A/N: This was an originally longer Martin!whump story, yet while I love character H/C at the best of times, I wanted to try out something different, and explore the other side of the same scenario - namely, how the other characters would deal with one of their number disappearing, especially when they've all got such a close dynamic like MJN.
It's not an important flight they're about to take to Paris, but then again, when a company is as free-falling into the red as MJN consistently is, any booking is like a god-sent gift, and is treated as such. Carolyn glares out from the top of the mobile air stairs that have been wheeled into place to help her currently-absent passengers alight onto GERTI. Her foot is tapping out a well-known beat of irritation. She frowns, and hopes it doesn't rain. The weather's been inconsistent of late, so she doesn't keep her hopes up, simply repeats the same tap-tap-tap of her shoes onto the metal grating and glowers at the skinny minute hand on her watch.
Inside the cabin, Arthur reorganises the microwave meals in the galley by order of what vegetables they have in them, and then, when that proves rather too taxing due to the glaring lack of greenery, by what shade of brown they are, sand to chocolate to mud. He hums a tune unheard of to anyone but himself as he does so, and adjusts his paper hat so it sits more jauntily atop his head. Further up the plane at the pointy end, Douglas alternates between lamenting at the lateness of their captain, half an hour by his watch, and making up increasingly bizarre scenarios as to where he could have gotten to. To pass the time, he makes up word games he knows he'll win.
Their passenger doesn't show up. The man calls them three hours after they should have taken off, apparently having only just remembered he was meant to be flying with them, and reschedules for the next week. Douglas tuts, and Arthur is disheartened at not getting to see France, and Carolyn mutters darkly about their erstwhile absentee of a client, but is placated by his agreement to pay the promised fee for this flight.
Martin doesn't show up at all.
Carolyn makes all sorts of threats aloud, pertaining to what will happen if that 'idiot boy' has overslept and missed this flight, as fruitless as it ended up being. She calls his mobile more than once, and it must be either switched off or dead because the number can't be reached, a tinny-voiced recorded woman on the other end informs her, the repetition of these words every time making her huff in exasperation. When it reaches the two hours mark and Martin still isn't there, and there is no sound of a clanking, coughing ancient van that would herald the captain's arrival, Douglas calls the number of Parkside Terrace that he keeps in his contact list, and it is with a growing apprehension that he hears from the young woman that picks up that Martin hasn't come home since he went out on a job yesterday. He went on a quick nip up to a small provincial town, she tells him, y'know, the kind filled with bookshops and antique old ladies, said it was to drop off a filing cabinet.
When was he meant to be back? Douglas asks.
'bout six last night.
He thanks her, and hangs up, and sits for a moment, worrying a loose thread on his sleeve.
Martin would have called, that for certain Douglas knows. Martin should have called.
It is then that Douglas dials the Fitton police station at three in the afternoon and reports Martin Crieff, around 5''7, twenty nine years old, short ginger hair and last seen driving a Fiat Scudo van, as a missing person.
This is day one.
The police officers that are sent over from the station don't look altogether too concerned, and are quick to tell him that most missing persons turn up after twenty-four hours. What with Martin being a grown man, there is no reason why he can't go off on his own. Douglas has history with one of the chief inspectors, Ruth, an old school friend, and after stressing to her that this is entirely out of character for the conscientious, precise Martin that he knows, she agrees to send a couple of officers around as a favour. They aren't overwhelmed with urgency, but at least they are serious and to-the-point, and that's exactly what Douglas needs. They ask Douglas whether anything had happened that he knew of in the last few days that might be linked to Martin's sudden disappearance, and Douglas racks his brain and goes over every interaction he's had with Martin, every conversation, before drawing an unhelpful blank.
With Douglas' permission, they enter into Martin's pokey little flat, to search for any clues within his home, the students watching anxiously from the stairwell, all six of them gathered up the bannister.
There's a baked potato laid out ready on the sideboard, a tin of supermarket's own brand beans next to it with a tin opener. Untouched.
Douglas remains entirely calm until he sees Martin's uniform, ironed meticulously and placed smartly on hangers which are hung over the top of his bedroom door. He breathes in deeply, and flexes his fingers. The word 'Missing' rises up in his head, bold as brass and gleaming cruel and hard. Missing could mean anything.
The blonde officer, PC Hopkiss, writes down any details Douglas can give of friends and relatives, places that he's been known to frequent, and after a call to Carolyn, she jots down Martin's financial details as well. The other officer, Sergeant Dasgupta, is bagging up Martin's worn old toothbrush, half the bristles missing, into a plastic evidence bag. DNA, she tells a watching Douglas. Just in case.
Douglas doesn't want to know what the 'in case' is. He doesn't ask for elaboration.
The final thing the two officers take from him is a photograph of Martin, preferably recent. Douglas doesn't have one of Martin on his own, and he regrets that fact now, so instead he fishes out his wallet and from behind a folded twenty and a picture of his daughter, pulls out a photograph of the four of them, taken by Arthur, who was testing out the time delay on his new camera. The blur to the right is Arthur just making it into the frame, steward's uniform topped off with a paper hat folded out of a Beano page. Douglas can't even really remember the occasion now, but Martin's over on the left, next to a Carolyn in mid-sigh, dragged into the set-up by Arthur and standing self-consciously straight in his captain's uniform as though to make up for his awkwardness. Douglas didn't think he'd miss the daft sod this much, but he does, and it is with a heaviness that he passes over his only photo of Martin Crieff, the police promising to be in touch.
It has been twenty four hours since Martin was meant to be back. The clock in Douglas' Lexus as he drives back home clicks into day two even as he watches.
On day four, the police finally get in touch with Martin's last client. An elderly woman in her eighties, a hearing aid and a salmon coloured cardigan. She tells the police that yes, she does remember "that nice young man" from Icarus Removals, the one who so kindly dropped off her oak filing cabinet, "it was my sister's, you know, she took it with her when she got married". He left the house at about four in the afternoon, "wouldn't stay for another cup of tea", but she managed to load him with some biscuits she'd cooked for the grandkids for him to take home, "looked like he needed feeding up, that one." They don't get anything else useful, but Douglas has Ruth relay the whole thing to him over the phone anyway. It makes him feel like they're making progress.
They're meant to have a flight today. Nine o'clock to Heathrow. Herc fills in as captain. He offers Douglas the chair, but the first officer clenches his fists white and says he couldn't, his voice strained. Herc doesn't push, and they take off without incident. Douglas can't think of any word games.
He calls Martin's family on day seven, a week since not flying to Paris. He knows the police will already have done so, knows the revelatory aspect will have already been smoothed over by those better trained, and that all he will be is a stranger on the telephone reminding them that their brother is missing, but he feels a sense of duty. He was Martin's co-pilot. It's his job.
Caitlyn's voice breaks up when he tells her who he is. "Oh you're Douglas ," she says, words pitched too high but the emphasis clear. "Martin's always talking about you. Douglas said this, and Douglas said that, and 'ooh if Douglas was here, he would have had something witty to say'…". She trails off, and then, after an awkward pause in which Douglas is rifling through his brain to come up with a socially neutral question, murmurs guilty, "I can't remember the last time I saw him. I know it's bad, I mean, I know he's my brother, but we just don't really… It's better than between him and Simon, I don't think they've talked since Dad died… but… we just don't really… I mean… what with work and the kids and everything…." She fumbles off into silence, and Douglas wonders if she looks like Martin, with erratic ginger hair and dot-to-dot freckles and a penchant for turning tomato-red when wound up. "I never really made the effort," she says again, and then she makes a funny noise at the back of her throat, a clamped down whimper, a scraping harsh sound that rasps down the phone line. "I kept putting it off, saying I was too busy when really I just… I couldn't be bothered… and now I don't know where he is and I feel so guilty …"
Douglas wants to hang up now, but he can't. He wants to stop thinking about whether Caitlyn Crieff looks like his captain, wants to stop listening to her talking about how much she misses Martin, how bad she feels when something dark, and selfish, and bitter inside of him keeps wondering what right she has to Martin, how he and Arthur and Carolyn are more Martin's family than his estranged siblings, how she has no idea, can't have any idea, can't know that Douglas is flying mostly without talking these days and there is a seat empty beside him and the flight-plan's been logged but in the wrong handwriting and that it just makes him feel sick.
The vindictiveness gets so loud, it has him giving a hasty goodbye and putting the phone down. He doesn't bother calling Simon. He breathes out and concentrates on banishing all the thoughts from his head until there is only silence left.
"When's Martin coming back Mum?"
"I don't know Arthur."
"He wouldn't just leave us would he?"
"No. No he wouldn't."
They find Martin's van broken down along a B road thirty miles out of Fitton. His jacket is discarded on the backseat, a small paypacket with twenties and tens wedged into the glove compartment, and those biscuits the old lady gave him have gone stale in a plastic doggy-bag on the front seat. His ancient brick of a mobile has run out of battery, and has been dumped next to his house keys and a collection of pens down in a pocket on the driver's side, and when the investigating unit charges it up later to see if there is any outgoing calls that can trace his whereabouts, there will be ten missed messages, all from Carolyn and getting more anxious by the minute.
Martin has now been missing for twelve days. Douglas can barely bring himself to play word games with Herc anymore.
"Do you think Martin's been hurt, Douglas?"
"I don't know Arthur."
"Maybe that's why they can't find him. Maybe he's fallen over, and he's hurt his leg so he can't walk, or he's trapped somewhere and he can't call us…"
"Arthur, I really don't want to talk about this."
"He might be thinking about us, and just can't get in touch for some reason. Because he wouldn't have done this on purpose, would he, he wouldn't have just left, because he's one of us, he's part of the family, even Snoopodoop thinks so… If he could, he'd call us wouldn't he..?"
"For God's sake, will you stop talking!"
"I-I'm sorry. I didn't mean to shout. That was uncalled for."
"S'ok Douglas. I know you don't mean to be mad. I know you miss him as well. Like when you get that feeling like an upset tummy, and even when you think about nice things like tossing apples and bubble baths, it never really goes away."
"You're right Arthur. It doesn't."
"Hello God. It's me, Arthur, but I guess you knew that already, what with knowing everything and all. Must be loads of stuff to think about, and I know you're probably a bit busy up there, what with all the paperwork and watching the football, or whatever you get up to up there, but I was wondering if you could bring Skip back to us. We aren't sure where he is, and I'm really worried about him, and so if I pray hard enough you might hear me all the way up there and make sure he's ok. It would be brilliant if he came back. Better than brilliant, but I don't know any words for that. I'd show him my new polar bear book, and I'd tell him all about the word games I've thought of since he's been away. And it's ok if he has to be in hospital, because I'd go and visit every day and I'd bring him apples so he can feel better, and I'd give him Alexander, so he wouldn't be lonely, because I'm not sure if he still has his teddy and everyone needs one when they feel poorly. A-and then after he's got all better, he can come and live with us! Mum wouldn't mind, and if he was here, she wouldn't be so sad anymore and pretend to not be crying by putting her hair-dryer on the highest setting… and then we could have sleepovers, because I'm not sure that Martin knows what they are, and sleepovers are brilliant – but of course you know that already. We'd have popcorn and marshmallows and I'd get out the bean bags, the ones with the fire trucks on. So… please can you bring Martin back, because it wouldn't be right without him, and I know he'd love it and he'd smile and he wouldn't be having baked potatoes. OK then. That was it. Just, please bring Martin back safely. OK. Cheers. Thanks for listening, and I hope everything's ok up there, and there aren't too many otters hiding in the filing drawers. That's where I'd hide an otter in heaven."
Carolyn starts smoking again. She hasn't done since after Arthur was born, kicked the habit quickly and never looked back, and even throughout the divorce she had only ever felt the need to have a sneaky couple outside the solicitor's office by the fire exit. But it's been two weeks, and she finds herself buying a packet of Windsor Blue regular at the Co-op, chain-smoking them outside on the porch when she's sure Arthur's gone to bed. She thinks that this is the longest time in five years she's gone without seeing the captain of her airplane. Only he's not just the captain anymore. He's family. That's what makes it hurt more, she supposes, trying for a degree of objectivity, breathing in smoke and holding it in her mouth before pursing her lips to blow it out. The fact that Martin is family. She watches the grey smoke filter out and make a cloud at the level of her eyes before dispersing.
After the three week mark, Douglas catches her rummaging through her handbag for her lighter, and joins her for his first cigarette since the second Mrs Richardson told him she couldn't stand them in the house. He lights the stick dangling from her mouth, and with difficulty lights his own, flicking it a couple of times before he can get it to illuminate. They get through a packet of ten Lambert and Butler that night, the air mildly cold and the world all quiet, the two of them standing in a smog of smoke and of all the things they aren't saying.
Arthur has his first nightmare after twenty two days of Martin being missing.
Herc, who is sleeping over almost nightly at the Shappey household, is quick to check on Arthur when he hears the disturbance. He has left Carolyn asleep, the duvet coiled around her, telling her to close her eyes when she opened them blearily, looking exhausted and worn-down, knowing she needs rest. It is the only comfort he can give her apart from constant reassurance, and the words he's been reeling out are feeling all too perfunctory after too long saying them.
Herc tucks Arthur in, pulling his bedcovers up from where he's kicked them away.
What were you dreaming about, he asks.
Skip. Arthur says. Skip was there… a-and, I can't really remember it much now, but he was there, I saw him! He, he was saying my name, like he was looking for me, and I was calling back, only he couldn't see me, and I don't think he could hear me either, and I kept shouting, and he kept looking around expecting me to be there.
It was only a dream, Herc says. Try to get some sleep.
Arthur frowns, and it doesn't look right on him, but settles down quietly, staring off into the dark when Herc turns off his Buzz Lightyear night-light.
He'll be alright… won't he? Skip?
I'm sure we'll get him back, Herc says soothingly, and if Arthur notices that he doesn't answer the question, he doesn't say anything else.
Ruth, with heavy eyes and voice gruff with sleeplessness, tells Douglas honestly that the chances of finding Martin (she doesn't say alive but that's what every they are both thinking) are slim. It has been a month.
That day on their cargo flight to Lublin (LUBlin, Douglas remembers Martin said once, and something inside him hurts to recall this), Arthur burns the Admiral's pie again and Carolyn shouts at him, "Can you not even microwave for three minutes you stupid boy?!". And then Arthur – dependable, kind Arthur, who asks every morning about Skip and whose face falls every time he receives the negative he didn't want, before giving a hopeful and painfully optimistic "They'll find him tomorrow." – bursts immediately into tears. Great wrenching sobs, his whole body shaking with the force of it, and everyone stops to listen to it, Herc and Douglas in the cockpit discussing the flight path suddenly both silent, Arthur's sobbing filling the absence of speech.
They all know it's not really the pie he's crying over.
Herc tells him that he has control in a quiet overly calm voice, like he has to force it on himself, telling him to take all the time he needs. Douglas reads that for what it is, is already unbuckling his belt, and murmurs a thank you.
Arthur is muffling his cries into his mother's shoulder when he peeks into the galley. Eyes scrunched up and arms around her neck, his paper hat on the floor and the smell of burnt pie in the air. From the back, he can see Carolyn stroking his hair to try and calm him, her own voice thick, murmuring things Douglas can't hear.
Douglas wants this to be something he can fix. Where he can do something clever and everything will be alright again. But there isn't anything he can do. And that feeling of failure hurts him as much as watching Arthur crying over something he doesn't understand, why Martin doesn't call them, or worse, where Martin could possibly be that means he can't come home. Maybe he really doesn't understand, but Douglas suspects that it's more that he can't imagine the answers to his questions, can't contemplate the sort of horrors humans can inflict on other humans. He can't think of Martin having been kidnapped or imprisoned or murdered. He can't think of Martin as dead.
Douglas goes back to the cockpit and tells Herc that Carolyn is sorting it. It is not his place to interfere.
After four months and five days, Martin Crieff is presumed dead. It's the subjective that is the worst. The possibility, the not-really knowing.
Douglas rings the Shappey household at eight o'clock sharp, the sky darkening fast and the weather getting colder. When Carolyn picks up, he informs her briskly and with only a slight waver from his usual assured manner, that right at this moment he is sitting at his kitchen table, that there is an unopened bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin in front of him, and that he doesn't know how long he's going to be able to hold out this time, stop himself from doing something stupid. You never stop being an alcoholic, he tells her, you only stop drinking. He doesn't ask her for help. He doesn't have to say it aloud.
Carolyn picks up her car keys as soon as the call ends, leaving her linguine on the table that Herc's cooked. It's going to go cold, but she's not thinking of that, and she makes a vague gesture to Herc that conveys both the urgency and necessity of her leaving so hastily. Arthur's put chocolate buttons in his pasta, a culinary technique he thought would improve the meal, and he asks her when she's coming home with an odd look on his face, and she tries to keep her voice light when she catches the fear in his words. She promises him that she'll come back, that she won't be long, that Douglas just needs a hand with something, and then she gets into the car and drives off.
Herc tells Arthur that his mum will be ok, that he doesn't need to look so worried, that it's simply a little thing she needs to deal with, she wouldn't ever think of leaving them. Arthur replies, poking at the pasta with his fork, that Martin wouldn't have left them either, but he did, and Herc has no answer to that.
"Don't touch that!" Douglas snarls, as Herc's hand accidently goes to the wrong hat, the one with too much gold braid and kept on the top shelf of the small storage cupboard in the cabin. It's Martin's hat. Herc pulls his hands away like he's been burnt, and holds them up in a placatory gesture, looking straight at Douglas to show him he meant no harm. Douglas seems to realise his outburst, for his shoulder's droop and he looks contrite.
"Sorry," he says, "It's just Martin won't want it dirtied when he gets back. He's a stickler for keeping it clean."
Herc nods. He doesn't question Douglas' faith that Martin will come back. Douglas isn't sure why. He questions it all the time.
"Hi God, i-it's me again, Arthur Shappey. I-I know it might be asking a bit much, but if Martin's with you, could you make sure to tell him that we all love him and miss him loads? I mean, I hope he's not there with you, because I really really don't want him to be there, but… I know mum thinks he's up there with you. Whenever she talks about him, it's already like he's gone… I mean, he is gone, that's the problem, but gone gone, like my hamster, you remember, Pirate the hamster. He was gone gone, just like Mum thinks Martin is, and that would be really not brilliant at all…. Just make sure Martin's happy if he's with you. That if you have airlines up there, you give him a job, because he's a really really good captain, even if he gets a bit nervous sometimes… And can you make sure he sees some of the otters you've got up there? I think he'd like that….
Please may he be ok. Please."
Douglas doesn't have nightmares like Arthur. His nights are restless, and broken up by the pattern of sleeping a few hours, before waking, then going back to an uneasy sleep again, but he doesn't have bad dreams. No, the worst thing is that he knows what dark things are out there, the atrocities they report on the news and in the papers, the things that always happen to missing people, the way they end up dead down some back alley or in some copse in the countryside somewhere or else never get found at all. Unlike Arthur's nightmares, faceless, forgotten by morning, filled with shadow and unknown, Douglas is all too aware of what could have happened to Martin. Of all the sickening possibilities his mind throws up, of all the things that could have been done to his captain, hell, his friend, he wonders whether Martin lying dead down some back alley somewhere would really be the worst case scenario. He tries not to think about that too much.
"Where are you Martin?"
Carolyn says it one day, almost to herself. No one is around to hear her, and in the background, Arthur is hovering GERTI, while at the other end of the plane, she files everything back in its proper place. Flight plans, maintenance manuals. Precise. Neat. She's trying to keep up the standard. Martin would have done this all once, and these days, she knows Douglas finds it hard to bring himself to.
There's a horrible lonely feeling in the centre of her chest, and on the calendar in her head, consulted automatically now, she thinks, five months, now. Five months. Martin's missed his birthday. She covers her face with her hands, and she says "Oh god", like it might change anything, before she straightens her back and tries to reign in some modicum of self-control.
"Arthur!" she shouts aloud. "Arthur!"
"Yes mum?" He's always so eager, she thinks. He's too good. He's always been a better son than I've deserved.
She doesn't tell him about the lonely feeling, burrowed down in the midpoint of her sternum, how it's hollow and it echoes and how she's worried about that feeling never going away. She doesn't tell him that every time she thinks of the family she's lost, that's still lost, an absence of fussy flight briefings, and red flushes of embarrassment, and proud little smiles when the landing is text-book perfect, she thinks of Arthur and imagines him gone too. Imagines a little old lady alone, with all fire gone and nothing to live for. Imagines waiting every day for a phone call that might never come, and not knowing whether that's better or worse than a definite answer.
"Leave the hovering for now," she tells him. She looks at him, and restrains herself from hugging him close to her. "I think someone deserves a treat for their stewarding skills today."
"A very special boy." She reaches up – her baby boy grew tall when she wasn't looking and she's never managed to catch up – and ruffles his hair. "How do you fancy some of that ice cream you like?"
"The one that's got the chocolate hidden at the bottom of the cone, that gets all nice and melty when you've held it in your hands for a bit?"
"That's the one dearheart."
She smiles at him, and she wonders how one human heart can hurt so much.
Two police inspectors knock on the door on the morning of the hundred and sixty sixth day. It is nine in the morning, and Carolyn answers the door still in her dressing gown and slippers. At the sight of the uniform, she pales, and immediately assumes the worst. That they've found a body. That it's Martin.
They aren't the same officers as before, a man and a woman this time, but they've still got that serious, official look about them. "Good morning, Mrs Knapp-Shappey. I'm Sergeant Leatherby, and this is my colleague Sergeant King. We have some news regarding your employee, Martin Crieff?"
Carolyn invites them in numbly. She cannot think of anything she can say. Douglas is over for breakfast, and is in the dining room, helping Arthur re-arrange his fry up into a smiley face – big fried-egg eyes, bacon eyebrows and a wide smile made out of a Cumberland sausage. Arthur suggests ketchup hair, but they decide on cheek blushes instead. Herc is sipping black coffee out of a mug with Micky Mouse on it, one of Arthur's, and reading the Financial Times. They all stop when they see the police officers.
Douglas is the first one to find his voice and ask the question. His voice is hoarse, and it shakes as he speaks.
"Have you found him?"
One of them, Sergeant Leatherby, nods.
Douglas can hear his own voice tremble as he asks, "Is he…?" He can't finish the sentence.
A pause, and then she says, "He's in the hospital, but he's alive. We've brought the car so we can take you to him."
And Douglas laughs aloud, and wipes away the wetness gathering around his eyes, and he can hear Herc saying, thank god, thank god, and he can hear Arthur saying "You're crying Mum," but he's too busy taking in the reality of those words.
When they finally sink in, his face splits into a grin for the first time in too long. It's like being finally able to breathe again.