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Lonely Days (and Lonelier Nights)

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The first few days were the hardest.

That's what Mark thought at the time, at least. Looking back, they didn't seem all that bad, not compared to some of the other things that he went through. But when he was actually living through them? That was another story entirely.

He didn't particularly like admitting it even to himself, but his memories of his first one or two days alone on Mars were hazy at best. He barely remembered the agonizing walk back to the Hab. Time blurred around him, alternating between speeding up so that hours passed by in a blink and slowing down so that a handful of seconds felt like a lifetime.

Oh, he had a few vague memories of waking up in pain, the wound in his abdomen throbbing. Of his constant confusion at the ever-present silence of the Hab, broken only by the sound of the storm outside shaking the walls. Of making video logs in his journal, although he couldn't for the life of him remember what he actually said in most of them. Of deciding that he was not going to die on Mars, no matter how badly the odds were stacked against him.

Other than that, well, it was a blur of regrets and fever dreams.

*

It helped, the first two weeks, that Mark had a thousand and one things to do to keep him busy. He'd made up his mind that he wasn't going to die hundreds of millions of kilometers away from Earth, and he was going to do his damnedest to make sure that he kept that promise to himself.

The Hab was just as silent at night as it had been since he'd woken up to find the others gone, but it was easier to ignore when he'd worked himself to exhaustion. All of his mindpower was focused on his plans to grow potatoes on Mars. Between that and the physical work involved, he didn't have time to truly be lonely while he was awake.

And if he constantly woke up from dreams in the middle of the night that he couldn't quite remember, well, at least he fell back to sleep quickly. That was all that he could ask for.

It could have been a lot worse.

*

Time passed slowly after Sol 44.

Days bled into one another with nothing to truly differentiate between them other than the changes in the slowly healing hole in his side and the burns on his face. The potatoes that he had planted would either grow or they wouldn't, and he'd done everything that he could to help them along. Oh, he checked in on them daily, but there was only so much for him to actually do.

It became a lot harder to forget that he hadn't seen another living person in almost a month. It was even harder not to dwell on the fact that wouldn't change for years.

And that was when Mark started to remember his dreams when they woke him up at night.

*

Sweat was drying on his skin, cold and clammy under his loose t-shirt, as Mark sat straight up in bed. He glanced down at his lap, grimacing at bit at clear reminder of just what he'd been dreaming about. It was already fading, the specific details sliding away, but he could still vividly picture the look on Martinez's face as he'd gone down on him in the dream.

His cock made it very clear that it appreciated that picture.

"Well, fuck," Mark muttered under his breath, his voice just a tiny bit shaky.

Then he reached down to take care of the somewhat urgent problem that was trying to get his attention.

*

Of all the problems Mark had expected when he'd woken up back on Sol 19 to find himself alone on Mars, he had to admit that a surprising increase in his sex drive hadn't been on the list. It wasn't really all that surprising when he actually took a few minutes to think about it. He was alone, the only person on an entire planet, so of course his subconscious wanted to do something about it. Still, he wasn't exactly a psychiatrist. It caught him off guard at first.

The dreams about Martinez made sense, at least. They'd never actually slept with each other – both of them cared too much about the mission to risk the complications of fraternization – but they'd also never had a problem with casual flirting. At least, not after Mark had asked about it, just to make certain he wasn't misinterpreting things.

"My wife and I, we have an agreement. I'm about to be in space for over a year. If she finds someone to keep her company while I'm gone, then good for her. And, you know, fair's fair and all that."

So, yeah, it wasn't all that surprising that Martinez was playing a role in some of Mark's dreams. Especially not now, while he was alone and no one even knew that he was still alive.

*

The trip to find Pathfinder was rougher than Mark thought it would be. At least in the Hab he could sometimes come close to forgetting where he was, if only for a little while, as long as he made a point in not looking outside. In the rover, that wasn't an option.

Mars spread out all around him, an alien landscape surrounding him as far as the eye could see. The only time he could even try to pretend he was somewhere else was when he closed his eyes, and that didn't help much. He kept seeing an endless expanse of red soil even in his mind.

"Complain, complain, complain. That's all you do. Look on the bright side! I mean, at least there's no storms? Well, yet?"

Mark's mouth twitched, just a little. He knew that it was only in his imagination, but he could almost hear Martinez's voice beside him in the rover.

It surprised him how much better that made him feel.

*

Mark hadn't realized just how much he'd missed the crew, his crew, until he got his first message from them.

He was still furious that they'd been kept in the dark for so long, not to mention that he hadn't been allowed to talk to them because they didn't even know that he was still alive. He fully expected to hold a grudge for a long fucking time towards everyone at NASA who'd played a role in that decision.

But it all faded away in an instant the moment he read the first message that the crew sent him from the Hermes. For just a little while, he didn't think about his decimated potato crops or worry about the fact that the odds of him surviving had dropped considerably. All it took was two words to push all of that to the side, at least for a bit.

Dear Mark…

He could hear Martinez's voice in his head as he read the words, and for the first time in what felt like a lifetime Mark actually felt like smiling.

*

There was a part of Mark that still couldn't believe that they were coming back for him, orders or no orders. Despite everything, it just didn't seem real. He'd all but given up hope, had started to consider that stubbornness by itself wasn't going to be enough to see him through, and then he'd gotten that damn message from them.

An extra fifteen months away from their families. And they'd all willingly made that sacrifice for his sake.

He wasn't certain whether to strangle them or kiss them.

Shaking his head, Mark opened the lid to Martinez's personal belongings. There wasn't anything in there that he didn't already know about, not after all this time, but there was something almost therapeutic in the process of simply sifting through it for the thousandth time.

He wondered how Martinez's wife had reacted to the news.

*

Reading between the lines was a skill that everyone in the crew had picked up, to some extent at least. It was the only way to keep things that were better kept private from being aired to the world. Even personal messages had other eyes on them, and it wasn't as if they ever truly disappeared. They were kept on file somewhere, a permanent record that would never go away.

How's your wife, Martinez? Anyone keeping her company while you're out here playing hero for an extra fifteen months?

Mark almost didn't send the message. He started to type it a dozen times before actually getting the nerve to do it. It was vague enough that it shouldn't cause any issues for anyone, but he still felt somewhat guilty putting it out there where anyone could see it.

There was a long enough pause that he thought that maybe Martinez wasn't going to send him a reply. It would be easy enough to hand the keyboard off to someone else, to let Beck or Vogel or Johanssen take a turn instead as an excuse for not answering the question.

My cousin Carlos has moved in for now, to help her around the house since I'm going to be gone for so much longer than planned.

Martinez only had sisters, and his cousins were all women as well. He'd told Mark that once, back during training. He didn't have any cousins named Carlos. Which meant... well, Mark could read between the lines with the best of them.

*

Mark forced himself to smile, despite the ache in his ribs and his utter exhaustion. "Did you miss me?" he asked, trying – and utterly failing – to sit up a little straighter.

Martinez made a show of pushing him back down onto the bed he was sitting on, although his touch against Mark's chest was featherlight. "Nope," he said cheerfully, his lighthearted tone at clear odds with the worry in his eyes, "we just got tired of having to do all your work."

"Botany's a lot harder than whatever it is that you do," Mark agreed solemnly. "You actually have to think to do it. You probably aren't used to it."

Martinez grinned at him, and for just a second Mark wanted nothing more than to press his lips against his and kiss him. He'd had more than a handful of fantasies about it over the long months on Mars, after all, and part of him wanted to see if reality could possibly live up to it.

They still had a long trip back to Earth. He could be patient.