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you know me better than I do

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Before he could help himself, he was smiling at Herc, doing that daft old chant that they used to do to freak out new pilots by pretending it was an important AE ritual, he was stepping forward, arms open and so was Herc, and just for a split second it was like they could forget why eleven whole years had gone by without so much as a word. And then Herc hesitated and the moment was gone and they were what they were again: people who hadn’t spoken in eleven years.

Douglas had just about managed to convince himself that he didn’t still care in all that time. Betrayal was hard to forget, after all.

An old friend of mine. Herc gave him the tiniest look as he said it, a questioning twitch of his eyebrow. Douglas ignored it. He was not going to think about this now, the way that friend was certainly not the right way to describe them. But what else could he have said? Lover? Traitor? Colleague?

It had been cold when they’d got home. Last flight together. Winter. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing except the spat they’d been having. That was ordinary enough. Douglas would have taken him to the opera, he’d decided. A present to say sorry for the row they’d had in Oslo, that they had dragged around the world with them ever since. Maybe in the new year, just to let it sit for a bit. He wasn’t going to grovel to Herc.

Even now, it was so easy to want to slip back into that old cycle. It’s not Puccini! He had never cared that much for Puccini, not since they had seen La Boheme together, not since every song from it reminded him of that night.

Even before Herc had betrayed him, they’d danced around each other in such bitter cycles, always seeing who could push furthest, who could make the grandest gesture, say the most hurtful things. Love the hardest.

There was a reason why he hadn’t spoken to Herc in all this time, but seeing him now, laughing with him now was reminding Douglas why he’d never quite been able to break free. For all those years, it had always been them, in the end. It had always come back to them. Maybe that was why Herc was here now, maybe he had sensed Douglas’ newest divorce and the universe had aligned to put them here, together again, like this, playing board games and singing and smiling at each other like nothing had happened, like they could pretend that nothing was wrong, again.

Their last night together. Winter. Cold, outside. Time ticking away, counting down to revelations Douglas hadn’t known were coming. The first he could have predicted. Herc always left him again, in the end. It always went the same. Pretty girl, broken heart, Douglas Richardson.

He admitted it in the soft morning light, the last time. I’m going to marry her, he’d said, and Douglas had laughed and kissed him again and told him that it wouldn’t last. Herc had sworn otherwise. He always did. I’m not coming back, he’d said. He always did.

Except when he hadn’t. Except when he’d tipped the officers off in the airport and they’d caught Douglas in the act, silk kimonos, and all he’d seen was Herc’s face, one last time, smirking. Winning one last time.

He’d always been so damn smug when he won. Douglas looked at him now, winning his last cheese, that knowing smile on his face as he answered the question. At least Carolyn had the grace to look furious with him too. He didn’t deserve to win their game, on their aeroplane. Even Arthur winning would have been more bearable than this. How dare Herc come onto his aeroplane and start charming his friends and colleagues? How dare Herc try and make him forget?

Because it was so easy to want to, in these smallest moments, smiling and singing and playing games. Just like it used to be.

It ought to have been unforgivable. It was unforgivable, and it had been for eleven whole years of silence. Douglas had never wanted to see him again, except when he did, once, when Helena had left for the last time and taken everything with her and habit or weakness tried to dictate to him that the person he needed to find was Hercules Shipwright. That’s how it had always gone. Pretty girl, broken heart, Hercules Shipwright.

He could be stronger this time. Herc was probably married again, anyway. He had always hated been unattached for too long, for reasons Douglas had never understood. How many more divorces had he had by now? Had he even thought about Douglas at all, in all that time?

Had he ever wanted to say sorry?

But you wouldn’t ask, would you?

No. As you say, I’m very happy where I am.

Douglas watched him walk away, again.