Martin Crieff – the new captain, and oh, how that word tastes sour, Douglas’ new captain - turns out to be the short, skinny, red-faced, and completely unimpressive sort. He’s even stammering as he introduces himself, “I’m Ca-captain Crieff, or well - Martin - but you should, um, call me ‘captain’ or ‘sir’. Hello.”
Douglas accepts Martin’s outreached clammy hand and shakes it, entirely prepared to dislike him with a deep and never-ending prejudice.
The poor sod’s still talking, too. “I would be honoured, no - privileged! No, well, honoured, truly, and glad, to be, um...”
Douglas gives him a hard look, and Martin’s voice trails off.
Douglas takes in the slight sheen of sweat on Martin’s brow. The entirely too weak handshake that he is still holding on to. And asks, “Prepared for that, are you?”
Martin shifts uncomfortably.
“Ready to be in command ?”
Martin hesitates. Then says, “Yes! Yes, I am, ready. For command. Yes.” But the dull blush on his cheeks means that Douglas has already won.
It took all of thirty seconds to get the better of Martin Crieff, and that is why Douglas isn’t worried. Nor bothered by him, really.
It’s clear who’s going to be in charge.
Plus, Martin Crieff is quite possibly the worst pilot Douglas has ever seen.
He is a wall of nervous energy. Constantly wringing his hands, or holding them on the controls even when he doesn’t need to. The sound of ATC startles him so badly that he upends his coffee down his lap, and spends the rest of their first flight with an oddly shaped stain on his trousers that he clumsily hides with his hands when Carolyn comes in.
Actually, it’s mildly entertaining.
Douglas fully relaxes after a couple of hours. It’s quite clear that he’s never going to have to try very hard to out-smart Martin, out-charm him, or out-do him in anything at all. Which is how it should be, naturally.
Except that Martin doesn’t seem to get the memo to tone it down. Oh, he gets over calling Arthur ‘Mr. Shappey’ - mainly because Arthur had a very peculiar reaction to it, going through great pains to tell him that Mr. Shappey is his dad, and Arthur going through great pains isn’t a match for anyone - but it doesn’t help much.
A week in, Martin’s managed to speak in full sentences about where he’s from - Wokingham, entirely boring. Where he got his licence - asking was a mistake because Martin spent ten full minutes explaining in such detail that Douglas is only too aware that he will never get those minutes back. And that he has a brother and sister. He even agreed to a word game and then completely failed at it, but he was willing to play, at least.
The problem is... Well, Douglas prides himself in never feeling the slightest sliver of stress on the job. But there is a certain limit to how much fidgeting he can stand and it’s starting to affect his carefully-cultivated Zen.
On day ten of them being stuck in a metal can together, Douglas tries, “You are aware that we’re flying over a desert, aren’t you? You can stop checking our bearing every two minutes.”
Martin looks at him with that combination of haughty and terrified he always seems to pull off when it comes to ‘the rules’ and says, “A good pilot is always watchful!”
“No, a good pilot knows when he needs to be, and when he doesn’t. Like right now.” Douglas stretches out languidly. “See? She’s still flying just fine.”
Martin is sitting up ramrod-straight, and he only seems to sit up straighter in defiance. His hands are trailing the controls, and his knees are pressed against the edge even though he has more than enough room. “Well, I want to do it right!”
“Martin...” Douglas sighs deeply, then doesn’t quite know what else he wants to say. “...do try to contain your enthusiasm.”
He picks up a magazine he stowed under his seat earlier.
Douglas leafs through it, but he can’t suppress the desire to lean over, grab Martin’s shoulders, and pull him back into his seat. It’s enough to make his hands itch.
After a moment, Martin offers, trying to sound casual but missing by a mile, “We could, I mean, if you wanted to, we could maybe, I don’t know, play a game?”
Ah. Maybe there’s hope for him yet.
Douglas looks up slowly, puts his magazine down, and grins. “Care to make it interesting?”
In the next two months, Douglas wins in rapid succession: The cheese tray for a day - a week - three weeks - two months - the rest of the year. Martin’s lunch. Martin’s watch. Martin’s umbrella. A Canadian dollar and thirty cents. A single stick of gum. Three hundred Chinese Yuan. A bottle of Brazilian wine. A pair of hotel slippers. Martin’s hat, at one point, but Douglas let him keep it - he’s pretty sure those were tears welling up in Martin’s eyes at the thought of losing it.
Really, Douglas could quite literally and figuratively play Martin for the shirt off his back. It’s almost too easy.
But then Martin’s the captain, as he’s so fond of reminding them all. Constantly.
Douglas would feel bad about it - and in a way, he does, he has never met anyone in his life with the implausibly bad luck Martin seems to generate - but it’s just too easy to goad Martin into a bet. To string Martin along, to twist his words, make him feel suspicious, and he has him. It’s like hooking a fish. It’s the brief righteousness when the world evens out in Douglas’ favour, again and again.
But curiously, it’s not just Douglas who keeps on playing, either. It’s Martin who keeps on letting him.
Martin’s not that stupid really, so by now he should have realised that he will never, ever win, no matter how clever he thinks he’s being. But yet he keeps on giving, keeps on trying. And so Douglas keeps on exploiting.
Even now, Martin is looking at him with bright, shining eyes and a vivid blush on his cheeks overwhelming even the bravest of freckles. “Bora Bora.”
“Not quite right, but fine, I’ll give it to you. Now two more.”
“Um...” Martin is still close to the controls. He would notice if something went wrong, but all of his brain power is directed elsewhere and it shows. He’s sitting fully turned towards Douglas, counting on his hands. “Fiji, right, Samoa, Bora Bora...”
“I don’t know!” Martin seems distressed, but Douglas can tell the difference between Martin’s general anxiety and Martin’s competitive streak by now, and this is most certainly the second. Martin doesn’t seem small and turned into himself anymore like this, he’s gesturing wildly. “New Guinea? No, no, that’s the mainland. Then what else is there?!”
“One more, one more, oh, ah, I don’t, I should, I really...” Martin’s wavering. The right answers are right in front of him, it’s not hard at all, Douglas could come up with three in that time without breaking a sweat. But Martin is racking his brain, thinking wildly.
“Thirty seconds.” Douglas can feel the nearing sense of victory, so sweet it gathers in his stomach, warm and bright.
“Isle of Man!” Martin yells.
Then instantly doubts it. “No, no, that’s not in the Pacific, is it?”
“Not even remotely.”
“It’s just that it’s all I can think off, and there’s nothing else, so I...”
Douglas glances at his watch. “Ten seconds, now or never.”
Martin opens his mouth, reaches for a word that isn’t there... and closes it again. “I don’t. I can’t, I don’t know...”
“Aaaaand… done.” Douglas says it happily, with a brief snap of warmth.
He looks over at Martin, and there’s something alive about Martin like this, the way he is not even remotely sagged against his seat. He never is, but he’s not at all tense now, he’s sitting up in eagerness. Douglas offers, “I’ll go again if you want.”
They both knew he would. It’s three more hours to Hanoi, what else are they going to do? But yet there’s that slightly careful tilt to Martin’s voice, as if he wasn’t quite sure. As if he expects Douglas not to want to, one day.
Douglas tries his hardest to sound magnanimous. “Hmm, I don’t see why not. You can pick the topic this time, make it easier on you.”
“No, you can pick, I can do it.” Martin’s lips form a firm line for a moment, as is he’s telling it to himself. “I can!”
Douglas feels a mild sense of glee, another one in the bag. “Oh, I never doubted it. All right: South-American bodies of water.”
In Genoa, Martin accidentally lands them with the breaks on.
He goes utterly pale when he realises what he’s done, and he is shaking so badly that he can’t even turn the taxi switch off.
Douglas makes a joke about it, of course. But he consciously has to stop himself from reaching out and stilling Martin’s trembling hands.
Martin doesn’t seem to notice, as he runs off to throw up into the loo. Arthur follows him in with peach-scented air spray and insistent concern, so he’s fine.
No reason at all for Douglas to go as well and give some helpful suggestions concerning perhaps not turning the brakes on next time. It makes Martin smile weakly. Eventually.
A week later, Douglas - purposely and for the first time in recorded history - lets Martin win.
He’s not certain why, except that it was bound to happen someday anyway. And four months and six days is rather an impressive winning streak, even if he says so himself. “Name your price, oh Crieff The Victorious.”
Martin seems startled. He was ahead by a couple of points throughout the game, but now he’s actually won, he seems stunned. “...Um.”
That alone makes Douglas feel rather mellow about the whole thing. And a little pleased to see Martin’s face, really.
Arthur comes in. “Wow, skip, did you really win?”
“He sure did.” Martin seems less cocky about it than Douglas had assumed he would be. Really, he’s due for some revenge, he should be gloating right now, not looking vaguely terrified.
Arthur seems more enthused than Martin is. “You can ask for anything!”
“Within reason.” Douglas cautions.
“Oh, yes, remember - Mum said that we can never play for clothes again.”
After strip-Cluedo left Arthur shirtless, Carolyn made it a hard rule. Shame, Douglas had enjoyed the sheer panic in the passenger’s eyes at seeing an overly friendly, near-naked man offering them drinks. “...I really doubt he wants my clothes, Arthur.”
Martin twitches at that. “Hah! I, no. No. No!”
There’s a pause. Douglas says, “So what will it be? Now’s your chance, what is it your little Crieff-heart desires?” He’s sort of curious. Douglas himself has always received a constant stream of knick-knacks and food, but what is it that Martin would ask for, if given the chance? “Mind you, it would have to be within my reach.” Douglas grins. “But then what isn’t.”
Martin glances at him. “I don’t, um, I don’t... know.”
“The cheese tray is a popular choice. Albeit a tad too expected.”
But Martin ducks his head down. “I don’t want anything, really.”
“Martin... you routinely lose various food items and your dignity to me, now is your chance to get something back.”
Martin looks down. “Can we just play again?”
He genuinely doesn’t ask for a thing.
The next flight, Martin is fifty-three points in the red opposed to Douglas’ twelve, when after a gruelling five hours and twenty-two minutes marathon of trivia-slaughter, Arthur finally calls it. “And that’s the Camembert to Douglas!”
They’ve stopped playing for the cheese tray in its entirety, as Martin’s stomach has the tendency to rumble audibly when he gets nothing but the crackers. But he doesn’t seem defeated. Oh, on the surface Martin’s all frustration about his loss, but then the flight has passed a lot faster than it usually would. Douglas saw him scramble when the weather report came in ten minutes late and he hadn’t even noticed. Martin. Hadn’t noticed.
Douglas would consider it to be a personal victory on more fronts than one, and he, still high on the glee of winning, puts his hand on the side of Martin’s arm in official acknowledgement. “Well played.”
But Martin instantly freezes. He gets a faint blush and awkwardly pulls himself away.
When Martin gets up to go to the loo right after - he has held out bravely all this time, Douglas’ own bladder is protesting as well - Douglas asks Arthur, trying not to take it personally, “Is Martin not really the touching sort?”
“No, I don’t think so. I tried to hug him once, and he made that sound, you know, like when someone punches you in the chest?”
“Yes, strangely - I do.” Martin sounded like that when the latest rich arsehole of a client mistook him for the steward and asked for a moist towelette. There were near-tears then, too.
“Some people need their personal space,” Arthur muses. “I learned that on a course.”
The flight after that, they play blind scrabble, and Martin loses so badly it’s near-impossible - he actually ends up with less points than he began with.
Then it’s thirty-three rounds of twenty questions. A game on Arthur’s fifteen-year old Gameboy. A dispute about what the capital of Taiwan is called.
On a memorable night in Hawaii, a drinking game started by Carolyn where Martin tries to drink them all under the table and ends up under the actual table - Arthur has to carry Martin fireman-style to their room and stop to let him throw up on a miniature palm tree.
Douglas beats Martin at chess. At checkers. At cards, at a Chinese strategy game, at counting chickens in Brazil, at seeing who can hail a cab the fastest in Lima. Douglas wins at near-everything, every single day, but still Martin keeps trying with a type of dogged will that doesn’t make sense, other than that Douglas deeply enjoys his working days now, because beating Martin is always worth it.
A week later, they’re playing ‘not dare because Carolyn doesn’t want us to anymore after the incident with juggling ice cubes and the accidental fondling of a passenger by Arthur.’
Douglas eyes Martin with a predatory grin. “Martin! Your turn! Tell us a truth.”
“Um...” Martin says, “I’ve never... played games. Like this, before.”
“Not much of a confession, is it?” It really isn’t, considering Douglas’ last one was, “I miss drinking so much I consider drinking.”
Martin’s hand twitches, and he quickly hides it against his leg. Douglas feels the familiar urge to take Martin’s hand, uncurl every tense finger, and hold it still between his own hands.
“No one else has ever wanted to. Play with me.”
“What, like in school?”
“Ever.” Martin glances at him.
Douglas doesn’t ask any more.
The whole cabin smells like burned apple.
Arthur was trying to perfect his microwave apple pie heating technique by timing the seconds and feeding them endless slices in varying degrees of tongue-blisteringly hot. But now, after five servings and the resulting sugar rush, Arthur has crashed and is snoring in the galley. The passengers are undoubtedly savvy enough to wake Arthur if need be, so they leave him there. But along with Arthur, the excitement has gone.
They’re practically hovering over Kazakhstan.
Martin is lovingly cleaning the instruments with a special electronics rag - he does so every Thursday after he saw Arthur liberally spray them with air freshener once - and Douglas offers, “Boooored.”
They’ve already played a vast array of classics and time seems to flow like toffee.
Martin glances at him in-between giving the altimeter just that extra touch of shine and suggests, “We could always play trivia-from-the-flight-manual again?”
The last - and only - occasion they ever did this marked Martin’s memorable win of one hundred to three, mainly because Douglas lost interest around the time Martin picked the first question, and Martin had insisted on playing on.
Douglas empathically enunciates, “Ugh.”
“Yes, but it’s, Douglas, it’s educational!” Martin continues with a deep sense of conviction, “It’s really not safe that you don’t know most of the procedures, it could be life-threatening!”
Douglas does know most of them, in fact. He is around Martin most of his waking hours and has spent entire decades around airplane crews - he knows a lot of it by sheer assimilation and can improvise the rest. He just had gotten so annoyed at Martin’s smugness that he started giving wildly wrong answers on purpose to see him freak out.
It had been somewhat amusing after all. And they do have four hours to go.
Douglas acts put-upon. “Oh, all right. If it’ll make you happy.”
Martin breaks into a wide smile. “Really?” He jumps up and goes to fetch the manual he ‘handily’ keeps in his flight bag, looking positively blissful at the thought.
Douglas settles in for a couple of hours of irritating the hell out of Martin. He checks the heading, then leans back, puts his feet up, and smiles. Aaah. The good life.
He wouldn’t want it any other way.
A month later, they’re sitting in a heaving hotel bar in Tokyo. Cowboy-themed, for some unfathomable reason.
Arthur keeps on looking around with gleaming eyes, exclaiming about this and that – there’s bays of hay in the corner! They have real cowboy boots!
Carolyn is methodically and just a tad scarily opening peanuts, then downs her glass of whiskey.
Arthur opted for non-alcoholic, so Douglas isn’t the only one with a large, ice-cubed glass of bright red juice. But Martin has a beer that probably tastes like piss but looks, just like Carolyn’s shot glass did, delicious. The condensation is rolling down the side of the bottle.
Douglas offers, into the loud rumble of the bar, “Let’s play a drinking game.”
Martin immediately yells, “No!”
He looks faintly nauseous even at the memory.
That’s why Douglas even brought it up. Martin learned his lesson in Hawaii, although it was great fun listening to him slur landing procedures. “Hm, sounds like you’re still the undisputed champion then, Carolyn.”
Carolyn nods slyly. “Never drink against a former stewardess.”
“It might have helped that I wasn’t playing.”
Not that they knew that at the time. Douglas still regrets having to share his water-as-vodka habit, it truly helped when he could at least pretend to be drinking. He eyes Martin’s beer again.
He hates bars. Or loves them, really, that’s always been the problem.
Martin says, “We can play something else, if you want?
“No, no point without alcohol, is there?” Douglas is feeling contrary. Useless.
Martin ducks his head down. “No.”
They’re all sharing a booth, and Martin sits next to his side. Douglas somehow can feel the heat of him radiate against him, and he’s not sure why he puts his hand on Martin’s thigh, briefly, but he tells him, “Tomorrow.”
Martin looks up again. His lips form a small, relieved smile. “...Okay.” His eyes seem to glitter in the low light of the bar.
Douglas feels glad to see it.
Eventually, he leaves in favour of his bed, but not without thinking about it on the way up in the lift.
Camaraderie under spatial pressure – that’s what his old captain used to call it.
Soon after, they get into a bit of a tussle.
They’re walking on the tarmac in Fitton. They just landed, and Douglas hadn’t meant to take it quite that far, it’s just that Martin is refusing to show his ‘genuine’ gold ring he picked up in Bogota. Douglas wants to have a look at it, because ten hours of teasing wasn’t nearly enough, and he wants to point out all the reasons why it looks fake, too. Plus, they’re both exhausted and a little loopy.
Martin would give it up in an instant if Douglas would ask him with any seriousness, but instead Douglas reaches over Martin’s shoulder to get to his hand.
“No!” Martin puts up a very weak defence. “Come on Douglas, I told you, it’s real.”
As he turns away, Douglas pokes Martin’s side. Which causes Martin to let out a gasp and instantly cover himself. “Aaaah!”
Hah! Douglas laughs. “Ticklish, are you?”
“That’s not fair, Douglas, you’re taller than me!” Martin holds his hand back so Douglas can’t see it.
“Yes, I am indeed.” Douglas doesn’t care about the ring, not really, but he makes a grab for it. He gets Martin’s arm, twists it, and holds it behind Martin’s back. Victory!
Martin stops struggling and looks back at him. “Douglas...” Martin is flushed with the exertion, breathing hard. His smile slowly fades.
Douglas looks at the ring, although all he can see is the band from this angle. Martin is slowly relaxing into him, letting him look. Douglas skims his fingers over Martin’s hand curiously, and Martin sighs a soft breath. It’s just a fraction of a second, but it’s enough to make his hairs stand on end.
Douglas does it again, gently.
Martin trembles. And very, very slowly leans into him.
They both startle as Arthur yells, already far ahead, “Come on, chaps!”
Douglas lets Martin go.
But walking on, Douglas glances at him.
In the months he’s known him, Douglas has seen Martin snort with laughter. He’s seen him look faintly puce with indignance. Do some chocked crying, stammer and waver and be so indecisive it’s painful to watch - but then Douglas has an appreciation for the sheer car crash aspect of watching him fail so very dramatically.
Douglas has seen Martin every shade of nervous and scared, but he’s never seen him... Was it? Aroused.
Martin’s a collection of anxieties and twitches, so it could have been anything, really. Douglas probably shouldn’t be flattering himself.
But then he is awfully good at doing just that.
Three days and four flights later, they’re standing in the galley, idly waiting for a passenger who is currently several hours late.
Also making themselves a cup of tea, since Arthur is off today and therefore they are left to wonder at the mysteries of the on-board kettle together.
Martin has been recently defeated, as per usual. Douglas has the deep smugness of a man who - purely accidentally, but then the lord shines his light on Douglas Richardson - guessed the weight of a piece of Shepherd’s Pie to the last pea. He says, “Ah, Martin, You’re my favourite ever to beat.”
Martin frowns, as always seeing the insult, not the compliment. “I win sometimes!”
“True, there have been... occasions.”
It mollifies him just enough. Martin’s face seems open, so plainly hopeful, when he asks. “Maybe we can play again? Something else?”
And looking at Martin, it makes sense. All of it. Martin fills the spaces - the quiet, self-loathing, and lonely bits of his day. Next to Martin, Douglas feels victorious. Of course he’ll play again.
He always will.
So - and it’s a gamble, but then what isn’t in life - Douglas takes Martin’s hand. It’s just as clammy as he remembers.
“Er...” Martin looks down at their joined hands. “What are you...” He takes a breath. “Is this the game?”
“No, not a game.”
Martin’s fingers hesitantly curl against his.
“It’s never just a game, is it?” Douglas leans in, and it’s exactly as he thought it would be.
Martin’s lips are half-opened, and Martin awkwardly jerks away, then moves in so fast he bangs their teeth together. Then he pulls back and whispers a highly anxious, “Sorry!” And then yelps as Douglas grabs him by the hair to keep him still so he can do it properly.
Douglas draws it out. He makes it a good, certain, hell-of-a-kiss, because a Richardson always kisses to impress. And it works, because when they break apart, Martin looks at him in absolute awe.
Douglas grins, a low heat spreading through him as the world turns in his favour once more.
He offers, “Care to go again?”
And Martin is already nodding before he’s finished saying it. “Yes! I... want to. Would want to. If you... want to. Too. Do you? Want to? Oh, God, was it...”
Douglas draws him in again to keep him from freaking out.
Martin. Short, red-faced, stammering Martin Crieff - his captain, and somewhere deep in his mind, Douglas is growing quite fond of that word - smiles against his lips.
And he’s the best thing Douglas has ever won.