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Falling Away With You

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Falling Away With You

They’ve always joked about the serious things.

Douglas has lost count of the number of times he’s casually mentioned that it’s only gaffer tape holding G-ERTI together. Carolyn knows the last time she asked “What’s fallen off this time?” was only last week. Martin has even started sighing exasperatedly whenever a warning light comes on; G-ERTI is after all the plane who cries wolf. And Arthur’s never really considered the possibility that something could go seriously wrong. That just didn’t happen to them.

~ *XX* ~

Their flight from Fitton to Geneva leaves in the early afternoon. And for once, everything’s run smoothly.  Martin’s filed the flight plan, Douglas actually volunteered to do the walk-around, Arthur’s positively bouncing with excitement at the prospect of being able to buy so many different varieties of Toblerone and Carolyn has rarely been in a better mood since the purpose of the trip is so she can visit Herc (though she’s booked them a cargo flight from Geneva to Paris in two days time to cover this fact up).

Have fun chaps!” Carl says, the grin obvious in his voice.

“Carl,” Martin reprimands, though he does it in a fond way now.

Roger.”

“Take off checks complete, Captain,” Douglas says.

“Thank you,” Martin replies, glancing over at his first-officer. “What were we up to? Naples?”

“I do believe we were! Naples.”

“Hmm, Sydney.”

“Ooh, ‘Y’ tough one, Captain.”

Martin grins a little smugly. “Thank you.” The game is an old one. The last letter of one international airport must be the same as the first letter of the next. It’s perhaps not as elaborate as other games they’ve played; it’s certainly no Question-And-Answer-Film-Double-Bills. But they’ve been playing for three trips in a row now and have decided to go for a new record.

“Yangyang,” Douglas says and Martin lets out of high-pitched noise of protest.

“What? You made that up! There is no international airport called Yangyang!”

“Want to bet on it?” Douglas shows him a sly smile.

“Uh...” Martin hesitates. “Oh, fine you can have it. G... G...Groningen.”

“Nice one. Nuremberg.”

“Glasgow.”

“Washington D.C.”

“Uh... have I used Cape Town before?” Martin asks.

Douglas ponders it, “No, don’t think so.”

“Cape Town then,” Martin says.

Douglas has opened his mouth to answer when it happens. They’re not even at altitude yet, still ascending the same way they always have for years on end. It’s then that the familiar roar of the engines splutters beneath them, sending the plane lurching forward unsteadily. Then, the engines die completely.

There’s a second of silence; bone-chilling, deathly silence.

And then all hell breaks loose.

Nearly every warning light is flashing and a siren is sounding from somewhere.  “No,” Douglas says, like he can’t believe this is happening.

“We’ve lost everything,” Martin says, horrified, his head turning to glance at every dial and measurement.

Carolyn is shouting through the intercom, but the two pilots ignore her in favour of running through the checklist they never thought they’d have to use. Martin calls in the mayday and Carl’s reply is succinct and professional. They’re given priority landing.

“Carolyn, Arthur,” Douglas intercoms them, trying not to let panic creep into his voice. “We’ve lost both engines. G-ERTI’s finally given up on us. Get down and secure yourselves. We’re heading back to Fitton.”

“Understood,” Carolyn replies and the intercom goes dead. She knows anything else she says will just be a distraction.

“We’ve still got steering,” Martin says. “I’ve got her.”

Douglas stares for a moment, wondering when Martin became so confident. “Okay Captain,” he replies. He wants to say something else, but he can’t get his mouth working again. He wants to say that it’s going to be okay, that they’ll get through this; that they have to get through this. He wants to say something cock-sure and witty, like he always does. He wants to say something that will make Martin go red and attempt to scold him while stuttering furiously. He wants to say something normal. He doesn’t want screams to be the only thing on the black box recorder.

But he can’t.

“I’m sorry,” Martin says and Douglas can’t help the noise of whimpering protest that escapes his lips.

“Don’t,” he manages.

Martin ignores him. “Douglas, the chances of survival... I mean, if something... if I don’t make...” The first officer watches his captain blink rapidly and swallow thickly. “It’s been an honour flying with you.”

“I said don’t, Martin,” Douglas says, tearful and angry. He doesn’t want this to be the end. He doesn’t want to have to deal with these final words. They’re plummeting towards the Earth and he’s more scared than he’s ever been in his life. One dead engine he could have coped with. But not two.

“Sorry,” Martin repeats, sounding contrastingly calm.

When Douglas can’t stand the silence between them, he says, “It’s been fun. A privilege, you could say.” Its rubbish really, but Douglas can’t find the proper words. He’s never been one for sentimentality. He could say how much their times together have meant or how much he enjoys flying with Martin. But he doesn’t. The words go unsaid.

Martin nods and if Douglas notices the tear that falls down his captain’s face, he says nothing.

“I know.”

The plane shudders beneath them again. An abandoned coffee mug falls and shatters on the floor. Martin doesn’t know what to feel. He’s sure he should be feeling something more now. Terror? Concentrated calm? Life flashing before his eyes? But there’s nothing, as though everything has gone blank. The steering column is cool in his hands as he eyes the rapidly approaching ground. Why isn’t he feeling anything?

“Oh God...” Douglas’s voice seems miles away.

In that moment Martin believes he knows exactly how and when his life will end.

~ *XX* ~

It’s a messy landing. It was always going to be, even if Douglas had taken control. Without the power to combat the crosswinds, they land awkwardly. They miss the runway completely; the plane twisting in the strong wind as the portside wing digs into the soft ground. The noise is horrendous. The windshield splinters and cracks, showering the pilots in glass fragments. There’s a long moment of screeching metal as the plane finally comes to a halt.

When everything finally stops moving, Martin lets out a shaky breath. He’s alive. Carolyn’s voice is coming through the intercom. “We’re okay. We’re okay. Thank god. We’re okay.” Arthur voice is as weak as Martin’s ever heard it. “Not brilliant,” he says it like he’s going to be sick.

“Douglas?” Martin turns to see his first officer motionless beside him. Too much blood trickles from a head wound. “Douglas!? No!” Panic creeps into him and he reaches out a shaky hand to feel for a pulse. He finds one, but it’s weak.

There’s a splatter of foam against a wing which should not be visible from Martin’s current position in the flight deck. It’s the arrival of the fire truck. Praying the radio still works, Martin forces himself to let go of Douglas. “Golf Echo Romeo Tango India, request ambulance as soon as fire risk has been minimized. First officer has been injured, needs urgent medical attention. No other serious injuries at this point.”

Oh thank god!” Carl’s voice breaks with relief. “Roger, Golf Tango India. Ambulance has been mobilized. Paramedics will be aboard to assist momentarily."

“Thank you, Carl. Roger.”

Martin clicks off. He wants to check Douglas more thoroughly, but he knows if he moves him there’s more chance of further injury. He reaches for the pulse again. “Stay with me, Douglas. Stay with me.”

~ *XX* ~

To say there’s a lot of damage would be putting it mildly. After the all clear is given, the crash is swarmed by officials and paramedics. Douglas is stretchered out first; Martin refusing to leave his side until he’s off the plane. Carolyn actually hugs Martin when he emerges, and her hands fly to her mouth as she sees Douglas.

 “Oh god! He’s not...”

“He’ll be okay,” Martin says, unsure who he’s trying to reassure more. Carolyn sees right through him anyway and lays a comforting hand on his arm.

Arthur stares at Douglas’s unmoving body, his mouth slack and face pale. His arm is at a sickeningly odd angle that even the most inexperienced medic would recognise as broken. But otherwise he seems okay. Carolyn has a deep cut across her cheek and looks more than a little shaken, but insists she’s fine, demanding instead that Arthur is taken care of first.

“Does this mean I’ll get a cast, mum? One you can write and draw on?” His eyes light up at the prospect and Carolyn can’t suppress a small smile.

“Of course you can, dear.”

Martin doesn’t realise it until it’s pointed out to him, but his face is an unrecognisable mess of bloody cuts and scrapes from the shattered glass. So in the end, they all get taken to the hospital. But there’s a moment, before they leave, where Carolyn, Arthur and Martin look back at the forlorn ruins of G-ERTI, still covered in foam and being observed by half a dozen officials. Martin looks away as though he can’t bare the sight. Carolyn wipes her eyes. And Arthur; Arthur who is always on hand with something positive and cheery, says nothing. He knows that this is more seriously than anything before and that Douglas can’t do something clever and fix it.

~ *XX* ~

Four hours later they are gathered around Douglas’s bed in Fitton Hospital.  His head injury looked worse than it actually was and after a few stitches and some pain medication, he seems his normal self again. He thanks Martin profusely, who blushes and tries to wave it off as Carolyn and Arthur join in. Really, they would not be there if not for Martin. No one sees the fear that flickers across his face at that.

Arthur is then passed around and they all sign his cast. Everyone is forced smiles and cheer that doesn’t reach their eyes.

“Carolyn?” Douglas asks a while later.

“Yes, Douglas?” her voice is strangely soft and caring.

“Can you get me some sushi?”

“What?”

“I do recall you saying that I could have sushi when we landed G-ERTI on no engines.”

“What.” Carolyn’s voice changes to something harder, much more like her old self.

“Did we land her on no engines, Captain?” Douglas raises an eyebrow at Martin.

“Uh, I do believe we did, Douglas,” Martin says, his voice somewhat hollow.

“There you are then. Sushi please, Carolyn.”

There’s a brief moment where it looks like Carolyn is going to refuse, but then she mutters something that ends in “...incorrigible pilots!” and leaves the room.

“Wow!” Arthur intones, clearly impressed. “That’s the fastest I’ve ever seen mum agree to get something for someone.”

“Yes and it only took crashing her plane and sustaining a head injury,” Douglas says mildly.

“Not something you’ll be repeating then,” says Martin.

“No,” and Douglas turns to look right at Martin. “No, it won’t be.”

The only thing Martin can do is offer a small smile.

~ *XX* ~

Two days later, Douglas opens his front door to find Martin standing there, a bottom lip wobbling. His cuts are starting to heal, but his face still looks horrific. The old Douglas; the pre-crash Douglas might have mocked Martin for this. But now, he doesn’t and Martin knows him well enough now to trust he won’t. “Douglas...” it comes out as a whimper.

“Martin?” And Douglas’s voice isn’t sarcastic or mocking like it nearly always is. It’s gentle and worrying. “Are you alright?”

It's a silly question, really. Martin is shaking; trembling with the effort of standing. The calm that exuded him on the flight deck two days ago has all but left him. Douglas wants nothing more than to lean forward and embrace his captain, whisper all the things he couldn’t before. “We almost died,” Martin chokes out, glancing up and just staring at Douglas in shock. “Carolyn, Arthur, you... It would have been my fault. All my fault...”

Douglas has witnessed the aftermath of enough crashes to recognise the stress disorder. He reaches hands out to clasp Martin’s upper arms. “It’s okay now, Martin. It’s all okay. We didn’t die. It’s all okay.”

“I haven’t slept since,” Martin continues as though he hasn't heard. And Douglas sees it now, the dark shadows under his eyes and the thinning look. More than anything he regrets letting Martin return to his house alone. “And I didn’t want to bother Carolyn or Arthur and my family don’t understand... I just can’t do it, Douglas. I just close my eyes to sleep and I see it all again. It was so close. What if-”

Douglas doesn’t let him finish. “Come in, Martin," he says firmly. "Please. We’ll have tea.”

Martin allows himself to be lead into the large house. It was one of the things Douglas has managed to keep from his last divorce. They sit down and Douglas brings out tea. It only takes a few sips and the tension begins to leave Martin.

“You should stop worrying,” Douglas says firmly.

“I can’t. What if-”

“There’s no ‘what-ifs’, Martin. Listen to me. You landed that plane perfectly.” Martin makes a noise of disbelief and Douglas shakes his head. “You really did. You saved all our lives. Saved, Martin. You saved us all. And I know you’d do it the same again.”

Martin blinks at Douglas. “How do you know?”

“You were so calm,” replies Douglas easily. “I watched you. How were you so calm?”

“Well, I... You know how I’ve always wanted to be a pilot, well...” Martin says, his previous shock evolving into flustering. “I think I just assumed I’d always die flying... In a crash I mean. I’d sort of already accepted that.”

It’s not the time to discuss that little nugget of newly discovered knowledge, so Douglas keeps it away for another time. “We didn’t die though.”

Martin snorts lightly, as though he still can’t believe it. “You had me worried for a moment there.”

“Me? Oh don’t be ridiculous, Martin. I’m fine.”

“Still...”

“It wouldn’t have mattered anyway.”

“What?” Martin’s face crumples in confusion.

Douglas sighs. “Look at me, Martin. I’m nearly sixty.” He says it matter-of-fact. “I’ve been divorced three times and the only thing I had going for me was being a pilot. Really, it would not have mattered if I had died.” The words are out before he can really think about it and he regrets saying it almost instantly. The look on his captain’s face is shattered. He hadn't meant to say that. He should not have said that. “Martin, I didn’t mean...”

Martin feels sick at the prospect, like he’s been spun in circles too many times. “Don’t say that. Please.”

Shit. Shit. Shit. “I only meant that-”

“It would have mattered to me,” Martin cuts in, the words barely coming out as a whisper. “I... I don’t know what I’d have done if... I thought I’d lost you!” his throat closes up and tears form in his eyes again. Annoyed with himself, he stands and turns away from Douglas, running a hand over his face and looking around as though he wants to leave.

“Oh Martin,” Douglas’s voice is gentle. He rises too and his arms are around Martin a moment later, like this is all he’s ever wanted. And Martin gives in and clings to him, burying his face into the taller man’s chest, like he’s never going to let go again.

Douglas can’t help it. He bends his neck and places a kiss on the top of Martin’s head.

The shorter man freezes and Douglas immediately moves to let go, sensing he’s crossed a line. “Sorry, Martin. I just...”

“Don’t,” Martin breaths, holding Douglas tighter. “Don’t leave me.”

There’s a pause and they relax into each other again. Douglas finds himself blinking back tears of his own. Everything he’s truly wanted in his life - marriage, family - he’s failed at. Failed miserably. And it’s perhaps because of that, that under all the smugness and the confident smiles, is self loathing. But now as he stands there, holding Martin, he thinks that maybe, just maybe, he’s finally doing something truly right. And maybe he won’t fail miserably at this too.

~ *XX* ~

It’s the end of MJN Air. A crash that destructive, it was always going to be. Carolyn accepts it easily enough, as do Douglas and Martin. Arthur says he’s fine, but they all see through his guise.

“What are we going to do now?” the utter forlornness in Arthur’s voice is heartbreaking.

They’re all having tea at Carolyn’s place this time. It was as good a place as any to meet. But no one has the strength to answer Arthur. No one really knows the answer. Martin has always wanted to fly, but the thought of that no longer just excites him. There’s a profoundly deep terror there too. Douglas knows he won’t be able to get another job as a pilot. He knows he won’t be able to stay with Martin or Carolyn or Arthur anymore. He doesn’t know what he’ll do now. Carolyn has thought it over; she knew this day was coming. She’s been thinking it over for about five years now and thinks that running a hotel wouldn’t be too bad... She’d let Arthur be bellboy and maybe she’d let Douglas and Martin stay for free.

“I don’t know, dearheart,” Carolyn says eventually. “I really don’t know.”

~ *XX* ~

They meet up at the airfield one blustery day to begin the arduous task of cleaning out the portacabin. It’s more painful than they expected, as everything little thing brings back a torrent of memories and melancholic recollections. 

Martin’s spare epaulettes are still neatly placed in his locker; he’d never admit it, but he had left them there in case Douglas ever needed them, back when he had lied to his wife about the precise role he held in the small airline. Douglas still has a bottle of Talisker at the back of his. Carolyn pretends not to see it, so he can keep it. Arthur finds a couple of tins of chicken flavoured baby-food in his, which leads them into a quick, fond round of Fizz! Buzz! ‘Ave a Banana! Carolyn discovers a lemon hiding in plain sight on top of a bookcase. She spends a whole minute chastising Douglas about it, before Martin meekly raises his hand and admits he is responsible for that one.

There’s a myriad of pictures pinned up on the notice board that all get taken down. A picture of a half naked Scottish cricket team carrying a fire truck across the desert; G-ERTI looking miserable in the rain; Arthur grinning broadly handing out coffees in the flightdeck; Douglas smugly selecting a cheese from the cheese tray; Carolyn looking unimpressed at the camera pointed at her; Martin smiling nervously in the captain’s chair; the four of them standing under G-ERTI’s wing.

Beside this is the infamous wall chart, almost indecipherable due to the amount of various scribbling in different handwritings and coloured pens. Carolyn sighs as she takes it down. Ahead of her is the task of informing all their future customers that they are no longer able to fly with MJN Air.

And if there are moments when the reminiscing gets too much for them, Martin’s hand finds Douglas’s and he holds it tightly. When Arthur spots the motion, he tugs lightly on his mother’s sleeve.

“Look mum! They’re holding hands!”

“Sweetheart, shush! I know.”

“Isn’t it lovely?”

She smiles over at her pilots, no ex-pilots, and then looks down at her son. The boy she could have so easily lost if not for Martin and Douglas. Feeling sudden, overwhelming gratitude, she wraps an arm around Arthur’s shoulders. “It is lovely, my dear boy.”

~ *XX* ~

They go out to dinner together a few weeks after the crash, just the four of them. It’s nice. Arthur is more subdued and there’s less banter, but it’s nice. Hercules, who had rushed over to England as soon as he’d heard the news, comes to pick Carolyn and Arthur up and basically offers Martin and Douglas jobs at SwissAir right there on the spot. Martin makes a funny noise and tries to smile. He misses flying so much it's starting to physically hurt. But the worry is still there, even if he doesn't admit it.

“That’s great, skip!” Arthur says, smiling. “You’ll still get to fly planes!”

“Are you actually able to do that, Herc?” Douglas asks, his tone of sarcastic incredulousness barely covering up that of excitement. “Offer us jobs?”

“He’s Chief Pilot now,” Carolyn says, pride clear in her voice.

“Oh, congratulations!” says Martin.

And it’s a mark of how much things have changed in the past few weeks, that Douglas doesn’t goad or tease. He nods instead. “Indeed. Congratulations.”

Herc’s eyebrow rises by the tiniest amount, but he smiles. “Thank you, Douglas.”

“No, thank you,” Douglas insists, genuinely grateful. He turns and smiles at Martin, who feels all worry evaporate and smiles back in delight.

~ *XX* ~

As for G-ERTI, well Carolyn decides upon breaking her down and selling parts. It leaves her with a painfully small sum of money, but enough to buy a hotel like she has planned. It’s then that Herc suggests she and Arthur move to Switzerland with him.

“It’s not like we don’t need hotels in Switzerland. And if we’re ever short, Arthur can be steward on any SwissAir flight he chooses.”

It’s an appealing thought and Carolyn almost accepts. But, in her heart, she knows she isn’t ready to leave her home. Arthur, of course, stays with her (“What would you do without me, mum?”)

So Carolyn buys a hotel on the outskirts of Fitton and becomes CEO of Golf Tango India Hotel instead (because she was not sticking with the original name of Misty Haven Hotel and Arthur does enjoy naming things). G-ERTI’s tail fin, still painted with the MJN Air logo, gets hung on the wall above reception, Arthur gets to be the bellboy and, although it takes a while, he’s soon just as happy as he’s ever been. The business goes well. They get a card from the ground crew at Fitton, wishing them all the best. Carl from ATC comes over with a bottle of wine to celebrate the opening and Mr Birling is their first customer (along with his awful wife). It’s then that Carolyn finds the bottle of 25 year-old Talisker that Douglas hid behind the bar before leaving for Switzerland. And if that leaves her a bit watery-eyed, everyone knows better than to mention it.

Maybe one day she’ll take Herc up on his offer. She knows he loves her deeply and, loath though she is to admit it outloud, she loves him too. And until that day, she remains eternally grateful for the patience he shows her.

~ *XX* ~

Douglas and Martin move to Switzerland and buy a house together. No one comments on it, except Arthur who proudly states that he thinks it’s brilliant! They live together well and, whether Herc has something to do with it or not, they find themselves flying together more often than not too.

Their first flight together after the crash is terrifying. Martin’s walk-around goes on for over an hour and they’re nearly delayed because of it. But, although they’re on edge the entire trip, it all runs smoothly and they land without issue. The planes are more high-tech and sophisticated than G-ERTI. Needless to say, there are no Rabbit-Of-Negative-Euphoria situations, for which Martin is most thankful. But there’s also no Arthur cheerfully bounding in with coffees and cheese, no games of Passenger Derby and no Carolyn to complain to.

It’s not the same as before and it never will be. But that’s how life is.

~ *XX* ~

It’s nine months after the crash. Douglas and Martin are flying from London to Bern. They've just visited Carolyn and Arthur at their hotel and spent many long hours reminiscing.  

“She hugged me, you know.” Martin says, turning to look at his co-pilot and lover.

“Who?”

“Carolyn. Before we left.”

“Yes, me too,” Douglas answers.

“You don’t think she misses us do you?”

“I think she does, sometimes. She won’t admit it, though.”

“Best not mention it again, then?”

“Agreed,” Douglas says, with a nod. “That might actually be fatal.”

Martin chuckles weakly. There’s a moment of silence, and a shared smile; one filled with immense gratitude and joy. “Douglas?”

“Mmm?”

“Cape Town.”

It’s been a long time, but Douglas gets it immediately. His smile widens.