Mission Day 117
"Data dump is complete."
Johanssen's voice was muffled, Chris barely heard it through the beat of the Rolling Stones in his headphones. He didn't want to go to the Rec and act happy to be getting emails from his family and friends. It was becoming increasingly difficult to function when all he wanted to do was turn off his brain and sleep. Clinically he knew these were signs of depression, which is why he forced himself to leave his room and traverse the Hermes to where the rest were already gathered.
"Right. I've sorted all the personal mail to your individual directories. Looks like there is one group message." Johanssen said, as she flipped it onto the mounted display screen so they could all read. "Oh, it is from Mark's parents…" Her voice faded. "Shall I read it aloud?"
"I think we can all read it for ourselves," someone said, Chris couldn't tell who because of the roaring in his ears. He stepped back, needing to leave. He couldn't do this, it was too much. The days and weeks since Mark had died had numbed the pain but it was always there. It helped that the whole crew – what was left of it – were still walking on eggshells. They were all hyper-conscious of the empty chair at the table when they sat down to eat their one shared meal a day or when they took turns working on Mark's experiments. A message from Mark's folk was just too much for Chris, he turned to leave but felt a hand on his arm.
"Are you okay?" Vogel asked, giving Chris's arm a squeeze before letting go.
"Yeah, fine." Chris resolutely nodded and looked up at the screen.
To the Ares III crew,
On behalf of everyone in the family, Mark's father and I wanted to extend our thanks for the kind letters you each wrote about Mark. We've read all of them over and over, and shared them at his memorial service. It is such a comfort knowing that Mark was doing what he loved to do. When he was a little boy, Mark was fascinated with what was beyond our own planet, his room was covered with his pictures of what he thought a colony on the moon or Mars would like. The Ares III mission was his dream come true. I know if he had a choice, he would do it again.
Commander Lewis, Mark had the utmost respect for you. When he was home visiting in May he had only the highest praise for you and your abilities. We understand how difficult it must be for you having lost a member of your crew; please know that we in no way blame you for what happened. Mark knew the risks and wanted this mission. He wouldn't want you rethinking your decision, you made the right call and we are gladdened that you and your crew are safely on your way back home to Earth.
Beth, Mark always refer to you as Johanssen but I've always thought of you as Beth. He told me that if he had had a sister, he would've wanted her to be like you. Brilliant and cool under pressure.
Martinez, you know that Mark loved to make others laugh. He was the jokester in the family, but he said he met his match when he met you. I'm sure that the two of you had the rest of the crew in stitches, I hope you continue to do so in his memory.
Vogel, Mark was fascinated by your experiences in Antarctica. He told me the last time we saw him that he was going to make Antarctica next on his to-do list. He was sure he could growing plants from the thousands-year old seeds found in the glaciers.
Chris, thank you. Thank you for being everything that you were to Mark.
We finally opened Mark's letter to us. Director Sanders had brought it to us personally in November but I hadn't been able to read it until now. It was so full of Mark and his ridiculous sense of humor that it made my heart hurt but it also reminded his father and me of how fearless and determined he was to make this dream of his come true.
He also left us a video. One that he had made in Chicago last May. Watching it gave me so much joy – through my tears – seeing him so happy and learning the reason why. He had so much to live for and my heart grieves for that loss.
We will not be coming to the landing – it would be too difficult – but we hope that you all know that you are welcome to come to Chicago to visit. We would love to meet you and hear your stories first hand.
Praying for your safe return, Melinda Watney.
Chris felt his heart skip a beat. He was glad that he was standing behind the others because he had no control of himself. It was a struggle to breathe, his fingernails were cutting into the palm of his hands as he clenched his fists to stop them from shaking. Thank you for being everything that you were to Mark. He turned and left the room, not caring what the others thought. His stomach did a flip as he passed into the gravity-free transfer corridor and he shoved off the ground to float faster, to escape.
"Beck, wait up." Johanssen called after him.
Chris didn't look around. He made the turn to get to sick bay as quick as possible, banging into the opposite wall as he tried. Finally back in his room that doubled as the sick bay, he yanked the door closed and sagged to the floor.
Ten Months Earlier
"Sun's coming up." Chris whispered. He was laying on his side facing the Chicago hotel room window, the greyish-purple light of dawn was starting to chase away the night. They'd left the curtains open the night before, wanting to see the lights of city. Mark was spooned behind him, their fingers laced together. Chris gave a sigh of contentment as Mark gave his hand a squeeze and kissed the back of his neck. There would be time to sleep later, all he wanted to do now is savor each moment left of being with Mark like this. It was almost over, in a few hours they would be flying to Houston on separate flights and the countdown to the Ares departure would begin in earnest.
These two nights had been stolen from the ten days that NASA had given all the crew to see their family one last time before the mandatory six-weeks of limited-contact isolation. NASA wisely wanted to take no chance on any of the crew catching any kind of illness this close to the launch. Chris had spent the week visiting his folks and extended family in Connecticut and Mark had split the week between Minneapolis and Chicago.
"I going to miss this." Mark ran his fingers along Chris's arm. "Not being able to feel your skin against mine for the next year. The temptation is almost too much to think about."
"Do you regret it?" Chris rolled onto his back so that he could see Mark's face. "Should we have waited?" What had happened between them had simmered for months in the first year of training before they'd come together. He'd known it was a bad idea. NASA would ground them in an instant if they found out. The no fraternization rule was one that the administration strictly enforced. Commander Lewis had already threatened them to not even think about looking at Johanssen in any way other than professional.
Everything changed for them one night, a year ago, when Mark had invited the crew over to watch some movies in celebration of all of them passing the four-week isolation test. Mark was a sucker for old time adventure films so he'd dragged them into his apartment to watch the Avengers films. They had all sat around Mark's living room, eating pizza and ribs, watching Iron Man.
Chris had been hyper-aware of Mark sitting on the floor leaning against couch where Chris was sitting. His shoulder continually brushing against Chris's leg when he reached for his beer. Lewis and Vogel had bowed out after Iron Man. Martinez and Johanssen had left together after Thor—Johanssen promising to get a drunk Martinez back home safely. Mark had held up the Captain America disk enticingly at Chris. "I'll make some popcorn," he'd said.
In the back of his mind, Chris knew he should leave, if there was one person he shouldn't be alone with it was Mark, the temptation was too great. It came down to that moment and he had stayed, settling back into the sofa. Mark put the movie in and then disappeared into the kitchen, coming back with two more beers and a bowl of popcorn.
Mark had stretched out on the sofa so that his legs were on Chris's lap. Chris hadn't pushed him away. And somewhere between Steve Rogers's transformation into Captain America and his rescue of Bucky Barnes, Chris had found himself lying on top of Mark, the movie forgotten and the bowl of popcorn spilled on the floor as their lips and hands explored each other. Ever since then, in stolen moments, they'd been together.
"Do you regret not waiting?" Mark asked, reaching up to trace his thumb along Chris's jawline his fingers rasping against the two day stubble that was starting to itch. He hadn't shaved because Mark liked the feel of it against his skin. It would have to go soon, though he thought with a glance at the window. The sun was rising, bringing the inevitable.
Chris shook his head. "Only when I think how hard it will be, not being able to touch you. Sometimes it is easier not knowing what you are missing."
"Ah, that is where you have the advantage, Dr. Beck." Mark's eyes sparkled. "I'll be showing up in your sick bay every four weeks for the required physicals. I'm sure there will be touching involved."
"That will be like being in a bakery and being able to smell all the cakes and treats and not being able to partake." Chris said regretfully. "With gloves," he added distastefully.
Mark sat up. "Do you really wish we hadn't—"
"No, no." Chris shook his head. "Think of Lewis, Vogel, and Martinez. They'll be away from their spouses and kids for a whole year. We are lucky we won't be apart for a year. I'm just afraid of screwing things up, giving us away."
"If anyone gives it away it will be me, I hate not being able to touch you when I want to, and if we slip up once we are on-board, and it isn't as though NASA can summon us home." Mark smiled. "But it is going to be worth it. Mars. We are going to be one of the first humans to ever walk on Mars. And we get to do it together."
And if things go south, we'll die together. The risks were real. They'd drilled and drilled on emergency procedures for everything that the NASA masterminds could think of and they were ready. The problem was that there could always be the things that they hadn't planned for and in a yearlong trip to a planet a hundred and forty million miles away the possibilities of one of those problems happening were high.
"Hey, are you okay?" Mark asked, leaning in just a little closer so that Chris could not avoid his gaze. "Not like you to have second doubts."
"Was tough, being home. They threw a bon voyage party for me. My mom got all choked up."
"Same. My mom is sure I'm not going to get enough to eat, she wanted me to sneak some of her casseroles in my personal items."
"Mine wants me to get my appendix taken out before we leave, so that I can't get appendicitis on the trip." Mark burst out laughing and Chris grinned back at him. "She kept going on about how some Russian doctor in the 1950s was in Antarctica and had to operate on himself when he got appendicitis. Showed me a picture."
"Well, tell your mom that I'll be happy to take out your appendix for you."
"I wish I could."
"Could what?" Mark was tracing his finger along Chris's tattoo of a small number fourteen on his inside forearm, the same place that Mark had gotten his number seventeen tattoo, but he had had an image of Mars put next to his.
"Could tell her about you. About us." Chris hadn't meant to admit it but he hadn't been able to shed the feeling all weekend.
"You'll be able when we get back, I don't want to hide this any longer than we have to, you know that."
Chris nodded. "But…it just has been bothering me. If something happens, if something goes wrong. If we don't come back."
"Something is going to go wrong, they always do, but we'll fix it and come back, Chris."
"Yeah, of course. But this is Mars. Anything could happen. And if it does, no one in our families will ever know about us."
"That's what is bugging you? You old sap." Mark rolled on top of him, using his arms to keep his weight off of Chris as he flexed his elbows to kiss him, nuzzling his neck.
"Yeah, that's me, Doctor Chris Beck. Sap."
"Love you for it."
"Love you. Is it wrong that I want our family and friends to know? I hate hiding you like I'm ashamed of you."
"Nah, I don't think it is wrong."
"Just sappy as hell."
"Exactly." Mark raised an eyebrow. "You do have a point though."
"Just a sec." Mark climbed out of bed and went to his jeans that were still on the floor by the door. Chris turned on his side and propped his head on his hand as he watched. Mark truly had a gorgeous gluteus maximus and the rest of his body wasn't that bad either.
He enjoyed the view even more as Mark walked back, his camera in his hand. "What are you going to do with that? Didn't think you were into sex tapes."
"What you don't know." Mark leered at him as he sat leaning against the headboard. "Come up here." Chris scooted up next to him. "We're going to make a video."
"A video of us?"
"Yep." Mark held up the camera and lined up the shot so that they were both framed in it from the shoulders up.
Chris laughed at his image in the viewfinder. His hair was a mess and they both looked morning-rough and there was no hiding that they were leaning against a headboard. "Who exactly is this video for?"
"Hush. You'll see." Mark hit the record button. "Hi Mom, Dad—"
Chris put his hand out, blocking the camera. "What are you doing?"
"Making a video. I told you—"
"We're in bed." Chris hissed. "And naked."
"I'm forty-one, Chris. I'm pretty sure my parents know I'm not a virgin, and they've seen me naked more times than you even have. Granted they haven't seen you naked, but it is okay because you're a doctor." Mark grinned so that his dimple showed and Chris couldn't not laugh at him. Of course, Mark would say something like that with the camera still rolling.
Hoping that Mark wasn't actually going to play it for his parents Chris lowered his hand. "You're just messing around, right? Fine. Whatever." He lowered his hand and spoke towards the camera. "Hi Mr. and Mrs. Watney."
"That's Chris, Mom. You probably recognize him from all the publicity photos. Chris and I were just talking here and I decided I can't go off to Mars without telling you about us." Mark turned and smiled at Chris and then looked back at the camera. "Because it is us. I've been wanting to tell you for months, Mom, but I couldn't because NASA has really big ears and we didn't want a take a chance on missing out on Mars. So I'm telling you like this, even though I can't even send it to you until after we get back."
"Or ever…" Chris said with a roll of his eyes. "You would never really send this to her."
"Mom is used to me. Dad is probably grumbling at the video screen though, wishing he could watch the Cubs game." Mark gave a nod towards the camera. "I know you are, Dad. Anyway. I am still in Chicago, Chris met me here so we could have time together. When I was home with you guys I wanted to tell you why I was so happy, that it wasn't just because of Mars. He's the reason I'm happier than I've ever been, Mom."
"And you call me a sap?"
"Yeah, well, I'm just as much a sap as you are." The camera dipped as Mark reached for him and Chris hastily grabbed it as they started to kiss. He flipped the camera to the floor, hoping that it shut off.
Sunshine filled the room when Chris woke, he stretched his arms loving the aches that he felt. Mark's side of the bed was empty. From the bathroom he could hear the murmuring of a voice. Chris slid out of bed and went to stand in the doorway. The door wasn't closed all the way and he could just see Mark sitting on the edge of the bathtub, holding up his camera.
"Mom. I can't wait for you to get to meet Chris in person. It will have to be when this is all over with. I know what you are thinking. A year is a long time, how can I know that we'll still be together when I've never seen anyone longer than a week and a half? And that doesn't count because it was grade school? I know, Mom, because this is Chris. He's the one.
"I can't begin to describe how happy he makes me feel and how much I love him and want to make him happy. It gives me such a thrill, earning his smile. He's got a really cute shy smile like he is afraid to show what he's thinking. I love his smile.
"I'd do anything for him, Mom. That we get to go on this tremendous adventure together is just making it all the better. You should see him in action during training. He is smart and quick and I trust him with my life.
"I hate that we have to hide being together, but it's worth it, Mom. It really is. So, that is what I wanted to tell you. I've hated keeping this a secret from you so even if it is just on a video that hopefully you won't ever see…and Mom, if you are watching this…I want you to know that I've never been happier than I am right now and I'll never regret daring to dream of going beyond the boundaries of our own planet. That Chris and I get to explore a new planet together just makes it all the better.
"If we don't come back, Mom, I'm okay with that, because the risk is worth it and we'll have died doing something we believe in. So I want you to be happy for us, Mom."
There was a pause and Chris heard Mark mutter 'fuck it' and he pushed open the bathroom door just as Mark was setting down the camera on the edge of the counter.
"How much of that did you hear?" Mark said, rubbing his face roughly with his hands.
"Enough," Chris said as knelt in front of Mark, he reached up and pulled Mark's hands from his face so he could kiss him. "I love what you said."
"Stupid idea, since she'll never see it."
"Well, it sounded pretty good to me, even though she'll never see the video it was nice hearing what you want to tell her about us." He ran his hands along Mark's thighs, he'd pulled on sleep pants and the flannel felt soft against Chris's fingertips as he traced the along Mark's thigh muscles. "You know it is the same for me, don't you?"
"Same what?" Mark's voice dropped and he tugged forward Chris forward until Chris was nestled between Mark's legs.
"You're the one. You're it for me. I've known it since the first week in training." Chris let his fingers skirt along the elastic around Mark's waist before running them up his spine, feeling each vertebrae. "No, the second week. First week I thought you were just a knucklehead."
"I am a knucklehead."
"Hmmm. You want people to think you are, then that second week I started watching you. Saw that despite all the times you joked and kidded around, you were paying attention. You were listening. You sized up every member of the team and figured out their strengths and weaknesses and then used it to bring out their best."
"Hate to tell you it was all a ploy." Mark slid off the edge of the bathtub so that they were both kneeling on the floor, thighs and groins pressed together. The ceramic tile of the floor was cold and hard under Chris's knees. "I really just trying to get in your training suit."
"I doubt that, you wouldn't have waited a year before making your move."
Mark laughed, Chris could feel the vibration of his chest moving against his own. "What?"
"That night, watching movies together. All I could think about was what it would be like to hold you, to feel you move underneath me, and I didn't want to wait another two years to find out."
"Yes?" Mark was slowly kissing down his neck and on to the nook in Chris's clavicle that always sent shivers down his spine.
"Why are we on the floor of the bathroom when there is a lovely bed just fifteen feet away?"
"Good question. I was going to take a shower."
"Good idea." Chris said as he stood up, pulling up Mark with him. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. "I need to shave first, though."
"After." Mark said, looking at Chris in the mirror.
"Beck? Chris, open up."
"Open the door, Chris. I want to talk to you."
"Not now, Johanssen. Just leave it." He sat with his head buried in his folded arms. There was a soft whoosh as the door opening. No locks on their personal rooms was definitely a design flaw of the Hermes. Mark had whispered those exact words to him a month into their journey.
"Chris." She was standing in the doorway and he was still on the floor and he didn't have the energy to care.
"Go away, Johanssen."
She crouched down next to him. "I wanted to tell you that if you ever need to talk to someone, that I'm here for you. You don't have to go through this alone."
That did get him moving. Chris stood up and walked across the room to the mice cages. Picking up the food pellet canister he started to fill the food dishes in each of the cages. He did it blindly, his eyes filled with tears that he dared not to let fall.
"Are you just going to ignore me?"
"I don't know what you want me to say." Chris said, slamming the canister back on the counter. She just needed to leave him alone.
"If you need to talk about Mark. About you and Mark. You can, I won't tell Lewis or anyone. I don't think any of the others know."
The mice were scampering for the food. On the trip out Mark had loved to be the one to feed them. He had been fascinated with the idea that the mice had no idea they were a millions of miles away from where they were born. "All they care about is eating and running on their little wheel. I can't decide if they are the lucky ones or we are," Mark had said, then he'd run his hand down Chris's arm a simple gesture that had sent a shiver of want down Chris's back. It had been so long since that night in Chicago.
"Chris?" Johanssen was still there and Chris felt his resolve to keep everything inside faltering. When she put her hand on his shoulder he sagged forward, resting his forehead against the storage unit.
"It wasn't supposed to be just him." He said to the floor, needing to confess his terrible burden.
He turned and looked at her. "When we talked about it. I thought, we thought, that if something went wrong we'd die together. Airlock breach, meteor. No matter what went wrong, if it was catastrophic that it would be okay. Because we would still be together, somewhere out here for eternity."
"I never thought that I would have to go on living without him."