Mark was sore as hell.
There was no escaping it. Even months after his cracked ribs had healed and the bruises, cuts, and gashes left behind by Mars had largely faded from his body, often he still hurt from head to foot. It was a deep ache that took root in his bones, the kind of pain that left him wanting only to stay in bed and move as little as possible.
Beck disliked treating anything with medication alone, especially when medicine could mask an underlying problem that needed to be addressed. He combated Mark’s frequent agonies with a combination of analgesics and deep tissue massages, hoping that sometime soon there would come a day when Mark wouldn’t need the medication at all.
Which was why Mark was stretched out on the single bed-slash-exam-table in Beck’s cabin, shirtless and facedown, while Beck firmly and methodically tried to press the pain out of his body. They’d been at this for half an hour already, and Mark was this close to purring like a goddamn cat. He’d been given a muscle relaxant, too, and was just waiting for it to kick in.
“Careful there, Doctor Beck,” Mark warned lazily as Beck’s warm hands moved lower, pushing the waistband of his sweatpants down just a bit. An unexpected shiver raced down his spine. He cleared his throat. “Don’t be getting fresh with me.”
Beck snorted. “Don’t worry, I’m feeling nothing but a cool professional detachment here.”
“Better be,” Mark muttered into his arms. Beck deftly worked a tight knot out of another group of muscles, and Mark fought back a groan. God damn. How was this man so good at this? Of course, he was a medical professional and all, but still. It should be illegal to make someone else feel this good. “I’m totally off-limits, you know.”
“Yes, you are. I don’t sleep with my patients.” Beck sounded amused.
“So that’s why you never got it on with Johanssen,” Mark mumbled.
“Please. You might be a brilliant mechanical engineer, but you’re a lousy matchmaker.” Firm fingers dug into Mark’s lower back and he gave a grunt of surprise. “Besides, I have no intention of incurring the wrath of one Commander Landon.”
Mark froze. Beck’s hands stilled just as suddenly, as though he’d just realized what he said.
“What was that?”
Beck said nothing. Mark sat up. He grabbed his t-shirt and yanked it back on, then tugged the waistband of his sweatpants back into place.
“Beck,” he demanded, and only then did Beck meet his eyes.
“Shit,” he said, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Look, Mark -”
“What did you just say about Commander Landon?”
Beck opened his mouth and shut it a few times, then finally said, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything –”
“How did you know about that?” Mark hopped down off the bed and drew himself up to his full height - which was still a good four inches shorter than Beck, but whatever. He’d take what he could get.
“I didn’t know, I guessed,” Beck said quickly. “But it’s true, isn’t it? You’re involved with him.”
Mark realized he’d backed himself into a corner. He couldn’t deny it, not after what he’d said. He cursed himself for that. All these years of hiding, and he’d blown it with one careless remark.
“How do you even know him?” he asked, stalling for time.
Beck reached for the stool, pulled it over to him and sat down. He sighed. “We’ve talked.”
“You’ve talked,” Mark repeated flatly. “What, NASA just let you hop on a channel and have a nice long chat with someone you don’t even know?”
“Not exactly. I talk to Dimitri on a pretty regular basis. He’s the Ares 4 flight surgeon. He wants updates on how we’ve been handling things out here. How we treated your injuries, what kind of supplies we’ve been going through the fastest, that kind of thing,” Beck said. “We talk at least once a week. Landon’s sat in on a handful of our conversations. It's his mission, after all. He wants to stay informed.”
“And – what? During these cozy chats of yours, Landon just decides to ask Hey, can you tell me anything about that guy I’ve been screwing?”
“No,” Beck said patiently. “It’s just that, every once in a while, he’d slip an innocuous question in there asking about our time on Mars, our journey on Hermes. Wanting to know about you. A lot about you, actually, but you’re the celebrity here, so I didn’t think it odd at the time. It didn’t occur to me until a few weeks ago that there might have been something more going on between the two of you.”
Mark paced over to the tiny porthole in Beck’s quarters and peered out of it. “Have you told anyone?”
A longer pause. “I think you know me better than that.”
Mark turned to glare at him, until Beck finally relented and said, “No.”
“I’m not going to.” Now Beck finally sounded slightly irritated. “Jesus Christ, Mark, relax. You’re going to undo all the work I just did. Look, come sit down again, would you?”
Mark stared at him for a beat longer, then slowly crossed the room and perched on the bed again. Beck rolled his stool over and took Mark’s left ankle in two hands.
“This hurt?” he asked as he lifted the leg.
He pressed Mark’s knee to his chest, then rolled his ankle. He did the same for Mark’s right leg, testing the joints to make sure there were no spots of unexpected pain that might indicate an underlying problem. He ran Mark through a battery of tests like this a couple of times a week. Mark’s time on another planet had been unprecedented. In all honesty, NASA had no idea what to expect. None of them did. There could be lasting repercussions that they weren’t aware of yet.
Mark knew he should drop the subject, that enough damage had been done already, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the revelation of those conversations Beck had with Oliver. All this time, and he’d never known.
“How often do you talk to him?” Mark asked finally as Beck was peering into his eyes with a penlight.
Beck snapped off the small light and thought about this. “Not at all anymore. Just Dimitri. Landon’s busy, and I suppose there’s little need for him to check in now that you’re safely on board Hermes. I do know he was in Mission Control during the rescue attempt. We last spoke right before that.”
Mark shut his eyes. Oliver would have hung near the back of the room, unobtrusive (well, as unobtrusive as his bulky six-four frame allowed). He’d have steeled himself for the worst, mentally putting up barriers they both had honed over their years together so that if it all went wrong his grief wouldn’t show on his face. Mark imagined no one would have taken much notice of him. And when it was all over, he’d have slipped out again while the celebrations were happening.
Couldn’t grieve in public. Couldn’t be overly joyous, either. Such was the nature of this thing they had embarked on.
“Hermes to Watney. Hey, you in there?” Beck tapped his forehead. “You haven’t made a witty remark in, like, ten minutes. You’re weirding me out.”
Mark let out a slow breath. “How is he?”
“I can’t exactly speak for him, but I don’t think he’s going to be really okay until he sees you again.” Beck frowned. “Haven’t you talked to him?”
Mark snorted. “No. Can’t. We know NASA monitors all communication that passes to and from the Hermes. It’d look odd to have the Ares 4 commander talking to the Ares 3 botanist. We couldn’t risk it.”
Beck’s eyes bugged. “Wait, then you haven’t spoken to him since you left Earth? Two years ago?”
“Don’t fucking remind me, Beck,” Mark said under his breath.
“Aw, Mark…” Beck trailed off sadly. Mark looked away, chewing at the inside of his cheek in anger. Don’t pity me, asshole. Beck seemed to get the hint, because then he simply said, “Right, exam over. Food’s next.”
Mark stood and stretched, scratching his stomach absently. “I’m good, thanks.”
“Nice try, Watney.” Beck went over to the opposite wall, pulled a couple of rations packs out of the storage unit, and heated them up. He put them on plates, grabbed silverware, and brought them over. One he pushed into Mark’s hands, the other he kept for himself. He hopped up on the bed, patted the space next to him, and said, “Come here.”
Grudgingly, Mark joined him on the bed. They sat side-by-side, backs against the wall. Beck inhaled his dinner. Mark ate his gingerly. He never knew what his stomach was going to keep down.
“Your boy is living in West Virginia, did you know that?” Beck asked.
“Yeah, he was living there when I left,” Mark said. In a tiny house in the mountains. Barely enough room for the two of them, but then, they didn’t need much.
“Okay, well, he’s got two dogs.”
“Two?” Mark laughed despite himself. “He only had the one when I left.”
“Yeah. Terrible name for a dog, right?”
“It’s not the greatest,” Beck said with a smile. “He’s got Babel now.”
“Babel. And I thought Absolon was bad.” Mark shook his head and stabbed a piece of chicken with his fork. “He look okay?”
“Here, you can see for yourself.” Beck grabbed his tablet off a nearby table and pulled up one of Oliver’s video messages. He paused the playback so Mark could get a good look at his face.
Oliver looked every one of his fifty-four years, and Mark felt instantly guilty. He used to look a good five, seven years younger than he actually was, but now….
What the hell. He still looked amazing, and the ache in Mark’s chest - the ever-present pain just behind his sternum - intensified. He hadn’t seen Oliver in two years, and now - now all he wanted to do was crawl inside Oliver’s skin, press up against his beating heart and curl up inside his chest where it was safe.
Oh. That was probably weird, wasn’t it? Good thing Mark hadn’t said that out loud.
“Come here,” Beck said again, softly, and this time Mark didn’t resist. Couldn’t bring himself to protest as Beck wrapped an arm around his shoulders and drew him to his side. Beck took the dish from his hands, set it aside with his own. Then he took the tablet, too. He then wrapped his free arm around Mark and squeezed.
“What else?” Mark managed.
“Well, let’s see.” Beck was quiet for a moment, thinking. “He spends most of his time prepping for Ares 4. They’re all on a training schedule that was similar to ours. Eighteen-hour days, sometimes. He’s living full-time in Houston now with the rest of the crew. He’s locked up the house and sent the dogs to live with a neighbor in the meantime.”
“I fucked up their launch schedule, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, but I don’t think he’s complaining,” Beck said with a laugh. “They’ll launch six months after we get back.”
Okay, six months. He could handle that. It was better than Mark had been expecting, honestly. Originally, it had only been two. Barely enough time to get reacquainted before Oliver was off to Mars.
“Oliver’s not much of a talker,” Mark said.
“Hell, no, he isn’t,” Beck said with a huff. “Man’s goddamn imposing, is what he is. Even with millions of miles between us he scared the shit out of me. Where the hell did you find that guy? Looks like he could break you in half just by looking at you.”
Mark snorted. “He’s certainly, ah, unique.”
Beck stroked a thumb across Mark’s shoulder. “He didn’t say anything to give the two of you away, Mark. I swear. It’s just – the way he looked sometimes when he talked about you. And once in a while he’d come out with a bit of knowledge that he shouldn’t have had. He corrected me once on the year you got your appendix out. And how you broke your arm when you were twelve. Little things like that.”
The muscle relaxant was finally kicking in. Mark could feel the world begin to swim and his limbs felt very light, as though they might start floating at any moment. Beck got him settled in the bed, then went into the head down the hall to wash up. He returned a few minutes later, stripped down to his t-shirt and boxers, and crawled into the bed as well. They’d slept like this since Mark’s rescue, as two of the six quarters on the ship were still out of commission. Vogel and Martinez were sharing Vogel’s cabin.
On every night before this they’d slept with their backs to each other. Tonight, though, with Mark on his back, Beck rolled to face him and draped an arm across his stomach.
“Calm down, Watney, I just want to make sure you’re not going to roll out of bed in your drugged state,” he said when Mark startled. “Besides, you’ve been craving human contact for a year and a half.”
Mark didn’t see the point in protesting, because it was mostly true. This felt fantastic, the only drawback being that it wasn’t Oliver’s arm. Still, damn Beck for being so astute.
“Landon and the Ares 4 people were ready to come get you,” Beck said softly. “Did you know that? They had this half-baked rescue plan. It was downright insane. Oh, it probably would have worked, given your absolute refusal to die when you’re supposed to, but it was nuts. Still, a hundred and forty million miles between you, and he didn’t hesitate. He was coming for you.”
“Stupid man.” Mark swallowed hard. He shut his eyes, feeling as though there were dead weights attached to his lashes. He dragged them open again, a question – a very important question, he was sure of it – poised on the tip of his tongue.
The room was silent save for Beck’s even breathing, his breaths whistling softly through slightly parted teeth. He was still holding on to Mark. It must be the middle of the night, given the eerie silence that had descended upon the ship and the chill in the room. The temperature in the cabins automatically dipped at night. Mark had been out cold for hours, though it only felt like minutes.
Gingerly, Mark lifted Beck’s arm off his torso and slid out of bed. His legs were wobbly but held his weight, and he shuffled into the head. When he returned, Beck hadn’t moved, and so he needed to carefully lift the arm again before maneuvering back into bed.
When he turned his head on the pillow, he met Beck’s half-lidded gaze.
“You okay?” he rasped.
“Fine,” Mark whispered.
“Okay.” Beck closed his eyes again and pulled Mark close. “Go back to sleep.”
He was gone in the morning when Mark woke from a dead sleep, but he’d left his tablet behind. Probably in the gym, then, if he didn’t need it with him. Mark showered and dressed. He didn’t feel like eating – he never did these days – but forcing down some oatmeal was a better alternative to Beck lecturing him for an hour. To distract himself while he ate, he picked up Beck’s tablet and powered it up.
The screen came on and Oliver’s face stared back at him. Mark started before remembering that Beck had frozen it on Oliver’s video message the night before to show him. Mark’s finger hovered over the play button. He pressed it with his heart in his throat.
“… and Dimitri came down with a cold over the weekend, so they’ve got him isolated and they’re keeping an eye on him. Don’t want it to turn into something more serious. If it does, he’ll be replaced by Bailey Agoro,” Oliver was telling Beck. “He gave me a list of questions to ask in the meantime, though. First off –”
The message was weeks old. Oliver was speaking from somewhere on site at Johnson, in a borrowed office. Pictures of someone else’s family were fixed to the wall behind him.
Mark looked up. Beck was standing there, freshly showered and dressed, his gym bag slung over his shoulder. Oliver was still talking, and Mark paused the recording.
“Hey,” Mark said hoarsely.
“I can come back.”
Mark shook his head. He dragged his sleeve across his eyes, cleared his throat, and said, “No, don’t worry about it. Here, you’ll need this.”
He held out the tablet. Beck didn’t take it.
“I don’t want to talk about it, Chris, okay?” he snapped. “Take the damn tablet.”
Beck took it reluctantly.
“I’ll be in the lab if you need anything,” he said quietly.
Mark managed to hide for a good eight hours, which was quite a feat given the size of Hermes. He worked on the various experiments and analyses associated with his plants for most of that time, then spent an hour up in the cupola alone before someone joined him.
“Hey, man.” Broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, Martinez took up most of the remaining space in the cupola. He grinned at Mark. “Haven’t seen you around much.”
“Been busy,” Mark said. The smile slipped from Martinez’s face.
“Yeah, fine.” Mark dredged up a smile that felt like it didn’t quite fit on his face and deflected. “How’s your boy?”
“Great. He’s starting kindergarten soon. Can’t believe it. Where did the time go, you know?”
He went on in this same vein for another fifteen minutes or so, with Mark nodding or smiling at the appropriate times. Finally, Mark was able to slip away. He floated out to the rotating rings of the Hermes, found his footing, and walked back to Beck’s cabin.
“Just in time,” Beck said with a sigh when he entered. He was sitting on the floor, the remains of their microwave strewn around him.
“Jesus, Chris, what did you do to this thing?”
“It gave out. I’ve been trying to fix it, but I’m not a mechanical engineer.” Beck thrust his tools gratefully into Mark’s hands. “Hop to it. I’m starved.”
“Go use Johanssen’s.” But Mark settled on the floor where Beck had been and assessed the situation. Beck sat on his bed and balanced his tablet on his knees. Probably working on a report. NASA wanted them to report everything, from their water usage to the number of times they shit in a day. Mark wouldn’t be surprised if Beck even had to report in every time a crewmember sneezed.
It was somewhat of a relief, losing himself in a project like this. Tracing the issue until he found the source of the problem, he figured out a way to fix it that didn’t put too much of a strain on their supplies. He’d even managed to stop actively thinking about Oliver for a bit, until Beck said, “You should send a message to him.”
Mark shook his head.
“You know why not,” Mark said. “All communications are public record.”
“God, Mark, you don’t have to declare your undying love for him,” Beck said in exasperation. “A recorded message telling him hello. That’s all. It might make you feel better.”
“It’s too much of a risk,” Mark said.
“Do you really think one video message is enough to out you?”
“I don’t know.” Mark looked up at him. “But I’m not willing to find out. It’s 2037. Man has walked on other planets, and back on Earth we still destroy lives for loving the wrong person. At best, he’d only lose his shot at Mars. At worst, he’d never fly again. It would devastate him either way, and I’m not going to be the one to do that to him.”
He had the microwave fixed in half an hour. They ate dinner sitting cross-legged on the floor of Beck’s cabin. As soon as he had finished eating, Mark was being dragged to his feet again and practically pushed out of the cabin.
“Movie night,” Beck reminded him. Right. It was Tuesday, wasn’t it?
In truth, Mark wanted nothing more than to sleep, even though he had only first dragged himself out of Beck’s bed fourteen hours ago. But it was better to grit his teeth and put up with two hours of interaction with his crewmates than face the questions and unending concern later on.
He stretched out on the couch with his head in Johanssen’s lap and his feet in Beck’s. Johanssen stroked her fingers through his hair absently, her eyes fixed on the screen. Beck kneaded the soles of Mark’s feet with strong fingers and kept stealing glances at him when he thought no one was looking, least of all Mark. Not the least bit stealthy, their Doctor Beck. He’d make a terrible spy.
Mark dropped off sometime within the first hour of the film. He woke just before the end and watched the final battle with great disinterest, understanding nothing and not really caring. When it was over, the others lingered in the common area, chatting and lobbing popcorn at each other. Mark finally found the energy to push himself to his feet and said his farewells.
Beck returned to his cabin more than two hours later. Mark was asleep, but woke up when Beck slid into the bed next to him.
“Sorry, sorry,” he whispered, trying to negotiate the blankets and accidentally elbowing Mark in the side.
“For God’s sake,” Mark muttered. He straightened out the blankets, tossed one over Beck’s body, and curled upon his side again.
“I know you’re not okay,” Beck said after several moments of silence. “But when you’re ready to talk… will you talk to me?”
Mark considered pretending to be asleep, but Beck would see right through that and be hurt.
“You’re the only one I would talk to,” he conceded quietly, and that seemed to be enough, for Beck fell asleep soon after.
In the moments before full consciousness each morning, when dreams bled into reality as his mind came awake, Mark thought he was back on Mars. Some days it felt more real than others, and he’d believe that he was waking up back in the Hab, and that his rescue had been a product of a vivid dream. But then he would stretch or roll over or grope blindly for his glasses, and Beck would be there.
This morning he couldn’t breathe. He was back in the Hab and something had gone wrong, horribly wrong. There was a breach somewhere, he could hear it, and the atmosphere was being sucked out. Alarms were sounding, but he couldn’t get his limbs to work right, he couldn’t get out of bed, he couldn’t breathe -
“Mark, wake up. Come on, I need you to wake up. It’s me, you’re all right, you’re safe -”
He came fully awake under Beck’s insistent hands, gasping, drenched with sweat. The room was ringing with the sudden silence that followed after the ship-wide alarm had been canceled. Lewis’s voice came over the intercom.
“False alarm, people. Sorry about that. Mark, I’m going to need you to take a look at the wiring for that alarm later on today. It looks like we’ve got some bad connectors.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Mark managed. Beck jabbed the intercom button, killing the connection, and Mark let out a tremulous breath. He was shaking all over. Beck released him and got up. He fetched a glass of water from the head and grabbed a fresh t-shirt from Mark’s bag.
“Here,” he said. Mark changed, gulped down the glass of water, and fought back the urge to scream. He was still shaking, and he couldn’t get his breath back. It had been so real.
Beck got back into bed and tugged Mark down again. He rearranged the blankets around them, then slid an arm under Mark’s body and pulled him close.
“It’s all right,” he said again, quietly, the words rumbling through Mark’s skull. His head was on Beck’s chest, his arm around his waist. “You’re here. This is what’s real.”
He dreamed about Oliver after that, and that was almost worse. Oliver’s features blurred in his mind, his dark hair and neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard standing out but his face impossible to visualize. Mark tried calling out to him, but he couldn’t make himself heard, and Oliver kept getting farther and farther away. He was walking away, and Mark didn’t know how to tell him that I’m here I’m right here I never meant to leave you -
The bed was empty when he woke, aching and miserable. He pressed his damp face into a pillow that didn’t smell of Oliver and shook with silent sobs.
Entire days and weeks slipped away from Mark. His work on Hermes was predictable, methodical, unending. He noted the passage of time only when he received messages from his parents in Chicago, who always made it a point to take their camera outside and show him the changing landscape. Summer gave way to fall, and the first snow came at the end of October. On Thanksgiving, there was a foot of snow on the ground, and his mother sent him a recording that showed the family dog bounding through the fluff.
They ate as a crew that day, something that they hadn’t done since their brief stint on Mars, because someone had to be on duty in the flight deck at all times. Mark ate his food mechanically, thinking back to the Thanksgiving two years before, knowing that it was this holiday that saved his life. If not for NASA’s PR team, who wanted to show the world a crew feasting together on another planet during this holiday of fellowship - if not for those damn potatoes - he would be rotting on that planet.
Well. Not rotting, since nothing could rot on Mars. He’d be buried under feet of sand and red dust by now, though.
Oliver didn’t have any family left, and he wasn’t one for celebrations anyway. He’d be alone this year, though that was hardly different from any other year. Mark spent the holidays with his parents when he could and with his crewmates during the years he was on a mission or in training. The only time he and Oliver ever celebrated something was when Mark insisted. It was enough to just be with Oliver. One year they’d traipsed through a fresh snowfall two days after Christmas, chopped down a tree, and carried it back to Oliver’s cottage to decorate. It stayed up for a month, suffusing the gray January with color. That had been the winter before he found out he’d been selected for the Ares 3 program.
When the meal was over, everyone drifted back to their respective posts. Mark was planning to put a solid couple of hours’ work in at the lab before turning in.
He got almost an hour of peace before Beck dropped by.
“There you are. You got a minute?”
“Not really,” Mark said. Beck started to sit down, but Mark whacked him on the shoulder. “Not there, Bossy-Beck. You’re blocking the light for the plants.”
“God forbid,” Beck muttered under his breath, but he chose to sit on the other side of the table. “Better?”
Mark grunted. “What do you want?”
“Wanted to talk to you about something. I got an unscheduled message from Houston a little bit ago.”
That got Mark’s attention, and he looked up. He didn’t like the cautious tone in Beck’s voice. “What happened?”
“He’s all right,” Beck started, and the fact that he felt the need to lead with that caused Mark’s blood to run cold. “But, well, something’s come up -”
“What kind of something?” Mark demanded.
“One of the lab techs has come down with shingles –”
“Shingles? What fucking century is this?”
“– and there’s a possibility three members of the crew may have been exposed.”
Mark stopped breathing for a moment.
“Oliver,” he said quietly, and Beck nodded.
“They’re all in isolation right now pending a battery of tests.”
“He would have been vaccinated –”
“That’s not always a guarantee –”
“Damn it, Chris!” Mark burst out.
Beck reached across the table and gently pried his fingers from his palms. Mark hadn’t realized he’d been clenching his hands into fists.
“Breathe for a moment,” Beck said in a low, soothing voice. “He’s going to be fine.”
“Will they need to replace him?” Because Mark knew that the only thing Oliver feared in life was losing his shot at Mars. He’d logged hundreds of hours as a pilot, headed up five separate missions to the Moon, held the record for number of EVAs (well, until Mark accidentally shattered that by necessity.) He’d faced down death on a regular basis for a chance at that far-flung frontier.
“I don’t know,” Beck said. “They’re on a tight training schedule as it is. If Johnson can’t clear this up within a couple of days, the backups will be put onto the mission instead. I wouldn’t worry about it at this point, though. It’ll do no good. Dimitri is almost certain that the tech didn’t come into contact with any of the crew, and that even if he did, the bloodwork will show no one has been infected. Isolation is just a precaution.”
“And if he does get sick?”
“Then he’s out for sure, even though the launch is months away. You know that, Mark. It’s the way it has to be.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Mark said quietly.
“Ah.” Beck’s little sound of realization made Mark’s ears flush. Damn it, he hated being this transparent. “Well, varicella isn’t going to be pleasant in an adult like Landon who’s never had the illness before, but he’ll come out of it fine.”
Mark was quiet for a moment, absorbing all of this.
“My God, Chris, they can’t take Mars away from him,” he whispered finally. “He’s come so far.”
“I know. We’ll just have to wait it out, though. Only time will tell whether he’s going to stay on the mission or not,” Beck said. “Look, I know it doesn’t help, but I’m going to say it anyway: try not to worry about him.”
Mark snorted. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and drew a deep breath through his nose.
“I don’t,” he said finally, lowering his hands. And then he amended, “I didn’t. I never used to. I mean - shit, Chris, we all knew what we were getting into when we signed for the job, right? Everyone knows astronauts are inherently insane, to do what we do. Death’s just a heartbeat away. A buildup of ice where it shouldn’t be, a spark, a micrometeoroid… and we’re gone. But we come out here anyway. And Oliver and I accepted it, you know? The risks were worth it, for something that was so much greater than any of us. Except…”
“Mars fucked you up,” Beck said.
Mark nodded. “Mars fucked me up. I’m so fucking terrified for him. Terrified that he won’t get to go, and terrified that he will. I don’t even fully understand what that goddamn planet did to me. The thought of him going, of being put through all that… it makes me sick.”
He looked down at his hands. “I never used to be like this. Ollie’s gonna hate it.”
Beck made a strangled noise in the back of his throat. Mark looked up, and realized that he was trying desperately not to laugh.
“What?” he demanded, affronted.
“Ollie?” Beck wheezed. “Oh my God, did you just call the most terrifying man I’ve ever met Ollie?”
Mark flushed. He never called Oliver that in public. Man, he really was losing it.
“Shut up,” he muttered, balling up a piece of paper and tossing it at Beck’s head. It bounced off his nose.
Beck slipped off the stool and slumped to the floor, laughing helplessly. Mark jammed a pair of headphones on his ears and ignored him.
Later that night, Mark crawled into bed after a marathon twelve hours in the lab. Beck sleepily shifted to make room for him.
“Hey,” he whispered, touching light fingers to Mark’s wrist. “Got a call from Dimitri an hour ago. They’ve already got the test results back. Everyone’s clear. They went over all the security footage again, too – you know how NASA loves to record everything – and no one came into contact with the tech anyway. I didn’t want to bother you in the lab again, you looked pretty intent.”
“So he’s not off the mission?”
“No,” Beck said. “He’s not. He’s still gonna fly, Mark. False alarm.”
Mark took his hand. He let out a slow breath. “Thank God.”
But he lay awake for hours that night, unable to escape from his thoughts in the darkness. The knot behind his sternum that had eased for a few hours was back once again, and he could no longer pretend that he hadn’t been relieved at the thought that Oliver might not be able to make the mission. He hated himself for it.
They’d gone so long without an accident that when one did occur, Mark didn’t recognize the muffled sound right away for what it was. The ship’s alarms still periodically went on the fritz, so he wasn’t too worried when the blaring alert automatically went off. It wasn’t until Commander Lewis’s voice came over the intercom that he knew they actually had a serious problem.
It was Beck. An overloaded power grid had exploded in one of the corridors, catching him up in it as he walked by. Painkillers weren’t an option, not when they needed to keep their patient awake and alert so he could instruct the others in his care, and for nearly an hour the ship echoed with Beck’s agony.
When it was over, Beck was patched up and plied with enough painkillers that he could probably be easily convinced that his mother was a turnip, and then left to rest in his bed. Mark didn’t return to the cabin until he was certain the others had left.
Beck was a pitiful sight. Ashen, gaunt, sporting a day’s worth of stubble on his cheeks and deep bruises under his eyes. He’d screamed himself raw when Vogel dug the twisted pieces of metal out of his leg, so his voice was rasping when he said, “Hey, Mark.”
“Hey,” Mark said quietly. He came over to the bed and perched on it gingerly. “I - uh. Sorry I wasn’t here when they…”
He trailed off. He was a goddamn coward and Beck knew it; the whole crew knew it. He’d operated on himself down on Mars, digging chunks of the communications satellite out of his torso before stitching himself up. But hearing Beck’s cries had been different. He’d spent the entirety of that awful hour in the cupola, head in his hands, humming to himself.
“Don’t.” Beck’s hand settled on his knee, and Mark grasped it. “Just glad everyone’s okay. And I’ll have some pretty great scars, so. People love scars. I’ll get laid like mad once we get back to Earth.”
Mark grinned despite himself. “That’s the spirit. Look on the bright side of things.”
Beck pulled his hand from Mark’s so he could adjust the blankets. He sighed. “Not gonna be very good company for long. Vogel gave me another shot of painkillers. Probably’ll drop off on you soon.”
“That’s fine,” Mark said. “You know. Just do what you need to do.”
“It’d be miles more entertaining if you told me a story.”
“Yeah.” There was a smirk playing about Beck’s lips. “Something interesting.”
“Something interesting,” Mark echoed. “Well, there was this one time in Tibet -”
“How’d you two meet?” Beck interrupted.
Oh. That kind of story.
“Seriously, you want to hear about that over my tale of thrilling adventure in the Himalayas?”
“Yep,” Beck said, popping the p. Mark glared at him, but his eyes were closed, so the effect was lost. “I wanna know the kind of man who could steal Mark Watney’s heart.”
“Why, you looking for pointers?”
Beck opened one eye to glare at him. “Don’t you go saying that kind of shit around Landon. I like all my limbs where they are - attached to my body.”
“He’s not that bad,” Mark said in exasperation.
“The man’s a beast. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
“They don’t make them like that in the lower forty-eight, that’s for sure,” Mark said.
Beck looked at him, intrigued. “He’s an Alaska boy, is he? Well. That explains a lot. Must’ve grown up wrangling bears. Or catching wild game with his bare hands.”
“Stop it,” Mark said with a laugh. “He’s not like that. He grew up in Anchorage, if you must know. It’s the most populous city in the state.”
“There are still bears there,” Beck muttered.
“The Appalachians are foothills compared to what he’s used to,” Mark said. “He likes West Virginia well enough, but it’s not where he wants to spend the rest of his life. And I don’t want to freeze my balls off nine months of every year, so returning to Alaska is out of the question. We’ve talked about Denver. Had talked about Denver, I mean.”
Beck squeezed his hand. “You don’t think that’s changed.”
Mark gave a rueful smile. “I haven’t spoken to him in two years. I don’t know a thing about his life anymore.”
“Yeah, well.” Beck shook his head. “You still haven’t answered my question.”
Mark sighed. Single-minded, their Doctor Beck, especially when he was drugged to the gills. “My first expedition was in ‘22. A month on the Moon. We went on a camping trip about six months before then, the whole crew. One of those team-bonding-slash-survivalist-training things, you know.”
“We had ours in Utah,” Beck said drowsily. He withdrew his hand and put an arm over his eyes.
Mark nodded to himself. “He was our guide, of sorts. Gave us a crash course in the lay of the land, then sent us out into the mountains for three weeks while he stayed back at base camp in case anything happened. I couldn’t get him out of my head. When it was over, the rest of the crew went home to their families for the final stretch before our stint in isolation prior to the mission, and I - well. I stayed behind.”
He could almost hear Beck doing the math. “Jesus. Fourteen years.”
“Almost fifteen, now,” Mark said. They’d only spent a handful of those physically together. Mark had kept his place in Chicago while Oliver stayed in West Virginia, when they were home at all. Most of their time they’d spent training for one mission or another. Mark had gone into space first, with Oliver venturing out to the Moon the following year. They’d both applied for the Ares program, but at strategically different times. Being placed on an expedition together would have introduced a whole new set of complications and stresses to their relationship that weren’t worth it. So Mark had ended up as the dorky botanist of the Ares 3 mission, while Oliver had been given command of Ares 4. Mark had accomplished a lot of firsts on Mars, but when Oliver stepped foot on the planet eighteen months from now, he’d usurp Mark’s title as the oldest person ever to walk on the Red Planet.
He’d teased Oliver about that in the weeks and months leading up to the launch of Ares 3. Now, the memory all that good-natured ribbing only caused his throat to close and an uncomfortable pricking sensation behind his eyes. It was a reminder that almost as soon as he returned home, Oliver would be leaving him.
“Hey.” Beck’s hand on his knee again, which Mark took automatically. “You’ve gone all quiet.”
“Just thinking,” Mark said.
“He loves you, Mark.” Beck gazed at him, suddenly clear-eyed and earnest. “So much.”
“I know.” Mark swallowed hard. “At least, he loved the version of me who left Earth. I’m not him anymore. I wake up every morning thinking I’m still on Mars, I don’t know how to be around people anymore, and every moment of every day I just want to crawl out of my skull and claw off my skin. That’s not normal. It’s not who I was.”
“Mark -” Beck started.
“That planet took damn near everything from me, and now it’s going to take him, too,” Mark said. “It wasn’t enough to take what was left of my sanity. I’ve never loved anyone the way I love him, and I’m going to lose him. And - God, I’m a shit storyteller, aren’t I?’
He gave Beck a thin smile. “You should really be resting. I’ll go -”
“Go where?” Beck interrupted. “It’s not as though you have anywhere else to sleep. Here, come on, lay down. I’m going to tell you something but I can’t look at you while I do. Just - yeah, right there.”
Mark settled with his head on the pillow next to Beck’s, their fingers still entwined.
“Okay, listen to me for a moment.” Beck took a deep breath. “I was seventeen years old when I met the love of my life. I know how that sounds, but it’s the truth. We met in high school, stayed together all through college. The year I started med school, I couldn’t make it home for Christmas. He drove out to me instead. On the way home a week later, he hit an icy patch of road and went into a tree. Died instantly.”
“God, Chris -” Mark whispered, but Beck interrupted him.
“The point is,” he said, “that at the time, I would have given anything to see him again. Even if he was a little bit broken, a little bit different. It didn’t matter, I just wanted him back. I loved him inside and out. I know exactly what Landon must have gone through when he got the news about your death. I know that he’s never stopped loving you, and he’s going to love this new version of you just as fiercely as he loved the one that left for Mars.”
They were quiet for a while after that. Mark’s chest physically ached. All this time, he’d been nothing but morose over Oliver, and he’d forced Beck to deal with that brooding. Beck, who had dealt with a loss far worse than anything Mark had ever experienced.
Mark waited for Beck to go to sleep so that he could slip away and change into pajamas, but even though Beck’s eyes were closed, his breathing didn’t even out. Mark guessed what the issue was.
“You could take another dosage now, couldn’t you?” Mark asked, checking the time.
Beck consulted his own watch and nodded, so Mark fetched a fresh syringe and injected Beck with another round of painkillers. He took the opportunity to then slip into the head and change. When he returned to the bed, Beck was half asleep.
“Tell me about him?” Mark asked quietly some time later.
Beck’s head was pillowed against his shoulder. He roused slightly, his gaze coming to rest sightlessly on the opposite wall.
“It’s been eighteen years,” he said softly, “and if he walked through that door right now, I’d pick up with him where we left off. I never stopped loving him. I don’t think I ever will.”
A shiver went through him. Mark felt it, and drew him closer. Beck let out a slow sigh, his eyes falling closed again, and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk about it.”
“If you ever wanted to,” Mark said softly, “would you come to me?”
But Beck was already asleep.
Beck was on his feet again pretty quickly after the accident. He limped around the Hermes, tending to his various duties, using a walking stick Martinez had fashioned for him out of some spare deck plating when necessary. He didn’t think that the limp would be permanent, but then, he couldn’t say for sure at this point. The prospect didn’t seem to bother him, though.
“I fully expected to die on this mission,” he confided to Mark one night. “Coming back with a limp makes me feel pretty damn lucky, to be honest.”
The lag time between Earth and Hermes diminished with each passing day, until finally they were able to have conversations with Mission Control in real time - and with their families. Mark had been dreading this day as much as everyone else had been anticipating it. Before now, he had been able to carefully stage his messages to his parents. He could record his messages in segments and splice them together, cutting out any parts where his voice cracked or he looked as though he was about to lose it.
He held up well enough during the first conversation, and only got slightly teary during the second. He hated it, hated feeling as though he was on the very edge of a precipice, about to fall at any moment. He was tired of the roller coaster of emotions. He wanted to talk about Oliver, he wanted to talk to Oliver. He was hungry for news, for anything about him. Two years of separation, and it was this final leg of the journey that was doing him in. It felt like a gaping chasm, one that he was never going to cross. They were so close now. He dreaded the thought of Oliver being ripped away from him before they got a chance to reunite, and the idea that they might have a brief reunion only to have Oliver die on Mars kept him up at night.
If that was how it was going to end, then Mars should have taken him instead.
December came, and with it a giddy kind of tension on the ship. They were only a month away from home now, scheduled to arrive back on Earth in mid-January. More than half their conversations with Houston now were about plans for the homecoming – the press tour, the celebrations. The merchandise.
“Look what the neighbors got me,” his mother said gleefully the next time they spoke. She held up an official Mark Watney bobble-head doll, wiggling it cheerfully. Mark groaned.
Before he knew it, the crew was slated for a whirlwind twenty-city international tour starting in March. The Ares program was going to be funded at least through Ares 10. Offers of book deals came in on an almost daily basis. Mark was overwhelmed.
“Forget it,” he grumbled to Beck one night. “I take it back. I don’t want to go back to Earth. I’ll go back to Mars.”
He wondered if it was a good thing that he was able to crack jokes about Mars like that now. Beck seemed pleased about it, at least.
Carols permeated the ship. Mark put in a couple of hours on the flight deck each day listening to Martinez make up his own lyrics to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, ate dinner while Bing Crosby crooned over the speakers, and worked in the lab with the King’s College Choir singing softly in the background. Under normal circumstances he would have found it maddening, but it was yet another reminder of Earth, and he couldn’t resent anything that reminded him that he was only weeks away from home – from Oliver.
At night, though, Mark cut the speakers in the cabin, slid into bed, and molded himself to Beck’s back. He wouldn’t say anything, just would drape his arm over Beck’s waist and tug him close so they were back-to-chest. Sometimes Beck would cover Mark’s hand with his own; sometimes he would only lie there, trying to sleep, haunted instead by the memories of that winter eighteen years ago.
On Christmas Day, the crew was given the opportunity to speak with their families for an hour unmonitored. None of their conversations were recorded, and nobody from NASA listened in on them. Mark spent the hour watching his parents and extended family do their annual gift exchange at his parents’ house while being peppered with questions from his uncles. He felt guilty for wishing that he could have spent it talking to Oliver instead, because he loved his parents dearly and missed them like hell. But it would have been too suspicious to request that his hour be spent talking to the commander of the Ares 4 mission.
Beck took his call with his sister in his cabin, then came and found Mark after.
“Hey, can you come with me for a second?” he asked, and Mark followed him slowly back to the cabin. He was using his makeshift cane today, having overexerted himself earlier. He was still learning his limitations with this new injury. Mark resisted the urge to tell him to take a break and get some rest in his cabin. It would just make Beck cranky, and a cranky Beck usually resulted in headaches for Mark.
“What is it?” Mark asked. “Microwave break again?”
“No. I’ve got Landon on the line,” Beck said. “I want you to talk to him.”
Mark’s breath caught in his chest. “Don’t be stupid, I can’t -”
“It’s a secure connection,” Beck said, speaking over him. “NASA’s not listening in.”
Mark stared at him. “What do you mean, they’re not listening in?”
“I talked to Beth –”
“And told her,” Beck said, speaking over him, “that I needed a secure connection with Landon, pronto. She worked that geek magic of hers and got me a secure line that NASA’s best wouldn’t be able to crack. They don’t even know it’s there. She didn’t ask any questions and I didn’t tell her anything. Now come on.”
Mark gaped at him. “Do you have any idea how many regulations this breaks?”
“Since when do you care about regulations? You spent a good chunk of your time on Mars telling NASA to fuck off!”
“I care when it’s someone else’s neck on the line instead of my own,” Mark snapped. “I care when they could stand to lose everything because of me!”
“What’s the worst thing NASA can do to me if they find out?”
“Strip you of your license,” Mark said.
Beck sighed. “Look, Mark, I need you to trust me for a minute here, and trust that I know what I’m doing. You are my patient, and I am your doctor, and right now I’m telling you that the best thing I can do for you is get you to talk to Landon. Even if it’s only for a few minutes. You just – you need to do this, okay? Trust me.”
Johanssen’s voice crackled over the intercom. “Beck, Commander Landon is still waiting for you on the secure line. He says he’s only got ten minutes.”
“Tell him I’m coming,” Beck said without looking away from Mark. “Ten minutes. He’s waiting.”
“Chris,” Mark said, and then stopped. He didn’t have the willpower to keep fighting this, and he knew it. Beck knew it.
“Go on.” Beck gave him a light shove between the shoulder blades. Mark stumbled forward, then walked the rest of the way into Beck’s cabin.
He dropped into the chair in front of Beck’s desk, staring at his reflection for a moment in the darkened computer screen. He looked awful. The skin around his mouth sagged slightly, tugging the corners of his lips down. His cheeks were hollows and his hair was a mess. He could do something about that, at least, and dragged his fingers quickly through it before pressing the button to answer the call.
The screen blinked to life. Commander Oliver Landon, in full uniform, was sitting behind a polished desk in another borrowed office at Johnson. For a moment, his expression was the one he bestowed upon his subordinates, the one that made even those not in his command accidentally stammer, “Yes, sir,” whenever he addressed them. He was a natural leader who inspired obedience without even trying. The two of them were so wildly different. It struck Mark at odd moments, like this one. Here he was in his civvies, hair unkempt and stubble on his face, while Oliver had probably taken half an hour that morning just to press his uniform and polish his brass.
The moment passed, and astonishment stole over Oliver’s features.
“Hey, Ol,” Mark said weakly.
“Mark.” Oliver stared at him. “I thought -”
“Chris sends his regards,” Mark said, evenly as he could manage. He thought his ribs would crack, his heart was pounding so hard. “To be honest, you scare the shit out of him, so he thought maybe I should talk to you instead this time.”
Oliver’s lips parted, but no sound came out. He was still staring stupidly at Mark, until finally he blinked and seemed to come back to himself.
“That man has made a friend for life,” he said gruffly. “He’s got nothing to be worried about.”
“Yeah, well, you can tell him that next time you talk,” Mark said. “Afraid you’re just going to have to make do with me this time.”
“Hell, Mark,” Oliver said thickly. “I only have a few minutes. Beck didn’t exactly call me at a convenient time here.”
Mark swallowed hard. “I know. But we can make the most of it. Johanssen’s made this connection secure so we can talk freely.”
“NASA doesn’t even know this conversation is occurring, let alone that it’s between the two of us. No one’s listening in.”
Oliver blew out a harsh breath between his teeth. “Then there’s something that you should know. I’ve only told Dimitri so far. I’ll tell the rest of the crew tonight, and NASA’s planning an official press conference about it on Friday. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get the message to you ahead of time without arousing suspicion – not that it will matter anyway in a few days –”
“Ol,” Mark said softly, “you’re starting to scare the shit out of me.”
Oliver looked contrite. “Not my intention. I’m sorry. I want you to know that I’m off the mission.”
Mark’s brain ground to a halt. “What?”
Oliver held his gaze steadily. He took a deep breath and repeated, “I’m off the mission, Mark. I’m no longer in command of Ares 4. At least, by the end of today that will be the case."
“No - they can’t do that to you.” Injustice welled in his throat and choked him. “For God’s sake, why?”
“Because I resigned.” The corner of Oliver’s mouth lifted briefly. “It was my choice, not theirs.”
“Oliver, this is your dream. I don’t understand -”
“No, it was my dream,” Oliver said calmly. “And then that planet took from me the man I loved, and it wasn’t my dream any longer. When I heard you were still alive, the only dream I had was to see you home safely.” His mouth quirked. “Providing you don’t do anything stupid in the next few weeks, that’s one that will come true.”
Mark couldn’t speak. He sat there, feeling precious seconds slip away from them, helpless to do anything about it.
“Oliver,” he said desperately, “everything you’ve ever done, everything you’ve ever worked for, it’s all been for this. This is what you’ve always wanted, and now you’re just going to throw it away -”
“Mark,” Oliver said, very quietly. “I want to be there with the rest of the families to greet you when Hermes gets back to Earth. I couldn’t do that as Commander Landon. I can do that now… as your partner.”
Mark felt like he was crumbling inside, as though his ribs were cracking and organs dissolving, collapsing from within. His vision blurred until he could barely see Oliver’s face, but he reached blindly for the screen anyway, pressed his hand flat against it. He blinked rapidly, clearing his vision enough to see Oliver’s fingertips pressed against his on the other side of the screen, only millions of miles between them.
“I love you,” Mark managed. “I love you so fucking much, there wasn’t a moment on that damn planet when I wasn’t thinking of you.”
“All I cared about was getting you home. The minute they announced you were still alive, I started to plan. I was going to get you home or die in the attempt.” Oliver gave a wry smile. “Beck just had to come along and show me up, didn’t he?”
Mark gave a wet laugh. He pulled his hand away to swipe at his eyes. “He does that. Show-off.”
Oliver allowed him a small smile before his expression grew somber again. “Are you all right? Truly, Mark.”
Mark swallowed hard. “Yeah. I’m fine, Ollie.”
“I miss you like hell, you know that?”
“Not nearly as much as I miss you.”
“I’m taking you to West Virginia as soon as you’re back on Earth,” Oliver said firmly. “And I’m not letting you out of the bedroom or my sight for at least a month. Understood?”
“Best damn Christmas present I could’ve asked for.”
They shared a smile. Then, Oliver’s gaze flicked to the side. Mark’s heart sank, knowing he was checking the time. “I’m sorry, but I do need to go. Bureaucracy, you know how it is. I have a million hoops to jump through before they officially release me from duty, even though I’ve technically already resigned.”
“Yeah,” Mark said, sorrow washing over him. “I know. Those assholes tried to micromanage my crops from a hundred and forty million miles away. They’re relentless. Oliver, are you sure -”
“Yes,” Oliver interrupted without hesitation. “This is what I want.”
“We were so careful, for so long.” Mark shook his head. “I never wanted you to lose this dream because of me.”
“Hey.” Oliver touched the screen again. “This is my choice, Mark. I’ve loved you and hid it for fifteen years. The only thing I care about losing is you. The rest of it - doesn’t matter the way that you do.”
Mark touched his fingertips to his lips, then pressed them against the screen. “Go. Try not to piss off too many people.”
Oliver gave a huff of laughter. “I’ll give you a call next week when this is all over. Be safe. Come home to me, Mark.”
Mark sat there long after the screen had gone dark, his head in his hands. When Beck came to check on him half an hour later, he hadn’t moved.
“What is it?” Beck asked, kneeling before Mark and taking his hands.
Mark told him. Beck absorbed the news quietly, his face impassive.
“The last thing I ever wanted was for him to lose out on a shot at Mars because of me,” Mark finished. “That’s why we kept everything so buried. And now that’s exactly what’s happened. I don’t know how I can look him in the face after this –”
He stopped abruptly, then said quietly, “Oh. You knew. Dimitri sent you a message, didn’t he? He’s the only one Oliver’s told so far. That’s why you wanted me to…”
He trailed off. Beck dropped his head and closed his eyes, his fingers still clamped around Mark’s.
“His name was Aaron,” he said quietly. He looked up, meeting Mark’s gaze, his eyes overbright. “And I’d give my own life if it meant I could be with him again for just five minutes. Of course Oliver gave up his spot on Ares 4. He’s not going to want to miss a moment with you.”
Mark looked away, shame flooding him. “Chris, I’m so sorry -”
“Don’t,” Beck said. “Don’t be sorry. I don’t regret a moment I had with him. I’d do it all again, even knowing the heartbreak that would come after. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I just want you to realize that for Oliver, this is all worth it.”
He stood, offering Mark a hand up. Mark didn’t let go, but pulled him into a fierce embrace.
“Thank you,” he whispered into Beck’s shoulder.
Beck chuckled. “Merry Christmas, Mark.”