Much as he hated to admit it, there were things that even Douglas couldn't control. At the moment, the weather was refusing to be manipulated into calming down just long enough for GERTI to take off, which meant that he and Martin were stuck in Mafikeng Airport for the forseeable future.
“At least this place is big enough to have a pilots lounge,” said Martin, apparently channelling his inner Arthur in an effort to find something to be pleased about. Arthur had been left behind on this trip, Carolyn having decided that a steward was a luxury MJN couldn't afford on a cargo flight, particularly one that required an overnight stay and therefore a hotel bill. Douglas counted this as a tiny mercy – getting stuck in an airport was bad enough without also being subjected to Arthur's special brand of cheerfulness-in-the-face-of-adversity.
“I shall reserve judgement on whether that is a benefit or not when I see it,” said Douglas. He'd seen too many so-called pilots lounges that were really just a broom cupboard with a sign on the door, or a shack with a couple of garden chairs in it.
“This must be it,” said Martin, stopping outside a door that was labelled something incomprehensible in Afrikaans which must require the removal of one's tonsils to be pronounced. Underneath, in smaller letters, it said 'Flying Men's Room'.
“Either that, or we've found the only toilet in the world capable of flight,” said Douglas.
Martin pushed open the door, and Douglas was pleasantly surprised to find that the room was large enough to contain several rather comfortable-looking sofas and, most importantly, a coffee machine. It was deserted, apart from a man lying sprawled on one of the sofas wearing sunglasses, either dead or asleep. Given how tricky it had been to find the room, it was no surprise that the other crews trapped by the weather had given up looking for it.
“Well, this will do for a couple of hours,” said Martin. He glanced over at the sleeping man with a faint frown. “Does he look familiar to you?”
Douglas squinted at him. Rumpled suit, expensive-looking sunglasses, dark hair and an overly-fussy goatee. There was something vaguely recognisable about him, but Douglas couldn't put his finger on where he might have seen him before. He shrugged.
“No doubt we've run into him at some other airport sometime,” he said, and went over to investigate the coffee machine. Hopefully he'd have enough local currency to coax a drink from it.
Martin was still frowning at him. “No, I don't think he's a pilot. He looks more like a celebrity. I think I've seen him in the papers.”
“Oh god, let's not have a repeat of your attempts to talk to Hester Macaulay. That was like watching a baby seal being clubbed to death with a stiletto,” said Douglas, sorting through the change in his pocket. Well, he'd have enough for a coffee if the machine accepted Australian dollars, but unfortunately, that seemed unlikely in a South African airport. “Do you have any Rand on you?”
Martin dug out his own handful of international pocket change. “I wasn't that bad,” he protested. “Besides, she was awful – I can't imagine that all celebrities are like that.” He pulled out a couple of coins and handed them to Douglas.
“I bet they are,” said Douglas, turning back to the machine. “It's irrelevant, however, as he can't possibly be a celebrity. Even if any celebrity would deign to come to this rathole of an airport, there's almost certainly a VIP lounge here, and it's bound to be much nicer than this one.”
“Yes,” said the apparently-neither-sleeping-nor-dead man, making Martin jump with surprise, “but it's full of people like Hester Macaulay.” He sat up, taking off his sunglasses to reveal an amused smirk.
“Oh,” said Martin in a tone of voice that usually signalled the sighting of some obscure vintage aeroplane. “You're Tony Stark.” Douglas looked at the man again and realised that yes, he was looking at a face he was more accustomed to seeing splashed all over the news, either on the arm of a supermodel, or surrounded by brightly-dressed superheroes and above an image of massive property destruction.
“Guilty,” said Stark, hooking his sunglasses on his breast pocket.
“Oh,” said Martin again, and he sank into the seat behind him as if his legs couldn't hold him up any more. Oh Christ, this was going to be worse than the Hester Macauley incident. “You designed the Starkjet 4000.”
Stark looked pleased. “I designed parts of it,” he corrected. “The best parts. I let some of my engineers mess about with the boring stuff.”
“You changed the way the industry uses winglets,” said Martin, still in that breathless, awed voice that made Douglas think of Arthur and polar bears. Or Arthur and the Northern Lights. Or Arthur and anything, really.
“Yeah, that's true,” agreed Stark, apparently perfectly comfortable with the aura of worship coming from Martin.
“And you're Iron Man,” added Martin, apparently still stuck on listing Tony Stark's greatest aeronautical hits. “You can fly around the globe! Without an aeroplane, I mean, we can fly around the globe but only in GERTI, and that's not the same at all. What's it like, flying like that? Nothing but you and the sky?”
“It's pretty awesome,” said Stark.
“You'll have to forgive Captain Fanboy here,” said Douglas, finally managing to get a coffee out of the machine. “He wanted to be an aeroplane when he was younger.”
Stark raised an eyebrow. “Did you?”
Martin blushed a dull red colour that clashed with his hair. “When I was very, very young.”
“I wanted to be a Ferrari for a bit,” said Stark. “Until I worked out that I wouldn't be able to build things if I was a car.” He gave a gleeful smile that made him look like a small boy for a fraction of a second. “And then I grew up and built a suit than can go several times faster than any Ferrari could ever hope for.”
Martin gave his snorting laugh that meant he was nervous as hell but desperate to stay in the conversation. “Yeah, that's really amazing. And it looks far more manoeuvrable as well.”
“It is,” said Stark. “You can get it to do almost anything.” Was that hint of innuendo? Oh dear, Martin was about to be way out of his depth.
“Surely you could just use it to fly home from here, then?” asked Martin. “I mean, I've seen clips of it flying through a lot worse conditions than this storm.”
“You would not believe how upset US Customs gets when I enter the country in it,” said Stark. “Especially if I've left on a jet. Apparently just going home is akin to serial killing.”
“Oh yes,” said Martin. “They are a bit touchy, aren't they?”
“Particularly if you threaten to destroy an aeroplane with an axe,” put in Douglas, taking his coffee over to a sofa and settling down. Neither Martin nor Stark acknowledged him, and Douglas felt a surge of irritation.
“Okay then,” said Stark, leaning forward to focus his attention on Martin. “This a hundred percent dead serious question, on which I will be judging your entire personality. Which kind of airplane did you want to be when you were a kid?”
“A Spitfire,” said Martin instantly.
Stark grinned. “Oh, good choice.”
“I'm not sure I'd say the same now,” said Martin with a shrug. “I was only young, I didn't know that many kinds of planes then. Spitfires just always looked really cool in the films my dad used to watch.”
“So what would you go for now?” asked Stark. “And I'll totally cry if it's not the Starkjet. No, I'm kidding, you can pick anything you want. As long as it's made by Stark Industries.”
Martin gave him a slightly wobbly grin, but he was far from his usual level of stuttering incoherence. Apparently any conversation about aeroplanes was enough to cure him of that. How very Martin. “I don't know, really. The Starkjet is amazing, but is it too obvious?” He frowned for a moment, clearly thinking hard, then glanced over at Douglas. “What would you go for?”
“I wouldn't,” said Douglas. “Why would anyone want to be a plane? Think of all the things you'd miss out on.”
Martin rolled his eyes. “You'll have to forgive my First Officer,” he said to Stark. “He became a pilot for the stewardesses.”
Stark laughed. “Nothing wrong with that,” he said. “Perfectly acceptable reason to do anything.” There was a look in his eyes as he looked at Douglas, though, that was similar to that Arthur had whenever someone refused to get excited over the prospect of Surprising Rice. “I'd probably have to say an F-16,” he said, turning back to Martin, and if Douglas hadn't felt cut out of the conversation before, he definitely did now. Apparently not wanting to be an inanimate object made you unworthy to talk to.
“Oh, yes,” said Martin. “Good one. Not sure I'd want to be a fighter, though.”
Stark gave a satisfied smile. “Nothing is more fun than blowing shit up.”
“Maybe a Cessna,” mused Martin.
Douglas dug through his carry on bag for his book as the conversation descended into an in-depth comparison of various kinds of plane. He'd spent several years learning how to have a conversation with Martin without having him go into one of his rambles about aviation and he wasn't interested in being subjected to one now.
A couple of hours later, there was a gentle tap on the door, followed by the entry of a man in a suit.
“Mr. Stark? They're closing the airport for the night. The storm's set to go on for several hours yet, so they've decided not to allow any flights until the morning.”
Stark let out a groan. “Pepper's going to think I did this on purpose to get out of the marketing meeting tomorrow,” he said. He pulled out a mobile and hit a speed-dial. “It's Tony. Oh, don't sound like that, I swear, it's not my fault. They've closed the airport. No, I didn't blow anything up, Pep, come on, what do you take me for? There's a storm. Can you get me a room somewhere decent for the night? Or wherever passes for decent around here.”
Douglas looked at Martin. “Would you like to inform Carolyn she's going to have to shell out on hotel rooms for another night, or shall I?”
Martin made a face. “We'll be lucky to get plural rooms,” he said. “Remember the delay in Naples? She'll probably just find a local with a barn who'll let us sleep there.”
“Or just make us sleep on GERTI,” added Douglas. He pulled out his own mobile. No signal, of course. No doubt Stark had some phone so ridiculously overpowered that it could make a call from the middle of Antartica. “We'll have to find a payphone.”
“Wait a tick, guys,” said Stark. “Pep, can you make that three rooms?” he said down the phone.
“Oh,” said Martin. “You don't have to do that, we'll be fine. We're used to roughing it.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Douglas. “My back still hasn't recovered from the last time I tried to get some sleep on one of GERTI's appalling seats.”
“It's not a problem,” said Stark. “Seriously. I've got ridiculous amounts of money.” The person on the other end of the phone said something that sounded rather sharp, and he winced slightly. “Ah, come on, that's not a very nice thing to say to the man who's brought you a present from South Africa.”
There was a pause, then he grinned. “Excellent, thanks, Pepper. You're a gem.” He hung up and grinned at them. “Three rooms booked.”
“That's really incredibly nice of you,” said Martin.
Stark waved that away. “You can repay me by helping me buy her a present. Or, no, much better idea, by letting me show you my plane,” he said. “It's the prototype for the Starkjet 5000.”
Martin's eyes looked as if they were going to burst from his skull. “Oh, wow,” he said in a hushed voice.
Stark's grin turned faintly shark-like, and Douglas wondered if he should warn Martin that 'let me show you my jet' was almost certainly billionaire-speak for 'let me have sex with you'.
“I've designed a whole new system of autopilot, partially based on the AI in my armour,” added Stark. For a few moments Douglas actually thought Martin was going to swoon at the thought.
“That sounds amazing,” he said. “I'd love to see it.”
Douglas looked at his face and decided against warning him off. Stark didn't seem the type to force the issue once he realised that Martin had no idea what was going on, and Martin's inevitable red-faced embarrassment if he did try something would be ample payback for the earlier comment about stewardesses.
The next morning, Douglas found himself in the unusual position of having to wait for Martin. Usually he was all checked out and ready to go ages before Douglas bothered sauntering down, but today Douglas was the one left standing in the lobby with his bag at his feet, checking the time and trying to work out how late they could get away with leaving.
When Martin finally did turn up, he didn't look any bit as mortified or humiliated as Douglas had assumed he would. Maybe Stark had realised that he wasn't going to get anywhere and hadn't bother propositioning him?
“Finally made it then,” Douglas greeted him.
“Yes, sorry,” said Martin, not sounding it. “I woke up a bit later than I was expecting.”
“Late night onboard the Starkjet 5000, was it?” asked Douglas, raising an eyebrow.
Martin went faintly pink. “Ah, something like that,” he said.
Curiouser and curiouser. A blush meant something had happened, or Martin would have just ignored the tone of Douglas's voice.
“Mr. Stark isn't here to see you off then,” he fished carefully as they left the hotel.
Martin shook his head. “He had pretty much the first slot out this morning – he left about three hours ago.”
How would Martin know when Stark left this morning, unless... Just as Douglas was trying to reconcile the thought with his knowledge of Martin, Martin turned his head to look at the nearest taxi and revealed a dull red mark under his collar. Douglas stared at it with wide eyes for a long moment.
“Did Sir engage in sordid acts with the Invincible Iron Man last night?” he asked incredulously.
Martin went so red that he was practically fluorescent. “Sssh,” he hushed hurriedly, glancing around. “Don't tell everybody.”
Douglas continued to gape at him. Martin, little red-faced Martin, had slept with Tony Stark, billionaire superhero and international playboy? He followed him into a taxi, not sure if he should be applauding or mocking. Or both.
“I didn't think you had it in you,” he said, eventually. “Well, no,” he corrected. “I didn't think you liked having it in you, I suppose. You only ever go tongue-tied and irrational over women.”
Martin glared at him. “Not that it's any of your business, but I happen to like both genders. I'm just better at talking to men.”
“Oh,” said Douglas, trying to add that in to his mental picture of Martin. He thought about Martin's unexpected ability to come out with complete sentences with Stark yesterday, and put that together with what he'd seen of Martin trying to talk to other men he thought counted as important.
“Let me guess, that's only true as long as the conversation's about planes,” he said.
“What else is there worth talking about?” asked Martin, frowning.
Douglas rolled his eyes. “I can't believe you managed to find the only other person in the world who could be seduced by talk of winglets,” he said.
“I, ah, wasn't really the one doing the seducing,” said Martin.
Douglas opened his eyes wide. “You shock me,” he said as dryly as he could. Just because Martin had managed to surprise him didn't mean he couldn't get some mileage out of this. “You're usually so keen on one-night-stands.”
Martin gave sheepish little shrug. “Yeah, well, it's Tony Stark,” he said. “Who's going to say no to him? You should have seen his plane, Douglas, it was amazing.”
“Oh Christ, he really did seduce you with his winglets.”
“Auto-pilot, actually. You should see it – it makes GERTI look like something the Wright brothers threw together on their weekend off.”
“A hang-glider makes GERTI look like something the Wright brothers threw together on their weekend off.”
They reached the airport and climbed out of the taxi, which Douglas paid for and made a careful note to get Carolyn to reimburse him. She'd got out of paying for their hotel rooms, the least she could do was pay for the taxi.
There was a beep from Martin's phone.
“Oh, please don't tell me that's Carolyn telling us that we're not going home after all,” said Douglas. “I'm not in the mood for one of her 'quick' trips halfway around the globe.”
Martin looked at his phone. “Oh, no,” he said. “It's Tony.” He'd gone rather pink as he read it. “It's, ah, innuendo.”
Perhaps this was some sort of alternate universe. Douglas had heard that superheroes got mixed up in those all the time, and it was the only real explanation for how Martin – Martin - could be getting sexts from Tony Stark.
“'If you're ever in New York, and want another ride on the Starkjet, just give me a buzz',” read out Martin.
“That's not even good innuendo,” complained Douglas. Really, there were standards for these things, and that was just feeble.
Martin shrugged. “It doesn't need to be,” he said. “He's Tony Stark.” He was already starting to tap a reply. “We're in New York in a couple of weeks, aren't we?”
Douglas managed to move beyond the shamelessly appalling cheesiness of the message to the meaning behind it. “Wait a minute. Have you just been given permission to 'booty call' Iron Man?” he said, making it clear with the tone of his voice just how he felt about that phrase.
Martin gave another mildly embarrassed half-shrug, but there was a small smile hovering around his lips. That did it, this had to be an alternate universe. They'd get back to London to find that Arthur had managed the Times crossword on his own, and that Carolyn had decided to give them a bonus.