The rasp of metal against metal woke Mark with a jerk. He lay perfectly still, lost for a moment as to where he was. The mattress was soft, the linens were a fresh smelling cotton. Earth. He was on Earth. Blinking to clear his eyes, he looked around the dark room, even as his heart refused to stop pounding in alarm. Chris was sleeping next to him on the bed. They were safe, he told himself. It had been his mantra for the last six months. They were back on Earth. They were safe.
The noise was coming from the window. Mark removed the cannula from his nose, slipping the tubing free of his ears. Carefully getting out of bed so as not to wake up Chris, he reached down and flicked off the flow of oxygen from tank next to the bed. Crossing to the window, he quietly snicked the loose screen back into place. The wind had kicked up, making the gauzy curtains billow.
Resting his arms on the sill, Mark inhaled as deeply as he could, taking in the sweet smell of rain mixed with the rich earthy smell of spring. On Mars he'd dreamed of such smells, only to have to face harsh reality each time he woke. It was impossible to shake that fear. Even when waking up next to Chris, he found himself being afraid to reach out and touch him lest the image of Chris would slip away from him.
It had been three months since he'd been released from the hospital, and the NASA medical team had only released him with Chris signing his name in blood that he would make sure that Mark went to every rehab therapy session and followed their strict guidelines. Mark went along with the orders, even though he knew it was of no use: his body was failing him.
The two years he'd spent on Mars had destroyed his muscles and joints, giving him the arthritis of a ninety year old. Every movement he made was censored by the pain, even as he forced himself to do the exercises that Chris insisted on every day. His stomach and intestines were in even worse shape, starting before they'd even gotten back to Earth. Mark gave a shudder as he remembered the emergency surgery that Chris had had to perform on the Hermes.
And now his lungs were failing. Mark hated seeing the tension on Chris's face every morning as he used his stethoscope to listen to the rattle in Mark's lungs. The poisons in the Mars silt had infiltrated the membranes, making breathing a chore and sending him into coughing fits that brought up dirty orange wads of phlegm.
He looked back at where Chris had curled himself around Mark's pillow, hugging it in his sleep. Mark had been selfish, perhaps too selfish, when he'd insisted on leaving the hospital. At the time he'd thought that if they only had months left together, he didn't want them spent in a hospital room. Yet it meant he'd forced Chris into the role of caregiver, which he hadn't meant to do. Because of the medications and his own body failing, they hadn't been able to make love in weeks, he was more of a patient than a partner to Chris and he hated it.
Mark took another breath, as deep as he dared. He closed his eyes and just breathed in the sweet smell of Earth. The rain was coming.
The bungalow they were renting was just outside of Bethesda. Close enough to Walter Reed to not be an exhausting commute for the daily treatment. The hospital's pulmonary experts had once treated the legions of soldiers who'd fought in the sands of Afghanistan and Iraq. Chris thought it was the best chance for Mark. Every day they went for therapy treatments to hold off the inevitable.
He was on the lung transplant list, but far from the top. It was something he'd insisted on when the political bigwigs had hinted that they could move him up. Mark wasn't going to deny someone else the golden ticket just because of what had happened to him on Mars.
Mark hated that Chris had had to walk away from his career but Chris had insisted. "Do you really think I would want to be doing anything else? Would you have left me if it was me and not you who needed help?"
It had been Chris who had pressed forward, looking for treatment options when it was clear that Mark's lungs were deteriorating rapidly. Even now his chest was beginning to burn with the need for oxygen.
There was the distant rumble of thunder and in the darkness Mark could see the trees in the backyards swaying, bending with the gusts of wind. He'd come a long way since returning. Two months ago the ordinary house-shifting creaks and groans would have sent him into a panic. He was better but his hand still hesitated when he went to turn a doorknob because his conditioned brain refused to process that he didn't need an EAV suit to go outside.
A ferocious gust of wind made a thunderous noise through the trees and suddenly Mark needed to be out there. He needed to feel the wind whipping through his hair.
Tugging on a sweatshirt he left the bedroom and made his way down the dark corridor to the kitchen, having to pause and lean against the wall to catch his breath twice before reaching the patio door. How many times on Mars he'd wondered what it would be like to just walk out of the Hab without a suit on? It would've been quick, but he'd wondered just how much time he would've had-time to shout, to feel the wind or the flash of pain as the liquid in his body boiled away, time to say Chris's name one last time.
He tugged the door open and walked barefoot across the wet, cold grass. There was a flash of lightning and Mark counted. It took six seconds before the echoing rumble of thunder. A mile away.
Lightning bolts lit up the sky. Ignoring the protests of his knee and hips, Mark lay down in the damp grass to watch the light show as the trees limbs swirled and rustled from the increase in wind. The warm night air was getting colder as the storm front drew nearer. Somewhere down the street a dog was barking, the sound nearly lost the wind. On windy nights it wasn't hard to think back to the hundreds of nights he'd spent alone in the Hab.
Two years is a long time to be alone with your thoughts, especially when they were filled with nights spent in a bunk listening to the whap of canvas. Wondering if the patch job he'd done after the breach would hold. Wondering if he wanted it to...it would've been so much easier to have given in to the darkest of his thoughts. But he hadn't, because he couldn't do that to Chris, to his family. So he'd fought and struggled and starved just for the chance to come back. And he was still having to fight.
Mark sat up and looked around to see Chris standing a few feet away, bare-chested and in a pair of sweatpants.
"Are you okay? I woke up and you were gone…" Chris closed the distance between them and sat on the grass next to Mark.
"Just wanted to watch the storm." Mark whispered, knowing his lungs weren't up to the task of talking. Chris shook his head and reached for Mark's hand. He held it up to his chest, and Mark could feel how hard Chris's heart was beating. "Sorry, I wanted to-" he broke off, coughing, his ribs on fire from the spasms.
"Don't strain yourself talking just…" Chris stopped himself. "Let me know. I thought you'd collapsed in the bathroom or something."
Mark nodded in agreement and squeezed Chris's hand. He could feel the goosebumps on Chris's bare skin. There was a sudden spitting of rain and it was all the warning they had before the skies opened and it started pouring. Mark lifted his face to the sky and laughed at the absurdity of it. He'd just wanted to feel the wind, to feel alive for a little bit. Chris cursed and stood up.
"C'mon Mark, we need to get inside." He reached down and Mark took his hand, allowing Chris to pull him to standing. The house suddenly looked a mile away instead of just a few yards. As if sensing this, Chris put his arm around Mark's waist, so that Mark could lean on him. Chris's skin cool to the touch as he supported him, and Mark started to cough again.
"Christ. You fool, c'mon." They started walking in step, Chris stopping every few steps for Mark to catch his breath. The deluge of rain never stopped and by the time Chris helped Mark into the house Mark was having to lean on him completely, barely able to shuffle his legs. He sagged to the kitchen floor, Chris's arms catching him as he fell.
"Don't you dare try to get up, I'll be right back." Chris rushed away and Mark closed his eyes, hating himself for putting Chris through this.
Chris was back, fumbling with something in his hands and then a mask was being slipped over his nose and mouth. The sweet cold smell of oxygen filled his nose and he tried to breathe it in too fast and ended up in another coughing fit. He was shivering with cold, and he was vaguely aware that the wooden floor was now wet from the rain dripping off of his clothes and hair.
"Take it easy, let the oxygen do the work." Chris said from somewhere behind Mark, his hand brushing the hair of out of Mark's eyes. "I'm going to go start a bath, we need to get you warm."
"You, too-" Mark tried to say, but it was lost in the mask. The oxygen was working its magic and he had enough energy to sit up and lean against door. He closed his eyes and tried not to think about how much he hated his body.
When Chris came back into the kitchen he'd put on dry clothes, and felt warm as he helped Mark stand. Chris picked up the small oxygen canister that Mark recognized as the emergency one that Chris kept as a backup for car trips and their evening walks. Walks that had gotten shorter and shorter in the past weeks.
They shuffled their way to the bathroom where the tap on the faucet was going full-blast, the tub nearly full of steaming water. Chris shut off the water and took the oxygen mask off of Mark before helping him off with his wet clothes. Mark desperately wanted to tell him that he didn't need the help, but his limbs were shaking with exhaustion and cold. The water stung as he sank into it, leaning against the back of the tub and closed his eyes.
Chris disappeared again, coming back a moment later with the long oxygen line from their bedroom. He knelt by the bath and slipped the cannula in place and then snugged the tubing around Mark's nose. "Just relax for a bit, get warm."
Mark didn't have enough energy left to do anything but squeeze Chris's hand in thanks. In the next moment Chris was nudging him awake. Mark sat up, panicked as he realized he was in still in the tub.
"I let you sleep but the water is cooling off and you'll sleep better in bed." Chris said as he leaned over to release the drain.
"How long was I out?" Mark asked as Chris helped him stand.
"Not long, twenty minutes." Chris handed him a towel and Mark's hands fumbled it, the arthritis making his hands stiff and the towel fell into the tub. Chris grabbed another towel from the rack and this time dried Mark off, brushing away Mark's hands when he tried to take the towel from him.
"Chris, I'm sorry." Mark grabbed Chris's hands. Chris stilled, his head bowed down. "Can you look at me?"
Chris looked up and Mark cursed at the puffy redness of Chris's eyes. "I'm sorry, I didn't think. I just wanted-"
"Why did you go out there? I saw you lying on the grass and I called out your name and you didn't move and I thought..." Tears welled up in Chris's eyes and he looked away.
"Fuck, no. Chris, I'm sorry. I woke up and heard the wind and just wanted to be a part of it. To watch the lightning. I didn't think any more that." Mark wanted to explain more but he started coughing again.
"Okay, let's get you to bed and hope that you didn't catch pneumonia." Chris said gruffly.
Mark's head was spinning by the time they reached the bed and he sat back on the mattress, hating that he was so weak that Chris had to swing his legs up. Chris pulled up the comforter and then fussed with the oxygen line, making sure that it wasn't crimped.
"Spoon with me," Mark said, catching Chris's hand.
"Mush over." Chris said, and Mark scooted over to give him enough room. He sighed as Chris wrapped his arms around him.
Mark woke to the sounds of birds outside the bedroom filled with sunshine. He looked for Chris but his side of the bed was empty.
"You're awake," Chris said from the doorway. He was holding two mugs of coffee and he came to sit on the edge of the bed. Mark sat up and Chris handed him his coffee. Chris looked like he had aged ten years in the past few months, the gray was taking over the black and tight lines of tensions around his mouth and eyes were deeper. Mark had put those worry lines there, Mark and his stupidity.
"How are you feeling?"
"Old." Mark said as he took a sip of the coffee. "And stupid."
"You are an idiot but I don't think you did too much damage. No sign of fever and your lungs didn't sound any worse than usual when I checked them earlier."
Meaning Mark had slept through Chris's examination. He leaned tiredly against the headboard and looked at the clock. After eleven. He'd missed his morning therapy session.
"I called and rescheduled for later this afternoon. More important that you get rest."
Mark nodded and closed his eyes, he was still tired but then he always was these days. Chris took the coffee from his hands and put it on the nightstand. "Mush over."
Mark scooted over, catching the oxygen line and having to tug on it. Chris got in behind him, putting his arm over Mark's waist as he kissed the back of Mark's neck. They lay listening to the sounds coming through the window and the hiss of the oxygen machine.
"Can you promise me something?"
Mark turned his head so he could see Chris. "What?"
"If...when you get too tired to fight any more, you'll tell me." Chris's blue eyes held Mark's. "I don't want you to feel-"
"No, hear me out. I know you hate all of this. You hate the treatments, you hate having to have me help you. You hate not being able to walk across the room without oxygen. I think your pain levels are a lot higher than you are letting on. And yet you keep on fighting."
"I don't want to give up-"
"I know, I just want to make sure you are fighting for you, that you aren't torturing yourself for me or anyone else. This isn't something that can be fixed with duct tape and potatoes."
"I don't want to leave you." Mark said, squeezing Chris's hand.
"You have me. You'll always have me. I love you." Chris kissed Mark again. "I love you and I will do anything for you. Even if it means accepting that it is time to let you go…"
"I'm not going to give up-"
"I know, I know, but if there comes a time, promise me that you'll tell me. That you won't just walk out into a storm and not give me a chance to say good-bye. I lost you once that way, I don't want it to happen again."
Mark wanted to argue with him but every aching muscle in his body and the pressure in his chest each time he took a breath told him that Chris was right.
"I promise to tell you...but I'm not giving up. Not yet."
"That's all I wanted to hear," Chris said as he ran his hand along Mark's arm.
Three months later
Chris stood in the doorway of Mark's hospital room. He'd been out running errands during Mark's physical therapy session when he'd gotten the call that Mark had collapsed. By the time he got to the hospital Mark was already in the ICU. The ER doctor that Chris had cornered for information had confirmed that Mark's left lung had collapsed and they hadn't been able to get it reinflated. His other lung hadn't been moving enough air so they'd had to intubate him.
Mark's face was as white as the sheets he was laying on, he was a ghost of the man who'd set off for Mars. The weight he'd gained since being rescued by the Hermes had disappeared along with his strength. And now the machinery next to the bed was breathing for him. Chris took a deep breath of his own, it was too soon, he wasn't ready, but his heart told him that it had been too long.
Mark turned his head and saw Chris as he walked towards the bed. "What have you done to yourself now?" Chris tried to kid but his voice cracked halfway through the sentence. It looked like Mark tried to smile but it was more of a grimace around the tubing keeping him alive.
"I talked to the doctor. Your lung collapsed again." Mark blinked his acknowledgment and made a writing motion with his hand. "You want to write? Okay, uhm." Chris looked around the room until he spotted a whiteboard and marker on a shelf by the window. Handing Mark the marker, Chris held the board for him. Mark's hand shook as he tried to form the letters. His hand fell to the bed and Chris looked at what he'd written.
Call mom and dad. Tell them to come
Chris had to bite his tongue to swallow back the cry of protest, but he couldn't stop the tears that filled his eyes as he met Mark's gaze. Mark reached out and Chris grasped his hand, pulling it to his cheek. A tear slipped down and Mark swiped it away. "I'll call them. Anyone else?"
Mark shook his head. They had been preparing for this moment since the day Mark had taken himself off of the transplant registry. Their crewmembers from the Ares III had visited over the past month, they had all known it was good-bye.
Chris fumbled to get his phone out of his pocket with his free hand, not wanting to let go of Mark's. The conversation didn't take long.
"They'll be here in a few hours. Heading straight to the airport."
Mark squeezed his hand in acknowledgment. The machine wheezed on, inflating and deflating Mark's lungs. Mark fumbled for the marker and Chris quickly wiped the board clean.
Spoon with me.
The hospital bed was hardly big enough for a grown man but Mark was little more than skin and bones now. "Mush over," Chris said, trying to smile but knowing he was failing miserably. Mark tried to scoot, but was too weak so Chris took Mark in his arms and gently pushed him over just enough to give himself a few inches. He toed off his shoes and carefully got into the bed, wrapping his arms around Mark.
"Remember that trip we took to Colorado? Before the Ares III team was picked. Just two buddies from training getting away for some skiing. Don't know how I made it through that weekend without you knowing how much I was into you. You walking around the cabin we'd rented without any shirts on. Then snowboarding and having to watch your ass all the way down the slope. I still think you did that all on purpose. Teasing me, weren't you?"
Mark squeezed his hand and gave a little nod.
"I thought so. Did the trick, didn't it? Could hardly look you in the eye when we got back to Houston. All I could think about was wondering what it would feel like to be with you." Chris rubbed his hips gently against Mark's. "Then of course I got to find out six months later. How we didn't get caught in that supply closet, I don't know."
How many times since everything had gone wrong had Chris wished they had been caught? They would've been kicked out of the program. Never would have gone to Mars. Chris never would have found out what it felt like to lose Mark. And now he was going to go through it all over again.
Mark nudged Chris with his head and Chris took in a shaky breath and tried to focus. "Then there was when we got back you aboard the Hermes. You never had looked so good to me or smelled so horrible. You reeked like a skunk that died under the house on a hundred degree day. We slept like this that first night you were back, even though you had broken ribs. Every noise on the ship was making you jump and I climbed into your bunk just to try to get you to fall asleep. I didn't even care what any of the others thought, I wasn't going to let you go."
They went on like that, Chris curled against Mark's body, whispering and remembering. Nurses came into the room and he motioned them away. There was nothing they could do to help Mark now. The light from the window slowly faded and they were in darkness except for the lights of the machines keeping Mark alive. Mark had been fading in and out of consciousness and Chris had his hand on Mark's chest, just to feel the reassuring beat of his heart, feel the warmth of him.
The door opened and Chris lifted his head to see Mark's parents silhouetted in the light coming from the corridor. He wanted to make them go away, to stop this moment from ending but instead Chris kissed Mark's cheek to wake him, shaking his shoulder gently. "Your parents are here," he whispered as he felt Mark start to stir.
He carefully got off the bed, his body protesting the hours he'd spent next to Mark. Melinda and Ray walked slowly into the room, Melinda had a handkerchief clutched in her hand, her knuckles white. "I'll be out in the hall. He can't talk...there's a board if he wants to write something…" Ray nodded, and took Melinda's hand to lead her to their son's bed.
Chris went out to the corridor and sagged against the wall. He knew that there were things he should be doing. Telling the staff about what Mark needed. Forms that needed to be filled out. Phone calls to be made. But he couldn't think of anything but the feel of Mark's heart beating next to his.