The Hermes was a massive ship that Beth knew inside and out after living on it for the six-month trip to Mars. Once the MAV docked inside, Beth had the presence of mind, thanks to her extensive training, to run through the pre-flight checklist and perform the necessary diagnostics to ensure that they were prepared for take off.
No one said a word, outside of the rote call and response from Commander Lewis, for which Beth was grateful. Her hands shook as she typed in the flight sequence for Martinez so that he could begin to chart the navigation.
Commander Lewis called out another prompt: “Secondary recovery.”
There was silence, as they all realized that was Mark’s responsibility.
After a moment, Vogel’s voice filtered in over the comm, subdued and clipped. “I will confirm.”
Beth scrubbed a hand over her face and balled her hands into fists in her lap as they waited.
“Go,” Vogel said minutes later, and Lewis continued down her list.
Martinez initiated take off without a hitch, and within thirty, they were able to go on autopilot. Beth unbuckled her safety harnesses and was out of her seat and rushing out of the cockpit the moment they were cleared.
She meant to make it her living quarters, but she only made it as far as the shared kitchen before her legs gave out on her. She clutched the counter for support as her knees buckled and she slid gracelessly to the ground.
Beth had never felt anything like this before. Her chest burned and she couldn’t catch her breath, no matter how desperately she heaved. Dimly, she knew she was crying, but she barely felt it and couldn’t stop, too focused on trying to make her traitorous lungs work. All the while, inside her head two words were beating against her skull over and over, throbbing in time with the blood rushing inside of her head: Mark and gone.
“Beth!” She finally registered Chris’s presence when he dropped down beside her and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Beth, you need to calm down.”
“Gone --” Beth choked out, and then, “Can’t...can’t…”
“You’re having a panic attack,” Chris told her. “Hey, Beth, hey. Come on, try to match my breathing.” He took her hand and held it to his chest. Beth curled her fingers in his shirt and focused on his warmth, the steady rise and fall of his chest, and forced herself to mimic it.
“Chris,” she said, once she had her voice back. “Chris -- Mark -- I don’t...”
“I know,” he answered, and Beth could focus enough to see his face, the quiet devastation written all over it. She rocked forward, falling into him and hiding her wet face against his neck. His free arm pulled her in and held her close.
"Joel,” Beth said.
“Mike,” Chris argued.
“Joel all day,” Beth replied, gesturing emphatically with her forkful of beef stroganoff. “I'm warning you, this is a hill I will die on.”
“What are you guys fighting about?” Mark asked, appearing at their table with a lunch tray of his own. He put it down next to Chris’s and sat down.
“The best classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 host,” Beth explained. “I say Joel, but Chris says Mike.”
“What’s ‘Mystery Science’ whatever?” Mark asked. He was focused on mixing corn kernels into his mashed potatoes, and so it took him several seconds to notice the twin looks of horror that Beth and Chris were sending him. When he finally glanced up, he did a double take at their expressions and then rolled his eyes. “This is another geek thing, isn’t it?”
“It was a show in the 90s about this guy trapped in space with a bunch of robots and forced to watch really terrible old movies. Then the guy -- either Joel or Mike -- and the ‘bots would spend the whole time making fun of them.”
“You’re older than both of us, how have you never heard of it?” Chris asked. “They revived it for a couple more seasons when I was in high school. You had to be in college by then.”
“So you’re asking me if I wasted my time as an undergrad with a thirty year old science fiction show about robots watching bad movies?” Mark asked. “Weirdly, no, I didn’t.”
“Well, that’s what we’re doing tonight at my place,” Beth declared. “I have the whole series uploaded on the Cloud.”
“Come on, seriously?” Mark asked.
“I haven’t re-watched them in years,” Chris said.
“Let me be clear: in less than three months we’re beginning our trip to Mars, which means a year and a half of forced celibacy while we live right on top of each other -- and what you want us to do at your place is watch TV?”
Beth met Chris’s eyes across the table. “He makes a good argument,” she said.
“Hmm…” he agreed and then smirked a bit. “Maybe we could watch The Final Sacrifice to get in the mood beforehand.”
Beth laughed and put her hands over her heart in a fake swoon. “Oh, Rowsdower, take me away!”
The private quarters on the Hermes were tiny. There was just enough room for a thin, twin bed with their belongings stored in drawers beneath it and a small table. It was practically a five-star hotel, though, compared to the Hab, where they had to sleep in the same room in three sets of bunks stacked on top of each other. They’d only ended up staying there eight days before the mission was scrubbed, but she had missed her little corner room while they were on planet.
Now, the third night back after -- after what happened -- Beth found herself in Mark’s quarters, sitting on his hard, military-issue mattress and staring down at his belongings, the ones he hadn’t taken with him when they landed anyway.
Notebooks full of data he’d been keeping track of -- Mark had always preferred writing with pen and paper and then transferring it to the digital files, no matter how many times Beth complained about the time he wasted. His personal tablet with all of his entertainment files was there. Beth knew the password: 1908, the year that the Cubs last won the World Series.
She entered it in and then scrolled through his music files: classic rock, some indie, tons of Johnny Cash, all the hipster bands he’d never admit to really liking. She clicked on one at random, Radiohead, “Paranoid Android”, and a melancholy guitar chord began.
From there, she went into his pictures, heart skipping when she saw him smiling cheerfully on basketball court surrounded by his nieces and nephews. Several more of his parents, of him with his college buddies, and then she stopped at a picture of him with her and Chris. It was from last Christmas. They were all wearing ugly Christmas sweaters, lounging together on Mark’s couch, and Beth’s Santa hat was slightly askew atop her head. Martinez’s wife had taken the picture with her phone, Beth remembered. Lupe had then texted it to Beth, who passed it along to the guys. Mark must have kept it after all.
She looked up to see Chris in the doorway, watching her with concern.
“Don’t do this, Beth,” he said.
In response, Beth turned the tablet around so that he could see what she was looking at. He froze for a moment, just as the song hit a loud, discordant note, and then he shut his eyes, face twisting in grief. Beth tossed the tablet on the bed, feeling bad, worse.
“Sorry,” she said.
He shook his head and held out his hand for her. “Come on, we shouldn’t be in here.”
It was over 115 days later -- 115 days of grieving, of guilt and replaying that day over and over in her head, trying to figure out what they could have done differently -- when Mitch Henderson sent them that video message.
Two months. NASA had known he was alive for two months and they hadn’t said a word. Objectively, Beth understood their thinking. That did nothing to quell her anger. She felt sick, physically ill. She covered her mouth and tried to take deep breaths through her nose.
Two months, he’d been alone. Two months when they must have been censoring the communications they received from their families, removing all mention of Mark being alive. Two months when he’d been on Mars, alone…
The team stared at the image of Mitch Henderson, frozen at the end of the transmission for several moments, the Commander’s self-recriminations hanging over them, until Beth jolted into action.
“They said they can communicate with him. Can we talk to him too?” She pulled up an empty document and began typing in questions, speaking out loud as she went. “How did he survive? How are they in contact with him?”
Vogel added, “What is the rescue plan, and how do we help?”
“And what in the ever-loving fuck were they thinking not informing us of this the moment that they found out?” Martinez barked out. He was a good-natured man, funny and gregarious, but right now he looked angry in a way that Beth had never seen him.
Good, at least she had company. She typed in his question verbatim. Houston lost the right to politeness when they kept this information from them for two months.
“What else?” she asked, turning around and looking at all of them. “Commander? Chr --?”
Before she could get his name out, Beck stormed away from them without a word, slamming his shoulder into Martinez in his haste to get away.
“Sorry,” he muttered, but didn’t slow down as he stumbled down the stairs and out of the common area.
“Beck?” Beth called. “Wha…?”
“Give him some time, Johanssen,” the commander ordered. “Finish writing this up. I have a few more things that I need to say.”
Reluctantly, Beth turned back to the monitor.
Half an hour later, the communication was sent off, and Beth used the ship’s location systems to find Chris in the med bay. She slipped out of the room while the other three were still talking to find him.
“Chris?” she called out carefully as she entered.
He had his back to her, and she could see how tense it was, despite the thick sweatshirt he wore.
“Are...are you okay?” she tried.
Beth flinched when he slammed a metal container down hard on the counter, sending things scattering.
“No, I’m not okay, Beth!” he shouted, still not turning around. “He’s been there alone for almost four months. Who the hell knows what shape he’s in. And how’s he supposed to survive? He’s gonna run out of food way before they can reach him -- “
“I know,” Beth said, feeling sick. “I know.”
“And I’m his doctor!” he yelled, hurling a package of syringes across the room. “It’s my job to -- “
“We’re his teammates,” Beth interrupted. “It’s all of our jobs.” She took a few hesitant steps closer to him. “There’s nothing you could have -- “
“I told her to leave!” Chris shouted, stopping her in her tracks. “I told the commander he was dead and I told her to stop looking for him and leave.”
Her eyes widened in comprehension. “Chris, no. It was the right thing to do. You probably saved Commander Lewis’s life.”
Another metal pan went crashing across the room before he braced his hands against the counter and hung his head. “I know that, Beth, okay? I just keep imagining him being conscious and hearing me say it. Hearing me tell her to leave him behind. Me...”
Tentatively, Beth wrapped her arms around his waist, kissing his shoulder and pressing her cheek against the bowed arc of his back. “Stop it. Stop thinking like that. Mark would kick your ass if he was here.”
Chris snorted softly and she could feel some of the tension leaving him.
“He’s brilliant. If there’s anyone who can manage to make food on Mars, it’s him. NASA will do everything they can to get him back, if only to avoid the bad PR. And in the meantime, he’s alive now. He’s alive, Chris.”
Chris’s hands moved from counter to clutch at her arms tight enough that they would probably leave bruises.
“He’s alive,” he agreed softly.
“Sleep with me tonight,” she whispered, and his body twisted to look at her sharply. The three of them had made it a point not to bring their personal relationship on the mission with them. It was unprofessional and technically against the rules. And they hadn’t, even when Beth and Chris lost Mark, they hadn’t. “Just to sleep,” she said. “Just tonight.”
He leaned forward and kissed her, a too-brief brush of his lips over hers. “All right, just tonight.”
“Mein Gott,” Vogel breathed, eyes riveted to the monitor.
At first it looked like gibberish -- who the hell is Rich Purnell? -- but then, as the text spooled out onto the screen, a knot of excitement began to form in Beth’s stomach. She could feel her hands shaking.
“Vogel, is this…?” she started.
“I must inform the commander immediately,” he said, and then he was taking off out of the gym and back up the ladder, hand pressed to his communication device.
Beth, meanwhile, hit the button on her own device for the private commlink with Chris.
“Vogel just got an email!” she said.
“Okay…?” came Chris’s reply.
“It was a plain ASCII file disguised as a JPEG. Chris. I think it’s a plan to rescue Mark.”
“Johanssen, how’s it going?” the commander asked.
“All set,” Beth replied.
“Vogel, have you completed the new telemetry?”
“Ja,” came the answer over comms. “I’ve sent it to Martinez.”
“Ready to go, boss,” Martinez replied.
“Last chance to back out, anyone…” Commander Lewis said. There was silence for one beat, two, three. “All right, Martinez, alter course. Johanssen, notify Houston.”
Chris gave a loud whoop through her comm and she smiled as she typed out their pre-planned message:
Houston, please be advised: Rich Purnell is a steely-eyed missile man.
After months, the Hermes was finally back within the Earth’s orbit, and the crew was allowed live communication with their families.
She’d been sending and receiving messages to them through the data dumps, but seeing them again on her laptop screen was enough to make her eyes well up.
“Dad!” she cried, wiping at her wet face with the back of her hand. “Mom!”
Her mother reached up and put her hand on the screen. “485 more days?”
“I’m sorry,” Beth said.
“The families have been talking, you know,” her dad said, and Beth expected as much. The relatives of voyaging astronauts were put in touch so that they could provide each other with a support system while their loved ones were away. “Lupe Martinez said that you’re going against orders. She said that Mitch Henderson contacted Helena Vogel to send Alex a coded message. Is that true?”
“We had to do it,” Beth answered without really answering. “Dad, we had to.”
Her father shook his head and gave her a rueful grin. “You were always too brave for your own good.”
“We’ve been following everything on the news,” her mother interrupted. “Bring him back, Beth, okay? You and Chris and the rest of your team stay safe and you bring him back.”
“I'm divorcing your father,” her mother said.
Beth raised her eyebrows. “Why this time?” she asked, balancing her phone against her bag so that she could look at her parents on the screen and finish stuffing her sweaty workout clothes into her gym bag. It was less than six months until Beth and her team were set to take off for Mars, and they were increasing the physical conditioning in preparation. It was probably the most difficult for Beth, who was used to sitting behind a computer screen for fourteen hours a day. Before being accepted into the space program, the only exercise she got came from lifting her can of Red Bull. Conditioning sucked.
“He’s wearing that goddamned blue tie today,” her mother replied, gesturing to Beth’s father behind her.
Beth squinted to make out what he was wearing. “The bad luck tie that Aunt Helen gave you for Christmas, Dad? During the playoffs?” she asked. Her dad rolled his eyes and pretended to strangle himself with the tie in question.
“Thank you!” her mom said. She was a lifelong resident of St. Louis and a diehard Cardinals fan.
“Is that Mama Johanssen?” Mark asked, coming around the corner freshly showered and wearing basketball shorts and his favorite University of Chicago t-shirt as he rubbed a towel over his wet hair. He walked around so he could look down at the screen. “I look forward to watching the Cards lose the wild card play-off on Wednesday.”
Mark was a Cubs fan, which was by far the worst thing about him. Being a Cubs fan was a cardinal sin in her mother’s eyes -- pun absolutely intended, because Lillian Johanssen was the biggest nerd that she knew -- and Beth worked at NASA.
“Mark Watney,” her mother said. “And here I was assuming that NASA had higher standards.”
“Hey, it doesn't get any higher than me, Dr. J. You're looking at the gold standard here.” Mark gave a shit-eating grin that had her mother rolling her eyes.
“Oh, go grow a plant or something.”
“Will do,” Mark laughed and gave a wave.
“Shouldn’t you be sleeping?” the commander asked as she walked into the common room.
Beth just looked at her, letting the irony of that statement speak for itself. After a moment, Commander Lewis sighed, lips turning up in a half smile.
“Red seven on the black eight,” she said.
“Hmm?” Beth asked. She glanced at the cards spread out on the table, her tenth game of Solitaire of the night. “Oh, hey,” and moved the seven at the top of the pile under the black eight. “Thanks.”
Commander Lewis sat down at the table next to her and held out a hand. “May I?”
“Sure.” Beth handed her the remaining deck of cards and she turned one over, the four of hearts.
It was twelve hours before they’d finally reach Mark. After seven months of travel they were less than a day away, and there was nothing for Beth to do. Martinez was in the cockpit reviewing the plan for his manual override of the MAV. Chris was prepping the med bay for Mark’s arrival. Even Vogel had telemetry to double and triple check. But Beth? She had nothing to do, not really, until a few hours before.
Sleep wasn’t an option, so...Solitaire. And waiting. At least she wasn’t alone.
“Ace,” the commander said quietly, flipping it over and settling it above the rest.
For the first time in more than a year, Beth felt like she could breathe again. So she did, sucking in a deep, gasping breath that came out as hysterical laughter as she watched Chris reeling in Mark and the commander.
Across from her, Martinez was whooping and hollering. He clapped her emphatically on the back and shouted, “Call it in, Johanssen!”
She straightened up in her seat and leaned forward, flicking the comm switch. In some distant part of her mind, she realized that this moment was about to become indelible history, her words heard and cherished by billions, forever. Mark would have had something witty to say, a stinger to really ignite the imagination -- “one small step” and all that. Beth kept it simple instead.
“Houston, this is Hermes Actual,” she began before taking a moment to just savor it, to imagine her parents’ faces, Mark’s parents’. “We got him. Watney is secure.”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Chris said as Beth crept back into the med bay.
She hopped on a stool and let her face show how unimpressed she was by that. It had been five hours since they’d successfully rescued Mark. At first it had been all hands on deck, but once they’d gotten Mark out of his EVA suit and sedated on the bed, Chris had kicked them all out so he could concentrate.
He looked up and rolled his eyes fondly when he saw her settling in. “I could use an extra pair of hands,” he relented.
Beth was immediately at his side. “What do you need?”
“Wash up first. The gloves are next to the sink.”
She scrubbed her hands clean and wiped them on a towel before snapping on a pair of gloves and returning to his side. For the first time, she allowed herself to get a good look at Mark’s body and she had to swallow down the bile that crept up her throat. He was horrifyingly thin, the once firm bulk of his chest now nearly concave, ribs protruding sickeningly. His whole upper body was covered in deep bruises and open sores that Beth assumed matched his legs and pelvis, but Chris had covered his lower half with a sheet.
“God…” she whispered.
Chris rested a hand on her shoulder briefly. “I told you that you shouldn’t be here.”
“I can handle it,” she argued.
“I know that,” Chris answered, exasperated, and then sighed. “I’m cleaning the sores and covering the worst ones.” He waved the tube of medicine and a handful of gauze at her. “Think you take care of that while I do something else?”
“Of course,” she answered, taking the items. The stench that Mark had come on board with was mostly gone, which meant that Chris had washed his body off as best he could. Mark’s damp hair confirmed that. She smoothed a strand of it back away from Mark’s closed eyes and leaned in to kiss his damp forehead before getting to work.
“How long until he starts getting better?” she asked.
Chris shrugged. “Hard to say without the blood work results. The broken ribs will take a couple of weeks at least, the bruising about the same. I’ve got him on a cocktail of vitamins and nutrients that should help with the malnutrition. It’ll be a while. And that’s just the physical problems.”
“We’ll take care of him,” Beth said with conviction.
“Yeah, we will,” he agreed.
Chris kept Mark unconscious and sedated for the first forty-eight hours after they rescued him. While Mark slept, Chris, on the other hand, worked. He camped out in the med bay, tending to Mark’s immediate injuries from the MAV launch, and figuring out the extent of the damage that malnutrition and over-exertion had done to his body.
Beth performed her routine duties on the ship, but every few hours she checked in for an update and to make sure someone was taking care of Chris while he took care of Mark.
On day three, Mark woke up.
Beth was stopping by the med bay to bring Chris a cup of coffee and saw Mark’s head turned towards Chris, his eyes slit open.
“Mark!” Beth cried. She paused long enough to set the cup in her hand on the table and dashed to his other side. “You’re awake!”
His head slowly shifted so that he could face her. “Kind of wish I wasn’t right now.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” Chris said. “I promise plenty of painkillers in a minute, but first I need you alert to give me an honest report on your injuries without the medication. I only have half of the supplies I need to really help you on board.”
Mark winced as Chris adjusted the IV in his arm, and Beth’s fingernails dug into the palm of her hand.
“Just do it fast,” she said.
Chris glanced at her. “Of course,” he agreed softly. “Good work taking care of that antenna wound, by the way.” He ran gentle fingers over the puckered skin on Mark’s emaciated abdomen. “There’s barely even a scar.”
Mark answered through gritted teeth. “Thanks. I just thought ‘how would Beck do this’, and then did the opposite.”
Chris barked out a surprised laugh and Beth felt a smile tug at the corners of her mouth. He began to examine Mark’s upper body with a light doctor’s touch, asking quiet questions along the way.
As it went on, Mark’s eyes closed and silent tears began to seep from their corners, sliding down to pool around his ears and dampen the sheet.
Beth reached out and took his hand in hers, wanting to do something to help him. At the touch, Mark let out a labored, hitched sob that made Beth’s head jerk up. Chris continued his examination with his head down, ever the professional, but she could see the slightest tremor in his hands that gave him away. Beth realised then, in a moment of insight, that Mark wasn’t crying because of the pain.
He was crying because he hadn’t been touched by another person in almost two years. He was overwhelmed.
She moved to pull her hand back, but Mark tightened his grip desperately, fingers wrapping around her wrist to keep her there.
“Don’t. Please,” he croaked, his eyes still shut. “Don’t.”
Across from her, Chris dragged his fingers roughly over his eyes before continuing his work, and Beth felt her throat constrict.
“Okay. Alright, Mark,” she said and held on.
She hadn’t realized she had such a thing for watching until Mark and Chris. Though, in her defense, Mark and Chris, like, together. Who wouldn’t like to watch that?
She was kneeling on Mark’s bed, naked, while in front of her, Chris was riding Mark’s cock, and it was easily the hottest thing she’d ever seen -- and that included porn. Mark was so strong, and Beth’s gaze got caught on his thick, muscular thighs straining to match Chris’s rhythm.
And Chris looked like a goddamned movie star, and he knew it. She had to think that at least half of the way his head was thrown back, eyes closed, tongue peeking out was for her benefit. He definitely knew how to play to an audience.
Her slippery fingers found her clit again, but she made herself slow down until they were barely moving, just short, careful strokes that kept her on edge.
Mark had both hands on Chris’s waist, but his head was turned to watch her fingering herself. He was out of breath when he said, “You know, Johanssen, you are extraordinarily easy.”
Above him, Chris huffed out a laugh but didn’t bother to open his eyes or slow down.
Beth shrugged, unrepentant, and licked the palm of her free hand before wrapping it around Chris’s hard cock.
“Oh fuck,” he groaned loudly, his body falling forward before he caught himself with both hands against Mark’s broad chest. “Warn a guy, would you?” His hips spasmed hard twice, making Mark’s fingers tighten.
“Dr. Beck, be advised: I’m going to jack you off now,” Beth said.
“Copy…” he gasped out. He was bent over far enough that his forehead was resting against Mark’s collarbone. “Copy that.”
Beth’s thighs squeezed together convulsively as she watched them both fall apart. Her fingers sunk far enough inside her that her palm massaged the sensitive outside of her folds, and she couldn’t resist grinding down into it, hips rocking. The telltale throb was beginning inside of her, and she gave up trying to go slow, instead twisting her fingers until she could rub a rough fingertip over her clit.
“You gonna come, Beth?” Mark asked. His hair was falling into one eye, his face red with exertion but still so handsome, and Beth bit her lip, curling in on herself.
Her other hand sped up on Chris’s cock, spreading his pre-come and trying to match the frantic pace of his thrusts. She wouldn’t put this particular handjob in her ‘best of’ reel, but it seemed to be getting the job done, if Chris’s agonized expression was anything to go by.
“Beth,” Mark repeated. He took one hand off of Chris’s hip and touched her face, fingers trailing a bit clumsily over the apple of her cheek and lifting her chin until she looked at him. “Are you going to come?”
“Yeah, uh-huh, yes,” she babbled. Her hand ached from the angle she had it pushed into her, but she barely noticed.
Chris had his head turned now, watching her with glazed eyes. “Hang on,” he ground out, sounding pained, and made her stop jerking him. “Hang on, I don’t want…”
His abs tightened as he pushed himself up and sunk back down Mark’s dick in one long motion. Beth watched the gorgeous flex of his ass and could tell by Mark’s shout that he was clenching down around him.
“I don’t want to yet…” Chris repeated, voice gravelly and deep. He gave her a hungry look. “I want to wait…”
Beth realized with a jolt that he wanted to come while fucking her. Seeing him so desperate but holding off until he could be inside her was enough to set Beth off. Her fingers worked frantically as her whole body convulsed around her hand, clenching and unclenching as she shook and worked herself through it.
“That was...not fair, Beth,” Chris was saying when she came back to herself.
“I’ll show you not fair,” Mark countered, and flipped him and Chris over so that Mark was on top. Beth fell onto her back to give them room, her fingers still moving inside of her, and came for a second time along with Mark as he pounded into Chris.
Her breathing had barely gotten under control when Chris came into view, looming over her. She trusted that he’d already put a condom on -- even with birth control, he knew that Beth was not willing to risk getting pregnant less than a month before their mission -- and spread her legs for him.
He slid in, easy as anything after her two orgasms, and his eyelids drooped blissfully, mouth falling open. Beth smiled fondly and pulled his face down to kiss that slack-jawed expression.
A moment later, she turned away gasping as Mark idly twisted her nipple between two fingers. He shifted then, claiming Chris’s mouth in one of his deep, wet kisses that Beth knew from experience was enough to suck all of the air out of the room and leave him lightheaded. She dragged her nails along his shaking back and urged him on.
“Come on, Chris, your turn,” she said.
“Damn straight it’s my...ah…ah…” His hips stuttered and he came inside her as she clenched around him, milking his twitching cock.
Whether it was Chris saying something to the others or them just being clever and figuring it out on their own, the rest of the crew seemed to realize what Mark needed.
With Commander Lewis, it was a reassuring touch of his arm while they spoke. Martinez kept it this close to too rough, ruffling Mark’s hair and slapping his thighs. Mark pretended to be annoyed, but he never really complained. Vogel looked the most awkward, but he still initiated a hand pat or two in the early days of Mark’s recovery. Beth would have laughed if he hadn’t seemed so earnest about it.
Chris, of course, touched him all the time as he tended to Mark’s wounds, but Beth had been on the receiving end of Chris’s care enough to see the difference in the way his touches lingered, the way a cursory look over involved him skimming gentle hands over the curve of Mark’s bicep, the length of his sides, the back of his knees.
Beth, for her part, threw subtly away completely, spending her free time sitting beside Mark on his bed, their sides pressed together from ankles to shoulders and attempting inexpert but well-intentioned hand massages.
She didn’t know what else to do, but if that helped -- and it seemed like it did -- then she didn’t care how silly she felt while doing it.
She had her fingers laced through his, both thumbs smoothing over his palm, when, unexpectedly she was blindsided by a surge of emotion. It was as if all the adrenaline had left her body at once, and the profound relief and gratitude that she hadn’t been letting herself feel came rushing out. Her hands stilled and she blinked rapidly to stave off the hot sting of tears she felt building behind her eyes.
“Beth?” Mark questioned and the sound of his voice undid her restraint.
She pressed a desperate kiss into his palm and rested her cheek against it. Chris was at her side in a moment, his hand a reassuring weight on the back of her neck.
“I’m just really glad you’re back,” she choked out.
“Yeah, me too,” Mark answered.
Almost a week after Mark had woken up, Chris deemed him well enough for the crew to give him the care package that had been put together on Earth and added to the payload that they’d been passed off on the fly-by. It had to be small, of course, to make room for essential supplies, but everyone agreed that after almost three years of hell, Mark deserved something nice.
“Give me a piece, I’m the one who told them to bring it for you.”
Mark hit Martinez’s hand away, broke off another Kit-Kat and stuffed it into his mouth. He made more ecstatic noises as he chewed, his eyes closing in pleasure.
“Oh my fucking god, I forgot what chocolate tasted like,” he moaned. “Oh my fucking god.”
“Don’t make yourself sick,” Chris warned. “I don’t want to have to clean up your puke.”
Mark ignored him and inhaled the next one before the first was finished.
“I could make it an order, Mark,” the commander said. She was standing in the back of the room watching the five of them.
“I dare you to try,” he said around his mouthful of candy, bits spewing everywhere, but he still tossed what was left of the package on the sheet beside him. Also scattered on the bed were handwritten letters from his family that he was planning to open when he was alone, and letters from celebrities that he opened immediately. “You’ll lose a hand, Martinez,” he said preemptively as Rick made an aborted step towards the candy.
“Guy thinks he’s a bad ass just ‘cause Beyonce’s assistant wrote him a get well soon card,” Martinez groused good-naturedly.
“Though, to be fair, he also survived over a year on an alien planet,” Vogel pointed out.
Martinez waved that thought away dismissively. “Any schmuck could do that. You guys are giving him way too much credit, in my humble opinion.”
Mark scoffed. “There was nothing to pilot and no one to shoot. You wouldn’t have lasted two days, fly boy,” he responded. “Now be useful for once in your life and help me change into this shirt. Beck, get this damn IV out of my arm for a minute, would you?”
That had been Chris’s idea: Mark’s favorite U of Chicago t-shirt. Beth knew from experience that the material was soft to the touch, after years of washings. There was a hole in the bottom of it from where Mark had snagged it on the side of a fence once, years ago now. Chris had suggested that Mark’s parents find it in his apartment and send it along.
Switching shirts was an awkward process that took several minutes, and Beth tried not to stare at the molten kaleidoscope of blues and purples that still colored his whole abdomen, peaking out beneath the wraps around his ribs. When they were finished and Chris had reinserted Mark’s IV, Mark turned to her.
“Well, Johanssen, what about you? I got gifts from everybody else. What’d you get me?”
“Nothing,” Beth answered as she tossed a memory stick on the bed.
He picked it up and examined it before raising his eyebrow at her. “I’m getting mixed messages here.”
“It’s not from me, it’s from my mom,” she answered
He frowned. “What would your mom…” He trailed off and his eyes widened in excitement. “Please tell me...:”
“Every game the Cubs played last season,” Beth confirmed, enjoying the way he gaped at the memory stick in his hand. “Congratulations, they finally broke the curse -- and all it took was you getting trapped on Mars.”
“Would have done it sooner if I knew this would happen,” Mark said. “Holy shit.”
“‘Win It For Mark’ was their slogan all season,” Beth told him. “Your parents did the seventh inning stretch a couple times during the play-offs. My mom also told me to tell you that Tony Cazares pitches a perfect game at some point, but she wouldn’t give away which game it was.”
“Fuck, I think I’m gonna cry,” Mark said. Beth grinned so wide it hurt.
“Crew, gather up!” Commander Lewis shouted.
Beth pushed out of her chair and joined the rest of team in the common area. Chris had started letting Mark out of the med bay for short intervals, so he was already sitting at the table with his tablet.
“Annie Montrose is demanding group photos to release to the public now that Mark is up and about,” Commander Lewis explained. She set up the computer’s webcam and adjusted the screen so it was centered on Mark.
“Martinez will need some time to put his face on,” Beck said.
“Screw you, I’m gorgeous,” Martinez shot back. “Try not to break the lens.”
“You’re all comedians,” the commander said. “Now get together, come on.”
Beth and Chris sat down on either side of Mark and Vogel took the seat next to her. Commander Lewis and Martinez stood in the back. Mark’s arm went around her shoulders and Vogel leaned in comfortably against her side.
“All right, we ready?” Commander Lewis asked. “1, 2…”
“Say ‘shit potatoes’!” Martinez called.
“Oh, fuck off!” Mark said as the rest of them burst into laughter.
The resulting pictures were maybe not what Annie had been hoping for.
The crew had started taking turns watching Mark sleep. In his first weeks back he was plagued with nasty nightmares that would jolt him out of bed. Not every night, but often enough and violent enough that he couldn’t be left alone. The first time it had happened, he’d yanked the IV out of his arm in his disorientation.
Since then, they’d stayed with him in five hour shifts to make sure he didn’t hurt himself again. Mark didn’t even put up a fight about it, which proved how much the nightmares alarmed him.
The first time Beth saw it for herself was nearly four weeks after he’d been back. She was stretched out on the chair they’d brought in from the common area reading a book on her tablet, her feet crossed at the ankles.
It started so quietly that she almost missed it. Mark’s hands twitched and he shifted a bit in his sleep. She glanced at him and dismissed it a second before he bolted upright in the bed, chest heaving.
“Mark!” she yelled as she stumbled to her feet, the tablet tumbling out of her hands and onto the floor with a muted thud. “Mark, you’re okay!”
“The Hab’s breached, I have to...have to…” He struggled to get out from under the sheets.
Beth grabbed at his hands, trying to still them as panic welled up inside of her. “You’re on the Hermes! Mark, you’re safe, you’re safe.”
“I’m…” He took a great, gasping breath and looked around, movements slowing. “I’m...Beth?”
“Yeah, it’s me.” She thought belatedly to switch on the overhead light to its dimmest setting.
Mark fell back against the mattress and ran a hand over his face. “Shit, I’m sorry.”
“Can it, Watney,” she retorted.
The tablet on the floor was undamaged thanks to its thick black case. She turned it back on and swatted his shoulder lightly. “Move over, would you?”
“Move over? This is my bed,” he answered, but he still shifted to give her room.
She rolled the tray table with her, folded open the stand for her tablet, and placed the tablet on it so that they could both see the screen. Then she climbed in beside him, sitting cross-legged on top of the covers.
“Want to watch some TV?” she asked.
“I know what kind of nerd stuff you got on there,” he answered.
She ignored him and pulled up her favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” she recited in her best Jean Luc Picard impression.
“My point exactly,” he said.
“So uncultured,” she tsked.
They watched the episode in silence for several minutes until Mark spoke again, his voice barely above a whisper.
“I catalogued all the ways that I could die every day,” he admitted. “I thought about them so often that I think my brain is just playing them out one by one while I’m sleeping. It’s not even the same nightmare. It’s something different every time.”
Beth shifted over until she could put his head in her lap. Then she threaded her fingers into his hair, her nails scratching at his scalp. “I’m sorry,” she said.
He hummed and turned his face into her thigh. “Thanks for coming back for me.”
She shrugged and looked up when movement caught her eye. Chris was leaning against the doorway, arms crossed, watching them. He probably had an alert set in place for when Mark’s heart beat went above a certain rate. She gave him a half-smile that he returned.
“Well, you know, we were already out, so it wasn’t that hard to swing by and pick you up,” she answered and Mark huffed a laugh, his damp breath warming her thigh.
She must have hit a particularly sensitive spot in the short hairs at the base of Mark’s neck, because he shuddered beneath her and pushed his head up to meet her hand, urging her on. She obligingly focused her attention there, scratching softly along his neck and the base of his scalp.
Chris walked into the room and checked on Mark’s IV. “How’re the ribs?” he asked.
“Hurt like a bitch, but I don’t think I did any new damage,” Mark answered.
Chris took the seat that Beth had been in, leaned back and kicked off his shoes. “So what are we watching?”
“Hand to god,” Chris said, raising his own hand for emphasis.
“I knew people were following along from the stuff command would send me. I mean, guy trapped on Mars, obviously that would be a big deal, but I didn’t think…” Mark scratched idly at his cheek and looked baffled.
“There’s a TV show about you on CNN. Watney Watch,” Beth added. “They make Vincent Kapoor go on. My whole family watches it.”
“Kelly, my sister’s oldest kid, calls herself a Watneyite. Says she’s going to get your face tattooed on her arm next year when she turns eighteen.” Chris took a bite of his protein bar and grinned, clearly enjoying Mark’s horrified disbelief.
“Pretty much,” Chris agreed. “You were Time’s Person of the Year in ‘35 and ‘36. You beat out President Obama-Langston like a month after she got elected.”
It was going on two months since the rescue. Some of the sharpness was back in Mark’s eyes, the color returned to his face. Chris said he’d gained almost ten pounds, thanks to a diet created by the best nutritionists in the world. They, along with dozens of other doctors and specialists brought in from all over the globe, were monitoring and analyzing Mark’s daily test results.
He’d also been allowed to do more physical activity as his body healed, so Chris and Beth were taking a walk with him through the common areas of the Hermes and catching him up on Watneymania. They’d only heard about it secondhand from family and friends thanks to their daily data dumps, of course, but seeing his reaction to the stories was priceless.
“There are tribute bands,” Beth said. “My dad sent me some of the songs, I could play them for you. This group named Solar Plexus made a whole concept album about you. My favorite song is called ‘Making Water From My Tears.’”
Chris snorted out a laugh on Mark’s other side. Beth had shown him the lyrics, though neither of them had been willing to listen to any of the tracks, despite how awful they were.
“Fuck me,” Mark said and stopped to lean against the wall and catch his breath.
“It’s been a crazy couple of years,” Chris intoned.
Something shuttered in Mark’s expression. His gaze flickered down to the floor and then over both of their faces. He coughed once and shifted his weight awkwardly. Beth looked at Chris, who met her concerned look with one of his own.
“Yeah, a crazy couple of years, you’re not kidding,” Mark started and then seemed to falter.
“Mark?” Beth asked carefully. She reached a hand out to touch his shoulder.
He tensed and then rolled his eyes, looking annoyed with himself. “A couple of years, you know, and you two have…” His voice trailed off, but Beth understood. He was asking if they’d moved on or if there was still room for him between the two of them. She tightened her grip on his arm.
“--been waiting for you,” she finished, with nothing but the truth.
For the first few months after they’d left, she and Chris had taken comfort in each other and mourned together, their bodies trying to fill in the empty spaces and failing. But from the moment that they’d found out that Mark had somehow, miraculously, survived, an insidious sort of hope had formed. It was so fragile and so dangerous when the odds seemed against them, when Mars seemed determined to take Mark from them even after everything. But it was still there, that giddy anticipation, and Beth knew without having to ask that Chris felt it too.
Mark cleared his throat and shook her hand off of him. He gestured down the length of his still-emaciated body, marred by bruises and slowly-healing sores and raised a deprecating eyebrow.
“Bet you’re glad you waited for all this, huh?”
It hurt, seeing Mark, usually the most confident guy in any room, so bitterly unsure of himself.
Chris must have agreed, because he took a step closer to Mark and grabbed his shoulders, forcing Mark to meet his fierce expression.
“You dumb son of a bitch, you’re the best damned thing I’ve ever seen,” he said and then he crashed their mouths together.
When the kiss ended and Chris stepped back, Mark looked stunned enough that Beth had to push herself up on her tiptoes, grinning, to kiss his cheek.
At the last second he turned, though, cupping her face in both of his hands and pulling her in to kiss her soundly. His lips were chapped but so familiar and dear that Beth felt herself falling into the kiss, shifting her weight into him without thinking. Mark stumbled, his body not strong enough to hold her, but before either of them could lose their footing, Chris was there with a steady hand on each of their backs.
Mark pulled back first, swallowed once, twice, and then his lips twitched into a weaker version of his old smirk. “Best thing you’ve ever seen, Beck? I happen to know for a fact that you’ve seen Johanssen naked.”
“Hey!” Beth yelped, shocked into a sharp laugh.
“That’s a close second,” he said and kissed the top of her head as she swatted at him, feeling a telltale blush creeping up her neck.
“I’m just saying that if we’re going to start making a list, pretty high up in it has to be that pair of -- “
“I said shut up, Watney!” Beth cried. “You’re a pig.”
“Pair of eyes,” Mark finished innocently. “Why, what did you think I meant?”
“Why do I put up with either of you?” she asked.
Beth wouldn’t miss the Hermes one bit. In eight hours, they were set to begin landing preparations. She was finishing up packing the rest of her belongings to load onto the MAV when Chris and Mark walked in.
Mark was still thin, but the change in him since the commander had caught and reeled him in was incredible. It still took her breath away to see him almost filling out his old clothing and grinning at something that Chris said to him.
“Why do you look so happy?” he asked her.
She shrugged, not bothering to tamp down her smile, “We’re almost home.”
“What’s the first thing we should eat when they let us loose?” he asked.
“Steak,” Beth answered at the same time as Chris said, “Apples.”
She gave him a disbelieving look. “Apples, really?”
“I want something fresh,” he answered. “Apples, oranges, strawberries, cucumbers, it doesn’t matter.”
“The first thing I’m getting in Chicago is a beef sandwich with green peppers and mozzarella,” Mark answered. “Fuck, I think I dreamt about that more than getting rescued when I was stuck on Mars.”
The whole crew, Mark especially, had to dedicate their first three weeks back to debriefings, check-ups, visits from the President and other dignitaries, and tons of publicity stuff. The world was desperate to see Mark Watney step onto Earth soil again, and he’d shared with them that he’d already been getting offers in the eight figures for the rights to his autobiography.
Once that was done, they were all headed home: Mark to Chicago, Chris to Boston, and Beth back to St. Louis. But after that, Chris’s condo had been cleaned and aired and was ready for the three of them in Daytona Beach.
“Is this all your stuff?” Chris asked.
Beth nodded and he and Mark reached down to pick up the containers.
“Look at my big, strong men,” she joked.
“You want to do it yourself?” Chris asked and Beth waved them on.
“By all means.”
The commander’s voice filtered through the Hermes’s intercom system. “Attention crew: we have received confirmation from Houston that we’re on track to begin departure procedure at 0600 hours, so all personal items need to be packed and stored ASAP. That means you, Johanssen.”
“Hey!” she yelped at the intercom.
“Ohhh, you got in trouble,” Mark said.
“The boss knows you’re lazy,” Chris added.
“I am not lazy!” Beth said. “Everything I need to do gets done. Excuse me if I don’t have her crazy military efficiency.”
“Come on, grab your bag, lazy,” Mark said. “Time to go home.”