"You Say Potato, I Say Tuber"
"You are nowhere near as good-looking as I remembered," Mark said, his forefinger not quite touching the dark hollows that had formed under Chris's eyes. He knew precisely how long it'd been since he'd seen Chris, had the running tally in the back of his mind automatically these days, and still couldn't believe how worn out the doc looked. The skin on his face looked practically translucent and the bones seemed to be doing their best to poke through. Not that he'd meant to say anything about the way Chris looked, either in person or in his own sad fantasies.
"Quiet, Ugly," Chris said, one hand warm on his back, breathing considerately on the business end of his stethoscope to warm it up. Chris's breath steamed up the metal disc, the condensation vanishing like time-lapse photos of frost, and Mark huffed a laugh. His own breath was not nearly as useful, hanging stale in the air between them; he wished he could just burrow against Chris, tuck his face against that broad chest, that scoop where strong throat and square shoulder met, but there were ways he just couldn't bend at the moment.
"And you, Scarecrow, I missed you most of all." What he really wanted was for Chris to just hold him, broken ribs, schmoken schmibs.
Chris's response to that was to press the metal to his chest. It was still cool, and Mark jumped a little under the touch, carefully telegraphed though it had been. There were people in touching distance now, and wasn't that a hell of a trip? He was remembering, now, that Chris had always – when sober, anyway – been a man of few words, and suddenly that was all he wanted from Chris, words, the one commodity he hadn't had to ration when he was a Martian.
But Chris didn't seem to want to talk, only smiled with one corner of his mouth when Mark tried to ask how the Cubs were doing, but absently, like he didn't have the heart to shush him. Listening to the sounds Mark's broken body made as it breathed and pumped blood and performed all its everyday tasks was apparently Chris's priority; the only way Mark was going to get any words out of him would be to read the paper Chris would write on the musculoskeletal alterations a foreign planet had carved into him.
Chris's version would be clinical and precise and boring; Mark's would be called "I Will Survive" and all the disco divas (and Lewis) would be thanked in footnotes.
However much he lost himself in his work, Chris was no Trappist monk. When he was reading his stupid-ass medical journals, he hummed and murmured arguments under his breath. When he was coaxed back to company, Chris talked in quick little bursts, the verbal equivalent of a stereotypical doctor's messy scrawl, not so much shooting the shit as laying down incisive one-liners and grinning at his own triumph. None of that made him comfortable as someone's PCP.
Chris basically had research mode and crisis mode, professionally speaking, and it seemed like he couldn't quite figure out how to behave around Mark, who needed care and monitoring and touch but wasn't about to bleed out on the table. Or, rather, in the hospital bed in Chris's quarters, which was the closest the ship came to having a sick bay. Because that made sense – putting someone out of commission not only under the care of but also in the same quarters as the best-looking guy on any planet. Way to plan, NASA.
Mark tried to make it easier on him by slipping into that younger brother role he'd assumed when he found out that Major Martinez and Dr. Beck – those bastards one Selection Group ahead of him – would be on Commander Lewis's mission to Mars, just like him. He fell between them in age, but in NASA terms, he was still their little brother, to be hazed and mocked and generally given shit, because they sure as shit weren't going to do the same to Johanssen, who was just old enough to not be a child prodigy anymore but also looked like she could hula-hoop in a Cheerio. Martinez and Beck were pretty bad at playing assholes, though; about the worst they came up with was calling him "Ugly" like that was the name on his birth certificate and trash-talking Chicago.
Chris returned to his quarters before Mark was ready for him. He'd been planning on curling seductively on the hospital bed and looking up at him through his eyelashes just to make Chris laugh (and maybe unfreeze and just touch him like a person would instead of the universe's most advanced robot), but when Chris walked in, Mark was still lying on his back, ribs taped up tight, and trying to remember what it felt like to breathe without either a sharp stabbing pain or a dull drowning ache. His back still wasn't at a hundred percent, but his ribs and malnutrition took priority over everything else.
"I got good news and better news," Chris announced cheerily, though he was already frowning. He strode close and tucked a pillow under Mark's knees and Mark was suddenly capable of much deeper breaths. He smiled his thanks up at Chris, who tapped his wrist lightly in response.
"I'll bite," Mark said, memorizing the feel of Chris's fingertips on his skin.
"Not me, pal. Here." Chris unwrapped a protein bar for him and Mark groaned. "I couldn't find potato-flavored like you wanted" – Mark took it back, Chris was an asshole, an unrepentant asshole of the first water – "but it's still nummy-nummy good."
"What's the better news?"
"You're getting a bath," Chris said, and held up a sponge. Mark willed his body to stay non-responsive. Beck was unspeakably beautiful, and before Mark could close his eyes and at least shield himself in one way, the doctor was speaking again, voice gone urgent and harsh. "I'm sorry, Mark. I don't know how else to say it. I'm sorry I pronounced you dead and that it was on my word that we left you behind."
Mark felt his mouth open and close a few times. Shock turned him into a guppy, apparently; good to know. "You dumb fuck. Didn't Missed Orbit training teach you anything? I'm not accepting any apologies from you."
Chris laughed once, sharp and short like the breath had been punched out of him. "Oh, Ugly, you're too good to me. Now say bye-bye to your BFF, B.O."
"And they all lived happily ever after," Martinez said, sitting on Beck's bed like he had every right, his hip kissing Chris's shins as Chris curled up, fast asleep. Mark blinked at him, surprised that the story was over, and Rick blinked placidly back.
Martinez looked him over – he was sitting up now, praise Jebus, and was down to minimal PT for a whole host of secondary problems with his back and Beck was still plying him with extra calories around the clock – with a critical eye and said, "Man, we can't take you anywhere."
Mark laughed much harder than he even knew he could, probably inflating Rick's ego. "Sorry, Dad."
"Seriously, I never put a leash on any of my children, but you're tempting me."
"If I promise never to set foot on Mars again, will you tell me another story?" Mark wheedled. This was what he'd been reduced to, begging for the fairy tales Martinez had memorized for his kids' bedtimes when the pilot came by to make sure Chris got a break. If he snuck peeks at Chris's face every time Martinez described a handsome king who ruled his land with justice and mercy, well, Chris was asleep and would never need to know.
"Once upon a time, there was a dumbshit from Chicago. He started as a little dumbshit but he grew and grew into a bigger one. He couldn't dance and had no game, so the only friends he had were plants. But it was Chicago, not a magical kingdom with vines and talking flowers, so he used to play with the blades of grass in Millennium Park –"
"Millennium Park!" Chris said, startling Mark so badly he hiccupped, which just made Martinez laugh like a hyena. "That's the name of the place – I couldn't remember it. Hey, do you think they'll redo that bean sculpture in the park in your honor? Make it a potato instead?" He sat up and he and Martinez high-fived each other. Mark scowled, hiccupped, and scowled some more.
"Careful, your face'll get stuck like that," Martinez said.
"It's been stuck like that from birth," Chris said, standing and smiling down at him as he puttered around to get everything ready for yet another checkup. "That's why his name is Ugly."
"He won't call, he won't write," Martinez said, his arm around Chris. "Our baby boy is all grown up."
"Would you two shut up," Mark said, not entirely joking. Chris had deemed him healthy enough to return to his own quarters, which was good, but waking up and not seeing Chris first thing was not exactly a step forward.
"You clear all your porn out of Mark's room?" Chris asked Martinez.
"I knew I forgot something!" Rick said, and ambled off to video chat with his wife and kids; today was the first Christmas that they'd thought he'd be back for, but Mark had ruined a lot of people's holiday plans.
"Merry Christmas. Have the gift of your own room and maybe a little privacy," Chris said. "Go on, now. Leave me to my empty nest."
"Doc," he said, wanting to be back on Earth, fast-forwarding weeks (months?) when he wouldn't have cameras around him, so he could lay it all out for Chris, tell him how he felt, and wait for his answer. They'd be linked together for the rest of their lives no matter what; it was up to Chris to decide whether it would be limited to a Wikipedia article about Ares III or whether they'd be coming home to each other forever.
Chris hummed a questioning little sound, looking at him. "Yeah?"
"Thanks," was all Mark said, knowing the rest would have to wait.
There were cameras everywhere all the time, but Chris refused to let them be separated. "Mark is my patient," he reminded everyone on Earth, and no one could deny the results he'd achieved, not when Mark was passing every physical with flying colors. Even at the press conferences, Chris stuck to his side. It made things easier; Mark didn't have to worry about mooning over Chris on camera when turning to look at him would have given him a crick in the neck.
He'd forgotten the Chris that lived on Earth, whose preferred brand of soap smelled like lemons, who wore tight jeans that were worn soft with plain shirts and patterned scarves. Every day was a heady reminder of who he'd been living next to and building his dreams on. He could get through all of the questions about his state of mind, his religion, and his plans if he took a deep enough breath to inhale the scents of Chris's shampoo and Chris's stupid mint tea.
Commander Lewis answered the last question on behalf of the entire team, and then they were done for the day. He shuffled after Chris to a room painted a nice shade of yellow and helped himself to a cup of coffee; the reporters and camera crews had a habit of dawdling, trying to catch the Ares III crew in a less regulated environment, so they'd learned to wait them out.
"Hey," he heard and looked up from pouring creamer in his cup to see Chris sprawled out in a chair designed to be uncomfortable.
"Hey," he said, perching on the chair opposite because his spine wasn't nearly as malleable as Gumby Beck's.
"This debriefing and smiling-for-the-cameras stuff feels longer than our actual mission," Chris grumbled.
Mark snorted. "No arguments there." The coffee was still too hot to sip, but he tried anyway.
"I just want to go home." Not that they had homes, other than with their respective families, because they'd traded in leases for the ship; Chris's parents had settled in some artists' colony in Gulf Shores off the Alabama coast and Mark's were still in Chicago.
"Next month, maybe," he said, knowing he was naming his own deadline with the guess. He had to talk to Chris, really talk, and figure out what his future looked like. Behind the muffling armor of the red scarf and grey shirt, Chris looked both exhausted and frantic, like he was giving off sparks; like a lot of doctors, Chris was terrible at taking care of himself. "Or," he said, "just come back to my room now, and we'll order in dinner, get a good night's sleep for once, and deal with everything in the morning."
There were no journalists lingering in the corridors, so there were no witnesses to how closely Mark shadowed Chris down the hallway and up the stairs. No one was around to see Chris turn with a smile and kiss him against the door of his room. No one but Mark heard the sound Chris made when Mark kissed back.
"You little shit," Mark said, but the grin on Chris's face made him grin back and lean in to steal a kiss. There, in the box, was a key to their new house, and it was on a smiling Mr. Potato Head keychain.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/457116.html.