Mark was wrapped in a blanket on a comfortable chair, holding a cup of coffee, and effectively trapped by a slight hangover and the lack of a will to move when it happened. He hadn't expected it. Neither of them had said so much as a word about it on any other occasion. To Mark, it was just another morning. Roger and Mimi curled up on the couch was nothing unusual, and nothing he couldn't deal with, so he'd decided to stay a while and talk himself into staying awake. It was, after all, two in the afternoon; something Roger wasted no time reminding him.
"Hey guys," Mark said when he sat down, flicking his wrist in a lazy sort of wave.
Roger had looked at him, and he'd known. Not what was coming, exactly, just that something was. There had been fire burning behind his eyes and he'd been clenching the arm of the couch. "Mark," he greeted evenly, "nice to see you up while the sun's out. Not that 2 is great, but…" Mimi slapped his forearm, shooting him a warning look.
At this point, Mark had simply been confused. Surely to God Roger of all people couldn't be complaining about his sleeping habits. Back in his glory days, a party could last well into the next morning, leaving Roger to wake up often just in time for a show that night. The insomnia of Roger's withdrawal had thrown both of their sleeping patterns into turmoil. Even before any of that, when things had been peaceful and happy – even if it was just rose-coloured memory that made Mark say so – all the loft's inhabitants had kept odd hours. It just came with the territory, or at least he'd thought so.
"What?" Mark asked absently, slipping behind his sleepy haze and trying to tune out whatever Roger was going to lecture him about.
Roger's eyebrows knitted. "What, Mark? Are you kidding?"
"If you're going to yell, tell me why," Mark sighed, saying it with rehearsed patience. Sometimes, he still found it a little too easy to dismiss strong emotions on Roger's part; treating it as something he'd get over once he got it out.
"Don't fucking patronize me, Mark," Roger snapped. "I'm not pitching some fit. You are not placating me when you're the one with the problem."
"Not problem," Mimi corrected hastily. "It's just that…"
"How can you not know better?" Roger demanded. He laughed harshly, indicating his surroundings with a hand as he continued, "Look around you! How can you just make the same mistakes…"
"You're not helping," Mimi interrupted. Roger glared at her but held his tongue. "Mark, honey…" she hesitated, then asked baldly, "What's with all the sex?"
Mark stared at her. What was there to say? The only real sexual moral that held in their culture was fidelity, and even that was flexible. He'd guessed, by now, that the topic of the day was his sexual conquests, but in the scheme of his friends' sex lives, his wouldn't particularly stand out. There was a disparity in gender that might be a little unusual – no matter what gender they slept with, most of his friends tended toward one or the other – but that wasn't something it seemed like either of them should care about either, not when he'd witnessed some of Roger's occasional male pursuits and Mimi laughingly told stories about women she'd been with. Mark suspected she'd have been just as open about the men, if not for the risk of upsetting Roger. That was how it worked, now – he gave her a little more space, and she was a little more aware of his sensibilities. It didn't keep them from fighting, in the end, but it did lead to far cleaner resolutions and longer periods of calm.
"The sex?" he asked finally, hoping for more explanation.
"It's just… Look," Mimi sighed, "I know how hypocritical this could come off, believe me. But the way you're going through people lately… Isn't good."
Mark blinked. "Is this a new rule?"
"Not… Not a rule, exactly, just… A suggestion that you take care of yourself. I know you'll say you're careful, but…" Mimi sighed. "It doesn't take drugs, Mark. I know what you have to think, but I don't even think it was the drugs for me. I didn't share needles. I might have reused my own a lot, but…"
Mark's eyes widened. "Is that what this is about?" he asked slowly, not sure how to react. Part of him wanted to dismiss it and say that yes, I am saying I'm careful, so what about it? But another part knew that this particular talk was coming from a perspective very different from his, or at least Mimi and Roger would think so.
Mark knew how people tended to think. That's fine, all those other people who act like this… They just weren't careful. Sometimes, whatever illusion of "careful" you'd crafted for yourself shattered violently. Roger and Mimi knew that firsthand.
Roger's anger came from concern. Mark knew that. Roger worried until he got angry, because the repressed emotion gave him the courage to say things he usually couldn't. Mimi's concern had to come from being genuinely worried, because she didn't like telling people how to live their lives. Even now, Mark thought, I could do the exact opposite of what she's asking, and she'd probably just leave me alone. She might talk to me again if she thought it was getting really bad, but… She'd let me do what I wanted.
"Look, Mark," Roger began, blowing out a long held breath. "Maureen doesn't make this all right, you know."
Mark blinked. "Maureen?" he echoed, confused. "What does she have to do with any of this?"
"Probably a lot more than you're willing to admit," Roger replied, though he didn't go any further in depth. "It's just… Look, this has to stop. You're going to get yourself hurt. Even Collins has been worried about you. You've been making Mimi and I fight—" he stopped with a pained hiss when Mimi's heeled foot slammed into his.
"Making us worry," Mimi corrected pointedly. "What is it that's missing, Mark? Why do you do this? "
Mark shrugged, "It's fun. I'm not depressed—" no worse than usual, at least, but he didn't say that "— I just like it."
Roger scoffed. "Mark, there's something going on. I've never seen you go anywhere near anyone but a woman, and all of a sudden boys and everything in between is fine?"
"I probably wasn't ever straight," Mark said nonchalantly. "I just thought I had to be. Then I got to thinking about it…"
"And what did you decide?" Mimi asked gently, although Mark suspected she already understood far better than Roger.
Mark laughed, "That it feels good either way and when I get around to having a relationship again, I'm gonna love whoever it is for their head, not their crotch. There's probably some people programmed to like one or the other, but… I'm not one of them."
"And… I don't care. If you're gay or bi or pan or whatever it is you're trying to say, good for you. I'm glad you figured yourself out," Roger said with a shrug. "It's not a reason to act like this, though."
Mark's eyes narrowed. "Like what?" he demanded. "Like you did for years? And did I ever say a wo…"
"No," Roger conceded, interrupting him. "And look where it got me. Just… let me make that mistake for you, Mark. You got me through it, I'd like to think I at least helped you learn something."
Mark shook his head. "I'll do some thinking," he muttered, rising. "I'm going back to bed."
"You're not brushing me off," Roger warned seriously. "You can go, but don't think we're done here, Mark."
Mimi stood up and followed him, catching him with a hand on his shoulder. "Mark, honey," she said softly, "we're not trying to be confrontational. We love you. We're worried about you. That's all."
Mark nodded, but Mimi lingered, eying him oddly. He thought about asking what was wrong, but instead turned around and went back to his room. Once he'd gotten there, he sat for a minute, thinking, before he rose and began rifling through a dresser drawer.
Someone coughed from the door. "You're not gonna find it," Roger's voice told him. Mark froze. Roger had better not mean what he thought. "I got rid of it. There's no more of that shit in this house, Mark. It's your own fucking rule, remember?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Mark said impassively.
"The hell you don't," Roger snapped. "Look, Mark, we can do this quietly. It can just be you and me. I know you're not that far gone, or we'd all be able to tell. But whatever help you need, I'll make sure you have it. Just stop. Please. You can't do this to yourself," Roger insisted, the pitch of his voice rising a little with panic. He heaved a sigh and slumped. "I need you, Mark. Mimi needs you."
"And that's supposed to be encouraging?" Mark demanded. "That you'll help me, but it's because you need me?"
"Because I care," Roger corrected, "and I can't see you do this to yourself and just stand here."
"Maybe I like it," Mark said impetuously, crossing his arms over his chest.
Roger snorted. He pushed himself off of the doorframe and closed the door behind him. "Oh, I know you /like/ it," he said, sitting on the bed. "Everybody likes it. That's just the problem, in fact."
"It's not smack, Roger," Mark said tiredly. "So don't pretend you—"
"It's fucking coke, Mark, so shut up. It's no better."
Mark was silent. He wasn't as brash or self-assured as Roger had been in his drug days, and he'd yet to fully cross the threshold from recreation to addiction. He wasn't in denial, he was just apathetic, but he couldn't bring himself to argue when he knew Roger was right.
Roger sighed. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I'm doing this all wrong, aren't I? Come here," he said quietly, crooking a finger. Mark shook his head. "Mark," Roger murmured insistently.
"There's no problem, Roger," Mark said firmly. "It's just… just really big in the scene. It happens, sometimes."
"Like first thing in the morning, or whenever you're upset, huh?" Roger asked. He wasn't so angry any more, but he was frustrated enough to have to express it somehow. "I played these games with you. I've been there. I've pulled all this stuff."
Mark bowed his head, sinking onto the bed.
"And you know I'm right. You weren't just ignorant," Roger continued slowly, realizing as he said it. "Which means there's more going on here than I see, or you wouldn't be doing this." He swallowed hard, unsure, and laid a hand on his shoulder. "What's wrong, Mark?"
Mark looked at him, his face expressionless and his eyes blank. He shrugged. Roger was nearly ready to admit defeat when he said quietly, "People notice. I can… express myself better, they pay attention."
Roger paused, thoughtful. All this, over something so utterly basic? But it wasn't to Mark, he realized. No matter what Roger did, it always seemed to draw someone's attention. Usually Mark's. Mark had always faded into the background. He'd never seemed dissatisfied, but the very fact that he was so closed off made Roger realize exactly why he wouldn't have noticed.
"No one's been doing it on purpose, Mark," Roger assured him lamely. "If you'd said something…"
"But Roger, that's just me," Mark said urgently. "It's how I am. It's not anyone else's fault. But… this, it changes it."
"Yeah," Roger admitted. He'd done coke, and he knew it would be as suited to his shy, quiet best friend as heroin had been to his normally high-strung personality. The confidence of the stimulant and the thoughtless bliss of the opiate were almost the exact moderating factors they needed – except for the other tolls the drugs took. "I know. But eventually – eventually soon, the way you're going – it won't. Eventually, you're just going to be doing it so you don't feel like killing yourself."
Mark nodded, accepting it as truth but not really reacting. Roger didn't know what to do. He almost wished Mark would cry or break down or do anything so that Roger could do something for him that would feel useful.
Roger thought he had to want some comfort, though. As detached as he'd been about the whole thing, Mark's words had illustrated a deep sense of hurt. Maybe he just needed to feel like someone would be listening if he did express it. Roger crawled behind Mark and tentatively slid his arms around him. "Talk to me," he whispered. "Just about whatever, you know? Just because we need you doesn't mean you can't need us back."
Mark stiffened, and Roger's arms tightened a little around him, a hand rubbing his side. With a shuddering breath, Mark relaxed. "There's nothing to say, Roger, that's the problem," he muttered. "I'm… it's… nothing. I mean, who the hell am I? Everyone probably just leaves me alone because they think there has to be more to me than they see – more than… what? You, a camera, maybe Mimi because she stays with you?"
"Your work," Roger added automatically.
"And we all know what you think of that," Mark replied coldly.
"I was angry," Roger sighed. "And maybe I meant it, a little. Maybe because I just didn't get how you were so strong. You never asked anyone for help, even when everyone was leaning on you. Nobody can do that, and I should have known. But using drugs – drugs like that – for attention…"
"Works, and you're proving it," Mark countered.
"Fuck, Mark," Roger hissed. "Talking to me about it would have worked! For a long time, you were… everything to me. That wasn't healthy. But just because there's other people now doesn't mean I care…" Roger halted, remembering Mimi's insistence that Mark had to know why they were worried, and he corrected, "doesn't mean I love you any less. Doesn't mean any of us love you any less. Hell, you're our glue. You and Collins would have stuck together, but it's thanks to you that our family held after Angel died. No one ever gave you credit, but… Mark, you do so much it's amazing sometimes. None of us thought someone who had it so together could be hurting like this in secret."
"And… what?" Mark asked bitterly. "Now you know it'll all be okay?"
"If you let me help you," Roger agreed, ignoring Mark's sarcasm. "And it's not my place to tell them, but everyone else will help too, if you let them in. If there was one thing I learned after April died, it's that you're never as alone as you feel."
"Roger, I need…" Mark caught himself. "I want my…"
Roger softened in spite of himself. He'd begged Mark the same way countless times, and Mark had never folded. But back then, Mark hadn't known what withdrawal from anything more serious than caffeine felt like. Roger did, and even though he was slightly disgusted and greatly concerned, he couldn't find it in him to refuse.
"I'll give you what I took back. But… no more, okay?"
Mark stared back at him, finally showing some emotion. Over the fucking drugs, Roger thought, annoyed despite the fact it was another behaviour he was familiar with. Mark looked a little awed, and his eyes were watering. He squirmed out of Roger's arms and walked to the corner of his room, kneeling down. Roger watched, surprised, as he pried up a floorboard and reached into it, pulling two objects out of it. He hid one in his pocket so quickly Roger couldn't tell what it was, and tossed the other, a wad of bills, at Roger.
"Mark—" Roger began. Mark raised a hand to stop him.
"Mom sent it," he assured. "I'm not moonlighting as a hooker or something. But take it. Get groceries or something. I'll try," he said with a sigh. "But I know I won't do it if I have that. And the other…" Mark paused, shuddering again. "Roger, I can't… If I tell you, there's no taking it back. Are you sure you want…"
"Whatever it is, Mark, yes," Roger declared. "Don't be afraid to tell me stuff."
Mark tossed something else into his lap. Dread bubbled up in Roger's stomach when he picked it up. A pill bottle. Hesitantly, he looked down at the label. The first thing his eyes fell on wasn't very helpful. Cohen, Mark, and a pharmacy's number. Roger almost didn't want to look further, but then another familiar word caught his eye, and he couldn't escape that he'd seen it: zidovudine.
"Fucking AZT," Roger murmured, stunned beyond a real reaction. "Jesus. Mark, when? How?"
"I… I don't know," Mark answered honestly. "At least… a year now. Remember those test results you kept telling me to pick up? I did. A month ago."
"Fuck," Roger muttered, tangling a hand into his hair. "A month ago." A month ago, when the bar-hopping and the drugs and the careless sex had begun. It made sense. Then something else occurred to him, and his heart sunk. "Mark, all those people you…"
"They knew," Mark insisted softly. "Maureen doesn't, but she got tested; like all of us."
"That doesn't mean…"
"Six months and more to the last time we slept together," Mark added, interrupting. "We were more looking to avoid kids, I think, but we were always safe."
With those practical concerns taken care of, reality dawned. Mark was dying. At least, Mark was dying in the same way Roger would say he was. Roger couldn't just take him for granted any more, he wasn't just a fact of life. Mimi would be gone before either of them, loathe though he was to admit it. Neither Mark nor Roger exhibited any outward signs of their disease. They took their pills, or at least Roger assumed Mark did, and went about their day. Mimi was the same, by and large, but the illness that had brought her so close to death on Christmas Eve had been nothing more than strep throat. The withdrawal she'd undergone during a brief period of resolve had nearly killed her. Even Roger had suggested she give up trying to kick, telling her he loved her and it was more important to him to have her alive than clean. She kept up for the most part, but long or intense periods of exertion left her utterly exhausted. Mimi's health had improved, but from where she was there would only be a steady decline.
But Roger had entered into things with Mimi knowing he'd have to lose her – even when they'd met, she'd been too thin, although it was probably more related to smack than her illness at the time. He wouldn't grieve for her any less than for Mark. But the idea that it could well be him seeing Mark through his dying days, brutal as they were like to be… It was horrifying, and completely incongruous with how he'd thought his life would work out. He would do it, he knew that – he'd have to be lower than dirt to abandon Mark, of all people – but he he'd probably feel inadequate the whole time, for not being able to save him. Like he still did when he saw Mimi too pale and struggling for breath, or when her pupils loomed pinpoint and foggy in her eyes. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Roger would be terrified of ending up alone for the rest of his – or Mark's – life.
Was this what Mark had been living with since Roger had been diagnosed? Was it worse, when he'd thought he was negative? Roger thought it might be, but couldn't picture himself in that situation.Roger had wanted a chance to make things even between he and Mark for a long time, but he hadn't wanted his friend to go through what he had.
Shit. He'd kept the drugs from Mimi, hoping Mark would hear reason, and even though he seemed to have, Roger was quickly starting to realize he couldn't keep Mark's secrets and retain his mental health. He was still waiting for the breakdown he worried would occur when his emotions weren't so numbed by shock. He knew Mark should probably be saying something, telling a story or trying to comfort him like he always did or maybe just crying himself. How could he even keep this a secret?
How close had Roger come to proverbially finding another note on the bathroom mirror?
Even though he thought it should be Mark crying, that thought pushed him over the edge, not to tears but useless raving. "Goddamnit," he rasped, thumping on the headboard. "This is so fucked."
Mark's hand found his shoulder. "It's okay," he insisted. "Life goes on. That's all."
"Then act like it," Roger challenged, almost glaring at him. It wasn't really fair, being hostile with Mark, but fair wasn't Roger's main concern at the moment. "Kick the drugs, stop fucking around just because you can, stick your camera in my face first thing in the morning…"
Mark smirked half-heartedly. "You never seemed to like that much before," he pointed out, waveringly.
"Never realized how much I'd miss it," Roger retorted. "Even if it's annoying, you standing there with that fucking thing's always meant that everything's gonna be okay."
"Everything will be okay," Mark declared. "Don't worry."
Roger shook his head. "I wish I believed you," he muttered. "Always used to."
Mark glared. "Well, maybe that's your problem. Why does it have to be a reflection on me?"
"Because I used to trust you. Goddamnit, Mark, there was a time you could have told me anything you fucking wanted and I'd have believed it," Roger exploded. "You can't just not tell me something like that!"
"I didn't tell you because I knew you'd do this," Mark snapped back hotly. "Because I didn't want to hurt you. I didn't know how to say it, and I didn't want you blaming yourself. I don't have any idea where I got it. It could have been you," Mark said, not out of cruelty but because he knew Roger was bound to think so, no matter how unrealistic it was. "Hell, it could have been Collins. It could have been any number of things. But it doesn't matter, not any more. Except I knew it would for you. I knew… I knew you'd have questions I couldn't answer. I wanted to be able to tell you all the things you'd want to know. I thought it might help."
"And look at what happened in the meantime! You really think this is any easier?"
Mark growled low in his throat, but then he sighed and his posture went slack. "No," he agreed, "I don't. And I'm sorry. But… I've been trying," he whispered, his voice finally starting to break down a little. "I'm doing my best."
Roger wanted to ask how Mark could possibly think so, before he realized that Mark had been trying his best, he'd just had a different goal than Roger would have wanted. Mark had been trying to avoid inconveniencing others with his problems. Roger thought trying should mean that he tried to come to terms with it and get his life back in order, taking advantage of whatever support he had available.
Still, Roger acknowledged, "I know you have. But falling apart on the inside and hiding it doesn't work. It starts to show." Roger prodded one of his ribs. "You're too skinny, to start with."
"You always tell me that," Mark reminded him in an expressionless voice.
"But I mean it this time. Maybe you're not that big by default," Roger admitted, "but you look like a good wind'd knock you on your ass."
"The AZT…" Mark tried lamely.
"Didn't help, but I've gotta think that the disappearing for days at a time and living on booze and coke had something to do with it," Roger said. He wasn't trying to be judgmental, he was stating a fact. "Stay here with me and Mimi for awhile. Eat. We have food, you should be taking advantage of that. Sleep. Not just when you crash, but regularly. Just… talk to us."
"It's not that easy…" Mark whispered softly.
Roger set his jaw, shooting Mark a pointed look. "I know," he said matter-of-factly. "But it was worth it, in the end."
Mark didn't answer him for a long time, and then he murmured something barely intelligible. Roger leaned in towards him, trying to hold his shifting gaze.
"What?" he prompted.
"What if I don't think it will be?" Mark asked in a small voice. "Even before I didn't have much to look forward to in the long run. Ending up alone. I've still got that, and now I've got dying… like… that to go with it. My family would take care of me," Mark admitted, thinking Roger was about to say so. "But if they did… They'd all be ashamed of me. They'd pretend it was something else. There'd be a proper Jewish funeral where they wouldn't mention any of you guys or even why I died. I don't want that." Mark stopped, drawing an almost-panicked breath and continuing, "I can't have that, Roger, I-I… can't. If they can't remember me for me, then maybe it's better they just forget."
"No," Roger protested reflexively, although he didn't know how to back it up.
"No? That's it? No reason?" Mark asked quaveringly. He might not have been convinced even if Roger had had one, but he was aching for reassurance, however ineffective.
"Me," Roger answered eventually. "I can't speak for anyone else, but as long as I'm around I can promise you that much. And…" he stopped, swallowing hard. "You don't know, Mark. I could be around longer than you. Not that I want that. Or that I want you to be alone. So okay, some really shitty stuff is gonna happen at some point in the future either way and there's nothing we can do about it. That doesn't make now worth any less. And you always used to tell me that, so , don't say it's not true. If it's not, then fuck, Mimi's got a needle and a stash in the next room this whole situation's giving me a damn good itch for."
"That's not fair," Mark argued. "For you it's in the past. Things pulled together for you."
"Yep," Roger said sarcastically. "I kicked and nothing bad's happened since. Come on, Mark, I know that's not what you really believe."
This time, Mark was the one who didn't answer. Roger sighed.
"Well… fuck," Roger cursed with feeling, tugging agitatedly at his own hair. Resigned, he rose and headed to the door, stopping before he opened it to say, "Look, I know first-hand I can't make you do this until you want to. But… If it ever seems not so hopeless, or if you think a talk might help, I'll be here. Okay?"
Mark nodded half-heartedly. Roger, defeated, gave him a final squeeze on the shoulder and left the room in silence.