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What Makes Us Human

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“Yuuri! You have to come, pleeease?”

Phichit Chulanont batted his large dark grey eyes at Yuuri, formidably long eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks at the motion. Yuuri groaned and buried his face in his hands, fingers pressing against his eyes hidden behind blue half-rimmed glasses. He’s hunched over his desk terminal, elbows pressing into the empty space in between the edge of the desk and the pressure keyboard in front of him.

It’s old school (the keyboard, not Yuuri - although Phichit would beg to differ, Yuuri preferred to think of himself as appreciative of the past), but even he cannot deny that the 44 cm by 11.5 cm keyboard taking up space on his desk was a throwback to a bygone era, a relic from way back in the twenty-first century. Seung-gil Lee, a yearmate of Phichit’s that had visited their shared apartment on occasion, had pointed out its inefficiencies and inferiority to the current voice activated programs installed on every machine with an electrical core, but Yuuri couldn’t help it - he loved it. He loved the feel of individual keys beneath his fingertips, relished the soft tapping sounds the keys make, took pleasure in the physical motions needed to produce the lines of text on the screen in front of him. It had taken some finagling to hook up the device to his system, to write a program that would translate the stroke of the keys into something his standard-issue ISU computer would recognize, but to Yuuri, it had been worth it, especially if that meant he didn’t have to listen to and interact with the voice of the AI that was all calculated pauses and fake emotion where the too bright tones of ‘ Sorry, your command cannot be completed. Please try again ,’ bordered on patronizing.

And sure, maybe it took just a bit more time and was a little less efficient when writing code, but he’d completed and turned in countless assignments on time and his evaluators were none the wiser. Besides, Yuuri found talking exhausting. He’d never been very good with words and was self-conscious about his accent - courtesy of growing up in small town and very traditional Hasetsu, in what was once Japan.

His family had deep roots in Hasetsu, the ownership and management of a hot springs resort going as far back through his family tree as his parents could remember. Their business was lucrative these days, patrons coming from all over the world to experience a blast from the past, to revel in the authenticity and rusticity of the town, and (quite literally) to soak in the faithfully preserved traditions and customs his family’s business had to offer.

The concept of nations and countries had long given way to global unification, the practicality of economics and globalization eventually winning out over time. Still, traces of ethnic and nationalistic customs persisted, language being one of them. The Katsukis, along with the rest of Hasetsu, had been staunch believers in preserving their Japanese heritage and language, dutifully passing on the dialect through the generations.

They were by no means backward or cut off from the modern world (although, incomprehensibly to Yuuri, there were still some states that had refused to join the Federation and insisted on maintaining their autonomy), but they had adapted and managed to find a balance between practicing their traditions while still capitalizing on the comforts and benefits technology and modern society brought.

Like every other child in the United Federation, Yuuri had grown up being educated in English and even though he spoke it perfectly, his parents insisted on conversing in their native Japanese at home. Coupled with a regional accent that the citizens in Hasetsu clung to and were quite proud of (according to his mother, it added to their charm and was good for tourism apparently), he had never quite managed to straighten out his pronunciation or shake the way his tongue inexplicably curled around consonants, adding ‘U’s’ and turning ‘L’s’ into ‘R’s’. Despite Phichit’s reassurances that it was cute and endearing, Yuuri privately worried about being misheard and misunderstood, never mind that his listener was an automated machine programmed to be smart enough to handle the diversiform terminology, nuanced quirks, and speech impediments that came with a population of twelve billion.

Advances in science and the development of the spatial drive had opened up a universe of possibilities and despite his love for his hometown, Yuuri had signed up for the International Space Union’s academy in Detroit as soon as he’d graduated high school for a degree in Engineering, eager to evaluate and explore the stars beyond.

His curriculum was demanding and when he’d made the decision to specialize in drive technology and add on artificial intelligence as a second degree, Yuuri found himself buried under work and busier than ever. Five years flew by and when he’d welcomed his family to the megapolis for his graduation ceremony, he couldn’t help the pang of guilt he’d felt at not visiting them at home. After all, they were only a three hour intercontinental ride away, as his sister Mari so often liked to remind him, but there was always another assignment due after the weekend, another test to study for, another internship to attend that prevented him from returning home and besides, didn’t he call often enough?

So, time ticked on and Yuuri turned 23 and graduated and he chose to remain in Detroit until he found a job or summer rolled around, citing the better chances of securing a position at one of the many multi-regional companies with offices here or, ideally, on-board a spaceship here in Detroit, headquarters of the ISU, than if he was applying from Hasetsu, half a world away. The avoided hassle of getting in and out of Hasetsu, even now only accessible by an ancient but fully functioning monorail (the tourists love it! It helps them feel like they’re truly getting away!) alone would be worth it, Yuuri had argued, and his parents had relented. So, Yuuri had extended his lease with Phichit in Detroit and the other boy, only in the middle of his studies with a few years still ahead of him at the academy was only too happy to continue their living arrangement.

Space: the final frontier ’ - a quote from one of Yuuri’s favourite shows, all the way from the twentieth century and a promise of a life of intrigue and adventure, had sustained him through his five-years long studies. Of course, reality hadn’t turned out quite so glamorous.

Engineering had quickly proven to be less about exploding warp drives and more about reading and interpreting the outputs from the multitudinous programmes built into a ship’s engine to safeguard and keep the delicate and sometimes finicky spatial drives in balance. A few of the people Yuuri had started out his degree with had dropped out, switching courses when the complex mathematics and computer algorithms became too much, but they were the minority. Many stayed on, attracted by the promise of a well-paying job and chance of making it into space.

Unfortunately, as Yuuri’s luck would have it, the ISU announced in his penultimate year that it was revising its space deployment plans, citing budget cuts and the relatively low returns on expensive space travel, and just like that, there was a glut of spatial drive engineers.

Yuuri had gone through the motions of job-searching, posting his resume and portfolio on countless job boards and applying to countless more advertisements and openings. He hated every minute of it, hated having to package himself and sell himself to faceless employers, hated having to explain why he was the perfect candidate and that theirs was the perfect job. It felt like lying, even though he knew it was an open secret and even expected by all parties involved. The lack of positive responses was discouraging to say the least.

Yuuri was under no illusion about his abilities. Sure, he liked to tinker with a drive configuration here or a line of code there, but he was one of many certified to work on a ship’s drive in the ISU, a dime a dozen engineer whose most notable contribution to the field and humanity’s efforts to expand that last frontier had been hot-wiring a keyboard he’d picked up from an antique hardware store to his state-of-the-art terminal.

Yuuri’s grades hadn’t been terrible, but he had not been stellar either and his final project, shown and judged at the Grand Prix Exhibition in Sochi was...lacklustre at best. Embarrassed, ashamed, and disappointed in his performance, Yuuri had considered embarking on a new career altogether, sending out a few half-hearted applications to non-engineering related positions and expanding his scope past ISU-related openings.

Yuuri now knew that crickets could sing a full repertoire in chorus. And his hopes sank to join his confidence at the bottom of the abyss where it had been lounging ever since his disastrous showing at the Grand Prix. April had rolled around and his parents had begun hinting heavily at how summer was so much less busy than winter at the resort (we could come over and help you pack if you moved!) when a last minute offer had come in for a mentoring position as an Engineer aboard a training vessel that would take an eight month tour through the Minaria quadrant. Yuuri couldn’t even remember applying for it but he’d all but despaired at ever making it into space at that point that it hadn’t taken much persuading from Phichit and one of his engineering instructors who Yuuri had felt comfortable enough with to confide in to convince him to accept the offer.

“...once in a lifetime opportunity to hone exemplary skills in teaching and mentoring...first-hand experience with cutting edge drive technology...sense of adventure and desire to experiment and innovate...advanced programming knowledge required...further details upon acceptance...” the letter had said.

He’d skimmed the letter when he’d received it, scoffed at the vague and platitudinous language. It read like a bad advertisement, trying to hawk off a discounted knock-off with a thick veneer of mystery and intrigue while fooling no one. He’d been consumed with agonizing about his future for weeks now and distraught enough at that point that he’d felt no small amount of relief when he finally accepted the offer, sending his reply barely an hour before it expired. At best, it’d be a quiet cruise through a barely-explored if boring quadrant of space where he’d be able to dabble in mentoring budding engineers, maybe work on a couple of his side-projects if he could find the time. And he figured that, at worst, he’d have eight more months to think about his decision to continue in the ISU or not, postponing a literally life-determining decision that had, frankly, been eating him alive.

Only after hitting the Send button had it occurred to Yuuri that at 23, he would be one of the youngest instructors aboard the ship. The students would no doubt only be one or two years younger than him, students in their final year of studies before graduating and walking the halls to receive their certification as bona fide space drive engineers of the ISU. What if he ran into one of his juniors, a much more brilliant and more promising engineer than Yuuri had turned out to be? How would they react to being taught by a mediocre and utterly unmemorable senior only ahead of them in life due to being born earlier than them? What if he recognized them but they didn’t recognize him? (It would confirm that he was unmemorable but Yuuri wasn’t looking forward to that stamp of proof.) But, oh god, what if they did remember him and knew exactly how much he didn’t know? Yuuri couldn’t decide which scenario was worse and by the time he had calmed down, the deadline for his reply had passed and with it, any chance for Yuuri to retract his acceptance of the offer.

Details of his new post had followed the next day along with a welcome letter from the captain of the ship. Except ‘details’ was a generous term. The follow up letter had been scarcely better than the offer letter itself, describing their mission and work as top secret and giving instructions for Yuuri to report at the docking terminal at 0700 hours sharp in two weeks.

Great. Except that ‘top secret’ was what everyone called their research and pet projects these days and 0700 was the standard time to meet for roll call and assignment on board the ships scheduled to leave Earth within the next twenty-four hours, never mind if a ship’s actual take off time was twenty-three hours and fifty-nine minutes later.

But signed on the proverbial dotted line he had and Yuuri could hardly refuse the summons. At least the captain of the ship had sounded cheerful in his welcome letter, in so far as cheeriness can be gleaned from impersonal typeface and official verbiage. Still, Yuuri had looked the man up and from what he could gather, Celestino Cialdini was a well-respected, if somewhat strict commander.

The following two weeks had seen Yuuri’s nerves work themselves up into a frenzy. He had a hard enough time expressing himself to people he knew (Phichit being the rare exception who seemed to be able to read Yuuri’s face like a book, sparing Yuuri the need to use proper words many a time),so how was he supposed to find the gumption to instruct strangers he didn’t know? A training stint on-board a spaceship, even one that was a training vessel, was usually only attained by the very best and very brightest, or those with the most connections, and the students he would be expected to instruct would see right through him in no time. Yuuri knew he neither had the charisma nor the confidence to be a good teacher.

Machines and computers with their honest parts, straightforward logic, and predictable results were where his strengths lay. Enter in (or in Yuuri’s case, type in, hah take that Seung-gil!) the correct sequence of code and the desired results would follow - no excuses or delays no matter the weather, time of day, or extenuating circumstances bar unforeseen disaster and hardware failure. The only variable was the programmer - human error or ingenuity the determinant to how smoothly and efficiently a programme or drive ran. Computers were supposed to be accurate, dependable, infallible, and oh so booooring if one Communications and Broadcasting double degree seeking roommate of Thai-descent of his was to be believed. Except they weren’t. Yuuri knew that. Computers may be predictable, but Yuuri found security in predictability, knew that if there was a problem, it was with himself and the orders he gave it. Human error was annoying and unavoidable, but fixable. Nothing to fear or get into a panic attack over. Nothing to fray his nerves and induce anxiety in him.

Unlike people. People with their unpredictable emotions and unknown motivations resulting in exponential variations of outcomes and reactions. Coming to megapolitan Detroit after living the first two decades of his life in quaint and quiet Hasetsu when he had been accepted into the ISU’s academy had been a major shock to his system, unprepared as he was for the sheer volume and constant press of people, for the stress of having to compete with so many other engineering hopefuls, all seeking to rise to the top of their class and assure their future as the first in line to set off on the next pioneering voyage.

So Yuuri had coped the way he had always done - by burying himself in his work and the lines and lines of code on his screen, letting himself be absorbed into the maddening but oh so rewarding process of trial and error, to see how much he could push a machine before it broke, unable to keep up with Yuuri’s demands.

 

So, here he was, two weeks on and engrossed in his little programme, trying to improve upon an AI’s learning curve, and scheduled to embark on an eight month voyage into deep space in a little over twelve hours. Yuuri would have happily spent his last few hours on Earth tinkering with his code except that Phichit was insisting that he attend the annual ISU academy banquet.

Current students and alumni were all invited to attend which is to say, the whole ISU was invited, which meant that the enormous mega-dome in Detroit, the only structure large enough to accommodate that many people at once on this side of the hemisphere would be packed with bodies and enough food, drink, and loud music to drown in. It was a nightmare. Yuuri had only been once before, when he had been a first-year at the academy, and he had no wish to repeat the experience.

Plus, he wanted to avoid running into any of his yearmates and having to listen to them discuss their bright futures and how exciting their first postings were. He especially did not want to draw attention to the fact that he had been unable to secure anything better than a teaching position aboard a training vessel and was even then contemplating leaving the ISU and perhaps even the engineering field for good. April was a notoriously slow month for deployment as ISU officers seemed to try to arrange their schedules to be able to attend the annual banquet (something about networking and rubbing shoulders, according to Phichit) and missions that were of any importance usually set off during the summer (something about the tilt of the Earth’s axis being more favourable during that time of the year, according to everyone who got deployed during the summer), a fact that was not lost on Yuuri in view of his own impending journey. As recent graduates still basking in the success of earning their Space Engineer stripes and awaiting deployment on their first and wholly important missions, as yet unencumbered by the weight of responsibilities and job duties, attendance at the banquet from the newly graduated class was especially high, and as packed and crowded as the venue would be, familiar faces always seemed to find their way toward each other.

So, in light of the evening’s festivities and Phichit’s pleas for him to accompany the younger man to the banquet, Yuuri resolved to stay exactly as he was, with his hands pressed to his face and looking at the back of his eyelids and definitely not at his roommate who was currently sprawled on Yuuri’s bed. He’s not going to cave, not this time.

“Yuuri…” Phichit’s voice came through again, wheedling this time.

“I have to pack,” Yuuri said, words half muffled behind the palms of his hands.

“You finished packing this afternoon! Your stuff has already been sent off and is probably on-board the ship and in your quarters!”

Shoot. He’d forgotten about that. Time to change tactics. “I need to call my parents,” Yuuri blurted out, congratulating himself for coming up with that one on the fly. There, evasive manoeuvres engaged. Except…

“Yuuri, you called them two hours ago. They’re busy preparing for the day, cooking and cleaning and all that now. That’s why you called them earlier, remember?”

Yuuri groaned in defeat. After years of knowing each other and rooming together, he could practically hear Phichit roll his eyes, could see the half-bemused, half-exasperated expression on the younger man’s face, knew that Phichit was grinning at him, closing in for the kill.

“I have work to do,” Yuuri grumbled weakly.

It’s a lie and Phichit knows it. Yuuri’s been working on his programme for months, tweaking it in between studying for his final exams and working on his Grand Prix project, and when job-hunting had not gone well, it had become a constant fixture on his screen, helping to keep him from spiralling into abject and absolute devastation. He’s not looking forward to giving it up when he boards the ship tomorrow but he knows that this is something that has to be put aside in favour of being sensible and doing sensible things - like working at a real job.

Yuuri heard the creak from the bed as Phichit rose, sensed him padding across the carpeted floor of the room, sighed as the younger man pressed his fingers into Yuuri’s tense shoulders, kneading the tension away. Despite himself, Yuuri felt himself relax.

“Yuuri, you haven’t come out in ages. What if your ship falls into a wormhole and disappears into an alternate universe? Like that fellow from your favourite series - what was his name again - John Tigerous Kirk?”

“It’s James Tiberious Kirk,” Yuuri said, removing his hands from his face and twisting in his seat to give Phichit the stink eye for deliberately messing up his favourite Starfleet captain’s name even though he’s corrected Phichit a thousand times already.

It’s fatal mistake.

Phichit was grinning, pearly whites flashing in his most beseeching smile, dark hair falling into his large doe-like eyes, twinkling and sparkling against his tan skin with delight and wordless pleading. It’s a look Yuuri could never say no to.

“Fine,” Yuuri sighed, giving in. “But only because I’ve been going around in circles with this code and I need a breather!” he half-shouted to make himself heard over Phichit’s victorious whooping.

 

They get ready quickly, or as quickly as it takes Phichit to empty Yuuri’s wardrobe of his remaining clothes and pair together outfit after outfit for Yuuri to try on, gushing over certain more elaborate (i.e. gaudy in Yuuri’s private opinion, god, what was he thinking when he bought that ?) pieces that Yuuri had decided not to pack and bring with him on his eight month stint (“It’s a training trip, Phichit, and I’m going as an instructor . I’m trying to look respectable, not trying to induce epilepsy in a crew member. Besides, that is entirely too much glitter for one room and in any case I’m pretty sure that’s yours.”)

After four changes of clothes, two awkward and embarrassed struts across their room so that Phichit can see how the fabric flows , the younger man declares Yuuri’s outfit satisfactory if a bit on the dull side.

Yuuri rolled his eyes and marched Phichit out the door, pausing only to acquiesce to Phichit’s demand that they take a picture together (for your commemoration ceremony when you fall into the Nexus and disappear for the next eighty-odd years, Yuuri!). He barely managed to prevent himself from rolling his eyes at that as Phichit snaps their photo on his P.H.O.N.E. (an acronym for Personal Holographic Organizer & Network Enabler - Phichit insists that it works and is a genius stroke in marketing, Yuuri thinks the team who came up with it was running really low on ideas and couldn’t come up with anything better to replace the placeholder they thought up at 2 a.m. in the morning in a desperate attempt to save their jobs and whatever creative credibility they thought they had).

Still, Phichit’s skill at selfies is undeniable and despite the exasperation he had been feeling in the moment, he’s surprised at how good he looks, standing next to Phichit who is looking resplendent in a brilliant red suit, neck, shoulders, and bottom half of his pants embellished with an intricate gold design, a wide scarf tied like a sash across his waist, his long fringe brushed to the side and held in place by copious amounts of gel and hairspray. It’s an homage to Phichit’s favourite movie, The King and The Skater , and going off Phichit’s radiant smile, he was feeling it.

Meanwhile, Yuuri was in a white turtleneck with ruffled sleeves and a design of blue flames creeping up his chest under a royal blue blazer with wide, ice blue lapels, the subtle geometric hive pattern on it glimmering and shining as it catches the light and giving his coat a depth of colour and pattern otherwise missing at first glance. He has on a pair of plain dark pants, as anything belonging to Phichit is too short (thank god) and his comfortable if standard black dress shoes, which he had conveniently forgotten to pack, hug his feet snugly. Yuuri’s hair was slicked back, a few stray wisps falling across his forehead and his complexion was pale, the shadows under his eyes pronounced even in the harsh lighting in his room, but the smile on his face was genuine as they stand side-by-side with their arms wrapped around each other, the joy in their smiles shining through. It’s one of the better images of himself and he returns Phichit’s smile and enthusiastic “We look so good!” exclamation with honest fervour.

They hurry to the venue then, getting in line and hopping into the next available car that pulls up by the kiss and ride, giving the address to the AI and settling back in the plush seats as the automated driving system maneuvers them smoothly onto the grid. Since they are in the city the banquet is being held, it’s just a short ride on the intercity tracks, each individual car weaving beside and between each other in constant motion until they reach their destination and passing through the sprawling megapolis that had been Yuuri’s home for the past few years.

“Look, Yuuri! There the park where we first met! We should go ice skating again when you get back,” Phichit’s smile was wistful, full of memories and nostalgia and Yuuri mirrored it as he turned his head to look at the calm and currently unfrozen lake where they’d first met.

They pass a few more of their old haunts on their way to the dome, laughing and reminiscing about the times, both good and bad, that they’ve shared together. It’s with something almost like regret when Yuuri stepped out of the car, following Phichit’s excited bouncing up the steps towards the entrance to the megadome where “Welcome International Space Union Banquet Attendees!” was lit up in large neon lights across the doorways. They waved their IDs at the receptionist counter, confirming their invitations and picking up their freshly minted name tags which sync the evening’s programme to their P.H.O.N.E.s before stepping past the outer threshold and entering the main dome, already bursting with activity and the hum of excited chatter and music.

Phichit gave a squeal of excitement at spotting someone he knew (Yuuri thinks it might be Seung-gil but it’s hard to tell with the constant churn of movement and colour) and after an uncertain look towards Yuuri who waved him on with an amused smile, Phichit disappeared into the crowd, leaving Yuuri to make his way to the nearest refreshment bar where he managed to find a seat and tapped at the first name of a drink he recognized, downing it in three gulps before setting the frosted glass down and taking a second, slower look at the menu.

The party was in full swing and there is raucous laughter from the group huddled next to him, as Yuuri waited for Phichit to make his rounds before meeting up with him again. Someone jostled him from behind, causing Yuuri to lurch forward and scramble for a napkin before his spilt drink can seep into his clothes and when he’s settled again, he glanced about warily before finishing his drink, loud laughter still ringing around him. The invisible jostler had been fully absorbed back into the crowd and as Yuuri made a quick sweep over the many unfamiliar faces circulating through the room, lingering on each face just long enough to confirm that they are not Phichit’s but not long enough to make eye contact (because there are just so many people and Yuuri really doesn’t want to talk to anyone), a familiar feeling began to form in the pit of his stomach. He trained his eyes back down on the menu and took a deep breath, quickly ordering another drink.

It’s going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

Yuuri woke up to a world that was spinning and threatening to upend him into the void. He still felt drunk, high on the residual alcohol mingling with the blood in his veins, and there was a throbbing in his head which he knew would soon devolve into a splitting headache but for now, he had more urgent matters to attend to.

He stumbled out of bed and staggered to the bathroom, banging into the door before his fumbling fingers located the pressure pad that opened the cool metal surface with a soft whoosh. He barely made it to the commode before he was retching and emptying the contents of his stomach. So much for good life decisions.

He was sitting on the floor, cradling the bowl in his arms, and wondering if his stomach was quite done with evicting the rest of his innards, when he heard a soft knock on the door.

“Yuuri…?” Phichit’s voice was soft.

Yuuri tried to grunt in response but it comes out as more of a whimper. The door behind him slid open and then Phichit’s hand was on his back, rubbing soothing circles over the thin layer of his shirt as Yuuri’s stomach decided that yes, there were still some tenants to kick out.

When Yuuri had gathered enough strength to stand and was rinsing out his mouth at the sink, trying to remember just how much he’d drunk last night to deserve such retribution, Phichit spoke up timidly.

“Yuuri, not to cause you to panic, but it’s half past six already…”

Yuuri looked up, tried to focus on Phichit’s face and frowned as he struggled to comprehend the implication of his roommate and best friend’s words.

It all came to him in a rush. Today is the day he leaves for space and he is supposed to be at the docking terminal, a journey that takes at least a half hour from their apartment, by 0700 hours.

Shit! ’ With a strangled cry, Yuuri dove past Phichit and back into his room, scrambling to pull on his uniform and throw some last minute items into his rucksack before careening towards the front door. Yuuri was pulling on his shoes and running a mental check to make sure that he had everything he needed when Phichit appeared again, looking as tousled and hungover as Yuuri felt, and handed Yuuri his dress shoes with a small smile.

“You might need them to go on a date,” he said with a wink.

Yuuri looked between the footwear and his best friend and then let out a laugh, accepting the loafers and stuffing them into his bag. “You know how unlikely that is but-oof...thank you,” Yuuri huffed, his last words muffled as Phichit pulled Yuuri into a crushing hug.

“I’m gonna miss you, Yuuri,” Phichit murmured into Yuuri’s ear.

“I’m going to miss you too,” Yuuri mumbled into the fabric of Phichit’s sweatshirt, burying his face in the shorter man’s shoulder.

They stay like that for a few moments before Phichit pulled away with a sniff. “Take care of yourself and don’t work too hard. Call me when you get to the terminal and let me know how your new crew members are once you meet them! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he said with a sly wink.

“Phichit!” Yuuri tried to protest but his best friend just laughed and herded him out the door.

Yuuri made it to the curb of the road and ordered a car which stopped for him promptly enough. He paid the extra fare that would put him on the expressway and tried to relax back into the soft seat as the vehicle sped away towards the docking terminal.

If he’s lucky, he might just make it in time. Yuuri closed his eyes and tried not to worry about what his new captain and crew members would think of his tardiness. Of all the ways he wanted to start his first day on the job, late was not one of them.

 


 

It’s 0701 when the car finally pulled to a stop at the terminal and Yuuri bolted out the door as if the hounds from hell had been set upon him. He flew through security, his ISU engagement letter and clearance granting him nothing more than a quick scan and nod from the attending officer before he was waved through the barrier.

 

It’s 0708 when Yuuri finally came to a wheezing stop in front of the closed room he’d been instructed to report at. Yuuri’s too-fast beating heart sank as he heard the drone of someone speaking through the door of the room but he still took a moment to straighten his uniform and wipe the sweat from his brow before pushing the door open.

The speaker stopped mid-sentence and Yuuri’s face burnt crimson under the weight of a roomful of stares as he slunk into the room, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible.

A woman stepped up to him, long hair pulled back in a neat bun atop her head and face showing no hint of displeasure as she calmly asked, “Engineer Yuuri Katsuki?”

Yuuri nodded before remembering protocol and clearing his throat to stutter out, “Yes, ma’am.”

The woman ran an appraising eye over him, arching a finely defined eyebrow before accepting his ID and checking it with the holographic screen she was holding onto, returning his ID and turning away without another word once his identity had been verified. Yuuri wanted to disappear into the floor and concentrated on the swirling pattern of the carpet (a mistake as another wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm him) as he made his way to the back of the room, gratefully sliding into an empty seat there where he took several deep, calming breaths. The chair was uncomfortable, the seat and backing made of a hard plastic material that was undulated to fit the contours of the human form but never quite did. It was cheap and meant to be a temporary fixture in the room but it afforded him some cover from the eyes of the rest of the people in the room, so thank god for small mercies.

Someone loudly cleared his throat and Yuuri tried to pay attention to the speaker who had resumed his address.

“As I was saying, you have all been carefully selected and fit the narrow criteria we are looking for on this mission. You should all be very proud of your accomplishments and I look forward to being your captain on this Class Five mission,” the speaker said, smiling and looking around expectantly.

There is a smattering of applause and Yuuri blinked as he tried to digest this new piece of information. Class Five? Had he missed that in the letters he’d received? Yuuri wracked his brain, trying to remember what the letters had said. Even with the fuzziness from his hangover, he was fairly sure that there had been no mention of this being a Class Five mission.

Despite his earlier derision of the use of the term and the frivolity with which it was attached to things, Class Five missions were actually ‘top secret,’ invariably dealing with classified and highly confidential matters. Crew members were selected from those who were well respected and at the top of their field, often having served on numerous missions prior and proved their brilliance and trustworthiness. It was no place for a novice engineer like himself who had been struggling to find a position on even a grounded Class One operation. There had to be some sort of mistake, Yuuri realized with a sinking feeling, barely able to concentrate on what the man at the front of the room was saying. As he stared at the man who was beaming and motioning animatedly as he spoke, he noticed with a jolt that the stripes on his uniform identified him as the captain of the ship.

Celestino Cialdini looked older than Yuuri expected. Captains in command of a ship were usually in their thirties, spending at most a decade at the helm before moving on to directing operations or other more senior administrative positions if they chose to stay on in the ISU. Cialdini looked at least forty, the deep lines creasing his angular face and his dark tan skin giving him a weathered look. Nevertheless, there was something lively and animated in his manner, his thick and impressively shaped eyebrows arching around light green eyes that twinkled and crinkled at the corners when he smiled, which was often. His long brown-taupe hair was pulled back into a ponytail and one short strand of hair stuck out from his hairline, waving in defiance of gravity as Cialdini swung his head from left to right as he looked around at his audience.

Yuuri startled when Cialdini’s gaze caught his and Yuuri shifted uneasily in his seat, trying to school his expression into something that looked like he had been listening. He paid attention to Cialdini’s next words.

“As you all know, we will be taking a tour through the Minari quadrant. Preliminary exploration has shown that it is mostly empty space, but there are a few anomalies and partially-studied phenomenon that the ISU would like documented in more detail. We will also be working with some prototype equipment and you will each be required to submit a weekly log of your observations and experience in its performance.

“Since this is a Class Five mission, everything that we encounter on this mission is highly classified. Communication with Earth is also restricted to once a month calls for each crew member, although written correspondences will go out more frequently. I hope I need not remind you of a severity of the consequences that will fall on anyone who is found in violation of the Class Five confidentiality agreements,” Cialdini paused to let the weight of his words sink in.

“Very well, then under Clause 624.7b Section IV Subsection C of the ISU charter, you will have one hour to formally and fully accept your position on-board this mission. My First Officer, Minako Okukawa, will be able to answer any lingering concerns you may have. I hope to see you on-board the Stammi Vicino . Good day.”

With that, Cialdini nodded to them and strode out from the room, the woman who had greeted Yuuri at the door stepping up to take his place.

“We are scheduled to be on board at 0830 hours. If you wish to decline, you will have until then to send me your formal written withdrawal. Else, I expect to see you at Dock 56A at 0830 sharp ,” she said, her dark grey eyes finding Yuuri as he slumped further into his seat. “Dismissed.”

The sound levels rose to a murmur punctuated by the drag of chairs on the carpeted floor as the other attendees shuffle from the room, talking amongst themselves. Yuuri waited for the room to clear before approaching Okukawa who is lingering in the front of the room, screen in hand, watching him approach.

“Umm, excuse me…” Yuuri said haltingly, unsure of how to phrase his concern. Okukawa watched him fidget, face impassive, until Yuuri sighed and settled on apologizing for his tardiness first. “I’m sorry for being late today. I err had too much to drink at the ISU banquet last night.”

Might as well come clean now ,’ Yuuri decided, shifting nervously on the balls of his feet. He couldn't remember much of anything from last night, but the memory loss and the headache threatening to rampage through his brain were clear enough indicators of how last night went. Yuuri was suddenly hyper-aware of the rumpled state of his clothes, the dried sweat sticking to his skin, and how his breath must still carry a hint of this morning’s encounter with the toilet bowl. He blushed in embarrassment.

Unexpectedly, Okukawa seemed not to mind and when Yuuri looked up at her, he was surprised to see an understanding smile on her face. “It’s alright, Katsuki. Just don’t make it a habit, hmm?”

“Ah, yes of course,” Yuuri started, body instinctively bending into a bow as a wave of relief and gratefulness washed over him. “But about...uhh…I err...I think you have the wrong person. I have just graduated and I don’t think I applied for this mission. It’s not that I’m not grateful for the opportunity,” he quickly added, seeing Okukawa’s eyebrows rise again, “it’s just...I don’t think I’m qualified for a Class Five mission.”

Yuuri slumped into another half-bow, trying to convey his sincerity and apology. He squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for Okukawa to confirm his fears and realize that yes, in fact, this Yuuri Katsuki wasn’t the one that they wanted.

“Hmm, you are Yuuri Katsuki, age twenty-three from Hasetsu, graduated first class honours in Engineering and Artificial Intelligence from the ISU academy in Detroit? You presented your final project - a dynamic recalibrator for interstellar travel - at the Grand Prix Exhibition in Sochi?”

Yuuri nodded numbly, stunned. The First Officer’s detailed knowledge of him caught him off guard, and he tried to suppress the wave of embarrassment and disappointment that welled up in him at the mention of his failures.

Astonishingly, Okukawa broke into a smile. “Then you are exactly the Yuuri Katsuki we want! You are an ideal candidate for this mission and I look forward to working with you! Unless of course,” and her tone turned serious, “unless you would like to decline…?”

Yuuri blinked once, then twice, before mini-explosions of emotion were going off in his chest and he realized belatedly that his mouth was hanging open and he was gaping at Okukawa in disbelief. He shut his mouth with a click before opening it again to let the words tumble out of his mouth, his tongue tripping over the syllables in his surprise and haste, “No no, I mean yes! I mean...I accept the position!” He clamped his lips firmly together then to prevent himself from embarrassing himself any further.

Okukawa grinned and she gathered up her things before motioning for Yuuri to follow her. Yuuri stood rooted to the spot for a second more before recovering from his shock and stumbling after her.

“I’m also the Chief Medical and Science officer on this mission. Come, let’s see if we can get you something for that hangover.”

 


 

A little while later, Yuuri was nestled comfortably in one of the chairs lining Dock 56A. Minako Okukawa had been extraordinarily kind, giving him a tall drink of water and medication to help with the pain and nausea. She’d chatted amicably to him and Yuuri found himself relaxing surprisingly quickly in her presence.

He’d been surprised to learn that she was also a native of Hasetsu, although she had left when she was very young and hadn’t been back in many years.

“I left to pursue my dreams of becoming a dancer,” she mused, her eyes taking on a faraway glaze as she peered into her memories. “After that was over, I was at a crossroads on what to do. I decided to study medicine and joined the ISU. Maybe if I had returned to Hasetsu, we would have met sooner,” she said, a sparkle in her eye. “I haven’t been back in years. I miss it.”

Yuuri watched the nostalgic smile on her face, sadness tinging her last words. “Do you regret not going back when you had the chance?”

Okukawa’s gaze sharpened on him, “Sometimes...but we can't live life looking backwards, can we?” she said, mouth curling into a smile. “Now, since you know my life story and we’re going to be trapped together for eight months with naught between us and the void than thin metal sheets, how about we dispense with the formalities, eh Yuuri?”

They’d settled for Yuuri calling her ‘Minako-sensei,’ the slight mistiness in her eyes at the archaic honorific melting the rest of Yuuri’s resistence away. A comforting familiarity and fondness had blossomed in Yuuri by the time Minako withdrew to settle some last minute preparations for takeoff and Yuuri had wandered to Dock 56A, dropping heavily into an empty seat and pulling out his phone to let Phichit and his family know that he was safely at the terminal, would definitely be going into space, and that communication would be sparse due to the highly classified nature of the mission.

“You’ll be gone how long?” his mother had queried again, face crowded next to his father’s in the square of the screen of Yuuri’s phone.

“Eight months, mother. I’ll be back on Earth by the end of the year, or before the end of winter at the very latest. Maybe I’ll be able to get some proper time off then and come back to Hasetsu?”

His parents crooned their approval, concern and worry for their youngest child by no means gone but somewhat mollified at the prospect of him coming home.

“We’d like that, son. And Mari and Vicchan would too!” his father said brightly.

As if on cue, excited yelping filled Yuuri’s ears and his mother ducked out of the picture before reappearing with Yuuri’s toy poodle, all brown fur and happily-lolling tongue, nestled in her arms.

“Hi, Vicchan,” Yuuri said warmly, feeling the prick of tears at seeing his beloved pet. In the five years he’d been away, Yuuri hadn’t seen Vicchan in person and had missed him dearly, probably more than he did his own family, his sister, Mari, had joked one day to which Yuuri had conveniently contracted a case of selective deafness for.

Mari soon came into view too, moving around in the background in her apron and red resort uniform, a magazine in one hand and cigarette dangling from the other.

“Vicchan sure misses you, Yuuri,” his sister said, setting the magazine down and taking the excitable dog from their mother. “This is the most lively he’s been in ages. You should call more often,” she grumbled, squeezing one eye shut as Vicchan licked her face.

Yuuri laughed and spent some time talking to his family, feeling a pang of guilt when he saw how their faces fell as he regretfully told them about how call times would be limited on his trip. “I’ll write as much as I can, though!” he said with forced brightness. They nodded and assured him that whatever time he could spare was enough.

He ended the call soon after, promising his mother that he’ll be back before she knows it and smiling helplessly at his sister as she gave Vicchan a squeeze from him before closing the connection on their end.

“Be good and all the best, Yuuri. We love you,” she said, voice gruff with emotion as the screen went blank.

Yuuri sat for awhile before picking up the phone again and requesting a connection to Phichit. He didn’t have to wait long as Phichit soon answered, his cheerful voice filling Yuuri’s ears and lifting his spirits again.

He told Phichit about what he’d learned about the mission and how Minako-sensei had assured him that he hadn’t been mistaken. Phichit was a good listener, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at all the right places and giving a sympathetic hum when Yuuri bemoaned the restricted contact they’d have with Earth, his family and dog heavy on his mind.

“That’s unfortunate...but this is still so cool, Yuuri! A Class Five mission in space on your very first assignment! What kind of weird experiments do you think you’ll be doing?”

“I can’t discuss that, Phichit!” Yuuri exclaimed, mildly scandalized even though he knew that the twinkle in his best friend’s eye meant that he wasn’t being serious.

Phichit laughed. “I know, I know. You’re on Super Secret Stuff now…but it’s still nice to speculate. They haven’t actually told you any details yet right?”

“No, they haven’t,” Yuuri mused, rolling parts of Cialdini’s earlier speech around in his head. He wondered just what kind of new equipment they would be testing out on the journey.

“Say, I thought you said you’d be in an instructor's position. Meet any of your new students yet?”

“Ah, no... I don’t think so,” Yuuri said, trying to recall the faces of the other people in the room. He gave up when he realized the futility in trying to remember something that he had been striving very hard to not pay attention to. “I’m sure it’s as we suspected and they’re all seniors from the academy who are about to graduate. I didn’t see anyone who looked that much younger than me though.” Even in his introspective state, he definitely would have noticed if someone in the room had been that much younger.

Before they could talk much more, the timepiece over the departure gate changed to 0829 and Minako reappeared in the docking area.

Yuuri began gathering up his things. “Anyway, I have to go. It’s a minute before we depart and I don’t want to be late again. I’ll send you my connection information once I’m aboard the ship and have that figured out. Bye, Phichit!”

Phichit waved him a cheery goodbye before they ended the call and Yuuri stood to get in line with the other crew members who were at the dock.

Minako was at the head of the loose line that was forming, face once more a serene mask and screen in hand as she confirmed each individual’s final acceptance of the mission and handed them each their ship’s badges and personal compact screen. Once she reached the end of the line, she called them to attention.

“Very good, we are all here. Let’s move out then!” She turned smartly on her heel and led the way out to the shipyard, the dock’s doors opening smoothly for them.

 

It’s a short march through the bustling activity of the shipyard before their ship came into sight. The Stammi Vicino - it sounded Italian, Yuuri thought, which would make sense since Cialdini is also of that heritage and naming a ship on its maiden voyage was the captain’s privilege. Over the ages, ship-naming conventions had flowed and fluctuated with as much volatility as the original seas they’d been designed to cross. Yuuri supposed that the name of a famous aria from the opera of the same name that had become wildly popular a few years ago was just as appropriate a name as any. He made a mental note to look up the meaning of the phrase.

The ship itself was beautiful. She was sleek, her hull shiny with newly minted chrome, unblemished except for the letters U.F.S. Stammi Vicino stamped across her side, identifying her as a United Federation Spaceship. Her design was angular but graceful, any seemingly extraneous protrusions extending in smooth lines and swooping curves from the body of the ship, creating an unusual but strangely pleasing structure to Yuuri’s eye.

Perhaps the ship itself is a prototype ,’ Yuuri thought, perking up at the tingle of excitement he felt at that prospect. He wondered what new advancements her drive engine might contain.

Yuuri followed the rest of the crew across the shipyard, up the ramp, and into the ship. If he counted right, they numbered twenty-six in total. A crew that size was on the small side, but it would be more than sufficient to run a ship for an eight month training stint.

They were funneled into the cargo bay area for one last briefing before takeoff and as they arrayed themselves into rows, coming to a halt in front of Minako and Cialdini who stood and waited for them near a wall with four large, sleek canisters stowed against it, Yuuri glanced around at his new crewmates, remembering his conversation with Phichit and wondering which ones among them were students and which were instructors like himself.

As he looked around, Yuuri noticed with a jolt that in terms of age, it was a fairly senior crew. Most looked to be in their thirties, a few looked old enough to be his parents. Hardly anyone looked around his age, much less young enough to be a student. The girl he was currently standing behind looked like she could be no more than a few years older than him as, though he could only see the back of her head right now, her loose dark curls which hung just above her shoulders were styled in the current trending fashion and the nails of her hands, currently folded behind her back, were painted a scarlet red. The only others that looked to be in their early twenties like himself was a pair of siblings, the similarities between the girl and the boy’s tan skin and purple eyes so great that they had to be related.

A quick glance at their shoulder stripes confirmed that the girl and boy were pilot and navigator, respectively, and Yuuri wondered what kind of cross-departmental training he was expected to engage in with them. Despite being in different fields, they had to be the students he was supposed to teach as anyone else with an engineer’s stripe’s looked to be in the mid-to-late stages of their illustrious career, with the medals and honours decorating their chests to prove it.

The girl’s gaze met his and she gave him a wink, smirking as Yuuri blushed at being caught staring. He averted his eyes to her brother next to her and almost wished he hadn’t. The boy was glaring at him, handsome face contorted into a scowl as he stared ferociously at Yuuri. Yuuri snapped his eyes forward, feeling beads of sweat break out on his forehead and hoping to god that he wouldn’t have to spend much time instructing them.

Fortuitously, Minako chose then to call for attention before stepping aside to let Cialdini, fully decked out in his captain’s regalia, take her place and begin to speak.

“Welcome aboard the Stammi Vicino ! This is her maiden voyage and I am delighted to have you all as part of my crew. The mission begins now ,” Cialdini announced, and there was a finality in his tone that sent a shiver of anticipation up Yuuri’s spine. “You are all extremely qualified in your respective duties, but more will be asked of you for this mission.”

Yuuri straightened his already rigid spine. He’s qualified, he’s extremely qualified. They believe he’s extremely qualified. On this mission, he will be asked to do...more?

“Four of you have been engaged and accepted the position as mentors and instructors.”

Oh, this was it, he was about to meet his students. Yuuri sent a quick glance towards the siblings. The boy was still scowling at him.

“While they will be primarily responsible for their charges, there is an ancient saying that it takes a village to raise a child. So, I expect every single one of you to help in any way you can. The ISU, and I, am counting on your whole-hearted cooperation for the success of this mission.”

Yuuri breathed a slight sigh of relief. It looked like he wouldn’t be left alone to flounder and embarrass himself in front of his students for a solid eight months at least. Surely one of the more senior and highly accomplished engineers on-board would have had teaching experience and would be able to give him a pointer or two.

“Without further ado, I will introduce the last piece of our mission - the AND-class from the ISU’s top research facility in St. Petersburg. Instructors, when I call you, please step forward to stand next to your charges.”

End class? N class? St. Petersburg?? Yuuri frowned, trying to recall any tidbit of information on what Cialdini had just said. He knew that the ISU had a facility in St. Petersburg, but the work that went on there was pretty hush hush and as far as he knew, Engineering wasn’t a topic they worked on. Still, he supposed that this N class could be a group of scientists, sent out into space to test some of their theories and which, apparently, needed the instruction of a novice engineer like himself.

A thought occurred to Yuuri and he was so caught up in worrying about what he could possibly teach a premier researcher who was clearly brilliant and accomplished enough to already attain a place at such a prestigious institution that he almost missed what happened next.

“From Medicine and Science, Minako Okukawa,” Cialdini called out, face split into a grin.

Minako stepped forward and Yuuri couldn’t help his eyes going round and his mouth dropping open when one of the canisters, the furthest one to his left, slid smoothly open and a man stepped out.

The man was middle aged, of average height and dark haired with fine laugh lines marking the corners of his eyes and around his mouth. He was dressed in a plain grey jumpsuit, his skin was olive toned, and his eyes were a startling hazel. Minako glided forward and planted herself next to him, her face giving nothing away although it must be quite an amusing sight before her - twenty-four crew members at the top of their fields all gaping at the man next to her. From the intakes of breath and gasps around him, Yuuri knew that he wasn’t the only one who was stunned at the unexpected reveal. The man stood next to Minako, eyes trained forward and at the back of the room, not seeming to notice the stares he was getting.

“Right, moving on,” Cialdini’s voice boomed, swinging everyone’s attention back towards him. The grin on his face and the barely repressed laughter in his voice told Yuuri that he was having way too much fun with this. “Piloting, Sara Crispino!”

The girl who had winked at him moved forward, her face mirroring the shock that Yuuri felt. She reached the front of the crowd just as the second canister opened and another man stepped out. He was dressed in the same style as the first man - plain grey overalls with a string of letters and numbers embroidered across his breast pocket, ISU insignia pasted on his sleeve. The second man looked to be of African descent, younger with dark rich skin and wiry hair that set off his handsome face, bone structure seeming to be carved from ebony. Sara Crispino seemed to teeter for awhile in front of the man, but when he didn’t seem to acknowledge her and when Cialdini cleared his throat rather pointedly, she quickly jumped into place next to him, shooting him sidelong glances every now and then.

“Next, Michele Crispino from Navigation.”

Yuuri was right, they were related, as the second Crispino sibling stalked forward and settled next to the third person who had emerged from the canisters. Michele seemed more intent on glaring at the man in between Sara and himself than he was in the person who had stepped out to meet him. The third person (Yuuri thought it was a woman), was tall and slim - taller even than Michele, who at 179 cm was no small man. If presented with just her face, Yuuri might have demurred on guessing her gender. Her platinum blonde hair was cropped short and her high cheekbones and sharp chin added an otherworldly quality to her beautiful, pale androgynous face. Only the small swell of her breasts under the plain uniform gave her away.

As she stood there unmoving next to Michele, her skin pale, eyebrows and hairline seeming to disappear, her eyes, black like the abyss of space, carried the same haunting intensity as her counterparts’ did as they all stared straight ahead, unfocused and unseeing, oblivious to the attention on them. Yuuri shivered at the thought of instructing such an intimidating creature.

“And last but not least,” Cialdini spoke again.

Yuuri tried not to grimace, bracing himself for the captain’s next words.

“Yuuri Katsuki from Engineering.”

Despite his mental preparations, panic spiked in Yuuri and he stumbled forward, barely managing to prevent himself from tripping over his feet at he made his way through the crowd towards the front of the cargo room. He knew his fears were irrational, was conscious of the fact that three other people had already gone on ahead of him, made that same walk up front, but Yuuri had never been very good at keeping his emotions in check. Logic and common sense had no sway over the beating of his heart, or the bundle of nerves that threatened to crawl up his throat and suffocate him.

With almost thirty people watching him, judging him, marking him as the man who showed up late and clearly hungover from too much partying, Yuuri tried to keep his heart contained in his chest and trained his eyes towards the ground, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other.

He’d almost made it to the front, heard the soft hiss of the last canister opening, soft, even steps coming towards him, when Yuuri tripped and fell to the floor, yelping with surprise and tensing his body for the pain of impact that was about to hit him.

It never came.

Slowly, Yuuri cracked one eye open, then the other. He was staring at the cold hard floor, but it was not coming any closer, not threatening to smack him in the face as a reward for his clumsiness and to cap off the hell of a morning he’d been having. He just hovered there - three feet off the ground and supported by...arms, strong and comforting and wrapped around his torso and under his waist, preventing him from falling any further.

He turned to look at his saviour and found himself lost in light blue-green eyes that caught the light and sparkled like jewels. This close up, Yuuri could see the striations of the irises, marvel at the crystalline circles that seem to glitter in the ambiance of the room, framed by delicate silver lashes and set deep in a pale smooth face with cheekbones that were just the right angle and sharpness. A high bridged nose separated the gem-like eyes and pointed towards a perfect, even mouth, outlined by lips that look oh so soft. As he stared, soft silver bangs fell to cover the left eye, breaking Yuuri from his trance.

“I-I’m sorry! Th-thank you for saving me!!” he sputtered out. Mortified and overwhelmed with self-consciousness, Yuuri scrambled up, pushing his guardian angel (no! Man! He’s just a man!) - pushing him aside and trying desperately to get the flaming blush that must be burning up his face to quell to a colour that resembled something closer to a human’s skin tone than a questionable vegetable-fruit.

It’s only when he had vigorously dusted himself off and taken his place next to the otherworldly woman from the third canister, fixing his eyes staunchly above the sea of faces turned toward him that were surely adding this latest flop to his steadily growing list of faults, that he realized that his rescuer had been the fourth person from the canister, the dull grey jumpsuit marking him unmistakably as one of them.

The man who had caught Yuuri rose from his position crouched on the floor in one fluid motion and walked smoothly to stand beside Yuuri. Yuuri thought his eyes flickered for just a moment down towards him but then it was gone and Yuuri could have sworn that he had just imagined it. The man was now standing next to him, chin lifted high and poised as if he were wearing a crown on his head, and standing between him and the other woman, both who had several centimeters on him, Yuuri felt very small.

Someone cleared his throat. “Right,” Cialdini said, “Please note who our AND-class members are and reach out to help them or their handlers throughout our mission. More information and the specifics of each of your roles and what is to be expected of you have been uploaded into your personal mainframes. Please review your briefs and prepare for departure in T minus two hours and twenty minutes. Dismissed!”

The cargo bay emptied out, the rest of the crew retreating to locate their rooms and prepare for departure as Cialdini had asked. Yuuri stayed rooted in his place, watching Cialdini’s back out of his peripheral vision. None of the others had moved either.

When the last crew member had exited the bay, doors closing behind him with a pneumatic hiss, Cialdini turned to address them.

“Well then, with the exception of Minako, I know that none of you have worked with androids before. Not to worry, this is part of the mission. The ISU wants to see how easily and how well they are able to integrate into the crew. Your job is to instruct them on your various job functions and evaluate their performance. Minako is our resident android expert. You should refer to her if you have any questions. You should also have access to the information and specs specific to the android you will be working with. Please review them to get at least a cursory understanding of them before take off. Any questions?”

Cialdini waited out a beat of silence before dismissing them, the others quickly falling out of line and beginning to head towards the cargo doors. Yuuri’s brain had screeched to a halt.

Androids?? Had he heard right? These people...these things were not actually people but were robots ? Composed of wires and gears and who knows what, walking around as if they were made of flesh and blood? Why did they look so human ? How was this even possible?

Androids weren’t a novel concept to Yuuri, he’d even taken a course in Advanced Robotics as part of his artificial intelligence degree and they’d covered androids as a subtopic. The takeaway from that had been that the development of fully operational and autonomous AI units that could function on their own was still in the budding stages of research, still mostly limited to the theoretical realm and suffering from the problems and limitations inherent to all artificial intelligence - no matter how complex the programming, there was a limit to how adaptive they were and their responses were likewise constrained.

Yet the proof was standing right next to Yuuri, walking behind the Crispinos, and following Minako out the doors of the cargo bay. Belatedly, Yuuri, who had been so caught up in trying to reconcile the disconnect between what he saw versus what he knew, suddenly realized that he still hadn’t moved from his spot and that he was about to be left alone with the man-android.

He startled forward and a slight movement out of the corner of his left eye caused him to turn his head. The last man, the fourth android , the one that had caught him as he fell and that had such pretty eyes, had started walking just a step behind Yuuri.

Yuuri stopped walking and the android stopped too. Yuuri stared at. The android stared back. There was something blank and empty behind the beautiful blue-green eyes fixed on Yuuri that unsettled him, like he was being appraised and judged from behind a mask, unable to truly know his adjudicator and what he thought of Yuuri. Except that was preposterous. Computers couldn’t think. And androids were no more than glorified computers, no matter how close to human their skins appeared.

Still slightly embarrassed from his showing in front of the rest of the crew this morning and feeling ridiculous for even caring about what a robot might think of him (if they could think, which they can’t, so there!), Yuuri turned on his heel and marched out of the bay without another look back.

Once outside, Yuuri pulled out the badge he’d received from Minako earlier and inserted it into the compact screen, confirming his preloaded thumbprint and identity with the biometric scanner and voice recognition programme to gain access to the ship’s schematics. Yuuri made his way through the corridors in silence, letting the screen guide him to his assigned quarters.

The android followed behind him silently. Yuuri ignored it, kept his eyes trained on the screen in his hand so that he wouldn’t have to deal with the soft even steps trailing behind him. Thankfully, the corridors were mostly deserted, most of the crew members evidently taking their captain’s orders to heart and were busy reviewing their mission briefs or settling in.

Yuuri stopped outside the smooth, unmarked door that his screen told him was his. Yuuri pressed his palm onto the pressure pad and ran through the security identification measures, exhaling when the light above the door blinked green and the door unlocked. He paused then and turned to look behind him, conscious of the fact that the android had just been standing wordlessly behind him.

The android’s expression was blank, neither patient nor impatient, just...vacant. “Are-” Yuuri began and then stopped. ‘ Are you going to follow me in?’ sounded rude. ‘Don’t you have your own room to go to?’ did as well, and Yuuri realized with a jolt that no, maybe the android hadn’t been assigned a room. What would it do with it’s own quarters anyway? Did ‘privacy’ even mean anything to it? What would be the point in designating precious space to something that was, in essence, closer to a car or cleaning bot than it was to humans who needed personal time and space alone and away from each other? Still, cars had garages and cleaning bots had closets where they could be stashed away in until the next time they were required. Yuuri’s mind drifted back to the four canisters in the cargo bay, standing cold and alone among the other machinery stored there. Maybe the androids would stay in them? But then why had this one followed him all the way to his room? Yuuri wondered how to ask it if it would return there. ‘Can you go back to your pod and I’ll come get you when it’s time to prepare for launch?’ didn’t seem quite right. In the end, he settled for “Do you want to come in?”

The android just looked at him and blinked.

“I mean, you don’t have to,” Yuuri said hurriedly, “It’s just that...I don’t know where you’re supposed to stay.” ‘ Smooth, Yuuri. Way to take charge’ , he thought to himself, thankful that there was no one else in the corridor to see his face heat up.

Just when he thought that he would not be able to bear the silence any longer and was about to dash into his room and jam the door shut, the android spoke.

“I have been assigned to Engineer Yuuri Katsuki’s quarters on-board the United Federation Spaceship Stammi Vicino for the duration of Class Five Mission 231321-H-15409.”

Yuuri stared at the android. It’s voice was surprisingly human-like, smooth and velvety with a rich timbre to it, words strung together perfectly and unaccented. But its tone was flat, completely devoid of cadence and intonation. Robotic.

Which makes sense considering what it is ,’ Yuuri chided himself, clearing his throat and turning back to face his door. Looks like he was stuck with it.

Yuuri placed his hand on the sensor pad and the door slid open for him. He stepped past the threshold, taking a moment to appreciate the size of the room as the lights blinked on. It was larger than he had expected, more spacious than his room back in crowded Detroit by a length and a half with a small bathroom closed off in one corner. His bed stood in another corner and a brand new terminal sat against one of the walls. His bags and other belongings were arranged by his bed and Yuuri walked over to a panel of doors opposite the bathroom, opening them to peer inside. As he suspected, empty closet space greeted him, several changes of uniform already hung up and ready to be worn.

Yuuri slid the last door open and blinked. Instead of more drawers or hanger space as he had expected, the last door uncovered a small room, enough for one person to stand in comfortably. Scanners, screens, and other apparatus that were alien to him lined the walls. ‘ Was this…?

Yuuri looked towards the android that was standing motionless in front of his closed room door. Yuuri cleared his throat and stepped away from the room. “I think this is your...this is yours,” he said, vaguely motioning towards the room with both hands.

The android turned its head towards Yuuri. “I do not require time to recalibrate or recharge. I have been fully synced with the ship’s system and my data files are up-to-date. My current power levels are at 98%,” it intoned evenly.

Yuuri felt his cheeks colour. “Oh I didn’t mean… Uh… Okay… That-that’s good to know,” he said, feeling awkward and getting flustered for feeling awkward. “Just-just have a seat,” he finished lamely.

He strode purposefully back towards his bed, determinedly not looking at the android as he passed him, and dropped his rucksack on the pile of his belongings. He’ll unpack later, once they’re in space.

His stomach did a nervous flip at that. He’s about to go into space, something he’s been dreaming about and working towards for most of his life. Yuuri can’t help the smile that tugged at his lips and bent down towards his rucksack, pulling out his keyboard before walking over to the terminal, setting it on the desk there.

His palm activated the brand new console and Yuuri sat on the seat that rose smoothly from the floor, waiting until the pliable material molded itself to his body and the desk adjusted so that he was sitting in perfect ergonomic optimality. After turning off the audio AI in his default settings and personalizing the system to his liking, he casually swiveled around in his chair and noticed with surprise that the android was still standing by the doorway.

The android seemed to notice his attention because it opened its mouth to ask, “Where should I take a seat?”

“Err, anywhere you like,” Yuuri said, caught off guard. “Do you not have access? Here, hold on.”

Yuuri turned back towards his terminal, tapping on the screen to bring up a guest seat. Yuuri noted that he was allowed one extra seat (additional ones will need to be requested) and that his is the only profile loaded on the terminal. The second seat rose from the floor next to Yuuri’s and he pushed it toward the wall so that it was next to his terminal, easily within his line of sight.

The android walked over and gracefully lowered itself into the seat. Yuuri stared at it for a second longer before turning back towards his terminal and pulling up his mission brief. He really had to prepare and nail it during launch. It wouldn’t do to add ‘incompetent’ next to the ‘tardy’ and ‘clumsy’ that he was sure was cemented next to his name already.

The brief opened and recited the standard ISU code of conduct, expounding on emergency evacuation and safety procedures, and ending its spiel with a reminder that this brief was confidential and restricted for anyone outside this mission before it opened up two sets of tasks which he could peruse in more detail.

Yuuri selected his engineering duties first, breathing a sigh of relief when his tasks and responsibilities were familiar and well within his capabilities. They were all things that he was well practiced in and had shown proficiency with in his simulated examinations and even though the ship’s engine drive itself was new to him - it was a prototype configuration that looked intriguing - Yuuri was reasonably confident that he wouldn’t embarrass himself in front of the other engineers. Yuuri tapped open the manual on the ship’s drive and skimmed it with interest.

 

“Launch in T minus one hour. I repeat, launch in T minus one hour,” the intercom blared, startling Yuuri from his reading.

He blinked and turned towards the android sitting motionless next to his desk, opening his mouth to apologize for losing track of time and ignoring it. The android kept staring placidly ahead, unmoving. Yuuri closed his mouth and pushed the manual he had been absorbed in aside, reminding himself that there was nothing to feel guilty about.

He sighed quietly to himself and then tapped on the set of tasks expected of him as an instructor. Several windows popped up, one of which had a picture of the android’s face in the top left-hand corner along with several pages of information. Yuuri hovered over several of the windows before tapping on the introduction and summary presentation, settling back to listen as the male voiceover began delivering a crash course on the ISU’s latest development in space travel - the highly experimental and incredibly classified AND-class.

 

Half an hour later and Yuuri’s head was spinning. The presentation had been too brief and too detailed all at once, leaving Yuuri with too much information to digest yet unsatisfied with what he’d learnt. He’d picked up that androids had been in development for far longer than he’d thought and that the last major breakthroughs in improving their stability and durability had only come in the last decade, all behind the closely guarded doors of the ISU’s research facility in St. Petersburg.

This batch of androids had finally been deemed viable and ready for field testing and the voyage on the Stammi Vicino was to be their first real test. The android who had been assigned to him in particular had been fed with the ship’s spatial drive manual and every engineering theory that had withstood the test of time to be considered biblical in the field. Yuuri had no doubt that it could recite his Advanced Mechanics and Designs of the Spatial Drive textbook perfectly word-for-word if he asked it to.

The one area it seemed to be having trouble in was in analyzing and adapting to situations outside its defined set of uploaded knowledge. Basically, it was a supercomputer on legs. An easily bamboozled supercomputer on very long and (from what Yuuri could see courtesy of the flimsy material of its jumpsuit) very toned legs, but a supercomputer nonetheless. But that was where Yuuri came in. As an instructor, Yuuri was supposed to show it how to make those leaps in logic and the hypothesis was that if enough sparks of inspiration were provided, its brain would light up to its full potential, or crash and burn as overwhelmed processors tended to do.

Either way, the ISU were hoping to obtain a definitive answer on the viability of androids as crew members for future voyages into space. Yuuri had to pause at that. Everyone knew that the ISU was facing budget cuts. Was it trying to replace humans with androids as crew members? If this mission was successful, would he have to compete with supercomputers that didn’t have to eat, didn’t have to sleep, and didn’t need anything more than a closet-sized room to recharge its batteries in? Was Yuuri effectively training his replacement?

Yuuri’s eyes slid to the android sitting impassively next to his terminal. It hadn’t moved a muscle. Apprehension of a different kind wound its way around Yuuri’s mind for the first time. Yuuri must have been staring too long because the android turned its head and then Yuuri was looking straight into blue-green eyes. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and looked away.

Weaknesses, there had to be weaknesses. Yuuri began to relax as he reviewed the notes he had, thankfully, had the foresight to jot down during the presentation.

“...lack of response in unfamiliar situations...occasionally draws inaccurate or bizarre conclusions...does not perform well in ambiguity…requires explicit instructions...”

Androids still ran up against the ceilings of artificial intelligence that he was all too familiar with, Yuuri realized. They wouldn’t be able to operate well, at least not as well as surely humans could, in the unknown - and space was filled with the unknown. Comforted, he scanned the rest of his notes. Androids had built-in fail-safes, immutable commands that prevented them from bringing harm to human beings or letting humans come to harm through inaction, and while they were made to mimic the image of their creators in every way, the materials that made up their skin and bodies were synthetic, sturdy enough to withstand even the harshest of conditions but not immune to the burn of a laser beam or the impact of an object wielded with enough force.

Yuuri swiped the presentation away and hovered over the window with the android’s face on it. It was no doubt another lengthy manual that would probably go into excruciating detail about the android sitting next to his desk and while he was curious, Yuuri wasn’t sure if he was ready for another information dump. Besides, it felt impolite to review what would undoubtedly be very personal information in a highly detached manner when the subject of his review was sitting right in front of him. Yuuri couldn’t imagine how disregarded he would feel if his whole life and medical history was being read right in front of him by a stranger who didn’t even look at him once. Except that he was an it , Yuuri reminded himself, and it likely didn’t care either way. Yet years of having the importance of showing respect for others drilled into him caused Yuuri to hesitate in opening the window and he instead turned to face the android properly.

The android hadn’t looked away and Yuuri tried to compose himself under the steady gaze before taking the plunge. “So, uhh, V-K-T-R-1-3-9-4…” Yuuri trailed off, eyes slipping to the android’s breast pocket to try and commit the string of numbers and letters to memory. Giving up, he snapped his eyes back up and said as clearly as he could, “I’m Yuuri Katsuki.” Yuuri stuck out his hand with all the confidence he could muster.

The android’s expression didn’t change as he regarded Yuuri with those startling blue-green eyes. Just as he was trying to prevent the crushing awkwardness he was feeling at realizing that he had just asked a computer to shake his hand and that he was being snubbed by said computer, the android lifted its right hand and took Yuuri’s, giving it a slow squeeze as it undeniably shook Yuuri’s hand. Yuuri was so surprised that he almost forgot to shake back.

The android’s grip was firm but not unpleasant and the feel of its hand was indistinguishable from a human’s to Yuuri - it’s skin was soft and dry with a touch of warmth underneath the surface. Something hard that perfectly followed the skeletal structure of a human hand lay under all the synthetic skin, wires, and sensors that made up its hand, supporting it and providing a tangible base for it. Yuuri almost missed the feel of it when the android let go.

It was looking at Yuuri again and Yuuri realized that he should probably say something soon. Remembering his notes about explicit instructions, Yuuri asked, “What should I call you?”

There, easy-peasy. Asking for a person’s name was a common first question between new acquaintances. It was simple and to-the-point, right?

“My designation is V-K-T-R-1-3-9-4-7-5-9-2-3-5-2.”

Yuuri stared at the android helplessly. This was not going to be as simple as he thought. He flailed about for his reply. “Yes, but how should I address you? What should I call out to get your attention if I need to speak to you?”

“VKTR13947592352 is my unique unit identifier.”

“Well, what did the err other engineers call you? The ones you worked with before?” Yuuri tried, switching tactics.

The android seemed to pause, giving Yuuri a slow blink before responding, “Engineer Yuuri Katsuki is the first engineer I will work with.”

“What about any others? Surely you interacted with other people be-before coming here? What did they call you?”

Another pause. Yuuri was beginning to feel hopeless.

“The scientists referred to me as 2-3-5-2,” the android said, referring to the last four digits of his unit identifier.

“They called you by a number,” Yuuri said, more to himself than anything else.

“Yes.”

Yuuri’s eyes dropped again to the android’s breast pocket, where its unwieldy designation lay adorned in black against the grey of its jumpsuit. His eye shifted from the end of the string to the beginning and an idea sparked in Yuuri.

“What about ‘ Viktor? ’” Yuuri said quietly, raising his eyes to look at the android’s again.

No response.

And then a blink.

And then, “If that is what Engineer Yuuri Katsuki would like me to respond to, I will respond to Viktor .”

Yuuri tried not to cheer at his small victory. It’s really not a victory at all - Yuuri suspected that the android would respond to ‘computer’ or ‘droid’ or even his dog’s name if he had decided on that and Yuuri briefly entertained the idea of calling the android by the same name as his favourite brown toy poodle. ‘ Vicchan is much too adorable to be associated with this very serious albeit very beautiful imitation of a man ,’ Yuuri thought, finalizing the android’s name in his mind. Besides, Viktor perfectly straddled the possibilities of identification for it - referential enough to what Yuuri suspected was the android’s model and serial number, yet anthropomorphized enough so that Yuuri didn’t feel awkward calling it out in a moment of stress as sometimes was wont to happen in the engineering rooms.

An alarm wailed out and the disembodied voice from the intercom called out again, informing them that they had 10 minutes before launch and would everyone please change into their ship’s uniforms and report to their stations.

Yuuri yelped and flew out of his seat towards his closet, hurriedly stripping off his ISU casual uniform and pulling on the pressed and ready on-duty uniform hanging in the closet. He noticed a second slightly larger set of uniforms hanging next to his and tossed the appropriate one towards the android. Viktor caught it and methodically began to change.

Yuuri finished dressing in next to no time and as he moved to exit the room, badge pinned smartly on his front, he looked back to see if Viktor was ready as well. It was - Viktor looked good in his uniform. Its broad shoulders and tapered waist were accentuated by the form fitting material, hugging close to its body and flaring out loosely at all the right places, a perfect balance of lines and angles and filling out the tailored uniform so that it’s intended design of functional formality was perfectly modeled on the android’s body.

“Ready, Viktor?” Yuuri called out, wincing as his voice came out a bit too high.

“Yes, Engineer Yuuri Katsuki,” Viktor said, its own badge flashing silver on its chest and matching the bangs that fell just right to partially cover its left eye.

“Right,” Yuuri said, mouth still a bit dry. He opened the door with a whoosh , the sudden wave of sounds crashing into him jarringly after the quiet of his room, and just as he was about to step out and into the chaos and motion in the crowded corridor, Yuuri looked back at the android waiting to follow him out and remembered Minako’s words about the next eight month. Swallowing, he said, “Viktor?”

“Yes, Engineer Yuuri Katsuki?”

“Just Yuuri. You can call me just Yuuri. I mean, call me Yuuri. I’m Yuuri.”

And then Yuuri ducked outside, trying to hide the blush on his cheeks as he made his way quickly to the engine room, sure that Viktor would follow close behind.

Chapter Text

When Yuuri had first stepped into the engine room, Viktor close behind on his heels, he’d been dazzled by the bright lights blinking and flashing from every terminal, the smooth shiny surfaces of untouched metal, glinting and untainted by fingerprints and the speckles of sweat, spit, and dirt that humanity inevitably left traces of behind. The room was pristine, terminals and equipment untouched, what was visible of their new engine rising in a column of light and energy in the center of the room, dancing arcs contained only by the shields and tinted glass that filtered the light to a bearable glow, safety sheaths withdrawn into the base and out of sight.

The other engineers moved about the room with a reverence and care that Yuuri felt appropriate, attentive and eager at their stations, but with the desire to investigate and explore bubbling below the surface, contained to a loving itch to be scratched when there was more time to think and tinker, when attention was not wholly consumed by the demands of takeoff.

Yuuri slipped towards his assigned station, bringing up familiar charts and graphs of energy levels and wavelength readings that helped monitor and manipulate the ship’s concentrated source of energy that would provide the impulse needed for their vessel to escape the Earth’s gravity.

“Photon rays’ and plasma propulsion waves’ readings are within acceptable levels,” Viktor recited from the screens Yuuri had pulled up.

Something in the indifferent delivery, the syllables spouted so listlessly, felt off to Yuuri, so at odds with the restrained excitement the rest of the room and he himself was feeling. He turned towards Viktor, well-practiced platinum star customer service smile stretching his lips, “Isn’t this exciting, Viktor? The new configuration of the drive is supposed to keep the plasma spikes to a minimum. I can’t wait to see it in action.” The android’s level gaze remained blank and Yuuri’s smile fizzled into a sigh.

“We are two minutes from launch! Engineering, what’s your status?” Celestino’s disembodied voice boomed around them.

“Engine room ready! All stations ready and on standby to engage?!”

Yuuri waited his turn, sent his breathless shout of ‘Aye!’ to join the litany of affirmation as the engineers at each station sounded off their readiness.

There was energy in anticipation and a thrill at preparing for takeoff, in working together to bring the whine of the engines up to peak and gather enough energy to launch into space, to push off from the earth and fly into the vastness of space, free among the stars.

“Very good, engage launch drive in three, two, one...now!”

There’s a hum followed by a dull roar that reverberated through the ship’s frame and up Yuuri’s fingers, resting lightly on the terminal attached to the walls of the room, and they were off!

Yuuri’s heart stuttered and his stomach wobbled at the slight shift beneath his feet, the only indication that the ship’s pseudo-gravity had kicked in and that they were in space. Space. He’d done it! He’d dreamed of making it, of standing here amongst the infinite possibilities of the stars since he was eight and had watched a documentary on space in the gym and recreational facility in his hometown with his childhood friend sitting in sweat damp clothes on the dusty floor. It was the beginning of a dream and he had just achieved it.

I made it, Yuuko ,’ Yuuri smiled to himself and he turned towards the body closest to him, wanting to clap and hug and join in with the congratulations going around the room. Icy blue eyes met his and Yuuri found himself holding back the cheer bubbling in his chest.

“We’ve cleared the solar system. Moving into neutral space. Accelerating into hyperspeed when Engineering gives the go ahead.”

Viktor’s face was impassive, expressionless, no different from when it had first stepped out of the metal canister just hours ago. If Yuuri didn’t know any better, he would almost peg it as bored . Almost. ‘ What was it thinking? ’ Yuuri wondered.

“This is Engineering, we’re switching power and control over to you, Pilot. Please stand by…”

Could it even be bored? Would it ever be able to comprehend the fierce joys of achievement and discovering the unknown? Did it understand emotions or was it doomed to a life of apathy, devoid of any rush of excitement and any hint of being alive?

“Raise plasma levels…”

As he stared at the android beside him, Yuuri felt a surge of emotion within him - disappointment, mingled with...pity?

“Plasma station? Plasma…?”

Viktor’s lips parted and Yuuri’s eyes couldn’t help being drawn towards the motion.

“The Chief Engineer is calling for plasma levels to be raised…”

Wha-? Oh. Oh .

“Yes! Sorry! Raising plasma levels now!” Yuuri yelped, hitting the lever to up the maximum allowed level of plasma to full in his haste before lowering it back down to the requisite 80 percent.

Task accomplished, he turned, face beet-red to glance apologetically at the Chief Engineer who was eyeing him sternly.

“Plasma levels raised. Pilot, you have the power.”

“Thank you, Engineering. Preparing for hyperspeed in three, two, one, engaged!”

The high-pitched whine before the dampers adjusted and the concurrent spike in their charts documented the moment when the Stammi Vicino and her crew jumped into hyperspeed and started their journey through space.

“Alright, good work everybody,” the Chief Engineer, a tall but stocky man in his late forties called out. Once the room had settled down again, he addressed them all. “I am Chief Engineer Joseph Krause. You may call me ‘Sir’ or ‘Chief Krause.’ Remember, the Stammi Vicino ’s drive is experimental and a prototype. The design engineers assure us that it is stable and ready for a long field test but we all know bugs have a weird way of showing up at the most inconvenient times. So, I expect every one of you to have the manual and lab reports read and ready at your fingertips to be pulled up. Let's nip any problems in the bud and make her sing for us, alright?”

Yuuri echoed the ‘Yes, Chief!’ that the rest of the room threw up in chorus as Krause dismissed all but those on duty for the first shift, turning to check his readings one last time before he relinquished his station and headed back to his quarters to hopefully get a nap. His headache seemed to be threatening to make a comeback and Yuuri considered finding his way to the sick bay to ask Minako for more medicine.

He jumped when he heard someone call him from behind, turning quickly to find Krause’s stern gaze on him.

“Engineer Katsuki,” the man began. “I know this is your first mission with the ISU and that you have certain other non-engineering responsibilities…” his eyes darted towards Viktor who was standing silent and unmoving next to Yuuri, “...but I need to know that my engineers are fully committed to their stations. Can I count on you as an engineer first , Katsuki?”

“Of-of course, Chief Krause!” Yuuri choked out, dipping into a half bow in his nervousness.

“Good,” Krause said with a small, satisfied nod. “I’ll see you back here promptly at 1600 hours when your shift starts, yes?”

“Yes, Sir,” Yuuri said, reddening at the pointed admonishment.

Yuuri exited quickly, tugging at the collar of his uniform as he leaned against a wall and let out a strangled wail.

“Yuuri,” he heard as a shadow fell over him. Yuuri turned quickly, stared up into pools of brilliant cerulean. “Are you alright? Do you need medical attention?”

Viktor’s tone was neutral, not pushy but not disinterested either. His eyes were trained on Yuuri’s face and Yuuri had the faintest impression of being x-rayed.

“I’m-I’m fine… It’s just been quite the day and this is my first mission and-and…” His day so far flashed before him and Yuuri wanted to melt through the floor. As he recalled the day’s event, he’d been awful - late, clumsy, and incompetent enough that the Chief Engineer had questioned his commitment to his job, questioned his ability to do what he’d studied, trained, dreamed of doing for years. Yuuri felt shame burn in him, waking the anxiety that was always lurking just beneath the surface of his psyche, fueling it until Yuuri could feel it stirring, claws pricking him, flame licking at his being until--

“Yuuri.”

The sound of his name snapped him back to his surroundings and Yuuri registered the blue eyes staring at him, piercing through the insidious haze wrapped around his mind. There was something in those eyes that startled him, surprised him. They looked different, or maybe, it was the face they were in that was different. Did Viktor look...concerned? Impossible. Viktor was an android, a computer - computers didn’t get concerned. Yuuri shook his head, trying to clear it.

“I’m fine, I’m fine…” he heard himself rasp out.

He then realized that his hands were gripping Viktor’s forearms tightly, nails digging into the pseudo-flesh that extended and ended in hands around his shoulders, pressing him against the wall of the empty corridor they were in, holding him upright.

Yuuri kicked his feet from under him to be able to support his weight, trying to stand upright. He released Viktor’s arms, took a deep breath.

“I’m sorry, I-I… Sometimes I…” Yuuri shook his head harder, swallowing and casting about for the appropriate words. “Why didn’t you just move the lever yourself, raise the plasma levels?”

It was abrupt, the words come out harsh from the hoarseness of his voice, the tightness of his throat. The accusatory note that slipped out, that he hadn’t intended, made Yuuri wince.

But Viktor didn’t seem to mind, didn’t even seem to notice how rude and terrible Yuuri was at explaining himself. Instead, without missing a beat, the android smoothly said, “I was not told to do so.”

Yuuri stared, couldn’t help staring.

“You...were not told to do so?”

Viktor nodded once, sharp and sure.

“But you knew that was what needed to be done, right? You-you’ve been trained…?” Yuuri was fairly sure the narrator giving the introductory presentation on androids had mentioned that. Any first year engineering student would know that the plasma levels needed to be raised to a higher than steady state level to provide enough of a push into hyperspeed. Unless you were Katsuki Yuuri and prone to spacing out, apparently.

Viktor nodded again, less sharp, less sure.

“Then why didn’t you? It would have saved me the embarrassment of-” Yuuri cut himself off, ‘ of being caught wondering if a computer had feelings ,’ he didn’t say. “We wouldn’t have held up the jump to hyperspeed then,” Yuuri said instead. The feelings in him rumble, morph into something ugly like resentment.

Viktor didn’t nod this time. “Doing something without being told to is acceptable?”

Viktor’s voice was soft and there was something uncertain about its tone. Yuuri froze and the ugly monster melted away, defeated.

“Yes, of course, Viktor. You don’t need me to tell you to do something that you know is right. You don’t need anyone to tell you. You can just do it,” Yuuri said, nodding for emphasis.

Viktor’s eyes were wide, more blue than green in the bright lights of the corridor and Yuuri patted the hands still gripping his shoulders awkwardly. Viktor seemed to give him one last, searching look, then the android nodded, slow and slight, and released Yuuri.

Yuuri exhaled, swayed for a moment on his feet and then fully straightened, pulling his jacket into proper place. “Come on, we should find the mess hall and get something to eat. Or...at least I should. You can follow me if you want.”

Yuuri turned and began walking, pulling out his compact screen to pull up directions. He was just about to look over his shoulder when the soft footsteps begin and Yuuri turned his attention to the screen, feet tracing the path laid out before him.

He had a few hours after lunch before he was due back in the engine room. Forget the nap, he’d use that time to memorize the engine’s schematics, read the lab and field testing reports as far back as they went, come back prepared and ready for anything the ship’s engine could throw at him.

Today had been horrible, but it could only get better from here. ‘ Nowhere to go but up ,’ Yuuri told himself, turning a corner. It had been a bad day so far, but he’d survived worse. And here he was, still standing, onboard a ship in space! Yuuri couldn’t help the happy flutter his fickle heart gave at the thrill of that last thought. Despite the odds, he’d made it.

What else could go wrong?

 


 

Things go wrong their first month in.

Things had gone well at first. After the disastrous start to his first day, Yuuri had showed up for duty put together and on time for his shifts, diligently working and gradually adjusting to the rotation of work hours.

Yuuri had managed to settle into a routine and by the fourth week, he’d relaxed enough to be comfortable working with the other engineers, even sharing a meal and striking up conversation with one or two of them. Phichit would be proud.

He was clearly the youngest engineer on board the ship but despite his inexperience, Yuuri was surprised to find himself allowed to contribute and able to engage in the discussions about the ship’s new spatial drive.

“Hey, Yuuri!” Yuuri turned from his workstation, smiling when he saw Olaf, an engineer he had befriended, approach. “Are you joining us in the VR deck later today? Rashid said he found a new sim today - of the Golden Gate Bridge in twentieth century San Francisco and wants to show us. You gonna come and help whip us into shape?”

The older man’s smile was teasing but Yuuri felt his cheeks heat up anyway, “Ah, you’re both not bad! I mean, you’re really good and I mean, we all could improve still so yes… Yes, I’ll be there.”

Olaf just laughed, used to how easily Yuuri became flustered after spending time working out with him. The stamina Yuuri had managed to build up from frequent runs with Phichit (“You need to get out and see the sun at least once a day Yuuri!”) had impressed his shipmates and when he’d shyly offered to go running with a few of them, they’d accepted and Yuuri now had a small group of people he’d meet up to go work out with.

“Great, glad to hear it! We’ll see you after the shift ends then? I’m sure it’ll be nice to get some time to yourself and get away from that thing,” Olaf said, eyes shifting to Yuuri’s side as he nodded. “See you later, Yuuri!”

Olaf turned and returned to his station before Yuuri could say more. Yuuri’s eyes trailed to his side, landing on the profile next to him where Olaf had been looking.

Viktor hadn’t turned around or even acknowledged Olaf when the man had come around, steadily working throughout their conversation. He’d given no indication that he’d heard Olaf at all, although Yuuri knew that he’d heard every word.

Yuuri had gotten used to having Viktor around him, following him, and working beside him like a shadow. Yuuri had initially worried about how he was supposed to teach the android anything, but instructing it had been much easier than Yuuri had expected. Viktor already knew all the technical aspects of the ship’s engine and so what Yuuri found himself having to explain or guide the android in was in how to interact with the other engineers, or what to do once the results of the diagnostics they’d ran had been output. Viktor was calm, polite, and always seemed so attentive to whatever Yuuri had to say. Even though he was sure that it was all part of Viktor’s programming, Yuuri couldn’t help feeling at ease and found himself able to talk and open up around Viktor much like he did around Phichit.

Yuuri had spent enough time observing Viktor and the other androids to notice the differences by now, and he could almost laugh at how he thought that they were human when he first laid eyes on them. He knew better now. It was in the mechanicality of their gaits, the blank expressions on their faces, the too evenly spaced timing of their blinks. If you looked close enough, you could even see the rise and fall of their chests - a cooling mechanism, Viktor had said when Yuuri asked - yet the imitation of breath was too even, too much like clockwork, lacking in life. Not a single outward detail seemed to have been spared by the designers (a furtive glance at Viktor while they had been changing uniforms had confirmed that), but despite how human they looked, Yuuri knew it was all only skin deep. The exact make and inner workings of the androids was classified to Yuuri, but enough had been divulged that he knew that the androids had been designed to mimic the human body as closely as possible - it was apparently easier to copy than to create - but they were still machines at their core.

They were artificial beings, advanced imitations of life. He supposed he should be irked by it, like all the other engineers seemed to be. They treated Viktor with a certain distance, regarded him with interest at first, cooed when he spoke to them and answered their questions, exclaimed about how humanlike he was. But that had quickly faded and the other engineers mostly ignored him or looked at him with the curiosity one might look upon an oddity with.

Yet Yuuri didn’t regard Viktor the same way. Perhaps it was because of his proximity with the android (they practically lived together) and there weren’t many waking moments when Viktor was not in his line of sight. The android kept the same schedule as Yuuri and barring the times when he would attend to certain activities that the android would have no need of - working out being one of them - Viktor’s face was the last he would see when he went to bed, and the first that he saw upon waking.

Four weeks on and Yuuri couldn’t muster up any of the discomfort he thought he’d feel by having the android around so constantly. To him, there was something soothing about the android, something regal in the way it carried itself, and Yuuri found himself appreciating the grace in the smoothness and silkiness in each of its motions, caught himself staring at the beautiful lines of the android’s face, or the smooth curves of the toned muscle that rippled under the android’s skin, marvelously imitating real fiber and sinew. Perhaps because he spent so much time with the android, Yuuri appreciated it more, appreciated Viktor’s calm demeanor, was grateful that Viktor never seemed to push Yuuri or resist him, that it seemed ever patient as it waited for Yuuri to organize his thoughts into something coherent in order to explain something, gave no indication of displeasure when Yuuri stumbled over his words or had to start his instructions over.

It wasn’t often, since Viktor seldom asked for or about anything, and to his surprise, Yuuri found himself wishing that he asked more. He had even proposed it once.

“You can, you know,” he had said.

“I can?” Viktor’s response had been, question hanging between them.

“Ask,” Yuuri supplied. “You can ask me anything… If there’s something you don’t understand, or that you want.”

“Something that I want,” Viktor had said, the words rolling slowly from his mouth.

“Yes, that you want,” Yuuri said, blinking at Viktor owlishly before he realized his mistake. “I mean, I don’t know…can you… Do you even want anything? I mean, do you know what ‘want’ means?”

“Want: A desire to possess or do something,” Viktor had said, as if he was reciting from a dictionary in his head (which, to be fair, Yuuri had to admit, he probably did).

“Yes, it’s like seeing something - a goal - and wanting...having this feeling, this desire to achieve it. Wishing you could have it… Does that make sense?” Yuuri was losing it.

Viktor was silent and Yuuri imagined it processing his butchered explanation, the metaphorical wheel turning behind the android’s unreadable eyes. He was just about to turn away, end the beyond awkward conversation they were having, tell Viktor not to worry about it, to forget he ever said anything, when Viktor spoke.

“When I run a calculation or begin a task, I aim to complete it. Does this constitute ‘want’?”

Yuuri blinked at it. “Well, not exactly...but I suppose, it’s close? Does it make you happy to complete something?” The words were no sooner out of his mouth than Yuuri could’ve smacked himself. The android was clearly struggling to under the concept of want, how the hell was it supposed to understand happiness? But before he can retract his last question, Viktor interjected.

“Perhaps an example will help. What do you want, Yuuri?”

Yuuri stared at Viktor, surprised at the question. “Err… I umm I wanted to go into space,” he confessed. “I used to watch documentaries on space when I was a kid with my childhood friend, Yuuko. We’d watch together on the wide screens of the recreation center the family of a mutual friend of ours owned and we’d pretend that we were explorers and find new worlds and sometimes battle aliens,” Yuuri’s mouth tugged upwards into a smile at the memories. “I wanted to make it into space and so this, this is a dream come true. Sometimes I can’t quite believe it and I hope I don’t wake up,” Yuuri laughed.

“And being in space makes you happy?”

Yuuri smiled, “Yeah, it does. There’s so much out there, so much to discover...the Minaria quadrant isn’t exactly uncharted territory, but who knows, there’s always a possibility for a few unexpected surprises.”

“And this makes you - happy.”

“Yeah...happiness… It’s like a feeling. Like it makes you feel warm or lighter,” Yuuri wracked his brain, trying to figure out how to explain the feeling in terms Viktor would understand. “It makes things seem easier, seem better. It’s a desirable state of being,” Yuuri finished, wondering if that was enough.

Viktor looked at him and then dropped his gaze, silver lashes sweeping over the cerulean in his eyes as he said before turning away, “Thank you. I will think about it.”

Yuuri had gaped at the back of the android’s head then. That was the first time Viktor had thanked him. It seemed that space wasn’t the only source of surprises.

Nevertheless, Yuuri didn’t doubt that the android had meant what it had said, and that it would do its equivalent of thinking to process their conversation. Viktor didn’t say much, but Yuuri could tell that the android was attentive and paid attention to everything he said. Even now, as Yuuri stood watching the android work, long slim fingers gracefully dancing over the console, eyes trained on the screens in front of them, the android seemed to notice, turning its head to look at Yuuri. Viktor tilted its head, letting his fringe fall to fully uncover his left eye and its gaze was almost questioning as it regarded Yuuri who stood staring back, Olaf’s last words still running through his mind.

“Umm, what Olaf said didn’t bother you, did it?”

Viktor blinked and Yuuri felt a blush creep up his cheeks.

“Engineer Ljundberg’s words are reasonable. Physical exercise helps sustain optimal performance.”

“Oh, right...”

“You disagree, Yuuri?”

Yuuri chewed on his thoughts, “No, ex-exercise is good.” It surprised him when his hand shot out to grip Viktor’s arm, “You know,” Yuuri said slowly, staring at the shape of his hand on the dark sleeve of Viktor’s uniform, “You can tell me if-if something bothers you, right?”

“If something bothers me?”

Yuuri raised his eyes to look at Viktor. Was that a crease between his eyebrows? “Yes, if-if something bothers you...makes you unhappy. You can tell me, maybe I can help.”

They regarded each other for a moment longer, before Viktor dipped his head and Yuuri released his arm.

“Thank you, Yuuri. I will let you know if something bothers me,” Viktor said, turning back towards the screens which paint his face in a blue light.

Yuuri turned back to the program he was coding and refocused his attention on it, putting the conversation behind him.

He didn’t think about it again until the next day when Yuuri was getting settled at his workstation, finishing the rest of his coffee in an attempt to properly wake up.

“Yuuri.”

Yuuri turned towards the voice. Viktor was approaching him, eyes concentrated on the screen it was holding, uniform perfectly pressed and fitted as per usual with not a hair out of place. It was supremely unfair, Yuuri thought dully, that the android could step out of its little alcove in Yuuri’s room, pull on its clothes and be ready for the day just like that. As per usual, Viktor had headed to the engine room first, not needing to stop by the mess hall for breakfast as Yuuri had and he knew that if it hadn’t been explicitly in the mission brief that Viktor was to keep to Yuuri’s schedule, Yuuri suspected that Viktor would be able to work long past when Yuuri had to go to bed as well.

Viktor stopped in front of Yuuri and raised his eyes. “Yuuri, there is something I want to tell you.”

If Yuuri wasn’t quite awake before this, he was now. “What is it?”

Viktor handed the screen to Yuuri, turning it so that he could easily read the results projected on it. Yuuri scanned the page, realizing that it was a summary of the diagnostic tests they’d been running thus far. Everything looked normal, any deviations were within acceptable levels. After a while, Yuuri looked up at Viktor.

“I don’t get it. What am I looking for?”

“The electro-nuclear fission levels have been oscillating with increasing frequency. Waves are within acceptable levels now, but the peaks and troughs have been increasing by 0.2 nanoparticulates on average and accelerating. If nothing changes, critical mass would be reached in 86 years 2 months and 3 days. Destruction of the drive core would be inevitable.”

Yuuri blinked at Viktor, trying to digest the android’s words. His brain seemed to have fallen asleep again. Yuuri cleared his throat, “How-how certain are you of these results?”

Viktor paused and there was a look on his face that Yuuri had come to associate with the android processing information. “Unclear. Full simulations would take a week to run. Conditions changing could swing the probability of drive core destruction up to as much as 0.7%”

“Err, right...” Yuuri said uncertainly. He studied the screen again, chewing on his bottom lip and pondering what to do. Drive core meltdowns were an engineer’s worst nightmare. Stabilizing the engine had been a major achievement in the ISU and meltdowns were now almost unheard of thanks to the most recent developments and stringent precautionary measures designed to raise red flags and alert engineers to shut down the system before it got anywhere close to destructing. The situation Viktor had painted was always a possibility, but the probability of it happening was practically null, even more so with the Stammi Vicino ’s lower than usual level of tolerance for bugs and anomalies in her engine. So why had Viktor brought it to his attention? Even if the calculations were correct, the fission levels were well within acceptable levels and seemingly would be for the next 86 years. He couldn’t go to Krause about something that was such a remote possibility 86 years into the future.

“Yuuri, would you like me to assemble a report?”

Yuuri jerked out of his musings, aware that Viktor had been waiting for him to respond. “Umm, no… No, it’s alright. I don’t think that the issue is quite serious enough to be a problem yet. Sorry,” Yuuri added, glancing apologetically at Viktor.

Viktor’s expression didn’t change as he accepted Yuuri’s answer without complaint but Yuuri still couldn’t help the feeling that he’d just disappointed someone. Just as Viktor was turning away, he body halfway through the motion, Yuuri called out.

“Viktor,” the android paused, turned its head towards Yuuri. “Umm...thanks--thank you for bringing this to my attention,” he said, waving the screen Viktor had given him, and then, before he could doubt himself more, Yuuri took the plunge. “Why’d you tell me though? I mean, I’m not mad that you did, it’s just that...it was a pretty small thing to notice. The drive’s internal sensors would have picked it up eventually if it ever became large enough of a problem, surely you knew that…” Yuuri’s brow creased into a grimace but Viktor didn’t seem to be put off by it.

Instead, Viktor’s steady blue eyes held Yuuri’s for a moment before the android spoke again. “Yes, I knew that.”

“Then, why…?” Yuuri trailed off, confused.

“It was bothering me.”

Oh. Oh , Yuuri realized, the previous day’s conversation coming back to him. There must have been an alarming expression on Yuuri’s face because Viktor turned back to fully face Yuuri again and then asked, “Was that alright?”

Viktor’s voice was even, but it had tilted its head again and was that a crease between its brows?

“Y-yes, of course. I’m glad you told me,” Yuuri said before clearing his throat to say more assertively, “Thank you for telling me.”

Viktor held his gaze for a moment longer before nodding and then turning away again to resume whatever task it had been occupied with before. Before Viktor had taken more than two steps though, Yuuri called out again.

“Viktor?” The android stopped and looked over its shoulder at Yuuri and the brilliant blue of Viktor’s eyes, even half hidden behind the curtain of silver seemed to glow with intensity at Yuuri. “C-can you keep an eye on it though? Let me know if anything changes…” Yuuri shrugged noncommittally, offering Viktor a small smile. “Better safe than sorry, ya?”

“Of course, Yuuri,” Viktor said, voice smooth as butter. Then he was walking away and Yuuri was left staring at the back of the android’s retreating form.

He could have sworn that Viktor had smiled back.

 

The rest of the shift goes well until the last hour, and Yuuri’s focus was beginning to wander to the mess hall menu, when alarms - obnoxious, loud, and flashing red - began blaring. Yuuri had just enough warning to realize what was happening from the sharp changes in the charts on his screen before the ship gave a shudder and dropped out of hyperspeed.

“Engineering, what’s going on? Joe?” Cialdini’s voice boomed out amidst the scramble and panic in the engine room.

“We’re trying to figure that out, Celestino!” Krause called back into the intercom. “Status reports?!” the Chief Engineer barked out to the room .

“We’ve stalled! The hyperspeed drive is offline. Plasma and photon levels forced to zero.”

“The system is undergoing a full reset, reason--unclear.”

Yuuri added his report to the others rolling in, grimacing at the screens blinking balefully at him. Ten minutes later and all they had managed to ascertain was that the engine had forced a shutdown. Two hours and a personal visit from Cialdini later and the drive engine was back online, but with the cause of failure still eluding them, their captain was electing to proceed with caution.

“Run full diagnostics and let me know what you find. I want this figured out before we attempt hyperspeed again. Take your time and be thorough, we can afford to delay a few days to get to the bottom of this,” Yuuri heard him say to Krause and the other engineers.

So the troubleshooting began. Everyone began pulling double shifts and twenty-four hours later, the problem seemed to have been identified. Forty-eight hours after that and countless attempted fixes, diagnostic tests, and simulations later and they were still stalled in space, capable of only propulsion speeds well below the speed of light. The spatial drive was kept offline, its hyperspeed capabilities too much of a risk to use.

While the rest of the crew seemed to take their engine troubles as an unexpected vacation, Yuuri and the rest of the engineers were feeling the pressure. Stress and frustration had eaten away at the engineering team’s good cheer, optimism and confidence giving way to uncertainty and frustration, and the ship’s synthesized stock of coffee had dropped as muttered complaints and strings of expletives heard in the engine room had risen.

The only one who did not seem the least bit affected was Viktor, who went about running tests with his usual smooth efficiency. The task of keeping track of all the various simulations and proposed fixes they were running had fallen to the android, the only one of them capable of syncing with the ship’s computer and tallying them, announcing the results after each run was completed. Unfortunately, this meant that Viktor would call out their inevitable failures in dispassionate tones every hour or so and it was beginning to grate on even Yuuri.

 

“I know it didn’t work! Tell me something I don’t know, you useless pieces of--”

“Ljundberg,” Krause’s voice cut off the seething engineer’s frustrated words sharply.

The Chief Engineer took one look between the reddened face of his engineer, fists balled at his sides, greasy hair askew, dark circles under his eyes, and the unflinching, unreactive blue-green gaze of the android, uniform only slightly crinkled and hair still parted perfectly and falling effortlessly across its left eye, and sighed deeply, bringing one hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose.

“Katsuki,” he called out, and Yuuri jumped at the sound of his name.

“Yes, Sir?” he said nervously.

“Can you take the android back to your room? Have it run a simulation from there or recharge its batteries?” Krause lowered his hand and fixed his gaze on Yuuri.

There was an unspoken order there, but before Yuuri could answer, Viktor spoke up.

“There is no need. It is optimal for me to remain here in the engine room and my power levels are at--”

“Yuuri, please,” Krause interjected pointedly.

There was something imploring in the chief engineer’s eyes and Yuuri swallowed before coughing out, “O-of course, Chief. Come on, Viktor,” Yuuri said, pulling on the android’s sleeve and heading towards the doors.

As the doors hissed close behind them and cut off Krause’s address of “Alright, everyone, let’s take a break. Ljundberg, walk with me--” to the rest of the engine room, Yuuri was thankful that Viktor had not protested and gave no indication that he would. However, the android broke its silence when they reached their room and Yuuri had flopped down onto his bed.

“Yuuri,” Viktor said.

“Nnngh,” Yuuri grunted, face pressed into his pillow.

“Yuuri,” Viktor said again, closer this time and Yuuri forced his face away from the comforting softness to peer up at the aquamarine eyes staring down at him. Even after a month, Yuuri still couldn’t quite get over how exceedingly blue those eyes were, the barest hint of green around the outer edges of Viktor’s irises only accentuating the blue. Yuuri braced himself for Viktor’s request to return to the engine room. “Yuuri, why don’t the other engineers like me?”

Yuuri froze, surprised by the question. He pushed himself up to sit on the bed, looking up at Viktor who stood by the side of his bed, hands folded behind his back. “Umm...what makes you think they don’t like you?” Yuuri said, mind still trying to grapple with the unexpected question while searching for an appropriate answer.

Viktor blinked and then his broad shoulders gave the slightest lift before falling back down in an unmistakable shrug. ‘ Huh, when did he learn how to do that? ’ Yuuri thought faintly, before his attention was captured again by Viktor speaking.

“I have noticed the change in their facial muscles, the way their bodies tense, and the increased stress levels in their voices. When they speak to me, they are not...happy.”

Yuuri could only stare. Viktor hadn’t moved and there was no discernable change in his voice or expression, yet Yuuri couldn’t help feeling an odd pang in his chest at the android’s words, couldn’t help imagining the slight droop in its shoulders, the bow of its head, the flit of its eyes half hidden by semi closed lids. Viktor looked almost vulnerable, and Yuuri suppressed the sudden inexplicable urge to reach out and hug it.

Instead, he cleared his throat, “I--I don’t think that’s true,” Yuuri said, gulping against the words. He had ignored the signs, hadn’t wanted to think about the implications of the subtle frowns, cool smiles, and curt responses most of the engineers gave Viktor, didn’t want to acknowledge it, because then it would have been undeniable, and Yuuri didn’t want to have to deal with the unsolvable. One look at Viktor’s face, at the straight set of his mouth and the piercing blue of his eyes and Yuuri knew that Viktor saw right through his lie. Yuuri sighed and rubbed his face with his hands. “I didn’t think it would matter to you.” Viktor was a computer, Yuuri reminded himself for the umpteenth time. “Why is it important whether they like you or not?” It shouldn’t care what humans thought of it. It shouldn’t care at all.

Viktor’s silence prompted Yuuri to look up. The android’s face was it’s usual mask of impassivity, but Viktor’s eyes were trained inward. “It is not optimal, when humans are unhappy. Productivity drops and progress is--is empty.” Yuuri had never heard Viktor sound so uncertain and when Viktor’s eyes focused on him again, Yuuri shifted uncomfortably and looked away.

“Here,” Yuuri said quietly, eyes still fixed on the far corner of his room. “Sit down,” Yuuri said, patting the space on the bed next to him.

A slight pause before the dip in the bed next to him and the bare feet that stretched out next to his told him that Viktor had joined him.

Yuuri sighed. “Look, I’m not very good at this...at-at figuring out what to do to get people to like you, to want to be around you,” Yuuri began, slumping against the wall his back was pressed up on. Yuuri pondered what to say.

He really was the last person to be giving advice about this, about fitting in. He had never been the popular kid, had struggled to mingle in with the crowd. Painfully shy growing up, self-conscious of his chubby appearance, and easily flustered by any good natured ribbing he received, he’d kept to himself and kept a low profile.

Looking back, the only way he’d made it through childhood and his awkward teenage years was his friendship with Yuuko thanks to her encouraging smiles, easy praise, and steadfastness in looking out for him. He’d been fortunate enough to befriend Phichit soon after coming to Detroit and as he remembered his friends’ brilliant smiles and sparkling personalities, Yuuri missed them. He tried to think about what made them so well-loved - Yuuko with her Madonna-like grace and headstrong will, Phichit with his obsession with social media and ability to charm a room full of strangers with a flash of his smile.

Yuuri was content to play the wallflower, happy that he could count them as his closest friends, and secure in the knowledge that they viewed him the same way. He’d never quite grasped their knack for shining in the spotlight, never quite figure out how to project that easy confidence, that magnetism that drew people in. So how was he supposed to explain to Viktor what to do? Viktor who was sitting next to Yuuri patiently waiting for his answer. Viktor who was bothered enough to ask.

“I’m not really good with people. In fact, I get pretty nervous around crowds myself,” Yuuri chuckled sheepishly, “But, well, I guess you could try smiling?”

“Smiling?”

“Ye-yeah… you know, that thing you do when you--when humans are happy or want to put others at ease?” Yuuri turned his head towards Viktor, mouth stretching into a smile as demonstration.

The android blinked at him and then, remarkably, the corners of Viktor’s mouth move outward and upward, the lower half of its face contorting into a smile. It’s unnatural and Yuuri’s brows drew together in a grimace.

Just as abruptly, the smile dropped from Viktor’s face and it was with its usual blank expression that it spoke, “That was not good.”

“No-no it was fine,” Yuuri hurried to say, before wondering why he was even trying to salvage Viktor’s nonexistent ego, especially when Yuuri was a terrible liar and Viktor could clearly see right through him if the deadpan look Viktor was eyeing him with was anything to go by. “Err...you just need some practice. Maybe look up some references?” Yuuri suggested, offering the android a bright smile.

A pause, and then, “I shall think about it and do so.”

“Err, right…” Yuuri said, before sighing. “People are complicated,” he muttered to himself.

Sitting next to him in companionable silence, Yuuri imagined Viktor’s heartfelt agreement. Just then, his personal communicator chimed, notifying him of a new message.

Thankful for the distraction, Yuuri reached towards the bedside table and grabbed it, flicking the screen open as he settled back down. It was a message from Mari, asking if he could call home as soon as possible. Yuuri’s heart soared a bit at the prospect of seeing his family again and he fired off a quick message to Communications, requesting for permission to use his monthly call allowance immediately. After a short wait, Communications requested details of his call and Yuuri sent them the names and location of his family. Yuuri couldn’t help the smile on his face when the message came through that his request had been granted, a connection would be set up in an hour after the necessary security measures were executed to ensure that the line was secure.

Yuuri checked the time, noting that his shift would have ended by now and deciding that now would be an excellent time to grab some dinner before taking the call. He wrote back an enthusiastic answer to his sister, saying that he would call them in an hour and that he couldn’t wait.

Yuuri closed the communicator and jumped off his bed, stretching his back until the vertebrae popped. He twisted and startled a bit when he caught sight of Viktor watching him, having forgotten the android’s presence in his excitement.

“Err...I’m going to call and talk to my family in an hour,” Yuuri grinned, unable to keep the joy off his face.

Viktor was sitting with its back against the wall, hands folded in its lap, and long legs stretched across Yuuri’s bed, mimicking his earlier position. Viktor’s head dipped in acknowledgement, eyes never leaving Yuuri’s face. “That is good,” it said.

“Uhh, yeah…” Yuuri said, scratching the back of his head. “Why don’t you finish running those simulations we had planned for today? I’m going to the mess hall to get dinner and then coming back to take the call. You can let me know how they went when I’m done?”

“Of course,” Viktor said and Yuuri beamed at him.

“Right then,” he said, turning to dig some fresh clothes from his closet and heading to the bathroom for a quick dry shower and change of clothes before pulling his shoes back on and exiting the room, giving Viktor who was still perched on his bed a jaunty wave. “See you later!” Yuuri called over his shoulder and then he was gone, a bounce in his step as he headed towards the mess hall.

He couldn’t wait to talk to his family, this was exactly the shot in his arm he needed after the past two days of hell.

As he joined the short line of people at the food dispenser, Yuuri couldn’t keep the smile of his face.

Things were finally looking up.

Chapter Text

“Ooo, look Mickey, Yuuri is enjoying it so it can’t be all that bad!”

Yuuri looked up from his half eaten dinner just in time to see Sara Crispino settle into the seat across from him, placing her own tray of lasagna that was on tonight’s dinner menu down with a clatter.

“Hi, Yuuri!” Sara cooed, flipping her long dark tresses over her slender shoulder with a smooth toss of her head as she flashed Yuuri a brilliant smile, batting her dark eyelashes at him.

“Uhh, hi Sara,” Yuuri said, quickly swallowing his mouthful of food, eyes sliding to the tall young man who inevitably followed behind her and who made up the second half of the pair of Crispino siblings (twins actually, as Yuuri had come to learn). “Hi, Michele,” Yuuri said, managing a weak smile at the scowling taller Crispino.

Michele Crispino only acknowledged him with a brief grunt before setting his tray down next to his sister’s and sitting down with a huff. The Italian stabbed his layered pasta with unnecessary force, making a face at the forkful he shoved into his mouth. “This is terrible. It doesn’t even taste like real lasagna,” Michele complained, frowning at the dish.

Sara rolled her eyes and dabbed at her rosebud lips with a napkin before answering, “Of course not, Mickey. It’s not like we’re at Nonna’s dinner table, and it’s fully synthesized food after all. Still, I wonder if we could persuade the cooks to alter the recipe a bit. Less cheese and more spices would be a good start, wouldn’t you agree?” she said, poking at the oozing layers of pasta thoughtfully.

With the invention of the food synthesizer, cooking in the traditional sense was an increasingly rare activity, the culinary arts now focusing on developing recipes and food matrices that a synthesizer could replicate. Food scientists developed the technology that turned the raw materials of yeast and lentils into uncooked ingredients or ready-to-eat meals supposedly indistinguishable from the real, naturally grown and prepared, thing.

The Stammi Vicino ’s food synthesizer wasn’t bad by any means, but even Yuuri, who was by no means a picky eater, could taste the slight blandness and telltale aftertaste that belied their meal’s true nature.

Michele muttered something derogatory about the ship’s food synthesizer and glared at the pasta like it had personally offended him, earning himself another eyeroll from his sister.

“What do you think, Yuuri?” Sara said, choosing to ignore her brother to smile sweetly at him instead.

Yuuri blinked and looked down at his plate. “Well, it’s okay how it is, I guess. I-I’m not really familiar with Italian food,” he admitted.

Sad but true. Growing up in Hasetsu, Japanese food reigned supreme and his hometown strictly controlled the influx of any non-traditional cuisine. The restaurant in his own family’s hot springs resort, Yutopia , was expertly ran by his mother and boasted a full menu of traditional Japanese dishes -- his mother’s legendary katsudon and Yuuri’s favourite meal being one of them. Even just thinking about the mouth-watering breaded pork cutlet with egg over rice delicacy brought a wave of longing over Yuuri and the lasagna he had been wolfing down suddenly became distinctly less appetizing.

Only twenty minutes until the call,’ Yuuri noted, glancing at the timepiece on the wall. ‘Maybe I’ll ask if she can make me a bowl when I get back from the mission and go home,’ his spirits lifted at the thought and he was so absorbed in his thoughts that he almost missed what Sara was saying.

“...you’ll have to come visit when we get back to Earth. Naples is so beautiful in the summer. You’ll come, won’t you Yuuri?”

“Eh?” Yuuri asked, the invitation catching him by surprise. Sara’s smile deepened, but before either of them could say anything, Michele cried out, aghast.

“Sara! You can’t just invite someone over like that! We don’t even know if Nonna would allow it--”

“Mickey!” Sara snapped, all charm turned into annoyance as she regarded her twin brother. “I’m just asking him over for a meal! Stop trying to butt in when I’m trying to make friends!”

As Michele spluttered out a reply, Yuuri averted his eyes and bent towards the rest of his meal, not wanting to get involved in the twins’ argument.

“Anyway,” Sara said, flipping her hair and attention back to Yuuri after successfully reducing Michele to red-faced muttering, “Us instructors need to stick together, don’t we, Yuuri?” Sara said, giving him a wink.

“Ah, instructors… Yes, yes of course,” Yuuri returned her wink with a tentative smile. Curious, the title still felt foreign to him even after a month on the job.

Sara leaned forward conspiratorially, “So, how’s it going with your droid? Is it easy being around it?”

“Uhh...it’s going fine? Viktor’s not hard to be around,” Yuuri said before remembering the earlier altercation between Viktor and Olaf. “For me at least. Some of the engineers seem less comfortable around Viktor. But we’re all really stressed out about the drive,” he hastened to add.

Sara hummed in sympathy, tapping her fork against her lips. “Yeah, aren’t you all getting any closer to fixing the drive? It’s been a nice break and all, but it is getting a little boring. Can’t pilot a ship without a working engine, you know?” she grinned, her pilot’s stripes flashing against her dark uniform.

Yuuri hung his head in shame, “Yeah, I’m sorry… We’re doing our best but every fix we’ve come up with so far has failed the simulation runs.”

Sara waved his apology off, “I’m sure it’s not your fault. Is your droid, sorry I keep forgetting you call it Viktor, is it helping to solve the problem at all?”

An uncomfortable weight settled in Yuuri’s chest, “No...not really…” Yuuri admitted. “He’s been great at keeping track of all the simulations we’ve tried, but it’s not like he’s come up with any solutions himself.” Somehow, the admission stung, as if Viktor’s inability to help fix the drive was a failure on Yuuri’s part. And perhaps it was. Wasn’t Yuuri supposed to instruct and guide Viktor? Show him how to make the leap from fact to innovation? If Viktor failed to do that, didn’t that mean that Yuuri had failed as well? The thought settled like an ugly weight in his gut and he yearned more than ever for time to tick faster so that he could talk to his family.

However, Sara seemed not to notice as she airily replied, “Ah, too bad. It’s not that surprising though, and frankly, I’m a little relieved.”

Yuuri’s eyes snapped up to look at her in surprise. “Relieved? Really?”

Sara set her fork down and regarded Yuuri candidly, playfulness dissipating from her expression. “Yes, of course. I know it’s in our mission brief that we’re supposed to train the droids and let them shadow us, but don’t you think it was rather obvious what the ISU is trying to do? What would happen if they proved just as good as us in our roles?” She leaned forward conspiratorially.

“What do you mean?” Yuuri asked, his brow creasing in confusion.

“We’d be replaced of course! All android only missions into space. I mean, think of the energy and space they’d save on in terms of living quarters. No need to expend on recycling or life support, no need for a VR deck, and none of this garbage to stock up on,” Sara said, poking disdainfully at her barely touched lasagna.

Yuuri’s eyes dropped to his own plate, eyeing the greasy, cheesy concoction where it sat rapidly cooling and half-eaten in front of him. He’d had that very same line of thought in the beginning, but after working with Viktor and the fiasco of the drive, the idea seemed far fetched. “But that’s, ridiculous. They’d never be able to run a successful mission with just androids.”

“I know right?” Sara said, triumphantly. “Of course I knew that from day one. You should have seen Oh-Three next to me in the co-pilot’s seat. Couldn’t do a thing by himself and had to have me give him explicit directions before he could push a button. Coordinating with Navigation was a nightmare as well, wasn’t it Mickey?”

“It was terrible!” Michele said, stabbing at his last piece of the lasagna in clearly pent up frustration. “TLD13659316396 is such a pain to work with. I don’t know how it ever made it through testing, but whoever passed it was clearly not a Navigator.” Michele scowled darkly, shoving the last of his pasta into his mouth.

Yuuri was kind of impressed that Michele was able to recall his android’s full serial number, much less having the dedication to use it, and was debating on whether to comment on it or not when Sara laughed.

“Oh, don’t listen to Mickey. His droid’s not that bad. He’s just upset that he got the stuffiest bot of the lot,” Sara grinned wickedly at her twin.

“It’s worse than a computer! At least the vocal AIs try to imitate speech like a normal human being. TLD13659316396 speaks to me like she’s such a stuck up b--”

“Now now, Mickey, getting mad at a computer really won’t solve anything,” Sara said, patting Michele sympathetically on the back although she flashed Yuuri a mischievous smile when Michele wasn’t looking. “Anyway, Oh-Three’s not much of a talker either, but I don’t really mind. He makes up for it in other ways. He’s good eye candy for one,” Sara said, flippantly.

“Sara!” Michele exclaimed, scandalized.

Sara sighed exaggeratedly. “Sorry, Mickey,” she said, unapologetically, “It’s too bad that Sixty-Three Ninety-Six is completely lacking in sex appeal. I can lend you Oh-Three sometime if you’d like? Or if you prefer, we can share…”

“S-sara!” Michele choked out and the Italian’s blush was a furious shade of red coming through loud and clear even under his tan. If Yuuri wasn’t trying so hard to keep up with the turn in conversation, he’d feel sorry for the man.

Sara savoured the look of shock on her brother’s face before letting out a peal of laughter and turning to Yuuri. “What about you, Yuuri? Done anything outside the mission brief with Viktor, yet?” the wink she gave him was salacious and Yuuri’s brain stuttered to a stop.

“Outside...the mission brief?” he said, blankly.

Sara blinked back, before smiling coyly at him. “Yeah, he’s such a looker. Great hair, great body, such lovely eyes. I’m sure he’d be great at a few extra things as well. Wanna trade sometime?” There was something positively devilish in her smile and in the sparkle of her eyes.

An image of Viktor’s perfect face and sculpted body flashed across his mind’s eye at Sara’s words -- hair that shone like quicksilver, the milky expanse of his back as he changed uniforms, eyes so deep and blue which glittered like the ocean by Hasetsu, threatening to sweep away anyone who looked too long. Each aspect of the android’s perfectly imitated human physique was conjured up in embarrassing detail and Yuuri’s mind seemed to short circuit as he processed the implication of Sara’s suggestion. Her purple eyes were boring knowingly into his and Yuuri felt his face heat up as his embarrassment threatened to overwhelm him. He was well on his way to giving Michele a run for his money on losing one’s composure when a cool voice spoke up, startling all three of them.

“And what are we trading?”

Three pairs of eyes snapped up to Yuuri’s left as Minako gracefully lowered herself into the seat next to Yuuri.

“Minako-sensei!” Yuuri squeaked out, coughing and grabbing at his glass of water to hide his embarrassment.

“Ah, Minako, we were just talking about trading droids for a day or two. You know, to see if there are any differences in how we’ve been training them,” Sara said breezily, although her cheeks were slightly flushed as well.

“Oh? That’s an idea. Although, I’m afraid they wouldn’t be very good at anything other than the role they’ve currently been trained in. I mean, Methuselah has been trained to assist me in medical duties. He’d be pretty useless as an engineer,” Minako said, digging into her salad.

“Methuselah?” Yuuri said, trying to match a face to the name and drawing a blank. By the look on the Crispino twins’ faces, they were struggling with the same question as well.

“Yes. That’s my droid’s name," Minako said, simply. "I decided to call him that after hearing you call yours 'Viktor.' Much easier than calling him ‘Ninety-eight.’ What a good idea,” Minako said, smiling approvingly at Yuuri.

“Oh, yes...umm thank you,” Yuuri said, colouring a little and feeling flattered.

“Of course, it would get confusing if there were two of the same model, but no such problem on this mission at least,” Minako said, taking another bite of her salad. “Anyway, I’m not sure that trading androids would be ideal.”

“Oh, but I’m sure I could teach Viktor how to pilot a ship,” Sara said, perking up. “We’d just have to load the ship’s control manual into it and then it’s all about getting a feel for the ship. I’m already teaching Oh-Three, who’s really quite the slow learner, it wouldn’t be much different having Viktor as co-pilot instead.”

“Hmmm,” Minako hummed, chewing slowly.

“I can even suggest it to Celestino first if you’d like,” Sara said, warming up and looking around at Yuuri for support.

Something clicked in Yuuri and he found himself saying, “No Sara, I’ve worked hard with Viktor to get him where he is and Engineering can’t afford such a big change right now. I’m happy to sit down and discuss training strategies over coffee sometime if you’d like? Or once we’ve solved the drive problems, we can get together and share our experiences as instructors thus far. But we need Viktor in Engineering,” Yuuri was surprised by the conviction with which he said and felt those words, and he smiled at Sara’s surprised expression.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Minako said, finishing her salad and starting on her square of lasagna. “It’ll be great interdepartmental interaction as well. Celestino’s always looking for  ways to get us all together. Maybe we could suggest weekly coffee chats or something. What do you think, Sara?”

Sara’s blinked her large round eyes a few times before breaking out into a smile. “I think that’s a great idea. I’d love to get together and talk with you more, Yuuri,” she said, the warmth in her voice genuine.

“Hold on, if there’s going to be coffee and chatting to my little sister, I want to be there too,” Michele said, frowning at Yuuri.

Yuuri smothered a chuckle as Sara turned on her twin with an exasperated ‘ Mickey! ’ and glanced up at the timepiece, standing quickly as he noticed the time.

“I’m sorry, I have a call from home I need to take in a few minutes,” he said, excusing himself from their table.

“Ah, we’ll work out the details and let you know, Yuuri!” Minako said, waving goodbye to him before turning back to her food, ignoring the bickering between the twins.

Yuuri deposited his tray at the cleaning station and exited the mess hall. He made his way quickly back to his room and breathed a sigh as he stepped through the doors, toeing off his shoes by the doorway and stifling the ‘ Tadaima ’ that still threatened to slip past his lips even after all these long years away from home. Old habits die hard and Yuuri smiled to himself as he remembered the first few days moving in with Phichit.

They’d both easily agreed to leave outdoor footwear by the doorway in true Asian fashion and Yuuri recalled Phichit’s enthusiastic take on the Japanese tradition of calling out every time someone got home. It was one of the things that Yuuri loved about his best friend, one of the reasons why it was so easy to be around him -- he accepted all of Yuuri’s little quirks so readily, embraced and even celebrated them, putting Yuuri at ease, making him feel like he was coming home.

As Yuuri set aside his shoes next to a second, slightly larger pair, he cocked his head in curiosity. Huh, when did he tell Viktor about that little custom? Speaking of which, Yuuri’s head turned towards his bed and then to Viktor’s (alcove? closet? No…) room, in the corner next to the closets. The door was closed shut and Yuuri stepped towards it before changing his mind and padding over to sit at his terminal, activating it. He could talk to the android later, after the call with his family.

He brought up the call connection options, pleased to see it ready and waiting for him to initiate the call and after hitting ‘Connect,’ his family blinked into view a short while later.

Yuuri could tell immediately that something was wrong.

“Yuuri,” his mother gasped, her mouth curling into a trembling smile.

She sat in between his father and sister. Her hands were balled into fists in her lap, gripping tightly and covering his sister’s. His father was on his mother’s left, one arm linked comfortingly with his wife’s, but as he smiled at Yuuri, it didn’t quite rise to his eyes. He looked tired, and Yuuri had never thought that he looked quite as old as he did now. His sister, Mari, sat to his mother’s right and her face was a mask, unreadable. Her left hand was on their mother’s lap, covered by her hands and from her right, a cigarette dangled. As usual, her hair was swept off her face and held back by her favourite purple headband and her eyes glittered as she faced Yuuri, watching him, appraising him. Yuuri’s smile froze on his face even as he greeted his family.

“Okaa-san, Otousan, Mari-neechan. Hajimemashite! ” Yuuri called out brightly, upper body dipping into a bow as his eyes darted from left to right and then back again.

The holographic projection of his family created the illusion that they were just across the table from him, close enough to touch. Yuuri resisted the urge to reach out and try.

The happy balloon in him deflated, replaced by a queasiness and churn that he knew had very little to do with the greasy lasagna he just ate. Neither of his parents seem to be able to quite meet his eyes. Yuuri swung his gaze to Mari, “Mari--?” Yuuri pleaded.

Mari took one last drag of her cigarette, exhaling fully into the space beside her before turning to meet her brother’s gaze. “Hi Yuuri, I’m sorry, but we’ve got some bad news.”

At Mari’s words, time slowed and the air in Yuuri’s lungs seemed to freeze. Solidifying into something heavy and laden with spikes, piercing him from the inside, lancing through his heart, dread settled over him. Whatever news Mari had, he didn’t want to know, didn’t want to hear it. He suddenly wished that this call never happened, wanted to turn back time to just over an hour ago, when all he was worrying about was how to fix the spatial drive and how to explain smiling to Viktor. Whatever had happened, whatever had caused his family to be like this, caused the muffled sobs and tears running down his mother’s face, the defeated droop of his father’s shoulders, the taut pull around Mari’s eyes as she looked off to the spot where Yuuri’s right ear was, Yuuri didn’t want to hear it.

The ice spread inside him and now there’s a cage around his lungs, making it difficult to breath as icicles shred him from the inside. His heart thumped in his chest, but it felt uneven, erratic, like it couldn’t decide between trying to escape through his throat or trying to not beat at all. It was the beginnings of an anxiety attack, Yuuri’s dealt with them long enough to know the signs and he automatically casted about for the one source of comfort he could always turn to without fail in his distress -- the one being who was never too busy, never away from home, always willing, and only too happy to stay in Yuuri’s arms for however long it took for Yuuri to calm down.

“Mari, where’s Vicchan?” The steadiness of his voice surprised him. He was sure that Vicchan was just outside the room, kept away and waiting just behind the closed screen door. Why, he didn’t know. Vicchan had free reign of the house and the resort grounds. The guests loved him and he would always join in family calls without fail, come running at the sound of Yuuri’s voice, barking happily. Surely any moment now he would come again, leaping into his mother’s lap and comforting them all like the the ray of sunshine he was. Mari was going to stand up and let him in, and they’d all laugh as he tried to lick the holographic projection of Yuuri in the face. Mari would catch him and cuddle him close when he inevitably failed to cover Yuuri in slobber and passed through light, holding him steady before he could knock over the computer and hurt himself.

But Mari stayed still and there was a long pause before she spoke. “Yuuri, there’s been an accident...with Vicchan. He-he didn’t make it.”

The ice doesn’t melt, but Yuuri still drowns. Everything seemed dimmer, the edges of his family blur, and their image flickered. ‘ They really need a new computer ,’ Yuuri thought humourlessly. This one doesn’t have very good audio anymore. His mother was speaking, Yuuri can see her lips moving, but he can barely hear her. She’s explaining what happened, he thinks, something about a family with kids and too much chocolate. ‘ Vicchan likes kids ,’ Yuuri mused. He’d beg for scraps at every table, dancing on his hind legs and showing off his tricks when guests inexorably fell in love with him and acquiesced to his demands. Kids were especially vulnerable to Vicchan’s puppy dog eyes, but adults were not invulnerable. Where Vicchan went, laughter would follow. Vicchan was irresistible, and he loved hearing laughter.

Speaking of hearing, Yuuri’s ears felt waterlogged. Mari was talking now, but her voice seemed so far away, faded and muffled as if he was underwater. He realized he couldn’t hear his heartbeat anymore, but it was strange, he could still feel it pulsing inside his chest. Everything felt heavy, off kilter, he was weighed down and weightless at the same time. Drowning felt strange.

“I’m sorry, Yuuri, so so sorry…” His mother was crying, crumbling in on herself as his father leant over her. Why was she crying? His mother shouldn’t cry.

Instinctively, Yuuri’s gaze shifted to Mari, seeking his older sister’s reassurance. Mari sat silent, one arm wrapped around their mother’s shoulders, another gripping her bicep, holding her close. Her eyes watched Yuuri, full of sorrow and unusually bright, yet no tears flowed to stain her cheeks. Instead, her mouth was set in a determined line and her expression was one Yuuri had seen countless times before. It was the one she donned when she manned the reception desk during their inn’s busiest times -- answering calls, checking in guests, and attending to visiting patrons all at once -- or during the crazy dinner service hours on weekends when the crowds flocked to their family’s restaurant and overloaded the kitchens. It’s the look she wore to hold back the flood, strong enough to bear the weight of the sky, a pillar to prevent their family from crumbling with grief, and she leveled Yuuri with it now, watching him, waiting for him.

She’s so strong ,’ Yuuri couldn't help marveling, struck by Mari’s strength, her ability to hold herself together. Between the two of them, Mari had always been the steadier one, less swayed by emotions, more grounded in hopes and dreams. Watching his mother cry and his father’s silent tears, Yuuri already felt his heart breaking and yet, Mari sat in the same room, holding herself together and supporting them, waiting for Yuuri to fall apart so that she could hold him together as well. ‘ I can’t burden her more ,’ Yuuri decided, and despite the anguish and pain he felt, Yuuri’s mouth stretched into a smile. “Okaa-san, don’t cry,” Yuuri heard himself say. His voice was but a hoarse whisper, but he soldiered on, shored up his defenses against the onslaught of emotions threatening to overwhelm him, swallowing them down. He concentrated on the projection of his family before him, and repeated, over and over, “It’s okay, kaa-san, everything will be okay.”

Yuuri didn't know how long they sat there, staring at each other through the connection that had promised so much so briefly. It’s cruel, how technology had bridged the gap of space between them so seamlessly. His parents and sister sat across the table from him, so close it felt like all he had to do was reach out to touch them. Yet for all the distance between them, it’s not far enough. This was all an illusion and Yuuri wanted to shatter it.

It felt like an eternity later when the five minute warning signalling the imminent end to the call flashed in the corner of their screen, drawing every eye. There were more tears, more assurances that things will be okay, that he’ll call in another month, and that he loves and misses them very much before they say their final goodbyes and his father led his mother away to the kitchens for tea, her sobs quieted to soft hiccups. Then, it was just Mari, him, and the unspoken ghost of grief settling between them. As Yuuri silently regarded his sister, there was a dead look in her eyes that Yuuri understood all too well. Mari hadn’t cried once during the call and as Yuuri brought a hand up towards his own face, he noted with mild surprise that his cheeks were also dry, unstained by tear tracks. Mari sighed heavily, bringing Yuuri’s attention back to the present.

“Mari-neechan, take care of kaa-san and tou-san for me,” Yuuri said.

“Of course,” Mari said and Yuuri smiled his thanks before she said, “And what about you?”

Yuuri’s eyebrows rose but his smile stayed fixed on his face. “What about me?”

Something in Mari’s expression shifted but Yuuri couldn’t quite place what. “Are you going to be alright?”

“Oh oh yes, of course,” Yuuri said easily, hoping to assuage his sister’s concern.

The crease in his sister’s forehead deepened and she frowned as she tapped out a new cigarette from the box she had fished out of her pocket. “Do you have someone to talk to? Someone you can confide in...a friend?”

Yuuri’s mind was blank, but he doesn’t let his expression change as he said, “Yeah...I’ll let someone know if I need to.”

“That’s not what I mean, Yuuri, I mean--”

The minute warning flashed across their line of sight, interrupting Mari.

“Mari, we’re almost out of time,” Yuuri said quickly, watching the digits tick down to zero. “It was great seeing and hearing you all. And thanks,” Yuuri’s voice dropped low but didn’t crack, “thanks for letting me know.”

“Of course, Yuuri,” Mari said slowly, her eyes dark and trained on Yuuri.

“I’ll let you know when I can call next,” he said, although it occurred to him then that their next meeting might be in person. That would certainly be the case if the engineers couldn’t figure out the spatial drive soon. His first journey into space and it would get cut short, ended before it even began by something he was supposed to be able to solve. Salt to the wound.

“We’ll still see you before the new year?”

Yuuri shrugged nonchalantly. “There might be a change in plans, but you know, I can’t really talk about it. Classified,” he added apologetically.

Mari nodded in understanding. “I know, Yuuri. We’ll be here waiting whenever you’re ready. And if you need to talk, you can always write to me.”

“I know,” Yuuri said, eyes darting to the corner of his screen where single digits now flashed. “I have to go, time’s up. Love you... See you.”

“Love you, Yuuri,” Mari said, waving a hand in return as the connection cut off and Yuuri was left staring at the blank expanse of the wall behind his screen, the smooth surface much nearer than the far wall of his family’s projected room.

Yuuri sat there, mind blank and unmoving, until a voice behind him called out and a sudden weight on his shoulder jolted him out of his reverie.

“Yuuri.”

Yuuri swiveled his chair around, stopping to stare up at Viktor whose eyes were a piercing blue under the dimmed lights of his room. ‘ Like ice ,’ Yuuri noted dispassionately. Viktor was speaking and Yuuri forced himself to tune in with some effort.

“...simulations show that the engine drive will fail again after two weeks,” Viktor stopped, looked up from the screen he was holding in his hand. “Would you like to read the rest of the details?”

Yuuri blinked, “What? No...the fix was a bust, yes?” When Viktor nodded, Yuuri continued on blithely. “Well, that’s disappointing. Just log it and we can look at it in depth if we need to?” Without waiting for Viktor’s response, Yuuri strode over to the bathroom. “I’m taking a shower and going to bed. See you in the morning, Viktor.”

Yuuri tugged off his shirt and shut the door, leaning against it as he listened to the sound of his breathing filling the room. ‘ Well, might as well… ’ he decided, shucking off the rest of his clothes and stepping into the tiny shower space. He turned on the water and adjusted the temperature, standing under the spray for far too long before his hand finally moved to shut the water off. He’d probably used up way more than the allocated per person ration of water but Yuuri didn’t care. Management could berate him all they wanted the next day. After Yuuri had towelled off and finished getting ready for bed, he exited the bathroom, barely noting that Viktor was again out of sight and the android’s closet room door was closed.

Yuuri lay in bed and turned off the lights, plunging the room into darkness. Sleep came fitfully for him that night.

 


 

The next day passed like a dream and Yuuri floated through it. He reported in early to the engineering room the next morning, not quite noticing what he was having for breakfast and letting his feet carry him from his room to the mess hall to his station in the engine room. It was surreal and the only thing that kept him grounded, convinced him that he was indeed awake and not wandering through some waking nightmare was the new message with attachments from Mari sitting in his inbox, reminding his that she was here if he wanted to talk. The link to the attachments she had sent remained unopened.

It must have been mere seconds or minutes into his shift when he suddenly registered the firm grip on his wrist. Yuuri looked up, frowning as his eyes traveled up the arm attached to the hand over his and recognizing Viktor’s cerulean eyes looking at him with concern. Concern? Viktor couldn’t feel concern. How out of it was he today that he was imagining such things?

“Katsuki.”

Odd, Viktor usually called him by his first name. But wait, that wasn’t Viktor’s voice, Viktor’s lips hadn’t even moved.

Yuuri’s gaze shifted and Krause came into focus next to Viktor.

“Oh, Chief Krause,” Yuuri blinked, wondering what he’d done wrong this time. The Chief did not look pleased. “Err...can I help you?”

Krause’s frown deepened, and when he spoke, it was with the forced steadiness of a man whose patience was strung thin. “I said, what are you doing?”

Yuuri’s eyes darted towards his hand where it hovered poised over the plasma levels lever. Someone had said something about plasma levels, hadn’t they?

“I only asked for the current plasma level readings. What were you doing raising them?”

“I…” Yuuri’s eyes widened in horror at his mistake, snatching his hand away quickly from the lever. Viktor let go easily. “Chief, I’m so sorry, I--I wasn’t paying attention. I…”

Krause sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose and halting Yuuri’s stream of explanation. “It’s fine, Yuuri. Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”

“I can’t do that,” Yuuri protested. “I just started my shift, we haven’t solved the problems with the drive yet, I can…” Yuuri looked helplessly towards Viktor who stood silent next to Krause. Something flared up in Yuuri. “There is a list of simulations I’m supposed to run,” Yuuri said tonelessly.

Krause regarded him strangely, and when he spoke, Yuuri was surprised at the gentleness of his words. “Yuuri, it’s well past the end of the first shift. You’ve been out of it for most of the morning. Is everything alright?”

“I’m fine,” Yuuri replied, stonily.

Krause didn’t seem convinced, but he didn’t push either. “Alright, then. You should still take the rest of the day off. That’s an order. Make sure he gets some food and rest,” Krause said, addressing the last to Viktor who just nodded. “Get some rest,” Krause said, reaching out and squeezing Yuuri on the shoulder. “I know how hard you’ve been working and I’m not letting any one of my engineers collapse from exhaustion. Take 24 hours and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

With that, Krause turned and left, leaving Yuuri alone with Viktor. Unable to protest, Yuuri sullenly gathered up his things and followed Viktor out the door.

When Yuuri got back to his room, he shed his jacket unceremoniously and changed into casual clothes, settling at his terminal with a huff. He pulled up the manual for the engine, scanning through the pages and jumping between it and the logs from its design, development, and field testing teams.

Fine, if he wasn’t welcome in the engine room, he would use the time to review the engine’s design. There must have been something he missed, something they’re overlooking, something--

“Yuuri.”

Yuuri startled and swung around. Viktor was standing behind him, hands carrying a tray with a steaming bowl on it. When had he--? It didn’t matter. Yuuri turned back towards the terminal, fixing his eyes on the screens filled with text and diagrams, scrolling through them unseeing.

Peripherally, he was aware of Viktor retreating, the soft clink of silverware wobbling against ceramic as the tray was set down on his bedside table, the sound of approaching footsteps on the carpeted floor. Then, Yuuri’s chair was being swung around and he was looking up at Viktor again, calm blue eyes wavering slightly as they searched Yuuri’s face.

“Chief Engineer Krause said to make sure you got food and rest,” Viktor said softly, almost apologetically. Yuuri didn’t move. “Come eat, Yuuri,” and Viktor stepped back, leaned towards the bedside table where the bowl was still steaming, and offered Yuuri a hand.

Yuuri stared at it, looked at the long pale fingers reaching out to him, an invitation for Yuuri to grasp hold of them, to follow Viktor. This close, Yuuri could see the faint webbing of veins lying just beneath the surface of Viktor’s pale, almost translucent, skin. They would be veins, if Viktor was human, alive, not a machine, not lifeless.

Yuuri swung his chair back towards his screens. “I’m not hungry. And I am resting by sitting here,” he said flatly. He needed to study, needed to fill his mind with the technicalities of the ship’s spatial engine drive, couldn’t afford to let his mind idle, couldn’t let it dwell on memories of home lest he… Yuuri shut down that train of thought, forcing his eyes towards the heading on the next diagram.

When a weight pressed on his shoulder, Yuuri looked towards it. Viktor was even closer than before and the android’s features were soft in the dim glow of light from his screens.

“How can I help, Yuuri?”

It must be compelled by Krause’s orders ,’ Yuuri thought and for a moment, he stared up at Viktor, speechless. “You can help me look through the schematics again,” he said after a pause.

Yuuri’s already memorized them. He’d poured over them when they’d started on their journey and when trouble had struck, he’d reviewed the designs again and again, committing them to memory until Yuuri could picture it clearly in his mind’s eye -- a series of components linked together throughout the ship. Yuuri probably knew it better than any of the other engineers at this point. ‘ Except Viktor ,’ Yuuri realized with dour humour. An android’s perfect recall would be unsurpassable, but that also made Viktor the perfect study partner. Besides, it was not like he was having great success at keeping his focus on the screens in front of him right now. Having Viktor next to him would help him focus. He could pretend that he was back in his university days, that they were both students studying for their finals, working on cleverly designed but not unsolvable assignments.

“You’ll help me, won’t you?” Yuuri asked.

He imagined Viktor’s expression going even softer, and then Viktor was speaking, his voice just as soft. “Of course, Yuuri,” the android said, drawing up a chair and settling next to Yuuri.

Yuuri breathed a sigh and something settled in his chest. He was glad that Viktor didn’t push, didn’t try to change his mind, or convince him otherwise. ‘ He accepts me and meets me where I am ,’ Yuuri realized, and despite the waking nightmare of a day he was having, it felt like waking up.

Chapter Text

“...and they will all fail?”

“Yes,” Viktor answered without hesitation.

Yuuri groaned, dropping his head back onto his desk with a thunk, closing his eyes briefly and exhaling in defeat.

They had been at this for hours, combing through the schematics and manuals, reviewing reports, looking for someway to fix the engine. Yuuri had asked Viktor to recount all the fixes the Stammi Vicino engineers had tried to far and then asked Viktor to think of all the other possible things that could be done to try and fix this most maddening fault. The Stammi Vicino’s engineers had been thorough. They had tried most if not all of the ways to fix the engine and while a permutation might yield success, the chances of that happening were slim to none.

Yuuri was destitute and there was a throbbing behind his eyes threatening to ramp up into a headache that didn’t improve his mood. It felt like they had been going around in circles for the past hour and he needed to take a step back, gain a new perspective. Yuuri’s tired mind slipped into blankness and silence fell between them like a comforting blanket.

“What if we’re wrong?” Yuuri said suddenly, breaking the silence.

Viktor inclined its head, “I’m sorry, I do not understand, Yuuri.”

“What if,” Yuuri began, jaw working against the solid surface of his desk to get the words out, “if we have been looking at this the wrong way...if the problem we’re seeing is a symptom and not the cause?”

Yuuri blinked his tired eyes, trying to get them to focus. Next to him, Viktor shifted in its seat.

“There is something else that is causing the imbalance and decoupling the hyperspeed drive?”

“Yes,” Yuuri said, sitting up properly and pushing his glasses back on, running his hand through his slightly greasy fringe as the idea took root in his head. “Look, run through the conditions again. Maybe it’s not the hyperspeed drive that is inherently unstable, but that another part of the engine is causing it to destabilize. The drive is all linked together, it’s a new configuration. Couldn’t a malfunction in a seemingly unrelated part cause the hyperspeed drive to destabilize?”

“It is possible,” Viktor said slowly, then turning towards Yuuri, “what else do you think could cause the hyperspeed drive to fail?”

Yuuri felt close to a smile for the first time in ages and he looked steadily at Viktor when he said, “I don’t know, Viktor. You know the engine better than me, what do you think?”

Viktor seemed to freeze for a moment next to him, then something seemed to spark to life behind those cerulean eyes and Yuuri imagined a smile ghosting Viktor’s lips.

“The Bielman generators have the highest incidence of significant deviations. We could start there?”

“Right,” Yuuri said, straightening his glasses. “Let’s get to work…”

 

Two hours later and Yuuri slumped back in his chair, the flexible material bending and contorting to support the new distribution of his weight.

He was exhausted but it looked like they’d done it -- they had managed to identify an alternate cause for their engine troubles and while it would take Viktor the rest of the night to finish running the simulations to confirm their suspicions, they’d done enough testing that Yuuri was confident that they would be able to go to Krause tomorrow with something concrete. If they were correct, the fix would be relatively straightforward and they could be done and underway again by this time tomorrow, and it would be all thanks to their work tonight. Yuuri felt a slight burn of satisfaction at that.

A sound, a shadow, and then a dark shape obscured the light over him and Yuuri blinked up at Viktor who was hovering above him.

“Yuuri, why don't you go to bed now? I can monitor the simulations as they run.”

“Alright, I’ll leave it to you then,” Yuuri said, stifling a yawn and hauling himself upright. The thought of bed did sound tempting.

As Yuuri stood and moved away from his terminal, he caught sight of the bowl Viktor had brought him earlier, sitting forlorn and forgotten on his bedside table. His stomach grumbled and complained of its neglect.

Viktor must have been watching him because Yuuri next heard the android say, “Would you like more food? I can bring more from the mess hall, or have it reheated.”

“No no,” Yuuri said, striding over and picking up the tray, sitting back down on his bed before placing the tray on his lap and dipping the spoon into the bowl. “It's good as is.”

The bowl held some sort of soup, a tangy stock an usual shade of red and holding a variety of vegetables. Yuuri ate, too hungry to care that the liquid had cooled to room temperature. It still tasted pretty good.

“Viktor, what kind of soup is this?” Yuuri asked, fishing out the last piece of potato. He had expected it to be a tomato soup of some sort and while he’d eaten a tomato slice or two, the broth tasted different, sweeter, with a subtle flavour he couldn’t place.

“It’s borscht,” Viktor said.

“Borscht?” Yuuri said, trying the unfamiliar word that had rolled off Viktor’s tongue.

“Yes, it’s a traditional Russian dish,” Viktor said. A pause, and then, “I thought it would be comforting. Is it not to your liking?”

“No, it’s good!” Yuuri said quickly, picking up the bowl and draining the rest of the liquid. “I’ve never heard of it before. It’s good,” Yuuri said, mildly surprised that he meant what he said.

When he set the bowl back down, Viktor was watching him. “Thanks,” Yuuri said. “For this and for...you know,” Yuuri said, motioning to where Viktor still sat at the terminal.

Viktor seemed to relax. “You’re welcome, Yuuri,” it said, voice soft.

Yuuri nodded, setting the tray back down on the bedside table and rising to his feet, Viktor mirroring his motion. “I’m going to go to bed now. Can you…?” Yuuri asked, glancing towards the tray and decidedly empty bowl.

Luckily, Viktor seemed to understand his unvoiced request. “I’ll take the tray back to the mess hall. Why don’t you get some sleep Yuuri?” Viktor said, walking over to the bed.

“Okay,” Yuuri said, giving in to another yawn. Yuuri moved to the bathroom, reaching it just as his room’s doors hissed open and close, signalling Viktor’s departure.

When Yuuri came back out dressed in his pajamas and ready for bed, Viktor was still gone, his alcove standing open and empty. Yuuri placed his glasses on the bedside table and snuggled under the covers, letting his heavy lids fall close.

By the time Viktor returned, Yuuri was fast asleep.

 


 

“This isn’t a half bad idea, Katsuki,” Krause declared, scrolling intently through the report Yuuri had presented him with.

Seated across from the Chief Engineer in his office, Yuuri breathed a sigh of relief.

“And you’ve run simulations to double check the results?” Krause’s eyes shifted up and to Yuuri’s right where Viktor was standing just behind Yuuri’s chair.

“Yes, simulations and checks have been triple run. The results are robust,” Viktor answered smoothly.

Satisfied, Krause looked back at the report and after another moment he closed the screen and stood. “Well, it’s a solid hypothesis and we’re running out of time to solve the engine issues. Let’s give it a try,” Krause decided, standing up.

Decision made, Krause moved quickly, striding into the engine room and calling for attention with Yuuri and Viktor trailing after him.

“Alright, listen up everybody! We’ve got a possible solution here that just might work. Since the alternative is running simulations until the ISU sends out a team to retrieve us with our tails between our legs, here’s what we’re going to do…”

 

“...reroute the power now!”

“Give me more juice, this generator isn’t going to fuel itself.”

“Fission chambers at capacity. Standing by…”

“Steady, on my mark...one, two… Now!”

The hyperspeed drive whined into life amidst the cheers in the engine room before it settled into a low purr that was soon silenced when the dampers kick in.

Reports came in swiftly about the stability of the engine’s various components and once they were done, Krause hit the intercom button and spoke, “Celestino, we’re looking good here! Hyperspeed drive standing by and ready to engage.”

Brava! Sara, let’s take her forward. We have a quadrant to explore and a mission to complete!” Celestino replied, relief and elation to finally be moving again evident in his tone.

“Aye, aye, Captain! Engine room, stand by, preparing for hyperspeed in three, two, one, engaged!”

The jump was smooth and when each station had confirmed that their readings were holding steady, a tired cheer and scattered applause broke out as a collective sigh of relief washed through them all.

“Yuuri! That was brilliant! Good on you for figuring the problem out,” Olaf sauntered over with a wide grin.

“Yes, quite ingenious Yuuri. Who would have thought that that was the problem all along?” Rashid approached as well, sidling up next to Olaf.

The other engineers were beginning to turn towards him, bright smiles on their faces and calling out praise and congratulations. Yuuri looked around, at the friendly faces surrounding him, every eye turned in his direction, all looking at him and him alone.

“That’s right, Yuuri. That really was a stroke of genius. Well done,” Krause said, rising from his seat and giving Yuuri a rare smile of approval.

Yuuri stared back, looked around at the other engineers who he had been working side by side with for so many exhausting hours. They had all been working extremely hard, everyone pulling double shifts, Yuuri putting in even more hours to try to catch up and make up for his lack of experience. His gaze shifted to his side where Viktor stood, also watching him.

“Actually,” Yuuri said, and the slight chatter from the other engineers dropped off, “it’s really thanks to Viktor.” The android’s eyes widened in the slightest and Yuuri ignored the surprised inhales from the rest of the room and the stares the rest of the engineers were no doubt giving him as he continued, “He suggested the cause first, and there was no way I could have narrowed down the eventual solution so quickly without Viktor. We’d be stuck here another week if it wasn’t for him. So,” Yuuri said, turning his gaze to meet Viktor’s, “Thank you, Viktor,” Yuuri said, loud enough for the whole room to hear and giving Viktor’s arm a squeeze before moving past the android.

He could feel Viktor’s eyes on him as he walked away from his station and after a few steps, he heard Rashid’s voice fill the awkward silence behind him.

“Ah so, Viktor, how did you get to the solution so quickly…?”

“Well, it was most likely that…”

Yuuri tuned out the rest of the back and forth as other engineers started to engage Viktor with genuine interest.

“Permission to retire for the rest of the day, Chief?” Yuuri said, pausing in front of Krause on the way to the exit. He was tired, the exhaustion was finally catching up to him, seeping into his bones, weighing him down. He didn’t feel much joy or elation at finally helping to fix the engine, only relief that there was one less thing to worry about. Yuuri wanted to fall into bed and sleep for a week and he was too tired to comprehend the strange look that passed over the Chief Engineer’s face as the latter regarded him. “Sir?”

“Yes, of course, Yuuri,” Krause said quietly. “I was about to start dismissing people but you certainly have permission to withdraw for the rest of the day.”

“Thank you, Chief,” Yuuri said, dipping into a half bow before turning and leaving the engine room.

 

Yuuri headed straight for the shower when he got back. He turned on the water and stood under the warm deluge, letting the water wash over him, soak him. He still felt cold when he lay down on his bed, pulling the covers up to his chin.

Despite his weariness, sleep eluded him and after a while, Yuuri gave up. Throwing the covers back off him, Yuuri pulled out his compact screen and checked his inbox. There were four unread messages waiting for him -- one from Cialdini (no doubt announcing the recent developments to the rest of the ship), one from Minako, two from Phichit, and the last from Mari.

Yuuri scanned the one from the captain, confirming his intuition and noting the praise Cialdini doled out to the engineers. However, he was surprised to see an invitation for a dinner to be held that evening to celebrate the resumption of their journey.

Huh, that was fast ,’ Yuuri thought to himself, hesitating for a moment before sending his acceptance. ‘ Might as well ,’ he decided with a shrug. It wasn’t like he had much else going on at the moment and he could use the distraction.

He opened Minako’s message next.

“Yuuri, well done!

Knew you would figure out the drive eventually. Joe says that you and Viktor are the men of the hour! I’m in charge of the dinner tonight. Anything special you want? I’ve got a few sake recipes and we’ve got time now to configure the food synthesizer so let me know? Maybe we can bring some Hasetsu or Japan to the table. What do you think?

Also, Celestino loves the idea of roundtable coffee chats between the android instructors. We should figure out a time we’re all free especially since you won’t be so busy solving engine problems and saving the mission anymore.

Let me know!

Minako”

Yuuri’s thumbs hovered over the keyboard as he thought about his reply. The first thing that came to mind at Minako’s offer was katsudon and with it came memories of home and his family. A boulder of emotion rolled over him suddenly, heavy and unstoppable, and the wall of ice he had built to try and hold himself together threatened to crack under the weight of it all.

To cope and to distract himself, Yuuri quickly finished typing his response to Minako, thanking her and assuring her that anything she chose for the menu tonight would be great. He moved on to Phichit’s messages next, opening the earlier one and scanning its contents.

“Yuuri!

How’s the mission going? As promised, here are the three hammy’s with their new wheel! In other news…”

The rest of Phichit’s message was more of their usual correspondence, mostly Phichit catching Yuuri up with what was happening back in Detroit since Yuuri wasn’t allowed to talk about the goings on onboard the Stammi Vicino . Yuuri watched the video Phichit had attached, lips quirking at the antics of Phichit’s beloved pets. Moving on to Phichit’s second message, Yuuri opened it, thinking that it would be easy enough to combine his response to both in one message back. This one was far shorter and it read:

“Yuuri,

I heard about Vicchan from Mari. I’m so sorry… If you want to talk, let me know and we can set up a call! I know you just had one with your family and it will be another month before…”

Yuuri froze.

The mention of Vicchan’s name was like a sledgehammer to his heart and he could feel the ice chip, threatening to shatter him. There was a high-pitched ringing in his ears, and the holographic screen in front of him began to blur.

No ,’ Yuuri said to himself, furiously blinking back the tears that had suddenly gathered. ‘ It wasn’t true, it wasn’t… ’ Yuuri clamped down on that trail of thought. He forced himself to take deep breaths, concentrated on inhaling and counting to three before exhaling.

Even if it was true, Yuuri had no right to cry. He hadn’t been there when it happened. Hadn’t been around to watch Vicchan, to take care of him, hadn’t cared enough to come home and see him in five long years. Vicchan didn’t deserve that. And Yuuri didn’t deserve to cry now that he was gone.

He swiped away Phichit’s message and had just punched the icon on Mari’s message, wondering what she wanted now, when the light above his room door pinged softly as it illuminated, signalling that someone was at the door and asking for entry.

“Yuuri? May I enter?”

It was Viktor. Yuuri had forgotten that he’d locked the door behind him when he’d gotten back.

“Come in,” Yuuri called out, his voice scratchy even to his own ears.

The door slid open and Viktor stepped over the threshold, eyes immediately tracking over to Yuuri. Yuuri ducked his head, staring at the screen with Mari’s message to avoid looking at the android.

After a pause, Viktor said, “Yuuri.”

Yuuri grunted to show that he was listening.

“Captain Cialdini and Chief Engineer Krause were quite pleased that the problems with the hyperspeed drive were resolved.” Yuuri didn’t respond and Viktor continued, “As were the other engineers. There is a dinner to be held in honour and celebration of Engineering.” Yuuri could hear Viktor coming closer, approaching the bed Yuuri was reclined on. “Yuuri?”

Yuuri exhaled heavily and looked up. Viktor was watching him, head tilted to the side, blue eyes fixed on Yuuri, studying him.

“I know,” Yuuri said lowly, turning back to Mari’s message. He hadn’t yet made it past her greeting, where she’d opened with “ Hi Yuuri …”

When Viktor didn’t say anything, Yuuri looked back up with a huff. “What?”

Viktor’s expression seemed to change subtly but before Yuuri could place it Viktor said, “We are underway on our mission in space again. And you have the gratitude, respect, and admiration of the crew. Are you not happy?”

Yuuri could only stare. Viktor stared back, eyes like aquamarine pools of water that reflected the light in the room, shimmering and glittering like the sea on a bright clear day.

“Of course I am,” Yuuri heard himself say. He pushed himself to a more upright position. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

For the first time ever, the android’s calm expression seemed to waver and Viktor looked uncertain. “You seem…” Viktor paused mid-sentence and Yuuri felt the android’s eyes boring into him, assessing him, analyzing him, like Viktor could sense there was something wrong with Yuuri and was trying to figure out how to fix him, like Yuuri was a problem.

“What? What do I seem?,” Yuuri spoke out, something white and hot and chilling surging within him. “Cold? Aloof? Disinterested?”

“Unhappy.”

The words stuck in Yuuri’s throat, caught between surprise and indignation. He was standing now (huh, when had he done that?) and he only had to incline his head slightly to look up into Viktor’s cyan eyes.

“I’m not unhappy,” Yuuri said, daring Viktor to contradict him. “See?” and Yuuri pulled his lips into a smile, baring his teeth. His face felt like rubber, a mask, not his own. He dropped the smile quickly. “I’m fine. Never been happier,” Yuuri snapped, vision blurring again. He dropped his head and looked away, hoping Viktor hadn’t noticed. “I…” Yuuri began, voice cracking. He cleared his throat, trying again, “I’m going to go work out. I’ll see you at the dinner.”

He moved before Viktor could say anything to stop him. Swiftly collecting his work out gear, he was out the door and down the corridor in two minutes, determinedly not looking back.

 


 

Dinner was in full swing by the time he arrived. The tables in the mess hall had been pushed back and raised around the room, chairs switched out for standing tables. People crowded around in groups in the open floor area as enticing aromas wafted around.

A flash of silver to his right caught his eye and Yuuri turned left towards the buffet line. Filling a plate, Yuuri edged around the room, watching as the ship’s crew mingled and laughed, enjoying themselves. Yuuri set his plate down onto an empty standing table and began tucking in, jumping when an arm was draped around his shoulders.

“Yuuuuriiii…” Minako called petulantly, words slurring as she brandished a glass of amber liquid in his face. “Your late Yuuuuuriiii… Viktorrr said you went to work out. Here have a drink with me,” she demanded, swiping a second glass off a nearby table and emptying a bottle of beer into it.

“Uhh…” Yuuri demurred, but Minako didn’t wait, tossing the contents of her glass back in one long pull.

“Ahh, that hits the spot!” Minako exclaimed, slamming down her now empty glass. The tall spindly table wobbled dangerously. Leaning forward across the table so that their faces were only inches apart, Minako squinted at him. “Hmmm, what’s wrong Yuuri? You don’t look happy.”

Yuuri froze and he plastered a smile on his face. “Huh, happy? Oh no, I’m fine!” he said. As a distraction, Yuuri lifted his glass to his lips, tipping it and wetting his lips. Not wanting to look at Minako when she was still frowning at him, Yuuri cast about the room, looking over her shoulder and at the heads of people all talking and laughing with each other.

A pair of electric blue eyes caught his gaze and Yuuri quickly averted it. When he focused back on Minako, she was still staring intently at him, her dark grey eyes surprisingly clear.

“Yuuri, listen…”

“Yuuri! Ciao, ciao!” Whatever Minako had been about to say was interrupted by an exuberant shout from Cialdini who was brandishing his own bottle of beer and making his way towards them. “You made it! Really good work in the engine room today!” Cialdini said, thumping Yuuri on the back as he reached them. “Ah, Minako, I see you have filled his glass and emptied yours! Here, have more… Yuuri, a toast to you!”

Yuuri wet his lips again as the Captain and First Officer drained their glasses after which Cialdini engaged him in small talk. Thankfully, Minako was soon roped into a drinking challenge by Cialdini (please, call me Celestino!) and after clearing the mountain of food on his plate, Yuuri was able to excuse himself from the table.

Skirting the room towards the exit, he glimpsed Viktor in a corner, back turned towards him and engaged in what looked like a serious conversation with one of the other androids. Hurrying before he could be stopped by anyone else, Yuuri ducked out of the hall, oblivious to the blue-green gaze that followed him.

 


 

Yuuri was running late the next day. Skidding to a stop in front of the engine room doors and taking a moment to straighten his uniform before entering, he was relieved to see that he wasn’t the last one reporting in for the shift. Judging by the empty stations around the room, there were still a few people missing and although Krause gave him a funny look as Yuuri passed by and greeted him, the Chief Engineer didn't say anything more than to respond in kind. Yuuri thanked his lucky stars and slid gratefully into his station next to Viktor.

“Good morning, Yuuri!”

Yuuri curled in on himself slightly. Viktor had been already gone when he had awoken this morning and while the impromptu run and a good night’s sleep had done much in helping calm the turbulent emotions that had come with his outburst yesterday, he still did not want to have to face Viktor. Still, Yuuri realized that the android hadn’t done anything wrong and Yuuri was starting to feel bad about giving him the cold shoulder.

So, Yuuri breathed in and murmured out a polite “Good morning, Viktor,” turning his head slightly to glance at the android.

Yuuri did a double take, his mouth dropped open, and he wondered if he was still asleep, still dreaming. Viktor’s eyes, usually a calm stately gaze, were narrowed into crescent moons, crinkled at the edges. The android’s face was contorted out of its usual shape, lower half stretched and animated by Viktor’s mouth that was pulled into an unmistakable smile. And that smile -- Viktor’s perfect lips were pulled up and away, exposing perfectly even teeth that flashed blinding white under the bright lights of the engine room. Surely he was seeing things because Viktor’s face was lit up , the android’s usually expressionless face overflowing with pure, unadulterated happiness.

Yuuri could only gape as Viktor tilted his head at Yuuri, megawatt smile turned down a notch as it asked, “How are you, Yuuri? I finished running stage one diagnostics this morning. Everything looks good and ready for stage two!”

Viktor pushed the portable screen in front of Yuuri’s face and the motion jolted Yuuri out of his shock. Instead of looking at the screen, his eyes darted around the room at the other engineers and Yuuri realized that everyone present was either feigning concentration on the screens in front of them (backs a little too straight and heads held a little too rigidly) or they were shooting him, them, Viktor and him, surreptitious looks, eyes wide with curiosity and laced with nervousness.

Krause’s pointed look caught Yuuri’s gaze and held it, brow furrowed as his gaze slid slowly towards Viktor and back to Yuuri. The Chief Engineer quirked an eyebrow and Yuuri startled, swing his attention back towards Viktor who had been prattling on about the results and how things were looking good for the next tests.

Yuuri didn’t hear a word that the android was saying, too distracted by the animated way Viktor was explaining the results, the sparkle in its eyes, the way it tossed its head to swing its silver fringe off its face. Unlike the first time Viktor had tried to smile (had it only been three days ago? So much had happened since then, it felt like a lifetime ago), unnatural and mechanical, the smile on Viktor’s face today was easy, unforced, natural.

“... So, what do you think?”

Yuuri startled, suddenly aware that Viktor had asked him a question. The android’s silver lashes fluttered over his cerulean eyes and Yuuri balked at the unexpected gesture.

“Viktor, are you okay?” Yuuri said as quietly as he could, leaning past the screen towards Viktor.

“Hmm? Yes, of course! I’m great!” Viktor beamed.

Yuuri looked past Viktor’s smiling face, half hoping someone would step forward to help him comprehend Viktor’s sudden inexplicable behaviour. All the other engineers were now openly staring, similar mixtures of fascination and bewilderment on their faces. Yuuri looked towards Krause whose other eyebrow had joined his first in ascending up his forehead. Yuuri was on his own.

Yuuri took a step towards Viktor, lightly touched the android’s sleeve more to ground and reassure himself that he was awake than to get Viktor’s attention. “Viktor, are you sure you're alright? You seem...different...today,” Yuuri said, slowly.

“Ah, you noticed!” Viktor’s smile was blinding. “I thought that everyone looked down today. For example, Engineer Ljundberg looks quite ill but he said he was fine and didn't need to meet with First Officer Okukawa for a health consultation.”

Olaf’s face turned crimson. “I'm fine…!” Olaf spluttered as every eye swung towards him, taking in his sickly pallor, the light sweat on his brow. “It's just a headache,” he said defensively, face reddening further as he added, “just had a bit too much to drink last night…”

Several understanding murmurs and sympathetic hums were uttered by his fellow engineers, particularly those with matching hungover dispositions.

“Hmm, in any case, some cheer seemed to be in order especially after the success of yesterday. Smiling and cheerful conduct should help put us all at ease. Isn't that right, Yuuri?” Viktor chimed in, grin still fixed in place.

The attention of the room swung back to Yuuri who let his eyes fall shut as he silently cursed under his breath and murmured a, “Well, that's not exactly what I meant…” cheeks and ears burning as he began to piece together where Viktor was coming from.

When Yuuri opened his eyes, Krause was making his way over to the station that Viktor and he shared and Yuuri watched with mounting apprehension as the Chief Engineer stopped in front of them and said, “Perhaps the both of you should pay a visit to Minako?” Krause’s raised eyebrows and his tone implied that it wasn't really a suggestion.

Before Yuuri could respond, Viktor answered, “That's a great idea, Chief Engineer Krause! Come on, Yuuri, let's go!” Viktor sang, beginning to close down the screens at their station in preparation to leave.

Yuuri watched Viktor for a moment or two before turning back to Krause, looking at the man helplessly. “What do I tell Minako?” he asked. He couldn't exactly admit Viktor to the med bay for excessive smiling.

Krause regarded him steadily, his eyes unreadable. “Viktor has never acted this way before?” Krause said slowly. “You don’t know why he’s so...ah… What might have triggered his behaviour today?”

Yuuri thought back to the last time he'd interacted with Viktor, when he'd let his emotions get the better of him and had that outburst right in the android’s face. Had that been the cause for the change in Viktor? But he had not noticed anything unusual with the android at dinner. Surely Viktor would have been...like this...at the dinner if Yuuri’s outburst had been the cause? “I-I’m not sure. I’ve never seen Viktor like this,” Yuuri said, quietly.

“Hmmph,” Krause frowned, eyeing Viktor’s broad back as he walked with them to the exit. “Discuss it with Minako. Tell her that Viktor has been acting strangely since this morning. He was…perkier than usual when he came in this morning.”

“Oh,” Yuuri said, following Krause’s gaze as they lagged behind Viktor who had already reached the sliding doors.

Viktor was smiling genially around the room, a perfect picture of confidence and cheer. Despite the absurdity of the situation, Yuuri couldn't help but notice a few of the engineers responding and even smiling back, wonky as their smiles may be.

Smiling and cheerful conduct to put people at ease, huh. Is this really working…? ’ Yuuri thought, a flicker of incredulity sparking in the back of his mind. Yuuri blinked and looked at Viktor again, trying to reconcile the serious and blank-faced android he’d known for the past month with the smiling and camera-ready entity in front of him who carried himself and worked his charms around the room like a pro.

Viktor’s eyes met his and his smile blossomed into something even brighter.

“Hmmm, interesting…” Krause grunted next to him as they drew level to Viktor.

“I'm sorry, what is?” Yuuri asked, confused.

“He was smiling when he walked in today, but he only started doing that around you,” Krause murmured, nodding at Viktor.

“Doing what?” Yuuri said, before seeing the expression on Viktor’s face, eyes shining and mouth open in a wide smile, radiating happiness.

“Beaming,” Krause snorted, although Yuuri couldn’t help noticing how one corner of the gruff engineer’s mouth twitched in amusement. “That android seems to be trying to blind us all with that smile of his though it’s you that he seems intent on dazzling.”

Despite himself, Yuuri felt himself blush and he had the sudden urge to hurry Viktor out the door. As the doors slid open and Yuuri stepped past the threshold, awkwardly pushing Viktor through in front of him.

“Oh, are we hurrying now?” Viktor chirped. “Great, let’s go Yuuri!” Viktor said, before grabbing Yuuri’s wrist and pulling him along the corridor.

Yuuri’s ears burned as he let himself be dragged along and he prayed that they wouldn’t run into many people on the way to the med bay.

“How am I supposed to explain this?” Yuuri thought despairingly, even as his skin tingled under Viktor’s grip and his heart tapped out a weird rhythm in his chest.

Chapter Text

“How many colours are there in a rainbow?”

“Seven.”

“And what is the first letter of the alphabet?”

“A.”

“Alright, please list every prime number less than a hundred from largest to smallest.”

“97, 89, 87…”

Yuuri fiddled with the mess of yarn in his lap as Viktor dutifully recited digits from his seat on the examination bed. Minako stood in front of Viktor, poised and posture perfect as she consulted the manual on her screen.

They’d been at it for what felt like hours -- though, in truth, it had probably been barely half an hour ago when  Viktor had marched through the Med Bay doors, smiling with all the confidence in the world and with Yuuri’s hand still firmly clasped in his. Yuuri had stumbled along behind him like a newborn calf, Krause’s words still ringing in his ears, ‘ it’s you he seems intent on dazzling.’ Viktor’s behaviour made no sense to Yuuri, and he was eternally grateful to whatever deity that patrolled spaceship hallways that they had somehow managed to avoid running into anyone as they traversed the blessedly deserted route.

When they had entered, Minako had taken one look at the pair of them before directing Viktor to the examination table and Yuuri to the nearest chair. Yuuri had collapsed into it and once he had managed to stutter out a brief explanation of the situation, confirming whatever message Krause had sent her already, Minako had kindly asked if Yuuri would like to stay while she conducted the examination.

“I--I should stay,” Yuuri swallowed down his anxiety. Viktor was his responsibility and despite his growing certainty that he had fucked up and caused Viktor to go off-kilter, even though Minako Okukawa’s ire was not something he ever wanted directed at him, it was better to be present when the axe inevitably fell.

Consumed with nervousness and already half formulating apologies in his head, he missed the searching look Minako gave him before she nodded, pushed a basket of tangled yarn into his lap, and began her examination of Viktor. Minako had started by asking Viktor a series of seemingly innocuous and random questions and Yuuri had quickly stopped trying to rationalize how the atomic number of nitrogen or how the sum of 2 and 4 was supposed to help ascertain whether Viktor’s programming was in order. He had never felt more out of his depth, useless, and inadequate, as he did sitting in the pristine Med Bay, worrying tangled threads with his fingers.

Yuuri pulled at an electric blue strand. The yarn bunched into a knot and Yuuri sighed in frustration, picking at the multi-coloured threads to undo the tension. Minako’s face was a careful canvas of professional serenity, giving away nothing. He had no idea how the examination was going, if she’d already zeroed in on the root problem, if she had seen immediately from the get go that Viktor’s bizarre behaviour all stemmed from one Katsuki Yuuri - his idiot instructor who clearly had no idea what he was doing and had no business being on this mission.

His mind was fuzzy, as if his head was stuffed full with clouds. Not the light fluffy kind that people associated with a bright sunny day, the ones children drew in their naive hope of picturesque life, all soft round edges standing out stark white in a space of blue. No, Yuuri’s clouds were dark, heavy, and promised nothing but the wrath of the heavens. Thick and treacherous, blending in with the background so that you did not notice them until it was too late, until you could see nothing but them, when you were left standing in insipid chill while damp tendrils too nebulous to grasp yet as undeniably present as the pull of gravity curled around you, slipped between skin and cloth, and stole the breath from your lungs.

It was exhausting and Yuuri teetered on the brink, the only thing holding him back from tumbling over the edge was the fear that if he fell, if he succumbed to the storm, he would shatter, and how was he supposed to carry on and complete this mission if that happened?

Barely 24 hours ago, Viktor and he were the toast of the ship, Yuuri feeling like he had gained some modicum of respect among his illustrious peers. Now, the engine was fixed, but there was clearly something wrong with Viktor. And it was all Yuuri’s fault. He’d been so preoccupied with solving the ship’s engine problems and with struggling to keep from being overwhelmed by the news from home that he had been careless, said things he didn’t mean, lost sight and lost control. His last outburst at Viktor must have triggered something in the android, altered whatever equilibrium an android’s brain had that kept them balanced. It seemed that Yuuri couldn’t go two days without having something break around him. God, he was such a failure.

Sitting in the Medical Bay, examination tables and beds lined on opposite sides of the room, sterile and empty of inhabitants save for Viktor, Minako, and himself, Yuuri waited for the proverbial other shoe to drop, for Minako to draw the inevitable conclusion, and announce the verdict he had known all along, that Yuuri’s inclusion on this mission was a Mistake, he was a Jinx and one they had better get rid off by back tracking straight to Earth with their newly-fixed drive. It’d be on his record then, a stamp on his forehead, a neon sign around his neck -- Yuuri Katsuki: Engineer and jinx to all things mechanical. Skills include awkwardness and causing engine and android failure just by breathing around them. Bring aboard with caution .

His career would be over, ended before it even began. He'd never set foot on another spaceship again. And what about Viktor? How badly did Yuuri mess him up? What if Viktor’s bizarre behaviour was only the tip of the iceberg? What if there was something really wrong with Viktor? What if it was irreversible? What if--?

“Well, looks like there’s nothing wrong with Viktor’s programming.”

Yuuri’s head snapped up and it took him a moment to focus, “What?”

Minako was turning to face him, a small smile on her face which quickly morphed into alarm once she caught sight of Yuuri. “Yuuri, what’s the matter?! You look so pale!”

“What? No-no I…” Yuuri felt short of breath, the edges of his vision were blurring even as everything became too bright. There was a ringing in his ears, even as sound became muted, muffled like he was submerged underwater. ‘ Oh god, please no… ’ Yuuri pleaded as the fog closed in around him and the storm descended. He was going to drown in space. Any second now and--

There was a prick of cold on his neck just before a sharp hiss right under his right ear. There’s a long moment where Yuuri felt his heart beat once, twice, thrice. Then, unexpectedly, the fog cleared, the storm relented and fizzled out, clouds retreating to dissipate into normal breathable air. Air. He could breathe again.

Yuuri was aware of his chest rising and falling, oxygen flowing through to his greedy lungs with each inhale. There were hands on his shoulders steadying him, thumbs rubbing soothing circles on the back of his own hands. Limbs around him that were attached to bodies attached to faces. Yuuri blinked and the world slowly came back into focus.

Minako peered up from where she knelt in front of him, her hands stilled on his now and worried eyes the only trace of the fright he must have given her. Yuuri felt a stab of guilt and instinctively recoiled in on himself, stiffening in his seat. The hands around his shoulders withdrew.

Yuuri twisted his head up to see Viktor behind him. Viktor’s brows were drawn together, something like worry etched in his blue eyes, electric in their piercing intensity. And as Yuuri’s gaze met his, Viktor smiled, a small, tentative thing.

“Drink this.”

Yuuri’s attention was brought forward again to where a middle aged man with dark hair was holding out a cup for him to take. Medical stripes adorned the man’s plain uniform and his face remained expressionless as Yuuri accepted the cup from him.

Once Yuuri had taken a sip (the water was a welcome balm to his dry mouth), his eyes darted around to the people still watching him and he tried for a tremulous, “W-what happened?”

“You had a panic attack.”

Yuuri blinked up at the middle-aged man who had spoken. His dark hair was speckled with white around his temples, his hazel eyes more green than brown and perfectly complemented his olive-toned skin as he regarded Yuuri cooly.

“I administered a sedative,” he continued, and Yuuri then noticed the injection device in his hand. “It is an effective solution for this episode, but I would recommend prevention measures rather than cures for the future.” The man’s voice was even, calm, devoid of emotion, and the way he delivered his prognosis sparked something in Yuuri.

“You’re Max... Matthew... Mah…” Yuuri struggled with recollection.

“Yuuri, meet Methuselah,” Minako interjected gently. “He’s the android that has been assigned to assist me in the Medical Bay for this mission. Methuselah, this is Yuuri...and Viktor.”

“It is nice to meet you, Yuuri and Viktor,” the android stated, nodding to each of them in acknowledgement.

“Hello, Methuselah!” Viktor chirped from behind him and Yuuri grimaced at the upbeat note in Viktor’s tone, a sharp reminder of why they were in the Med Bay to begin with.

“Ah, well, now that introductions are over,” Minako piped up, latching on to the reminder as well before pausing and looking straight at Yuuri, eyes narrowed. “How are you feeling Yuuri?”

“I’m fine,” Yuuri said quickly, eager to not be the center of attention any longer. “ Really …” he stressed, trying to inject as much sincerity as he could into his voice. In reality, he felt terrible. His body was relaxed and languid in a way that just made him want to lie down and not move for a week. The clouds had cleared, leaving only a mountain of exhaustion behind. “W-what was that about Viktor? Is he okay?” Yuuri ventured.

Minako was watching him closely, and Yuuri hoped that his composure would hold. She didn’t look pleased at the change of subject, but thankfully, she hummed and went along with his lead. “Viktor’s fine,” Minako said, and Yuuri felt his heart unclench and relief assuage the tension in his gut he didn’t know had coiled there.

“Thank god…”

“My examination didn’t turn up anything unusual… His programming is intact and functioning as is,” she elaborated, consulting her forgotten screen.

“But, Viktor’s not...he’s not…” Yuuri shot Viktor a look, the android beamed back. “Viktor’s not behaving... normally ...is he?” Yuuri couldn’t help lowering his voice, even if he wasn’t sure why.

There was an odd look on Minako’s face before the First Officer turned abruptly to the android at her side. “Methuselah, we’re going to conduct a full physical examination on Viktor, just to be safe. Why don't you take him over there and help prepare him for it? Here, Viktor, take this catalog and have a look through it while I speak with Yuuri. I’ll come over when we’re done.”

“Of course, Minako.”

Minako waited until the two androids had moved towards an examination bed on the opposite side of the room before turning back to Yuuri, an assessing look on her face.

Despite Minako declaring barely a minute ago that Viktor was fine, alarm bells were going off in Yuuri’s head. ‘ Oh god, I’ve done it now haven’t I? There IS something terribly wrong. ’ “Wh-what is it? What’s wrong with Viktor? How do we fix him? What do we do, Minako-sensei?!”

“Yuuri, Yuuri, calm down,” Minako said, holding her hands up in placation. “There’s nothing wrong with Viktor,” she said, waiting for Yuuri’s breathing to even out before she continued. “As for what we should do,” she looked Yuuri dead in the eye and said with a sudden, bright smile, “I have no idea.”

“You...have...no idea?”

“Nope,” Minako said, cheerfully shaking her head as she drew up another chair and sat opposite Yuuri. “Viktor’s behaviour is unprecedented, but maybe we can work out the why first. You’re closest to him, Yuuri. Tell me everything.”

So, Yuuri spent the next half hour telling Minako about his interactions with Viktor. Everything from Viktor’s concern about the other engineers to Yuuri’s suggestion about smiling. It was a relief to talk to Minako, to pour out his fears and worries, and as he talked, he could feel the balloon of anxiety he hadn’t known was growing in him deflate.

“...and then last night, before dinner, I-I made a mistake.” Yuuri looked away, hung his head in shame. “I was upset, I lost my temper. I might have yelled at him.” Tears pricked at the back of Yuuri’s eyes and he stubbornly blinked them away. Despite the rapport and trust he felt with Minako, some things were still too personal, still too close to home, still too raw. So he pushed on, “I said I was fine when I was not. I smiled.” I lied . He didn’t say the words, but he didn’t need to. Minako knew. Yuuri had messed up, and now there was nothing left to do except bear the consequences. Silence fell between them and after a while, Yuuri chanced a glance at Minako.

She seemed lost in thought, eyes contemplative as she absorbed the information, put the pieces together. “Hmm, this is unexpected,” and then she huffed out a laugh and fixed Yuuri with a look, eyes sparkling. “Yuuri, this is amazing!”

“A-amazing…?!” Yuuri echoed, thrown off balance by Minako’s response. “It is?”

“Yes, don’t you see?! Viktor’s trying to adapt, taking initiative, trying to grow .”

“But… But how? Isn’t Viktor a computer?” Yuuri’s head was spinning, his world tilting on an axis as he desperately scrambled to latch onto something to stop himself from falling off the edge.

Minako seemed to sense his distress, as she reigned in some of her excitement and addressed Yuuri, “Strictly speaking, yes, androids are computers… But they are to computers like human beings are to animals. They’re incredibly complex, designed to mimic humans as closely as possible. Crafting a body is easy. Logic and reasoning too. But we’ve struggled with other aspects. Independence. Initiative. Androids need to be able to work with humans, show that they were valuable outside a controlled laboratory setting. That’s why we’re here. That’s why you’re here.”

“But all Viktor is doing is smiling,” Yuuri’s eyes tracked over to the android who was currently engaged by a serious faced Methuselah, chatting and laughing like they were old friends. “How is that helping anyone?”

“Hmm,” Minako hummed, “I think it’s charming. Don’t you agree?” They both turned to observe Viktor who was undressing and handing articles of clothing to Methuselah one by one. The android seemed to sense them watching and turned to flash them another megawatt smile, heart-shaped and all. Yuuri doesn’t know who Viktor’s designer is, but the android’s mouth had to be a flaw. An adorable flaw, but definitely a Flaw because who even designs a heart-shaped smile?!

Yuuri looked away first. “Why does he keep doing that?” That squeezing feeling around his heart couldn't be good.

“I think,” and Minako leaned in closer, tone gentle and serious, “he’s just trying to make you feel better.”

Yuuri froze. “B-but why would he do that?”

All levity dropped from Minako’s frame. “You’ve seemed a bit down lately. Even at dinner last night, I thought--”

“I'm fine, Minako-sensei,” Yuuri interrupted. He didn't want to deal with this right now. “Just tired.”

Minako regarded him critically but didn't push. “Okay, Yuuri. Just know that there are people willing to listen. Whatever it is.”

Yuuri didn’t know what to say to that, so he just nodded and stood up instead. “I've taken enough of your time. I should get back to the engine room.”

Minako stopped him with a raised hand. “Hold on, Yuuri. You need to rest. It was an emergency and I trust Methuselah to get the dosage right, but you should take the rest of the day off.”

“But I feel fine!” Yuuri protested.

“Yuuri,” Minako’s voice was sweet, but oddly terrifying, “do I need to pull rank on you?”

“N-no, Minako-sensei.”

“Great! Then, shall I have a bed made up for you here? You can have the one next to Viktor if you'd like.”

Yuuri’s eyes darted over to the android who was now sitting bare-chested on the bed with nothing but a sheet covering his lap, perusing a screen in his hands. Yuuri quickly looked away before Viktor could catch his eye. “Can I retire to my room?”

Minako eyed him sharply before relenting and Yuuri breathed a sigh of relief. “Alright, Yuuri. But you contact me immediately if you feel even an iota of nausea, dizziness, or feverishness. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am!” and Yuuri actually saluted.

“Alright,” and Minako’s eyes softened, “now get out of here and get some rest, Engineer Katsuki!”

Yuuri didn’t need to be told twice. With a last look at Viktor, he exited the Med Bay and retreated to his room, his head spinning and footsteps heavy not just from the sedative Methuselah had injected him with. ‘ Viktor is in good hands. Minako will know what to do.

He turned his thoughts to his conversation with Minako, mulling it over. Her words swam around, floating unanchored, colliding together in a kaleidoscope of confusion. Was research and development on robotics really that far along that Viktor wasn't just a computer? Androids were designed to mimic humans, Minako had said. How close have they come to that? What is the tipping point for Viktor to be a he rather than an it , a some one rather than a some thing ? Questions churned in his mind until, finally, exhaustion caught up and he surrendered to the drowsiness that pulled him beneath the surface of consciousness.

 


 

It could have been minutes or hours later when he emerged from the murky depths of slumber, whatever dream he had been embroiled in already half-forgotten and fading fast. Yuuri blinked in the near darkness, wondering what had awoken him.

“Oh, you’re awake!”

Yuuri twisted towards the doorway, the only source of illumination in the near darkness. Viktor stood framed by the light streaming in through the entrance, all broad shoulders and tapered waist, silver hair shining like a halo atop his head. Viktor stepped past the threshold and the door hissed shut behind him. The lights in the room blinked on, dim but warm.

“Wus time isit?” Yuuri rasped out, reaching and fumbling for his glasses by his bedside table.

“It is six minutes to midnight,” Viktor answered, closing the distance between them with long graceful strides. A moment later, Yuuri felt the cool frame of his glasses under his fingertips as Viktor slid them over.

“Thanks,” Yuuri mumbled. He had just about pressed them on when he felt a cool hand on his forehead. Viktor’s cerulean eyes came into view, far too near and so blue that they seemed to be glowing.

“Are you okay?” Viktor’s words ghosted over Yuuri’s skin, soft and careful in the silence.

You’ve seemed a bit down lately ,’ and Yuuri stilled, quelled the impulse to push away the hand and pull back into a comfortable bubble of personal space. He’d thought he was doing well...coping. He’d kept working, kept focused on his job, distracted himself from the brewing maelstrom that even now prickled and rumbled deep beneath the protective layers of calm he had buried it under. But if Viktor and even Minako had picked up on his disquiet, then clearly, it hadn’t been buried deep enough. He had to do better. “I'm fine,” and Yuuri hoped it sounded more convincing to Viktor’s ears than it did to his own.

There was enough pressure to perform on this mission as it was. He couldn’t crack now, couldn't let himself be overwhelmed. He had to stay strong, stay together, keep proving that he belonged here, that he was cut out for this, that it hadn’t been a mistake that he was here. He had to keep Pandora’s box closed. “Just tired,” Yuuri offered.

“Ah,” Viktor said, withdrawing his hand from Yuuri’s forehead and tucking it behind his back with his other one. Viktor was kneeling by Yuuri’s bed, slightly below Yuuri’s eye level, and as he shifted back on his haunches, a shadow of an expression flitted across his features. Before Yuuri could decipher it, Viktor spoke, “Yuuri, Minako said that you might have a lot on your mind,” Viktor’s eyes flicked briefly towards Yuuri’s before the android looked back down and away. “She said that you might not be quite yourself for a while,” Viktor’s hands were fidgeting behind his back, “and that I should be patient and not take things so literally…” the android huffed and glanced up at Yuuri from the corner of his eye, “I don’t understand fully, but will you be alright, Yuuri?”

And the honest earnestness of the wide-eyed look that Viktor fixed him with was undeniable even to Yuuri. Suddenly extremely self-conscious, Yuuri choked out a laugh and his voice when he spoke was shakier than he would have liked, “Y-yes, of course. I’m sorry, I just need some time but I-I will be alright.”

That seemed to reassure Viktor, because the android next broke into a smile, blue eyes glittering like gems in the dim light. “Alright, and umm I also brought you a gift, to help you feel better,” and Viktor’s head dipped down so that his fringe fell to cover his left eye fully and he was looking up at Yuuri from beneath thick silver lashes.

A gift? And did Viktor look shy? If Viktor could blush, Yuuri was certain that he would be furiously doing so right now. “Umm, okay…” Yuuri said, quite at a loss for words because where did Viktor get the idea of a gift from? “What is it?”

Viktor pulled out something from behind his back, placing it on Yuuri’s lap with the utmost care, and Yuuri’s heart nearly stopped.

It was a tissue box cover, the square body and white tissue peeking out from its center registering in the small part of Yuuri’s brain that was still functioning. Everything else had ground to a halt. And the world narrowed to the object sitting in Yuuri’s lap, an object with reddish-chocolate brown fur, droopy ears and a pink tongue lolling out of its mouth -- a perfect replica of a toy poodle, a perfect imitation of Vicchan.

Yuuri felt like he’d been struck by lighting. The storm returned with a vengeance, bringing with it wrath and devastation, and Yuuri could only sit there stunned as wave after wave of shock, hurt, loss, and pain washed over him and the pressure inside him built to a flashpoint and threatened to shatter his poor glass heart. There was a deafening rush in Yuuri’s ears and he could barely hear Viktor’s voice above the noise.

“...it matches the background on your terminal… I saw it in the catalog… Minako said--”

“Why.”

Viktor’s voice cut off. After a pause that felt like eternity, the android spoke, “Why what, Yuuri?”

“Why would you do something like this?” Yuuri’s voice was hoarse, his words harsh. “Why would you give me this, like you’re trying to test me?”

Vicchan. His poor sweet Vicchan. His best friend and most faithful companion. The one thing he missed so much his heart ached. The one thing he had abandoned. Now, here was this thing , just sitting there, a mockery of one of the best things Yuuri ever had. And Viktor had brought it, had given it so casually to Yuuri, as if he knew why Yuuri was hurting and was presumptuous enough to think that this would fix it.

As if anything could.

Unbidden, Yuuri felt the tears fall, a cascade of grief, regret, and guilt. They wouldn’t stop once they started, and Yuuri bent his head in frustration, furious with his lack of control. “Is this your idea of a joke? What do you want from me?” Anger flared in him, white and hot and blinding. His hands gripped the body of the box, and Yuuri felt the thin cardboard under the faux fur crumple under his fingers. “You want me to admit it? Fine! I’ll admit it, I’m not alright! I can’t walk two steps without messing something up, and it’s one thing when it’s my own fault, but now my mistakes affect you too and I already know that I am under qualified to be here, and there are such high expectations, I need to prove myself, and-and I can’t think about quitting or giving up or going home or-or…”

Yuuri faltered, the vicious blade of fury that had sliced through the layers of ice he had built up to guard against this very avalanche of emotions crumbling into ash as quickly as it had risen. He’d never been good with words, always struggled to express himself with them, and now he had run out, was running on empty. Yuuri realized he was shaking and bereft of a way to fill the silence, Yuuri looked up at Viktor, daring the android to contradict him.

At the break in Yuuri’s tirade, Viktor unfroze and reached out a hand towards Yuuri. “Yuuri, please...don’t cry. Why are you crying? How do I fix this? Please, tell me…” Viktor’s hand drifted up to Yuuri, hovered just over his shoulder, close but not touching.

He hadn’t expected the android to respond, had expected to see the blank mask of calm Viktor wore so well, the unshakable confidence and emotionless efficiency that Yuuri was so used to seeing, had envied and coveted. Yuuri had looked and was prepared to be met with a wall of indifference, for what could Viktor know about grief? How could a computer, no matter how advanced, understand loss that cut so deep that only regret and bitterness flowed from the wound? Yuuri wanted to scream, wanted to shout and cry, wanted to rage against the unchangeable past and the immutable truths of time. He needed to direct all this pain and anger towards something because if he didn’t, he would be crushed under the weight of it all. Viktor hadn’t known, it wasn’t his fault that the gift in front of Yuuri had harmed instead of healed. He had never mentioned Vicchan to Viktor, hadn’t conveyed the news to anyone. Viktor didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, wouldn’t care. He would sit there and tilt his head, hold Yuuri’s gaze with those damned piercing blue eyes of his and bear Yuuri’s wrath silently until Yuuri had exhausted himself. Viktor would then calmly ask Yuuri to explain himself, maybe flash him a smile built on a paper understanding that that would be enough, that a smile could bring cheer and repeating words meant that they were true. Viktor would be confused and Yuuri was going to regret this later. And still Yuuri lifted his head and turned towards the android, ready to unleash the storm he had been holding at bay for days now. He looked and with one look, Viktor had snuffed out the storm like a candle in the wind.

Viktor looked devastated. And as he pleaded, the android’s eyes never left Yuuri’s, beseeched Yuuri to tell him what was wrong, what hurt and how could he fix it? How could he help? And Yuuri was ashamed. For being selfish, for being cruel, for thinking that Viktor didn’t care, that he couldn’t be hurt. And maybe he couldn’t, maybe not in the way a human would. But looking at Viktor now, Yuuri was sure that if a computer could care, if a computer could feel, this was what it would look like.

He’s just trying to make you feel better ,’ and Yuuri broke down, sorrow filling the void left by his spent rage. He wanted to reassure Viktor, apologize for lashing out, but the words escaped him. All he could manage was, “Please, just stay with me.” Yuuri dropped his gaze, unable to watch the hurt and worry and fear washing over Viktor’s face. “You don’t have to say anything. Just stay...stay close to me.”

Yuuri felt loss and regret threaten to overwhelm him, swallow him whole, consume him. Yuuri reached out and his hand found the front of Viktor’s jacket. He fisted the fabric in his grip. He needed to ground himself, anchor himself to something solid before he floated away, swept off by the relentless tide of emotion. ‘ I’m sorry, Vicchan. I should have been there. Should have come home. But I didn’t. And now I can’t. And I didn’t get to say goodbye.

He was aware of movement, of the cloth shifting in his grip as Viktor changed position, climbed up onto the bed and settled close next to Yuuri. Viktor’s arm wrapped itself around Yuuri’s shoulders, heavy and comforting, while the android’s other hand found Yuuri’s bicep, pulling him close. Yuuri leaned into Viktor, drawn in by the warmth and solidity of the mass beside him. Yuuri turned further into Viktor, leaned his forehead on Viktor’s broad shoulder, buried his face in Viktor’s chest and cried. They would talk later, Yuuri would apologize and explain, tell Viktor about Vicchan... But for now, he let himself cry, loud wracking sobs that eventually trickled into sniffs and hiccuping gulps as the storm blew through and burned itself out, leaving behind only an exhausted blankness in Yuuri’s mind and a silence broken only by the steady rhythm of some internal mechanism in Viktor’s chest that sounded almost like the beating of a heart.

“Of course, Yuuri,” Viktor’s voice rumbled from deep within, soft and tender as it swept over Yuuri’s raw wounds, a balm to his guilt, assuaging him. And Yuuri felt a rush of gratitude for Viktor. For accepting his demands so readily, for not pushing him, for letting him be . “I’m not going anywhere.”