Mimi dies on the first day of spring, slipping away in the early hours just before dawn with her mother holding one hand and Roger the other. It's a peaceful death, the kind Mark supposes that anyone would hope for, but at the same time so unfairly incongruous with the incandescent ball of fire that Mimi had been in life. If anyone deserved the kind of final blaze of glory that Roger sometimes talked about, it was Mimi. But then death has never cared about what people did and did not deserve, and so instead Mimi fades away like Angel and all the other millions of people stolen from life by AIDS.
Most of the funeral plans are already in place, overseen in no small part by Mimi herself in her last few days – "Make sure it's a hell of a party," she'd whispered to Maureen – and the Marquez family steps in to handle all the final details of the arrangements. Mark is immensely grateful, because it means he can devote his full attention to Roger. Mark remembers all too well the listlessness and despair that had mired Roger in the dark months following April's death, before Mimi and her candle danced into their lives, and he spends the days after Mimi dies scrutinizing Roger's every word, move, and expression for signs of their return. Not that Mark has any idea what he would do if he found them. It had taken Mimi to draw Roger back to himself before, and Mark has no idea what he could possibly offer Roger now that he couldn't back then.
Fortunately, days turn into weeks which turn into over a month, and every morning, Roger still shuffles out of his bedroom to greet Mark with a sleepy but wholly genuine smile. Not that he doesn't mourn Mimi, because of course he does, but he also tags along with Mark when he goes out filming or meets Maureen and Joanne for lunch at the Life. He goes to Life Support regularly, sometimes twice a week, and even the days he doesn't leave the loft he spends scribbling lyrics nonstop into stacks of increasingly battered notebooks, writing songs more prolifically that he has in the entire time Mark's known him. Through it all, Mark continues to watch him like a hawk.
Mark assumes his scrutiny is subtle until one morning six weeks after Mimi's death when Roger looks up from his bowl of off-brand Frosted Flakes and says, "I'm not going to run away to Santa Fe again, you know." The comment catches Mark so off-guard that all he can do is sputter wildly while Roger laughs, actually laughs, at him, and just like that, Mark can feel the tension he's been carrying around since Mimi's death evaporate. It's clear to him now that Mimi's impact has outlived her. The Roger laughing at him from across their grimy kitchen table is once again the Roger that Mark remembers from high school, from before April and heroin and HIV, and Mark wishes he'd had a chance to thank Mimi for giving him his best friend back.
In the summer, Roger starts playing again – really playing, as in for audiences and not just around the loft. It's nothing like his wannabe rock star days. There are no bright lights or screaming fans this time, just Roger and an acoustic guitar and the bevy of songs he's spent the last three months writing. Honestly, Mark thinks it suits him better. Roger may have been good at playing the part of the rock and roll front man when he needed to, but that had never really been him.
Naturally, Mark goes to his first show. The place is a little dive bar down on Avenue C and 5th Street. Maureen and Joanne meet him there, and the three of them grab some drinks and a table along the back wall and wait for Roger to appear. He'd been nervous that morning, Mark could tell, pacing around the loft with his notebook, scribbling out lyrics just to rewrite them unchanged, but now, as Roger finally takes what passes for the stage, he's fairly glowing. Mark manages to catch his eye in the crowd, and Roger beams at him in response. Something tugs in Mark's chest at the sight of Roger's smile, and the next swallow of his vodka soda barely makes it past the lump that's suddenly in his throat. Maybe it's the alcohol, but Mark feels like he could almost cry at seeing Roger look so happy.
He opens with "Your Eyes," which gets noticeably more than the usual smattering of applause typical of a bar audience. The rest of the set goes well too, or at least Mark thinks it does. He's never been particularly musically inclined, and as far as he's concerned Roger always sounds amazing, but tonight it does feel like that's more passion or heart or something in Roger's voice. It doesn't matter that Mark's heard all these songs a thousand times already. He still hangs on to every note.
"That one wasn't about Mimi," Maureen remarks to him after the applause from the final song of the night dies away. Mark nods his agreement. He'd noticed it listening to Roger practice at home, that interspersed among the bulk of songs about Mimi were a handful about April and few about a person or persons that Mark doesn't recognize. Mark hadn't thought much of it at the time, but Maureen clearly thinks it's significant, because she's arching one eyebrow pointedly at him from across their little high-top.
"What?" he asks, because whatever point that eyebrow is trying to make is lost on him, but Maureen doesn't elaborate. Instead, she just sighs and shakes her head and uncharacteristically holds her tongue.
By fall, Roger has become a fixture at Life Support. To a lesser extent, Mark has as well, tagging along whenever he's bored or Roger asks him to. He sits quietly in the back, sometimes filming, but usually just listening as Roger and the other members trade their experiences living with their disease.
Today, the discussion is dominated by one of the newer members, a soft-spoken middle-aged man who goes by Jay. Mark had met him for the first time last week, introducing himself and offering his standard explanation for his unique presence at meetings: "I'm Mark. I'm with Roger. I'm negative." It's an explanation he's given literally dozens of times, and Mark's never once considered how it could be misinterpreted. Until now.
"I'm just struggling with the idea of tying him to a relationship that can't have a future," Jay is saying. He's been discussing how his recent diagnosis has impacted his relationship with his boyfriend, who had by some miracle tested negative. "How do you deal with it?"
He's looking at Roger, who blinks owlishly back at him. It's clear he has no idea what the man is talking about, and at first, Mark doesn't either. Then Jay casts a pointed glance over at Mark, and instantly, the pieces fall together. From across the room, Mark watches the realization cross Roger's face in the form of a faint flush as he makes the connection as well. "He isn't-" Roger starts at the same time that Mark begins, "We're not-" Neither of them actually have to finish their thought before Jay clocks to his mistake and back-peddles with a string of stuttered apologies.
And that's the end of it. Which is weird, actually. This is far from the first time someone has made that assumption about them. Hell, even Maureen had done it the first time they'd met her. Usually Mark will joke about it or even laughingly play into it, but today, for some reason, every half-assed joke that crosses Mark's mind dies on his tongue. They discuss Mark's film on the walk home and Collins' latest exploits over dinner, and at no point do either of them mention what should have been the hilarious misunderstanding at Life Support.
For the life of him, Mark can't figure out what's changed.
Collins arrives for the holidays late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, and the three of them get dinner together at the Life that night on Collins' dollar. Otherwise, Christmas this year is a subdued affair, too full of memories turned painful by time and loss for any of them to feel much like celebrating even though they all know Angel and Mimi would be furious at them if they knew.
Maureen and Joanne join them for New Year's Eve, several bottles of half-decent champagne in hand. They pop the bottles on the roof, letting the alcohol fortify them against the cold, and raise several toasts to absent friends and another year survived. Mark is and always has been a lightweight, and he's drunk well before midnight, slumped against Roger, who despite having had just as much champagne as Mark is somehow very unfairly still able to stand upright under his own power.
Collins starts the countdown at 11:59, and they all chant along for the last ten seconds before shouting Happy New Year! into the night. Maureen and Joanne join their voices to the revelers on the street below in singing "Auld Lang Syne" hideously offkey, while Collins stumbles over towards his two former roommates and plants a wet, open-mouthed kiss first on Roger, then on Mark. Mark's still wiping the slobber from his mouth when he hears Roger whisper, "Happy New Year, Mark," and when Mark turns his head to reply, Roger kisses him. It's quick, dry, and chaste in exactly the way that a meaningless New Year's kiss between friends should be, but afterwards Roger bites his lip and ducks his head, and Mark feels his world spins in a whole new way that has nothing to do with the champagne.
"What's going on with you and Roger?" Joanne asks him the next morning, when the two of them and no one else have regained consciousness.
"Nothing," Mark tells her, and before last night that would have been the truth. Now, Mark's fuzzy hungover brain is coming to the realization that maybe he doesn't actually know.
Mid-February brings a cold snap and temperatures in the city plummet into the single digits overnight. It remains slightly warmer than that in the loft, but not by much. On the third night, Mark is huddled shivering in his bed, when he hears shuffling footsteps in the hall followed by the gentle creak of his bedroom door being opened.
"Cold," Roger grunts by way of unnecessary explanation, and Mark doesn't even open his eyes, just lifts the edge of his blankets in silent invitation. A moment later, Mark feels a soft thwump as Roger tosses his own blankets onto the pile, then the dip of the mattress as Roger crawls in beside him. Blindly, Mark reaches out, fingers making purchase on the sleeve of Roger's sweatshirt, and pulls Roger towards him until they are lying face to face, nearly flush against each other. They fall asleep that way, foreheads pressed together, and finally, blessedly warm.
It's not the first time their poverty and the Manhattan winters have conspired to leave them sharing a bed, and so Mark doesn't think much of it, at least not at first. Eventually however the temperature outside rises, first to double digits, then to above freezing, and finally to something even resembling warm. Yet every night, Roger still climbs into Mark's bed as though he didn't have his own perfectly serviceable room across the hall.
Mark wants to ask, but he can't find the right question, and he worries that even if he does the very act of acknowledging the situation out loud will still be enough to send Roger scurrying back to his own bed. Mark's not sure why that thought distresses him so much, but just the idea of falling asleep without Roger's gentle breathing in his ear or waking up without Roger koala bear-ed around him, makes him feel vaguely nauseated.
One morning in mid-April, Mark wakes up from a dream with Joanne's question from New Year's Day echoing around in his head. What's going on with you and Roger? And just like that, Mark knows. He knows who Roger's songs were about and why neither of them felt like joking about being together at Life Support. He knows why Roger kissed him at midnight and why Mark's stomach plummets to his shoelaces thinking back on it even now. He knows why Roger's still in his bed, currently curled against Mark's side with his face pressed against Mark's neck.
Holy fuck, Mark thinks. Beside him, Roger shifts, extracting his face from Mark's neck just far enough to blink blearily up at him, and Mark, mind singing with his sudden epiphany, does the only thing he can think of. He kisses Roger. It's nothing like their kiss on New Year's, nothing that Roger could mistake for being friendly, and he doesn't seem to, because after a moment's hesitation, Roger kisses him back, mouth opening under Mark's as his hand comes up to cradle Mark's cheek. It ought to feel weird, Mark thinks, kissing his best friend, but it isn't. It's the exact opposite. The sensation is overwhelming in its sheer rightness, like they should have been doing this for years.
Mark's about to pull back to say exactly that when Roger freezes. In the next instant, he's off the bed and stumbling backwards out of Mark's room like Mark's an open flame and Roger's just been burned. "I can't," he chokes out before he vanishes through the doorway. A minute later, Mark is still staring blankly at the ceiling when he hears the apartment door slam.
The rest of the day passes in a fog. Mark goes through his usual routine by what amounts to muscle memory because his mind is hours away, stuck back in the moment just before he kissed Roger. He'd been so sure, so certain in that moment that this was something they both wanted, something they'd been building towards for months, or maybe years, even if they didn't fully realize it at the time. He'd been right about his own feelings, that much he'd confirmed the instant his mouth met Rogers, but now, with the sound of the slamming apartment door echoing in his head, Mark can't fathom how he could have been so mistaken as to imagine them returned.
The sun has long since set by the time Roger finally returns home. Mark's been sitting on the couch for hours in the dark, too wrapped up in his thoughts to even remember to turn on a light. He has a thousand different apologies ready on the tip of his tongue, but they all die there the instant Roger sits down beside him and wordlessly reaches out and takes Mark's hand. For a long moment, they just sit there silently in the dark, both still staring straight ahead, until finally Roger whispers, "It's not that I don't…" There's a pause, and a traitorous flutter of hope blooms in Mark's chest. Then Roger takes a deep breath and continues, "I can't hurt you like that." Out of the corner of his eye, Mark watches his shoulders slump, and his grip on Mark's hand tightens almost painfully. "I can't, won't, be with you just to die and leave you behind."
Mark feels himself go cold, because Roger is right. Whatever the two of them might have together will necessarily be built on borrowed time, and that time will run out for Roger a lot sooner than it will for Mark. And it won't be the difference of a few years like with Roger and Mimi, or Collins and Angel, but potentially decades.
"It doesn't matter," Mark whispers fiercely, because Roger is also wrong, wrong in assuming that staying just friends will somehow make things any better, any easier, because either way, together or not, losing Roger is going to be the worst thing that ever happens to Mark.
"It does to me," Roger replies.
Mark wants to argue, wants to scream, wants to shake some sense into Roger's thick, thick skull. What happened to no future, no regrets, no day but today? Once again, the words are on the tip of his tongue when he swallows them down. He won't press, not now, not tonight, not when he can tell by the tension vibrating across Roger's shoulders that he's too fragile. The last thing he wants to do is watch Roger shatter. "Come to bed?" he says instead, because if they're not going to move forwards, the least Mark can do is ensure they don't move backwards. He can feel Roger's hesitation in the twitch of his fingers that are still grasping Mark's, but in the end he lets Mark pull him to his feet and down the hall and into Mark's – their – bedroom.
By the morning, they've slipped back into the same routine of the last several months as though yesterday with their kiss and their conversation never even happened. If it weren't for the ache in Mark's chest he could almost believe it hadn't.
In the summer, Mark meets a girl at one of Roger's shows. She's pretty with dark hair and an endearing giggle, and at the end of the night, she slips her number into Mark's pocket with a wink. He throws it out as soon as he gets home.
The next morning, it's sitting next to his cereal bowel. "Call her," Roger says, but Mark is already crumpling the slip of paper up again. "Please," Roger's voice breaks on the word, and it's enough to make Mark pause. The last time he can remember hearing Roger sound so desperate was at Mimi's deathbed. Mark opens his mouth to lie, to say something about how the girl just hadn't been his type, even though he knows Roger will recognize the falsehood for what it is. Roger cuts him off before he can speak. "I just want to see you happy, Mark."
In the end, he calls, because Mark wants to see Roger happy too.
They meet for drinks later that week at the same bar as before. It's awkward at first, as first dates usually are, until the girl - Julie, her name is - mentions that she's studying film at NYU and suddenly, they have no end of shared interests to discuss. It's nearly four hours later when Mark walks her home. They linger even longer at Julie's stoop until, blushing furiously, she invites him inside. Mark makes it halfway up the stairs to her apartment before he changes his mind.
Roger's sitting on the windowsill with his guitar when Mark gets home. He recognizes the song Roger'd been playing. It's one of the ones about him. "You're home early," Roger says by way of greeting.
"Yeah, well, it didn't seem fair to lead her on when I'm hung up on someone else." Roger blinks at him in surprise, and honestly, Mark is almost equally as shocked by his words. The last few months, they've been doing a fairly decent job of ignoring that things have changed between them, or at least Roger has, and Mark has been following his lead, afraid of what Roger might do if he upsets this delicate equilibrium between friends and something more they've settled into. The only problem, Mark realizes in the deafening silence that follows his declaration, is that things have changed. Or at least they have for Mark. The feelings that he acknowledged for the first time that day had done nothing but grow even more intense, and even if he can't convince Roger to give a relationship between them a chance, Mark also can't simply pretend anymore that it's not what he wants.
"I love you, Roger. I'm in love with you," Mark finds himself saying as the emotions that have been simmering for months finally boil over. He's never said it out loud before, not even to himself, but he feels the truth of it in his bones. "And I know this probably won't change anything between us, but I want you to know the opposite of that is also true. Not being with you won't change how I feel about you."
The air in the room is heavy in a way that has nothing to do with the humidity. Across the apartment, Roger just stares at him, eyes wide and fingers gripping his guitar neck tighter than is probably good for it. Mark's not sure how long they stay like that, maybe minutes, maybe hours, until the tension finally becomes unbearable. "I'm going to bed," Mark finally announces, because he's said everything else he can.
Sleep eludes him, because of course it does, and Mark spends the next hour curled on his side staring blankly at the wall, listening to Roger pluck sour notes on his guitar and wondering when thing's had become so completely and utterly fucked. Eventually, the sounds of the guitar die away and are replaced by shuffling in the hall. For a panicked moment, Mark thinks that Roger might be taking this opportunity to return to his own bed, but a moment later he hears the door creak open behind him and then the mattress dips with Roger's weight. "Mark, this doesn't… I still can't…." he whispers, but Mark doesn't respond. He's said all he can tonight, bared his fucking soul. At this point, he has nothing left to give except a very real fear that if he opens his mouth now he just might start crying instead.
Fortunately, Roger doesn't press, just slides across the bed and curls himself against Mark's back. And just like that, Mark feels the tension drain from his body the instant Roger's arms wrap around him. His breathing evens out as he finally drifts off towards sleep. "Mark," Roger whispers again, and this time Mark's genuinely too close to unconsciousness to respond. Roger must assume he's already asleep, because Mark knows he's not supposed to hear the next words. "I'm in love with you too."
In September, Roger's mom's cancer, in remission since high school, returns, and she spends the next six weeks in the ICU with Roger by her side - and Mark by Roger's. It's the longest either of them have been back in Scarsdale since they were teenagers. It's strange to be back. Scarsdale with its comfortably middle class homes is worlds away from Alphabet City, and all those homes are occupied by comfortably middle class people whose experiences are completely divorced from Mark's own. Sometimes in Alphabet City it's easy to forget that most people don't spend their early twenties burying half their friends.
"Thank you for being here with me," Roger tells him after they leave the hospital that first night, as if there's anywhere else Mark would be. An only child who's never met his father, Roger is his mother's only family, and Mark's not about to let him go through this alone. Mark's not about to let Roger go through anything alone.
You should tell him that, Mark thinks, but they're currently lying side by side on Roger's childhood bed, staring up at the ceiling still covered in glow-in-the-dark stars with the now-empty remains of Ms. Davis's liquor collection scattered on the floor around them. The buzz of alcohol singing through Mark's blood is making his head swimmy and warm and far too fuzzy to articulate exactly how deep his commitment to Roger runs. So instead, he reaches out and takes Roger's hand and is pleasantly surprised when Roger doesn't pull away.
"Do you remember the first night we got drunk here?" Roger asks, voice low and mouth stumbling over the syllables of remember. Mark does. "I wanted so badly to kiss you that night," Roger continues, and he sounds distant somehow, as though for all his body is warm beside Mark's, his mind's a half-dozen years in the past. "Sometimes I wonder how things might have been different if I had. If we could have avoided all this bullshit and been together. Actually been together."
Up on the ceiling, the plastic stars go blurry, and Mark blinks his burning eyes furiously. "Or maybe we would have just burned out and drifted apart like every other teenage romance does," he says, because right now the thought of them being happy somehow hurts worse.
The silence that follows stretches on long enough that Mark begins to think they've dropped the conversation. Finally, Roger says, "No, I think we just had to go through all of this to end up here."
Mark rolls over from back to his elbows so he can stare down at Roger with one raised eyebrow. "You don't believe in fate," he points out, because that's a conversation they've had before.
For a long moment, Roger just blinks up at him before slowly reaching up to touch his fingertips to Mark's cheek. The pressure is faint, but Mark's skin still sparks at each point of contact. "I don't believe in soulmates either," Roger whispers, and Mark watches a single tear slide from the corner of his eye and splash onto the pillow. "But I still know you're mine."
Mark kisses him then, because it's either that or he's going to cry too, and this time, Roger lets him. His hand cradles Mark's cheek as he returns Mark's kiss with hurried intensity, and Mark is simultaneously too drunk and too sober to cope with the kaleidoscope of emotions blurring through his mind. They break apart without a word, and Roger pulls Mark down on top of him, clutching at Mark's back and burying his face in Mark's neck. Mark holds him in return as they drift off to sleep and knows they won't talk about this in the morning.
Roger's mother dies the weekend before Thanksgiving, and once more, Mark and Roger begin the now-familiar task of planning a funeral. There's to be no church service – Ms. Davis had never been particularly religious – so Roger makes all the arrangements at the local funeral home. Mark goes with him to pick out the casket.
They head to the cemetery after they're done. For a long time, they just walk together in silence, ducking under low-hanging branches and weaving between gray headstones. Beneath their shoes, bright leaves crunch, and Mark is reminded with every footfall of how much Roger hates the fall. Finally, they gravitate towards a quiet corner of the graveyard, tucked away beneath the limbs of old white oak. There's two plots left in the area, and Roger buys both. Mark tries not to be sick. They'd never talked about it before, what Roger would want, where he would want to be, and Mark's not ready for them to start.
"It sounds weird," Roger says as the staff draws up the paperwork, "but I'm glad she died before me." Mark doesn't reply. He's too busy staring at the little patch of green and trying not to imagine putting Roger there. He doesn't succeed.
In the end, it's the financial considerations that end up presenting the greatest challenge to them, at least practically speaking. It's the sorts of things that never really came up with April or Angel or Mimi. There's a will to be executed, bank accounts to be emptied and closed, a house to be sold, and a car to be transferred into Roger's name, and neither of them have the faintest idea how to even begin sorting through that mess. Ultimately, Mark's father handles most of it for them, for which Mark is immensely grateful even if it does mean more prolonged contact with his family than he's had, or wanted, in years. They spend hours at his family's kitchen table, his father sliding paper after paper in front of Roger who signs numbly on line after line.
Meanwhile, Mark fends off the inevitable interrogation by his mother. Clearly, she's picked up on something, because the bulk of her questions center on his and Roger's relationship and continue to no matter how many denials he offers. "We're not together," Mark hisses again and again, only for his mother to re-broach the subject with him the next time she gets him alone.
It's infuriating, but at the same time, Mark almost can't blame her. It may be the truth, but with enough omissions that it feels like a lie even to him.
Collins arrives at the loft the night before Christmas Eve looking thinner than Mark's ever seen him, and although he throws open the door with his usual enthusiasm, Mark can tell he's winded from the walk up in a way he never has been before. Even so, he still manages to envelope both Mark and Roger in his usual crushing bearhugs with enough strength to pull Mark at least off his feet.
The next several hours are spent deep in vodka and laugher as Collins regales them with his usual tales of dramatic exploits. If the vodka goes down smoother this year than usual, Mark tries not to ascribe too much significance to that. Instead he chooses to focus on Collins' boisterous laugh and Roger's sheepish smiles, and not on how by this time next year, their family will likely be even smaller.
It's just after one in the morning when Mark finally staggers off to bed, leaving Roger and Collins in the living room still deep in conversation. Vaguely, Mark recognizes that they still haven't explained their current sleeping situation to Collins, but Mark's too drunk and too tired to deal with that now. Not that he thinks he could even explain it sober. We're in love with each other, but we share a bed platonically is possibly the dumbest and most seemingly incoherent sentence he could come up with… even if it's one hundred percent true. Anyway, it'll just have to be Roger's problem now.
Mark has no idea how much later the two of them stay up, but when Mark grudgingly blinks himself back into consciousness the next morning, he's surprised to find Roger is already awake, sitting motionless on the edge of the bed, head bowed and staring down at his own hands clasped before him. Blearily, Mark wonders if he ever slept at all.
"He thinks I'm punishing myself," Roger says, and Mark starts. He hadn't realized Roger noticed him wake up. There's a long pause while Mark struggles futilely to frame that statement into some sort of context. "Collins," Roger finally elaborates when Mark doesn't respond. "He thinks that by not being with you, I'm punishing myself. For getting this disease."
Mark sits up. "Are you?" he asks before he can think better of it, because he's never thought of it like that before, but it makes sense. Leave it Collins to zero in on that kind of deep psychological shit immediately.
Roger's shoulders slump impossibly further at Mark's question, and the hands he'd been staring at come up to thread through his hair. Mark hears him take a shuddering breath, and then another. "I don't know," he finally says, and he sounds positively shredded. "All I know is that I'm so afraid to hurt you, but at the same time I'm also afraid that maybe that's all I'm doing."
Mark doesn't answer, because the last thing Roger needs to hear right now is that he's right. Instead, he slides across the bed, wraps his arms around Roger from behind, and holds him until they hear Collins stirring across the hall.
This New Year's Eve, they actually watch the ball drop in Times Square, because apparently it's something Collins has always wanted to do. Mark can't begin to fathom why. The sea of people crowded onto the street is Mark's personal idea of hell, and he spends hours being jostled this way and that by an unending press of drunken revelers. It doesn't even make for particularly good filming.
"Shit. Fuck," he curses the third time a rogue elbow sends him careening sideways into Roger. He's half a second from begging Collins' forgiveness and heading home, when he feels Roger's arm slip warm and solid around his waist. "I've got you," he hears Roger murmur, and when Mark looks up at the taller man, he's rewarded with a lopsided smile, and just like that, there's nowhere in the world Mark would rather be.
He welcomes in the new year like that, tucked warm and happy against Roger's side, as the ball they can barely see in the distance falls slowly to the ground. Around them, people are screaming and grabbing each other in New Year's hugs and kisses. On Roger's other side, Mark hears Collins let out a whoop as his long arms encircle them both in a suffocating hug. Mark finds himself grinning wildly, caught up in the contagious excitement of the crowd, and before he can stop to think, he's turning his head and pressing a kiss to the corner of Roger's mouth. He feels Roger's arm tighten around his waist and the returning press of Roger's lips against his, and for a moment, Mark is singularly and deliriously happy. Then they break apart, and Roger answers Mark's grin with a brittle, faltering smile, and Mark feels his stomach drop.
It's after three in the morning when they finally make it home. Collins stumbles off to sleep in Roger's old bedroom while Mark collapses on the couch instead, too tired at the moment to walk even the extra ten feet to his own bedroom door. At least that's what he tells himself, so that he doesn't have to admit that it's because he isn't ready to crawl into bed with Roger and have the conversation he knows has been looming since midnight. In the end, it doesn't matter, because a moment later, Roger is curling up next to him on the couch and leaning his head on Mark's shoulder. "I thought maybe I could do this," he whispers, and Mark feels the tears pick at his eyes. "But I think I still need more time."
Mark turns his head just far enough to press his face into Roger's hair and nods. He's not cruel enough to point out that time is a luxury they don't have.
Collins comes home to stay after spring break, achingly frail, and by the end of April, they bring him to the hospital for what they all know will be the last time. Mark and Roger visit every day, often joined by Maureen and Joanne, and sometimes even Benny.
At first, they try to keep their visits as cheerful and upbeat as possible, as though they were holding a sequence of small, impromptu parties rather than a deathbed vigil, but as Collins' strength wanes it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up the facade. Before long, Roger's guitar playing and Maureen's smuggled marijuana gives way to quiet conversation and reflection. Eventually, Mark even stops filming, his instinct to preserve overcome by his desire to remember Collins as he was, vibrant and laughing, not this husk of himself, lying in a hospital bed, barely strong enough to stand unassisted.
At the same time as their visits grow more subdued, they also grow longer as well, as if all of them, consciously or not, are seeking to make the most of their friend's rapidly diminishing time. Roger especially starts spending increasingly long hours at Collins' bedside, often leaving for the hospital before Mark in the morning or lingering in the evening long after Mark and the others have decamped to the waiting room. Mark never knows exactly what they say to each other, but Roger always clutches Mark close after he finally emerges from the hospital room, and that's enough to give Mark a pretty decent idea.
"I don't want to put you through this again," he tells Mark one day, interrupting the usual silence of their walk home. "But I also don't want to die alone, and I'm afraid that makes me selfish."
It's a beautiful day, and the spring sun is warm on the back of Mark's neck as they walk along 14th Street, but suddenly the rest of him is as cold as if he'd been dumped into the East River in January. He risks a glance at Roger, but he's not looking at Mark. Instead, he's staring straight ahead, although something on his face tells Mark he's not actually seeing the street before them. The words of Mark's reply are stuck, lodged somewhere behind the lump that's settled in his throat so he reaches out and takes Roger's hand instead. They both know Mark is never going to let Roger die alone.
They're still holding hands by the time they make it home.
The next morning, Roger waits for him, and they head for the hospital together for the first time in over a week. Today, it's Roger who takes Mark's hand, reaching out and twining their fingers together as they emerge out onto the stoop and into the morning sunshine. Mark can't suppress the grin that splits his face as the warm weight of Roger's hand settles in his. It may not be much, but it's progress, and Mark will take it gladly.
"I'm afraid I'm still being selfish," Roger mumbles as they start up Avenue B, and Mark's only response is to lean over and kiss him. It's nothing more than a quick press of lips, but Roger accepts it with a sheepish smile, and that's enough to leave Mark practically vibrating with contentment for the rest of the day.
Mark turns twenty-five in May. Maureen and Joanne meet them in Collins' hospital room with a misshapen chocolate cake and balloons with It's a boy! poorly scribbled out in Sharpie. Normally, Mark hates his birthday, but Collins is smiling and even managing to eat a little of the cake, and that's reason enough to celebrate as far as Mark's concerned. So he lets Maureen make him a "birthday crown" out of latex gloves and only protests a little when she produces a bottle of whiskey from the bottom of her bag.
He does draw the line at the 25 shots she tries to convince him to take, but that's mostly because after the sixth he's barely able to stand. In the end, the others have to "help", and the result is a hospital room filled with four visitors visibly trashed before noon.
"Dance with me, birthday boy," Maureen demands, turning up the volume on the little radio they'd brought Collins when he first got sick. She doesn't wait for him to respond before pulling him to his feet and dragging him in cramped circles at the base of Collins' bed. They make it through two songs before Roger cuts in, looking as glassy-eyed tipsy as Mark feels, and Maureen waltzes away with a shit-eating grin that tells Mark that that had been her goal all along.
Roger's arms are around his waist, holding Mark flush against him, and the whiskey is making Mark brave enough to lean his forehead against Roger's. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches Maureen plop herself down on the end of Collins' bed where she grabs Mark's camera and starts narrating in her best Mark impression, "Close in on Mark and Roger looking disgustingly in love." Mark's surprised when Roger doesn't protest.
"Maureen's right," Roger whispers later in the darkness of their kitchen after they've stumbled drunkenly home late that night. "I am disgustingly in love with you." Then he kisses Mark before Mark can figure out how to respond. The kiss is slow and gentle, and Mark can't decide whether his body is going to float away through the ceiling or melt through the floor or maybe both simultaneously. Afterwards, Roger pulls him close and buries his face in Mark's neck. "I'm trying to get there," he whispers. Mark knows.
They bury Collins the last week of June. Mark's surprised by the number of people at the funeral he doesn't recognize. The small chapel is packed to standing room-only with former colleagues from NYU and MIT and beyond, all come - some of them hundreds of miles - to pay their last respects. He figures he shouldn't be though. For all his radical views, Collins is – was a hard man not to like.
Joanne delivers one of the eulogies and Benny the other. Mark doesn't cry, but Roger does, clutching Mark's hand painfully in his as silent tears roll down his face.
He's still crying hours later when he shoves Mark against their bedroom door and kisses him open-mouthed and desperate until Mark can taste the tears on his tongue. His body responds immediately and unbidden, arching against Roger as his fingers fly up to card through Roger's hair and pull him impossibly closer. So lost is he, drowning in the sensation of Roger, that he doesn't even realize when Roger starts speaking, a whispered mantra of please, please, please against Mark's lips. Mark doesn't know what he's asking for unless it's him, and Roger should know by now that he's had Mark for years.
Then, as quickly as the kiss had started, it's over, and Mark feels a wave of nausea sweep through him as he braces himself for Roger's inevitable withdrawal. "Mark," Roger rasps as he untangles his fingers from the front of Mark's shirt, and Mark nearly screams in frustration. But then guitar-calloused fingertips are brushing against his cheeks, and when Mark finally looks up to meet Roger's shining eyes, the regret he's so used to seeing there is nowhere to be found. "I'm tired of wasting time," Roger whispers, and then he kisses Mark again, and Mark couldn't agree more.
Like any first time, it's awkward and messy and made even worse by Roger's absolute refusal to let Mark within even an arm's length without a condom, but they manage, and because it's them it's still somehow perfect. Afterwards, he lies with Roger sprawled atop him, his head over Mark's heartbeat, adrift in bliss and asks, "Does this mean we're…" Dating? Together? Mark's not sure how to finish the question.
Fortunately, he doesn't need to, because Roger shifts atop him, wrapping his arms around Mark, and whispers, "If you'll still have me," into Mark's chest, and Mark nearly laughs out loud at that, because of course he will.
Actually being with Roger is strange in how completely not strange it is. Sure, they've been roommates for years and friends for even longer, but Mark figures that that stood just as much as a chance of making things a bigger, not smaller, adjustment. As it is though, reaching for Roger feels as natural as breathing and kissing him feels like coming home.
Naturally, Maureen picks up on the change in their relationship immediately. She drops in on the third of July with a box of illegal fireworks and the unsolicited announcement that she and Joanne will be joining them for a rooftop Fourth of July party the following day. Mark's halfway through a feeble and what he knows to be ultimately ineffectual protest, when Maureen interrupts him with a gasp.
"Fucking finally," she exclaims, gaze flitting from Mark to Roger and back as a shit-eating grin expands across her face. They're at least ten feet apart, Mark fiddling with his camera at the kitchen table while Roger plucks away at his guitar on the couch, and Mark doesn't have the slightest idea what could possibly have given them away. For a moment, he considers denying it, but already he can feel heat blooming in his cheeks and there's an echoing blush at the tips of Roger's ears, and Mark knows it's futile, because that's all the confirmation Maureen will need anyway.
The next night, rum-drunk and with sparklers in both hands, Mark asks her how the hell she'd known. Maureen just laughs in his face and boops him on the nose with an unlit Roman candle before responding. "You both looked happy," she says.
Roger comes as close to relapsing as he ever has in August on the anniversary of April's death and his own diagnosis. They'd gone to Life Support together that morning, and afterwards, Roger headed home while Mark went out filming. He'd seemed fine at the time, obviously or Mark would never have left him alone, but when Mark comes home in the early evening, he finds Roger sitting on the couch, head in his hands. The moment Mark closes the apartment door behind him, Roger blurts out, "I bought heroin today." Except it comes out more like Iboughtherointoday. Mark nearly drops his camera.
The first emotion that sears through his mind is a bright burning flash of anger, because how could Roger do this. It's followed a moment later by guilt, both for his initial burst of anger and for not being here when clearly Roger had needed him. Finally comes the fear, intense enough to leave Mark trembling, because he'd barely gotten Roger through the withdrawal the first time. Mark has absolutely no idea if he'll be able to do it again.
Mark's too busy processing this onslaught of emotions to respond, and when he doesn't, Roger finally looks up. His face is tear-streaked, but the eyes that meet Mark's are mercifully clear. "I didn't use it," he says, and Mark has seen Roger high enough times to know it's true. "I flushed it. But I still wanted you to know."
With that the anger and the fear bleed away, leaving Mark only with profound and overwhelming guilt as he makes his way over the sofa and gathers Roger into his arms. "I'm sorry," Roger keeps repeating as Mark holds him, even as Mark insists over and over he has nothing to apologize for. What Mark does need though is an explanation.
"I don't know," Roger says. Mark's maneuvered them so that they're lying on the couch now with Roger curled up against Mark's side, his head on Mark's shoulder as Mark traces what he hopes are soothing circles on Roger's scalp. "I just kept seeing April in the tub. And the note. There's just so-" His voice catches and he sounds so raw, so shattered that Mark wants to tell him to stop, that he doesn't owe Mark this, that he doesn't owe Mark anything. But Roger continues before he can say anything. "There's just so many memories here. And then I couldn't get myself out of my own head. I kept thinking about her and about Mimi and Angel and Collins and how unfair it is that I'm still here and happy and with you, and they're all gone." Roger's shoulders are shaking beneath Mark's arms and there's a dampness on Mark's chest, and Mark doesn't know what to say so he just holds Roger and lets him cry.
Roger's right, Mark thinks, there are too many memories here, and with so many of their friends gone even the good ones have started to hurt more than they comfort. "Let's move," he says hours later after the sun has set and Roger's tears have dried. It's not like they can't afford it now. With the money from Roger's mom, their finances aren't as tight these days as they used to be. "Let's get a new place, a new start," he continues. "Somewhere we can fill with new memories." Somewhere away from all these ghosts.
For a long time, Roger doesn't respond. Mark lies in their darkened living room listening to the soft sounds of Roger breathing and the muted shouts and honks from the street below. He feels it when Roger comes to a decision, because his arms tighten around Mark's waist and he buries his face deeper into Mark's chest. "Yeah," he finally whispers into the fabric of Mark's t-shirt. "Yeah, let's do it."
They find a place a few blocks west, still in the East Village but at least out of Alphabet City proper. It's a one-bedroom, fourth floor walk-up near the corner of 2nd Avenue and 8th Street. It's tiny, but warm, with entirely working plumbing, and not a single cockroach to be seen. Most importantly, however, it's theirs. Mark's surprised by that, by how weirdly meaningful he finds getting this place with Roger to be, given that they've already been living together for years. Maybe it's because they'd lived together in the loft for so long as friends first or because they'd shared that space with so many other people, other lovers, but something about this new apartment feels like it's truly a start to their life together.
They move in just before Christmas. The timing is a welcome distraction from that fact that without Collins' presence, it barely even feels like Christmas at all. The night before Christmas Eve, Mark finds some discarded Christmas lights that he jury rigs into working order around their new living room, but it's their one concession to festivities. They spend Christmas Day unpacking boxes and rearranging the bedroom half a dozen times until Roger is finally satisfied with the layout.
By New Year's Eve, they're officially settled. Maureen and Joanne stop by briefly to survey the place in the early evening, but the two of them have invites to some swanky upscale party at Joanne's work so it's not long before they're rushing off to that, leaving Mark and Roger alone together in their new place. They pour themselves year-old flat champagne and as midnight approaches, count down from thirty on Mark's watch, which he's pretty sure isn't even accurate anyway. None of that matters though, because when they get to zero, Roger kisses him, and as far as Mark's concerned, in that moment, as he kisses Roger in the cozy warmth of their new home, everything is perfect.
Afterwards, they stand with their foreheads still pressed together, basking in contentment and the glow of the Christmas lights. "Happy New Year," Mark whispers, and an instant later, he watches the shadows on what he can see of Roger's face deepen.
"Is it?" Roger asks, pulling back slightly so he can look Mark in the eyes. "I mean, are you? Happy, that is?" Mark would laugh at the absurdity of the question if Roger didn't look so heartbreakingly earnest. As it is, Mark just grins and kisses him again, because Roger is ridiculous, and Mark really, truly is.
February arrives with what Mark can only describe as a flurry of doctor's appointments for Roger. "It's nothing bad," Roger reassures him without elaborating after the third one, but it doesn't quell the terror stubbornly tunneling into Mark's chest. Roger's been lucky so far - his CD4 counts have been normal for years - but Mark assumes that this means they're finally starting to fall.
It goes on for two agonizing weeks, which Mark endures in a state of barely suppressed panic, until Mark comes home from filming one unseasonably warm day to find Roger sitting on the fire escape, knees drawn up against his chest, staring out across the city. In his left hand, he's clutching a stack of papers, emblazoned with what Mark recognizes at the logo for Bellevue hospital, and Mark feels his mouth go dry and his heart rate pick up at that.
"They want me to be in a study," Roger says by way of greeting as Mark crawls out to meet him, then he shoves the now crumpled papers into Mark's hands in lieu of further explanation.
Mark's heart's in his throat as he reads, and he's shaking so badly that he can barely make out the words printed in front of him. Even when he can, it's mostly a combination of medical and legal terminology he doesn't understand, but there is one phrase that he realizes keeps recurring. "What's a long-term non-progressor?" he asks.
Roger's silent so long, Mark begins to wonder if he's even heard him. Physically, they're mere inches apart, but the way Roger's still staring blankly up 8th Street tells Marks that mentally, he's a thousand miles away. Finally, Roger speaks. "Someone whose HIV doesn't progress to AIDS." He pauses, blows out a breath, and then adds, "They, the doctors… they think maybe I… that that's why my CD4 counts are still normal."
Mark feels the world around him grind to a halt as his entire existence narrows down to Roger's words. At first, his brain simply refuses to parse them. Then, finally, the right synapse fires, and he understands. Roger might live. Roger might live. In an instant, the terror that had been clawing in his throat vanishes, replaced by a bubbling elation that makes it feel as if his heart is about to burst from his chest. He should pinch himself, he thinks vaguely. It's cliche, but if anything was going to be a dream, it would be this.
"This is good, right?" he asks tentatively, because Roger is still staring off into middle distance, and Mark can't risk there being any misunderstanding here.
Roger sighs and runs his hands over his face. "Yeah. Yeah. Of course," he says. "It's just…" He pauses and takes a shaky breath in. "Overwhelming, I guess. I spent years believing I didn't have a future and suddenly, they're telling me I do, and all I keep thinking is that I don't know what I'm going to do with it." He laughs, and it's thready, but it's genuine, and it makes Mark's heart soar.
"We'll figure it out together," he says.
Roger finally looks at him at that, and then a moment later, he's reaching out, pulling Mark tight against him and pressing his face into Mark's neck. "I do know one thing about my future," Roger whispers low and fierce as Mark wraps his arms around him in turn. "I know that all of it includes you."
As in previous years, they visit Mimi's grave in March on the anniversary of her death. Mark says his hellos and leaves the flowers and then wanders away into the rest of the cemetery like he always does so that Roger can talk with her alone. "You know you don't have to do that," Roger tells him when he returns.
Mark gives a one-shouldered shrug. "It feels weird. Knowing that because Mimi died, I get to have you." Mark knows he would trade his relationship with Roger in an instant in exchange for Mimi's life, but he can't shake the nagging sensation that he has in a real way benefited from her death. It's a difficult feeling to articulate, and he's clearly done a poor job, because Roger is openly gaping at him as he slowly shakes his head from side to side.
"You really think you and I are only together because Mimi died?" Roger asks, sounding absurdly incredulous over what Mark assumed was an obvious and established fact. Mimi had been a brilliant light in all their lives, an unstoppable force that had pulled Roger back to life all those Christmases ago. Mark is just, well, Mark. He probably wouldn't be his first choice either.
Roger apparently sees it differently, because now he's shaking his head so hard it's making Mark's hurt just to look at, and when he speaks, his voice is intense, almost angry. "I loved Mimi. I will always love Mimi, but what we had was never meant to last. Mimi was what I needed then, but you, you are what I need now." He pauses and reaches out for Mark's hand. His voice softens as he adds, "You're what I need forever."
It should sound corny, and Roger must think so too, because his ears go red as soon as the words are out of his mouth, but Mark doesn't care. It's possibly the best five words he's heard in his life. He can feel himself grinning like a fool as pulls Roger to him and wraps his arms around his neck. Roger's breath is warm on his face as Mark leans in to kiss him, and at the last moment, just before their lips meet, he whispers, "Forever sounds good to me."