Mark pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, sniffling. He wanted to be angry. Maybe Roger had been right, but like hell was it his place to say any of it. Maureen far from perfect, but so was he. So was Mark, for that matter. He might be there for them now, but would Maureen really be so distant if Mark had paid her enough attention? Would Roger really be sick and addicted if Mark had cared enough to notice when his eyes had been foggy more often than they'd been clear, when his skin began to look tightly stretched over his bones? What about April? April, when she'd begged him to help her, saying she knew he couldn't handle Roger but could he please help her so she could try? She'd been doing well, too – the withdrawal episodes had all but gone away, and April was herself again, smiling and greeting him in the morning with pancakes and a kiss on the cheek. Then she'd gone to the doctor. Nothing important, or at least nothing urgent. Just a full physical, mostly to see what toll her addiction had taken on her.
Then she'd gotten the blood test results, and that… That was history. Was there anything Mark could have done? April had always told him that even though it was Roger she loved romantically, Mark was the best thing that had ever happened to her. Mark had loved April, but it was in the same way she'd loved him: friendship, maybe even filial affection.
Did Roger hate him at all for that? That even though it was him April wanted, it had been Mark she'd needed? Roger loved April, but they hadn't been close near the end, when April would cry and scream and beg him to stop using, and Mark, more sedately, made the same plea. Didn't matter that they'd grown apart, April's death had ripped Roger's world apart.
It had hurt Mark just as deeply, he just hadn't had the time to dwell on it. How couldn't it? Everything he was going through with Roger now, everything that was making them so close and intimate… he'd gone through it all with April, and she'd been a good deal more pleasant about it. There were times she'd screamed at him and thrown things, but it was never anything more dangerous than a sneaker and it was always followed by her collapsing into his arms and sobbing out apologies.
It had been a cruel twist of fate. She'd suffered for months, she'd gotten better, she was doing everything she could to help Roger… then the diagnosis, and it had just been too much for her. All that effort, lost. But not really lost, Mark insisted to himself. Even if he'd known, he'd have helped her all the same. April had died free, at least. She'd beaten it. If she could do it, so could Roger.
April was sad, Collins had said, April was worse than sad. April had been utterly fucking tragic. Why did it have to be her? Mark wondered, and immediately felt sick with himself. He couldn't think like that and he didn't want to. April might have "deserved" life more in some subjective, abstract way, but Mark didn't want to think about Roger dying. It was going to happen soon enough – too soon – wondering what could have been was simply morbid.
And as crushing as April's loss had been, the pit in Mark's stomach told him losing Roger would have been a hundred times worse. He loved April, and he loved Roger, but Roger was his best friend and had been for more than half of his admittedly short life.
The phone rang, startling Mark out of his reverie. He let it ring until the answering machine picked up with nothing more than a beep. When April had died, Collins had changed their message. When Collins had left, Mark hadn't bothered changing it, just deleted it, and something so small was bound to be far from Roger's mind.
"Mark, Roger," Benny's voice called from the speaker. Sighing, Mark rose from his bed and made for the answering machine. Roger was still sitting on the couch, staring at it balefully. "I know you're there, man, come on. Just pick up the phone, I just want to know how things are going, and…"
Mark grabbed the phone. "Hi, Benny," he greeted, forcing cheer that even he knew rang hollow.
"Mark," Benny acknowledged hesitantly. "How are things?"
"Exactly how you'd expect," he said wearily. "I…"
"Mark, please. I know things have changed, but… I still care, you know. Even about him. I just… Collins told me, and… I'm worried about you," Benny finished lamely.
"Don't waste that on me," Mark replied flatly. "There's too many people doing that, any more."
"Because they need to," Benny insisted. "You aren't doing it yourself."
"Benny, I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but unless you have something to say that I haven't heard before…"
"Have dinner with me tonight," Benny said out of nowhere, a strange sort of desperation in his tone. "It'll be on me, and Collins can watch him. I know you don't need me checking up on you, but I'd feel better if we talked. We never do any more."
"Whose fault is that?" Mark asked tiredly, voice dripping with biting sarcasm. "Couldn't be the guy who asked me not to talk to his wife on his wedding day because I made her uncomfortable, could it?"
"Maybe so, but… Look, just meet me at the Life at six, okay?"
"Maybe," Mark said reluctantly.
Benny sighed. "That's the best I'm going to get, isn't it?" When Mark was silent, he continued, "Fine. But I'll be waiting. No business, I promise."
"All right," Mark conceded cautiously. "I'll see you, Benny."
He hung up and went back to his room without a second glance at Roger.
As promised, Benny was waiting at the café when Mark arrived. Benny grabbed him and hugged him before he could say a word, and something fluttered nervously in Mark's stomach. The last thing he'd needed, after coming to the realization that he would eventually have to lose Maureen for a far more uncertain but far more honest relationship with Roger, was any sort of physical contact, particularly from any of his exes. Not that Benny had been especially serious – it had been more experimentation than anything, and when Benny had come from Brown to find Mark happy with Maureen, he hadn't breathed a word of discontent. But they had had something, and with Mark's emotions in their current state of turmoil, it was enough to break him. When Benny finally released him, his throat was locked with a lump and his eyes were shining. Benny looked taken aback for a moment, then shook his head and rested a hand on his shoulder.
"You wanna take a walk before we eat?" he asked gently.
Sniffling back tears, Mark shook his head, managing an almost-steady tone when he said, "No. We can talk over food."
Benny nodded his acquiescence and headed into the restaurant, Mark falling into step behind him. Once they were seated – at a private table, Mark noted – the two shared a series of awkward stares and silences before Benny asked, "So how's he doing?"
"Collins told you," Mark said shortly. "He… messed up, but I think he knows it."
"No, Mark," Benny shook his head. "I don't mean how's that going, I mean… How is he, really? Has he accepted she's gone, has he started the medications… the little stuff, Mark. It's what's going to make or break the whole thing, you know?"
Mark laughed, startled. "The little stuff, Benny? There is no little stuff; that's the problem."
"Yeah," Benny admitted slowly, "yeah, you're right. How are you holding up?"
"Okay," Mark lied immediately. At Benny's skeptical look, he revised, "I'll manage. With Collins around it won't be so hard."
"Well, you two are the ones he needs, Mark, I can tell you that much," Benny said calmly. "You're the ones who'll love him no matter what he does." Mark jumped in his seat before realizing that Benny hadn't meant it in the way he was presently learning to accept. "Collins… he's a little more careful about it than you, but he'd go to the ends of the earth for him – for either of you."
Mark nodded solemnly, knowing it was true. "The medicine really helps," he said awkwardly. "He's… still in a lot of pain, but he… he doesn't cry so much. Doesn't shake so much," Mark added, almost as an afterthought.
"Just remember, Mark, that's probably not all the withdrawal," Benny pointed out seriously. "He's got a lot going on right now, the depression's just making it worse. And as for the medication, I'm glad, but I'm not so sure that that's that simple, either. You spend a lot of time with him after you give him it, don't you?"
Mark stared at him blankly, not getting the connection.
"I mean… It probably just helps him having you around, Mark."
Mark continued staring, then realization dawned on his face and he scoffed. "Collins put you up to this, didn't he?" he asked, though there was nothing accusing in his tone.
The confusion on Benny's face was evidence enough he was telling the truth. "Hm?" he grunted, tilting his head slightly.
"Collins has been pushing…" Mark paused, not knowing what to say. Eventually he threw up his hands in defeat, saying, "For something. I don't get what."
Benny sighed heavily as the pieces gradually began to click. Collins had withheld much of the story, but he'd hinted at whatever was happening between Mark and Roger specifically enough for Benny to realize that whether Mark knew it or not, he loved Roger; he was probably in love with Roger. Benny saw the whole thing rather more selfishly than Collins, though – he didn't think bringing it into the open would help; if anything, he thought, it would be what finally broke Mark down. Benny didn't know anything about how Roger felt, or how sincere he'd been earlier that day, but the fact remained that he couldn't bring himself to see it as a positive.
Was it jealousy? He wondered idly. That Roger, in fucking up colossally, had risen emotions in Mark that Benny hadn't been able to by really being with him? No, he thought, whatever feelings he had for Mark had matured and mellowed into friendship, tempered alternately by jealousy for Mark's ability to be true to himself and contempt for his inability to face the truth about the world. What he felt towards Roger right now was nothing like what he'd felt towards Maureen when Mark had first disclosed his relationship with her. He'd wanted to hate her then realized he couldn't, then he'd gotten over Mark and that had been the end of it. For Roger, he felt only pity and concern, despite the steadfast, niggling knowledge that the musician had brought all of his problems onto himself.
That was the difference between Mark and Benny. That was the difference between Benny and who he used to be. Benny felt sorry for Roger because they'd been friends, once, but Roger's wild ways and Benny's newfound conservatism had broken any love the two had ever had for each other. To Mark and Collins, love, even for Benny and Roger, despite Benny's becoming the antithesis of what they wanted to be and Roger's seeming determination to self-destruct, transcended mistakes and misguidedness. Benny wasn't the best of company any more, but he did well by Mark and Collins and they'd kept up at least minimal contact as a result. Roger had been worse company and far from the best of friends, but Mark loved him and that was all he needed to know.
Benny didn't believe it, but Mark did, and he was going to keep at it whether Benny approved or not. "Mark," Benny began seriously. Mark's head jerked up, his eyes wide. "Look, it doesn't matter how he got where he is, not if he can come back. And if he needs some help on the way…" he forced a smile, "well, we all do sometimes, huh?"
Mark nodded gratefully. Despite the bitter taste the words had left in the back of his throat – he was wrong, he realized vaguely, he was jealous of Roger – Benny suddenly found himself inexplicably glad he'd said it.
Roger was fighting the all-too-familiar urge to cry when Collins sat beside him on the couch. "You've been here six hours," Collins said, his gentleness masking concern. "You haven't eaten, you don't sleep, you haven't been to the bathroom…"
Roger shrugged half-heartedly, stopping to wince when his shoulders caught. "Haven't needed to," he rasped, trembling a little when he adjusted the blanket around his too-thin frame again. "Haven't wanted to. Collins, please – this isn't great, but it's working for me, I promise if I need something I'll let you know. Last time I tried getting up I puked for half an hour. I still feel sick this way, but…" Roger made a defeated sound. "It doesn't matter. I don't think I could go far if I tried."
"Well, I can't say it'll put you out," Collins began, pulling a tin from his pocket and flipping it open. He produced a joint from the tin. "But it oughta do you some good, f'you're up to smoking it."
Roger stared at him. "Isn't that… kinda counter productive?"
"Pot's not smack," Collins replied matter-of-factly, lighting the joint. "I'd rather see you smoke pot, feel better, and get a little stupid than sit here like this. Those pills you're eating? That's a drug, too."
Roger shrugged, wary of his limited freedom of movement this time, and took the offered joint. "Whatever you say," he said exhausted. "Seems like what I can and can't do is up to you and Mark lately."
"Oh, no, don't you go pinning this on us," Collins said, shaking his head. "First off, other than smack, you can do whatever the hell you want. Second off, you asked for help. You're the one who wanted away from this. I won't say Mark and I weren't both glad, but the choice was all you."
"I know," Roger said softly, smoke curling from his mouth. "But neither of you fucking understands, not at all."
"Try me," Collins said flatly, pausing to suck on the joint. "I got through grad school on eightballs, Roger." Roger looked startled, but Collins plowed on, engrossed enough in telling his story to detach from his friend's shock. "And if I couldn't get that, I didn't think a damn thing of replacing it with crack. Took testing positive to knock some sense into me." Roger made a small sound, almost of protest, and Collins looked at him pointedly, blowing out smoke. "Sounding familiar yet?" he asked, getting Roger's attention by waving the joint's heater in his face. "Now look, coke withdrawal doesn't do the physical shit. But that whole thing where you want to jump out a window? I've been there. I promise, it goes away. And when it does, Roger, it'll be worth it. When things get better… you really appreciate the little things. Smoking a cigarette, taking a hot bath, falling asleep with a lover, eating a good meal… It all seems huge. You start to wonder why you ever needed the drugs. Which isn't to say they don't still look damned appealing sometimes, but being alive, having love, having your friends… It's worth more than any chemical ever could be, Rog. You wanna show Mark how you feel," Collins began slowly, ignoring Roger's annoyed look and blush, "you tough this out. And another thing," Collins stopped to take another drag of the joint before returning it to Roger. "You really should be taking your AZT. Now look, I know the stuff can throw you for a loop. You're sick already, and that stuff isn't gonna help how you feel."
"It's pointless," Roger said with a sigh. "I tried it, Collins, I swear. Never keep it down long enough for it to be worthwhile, and it makes me feel like hell. Besides, what's the point? If all it's gonna do is make me sick and maybe buy me another year… fuck it. I'd rather feel good for two years than be sick for three."
"Don't underestimate yourself or your medicine. It's making you sicker because you need something on your stomach when you take it, and you should make two years even without medicine. I don't know what they told you, but odds are you're stuck around here at least a good five or six years AZT or not, and if you can get used to it and it can take that time and increase it… that's a good thing. I know with how you feel right now that's not exactly encouraging, but this whole passive suicide thing's not gonna fly, Roger, so you might as well get over it."
"It's not that fucking easy, Collins," Roger snapped. "For all the chattering you fucking did about understanding, you should know that! But I guess you don't. They're different drugs, never mind…" Roger stopped himself. "Never mind everything else."
"Never mind April," Collins finished for him, softly. "Roger, she wasn't your fault."
"If I hadn't still been using…" he started to protest in a small voice. He made a noise of self-disgust, flicking the still lit roach into the ashtray in front of him. "Who am I kidding? I'm still fucking using. But if I'd listened to her… If I'd listened to you, to Mark, to Maureen… April was a tough girl. April was strong. But… she couldn't take losing me. That's not my ego, that's just… what she said. The night before she got her test results. 'I can't stand here and watch you die, Roger, and if you don't get your act together it's gonna come to something drastic.' Yeah," he choked out a laugh that seemed half sob. "It sure fucking did. If she'd thought I could be there for her…"
"If I'd never slept with Sean, if I'd never used coke, if I'd never taught you and Mark's philosophy class…" Collins shook his head. "Good changes and bad ones. But those changes? Never gonna happen. The best thing you can do for April now is make what you can out of your life. She'd have wanted you to be happy."
"She'd have wanted Mark to be happy," Roger mumbled miserably. "Half the time I think I was just an obligation."
"Uh huh. And if she wanted Mark, why was she with you? April always went for what she wanted. If it had been anyone else, it wouldn't have taken long for you to figure it out. Before all this, Roger, did you care about Mark?"
"Of course," Roger replied immediately, sounding insulted.
"And would you have given April up for him?"
"Not now, Roger. Back then."
Roger frowned, not following. "I… no, I guess not. But that doesn't mean…"
"That you wanted anything to happen to Mark, or that you didn't care about him. April was the same. Now, I'll give you that Mark was who she needed back then. You weren't in a position to give her the support she needed to do what she wanted to. But they were friends, Roger; friends are allowed to lean on each other a little sometimes."
Roger shrugged. "Hey, I never said I was blaming her even if it was true. Just an observation."
"Being down on yourself doesn't help anyone, you know," Collins said tiredly. "Makes you feel bad, makes Mark and I worry…"
"Well stop," Roger muttered flatly. "It's not gonna go away, but I'll cope."
Collins sighed. "It goes away," he repeated firmly. "'Til then, Mark and I are gonna do our best, but we need you to, too."
Roger bowed his head slightly, as if he were going to nod but had fallen asleep halfway. Finally, he whispered, "Collins, I'm… hungry."
Collins laughed loudly, encouraged, and slapped him on the back. Roger jerked away with a hiss, his arms tensing. "Back hurts," he managed breathlessly.
Collins frowned. "Sorry," he apologized, wrapping his arms around Roger and squeezing gently. "I'm gonna go make us some soup."
"I'm starving and you're feeding me soup?" Roger said incredulously. "Collins, what the fuck? That's the dumbest…"
"How long's it been since you ate something solid?" Collins demanded, stopping Roger in his tracks.
"I… think Mark made me eat a sandwich four days ago," Roger murmured, his cheeks coloring. "I just… haven't been…"
"I know, but throwing something substantial on your stomach right now, Roger… It'd be one step forward, two steps back," Collins explained, seeing Roger soften with the knowledge he was right. Roger listened to Collins a little better than he did most people. "Soup should fill you up, and it's a lot more likely to stay on your stomach."
Roger nodded slowly. He felt better, but his eyes were half open and when he moved his muscles felt as if he was trying to swim through honey. His mind and body worked languorously, every movement making him question whether food was really worth staying awake. In the end, what it was or wasn't worth became irrelevant. Roger curled around a pillow, trying to get comfortable, and fell asleep by the time Collins had opened the soup can. Floating in dreamless blackness, Roger was the most comfortable he'd been in a long time.
Setting the soup aside, Collins smiled to himself. For the first time, he had real faith that things would work out. He just hoped Mark and Roger both got through it in one piece.