Title: Breaking Fasts (Newton's Second Law)
Fandom: The Martian
Characters: Chris Beck/Beth Johanssen, Mark Watney/Mindy Park (background), Melissa Lewis, Rick Martinez, Alex Vogel
Rating/Warnings: T, none
Word Count: 3506
Summary: Ares 3 in the first year after. (Beth-centric, Johanbeck)
(The rate of change of a body is proportional to the force applied.)
A/N: For mazzawitz, who wondered about "Beck and Johanssen getting back to Earth and figuring out their new normal."
This follows Newton’s First Law, so I assume that everybody knows that Beck/Johanssen is a thing. I know fanon is that they keep it secret all the back to Earth, but I don’t think it’s a feasible solution to broken fraternization rules (that don’t even currently exist at NASA). I think they would have told the (hormonally obvious) truth and made their way forward despite the consequences. (Like agreeing to do the Rich Purnell while accepting that it would ground them.)
“Houston, all conditions green; the shuttle is secure. This is Ares 3, signing off.”
They’d done their best to mentally prepare, but it still feels surreal once the shuttle hatch opens. After more than two years of carefully maintaining a closed system at 14.5 psi/60% humidity/21oC/21% oxygen, the incredible scent of fresh air makes them all gasp once they remove their helmets. And then there are smiling strangers approaching, multiple helping hands and status questions to answer in completely real time. As they clamber out, supported by flight surgeons, they’re bathed in glaring, unfiltered sunlight and buffeted by cool winter wind -–actual wind-- with the sky oppressively blue and huge hanging over them. The miasma of noise, sensations and other people is more than a little overwhelming.
Beth wonders if this is how aliens feel.
All Ares crews have to spend at least two weeks in Johnson Space Center’s Astronaut Quarantine Facility after they return to Earth. However, since they’re the Ares 3 crew, JSC Med projects that most of them will spend about a month in AQF.
They may have had artificial gravity and each other, but they’ve still gone through unprecedented (and worse, unpredicted) physical and mental stresses. And Watney is in a whole league of his own.
They’ve clocked 913 consecutive days in space, which blows away the previous record of 437 days set more than forty years ago.
Dr. Beck has carefully documented the effects on their bodies with the equipment on the Hermes, but JSC Med has a much more thorough gamut of tests and machines to measure and observe what he couldn’t. The flight surgeons have a vested interest not only in making sure that they’re healthy, but also to tailor interventions for any physical problems, from PT exercises and flu vaccinations to nutritional supplements and vision correction.
More importantly, they’re talking to flight psychologists at length and undergoing occupational therapy to re-acclimate them to living in society- crowds, the incessant media, even dealing with having a phone again. They’re urged to use caution on social media, with NASA still doing most of the updates to the public, and reunions with their loved ones are conducted under discreet observation. Watney’s mental health garners the most concern, but they’re all feeling socially out of step: Vogel’s struggling with speaking German fluently and Rick’s kid regards him with belligerent suspicion and even jealousy.
Beth finds it hard to stop crying when she first sees her parents, not least because her mom can’t seem to stop. She feels smaller and frailer in her arms than Beth had remembered.
They’re happy and proud, overjoyed, even.
But there’s still a kind of awkward distance. It’s obvious how much her social skills have lapsed; she’s too used to communicating from behind a computer screen, with enough time lag to compose and edit and think.
It’s not all emotionally charged meetings and endless medical procedures though: meals are thrice daily events that are welcomed with an almost religious fervor.
More than one of them have had tears spring into their eyes over simple strawberries or freshly baked bread with cheese and butter.
Their enthusiastic appreciation is a source of professional pride for the AQF nutritionists, especially since every meal is judged on stringent nutrient availability guidelines as well as palatability.
“I don’t ever want to eat anything rehydrated or thermostabilized again,” Beth declares around a mouthful of apple strudel.
Watney grins teasingly. “I seem to recall a diatribe about ‘the reliability of nutritional labels and probability of wasting resources via cooking’ from a certain person in my candidate group…”
She wrinkles her nose and wonders how the flight psychs will interpret her licking her plate. “I think literally thousands of silver retort packages have changed my mind.”
“Yeah, no, I hear you about the hang ups.”
She gives him an empathetic smile. Out of deference to Mark’s “aversion”, potatoes never appear on the AQF menu in any form.
She considers for a moment, carefully scraping the last bit of cinnamon-y syrup off her plate with the fork and licking it off. “So how about I learn to cook and you learn Korean? We’re supposed to set constructive goals anyway. Should make life not-in-space a little more interesting, right?”
The phrasing makes him grin wickedly.
“Oh, you want to make this more interesting, huh, Johanssen?”
Her eyes narrow, but she can’t help smirking right back.
Christmas comes four days after they’ve returned to Earth.
Dinner will be a feast, with everything from tamales and corn drop biscuits to Stollen and pecan pie. The smell of turkey roasting -–a whole turkey-- has their mouths watering all afternoon.
Portions in AQF are usually strictly controlled to prevent hoarding or “unhealthy consumption patterns”, but they’ll be allowed to eat what they want that night. It’s probably half a test, but Beth doesn’t care –much.
Overeating at Christmas has to be normal, even if being back on Earth doesn’t feel normal yet.
Anticipation of the glorious food isn’t what’s occupying her though- it’s the fact that all of their families have been extended the invitation.
Beth’s been trying to frame it positively in her mind, per her shrink’s advice. After all, she is looking forward to seeing all the people they’ve heard so much about, even if the idea of being among all of them at the same time still feels rather overwhelming.
Plus she’s just plain old nervous about meeting Chris’ parents and sister.
She’s ready with socializing strategies and a handful of pre-prepared questions and answers to the typical queries, though. And it’s all right at first, sitting in the corner discussing tentative plans and places to visit around Houston- Amy, Gaelle and Thomas Beck will be in town for a week, and her own parents are staying until they’re out of AQF and settled. It’s a little stiff and carefully pleasant, but everybody is making an effort to ensure the evening goes smoothly: politics, mutiny rumors and space sex are firmly off the list of approved topics.
As more guests arrive, the noise and activity level in the dining room rises. Watney and Martinez are thriving at the center of attention, but Beth has to stifle the urge to retreat back to quarters, climb into her sweatpants and keep shopping online for new hardware.
She can do this. The opportunity to connect with some of these people might never come again, and she wants to make the most of it.
“You okay?” Chris murmurs, and she shakes her head as she huffs a laugh.
“Yeah, it’s just- getting loud in here. Hard to focus on what people are saying.”
He gives her an understanding look before he smiles. “Need a breather?”
She smiles back. And if she flushes when Chris first takes her hand as they get up, she squeezes it in silent thanks anyway as he explains that they’re going to go fetch some drinks.
Both their psychologists had encouraged them to normalize acting like a couple in public: the Ares 3 crew are officially off duty and professional behaviors should naturally give way to social ones.
It’s nice to have that tangible support, too
A week or so later, Marie and George Johanssen take them to check out a list of rental prospects, and they stop at BB’s Café after to take a break and compare notes before heading back to AQF.
Chris offers to treat her parents, who volunteered to drive since neither of them are allowed yet (standard NASA rules), but they only hesitate a second before adding a couple of signature sandwiches to split and some fully loaded fries to their coffee order.
“See, I know this much sodium and saturated fat is bad for my arteries, and that we’re scheduled to get a carefully fortified, perfectly balanced meal in an hour. But my mouth is too happy to care,” Chris groans, and Beth laughs and shoves him gently with her elbow.
“No doctor talk allowed. Mom, Dad, you have to try the chilli con queso on these fries. Eat so I don’t feel so guilty about enjoying potatoes on the sly.”
Her mom props her chin on her hand, bemused. “I’m just not used to seeing you eat like this! Can’t count the number of times you’d forget to eat food sitting right in front of you because you were so focused on getting some code right.”
Chris smiles, delighted. “So this is a well established pattern? Did she always skip breakfast too?”
“I’m eating right now. See?” Beth protests indignantly.
Her dad winks at her. “Just comparing notes, my dear.”
Back at the AQF, Martinez sits back and eyes them suspiciously when they’re slow to finish eating- it’s unusual for any of them not to attack a meal with gusto now.
“You two didn’t just check out places to shack up, did you?”
Lewis smiles knowingly. “Out with it. What’d you two have?”
Beck shrugs sheepishly. “…Might have shared a couple of Midnight Masterpieces with her parents.”
Beth smiles apologetically, abashed. “…and some fully loaded fries?”
There’s a chorus of appalled exclamations.
“You couldn’t have smuggled in something for us?!”
Beth and Chris exchange looks before they both place their untouched desserts onto the middle of the table.
Their crewmates gleefully divide their forfeits.
It’s just entropy: the Universe tends towards disorder and therefore change is inevitable.
Vogel is the first to leave, accompanied by ESA colleagues, his wife and their children. He’ll finish the rest of his therapy at the ESA astronaut facility in Cologne, Germany.
A week or so later, Lewis is the first to be approved for nights at home, and Martinez gets approval a couple days later.
Each departure brings a wave of mixed feelings- it’s good that they’re showing progress; they’ll continue to see each other during the day and Vogel via Skype and videoconference calls.
But they’ve been a unit for so long that it’s still hard- the dining room feels emptier with just the three of them.
“Can’t believe I’m not more sick of you guys,” Mark jokes, and they both have to ruefully agree.
Mindy, Mark’s girlfriend, starts joining them at dinner and breakfast at his flight psych’s’s request. She’s been spending a lot of nights with him anyway, so it simplifies her schedule not to have to run somewhere else for meals. “Plus the food’s better here than in the cafeteria. And free,” she adds conspiratorially.
Beth grins. Mindy's sense of humor and matter-of-fact dorkiness is just what Mark needs in this last phase of coming home.
He’s still going to be staying in AQF for an indeterminate amount of time and none of them want him to feel abandoned.
At least, she knows that’s part of why she feels oddly conflicted when she and Chris are given the okay for nights away by JSC Med.
It’s a bit like leaving home for MIT so many years ago- giddy excitement over freedom and thrilling opportunities combined with lingering anxiety over new responsibilities and separation from the people she knows and loves.
Well, except Chris.
They’re finally going to have real privacy; be their own unit.
It's funny how change can sometimes feel like a warm constant.
“How hard could it be? Besides, I need to practise now that we have a kitchen. Watney’s got a huge headstart—he’s had textbooks for weeks. All I’ve been doing is collecting recipes and watching Youtube videos.”
Chris shrugs as he moves a box. “Well, we could shop for ingredients now, but I think it would make more sense to figure out if we have all the tools you need first. My sister’s had my stuff for ages- she might have borrowed a few things. If we shop once we’ve got a list, it might also cut down on the impulse spending, slightly. Really can’t promise I’m not going to buy all the chocolate in the store.”
She snorts with laughter and raises a brow. “Fine, We’ll unpack and make a list so I don’t load up the cart with crispy snacks and coffee either.”
He grins. “Well, they let us out. No going back even if we gorge ourselves in an un-astronaut-like manner. Our kitchen isn’t going anywhere, either. And if we unpack instead of shopping, we can order delivery or get takeout. I’m thinking pho from the Vietnamese place around the corner, and every single appetizer on their menu.”
She laughs and kisses him. “Mmm, you do make very logical points.”
It feels so good to just stand there and kiss each other. Her parents have tickets to the theater, so it’s just them settling in tonight.
They have to report in for the usual appointments in the morning, but making their new accommodations livable is the goal for tonight.
They've worked hard to get the basics set: bed assembled and freshly laundered linens on, toiletries and towels in the bathroom. They put up curtains and plugged in their new phones, but the sofa is still wrapped in plastic and the wireless router still in its box. In fact, there are boxes everywhere- his stuff, her stuff, and brand new electronics sitting in the hallway where the delivery guys left them.
After the Taiyeng Shen, Lewis had gotten them to inventory and put away the supplies in hours. But they’re in charge of their own schedule for the next twelve hours or so. And Beth has just had a very good idea about what else they can try in the kitchen. So she starts kissing Chris a little more thoroughly.
He responds exactly the way she wants him to, and she laughs at his eagerness when he picks her up and deposits her on the counter.
Settling in at their own pace is going to be fun.
Houston has no shortage of fine dining establishments, and Chris has always loved the city’s thriving foodie culture, but it takes them a while before they manage to visit any of the restaurants on his list.
It’s not just NASA urging caution due to their reverse culture shock and continued media scrutiny- they’re also sick a lot. Being dropped back into civilization has swamped their immune systems- the world isn't the carefully sterile bubble the Hermes was. Beth is a natural homebody who doesn’t mind weathering the viruses while playing videogames together or cuddling while binge watching shows, but Chris has been chafing to take her out for “a real date”, so he makes reservations at Brennan’s once they’re finally both illness-free.
Part of her rails at such effort and expense for something so stereotypically date-like, but it’s hard to resist his enthusiasm. He promises that it’s like research for her little wager with Watney; that the food there is prepared so exquisitely that she’ll be inspired anew.
Beth has to admit her palate is more refined now that she’s actively paying attention to things like combinations of spices and different types of oils, but fine dining falls into a societal construct that has always made her a little uncomfortable.
It takes at least twice the time and effort to get ready than she usually puts into her appearance. But she knows how much Chris has been looking forward to it, so she does due diligence, scheduling a haircut that afternoon and putting on makeup, a dress and pretty new flats before taking an Uber to meet him. And she smiles at her phone when he texts her a picture of the menu- the food does sound amazing.
She assumes the butterflies are just because it’s a little out of her comfort zone.
And yet her stomach flips when she sees Chris dressed in a button up shirt and suit jacket. Hot doctor still hot.
She flushes with pleasure at the way his eyes light up when he catches sight of her too.
Maybe it’s pretentious, expensive and not strictly necessary. But the fancy date thing might have positives besides just the food.
In between media appearances and bumping into each other at work, they see most of the Ares 3 crew regularly enough, but they end up seeking each other out too: there are established movie night rituals and gaming rivalries to carry on, after all.
Plus there are other activities now: Lewis and her husband have them over for a dinner party to celebrate Mark’s release from AQF, and then Martinez hosts the first Watney botany fest (which is just a fancy name for: conscript your former crewmates to plan/plant your garden and then feed them.)
Naturally, Beth and Chris have to invite everybody over for a barbeque once they get one.
It’s their first time to host a party, but they plan and divvy up supply and set-up tasks with practiced ease.
Too practiced, maybe, and she stops herself and laughs.
“What?” he asks, puzzled.
Beth rubs her face and shakes her head. “I almost called you Beck. I guess old habits die hard when we’re splitting up work.”
He sighs and shakes his head mournfully. “Shack up with a girl for months and she still can’t get my name straight.”
She nods with mock empathy. “It's a raw deal. But I’ll start on food prep if you want to go to the liquor store now.”
“Heading out for my EVA, Commander,” he teases, dodging her playful smack.
She mulls over a problematic string of code as she mixes, washes, slices and tastes. There are recipes up on the tablet she's got propped on the counter too, but it's mostly muscle memory and experience guiding her now, and by the time Chris gets back, there's dough for rolls rising, salads ready to serve, plus chicken, pork skewers and steaks marinating in the fridge.
It might take more time and effort than popping a package in the microwave, and Watney can speak and read a decent amount of Korean now too, but she’s held her own in their little contest.
They’ve all changed immeasurably from their pre-Ares 3 days, and nobody, least of all herself, had ever expected her to acquire this particular skill set. It's been a different, much more mundane kind of journey, from the exploration of new dishes and sourcing of ethnic/seasonal ingredients, to using literally all her senses while she puts meals together with Chris.
But she supposes the results are more than just physically satisfying, too.
Mission objectives attained.
They sit and stare up at the night sky as the evening winds down, nursing their beers.
“Half the stars are missing,” Rick complains, shaking his head.
“We’ve got binoculars if you want better resolution,” Chris offers.
“Naw, it’s just the light pollution from Houston. Never thought I’d miss being cooped up on the Hermes, but the view out the windows was something else.”
There’s a kind of wistful longing there that they all get, and they raise their bottles in silent acknowledgment.
It’s almost a full year before Mark takes the plunge, and they’re all there to witness it.
He’s drunk, which probably helps with the inhibitions, but they all are: it’s Oktoberfest, and they’re all extra delighted to hang out with Vogel again while enjoying the lively atmosphere and ridiculously sized steins of Bavarian beer.
Mark’s still appalled when he notices.
Lewis gives him an apologetic smile. “Sorry. We also got pretzels and sausages, but the line for fries was shorter than the others. You have thus far been okay with looking at potatoes and potato based foods, so I made an executive decision.”
Chris raises a brow and shrugs. "You don't have to eat 'em, you know." He’s very much in the “if it hurts when you push it, don’t” camp, but Rick has no such compunctions.
“Aw, just rip off the bandaid, man. You got beer to wash it down!”
Vogel tilts his head, unsure. “Drinking may a good way to forget, but I am no psychologist.”
Beth and Mindy eye each other before Mindy shrugs. "It's up to you. I don't think any of us give a crap if you spit it out, but we sure as hell care if it freaks you out."
Mark considers for a minute before he exhales decisively. “You know what? I survived having a fucking RTG in my backseat. There’s curry ketchup so I’m going for it.”
They all watch anxiously while he chews and swallows.
He eyes them all derisively. “You should seriously see the look on your faces.”
Rick scoffs. “Well you’re the one laying on the guilt trip! So?”
Mark shakes his head seriously before he smirks and snags another fry. “Baked or boiled potatoes can still go to hell, but... looks like deep-fried and served with awesome German ketchup is a go.”
Beth whoops and grips his shoulder with delight. “Prost to that!”
It's resoundingly satisfying as they all bring their steins together.
They both leave the suitcases in the hallway and flop onto the sofa with tired sighs once they get in the door.
She loves the way she fits against Chris, snug and comfortable under his arm; how his heart sounds beating steadily under her ear.
They’re both weary from travel and jetlag, but she’s so, so happy. They have so many wonderful new memories with good people to hold dear.
And she’s home.