well, not for you,” Arthur continued. “Because you love flying. But on stand-by you get to do all your books and procedures and such, and you love those too, right?”
“Our Captain’s love of procedure and regulation is surpassed only by his love of that hat,” Douglas said. “And possibly by his love of coffee, going by the size of that mug. He did say ‘just a bit,’ didn’t he, Arthur?”
“Oh, when Skip says just a bit he actually means lots and lots,” Arthur replied. “It’s a secret code.”
Douglas raised an eyebrow. “Do you, in fact, know what ‘secret’ means?”
“Course I know,” Arthur retorted. He paused, frowning. “Oh. Well, you won’t tell anyone, will you Douglas?”
“My lips are sealed,” Douglas said solemnly. “I would not dare to break such a sacred confidence as the secret code for more coffee.”
“Oh, it’s not just for coffee,” Arthur said. He added another of his broad, two-eyed winks.
“Arthur, didn’t Carolyn ask you to restock the galley while we’re on stand-by?” Martin asked.
“Oh, right.” Arthur grinned and beetled off with a box of sugar and creamer packets.
Douglas put his magazine down and fixed Martin with a piercing look.
“What?” Martin asked. He flipped through his logbook and attempted to radiate an aura of busy importance. Douglas, as always, ignored this.
“Really, Martin? Is that wise?”
“It’s not what you think,” Martin said. “Not that I know what you think. Or even what you’re talking about. Because there’s nothing… nothing going on that is even a little bit unwise.”
“Carolyn will chop you into little pieces.”
“It’s not,” Martin began, and cut himself off abruptly when he heard his voice squeak. “There is honestly, truly nothing going on. And it’s none of your business.”
“So far this morning, Arthur has brought you coffee, biscuits, an apple, two new pens, a clean stack of expense forms, and, perhaps most telling of all, a Toblerone. One of the white ones. From his ‘secret’ stash.”
“So? Arthur is helpful. He’s generous. He brought you tea, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” Douglas agreed. “What he did not do is find an excuse to touch me every single time he walked by. Something he has not managed to resist with you, I might add.”
Martin shot him a rueful look. “Oh. You think Carolyn will figure it out?”
“I think it will take her all of twenty seconds. Thirty if she’s not feeling sharp and really, when is she ever not feeling sharp?”
“But there’s really nothing!” Martin insisted. “I mean. Well. Not yet.”
“I see. But you’d like there to be.”
Martin nodded. “Would Carolyn fire me, do you think?”
“Oh yes,” Douglas said. “And that’s after she chopped you into little bits.”
“Right,” Martin sighed. He fiddled with his pen and blinked down at his logbook until it grew blurry.
Douglas gave an impatient huff and relented, his voice softening. “Oh, for god’s sake, no she won’t. For one thing, she’ll never find another pilot who will work for free. For another, Arthur is, despite all appearances, actually a grown man. If he wants to be with you, and it’s obvious that he does, she’s got nothing to say about it.”
“But you said—”
“Yes, never mind what I said,” Douglas interrupted. “Four years and you still can’t tell when I’m winding you up? I’m good, I know, but do pay attention.”
A slow smile spread across Martin’s face. “Really? You think it’ll be all right, then?”
“Yes, really,” Douglas replied with longsuffering patience, but his expression was fond. “Honestly, Martin, you don’t need my permission.”
“No, you’re right, I don’t, I’m just…”
“Pleased to have my blessing, of course, and who wouldn’t be?” Douglas finished for him. “Now stop mooning over that paperwork, it’s been done for ages and you know it. Go and get your man.”
“Douglas!” Martin said; despite the scandalized tone he was already rising from his chair.
“I will expect gratitude in the form of first crack at the cheese tray any time I feel like it,” Douglas called after him. Martin, halfway out the door, pretended not to hear.
Arthur was re-stocking the tiny bags of cashews and humming tunelessly to himself. When Martin approached he glanced up, grinned, and waved.
“Arthur, hi,” Martin said. “Um… going well, is it?”
Rather than mock him for this rather foolish question, Arthur just nodded. Martin smiled at him. “Can I help?”
“Gosh, that’s nice of you, but I’m really kind of done,” Arthur replied. He closed the cupboard door and tied off a small bin bag with an air of finality.
“Oh,” Martin said. “Right, well. That’s good, isn’t it?”
Arthur nodded. There was a pause, and Martin realised he was standing at the entrance to the galley and blocking Arthur’s path off the plane. He took a step back and offered a sheepish grin. Arthur didn’t move; he tilted his head to one side and gave him a long, sweeping glance.
“You want something, Skip?”
There were times he could be very perceptive; it always caught Martin by surprise. “Yes, actually, I was hoping to talk to you.”
Arthur took a step forward, then another, until they were crowded together in the aisle. Arthur’s hands landed on his waist, holding him in place; Martin could feel the warmth through his shirt. “I want something too,” Arthur said softly.
“Oh?” Martin swallowed hard. “And, um… what’s that?”
“Mostly it involves not talking,” Arthur replied. He leaned in, arms slipping around Martin until he was cradled close, and burrowed into the crook of his neck. His breath tickled and fluttered against Martin’s throat. His voice was a pleasant, tingling rumble there when he spoke. “Is this okay?”
Martin nodded. He put his own arms around Arthur’s back, letting one hand sift through his hair. They’d done this a handful of times in anonymous hotel rooms, but it was different here on the plane, standing up, in daylight. More deliberate; more real. He shivered as Arthur’s lips brushed his neck in a way that was clearly intentional.
He turned and mouthed the hinge of Arthur’s jaw; Arthur’s hands clenched in his shirt and his breath caught. Martin pulled back enough to look at him. Arthur’s eyes were hazy and dark; pupils dilated and a flush of colour on his cheeks. “Are you sure?” Martin asked.
“Yes,” Arthur said, before he’d even finished asking the question. “It’s brilliant. You’re brilliant.” He leaned in and kissed Martin properly; a sudden warm touch of lips that made him draw in a quick, startled breath. His mouth opened in surprise and Arthur’s tongue darted out, the tip running in a sizzling line along the bow of his upper lip before retreating. “All right?” Arthur asked.
“All right,” Martin agreed. He pulled Arthur close, arms going tight around his waist, and pressed his face against the solid, reassuring curve of his shoulder. Arthur’s hands stroked his back and he leaned into the touch. It was amazing how good such a simple thing could feel; he thought to really understand how lovely it was to be held, you had to have missed out on a lot of it.
Arthur made a quiet shushing sound; Martin took a deep breath. He relaxed, letting Arthur support him. Sweet, good-hearted Arthur, who couldn’t tell a lie to save his life. If he said he wanted this, wanted Martin, then no matter how hard it was to believe, it had to be true.
Arthur peppered a line of small kisses down the side of his neck, then nibbled at the spot just below his ear. Martin squirmed and bit his lip. “How, ah, how did you know about that?”
He felt Arthur’s lips curl into a grin. “You like it?”
“Um. Yes.” Martin glanced down. “Rather a lot, apparently.”
Arthur giggled and kissed him again. “More?”
Martin smiled. “Just a bit.”