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Friends Out Loud

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It’s true that Arthur isn’t good at lying (alright, he’s tremendously bad at it) but he happens to be quite a good secret-keeper. The types of secrets he keeps aren’t the sort where something would go wrong or ruin the day if they were found out. Those ones probably are kept from him more often than he knows. Instead, he keeps quiet secrets, small ones; secrets about people that they don’t fully know themselves.

For instance: he knows that his mother loves Herc long before she does, and long before she dares speak it aloud, either in or out of his presence. Arthur sees it in the way her eyes soften at their edges when he phones, the edge her voice has when Douglas says something disparaging about him which isn’t quite the same as when she plays the two MJN pilots off against one another. He hears it in the quiet humming in the morning, pretends he thinks it was the radio. But he knows.

He knows that Martin and Douglas are friends while they are still calling one another colleagues. Once, actually, Martin actually said it in front of Arthur, used the word, then went red and glanced over as if he was afraid Arthur was going to use the confession against him. Arthur had just grinned.

“You all like each other a bit more than you admit,” he said. “I don’t really get it, because I like people to know I like them. But there’s three of you and one of me, so maybe I’m just the odd one.”

Martin had thought about it for a while. “No,” he’d said, eventually. “I think your way is the right way. But still, don’t tell Douglas. He’ll… smirk.”

Arthur hadn’t been sure why that was such a bad thing, since Douglas was sure to smirk about something anyway, and it might as well be a nice thing. But he kept Martin’s confidence, and eventually the pilots sorted themselves out and realised they were friends, sometime after they foiled Arthur’s father’s attempt to steal Gerti in St Petersburg. By this time, Arthur’s private reckoning was that MJN was closer to being a family, but they were slowly getting the point, so he wasn’t going to rush them. Arthur spent enough time one step behind everyone else to know what being rushed felt like.

Of course, not long after the rest of them caught up, MJN stopped being MJN and became OJS, and these days Arthur’s box of secrets (not a real box, although perhaps…) is getting even fuller. Martin, by virtue of being a spluttery sort of person, had always been the one most likely to accidentally let slip some kernel of friendship, but Herc’s almost as good at hiding it under snark as the other two. So Arthur collects little glances, smiles to himself when Herc lets Douglas win a game on his daughter’s birthday (even though he pretends he doesn’t know when it is, or that Douglas didn’t get to see her), smiles to himself when his mother drapes a blanket over Herc when he falls asleep on the settee (even though she will sneer later on in the evening and pretend it was Arthur), smiles to himself when Douglas sweeps the airfield for a lost earring (even though he claims he was only holding on to it to sell it, and didn’t even know it had belonged to Carolyn’s mother, but since she’s got the matching one she may as well have it back).

Arthur wishes they found it easier to like each other out loud, but understands their limits, notes it proudly when any of them raise it above a whisper. He is content to be the custodian of their friendships, the accidental compliments and concerned glances when backs are turned.

It’s funny, really. They all think they are so clever (and they are) but when it comes to something simple like being friends it’s actually Arthur they turn to. When someone says, “Do you think so-and-so’s a bit quiet this morning?” he knows he’s being asked to check on them. And usually he does. But sometimes he does his sort of blank face, like he doesn’t quite know what they mean, because honestly, they’re never going to learn if he doesn’t make them practice.

For their fifth anniversary, his mother allows Herc to hold a party - a small one that ends up being sort of middle-ish - and doesn’t roll her eyes too much during the speeches, not even when he introduces Douglas as his friend and the finest captain he’s ever flown with. And Douglas does some jokes at Herc’s expense but he also says that he couldn’t imagine someone better suited to a woman he has admired as long as he’s known her, and Arthur smiles and smiles and smiles.

Martin, sitting next to him, nudges Arthur’s arm and grins back. “It’s finally rubbed off on Douglas, I think,” he whispers.

“What has?” Arthur hisses back.

“Your way. The right way.”

And Arthur smiles a little more.