His heart still racing from the last hill they'd pedaled up, Mark pulled off his bicycle helmet and ran his fingers through his matted hair. Five years ago he would never have been out of breath and sweaty after an hour and a half bicycle ride but back then he hadn't just spent years living in an atmosphere with significantly less gravity than Earth.
Mark had called for Chris to stop as soon as he'd seen the view as they had come around the bend of the lane. It was a perfect place to stop for lunch before taking on the final kilometer or two to the chateau.
Their destination, the Château de Chambord, was visible in the distance. Its white stone towers were surrounded by manicured grounds and a slow moving river which sparkled in the sunlight. The view was even more breathtaking than what Johanssen had described on the Hermes.
On the long trip back to Earth, they'd all taken turns to share their favorite memories. Johanssen's description of idyllic days exploring the Loire valley had stuck in Mark's memory bank. And when the time had come for Chris and him to escape, Mark had booked two tickets to France.
After months of being in the spotlight, not being able to walk down a street without being gawked at, it was such a relief to be somewhere where he and Chris were just two more American tourists. The inn-keeper must have known who they were when they had checked-in, but he'd only given a Gallic shrug of his shoulder as he'd handed back their passports.
The gray-stone inn was on a side street of Blois, their room overlooking the walled garden which was overflowing with flowering vines and espalier apple and pear trees. That first day, exhausted from jet-lag, they'd fallen asleep with the windows open, the warm breeze making the shutters creak and the filmy curtains billow.
Each morning they ate their breakfast in the garden at small iron tables set out on the stone patio. Unlike the other guests who quickly finished their breakfasts and rushed off with guidebooks in hand, Chris and Mark would linger over their coffee and croissants, two calico cats rubbing against their ankles, until they retreated back to their room. The four-poster bed and chaise lounge overlooking the garden were all they wanted or needed in those first few days: after months of being at everyone else's beck-and-call it was a decadence they had earned. They had only left when the afternoon sun heated up their bedroom and forced them outside.
Cool breezes could be found down the hill from the inn, along the Loire river where they would walk anonymously amongst the other tourists. Chris would let Mark talk him into gelato for lunch, knowing they would take an early supper before the restaurants filled with people.
After supper they'd find a spot along the river to watch the sunset before heading back to the inn. It was the comfort of being among others but still by themselves that Mark needed. After nearly two years alone, he needed to be around people, even if he didn't want to be stared at like an animal in a zoo.
Fortunately, Chris seemed to understand this, it was the reason why they'd gone to France and not to a wilderness cabin, like Lewis had done. Whereas she had needed to disconnect and shed the burden of command that had taken its toll after two additional years of deep space travel; Mark needed to reconnect with being part of an inhabited planet.
After four days though, they had finally decided to discover what more there was to see in France other than just each other. The long flight over had already tested Mark's new aversion to enclosed spaces, so they had rented two bicycles to explore the area's chateaus.
Shopping that morning at the Blois farmer's market for a picnic had been an adventure in itself. The market vendors stalls filled a courtyard that was probably older than America and Chris had not been afraid to use his high school French and a great deal of miming to buy what they needed.
They'd ended up buying far too much, but it had felt amazingly good to be able to shop in the fresh air, sampling cheeses and slices of apples. Fresh fruit and vegetables (except potatoes) were a craving that Mark, and even Chris, could not get enough of after three years of freeze-dried meals.
"Uh, babe? Mark?"
Mark turned to see that Chris had already pulled things from the bicycle panniers and spread them out on the blanket they'd borrowed from the inn. The sight of Chris kneeling on the blanket in his black and silver lycra biking shirt and shorts made Mark almost regret not staying in their bed.
"Did you put in the corkscrew?"
"I thought you had."
Chris shook his head. "Nope." He held up the bottle of 2039 Sancerre. "I guess we'll just have to enjoy this back in our room."
"It has to be in there. Double check."
"I checked, Mark. It isn't here." Chris gestured to where he'd arranged everything. "It's fine, we still have the makings for a nice picnic. That fancy cheese you picked out is going to be great on the bread."
The wine wasn't really important, nor was the Crottin de Chavignol goat cheese, or the raspberry tarte, or any of the rest of it. But as they'd biked past the fields of sunflowers and the Loire river, Mark had known today was the day and he wasn't going to let a fucking missing corkscrew ruin the moment. He looked at the low stone wall where they'd leaned the bikes. "Let me have that bottle."
"What? You're going to pull it out with your teeth?" Chris said with a laugh as he stood and walked towards Mark.
"Nope." Mark pulled off his shoe. "Give it here."
"Okay, Mr. Potatohead, let's see what mechanical magic you can finagle."
Ignoring the potato dig, Mark twisted off the wrapping covering the wine neck. "Theoretically, this should work."
"What should work?" Chris asked as Mark fit the bottom of the wine bottle into his shoe.
Holding firmly to the bottle and shoe, Mark eyed a good rock in the wall and slammed the heel of the shoe against it. He looked at the cork, nothing. He made sure to keep the bottle perfectly parallel to the ground and hit it three times in rapid succession. Nothing. "C'mon, Newton. Don't fail me now," he mumbled to himself as he tried again.
"Excuse me? Who was afraid that all of the bumps in the road would stir up the wine?" Chris asked with a laugh. He'd hopped up on the wall a few feet away. Mark shot a glare at him before hitting the shoe and bottle against the wall a few more times. It took ten more hits, but Chris stopped snickering as the cork was slowly forced out of the bottle.
"Gotta love Newton's second law," Mark said with satisfaction. The cork had risen half-way out of the bottle. He dropped the shoe and easily twisted the cork the rest of the way. He recapped it and set it on the ground.
Chris's dimple showed as he grinned at Mark. "You'd think after all these years I wouldn't doubt you."
"It has been a hell of a journey, hasn't it?"
The smile on Chris's face slowly faded. "It got us here, Mark. Don't-" He broke off as Mark moved to stand in front of Chris and took his hands, giving them a tight squeeze.
"I know. I just wanted to say...there are things I wish hadn't happened." Chris snorted. "And I will never not regret what it must've been like for you to think-"
"C'mon, Mark. We said we wouldn't-"
"Let me say this." Mark gave Chris's hands another squeeze. "I love you. I've loved you since we were in training together, sneaking around, trying not to get caught. I loved you so much and was afraid to tell you. Afraid of what it would cost us. I let you think it was just a lark. And I never regretted that more than when I was alone and had no way of telling you the truth. That I loved you. That I love you," he corrected himself. "I was so afraid that I would never get to say those words to you."
Chris pulled his hand free and rubbed his thumb along Mark's cheek, brushing away a tear that Mark hadn't realized was there. "I knew. I knew every time you winked and walked away that you loved me as much as I loved you. Never doubted it for a minute. And yes, it nearly killed me when I lost you. But we got through that and now we're both safe."
Mark slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out the small green box. "We are, but Chris...I don't want to make that mistake again-"
"Oh Jesus." Chris's blue eyes flew wide open. "Mark-"
"Christopher Emil Beck, will you marry me?" Mark said the words in a rush, afraid that he wouldn't be able to get them out.
Chris smashed the palms of his hands against Mark's cheeks, pulling him in for a kiss. Dropping the ring box, Mark put his arms around Chris, raking his hands through Chris's curly dark hair as they kissed. Chris ran his hands under Mark's shirt, teasing along the waistband of his shorts, getting Mark's pulse racing even harder as their lips and tongues tasted one another. He pressed in harder, pulling Chris to him, grinding their hips together. After all this time the feel of Chris's lips on his never failed to turn him on.
They'd shared so many kisses. The first tentative one had changed everything, when they'd gone from buddies hanging out to lovers. The bittersweet final kiss after they'd both been chosen for the Ares III mission, because they said they would end things if that had happened. And three months later, the fiery hot one in a Houston downpour, when they'd yelled and fought and couldn't keep their hands off of each other. The quick kiss they'd snuck in the MAB, not knowing it would be the last one for three years. Then that first kiss when he was back on board the Hermes, as they'd come together, tears running down their faces, still half-dressed in their EVA suits. And now this first kiss of the next stage of their lives. Engaged. Soon to be marr-
"Hey, wait a sec." Mark pulled back, panting slightly. "You didn't say yes."
"What?" Chris grinned and shook his head at Mark. "Yes, you fool, yes."
Mark looked around and found the ring box on the ground. "Just wanted to make sure it was official." Opening the box, he took out one of the matching platinum bands. His fingers shook as he slipped it on Chris's left ring finger. "There, we're engaged."
"Not yet," Chris said and he took out the other ring and slipped it on Mark's finger. "Now, we are both engaged."
Chris was still perched on the stone fence, Mark standing between his legs. The lycra bike shorts hiding little of Chris's muscular thighs, and Mark slowly ran his hands along them. Chris gave a little shiver as Mark's fingers squeezed his quads before cupping the padded crotch of Chris's shorts.
"Maybe we can make this even more official." Mark murmured, nuzzling Chris's neck.
"Do I need to remind you that there is a road just a fifty yards behind this wall?" Chris's protest ended in a squawk as Mark sank down on his knees.
"I'm hidden by the wall and anyone who is looking will think you are admiring the view." Mark had picked this spot because of how private it was, the small gap in the trees nestled along the bend of the river. Chris didn't protest as Mark tugged on Chris's waist until he was more leaning against the wall than sitting. Mark pulled down the shorts exposing Chris's hard cock. "I can't imagine you'd want to ride like this," he said, stroking it.
That they were outside added to Mark's excitement. The sounds of the birds in the trees, wind rattling through the leaves, and the cars going down the country road. After being trapped for years in a world filled with mechanical pumps and life-support systems, Mark craved unfiltered air and to feel and hear everything that Earth had to offer. And Chris, Mark thought as he glanced up and saw Chris's face against the trees and blue sky. More than anything, he needed Chris.
"Christ, Mark." Chris gasped as Mark took him in his mouth. Mark gave a happy hum as he began to use his tongue and hand in tandem on Chris's length. Bike shorts were good for more than just riding, Mark thought as he reveled in the sweaty saltiness. Chris's hands gripped Mark's head, fingers raking through his hair.
Mark wanted Chris to fuck his mouth, but Chris was always too cautious about his size. He took Chris deep and used both hands to tug on Chris's hips, forcing him deeper still. Chris groaned and tried to pull back but Mark didn't let him, using his tongue and throat muscles to massage him. Chris let out a series of loud curses before thrusting to Mark's movements. There was the sound of a car horn that made him jerk back but Mark didn't let him retreat. With his hand he massaged Chris's balls, until they were drawn up tight.
Chris was breathing in short puffs, a sure sign he was about to come, and Mark pressed his thumb against his perineum. Chris came with a muted shout, using his own arm pressed to his mouth to muffle the sound, just like he had the first time they'd dared to do more than kiss aboard the Hermes.
"No one would've heard you," Mark chided him as he stood up, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.
"I know. Old habits…" Chris said, before tenderly kissing Mark, his tongue nuzzling and tasting his own come from Mark's lips. "Let me take care of you and then-"
Mark shook his head. "Lunch first." He reached down to pick up the bottle of Sancerre and Chris stopped him.
"Did you know it has over 400 rooms, and only a handful of them are open to the public? Jean Louis told me that his cousin works at the Chateau." Mark ran his hand down Chris's chest. "And that he is not opposed to letting people explore the closed off areas with a little incentive."
"Well, a bribe." Mark took Chris's hand. "We can continue our engagement celebration inside the castle. Looking at all those towers makes me hope we can find a spot way up high. Imagine the view as you look out the window, with me behind you." He trailed his hand down Chris's ass. "I guarantee those stone walls will let you be as loud as you like and no one will hear you."