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Empty promises to Mars

Chapter Text

"Thirty-five seconds and counting, we are still going-".

Erratic breathing and thousands of small electronic beeps were all that filled the ears of the members of the crew, each of them trying to hold their excitement from the lift-off. If this went as expected they'd all be remembered by the whole astronomical community; they couldn't mess this up. Elizabeta took a deep breath as she held firmly the handle of the helm, waiting for the signal.

"Thirty seconds and counting".

"T-minus 25 seconds".

At that moment, Alfred made a decision that would surely have its conseqüences; but the mere thought of it just made his smirk grow bigger for every second sung from the launch control.

"T-minus 15 seconds. Guidances internal-".

Matthew didn't get to question his half-brother's mischievous look when the countdown started.

"Ignition seqüence start. Eleven, ten, nine-".

"IT'S THE FINAL COUNTDOWN! WE'RE LEAVING TOGETHER...!". Alfred threw his arms to the air as he energetically chanted the lyrics, act that was soon followed by the wacky and loud laugh of the German specialist botanic.

"Six-".

"Shut up, Alfred! Gilbert, for the love of God-".

By now, chaos had erupted the small room, with the loud American encouraged by the German while Matthew and the rest of the crew just sighted hopelessly and Elizabeta tried unsuccessfully to shut the two of them.

"-2, 1. All engine running-".

Elizabeta had moved the handle too late, failing the liftoff simulation. Natalya, resting as stoic as she was, watched calmly as the commander pilot unbuckled her security belt and headed to the tall albino.

" SLAP "

"Ow! Why did you do that? I wasn't the one who started singing The Final Countdown !". Gilbert gently rubbed where Elizabeta hit him. He had forgotten how strong his captain could be when she was angry.

"Your laugh was the thing that distracted me! And Jones- don't you think that you are exempt of this!". Everyone started to unbuckle their security belts with resigned looks. Well, all except Alfred, who still had a dangerous shine in his eyes. Elizabeta continued: "If this hadn't been a simulation, there would have been grave conseqüences". With that said, and after receiving a disapproving look from everyone except Gilbert and Ivan (who just glanced at him with sheer curiosity), he resigned and apologised.

"I'm sorry guys... It just felt like the most appropriate time to sing this! Like, isn't it super appropriate?". Gilbert and Matthew both started to open their mouths before being cut down by the other German.

"Don't, brother".

They all sighed in unison and exited the room one behind the other. Getting along with all the crew would probably not be easy.

 

After being scolded by the simulation supervision team and doing a clean reproduction of the lift-off, each of them headed to a different destination: Ludwig ran off and left the building without a word, Alfred went to the training area with Natalya, Gilbert followed Elizabeta to have a coffee together, and Matthew was left alone with Ivan, both seeing their siblings head away from them.

"Would you like to go out and catch some air?". The Canadian proposed, not sure if the other would care to answer.

"Yes, that would be nice". The two pair of lilac eyes shined after the agreement and headed out in peaceful silence.

 

Natalya crouched swiftly, and with an agile movement rose again and kicked Alfred down, once again. He raised from the ground, already covered in pearly sweat; while his opponent remained unaffected by all the sparring they had been doing.

"How are you this good? I swear I couldn't even see you move". He decided to take a break and reach for his water bottle. "I promise, I'm usually not this much of a flop...". He took a long sip and let his eyelids lower for a bit.

"I used to compete in gymnastic competitions and won a handful of them before taking the astronaut courses; there's where I got my elasticity". The blonde looked at her with awe, hoping to finally see pride or something similar behind her usually expressionless face, but apathy was the only thing he found. She continued: "Nevertheless, I did receive some help from big brother. I remember when I was young and he came back from his ballet classes...".

"Wait, you're talking about that tall ice giant of the crew?".

"His name's Ivan". Natalya snapped Alfred's bottle and took a sip herself, considering the training done for the day.

"Whatever. Ivan used to do ballet?!  That red soviet-".

"Russia isn't part of the USSR anymore-".

"-he used to dance?" He chuckled. "If I didn't know you better, I'd think you were lying".

"Why would I be lying?". They started to head off to the changing rooms as they ended their conversation:

"I know. You wouldn't. At least not about family. See you later, Nat!".

Alfred left without waiting for her to reply: he knew she wouldn't. He wasn't worried about it; that was the way she was. And as he disposed of his clothes and entered the shower, he let his thoughts swim towards the tall Russian: it was true that apart from him and Toris, the head of launch control, Natalya was only ever seen around Ivan. And yes, everybody except him and Natalia was creeped out by Ivan's demeanour; but it wasn't like they had interacted too much apart from the cordial salutations he exchanged with all the crew. For God's sake, he had exchanged more words with Ludwig, and that German was the most reserved person he had ever met!.

He put those thoughts aside, finally exiting the shower, and decided to bond with Ivan along the journey. After all, they were going to spend two years in space before returning to Earth. "That should be enough to get to meet him", he thought.

 

Two weeks later the crew reunited again, this time into the actual spaceship. The "Nerio Space Shuttle" was its name, given from the Roman goddess Nerio, spouse of Mars. NASA seemed to enjoy using ancient Greek/Roman names for its satellites and spaceships.

Before entering the Nerio Space Shuttle (or NSS if you wanted to be quick), they met with their friends and relatives for the farewell. Not to anyone's surprise, the mass of people present could easily be each from a different country: both a Frenchman and an Englishman were in a heated conversation with Alfred and Matthew, while Elizabeta held hands with a brunet Austrian and chatted with Gilbert, a Spaniard and a grumpy Italian. Ludwig was desperately trying to console another Italian, this one fairer and clingier, and finally, Ivan was hugging his older sister and promising her he'd be safe. Away from them, Natalya stood near Toris, who held a gloomy expression.

"Are you sure you want to do this? You'll be out there for two years."

"Yes, I am. It's not like I could do anything now anyway. Besides, you're the chief here; you can always call us, and I can ask for a bit of privacy".  Natalya leaned in and kissed him, while Toris held her sides gently and returned the gesture with passion. Once they separated, he caressed her face and whispered to her: "Take care of your brother then. And be safe, I'll miss you".

"I will." She started to head off with the rest of the crew, but stopped suddenly and turned back to him: "And I'll miss you too".

Toris could hardly believe what he had just heard. Nevertheless, he didn't have time to daydream; he had to head off quickly to the launch control.

 

This time, everything went according to plan: Alfred didn't sing, Gilbert didn't laugh, and the countdown went on smoothly.

"Ignition seqüence start-".

"Six, five, four, three, two, one: All engine running-".

"Booster ignition and liftoff of the Nerio Space Shuttle".

People cheered as Toris told the crew to close and lock their helmet visors and to start oxygen flowing to their suits, and gave the farewells from launch control.

This time, the crew roared in excitement as they felt the pressure from the spaceship leaving the ground and getting closer to the stratosphere; later to the exosphere and finally out in space.

They were all joyous, all except Ludwig, who tried to smile behind the sorrow that had promptly assaulted him. And for the sake of the tribulation, he struggled to keep his thoughts aside: he'd have more than enough time in space to think it out.

 

Their mission had just begun.

Chapter Text

His face was close to the glass, to the point where his breath stained the translucid area because of the heat. He brought his fingertips to the glass as well as he admired the whole beauty that stood after him: the Moon, their Moon, was right before his eyes; and the sight almost made Alfred cry. Just a few hours ago, they'd been on land, and now they were in front of Earth's astral satellite; where someone no more than fifty years ago had landed feet and claimed humanity's wish to conquer the Universe. He felt so small as this realisation came to him, and almost let his eyelids fall and let the zero-gravity embrace him. His train of thought stopped when he heard a voice behind him:

"It is certainly different from seeing it on pictures or with a telescope, isn't it?".

He hadn't talked to him that much, but the thick Russian accent gave the identity of the person away, so Alfred didn't turn to face him. Instead, Ivan just pushed himself forward and touched the glass as well.

"You're Alfred, Alfred Jones, right?".

The American turned to him, and then to his spacial garment, which had embroidered on his chest his surname. It's true, they had met all together with the team, but they hadn't introduced themselves to each other yet. After lifting his face again, he answered:

"Well, yes. Guess that didn't take much to figure out...".

Wow, he thought. His eyes are lilac. Wait, is that a thing, or am I just getting sick from the liftoff?

"Uh...I-uh... my name's Ivan, but Natalya has probably already told you that". The tall man's gaze lowered, apparently embarrassed by something the blonde could not recognise, so he kept fixing his eyes over the other man's insanely beautiful pupils. He swore to God: although he might have already seen some weird coloured eyes (like Ivan's sister's), he had never become obsessed with a shade of colour like that one. Is this even normal? He wondered to himself not noticing how uncomfortable he was making the other feel before he continued:

"Yeah. She did tell me about you. Like, a lot of times; you're probably her favourite older sibling. And now that I think about it: how come you only joined her now, for the space mission, if you were already an astronaut back there in Russia?".

Ivan jerked his hand away from the glass and instead held his arms in a protective demeanour, remembering the bad things that awaited him back at his motherland. Unsure, he replied:

"To put it short, while she didn't face any difficulties to get out of the country, I certainly had them".

Alfred did not make a comeback to that: even a thick-skulled head like him could sense that he had touched a sensible topic, and he didn't want to make a stranger open up to him like that. He turned to the glass once again.

"It is beautiful, indeed", he said with a smile.

"Huh?".

"The Moon, we never really got back to that part of the conversation".

"Oh, that", the Russian chuckled, relieved that they had left the other issue behind, and lightened up again."If I'm not wrong, you could fit two Russias together to make up for the Moon's surface".

"Oh yeah?". Alfred sure did love a challenge." Well, considering that the US is 3.8M square miles, then... uh...".

Damn it; he didn't remember what the surface of the Moon measured. He wished his brother was here to tell him; knowing him, he was probably getting his papers together instead of chilling off and enjoying the view. Seeing that his companion wasn't answering, Ivan talked for him.

"You could fit close to four United States of America in the Moon".

"Yeah, I already knew that". Now Alfred was mad: he was the one who wanted to show off. "At least we were the first to plant a flag on it."

"Oh?". Ivan didn't seem to be fazed by his hostile mood but instead appeared amused at the situation. Noticing that, the American only grew more annoyed.

"Yeah, so stop that cheekiness of yours right now".

"What cheekiness?".

Alfred thought he sounded sincere, but his ego was easy to hurt and rejected that thought. He scoffed.

"You-".

He was suddenly cut off by a radio transmission from the control cabin, it was Elizabeta: "Beilschmidt, Braginsky, Jones, Williams; come to the main compartment. We have an issue to discuss".

The blond sighed and began to propel himself out of the cabin, closely followed by his tall companion.

 

"Well, do tell us: why do we have to check the ship's antenna when we've only been in space for ten hours? We're not even past the Moon". Gilbert took a seat next to his brother. It looked like apart from him and Alfred's brother, they were already all reunited before the pair arrived. Each of them settled their way around the table to listen to the plan. Natalya spoke:

"Because of this." She rotated one of the papers she had in front of her so that the others could see it.

"Could you please elaborate a bit?". Considering that Matthew and Gilbert were the ones who knew more about biology and the most experimental part of sciences, the gamble of numbers the girl showed them only made partial sense.

"Natalya and I have been doing some calculations to circumscribe the ship's position and how it relates to the Earth and the Moon's location. We want to make sure that the communications we have with Earth are available; so that even if we're at Mars, and light and signal will travel to our planet at a duration from four to twenty minutes, they still can send us information and vice-versa". Ludwig seemed to be more relaxed than at the beginning of the trip, and that relaxed his brother a bit.

"Yeah... and why are we doing this now?" Alfred grabbed the paper to examine it furtherly. "Moreover, why do we have to check it, like, every month?".

"It's called a protocol, Jones. They asked us to do it, and we can't skip it. Since this is the first human commanded mission to Mars, they need to be in contact; and since the distance can already be a nuisance, we can't risk getting cut off because we're not at a correct position or the Moon is in the middle. We're not in the ISS, Alfred; getting a call isn't as easy as just getting out your softphone with its IP and receiving calls from Earth". This time it was Elizabeta who took the lead.

"Okay... it seems legit. Who is going out, though? We'd need two persons, right?".

"Yes, I'm sending Ivan and Ludwig".

"Cool, I'll go get myself read- Wait, what?!". Alfred turned on his heels, hand already placed on the door handle. "We have to fix an antenna, and I am an engineer!".

"No, you are the second commander module pilot and flight engineer, so I need you with me to monitor the ship internally". Before he could protest, Elizabeta followed her speech: "Besides, we have Ivan as our engineer; and we need Ludwig with him so that he can guide him with the antennas orientation and others. Are we clear, Jones?"

The American slowly walked away from the door and took a seat, resigning at last and responding: "Yes, miss commander.".

"Well then: Braginsky, Beilschmidt? Grab your suits and go to the shuttle opening gate. Natalia and Alfred can come with me to the frontal cabin".

"Wait, what about Matthew and I?".

Everyone turned to the pair, realising they were excluded from the plan. Silence dropped to the cabin, and it was so thick that it weighed on everyone's shoulders.

"Oh... since you are both the specialists for the Mars mission you don't have much to do now. You can rest if you want to".

"Okay...". Matthew smiled shyly; if this wasn't a metaphor of what his life had been like so far...

After that, everyone went to do their commissions; and meanwhile, the aforementioned couple remained still, not knowing what to do. It seemed like tension was starting to build between the team.

 

"Are you ready, Beilschmidt?".

"Affirmative, we can proceed whenever they give us the signal".

They waited in silence, neither of them being a man full of words. Ivan smiled like he always did, something he learnt to do to try to keep himself sane; this way, nobody asked- and he could give a more approachable vision to others. He turned to his companion, who was once again wearing the gloomy look he wore before the liftoff. Ivan wasn't the best at reading people or dealing with them, but recognising the same expression he tried to hide every day?

"Ludwig... is that your first name?".

The German turned to him, trying hopelessly to forge a stoic expression on himself.

"Yes, it is".

"Okay then, Ludwig. I see your face. And I know you are trying to hide something, something sad".

Their eyes connected, and for once the Russian forgot to pretend he was happy.

"I'm not asking what's wrong with you, it's not my duty, I'm not entitled to do that by any rights. But fooling your mind and telling yourself you're not okay won't save you. Pretend all you want around the others, but to yourself, you have to be honest".

"Okay, so... are you both ready?". Alfred spoke through the communication's radio, waiting for their response. Ivan didn't move, still gazing the other man who, despite his usually sturdy figure, now looked weak and fragile. Till this day, they had only saluted each other, but now they had formed between each other a secret bond, all with the simple use of words. Ivan decided then and there: if he could save someone other than himself, he would do whatever he could to do so. He finally turned to the gate and activated his radio.

"Yes, we're ready, open the gate".

Chapter Text

Only a couple of minutes had passed since the hatch had been opened for Ivan and Ludwig to work on the antenna, and Alfred had already managed to tease the Russian. It wasn't long until he brought ballet to their conversation:

"So, big guy; let me hear it again: you used to do ballet but now all of a sudden you're an astronaut? Like, how does that even work?"

Natalya was already eyeing Alfred with such heat that it almost struck everybody in the cabin that the blonde hadn't noticed it yet. Unaware of how childish he was acting, he kept on dissing his newly made friend.

"I'm sorry, Alfred, but I believe that now you are the one to be- how did you call it before- carried away with your cheekiness?" His tone was sharp but calm, and he kept on wearing his quizzical smile as he took a screwdriver to adjust the antenna's screws. Ludwig didn't make a reaction to that either. Gaping like a fish, Alfred spoke through the radio:

"How dare you- You can't just take my words and belittle me like that!". He leaned over, approaching the micro as he followed with an enticing tone: "You're gonna make me look bad in front of the crew, don't be like that".

"... You were the one to confront me about my ballet classes. Why are you trying to turn the tables like that, my little American?".

The viewers of the scene could only shake their heads in disbelief, sensing a pattern between the two that would last their whole journey. Despite the spectacle, everyone kept working on their stuff. Well, all except Alfred, who was starting to get fired up by that banter.

"First of all: bitch, what. You don't get to call me little when you're like three inches taller than I am".

Elizabeta looked at him confused, already derailed by the conversation from her job. He just shook his head, explaining to her:

"The whole big guy is an expression, but still: I still get to call him tall because he's above the average. Like, don't I? Natalya?".

Only then did he notice the fire in her eyes, as she dangerously gripped her papers together against his chest. He swallowed, slightly startled.

"Hey Nat, you know I'm joking, right?".

The girl, emotionless, made a step forward to the American; who in his place cornered himself against the wall.

"You were dissing my ballet abilities without having seen me dancing, what do you-?".

"Not now, big guy. Go do your Russian engineer stuff, I'm busy keeping your sister from murdering me."

At that, Ludwig finally raised his head from the antenna to question Ivan. His comrade shook his head in disbelief. Finally getting a grip to herself, Elizabeta pulled Alfred out of the way and appropriated herself of the mic.

"Okay, guys. As much as I am enjoying your earnestly immature banter, we should get back to work now".

Obediently, Alfred toned down; even if it was just for a while: he was starting to enjoy having someone to tease like Ivan, seeing how intriguing he seemed to him.

 

Away from all the chaos happening at the cabin, Gilbert and Matthew were starting to get to know each other while they tidied up their pad. It was the first time he had been alone with the company of the German, Matthew thought. Hoping that there wouldn't be any awkward silences, he started thinking about possible conversation topics. Luckily, he didn't have to wait much, for the German beside him was a strong eloquent.

"Yo, blondie, it's okay if you don't have anything to say. My brother is also like that, so I'm used to silence. Don't force yourself into a conversation with me if you don't want to".

Gilbert stuffed his notebooks onto a drawer, grateful that the room was conditioned to Earth-like gravity unlike most of the ship. Hearing that, Matthew stopped himself to look at the other in awe.

"Actually... I did want to talk to you; I was merely looking for an appropriate conversation-opener. Nevertheless, thank you for caring, Gilbert. You don't get to hear those words very often".

Gilbert snapped and turned quickly just in time to see his partner smile brightly. What a pure reaction, he thought; and with a smirk, he proceeded with the conversation.

"Awesome. I feel so awesome now; you're welcome, blondie".

"It's Matthew. Matthew Williams".

"Oh, cool. Gilbert Beilschmidt".

"I already knew that". Gilbert raised an eyebrow, but Mat simply made a dismissing gesture with his hand. "If you're not busy with anything, I've got something to ask you".

The albino cupped his head with his hands as he got in a more comfortable sitting position, a bit wary of his companion's question.

"Shoot. It's not like we've got anything to do for now".

"Yeah, It's actually about that... why have you, a specialist botanic, requested to be in this mission? Considering that Mars can reach 120·K easily, bacteriae necessary for life aren't present on its earth and what the composition of its atmosphere is, one would think a botanic doesn't have much to do there".

"Oh". Matthew arched his eyebrows in confusion behind his glasses. "For a second I thought you were going to ask something like: are you single? How's your love-life?".

His companion glanced at him blankly, before saying:

"You're almost making me remember Francis, for God's sake".

"Oh, oooh! You know Francis Bonnefoy as well, don't you?".

"Yeah, that's why I remembered your name". Gilbert grinned again, letting a small awesome escape his lips. "So, how come you're here?".

"Well, the same reason you're here, I guess.  I know everyone is probably more excited about what the fuck that satellite orbiting Mars has detected and whether it is dark matter or not; but despite all the missions and rovers sent to the red planet, humans haven't touched Mars with our feet. I couldn't care less about the samples they send us back: I want to test the ground myself... and ultimately be one of the first humans to get to Mars".

"So, all of the material you brought onboard is your thing? All the fulvic and humic acids, different soil and water samples...?"

"Yeah, well, I'm also making some favours to some workmates; still, I came up with most of the tests myself".

Matthew stood up and offered a hand to Gilbert to do the same.

"Well, since I'm a microbiologist and specialised physician, I could certainly team up with you. It's not like we'll have much to do until we get to the red planet".

The German drew one of his big grins and kept on tidying his space while they waited for the others.

 

Once they finished working with the antenna and sent their report to launch control, each member of the crew wandered around to change their clothes and get ready for their second meal. This time, they were having mac and cheese, which seemed to be plausible for everyone.

"No, but I'm telling you: mac and cheese is my favourite astronaut food. I couldn't care less about the other stuff we have in here".

Elizabeta had finally laid back from her position and was on a heated argument with Gilbert.

"Okay, they might be easier to make than the ones on Earth, and they're tasty; but potatoes are way better!".

Alfred scoffed: "Come on, Gil! Don't be such a cliché. You're gonna become a copy-paste from the guy in The Martian".

"So what? Matt Damon was awesome. Also, it was his botanic knowledge what helped him from dying in Mars".

"Yeah, we might want to avoid that fate, don't get any ideas". Alfred leaned back in his chair, and let the others go back to their banter.

Ludwig on his place was almost trailing away, but his brother was quick to notice and rapidly placed a hand on his shoulder, trying to reassure him.

The conversation then moved to the expectations they had of the journey, and the professionality of their performance. When they were all done, they all went to their cabins to rest.

Matthew and Gilbert started to head to the same room, but before leaving Alfred managed to stop them:

"Hey, Mat; you aren't sharing the cabin with me?"

His brother stopped, almost feeling guilty for his decision.

"Ha, I-uh, I figured that, since we're both the payload specialists, it'd be more practical for me and Gilbert to share one".

He faked a pout, before feeling Elizabeta pat his back and wink at him playfully.

"Oh, come on Jones; it's not like you can't manage it. Besides, this gives you a better chance to meet Ivan". The American remained oblivious to that connotation.

"Wait... Am I sharing my bunk with him? Not that I'm complaining, but that leaves Ludwig on his own".

"Yes, he asked to be on his own. Now, before heading to sleep, you should go check one last time the autopilot is set on the right coordinates. I reckon Natalya has gone there to communicate something to Toris, so you should find the door open".

"Alright, whatever, Commander Héderváry. Have a good night y'all".

 

He indeed crossed Natalya on his way to the frontal cabin; however, the encounter was everything but jolly:

"Hey, Natalya".

"Alfred".

She already made a gesture to leave, but the American managed to stop her before doing so.

"It's only been a day, why are you so cold? I mean, like, more than usual?".

She glanced at him, her usual apathy now painted with a hint of worry.

"I care a lot about my brother-".

"I know".

"Then please be nice to him, he..." She stopped mid-sentence, doubting on what to say and what to keep. Alfred arched his eyebrows, waiting for her to continue. She sighed, not wanting to extend the conversation. "Nothing. Good night, Alfred".

He let her go, knowing that he wouldn't get anything from her anyway; and went to the frontal hut to fulfil his duty.

Exhausted, he threw himself onto his bed when he finally got to his cabin, not even looking around for his room-mate since he could already hear his deep breathing. Something soft brushed his cheek beside his bedsheets, so he pulled it and brought it to his face, slowly opening his eyes. It was dark, and he could barely see without his glasses; nevertheless, he didn't want to wake up his partner, who was soundly asleep. He managed to distinguish the figure before his eyes with a bit of effort: it was a long scarf, and it seemed to be hand-made. It's not mine, he thought. Ivan must have misplaced it. However, he was too tired to put it back, and instead tangled himself around it as he let Morpheo embrace him to sleep.

That night he dreamt of lilac lights and the snowflakes painting his glasses white, but the heat of his scarf protected him from the cold. He smiled, digging his fingers onto the scarf, slowly falling in love with the sight before him.

Chapter Text

Beep. Beep. Beep”.

Alfred rolled on his bed and groaned confused. That’s not my alarm theme, he thought. Where is my Captain America ringtone?

“Beep. Beep. Beep”.

The alarm kept going, and Alfred finally decided to open his eyes. It’s not like he could see much without his glasses, but he could distinguish the ceiling and its lights. Oh, yeah, I’m in space. Right.

Finally aware of his senses, he turned off his alarm and searched for his glasses. For some strange reason, he could not stop smiling. He then heard a thud: Ivan had come out of the bathroom area, already fully dressed.

“Oh! Sorry, sorry. I was not aware that- I didn’t know you were already awake”.

Alfred smiled radiantly, not being able to tone down that strange feeling off his chest.

“It’s okay; I just woke up. ‘Morning, Ivan”.

In a moment, their gazes met, and the Russian’s face acquired something that the blond could not read, and quickly adjusted the neck of his t-shirt. While the other kept his eyes on whatever it was that kept him hypnotised, Alfred looked at his partner’s clothes.

“Are you going to the gym?”.

Ivan snapped out of his trance. “Yeah, I-”.

“Cool! I was planning on going as well”. He got up and clumsily started to take off his clothes. “Wait for me then- I’ll only last a couple of seconds”.

His room-mate stood there awkwardly, not knowing whether to turn around and give the American a bit of privacy or to keep watching him. He doesn’t seem shameful about it, and I’m not doing anything wrong. He’s just a colleague switching clothes; surely Father wouldn’t-

Ivan stopped his train of thoughts: he shouldn’t bring his father into his mind so early in the morning. Luckily, the sparkling smile Alfred gave him erased those thoughts immediately. He wondered if he was conscious of his brightness.

“Shall we go?”.

They started heading out of the pod; and, just before closing the gate, Alfred noticed something.

The scarf.

He had fallen asleep with it. Furthermore, he hadn’t remembered to fold it and leave it away, so it was still clumsily laying on his bed. A nervous giggle escaped his lips, and then he turned to his partner. He too was giving side-glances to the scarf but seemed to be reluctant to ask Alfred about it. Seeing that none of them would talk about it, they shut the door and headed to the gym. They could talk about it later.

 

The gym was one of the other cabins of the spaceship that wasn’t affected by the zero gravity of space, which was the reason why Ludwig was able to lift weights on there in the first place. He was the first to get there. Alfred and Ivan joined him half an hour after he arrived.

“Hey, dude. ‘Morning”.

“Good morning, Ludwig”.

The German nodded in their direction and continued with his exercises. Following his example, the pair got each to a different spot of the gym and started stretching in silence.

It wasn’t long until the door opened and Gilbert came in.

“Ah, brother! You’re here! Oh, you both are here too? Awesome”.

The duo greeted him as well. After winking at them, the albino headed to one of the benches near his sibling, picked a weight and started lifting it as well, not before continuing the conversation with his brother:

“Did you sleep well? I know how you’ve recently had problems with-”

“Yes, I have. What about you?”

Gilbert looked at him. He knew that he wouldn’t tell if there was anything wrong anyway, but he had to try. Deep inside, he was aware of Ludwig’s strange mood.

“I slept fine”. For a couple of minutes, the room came back to silence, only occupied with heavy breathing and the clinging of the weights every time the Germans lifted them. During that moment, Natalya joined as well and started doing cardio with Ivan. Meanwhile, Gilbert thought of something to talk about with his brother, and then he remembered what happened on his way to the gym. A smile perked on his lips.

“Did you know what happened just before I got here? It’s a bit crazy- it makes me feel like I was a teen again. We crossed Eli and Nat, Matthew and I-because we share a pod. And you know how Eli is, she started mocking my messy bed hair and asked if I had sex or something. I shit you not, I was going to answer her, but Mat-oh, Mat! He cut me off and calmly said: If we had had sex, Gilbert wouldn’t be looking as stable as he is right now. And he winked at her! Even Natalya raised her eyebrow. Right, Natalya?”.

He glanced at her, only getting a scoff from her.

“I’ll take that as a yes”. Alfred replied, having been listening to the conversation as well. He was surprised that his brother had just broken his polite demeanour for once like that.

“Right”. Gilbert progressed with his story, seeing that it had effectively got Ludwig’s attention as well. “The thing is, he just changed the topic and started talking with Elizabeta about some reports. I don’t even think Eli was following him at that point. He just blew us off with that comment”. He turned to the American: “Is he usually like this? Because…”.

“No, no he isn’t. I’m shitting bricks, dude.” He started laughing, and so did Gilbert, who was happy enough that the story had distracted his brother.

They all continued to train, and later, Alfred decided to change machines. Nevertheless, on his way there, he stumbled with a loose cable and fell to the ground.

“Are you okay, Alfred?”. Ivan had suddenly stopped and headed to him, worried for his companion. He stopped when he heard the blond laugh again.

“Hahaha, no, I’m- I’m fine dude. I just fell, nothing a hero like me can’t handle”.

Ivan chuckled. After that comment, everyone except them went back to their things. The American didn’t raise off the ground yet and just embraced himself as he took a couple of deep breaths. He turned to his partner. Wait, why is he wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt? It’s hot enough not to do that. Ivan noticed he was looking at him, and smiled in his turn, not sure of what he was thinking.

“Hey dude, what are you hiding under that long-sleeved t-shirt?”.

Ivan’s face turned stern, and he quickly incorporated himself. Natalya gave one of her looks to Alfred, but it went unnoticed.

Uncomfortable, Ivan excused himself and headed out of the gym, followed by Ludwig (who was starting to feel anxious as well). Gilbert left a quarter of hour later, mumbling something about a herbology archive; and like that, Alfred and Natalya became the only ones left in the room. They worked out in silence.

When they decided to leave, she stopped him with an aggressive gesture.

“I’m not going to repeat myself”.

“Wait-what did I do now? I didn’t use any slurs or anything, I think”.

She didn’t reply, leaving the room without waiting for the other. Although she tried, Alfred managed to see something behind her usually expressionless face. It wasn’t anger: it was concern.

Why is she that worried about him? What is he hiding? He wondered that as he left the gym as well and began doing his daily tasks.

 

A couple of hours later, Alfred went back to his room to retrieve his tablet; he needed it for a report.

After locating it in a drawer, he held it in his chest and laid in bed for a while, trying to assimilate what happened these last two days.

His queries were suddenly interrupted when a familiar material came into his field of view. He grasped the scarf with the end of his fingers softly. A warm feeling started to run inside of him. Maybe because he had fallen asleep with it, he was starting to get fond of his partner’s cloth; and it didn’t even cross his mind that it was not normal for Ivan to bring the scarf there; he was simply mesmerised by the fabric.

After a while, he remembered his duties and tidied his space, neatly folding the scarf and placing it on his roommate's nightstand. Something eerie about it filled Alfred, who immediately grabbed his tablet and left the room as fast as he could.

 

Like that, a month went by full of uncomfortable silences and palpable tension. Matthew managed to keep the crew together by hanging out with everyone, but mostly with his brother- who after the scarf incident and Natalya’s warnings decided to distance himself from his roommate.

Ivan, on the other hand, tried to lean towards him, curious and desperate for a good laugh; yet, he ended up spending more time with Ludwig. They didn’t talk much (Ivan knew that Ludwig just needed to be with someone) and resigned themselves to watch the outer space through the same window he did with Alfred.

Gilbert noticed this, and he tried to ask Natalya about the Russian and his intentions. The result, however, didn’t settle him:

“If my brother is doing something and spending time with someone, he’ll have a good reason for that”.

“But-”.

“That’s it. The rest is none of your business”.

Gilbert pouted and started to head away, but she spoke again:

“He knows how your brother is feeling. Spending time with him is his way to show support”.

After saying that, she left the German to think. Well, at least he has someone. I just wish I could help him with whatever is hurting him.

 

“Okay, everyone. It’s only been a month and chaos is already consuming us”. Elizabeta sank deeper on her chair. The tribulation was reunited in the control room, waiting for their commander’s orders. “Since today’s the day of the monthly antenna checking and I want to ensure a bit of peace with all of you, I’ll have Alfred and Ivan go this time”.

The American raised enthusiastically.

“I’m going spacewalking, no backsies- right?”.

“No, no- No spacewalks, you’re here to work and-”

“HELL YEAH, I’m gonna get my spacesuit. Thank you, commander; I won’t disappoint you”. He propelled himself to the door, stopping midway. “What are you doing, Ivan? Come on, let’s go! Everybody move!”.

Ivan stood startled for a second, and then followed him as everybody went to their place.

“He acts like a child. Hadn’t he already been on the ISS?”.

Matthew turned his head. “Yeah… he simply gets excited about all the space thing”.

“Uh-huh. Well, at least he gets things done. After all, only the best of us were recruited for this mission”.

“What are you implying, Eli? That you’re the best commander they had back on Earth?”.

Gilbert started cackling; he loved teasing his childhood friend.

“Shut up, or else I’ll throw you off the board and nobody will be able to find your body”.

She unsuccessfully tried to pull a straight face, soon joining the laughter. With that, everyone left the room.

 

Jones, I need you to move the main pole thirteen degrees from where it is”.

“Roger that, boss!”. Despite the spacesuit and the zero gravity, Alfred managed to propel himself swiftly around. He started doing his task while Ivan held a strange electronic device Ludwig had given him- it seemed to work like a goniometer that wasn’t subject to the effects of gravity. One of its lights turned from red to green when Alfred moved the shaft.

Okay, it’s perfectly positioned. Thank you, Jones”.

“You’re welcome, Ludwig”.

Ivan held the metallic rope that attached him to the ship and moved closer to Alfred, trying to establish a conversation with him again:

“I’ve seen your reports; you’re quite good at what you do”.

“Thanks, I’ve also given a glance to yours”. He started packing the tools together as they talked. “Your paper on radioisotope thermoelectric generators for spacecraft was really interesting, even if the RTGs’ issue is more of astrophysics rather than engineers”.

Elizabeta warned them through the radio:

Hatch opening in t-minus 30 seconds”.

Having listened to the message, they pulled the metallic rope and leaned to the hatch. Ivan was still speechless and didn’t know what to reply to his partner. Alfred noticed it:

“What, you weren’t expecting me to pull off that?”.

“No, it’s not that. I knew you were smart from the moment I met you. I’m simply- I didn’t know you had read my PhD paper”.

“Ha, with your sister beside me at the astronaut course? She insisted profusely”.

The Russian broke his smile for a second before the American continued:

“No- no, it’s not what you’re thinking; let me rephrase it”.

Hatch opened. Proceed to return to the ship”.

They quietly followed the protocol until the room was depressurized. Then Alfred continued:

“As I was saying, it was your sister’s idea that I read it, but I wasn’t pressured to do it or anything- quite the opposite”. They started disposing of their spacesuits as he talked. “I’m always on the look for topics like that. Oh- and, do you know Neil de Grasse? He followed me on Twitter! He even congratulated our team for being chosen for the Nerio Mission. What I’m trying to say is… uh…”

Words ran from his tongue, unsure of what to say anymore. Damn it, why is it always like this with me? He laughed hopelessly, and unconsciously fixed his eyes on the Russian’s ones. Ivan stumbled with his words as well:

“So… are we- are we okay then?”

“Yes! Yeah, no bad blood or anything. I’m just like that, I’m a bit of a goofball; I really enjoy your company and-”

His partners shone with something indescribable, shortly followed by a tight embrace that almost threw Alfred to the ground. Despite his surprise, he didn’t take long to return the gesture and hug him with equal force.

“Oh-whoa. Thanks, dude! You got me worried for a second. I’m glad that we’re okay”.

“Thank you, Alfred. Thank you”.

 

“I knew it was a good idea to activate the camera; I wouldn’t have missed this for anything”.

The rest of the crew was still in the control room, now watching curiously as the astronauts hugged and praised each other, unaware that they were being watched. Elizabeta smiled proudly- one could even say more than she was when the Nerio Spaceship made the liftoff. Ludwig watched the scene uneasy, remembering how Ivan offered his shoulder when they went outside. He dared to ask:

“The camera isn’t always on, right?”

“Nah, it never is. I only plugged it because those two seem to have a thing between them”. Ludwig relaxed his shoulders then. His secret was still safe.

“Oh, but- are they even gay? Shouldn’t you have asked them before playing match-making, Eli?” Mat was fast to answer:

“Alfred is. I don’t know about Ivan, though. He might as well be a repressed bi.”

Everyone turned to Natalya, expecting her to fulfil their juicy gossip like some prepubescent child; being in space was making them thirsty for anything at this time. She doubted before answering:

“I don’t know”.

“Ha, what do you mean you don’t know?”.

“I said I don’t know. Our father is quite the conservative man; it’s probable that he tried to oppress Ivan in that sense. On the other hand, my brother has become great at hiding secrets; even to himself. It wouldn’t surprise me if he were to fall in love with Alfred”.

They all thought about it in silence, curious about this newly formed bond.

When Alfred and Ivan entered the room, they all ran and pretended to have their hands on something, hoping the pair hadn’t noticed about their little gossip game.

 

A couple of hours later, a message from Earth came to the NSS: The recorded videos from family and friends had arrived for the astronauts.

Everyone ran excitedly to grab their tablets and download the archives, going each to a spot to listen to them comfortably. Matthew and Alfred watched theirs together, and so did Ivan and Natalya. Gilbert, Ludwig and Elizabeta resigned themselves to watch theirs in the control room.

The American brothers didn’t get a family message, but instead, it was their friends cheering them. Matthew was almost surprised that their friends had remembered about him as well, and as soon as they had listened to them all, they recorded their message back.

Something similar went with the Braginsky brothers, who were happy enough that it was their sister the one sending the message and not their father. Natalya got as well a quick message from Toris, which she tried to watch by her own to maintain professionality.

Finally, Elizabeta got a video from Roderich, her husband. He said he was fine, just missing her; which was enough to make her dissolve into happiness. She ran out of the room to record her reply already voicing on her way out how the mission was going and asking him about his every day.

Only Gilbert and Ludwig were left to see their messages, and the last one’s fingers were already trembling in fear as he pressed play. They only got one video.

Hey!  Ludwig, Gilbert! My boys, how are you? We are missing you. Tell us about your mission!”.

Hearing spoken German once again was enough to make the boys nostalgic from home. They listened calmly to what they had to say, the younger of them almost relaxing for once until they got to the end of the video.

Ah! One last thing, Ludwig. He’s not here right now, but there’s a sulking Italian that says that he’s missing you as well. Do us a favour and record him a message as well. We love you, our boys. Auf wiedersehen!”.

That was all he had been expecting, the reminiscence of that boy waiting for him home. He didn’t know it would affect him that much. His chest raised and fell dangerously, and symptoms of an upcoming anxiety attack came to him. He excused himself and left his brother, rushing as he could to his cabin.

Ludwig refused to answer the video with Gilbert, not wanting to explain himself. He felt suffocated, trapped, uneasy… The worst of it was, he didn’t know why.

Chapter Text

Alone , he needed to be alone. He was also sure that his lungs were completely fine, yet he still felt them a second away from exploding; making his heart beat arrhythmically and his whole body shake helplessly.

His cabin was near, just a few meters away. Ludwig tried to convince himself that he could make it there; he had to . Taking a deep breath, the German tried to evade his head from the mayhem that was his thoughts right then; he needed to make it.

It wasn't long until he crossed Elizabeta, smiling radiantly and holding her tablet close to her chest. Ludwig started to panic: What should I do? I can't talk to my commander- not in this condition. But I can't lie to a superior, that would endanger my position on the ship...

He closed his eyes and ran his hands through his hair, trying to catch what little stability he still had. I have to do this .

"Elizabeta".

She finally noticed him and lowered her device to a side, trying to give an open approach.

"Hey, Beilschmidt. What is your-".

"I'm feeling rather debilitated; so if I may, I'd like to excuse myself from today and tomorrow's duties".

"Oh, okay. I wouldn't see why not. You can rest if you want".

His shoulders relaxed after her approval, and he started heading quickly to his cubicle. Elizabeta turned t1o him:

"But-wait! Is there anything we could-?".

She hadn't even finished her query before the German was gone.

"Huh". That's weird... I hope he recovers soon .

Without thinking about it too much, she headed to the frontal cabin.

 

Despite that, Ludwig didn't feel like he'd ever recover. He'd been feeling like that since a bit before the lift-off, and he didn't quite understand yet what was going on around his head. It didn't matter what name he gave it; the point is, it drained his energy and made him uneasy and unable to work.

God... please, help me . I don't understand what's going on . He brought a humid towel to his face, tears already clouding his vision. He gasped in search of air. What is this? I can't breathe. My chest hurts . He slid to the floor in pain, unable to stop his tears from falling. I need to get better, I need to get to work. I have to keep going... I can't do this to Feli.

But thinking about his Italian friend didn't help at all, making him remember what had triggered him in the first place.

"I'm sorry... I'm sorry Feliciano. I'm not strong enough".

 

Ludwig didn't show up for dinner that day, and for the next two days, he hardly left his room at all. Even when Gilbert tried to stop him, he'd manage to brush him off and escape again to his pad. Seeing himself unable to get closer to his brother, he decided it was time to call the rest of the crew.

 

Everyone except Ludwig was all reunited in the well known circular cabin, where they discussed most of their missions. Gilbert was in earnest distress, and the rest of the crew had all obscured expressions; none of them knowing what to do after hearing the albino.

"He's been like that for two days, he won't even let me speak to him or answer his door...".

Elizabeta cupped her head with her hands, equally exhausted.

"He did tell me he was feeling indisposed, and he requested to rest. I thought he was having a headache or something, so I let him". She sighed before continuing: "I've known you both since we were kids, he's never been like that, has he?".

"No, he hasn't. I mean- Yes, he's always been reserved, never the happiest kid. But this... I don't know. I might have missed something. I-". His voice was starting to break, and for a minute, everyone in silence. Ivan was the one to break it:

"What was going on before he left so abruptly?".

Everyone turned to him, surprised that he had joined the conversation. It is true that he had gotten close to him, after all.

"We were watching the video from our family-which, by the way, he didn't want to answer. I think... I think we got to the part when my parents told us that Feli was missing him as well".

"Who's Feli?".

"Alfred-". Matthew tried to scold him, but his words were unheard.

"He's his flatmate, although I'm pretty sure Lud has a crush on him". At that, Ivan raised his eyebrows, gesture that was only seen by Alfred. Taking advantage of his closeness, he leaned in and bumped him with his right elbow. The Russian soon changed his expression, and both of them got back to the conversation.

"Well, I don't want to be harsh; but if this is a love-sick situation, I'll have to speak to him. Understand me, Gilbert; we can't have people dwelling on the ship".

"Yes, I know. But he wasn't like this before the lift-off! How were we supposed to know?!". A mumbled damn it escaped his lips, losing his patience with every second that went on.

"If you'd let me-". Matthew tried to participate once again, only to be shut down by the German.

" Mein Gott , HE'S MY BROTHER. I know him, and he's not like usually".

"Gilbert, I know, and if we can we will help him".

Chaos erupted in the room, with Mat trying to raise his voice to apport his own. When his brother finally noticed him, he decided to help him out.

"EVERYONE, SHUT UP!".

Silence fell to the room, and the triumphant American smirked proudly to his brother.

"You can speak now, Mattie".

Startled, he began his discourse:

"Thank you, Alfred. What I wanted to say is- that what Ludwig is probably going through isn't just a love-sick situation. I'm the specialised doctor for the mission, and while psychology is not my field, they taught me the basics for this kind of situations".

"Wait- you think my brother is...?"

"Anxious? Depressed? He might be. Ditto, I'm not a therapist, but that's what it looks like".

Once more, the room got quiet. Did any of them really know what it meant to be depressed? Ivan, having dealt with this condition in the past, had already suspected of this; but hearing it out loud from somebody else still made his heart jump.

"So... you think that hearing from Feliciano again has made him depressed?" Gilbert inquired.

"What- No! At most, it might have triggered something inside him. One doesn't just get depressed on a second".

Ivan stood up, catching everyone's attention once again.

"What Matthew is trying to say is that yes, this Feliciano friend has probably a lot to do with why Ludwig is like this; but it's not the basis. And Ludwig probably doesn't know or understand this".

Natalya gave a subtle look to his brother, who returned the gesture by making a conclusion to his previous statement:

"What he needs right now is to have someone around. He needs to get help; because being like this-" he glanced back at Natalya"-he'll probably won't ask for it". His sister nod in agreement, a trace of pride hiding in half a smile.

 

Elizabeta decided to call the whole crew the following day, letting everyone absorb what they had learned the day before and plan what they were to say to Ludwig.

When the aforementioned German entered the room, everyone was already reunited. His brother, Matthew and the commander were sat around the table, close to the door; and the rest of the team were sat at the back of the cabin on the couches. Seeing this, he almost wanted to run and hide, something inhuman pulling his heart and filling his head with doubt and pain. Nevertheless, being the way he was, he swallowed his thoughts and regained his composure, forcing a stern expression on his face. Work goes first.

"You called, commander Héderváry?".

"Yes... and you probably already know why".

 

"I am fine. I've just had a couple breakdowns, but that doesn't mean that-".

"Ludwig, calm down" Gilbert placed a hand on his shoulders

He shut up in annoyance.

"We just want to help you with your-".

"With what? Brother, I'm fine. I- I am-". Trying to swallow his words, he faked a calm smile. "I can still work, you can't dismiss me. I'll work hard".

Elizabeta tried a soft tone:

"We don't doubt that, but your health comes first. You know that when we requested the members of the crew to be clean that also meant to be mentally healthy, right?".

Ludwig looked to the floor, trying to avoid visual contact.

"I'm sorry...".

"Don't be". Matthew jumped in. "We just want to help".

"You must understand, Lud. You've never been like this. This is the first time I see you go berserk".

He seemed to struggle to say something, but no words escaped his mouth. He was conscious of his pain, but, was he really losing his sanity as well?

"Since I'm the doctor here, I've decided to put up a program and check on every single one of you monthly. That means offering to counsel as well. We can start with yours tomorrow, and this way we can clear what you can and cannot do". Mat sighted before progressing: "What I don't know is what we could do to treat what you have. I'm not a certified psychologist. And calling a professional back on Earth would put us all on evidence...mostly you. However, that will be your call".

Seeing that he wasn't responding, Elizabeta intervened.

"Ludwig, I want you to know that this is not your fault. Yes, neither of us really know how to deal with this, and signing up for this knowing how you were was irresponsible; still, you must remember that we will be here. So cheer up".

Nobody else had much to say, so they all slowly started to leave, patting Ludwig on his shoulders.

 

In the end, only him, Ivan and Alfred remained on the cabin, the last one being unnoticed by the other two. The Russian had stood up once everyone had left the room, and he slowly approached the German to console him. He cautiously placed his hand on his shoulder, and seeing the other was unfazed by it, he left it there. He spoke softly:

"It's okay".

Various seconds passed until the other one replied:

"I know. I know they want to help. My brother- I hate that because of me he gets so blue. But nothing makes sense in my head".

Ivan unconsciously grasped his left arm and continued with their conversation:

"It's okay if sometimes it doesn't. The most important thing is that you don't let your demons tie you deeper. You must remind-". He suddenly stopped, giving side glances to the couch where he was seated before: Alfred was still there, listening quietly to their conversation. Taking advantage of the fact that the German was still looking down, he fixed his eyes against the American's. He continued speaking, almost like he wasn't just talking to Ludwig anymore, but to himself as well:

"You must remember that you are stronger than that, that you are still here. It doesn't matter what's going on inside your head- you can't let it win". He took his hand off his shoulder. " You're strong, Ludwig".

With that, he started heading off of the room; but before leaving, he said with a sharp smile:

"Goodbye Ludwig, goodbye Alfred".

The same moment he closed the door, the German turned and discovered the intruder at the back of the room. None of them knew what to do or what to say.

 

Somewhere else, the rest of the crew discussed the monthly tasks they had to handle, still a bit in shock from their early conversation with Ludwig. To be honest, only Natalya and Elizabeta managed to get something done with their reports, as Matthew got too busy trying to console Gilbert.

"You know- Eli, do you remember how Lud hit his head when he was 6 and got amnesia? Everyone ran around in chaos, and even if he overcame that despite not regaining his memories, it left us all pretty scared".

Elizabeta smiled behind her computer, not stopping her typing, and softly replied:

"I remember. I don't think I've ever seen you in such distress since then".

"Well, now I am again. I mean- I don't think it's as drastic as that, but-".

"Actually, it could become-". Matthew tried to add his opinion, as he massaged the German's stiff shoulders.

"- I still feel like it's my fault. I-He's my little brother. He never caused any problem and excelled at everything he did except socialising, so I never really worried about him. I hear depressive people can turn suicidal, I don't want that to happen to him".

Natalya suddenly winced at those words, finally raising her gaze from her work.

Gilbert's mumbling soon turned into an ugly sob, and in an attempt to soothe him, Matthew turned his display into an embrace. Clinging onto him, he held tighter his partner, almost afraid to let go.

Natalya decided to break her vow of silence for once:

"You shouldn't feel guilty about that. The thing about siblings is- you never really get to know them. How they are, what is going on inside their heads. You cannot always save them, even if put everything you have onto that". She blinked a few times like she was about to space out before continuing: "The most you can do is be by their sides. That's what they'll be grateful for, afterwards".

They all consumed. Natalya's words in awe; something about the way she said them made them entrancing and profound, almost like she was talking from experience. Gilbert started to calm himself, still glued to the blond Canadian; and Elizabeta let out a faint giggle. She put a strand of hair behind her ear before saying:

"It must be nice having siblings. The closest thing I've had have been you two Germans. And yes, you're a good brother. Ludwig will be fine, it's nothing he can't overcome".

The two girls went back to their work. Meanwhile, Matthew thought of something to cheer up Ludwig.

"Hey, I know some of you don't celebrate Christmas, but how do you all feel about New Year's Eve?".  And for once, everyone paid attention to the Canadian's words.

 

Back with Alfred and Ludwig, the situation didn't seem to go any further. As much as he tried, the American didn't manage to make eye contact, and all attempts to send good vibes from his part had failed miserably.

Despite all of this, Ludwig didn't feel that nervous at all, seeing that his workmate didn't have a threatening or pushy attitude; on the contrary: this was one of the few times he had seen him so quiet.

The American made a slow approach, prudent of his steps and with his head rushing, sorting out what he could say without making an idiot of himself . Just say something Natalya wouldn't kick you for .

"So... are you a dog or a cat person?".

Alfred blurted that out without thinking about it, and the oddness of the question startled the German as well. Making use of that time, he sat near him.

"If I had to pick one, I suppose I'd say a dog person".

"Cool, dude! I'm a dog person as well. They're just so loyal and cheerful...".

"I see a pattern".

"I mean- not that I despise cats, still- You know".

"Yeah".

Alfred tapped the table, and at the same time, Ludwig leaned in, arms crossed over the surface of the furniture. If they really wanted to, any of them could have left by now; yet none of them had. The German was happy enough that the other wasn't bothering him with personal questions. The tapping stopped.

"Does it bother you?"

"What?".

"The tapping. I mean, I can-".

"No, it's cool". For the first time that day, a shy smile was drawn on his lips. He breathed in.

"I share a flat with a friend, and we have a German Sheppard".

His companion laughed. "Why doesn't that surprise me at all? What's their name?".

"Italia".

"..."

"..."

"What the f- what kind of name is Italia ?".

"I don't know, Feli named her".

Hearing that name, Alfred stopped the tapping.

"I would never name a dog Italia. As in- with all the possibilities we had, it'd be difficult for me not to give my dog a name space-related".

"Ha, like what? I dare you: If you were to find a dog here in space, what would you name them? And no, you can't call them America".

Alfred sighed, pretending to be offended until he realised: he had no idea how he'd name a space dog.

"... Freedom ".

"... are you serious? Freedom ?"

"I like the name! I'd even change my name to Alfred Freedom if I could!".

Ludwig started cackling at that comment, and the sound was everything his colleague needed to hear to know he had done right.

 

After a while discussing trivial stuff, they both looked at their watches. Ludwig exhaled heavily before saying:

"I should probably head out now".

"Yeah, me too".

"Thank you, Alfred".

The other smiled. "You know, you should speak with Ivan, he seems to understand you on a level I don't. If you want, I can talk with Mat- make him postpone your meeting to whenever you need it".

The German only responded with a small nod.

"Goodnight".

"'Night".

 

Time passed, and everyone left to their quarters to rest. Alfred was already in his pyjamas (which solely consisted of some dark boxers and a comfy t-shirt), playing Galaga on his computer, and Ivan was still changing in the bathroom. The room was only illuminated by the light of Alfred's computer. They had unanimously agreed to let the Russian change in there without getting any questions or anything of the sort; and considering that the other hadn't still forgotten about the scarf incident, he was more than glad to obey.

Not stopping his playthrough, he shouted to his partner:

"Hey, ballerino . Did you do that on purpose?".

No answer came to him. He insisted:

"Ivan? Ivaan ?".

The said person entered the room, already dressed and with his old clothes in his hands.

"What? I heard you the first time. What are you railing about?".

He settled his things on his drawer and laid heavily on his bed, tired from the day. Concurrently, Alfred switched his vision focus to Ivan (he already knew he was gonna lose that round, so he ignored fully his computer). The more he looked at him, the more he sank devoted to those lilac eyes. Still captivated by the view, he replied:

"You left me alone with Ludwig; you had known the whole time I was there and you said nothing".

The Russian finally focused on his partner, squinting at him but conserving the baffling smile that never abandoned him. He let him continue.

"Dude, how could you do that to me? That was sneaky- you did it on purpose, you egotistic cold ballerino !".

"I'm sorry, was that you being a little shit right now?".

Alfred slowly closed his laptop, leaving it on the floor without breaking visual contact. This time it was Ivan the one who delighted himself with the other's eyes: he'd seen thousands of blue eyes, one more boring than the last; but these ones caught the innocent but fired look of the American perfectly. How transparent , he thought.

With that, he got distracted enough not to notice the quick advance of the other, and suddenly:

"Hey- why are you on top of me? This bed ain't enough big for both of us!". He tried to escape, already blushing for the sudden proximity. Alfred, however, didn't part. He accommodated himself on the Russian's chest, folding his arms and looking at him from there.

"Was that on purpose, yes or no?".

"Yes, it was. You have a happy nature".

"Uh?".

"I mean- I- You look like the kind that make people happy without trying".

Alfred's smile grew bigger after hearing those words.

"Stop! Don't do that". Ivan decided he had had enough. What is he, a teenager? And me? Father would certainly not approve...

He put himself under the covers, this time not complaining when the American joined him and snuggled with him.

"Hey, ballerino ".

"Why do you call me ballerino , little American?".

"You don't mind about Ludwig being gay or anything, right?".

Oh, this must be about our early meeting, when they mentioned Ludwig's crush. Do I really mind? He wondered. I know Father wouldn't like this. But I'm not him... right?

"No, why would I? It wouldn't make sense that I-".

"Mhm, cool. Let's sleep now".

"What- with you here?".

"Shhhh, let's just sleep, ballerino ".



"Damn it! I can't believe we overslept! What are we, teenagers?".

"Mhm... Why are you in such distress, American?".

"We can't be late! Natalya will suspect things and she will kill me!".

Alfred changed his clothes as fast as he could, rushing the other to get in the bathroom. He suddenly blushed as he remembered something.

"And- don't you dare tell her- or anyone- that we slept together. I don't want people bothering us".

Finished his speech, he slammed the door of the bathroom. Ivan was startled. He wasn't like that last night. And why would he care about something like that? Did I do something?

Chapter Text

Roughly two weeks had passed since then, and our fellow astronauts hadn't stopped moving up and down the ship since, all trying to keep their work up to date. Somehow, this seemed to help Ludwig to cope and think about how he felt, being busy his way to focus.

Unfortunately, that didn't mean he was cured or happier: his mood switched from faint to content; then to blue, to dejected, and then back to a dull mood again; without a balance that could help him soothe his confusion.

The one closest to him was glad that he didn't try to hide anymore; instead, it seemed like he wanted to face and struggle whatever disturbed him; even if he didn't want to share it with Gil. Seeing him that morning leaping around with his tablet and wearing his usual frown tranquilised him a bit.

Gilbert leaned against the wall of the corridor, almost unable to hold himself because of the zero gravity. Uneasy, he looked around the dark lane: How in the world did we get here? I almost can't believe that we've been here for two months . Elizabeta abruptly crossed him and saluted him.

"Hey, Gil. Don't you have things to do instead of whipping around in the hallway?". And as soon as she said that, she resumed her excursion to the frontal cabin.

Shit. Gilbert retook his pace again, his pupils widening as he recalled what he had to do.

He propelled himself around the ship to his room, crossing Ludwig's on the way. His expression dropped again: What would I possibly do to change this?

 

A few meters away, Ivan was stretching with her sister, the two siblings being the only occupants of the room. Natalya glanced at her brother, who was currently doing an arabesque effortless. She shook her head in admiration. Since I left gymnastics, it's been getting harder to do these stuff; but Ivan keeps doing it like nothing . He noticed her half smile.

"Everything alright, Сестра ?"

She massaged her shoulders as she headed to one bench.

"You're astounding, брат . I never get tired of watching you dance".

Not breaking eye contact, she sat down on the seat. Ivan smiled brightly, and soon got rid of his shoes and placed them aside. He took a deep breath, soon securing a straight posture and later doing a plié, which quickly turned into a simple choreography of classical ballet. Natalya smiled at the sight, this time not even trying to hide it.

"You should try to perform in front of Alfred, see if this way he'd shut up for once".

Ivan continued dancing, his adagio movements glorifying his sturdy and porcelain frame.

"He calls me ballerino ". He made a pirouette before recapitulating: "Well, he used to. He's been a bit quiet these last two weeks".

His sister approached him, sign to him to stop dancing.

"I like him, sister. He's energic and quirky, and until now he hadn't tried to get away from me". His smile dropped, and he pushed her sister to help him out.

Natalya then recalled the puppy looks he had been sending her these days, almost like imploring forgiveness. Was he asking for permission to hang out with him?

"Ivan... Alfred is impulsive. He is a good man and more clever than he looks; I wouldn't worry about him. Just make sure to punch him down there if he gets too annoying... or just call me". She patted his shoulder.

"...Aren't you a little too protective of me? I'm older than you".

She looked up at his lilac eyes, nostalgia suddenly hitting her. It was only with her family and Toris that he showed her soft side. She hugged him tightly as she could.

"I'll always be looking out for you, big brother. Don't forget that".

Startled, he returned the gesture.

" Always , don't you forget".

 

Back to Gilbert, he finally was heading out of his dorm, a bag full of notebooks and his computer on his side. Just as he moved the handle of the door, a blonde head appeared in front of him.

"Oh, Matthew". He chuckled, letting the Canadian in. "I didn't see you coming in... It's always a delight to see your face anyway".

"Nobody ever notices me anyway", Matthew muttered to himself, ignoring Gil's comment. "I wanted to check my medicine notes since I'm gonna start doing check-ups on you all".

"Are you following a specific order?" Gilbert left his stuff on his bed, assuring himself that he could get back to work later.

"No. So far, I've examined Alfred, Natalya, Elizabeta and myself. But, now that you're saying it- Can I check you up now?".

"Please do. I can continue my work later".

The blonde offered a warm smile and proceeded to take his medical equipment out of his bag. Gilbert observed him thoroughly and quickly noticed his surname embroidered on his suit.

"Your surname is Williams".

Matthew adjusted his glasses after hearing the remark.

"Wasn't your brother's surname Jones? Or- I don't know. You must be brothers, you look alike and everything".

"We are half-brothers, but we still get along and support each other". He turned at Gil, stethoscope in hand. ". Like you and Ludwig".

The German let the other work in silence, only answering his questions when needed. He enjoyed the stillness of the room, filled by their breaths and the occasional beeps of Matthew's tablet.

Once he finished and started packing his gear, Gilbert fixed his glance on the doctor's back and his broad shoulders, and how they flexed as he tidied his bag. A sly smirk was drawn on him.

"You know, I might make you change your surname if you let me".

The blond got up, a small blush painting his cheeks.

"Ask me again in eight months if you're serious. N-Now I have to go. Goodbye, Gilbert".

Eight months?

Matthew closed the door, his hand slightly shaking, and Gilbert started to make counts. We'll be on Mars by then. What the hell does that mean?

"Tch- Damn you, Williams".

 

A couple of hours later, the Russian headed out of the gym, adventuring himself on the comfortable zero gravity. And in just a few seconds, he saw Alfred from afar. He was headed to the cabin with the largest window, probably to admire space from there. Ivan didn't hold up and rushed towards him. Once he had him just inches away, he confronted him, unintentionally confining him against the wall.

"I didn't do anything wrong, right?".

The American almost jolted, surprised by the other's sudden closeness. Once he saw who it was, he relaxed.

"Oh, dude. Don't do that. You almost made me have a heart attack".

The Russian retreated, now aware of how intimidating he might have looked.

"Sorry, I didn't think about that".

"Don't worry".

Alfred battled between feeling happy that the other had sought to him or uneasy for the compromise that it represented.

"You didn't do anything wrong, big guy. We're cool".

The Russian leaned again towards the blonde, insecure about his reply and yearning for more.

"Are you sure? I usually make people feel uneasy. I-".

Alfred closed the distance between them, their noses barely an inch away from each other.

"Ivan, you didn't. Quite the contrary: I like you a lot, ballerino ".

His blue eyes shined, his pupils dilating the same way they did when he saw a guy he fancied.

"I like you too, Alfred".

Okay, that was unexpected. But damn, it was hot. Excited, the American stared deep into Ivan's eyes, caressing his cheek.

"Alfred, do you think I should speak with Ludwig?".

He blanked his expression. What?

Just an instant later, he heard some footsteps nearby; and when he turned, he saw Ludwig on the corridor.

Ouch, with all of this I had almost forgotten about Ludwig. The guy could certainly use Ivan's help.

He pushed Ivan away, directing him to the exit.

"Go now, this way you won't be concerned for long".

"Wait- Are you sure-".

"Just go, and don't let him run away".

Meanwhile, Natalya had been observing them from the corridor, stern look painted anew on her face and trying to determine whether those two should be paired together or not.

 

Ivan didn't last long to catch Ludwig, the later having entered the meeting room and already being immersed in his calculations, switching from tablet to ink and paper and wearing his usual frown. The Russian smiled, seeing him busy and concerned about something other than himself was a reliever.

"Ludwig".

The German stopped typing, concern making its way to his glassy eyes.

"It's Ivan". He offered a warm smile, hoping that it would ease him. Luckily, it worked; the German quickly relaxed the muscles of his face and returned the smile.

"Oh, hey".

He moved his stuff and offered the other the seat next to him, already expecting what the Russian wanted.

"I presume you are not here to ask me about my work, am I right?".

"You're right. At least, not today".

"Not today..." Ludwig repeated the sentence, almost automatically. He turned his gaze to his coworker. "You want to help me. You are worried".

The other opened his mouth to say something but was quickly cut as the German kept talking:

"Since my crisis, everyone on the ship does. I know it's my fault that I'm in this state and that they are concerned, but it makes me-".

"I'll have to stop you there. This is not your fault".

Ludwig bit his lip, not really convinced.

"No, it isn't. One does not just choose to be sad; you of all people should know this".

Ludwig's hands started to shake, the need to do something filling his veins. He packed up his notebooks and tablet as Ivan continued:

"The more you try to pack it up, the more it expands. And when you want to stop yourself from crying, the tears fall with more intensity, and your heart clenches more. Moreover, the more you try to understand what's happening, the less you get it".

His comrade gasped, fearing that he knew too well the words Ivan sang. Suddenly, the room felt too small.

"Can we- can we go somewhere else? I'm feeling a bit undisposed all of a sudden".

For some reason, he still wanted the company of the Russian; it was not every day that he got to share what he felt to someone who seemed to understand him.

 

The two men ended on Ivan's favourite place, the cabin with the largest window. He always enjoyed the little conversations he had there with Alfred.

They spoke the words that came to their mind, vaguely explaining what it felt like without getting personal. Ludwig was surprised how much Ivan understood him: he had always thought that his sturdy demeanour prevented him from describing how he felt to others... He got to the conclusion that he must have been through some tough episodes himself.

After a while, Ivan pushed the personal matter into their discussion. So far, Ludwig has been quite receptive and open. I wonder how he'll react now.

"Your first crisis on the space shuttle was after seeing your recording. A video that featured someone you care about".

Ludwig let the zero gravity embrace him, still listening to Ivan.

"I suppose that what you felt was more than melancholy. Did it make you remember something?".

The German's heart started to beat faster.

"Could it be... that you left something unresolved with him?".

He had hit the nail.

Ivan propelled himself to the window, although at this moment of the day he could not see the Moon: it was hidden behind the Earth. He kept on admiring the abyss before him; he knew it could take time until Ludwig spoke.

Once he felt ready, he let the words come out of his mouth, still wary and scared:

"By now, I'm sure Elizabeta or Gilbert have already told you about Feli. He's my roommate.

We have known each other since I got to the US. Somehow, despite our different jobs and schedules, he always managed to be with me most of the day.

...

God, he is clingy. I don't know how he'll hold on until I go back. I insisted him to go to his Grandpa's or his brothers' while I was away, but he didn't want to.

And when he's not hiding from his boss or a scary film, he's always smiling. A genuine smile. You can see that he feels happy when he laughs".

Ludwig's eyes began to sting. Ivan let him follow.

"I am not blunt or spontaneous, and people always comment on how I'm the man that can do everything except understanding my own emotions, but this- I was confident about this. I told him I loved him".

His colleague incorporated himself, something dry on his throat making it difficult for him to swallow air.

"You might know how it feels to be not rejected, but not understood when you confess your feelings to a man in denial; when he-".

"I'm not homosexual ".

Ludwig finally turned to him.

"I'm sorry...?".

"I don't like men- why would I- No . I'm not that kind of person".

The German looked thoroughly at him, too familiar with this response.

"I don't mean to sound unrespectful; despite what my country says about homosexuality propaganda, I'm a supporter of LGBT rights. I'm just-".

"Don't worry, you're not the only one in denial ".

Ivan went silent absorbing the other's words.

"This is reminding me of Feli. I told him that the moment we were assigned the Nerio mission. He's a womaniser after all, so I wasn't that surprised about his disbelief. But hearing that he misses me messes with my head. I still fancy him, I care too much about him, but I'm in space, and I can't talk to him and fix stuff".

Ludwig stopped talking. "That's it".

Ivan pondered in silence. He had probably been too violent with his last remark, but the accusation of him liking men had turned himself uneasy. I can't like men. This has nothing to do with Father . He soon brushed his thoughts aside, he had to focus on Ludwig.

"I appreciate that you heard me out, Ivan; but why did you come to me?- When you were talking- before I spoke about Feli- you sounded like you had lived it".

"Yes. Lived. In the past". Ivan's voice sounded harsh, but his sharp smile never abandoned him: "I had several family issues, and I didn't handle them well".

Ludwig gasped, he had already seen this coming.

"I know I hurt others too much. And sometimes, though unwitting, I can get violent. It can be dangerous".

Ludwig turned his head and avoided his glance, starting to tear up. He began to talk:

"Doesn't it make you feel miserable?

Others tell you about how tough they see you, but on the inside-".

"It distresses you".

Ludwig's tears escaped his eyes, floating now on zero gravity and adopting a perfect and beautiful spherical shape. The sight fascinated him, and he then wondered how could something born out of sadness be so entrancing.

"Ivan, how do you know that this will end?".

"I don't think you ever know. You just have to fight and let others help you out".

 

Four days later, Ludwig submitted to Ivan's advice and went to visit Matthew for his check-up. Fortunately for him, Matt didn't go through personal details and focused on how Ludwig was feeling.

"I'm afraid we can't do much with what we have here to cure you. You are in a working facility, and this is not the most ideal place to get rid of your concerns. I don't know either if you'd work better with medication or not- but I'm not entitled to do so. I can only recommend you to keep going to the gym to exercise and to try to talk to the others about how you feel. Therapeutic help is what you need the most. Now, I know that you're a perfectionist and won't easily ask for help; but for this one time, you have to let us do. Okay?".

He did not reply, already looking away.

"There's also the option of calling one of Earth's therapists so that they could give you a more specialised treatment. Apart from this, you're completely healthy, but depression can always alter your eating and sleeping periods. It is your call".

Ludwig did not think twice about it: "I don't want you to call them. I'll do just fine by my own".

Matthew sighed hopelessly and typed his report on his tablet.

 

"Ugh, are you sure we wouldn't be more comfortable in the meeting room? We have more space and awesome sofas on there...".

"Shut up, Gil. The point is to confuse Alfred so that he doesn't get to see the movie". Elizabeta sank deeper on the sofa, untying her ponytail and letting her wavy hair fall to her shoulders. Natalya, who was seated between Eliza and Ivan, had done the same; enjoying the comfort of her head for a while.

At the end of his bed, Ivan typed uncomfortably on his laptop, searching for the file.

"I still don't like it, I reckon Alfred would enjoy watching the movie with all of us. Why are we-".

"Because these last days he's been a pain in the ass, whining around for attention". Elizabeta scratched the back of her head.

Ivan finally found the archive and played the movie. He placed the computer on Alfred's bed since it opposed his own, everyone getting closer to watch the film.

Natalya suddenly opened the conversation anew:

"Besides, aren't we watching Anastasia, brother?"

"Yes, we are". The opening credits began to play, it had been a mutual decision to go for this cartoon in particular, and it was one of the few the Russian had in English.

Natalya answered in a soft voice, to avoid disrupting the others:

"Then we have nothing to worry about. He has seen this movie multiple times".

"Oh, yeah, you studied in the same university, right?". Matthew recalled his brother talking about Natalya during his Astronaut courses over the phone.

Ludwig threw a profound sight, later saying:

"Please, can't we just watch the movie in silence?".

"Oh, little brother. You have the heart of a child, no matter how much you try to hide it with your tough appearance". He tried to ruffle Ludwig's hair, but the latter was fast enough to read his intentions and stop him mid-way.

"Tch-Come on, guys; let's do as Ludwig says".

Gilbert sat quietly on his place. After all, they were doing this as an attempt to make Ludwig happy.

 

"I like this film very much: seeing one that doesn't characterise Russians as evil spies, enemies of the Americans, is always nice".

The crew turned blank, no one really knowing what to say. For an hour now, silence had governed the room, only filled by the sound of the film and momentaneously interrupted during the part where Anastasia sang Once upon a December . Matthew ventured himself into the conversation:

"You're right, it's nice seeing this for a change; but wasn't Anastasia's story different?".

"Oh, yeah. It is. But this adaptation always lights my heart". Ivan unconsciously reached for his scarf, trying to comfort himself from his emotions.

Then, the door suddenly burst open.

"Uh-oh".

"I KNEW IT. How can you trick me into going to the frontal cabin while you were watching a movie? How could you , Eli?!".

The captain was laughing helplessly, almost falling, amused by Alfred's disappointed expression.

"Come on, it was a joke!".

The American pouted. He entered the room and looked at the screen. He gasped loudly.

"You're watching Anastasia of all films?! Natalya, move aside; I want to watch it".

"I swear to God, Alfred-". Matthew tried to intervene unsuccessfully, as always.

"Oh, and Ivan-".

The Russian turned to him, turning his whole attention to him and forgetting about the film. Alfred pointed at the Russian’s chest.

"You owe me a night of movies and chill. I can't believe that this is the only thing you have in there".

"No, but-".

"Then it's done".

Ludwig leaned in and turned the volume higher, almost unable of hearing the voices of the characters. Meanwhile, Matt adjusted his glasses and murmured to himself:

"You're so childish and clingy, Alfred".

"Fuck off, Matt! Don't you have Gilbert to crawl onto?".

Elizabeta opened her eyes wide after hearing his response:

"Woah, rude!".

"I might do it if you don't chill, Al!".

"Oh, Matt, don't praise me like that!".

"...What are you, teenagers?". Ludwig ignored them as he could, now being the only one focused on the film, which was now almost at its end. Even Nat jumped into the fire:

"I can't believe that Matthew just lost his position of the only straight of the crew".

Alfred gasped excitedly: " Natalya !".

"Guys... keep it down. I promise we will have another movie night". Ivan was slightly blushing, trying to raise the neck of his polo.

Gilbert sank deeper on the bed, now mumbling:

"Ugh...Can’t we watch another one now?"

"Beep. Beep. Beep" .

Everyone turned to Elizabeta's special device. It was from control.

"Oh, bloody hell, they’re calling from control. Come on, team; let’s go".

Chapter Text

Natalya wandered around the passages of the ship, her mind already diving through the existential questions that always accompanied her. Even if it distracted her to the point she forgot what she was doing, she enjoyed them.

She kept traversing the grey tunnels, trying to find the blond head that belonged to Alfred.

" Access denied ".

That wasn't a human voice, someone must be arranging a module nearby.

She followed the sound, finally realising that it came from the shuttle opening area.

Ah, he's there.

Alfred was giving his back to Natalya, occupied with the touchpad near the door of the shuttle. With one hand, he was holding his tablet, and with the other, he carried some pliers. Seeing how the touchpad was already taken to pieces, Natalya assumed he had been there for a while.

He looked closer into his work, then kept his tablet in one of the pockets of his belt. Natalya launched herself near him, still quiet and not wanting to disturb him.

"Ah... I think I found the right code".

The American quickly rearranged the inside of the panel, making his tablet lit up.

" Format accepted. Loading update ".

"Yes!". The blond smiled, raising a fist with vehemence and letting go a deep breath.

Relieved, he started collecting his tools on his belt, momentaneously forgetting the pliers on the air and letting them float away. Natalya grabbed them in silence, still not revealing her position.

Finally, Alfred noticed his missing tool.

"What..?".

As he turned, Natalya handed the pliers to his owner, her pale lilac eyes reflecting the greyness of the room.

Alfred's mouth changed from an o to a sly smirk.

"It's true; you've always been good at the throw and catch".

He packed them with the rest and proceeded to rub his neck, disturbed by a sudden sharp pain.

"So, how was your day?".

"Tiring". The pair remained on the room, trying to hold themselves to the walls' cavities to stay still. "I still have to go to the frontal cabin to deliver a message to Control back on Earth".

Alfred raised an eyebrow, sceptical.

"Yeah, for some reason I don't believe you".

She gave him one of her deadly stares. Catching the cue, he let the topic go. He clicked his tongue in annoyance, however.

"Tch-Okay, I won't bug you with that. But why are you here?".

She turned her face, almost flustered.

"Oh". The American's eyes shone like Christmas lights through his glasses. If I didn't know you better, I'd say you're an open book, dear. "You wanted to chat with me".

She turned to him, deadly stare still drawn on her eyes.

"Do- Don't make that face, Nat! I know that you're not as expressive as I am, but that doesn't mean we can't talk like we used to on University".

The muscles of his face contracted themselves, forming a pout familiar to Natalya.

"We can always talk; doesn't matter if we don't have an excuse for it".

"...Okay. Thanks, Alfred".

His whole face lit up again at those words. He then tightly embraced his companion, the other remaining impassive to his gesture.

"See, that what friends are for!".

"Alfred, let me go".

"Okay".

Their conversation then followed through trivial matters, mostly discussing any doubt they had with their work report (which was due to the next spacewalk). Then:

"Oh! I've been thinking about something, Nat".

"...".

"You never told me much about Ivan, apart from how much you cared about him. Is he like the black sheep of the family or-?".

With a swift movement, Natalya grabbed Alfred's collar with one hand. Her face was stern, but her chest raised and decreased dangerously.

"Don’t you dare to touch my brother. You’re my friend, but I won’t hesitate".

"Bitch, was that a Vine reference?".

"Shut up and listen".

Her grab was now stronger, but Alfred's face still showed no trace of distress.

"I told you to be gentle with him. There's no reason why he should stand you if you're making him feel bad. What if you triggered him or-".

"Woah, dude. That's not what I'm doing at all! I'm just fooling around, teasing him...".

"...Flirting?".

Suddenly, his cheeks turned red. He brushed it off by replying:

"Yeah, if that's what you do when you go every odd night to the communication's room. Because that's definitely not for work".

Natalya finally released him.

"Leave it be".

And as silently as she entered the cabin, she left.

Alfred breathed again with uniformity, now recapitulating about the conversation that had taken place just seconds ago. With his cheeks still painted in red, he exasperated in a low voice.

"Woah. What the hell is going on in this ship".

 

Since that conversation, a week went by, with all the astronauts busy with their papers.

Ludwig was holding on one of the walls' cavities, trying to restore his lungs from a recent panic attack. Shaking his head, he brushed the traces of tears left on his face with the back of his hand.

Mein Gott, I have to get better if I don't want to become a nuisance for the crew. Come on, Ludwig.

Leaning his head back, he inspired.

Think about something nice. Think about Earth.

He then expired. His breath was finally going back to normal.

After recovering his shape, he resumed his path; and a couple of aisles ahead he crossed Natalya, who solely drifted around with her gaze lost.

"Excuse me-".

She calmly turned to him, aloof and undistressed.

"Are you okay, miss?".

"Yes, don't worry. I just zoned out and forgot what I was doing".

Ludwig softened his expression, and spoke to himself in a low timbre:

"That's been happening to me as well".

"But Ludwig, you can call me Natalya. We've been working together for a couple of months now".

"Yes, sorry".

The German's eyes stung, still itchy from crying before. Notwithstanding his anguish, he remained still, wary of giving any suspicions of his weakness.

"I see you agitated, is there anything wrong?".

"I-".

"Moreover, why are you here?".

Natalya had tried to sound amicable, but her words had ended up sounding hostile to his German friend. He, in turn, winced back for an instant. She continued, her ponytail waving behind her as she got closer to him.

"Did Alfred send you?".

"... No, he didn't, I was just on my way to Matt's room; he asked to check on me again".

Having expected to hear something different, Natalya's lips shaped like an o after catching his words. She could feel the embarrassment lightly painting her pale skin.

Silence consumed the two of them, neither comfortable enough to speak first. They weren't even used to fill taciturnity, so this situation unsettled them both. Eventually, after a few seconds, the blond German dared to speak.

"I'd like to ask- if it's not too improper for me to- how did you and Alfred come to bond? You- The two of you couldn't be any more different, and yet...".

It almost reminded him of his relationship with Feli; and, for once, the thought didn't make him feel sad. She observed him with awe, trying to find her voice.

"I... I don't know. It's pretty nice having him around. Alfred can be supportive and humorous when one needs him to. And I...I...".

She didn't plan to let her sentence be inconclusive, but yet there she was, trying to hold herself to the cavities of the wall and floating in zero gravity lost again in her thoughts.

The sight amused Ludwig, who couldn't help but notice how Natalya's ponytail couldn't stay in place. What would Feli say now?

"You should wear a bun more often. The bow you wear with it favours you more".

Just a few words. That was all that Natalya had had to hear to open her eyes wide and become blushed like never before. Even some words she thought to keep to herself escaped her mouth:

"Ivan and Toris have say that too".

Of course, composed as Ludwig was, he merely raised an eyebrow; reluctant to open the topic when she had clearly begun it by mistake. Instead, they just arranged some meetings to get their job together and clean, considering that the abilities of the two could help each other; and just before leaving, Natalya made a request:

"I know Ivan is trying to help you, and I appreciate that. But please, do the same for him if he's ever not okay. I'll always try to be there for him, but...".

Parallelly, they both reminisced of conversations shared with Ivan in the past. Hopelessly, Ludwig replied:

"Yeah, don't worry: I will".

And with that, they finally put an end to that awkward conversation.

 

The day of the spacewalk finally arrived, with all of the astronauts having uploaded their monthly reports and prepared to send them after relocating the antenna. Like last time, Alfred and Ivan were the ones sent out, both happy enough to be in space and to be with each other. In the meantime, in the communication's cabin, the rest of the crew bantered about everything and anything, all except Ludwig and Elizabeta clear of any duty at that moment.

Gilbert was switching his field of focus back and forth, to the door and to Matthew, a small and unusual frown drawn on his face. And despite being busy herself, Elizabeta was inquisitive enough to notice it first.

"Spit it out, Gil; what's on your mind?".

The albino German then gasped, cupping his head with his hands in exaggerated surprise.

" It's just so awesome - I mean, I'm still not over the fact that Matty is a big brother as well: we have many things in common now!".

The attention was now brought to the Canadian, who merely tried to hid his rubor by saying:

"Thank you".

Hearing that though his helmet radio, Ivan couldn't help but innocently dart:

"That was not a compliment?".

"HA! Dude, I can't believe that you're 29 and can't tell a remark from a compliment!".

By now, Matthew was blushing to the tip of his ears, more enraged by his brother rather than by his mistake.

"Not funny, Alfred!".

An arm slid through the Canadian's shoulders, almost making the latter jolt in surprise.

"Aw, come on. I wouldn't mind throwing you a pair of compliments to make it even now...".

"Gilbert, please- you're not helping me".

Ludwig, ignoring their small talk, send some instructions to Alfred and Ivan:

" You should make sure that the lateral poles align with-".

"Oh, Matty! Is that flirting what I'm hearing?".

And despite Ivan hadn't been participating in that conversation too much, he started cackling, delighted by his partner's childish humour.

"NO, IT IS NOT".

For a couple of seconds, the only sound that could be heard were electronic beeps and Ivan's faint laughter from the radio. It wasn't long until Matthew inquired:

"Alfred, for God's sake-I don't have to see you to know that you're finger-gunning towards the ship. Stop that".

And with that, Natalya finally burst out of her bubble and started laughing like a maniac.

Ludwig massaged his forehead, realising that notwithstanding being the youngest there, he was the only one remaining calm. Luckily, Elizabeta noticed it; and quickly took the lead:

"Okay, guys; that was funny. But we still have some work to do; come on".

 

In the end, to everyone's surprise, Ivan and Alfred did some handy work on the antenna, having located a loose screw that could have messed up the whole integrity of the instrument in a couple months if they hadn't taken care of it. Therefore, when they came back to the shuttle room, they both received compliments and pats from the rest of the crew.

Hours later, the messages from Earth arrived for the astronauts. The majority of them were sending Christmas blessings since it was already the 22nd of December and they wouldn't be able to get them on the date.  

This time, Feli showed up as well on the German's video message, making all of the astronauts get closer together to see the face of said Italian.

The boy seemed lanky and younger than the German, even if they knew they were the same age; his eyes were chocolate brown and his hair as well, bearing a unique curl as well.

" Hey, Lud! I'm staying with your family for Christmas this year. I know my brothers and Grandpa won't be too happy with this, but-uh- I wanted to keep Italia with me... She misses you as well! ".

He then proceeded to raise their dog from the ground, the canine already barking and wiggling her tail with excitement, like she already knew who would receive the message. Ludwig smiled weakly, and his mates looked at each other with satisfaction on their face. Little by little.

Nothing out of the extraordinary came to Matthew, Alfred, Ivan or Natalya (although the latter had been giving side-glances to the hidden message Toris had sent her); and Elizabeta almost jived after receiving a recording from Roderich playing an original piece for her on piano.

But when Gilbert looked at the video he was sent by his friends:

" Heyyy, Gil! Have a Joyeux Noël!

Feliz Navidaaad!

How is it going there in space, mon ami? Are you even busy?

Ha! Francis, let Gil do his botanic things wherever he wants".

The two of them were clearly joking, but the German's exaggerated expression almost made him look like he was about to have a heart attack.

" Mein Gott , how dare they? I'm a pretty busy and awesome man".

Eliza thought that he didn't have enough, and soon joined the game:

"Gilbert, even Roderich would be more useful in here, and he's a composer".

He brought his hands to his chest, leaning back:

"How- Not fair! You can't compare me with Roderich, you know I love him!".

Silence fell on the room, everyone now glaring the albino with curiosity.

"What, can't someone express a platonic crush they have?".

"No".

"Lud! Come on, you're supposed to defend me!".

Elizabeta raised an eyebrow, trying to make Gilbert feel more exposed, to which he replied:

"No- You know I wouldn't: He's your fiance, after all".

A couple feet away, Alfred whispered to the Slavs:

"Dude, that's the fakest no homo ever".

To that, Ivan slightly grinned, and Natalya quietly nodded in approval. Alfred's eyes then shone like stars, and he softly bumped the Russian's arm.

Back to Gilbert, who was still helplessly trying to defend himself, Ludwig patted the back of his brother, as a sign of compassion. The red-eyed then pouted and looked for Matthew's arms:

"You know what? You can all go suck it; I already have Matt as my booty call".

"I'm no one's booty call, thank you".

The Canadian quietly apologised, excusing himself from a conversation he hadn't been part of yet. Despite his words, he still hugged Gilbert tightly, hoping that everyone would calm down then.

Ultimately, Alfred raised his voice; receiving surprised looks from everyone:

"Okay, okay. Let's wrap it up now, everybody".

 

Since not all of the crew's members celebrated Christmas back home, they decided to throw a party the 31st instead, making it last as long as they wanted since they couldn't keep track of a specific timezone there in space.

Alfred and Ivan were the responsible ones to find a way to plug the ship's internal speakers to Natalya's laptop and make it sound only in the meeting's room. They had left the job to the previous day of the party, knowing that it wouldn't take them too much trouble anyway.

Almost painted with fear, the American's eyes lit up scanning the room; uneasy since the only thing he could see from the window were stars. At two months on board, Alfred was already feeling homesick: he craved for the sun rising on the sky, the passing clouds giving him a homey shadow, the breeze...

His companion was experiencing the same urge, but he knew better than to yearn for something that accompanied him with fear and troublesome memories. On the other hand, Ivan couldn't help to think about her big sister: Sofia had always been there to protect him, even if by herself she was a crybaby; it had been her who had given him the scarf... right after the accident. Ivan lifted the neck of his t-shirt at the thought: It had been 12 years since then. Actually... exactly 12 years that day.

"Happy birthday, брат !".

Her little sister had unexpectedly come from behind and was now hugging him with all of her strength, almost lifting the Russian up.

"Woah! Thank you, Natalya! I had almost forgotten it was today".

With a modest expression, she shook her head in disapproval, leaving the room as quick as she had entered it. Alfred had remained silent the whole time.

"Oh, my ballerino. Why didn't you tell me it was your birthday?!".

He swiftly took the tools from Ivan's hands and proceeded to do the little job they had by himself. The Russian contemplated the scene confused:

"...What are you doing?".

"It's your birthday, you idiot!". He kept working, fast but precise, not showing his face to his companion. "If I had known, I would have- uh- planned something. Now, this is the least I could do for you".

And as soon as he caught the American's fluster covering his cheeks, his heart jumped, beating a rhythm he hadn't experienced before.

"Alfred...".

The blond finally turned to him, his comical expression having disappeared for once, and couldn't help but smile at the sight of the other.

And, once more, Ivan smiled truthfully.

 

That night, it had been Ivan the one that joined Alfred on his bed, the other falling more and more for the Russian to complain about his proximity. He could sense that his partner sought comfort and protection, and that gave Alfred something to think about.

Maybe this is related to Natalya's warnings... this, the reason why he never wears anything but long sleeved t-shirts and long necks... But, why? What happened to you?

 

The real party began when Elizabeta and Gilbert brought the special surprise they had promised.

"Booze? You brought booze to the ship?".

Alfred held the bottle of whiskey carefully in contrast to Ludwig, who was already opening his beer and swallowing the whole of its content in one go.

Elizabeta kept giving the drinks to whoever accepted them, which resulted in everyone but the American.

"Hey, it's just for special occasions, and we can make sure nobody steps out of the- Gilbert, mit csinálsz ?! That's your second can, you know".

Matthew quickly took it off his hands and drank it himself, gaining a pat from his brother.

"Aren't you having one as well, Al?".

"Eh... I think I'll pass this one time. I'd rather one of us remain sober just in case".

" баязлівец ".

"Wha- Nat! I heard you said something, and I'm sure it wasn't something nice".

She chuckled, gulping some whisky herself before calling his brother:

"How's the stereo doing?".

"Good, I'll switch it on right away".

Highway to Hell started blasting through the speakers, unanimously liting up a smile on the astronauts' faces.

The single was followed later by Rock the Night, Black Betty and many other well-known rock anthems. Noticing that none of the songs were in Belarusian, Eliza asked:

"Is this... really your playlist?".

"Yeah. What? Did you think that I had a poor taste in music?".

"Oh! I- uh- no! It's lovely, actually, but...".

"None of them is in Belarusian or Russian, I know. I save them for other occasions, don't worry".

"Ah... Cool!".

An unspoken confidentially burned between the two of them, who went back to partying while they could.

Away from them, Alfred wondered:

"Ivan, is your music taste like your sister's?".

"Uh- no. Mine is dull and boring, compared to hers".

The American chuckled in disapproval, slowly adjusting his glasses. Within those seconds, Ivan was able to distinguish the shape of an OFU tattooed on his wrist; and when the blond noticed the lilac eyes on him, he just winked at the other playfully.

Ludwig was near the rest, openly smiling like he hadn't cried before.

"He seems happy; I think the party was a good idea".

"Mhm- it was indeed. I don't think Ludwig will recover with simply because of a party, but this... it could be the beginning".

"You're wrong, joining this crew was already the beginning. I know it".

 

"You should have said something to him. You had the opportunity right in front of you, and you let it slip!".

"STOP! I couldn't do it, Ivan. I couldn't".

It had been almost a month since the New Year's Party, and except Gilbert's birthday, there hadn't been too much movement these last days. But now that it had fallen to Ivan's ears how Ludwig hadn't replied to his Christmas message, the latter was in for it.

"Listen... I know it's hard, but you won't make any progress if you just hide from things like this. I'm telling you from experience".

"Don't tell me that when you don't even know who or what do you like!".

"Tch- I told you already; I am not like you. I don't like men".

Woah, who the fuck is screaming like that?

Alfred ventured himself, trying to find the source of the yelling voices. He then located Ludwig and Ivan, a tense atmosphere surrounding them. Hesitant, he left his distance, remaining on the shadows while he listened the two of them arguing.

"I don't believe you".

"I'm trying to help you, don't you turn the table on me".

"Ivan, you can't possibly help me when you are so deep in denial".

"I'm not in denial!". The Russian turned to the wall, exalted and enraged. The German could tell that his heart was close to bursting out of his chest.

"What about Alfred?".

"I don't ... like Alfred. I can't , alright?!".

Ivan left the room abruptly, and while Ludwig tried to follow him, he noticed Alfred, frozen like a statue.

"...What the-".

Chapter Text

Saturn, a Titan in Roman mythology that devoured his children to preserve himself on the throne.

Saturn, a planet considered beautiful by many, cold and lifeless; and despite it all, alone.

Ivan considered himself a Saturn. Precious, alone, cold, a vile tyrant… In comparison, Alfred was the Earth: chaotic but lively. The Earth adored Saturn, but a threatening distance and miles of menaces separated the two enormously. The Earth, however, wasn’t going to give up like that.

 

Alfred had been meddling with the possible meanings of what he had just heard; and from all the emotions that were devouring him on those moments, the feeling of a loss persisted on him. But where did that loss come from? An infatuation? No, it was something more than just lust. Ivan hadn’t said he didn’t love him. His words had been “I can’t like him”.

It frustrated him how he had misread all the signals. It was true that he had little experience, but usually, this closeness meant that Ivan was fond of Alfred.

Was he, really?

Was Ivan really repulsed by Alfred?

 

Collapsed by his thoughts, he let anger dominate him. He knew, however, that he wouldn't be able to face Ivan yet; at least not that day. In light of that, he made his way to his room as calm as he could, rushing to get his stuff together. Once there, he grabbed some spare clothes, his sheets and his pillow, decided to sleep somewhere else.

 

"...therefore, if the WHO hadn't read my work, they would've-".

Beep.

The occupants of the chamber turned surprised at the sound: Alfred was by the door, his arms full of stuff to spend the night and his expression empty, traces of annoyance still making his eyes twitch.

"I'm going to stay the night, please make some space, Matt".

The Canadian leaned back at the same time that he adjusted his glasses, a bit startled by his sibling's arrival but accustomed to the other's ways.

"... Okay, don't bother to ask for permission; just settle yourself and get comfortable".

"I will".

In disbelief, Gilbert looked at Matt, expecting an answer from his roommate. Seeing that his only response was to shake his head and shrug his shoulders, he sighed and went back to the conversation the intruder had interrupted.

At a corner of the room, Alfred started to place his temporary bed. here's no way I'll sleep comfortably in this. He sighed.

"I'll just take a shower for now".

 

The blond pressed his hands against the wall, his nails almost digging through concrete and his breath suddenly agitated.

It hasn't been that long since we left, and this is not that different to stay aboard the ISS... Damn it.

He missed having a proper shower: the only thing he could do up there in space to clean himself was to apply some dry shampoo, and he swore it wasn't making him any cleaner. The Russian's recent words echoing through his head didn't help at all either. He was being petty, or at least that was what his mind was telling him, making him feel even more tired. I really could use a couple of hours of sleep at least.

A couple of hours later, under his companions silent glares, he settled down and closed his eyes, hoping somehow to sleep and to wake up so that everything had been just a dumb dream.

 

Of course, it wasn't that easy. Alfred’s mind was always in constant movement, and every single spur of irregularity disrupted him notoriously. After five hours of sleep, he decided to sit down and distract himself with his tablet, blinking several times to see the screen because he wasn't using his glasses.

“Alfred”.

The American turned to the owner of the voice. A figure slowly sat down on their bed, their broad shoulders and messy flocks of hair giving up the identity of the man.

“Oh, Mattie. I didn't wake you up, didn't I?”.

“Not this time”.

Matthew vacillated, wondering if he had to put on his glasses or if he still had some spare time to rest; but with a quick glance to the sleeping German he quickly gave up. He interrogated his sibling then:

“Is your lack of sleep a result of whatever sent you here to sleep?”.

“Ah … yeah”

“Was Ivan somehow related?”.

Even with the bare light of the tabled illuminating Alfred, Matthew noticed his eyes shine furtively. He didn't have to ask twice to know he had guessed it right.

“He- Matt, I don't want to bother you with this”.

“...”

“Matt, I can't see you with the lights off, but I know you just raised an eyebrow, didn't you?”.

“Well, what do you ex-”.

“I’m serious. I’m just being petty because of something I heard”.

Matthew was clever and way less incognizant than his brother; he quickly put two and two together.

“Does Ivan know that you have an infatuation on him?”.

“SHUSH, MATT! Could you be a little bit more tactful, or is that too much to ask?!”.

“Okay, I won't ask”.

He laid down again and heard his brother turn off his device.

The Canadian let silence consume the room again for several minutes, and then he spoke again:

“Ivan cares about you”.

Silence.

“But you have to be tactful with him. Don't be blunt and aggressive. Don't force him to talk about something he doesn't want to. Please, learn to read the atmosphere and back off if the situation becomes perilous”.

Alfred didn't say a thing, but his brother knew well that he was still awake. Letting Morpheus’ arms embrace him, he hoped that his brother would listen to his advice.

 

“Did you forget what you had to do today?”

Alfred stared blankly at his breakfast, trying to process Elizabeta’s query.

“...we have that monthly antenna thing. Are you feeling tired? I could send someone else if you're-”.

“NO! I’m fine. I’ll go”.

Ludwig and Eliza exchanged looks in silence. Alfred never stopped to surprise them.

The two of them went back to a conversation they had left behind, and while they spoke, Matthew patted Alfred's head.

“Fucking he-”

“Did you speak to him already?”.

“No, I did not. Now let me eat in silence”.

I know I might just be making a mountain out of a molehill, but I don't think I'm ready to speak to him just now. He completely forgot that he was going to spacewalk with him in just a couple of hours.

 

“Alfred! You didn’t come to sleep last night, didn’t you-? Ah!”.

Ivan had to stop mid-sentence due to Alfred suddenly shoving his spacial garment against his chest, with enough strength to even make him stumble a bit.

His partner mumbled the following as he began to wear his suit as well:

"Let's just get this done already, please".

With that, the blonde pushed himself to the door; leaving a confused Ivan behind. He slowly imitated him, feeling the other's tension carve him like a knife; and despite being the tallest, at that moment he felt inexplicably small.

 

At the control room, where the rest of the team would be managing the communication with the two astronauts, tension was growing as well. Ludwig made sure that he had opened his notepad app on his tablet, giving side glances around the room to check if anyone else was noticing anything off.

I don't recall being paranoid in the past, but now...

The Canadian was somewhat absent-minded as well, something unusual on him.

I suppose Matthew knows something as well, maybe it's related to Alfred's mood this morning.

He paced slowly towards him, gathering the pleasure of the others being busy enough with their work to notice him.

"Matthew".

"Hey, Ludwig; what can I do for you?".

"I'm somewhat concerned about Alfred; are we sure that we can send him out there?".

His companion took a deep breath, taking his glasses to clean them as he spoke:

"To be honest, I'm not sure myself; but my brother is a stubborn one". He glanced back at Ludwig, noticing the distraught look in his eyes. "Alfred's annoyed with Ivan because he heard something he shouldn't have".

And with that bit of information, Ludwig suddenly became aware of what was going on. He couldn't help but feel pity for those two oblivious airheads.

Well, at least it's not something serious.

 

Alfred positioned his helmet on his head, his radio still turned off and not tied up yet to the metallic rope that secured him to the ship. His Russian companion did the same but at a slower pace, giving several side-glances to the American and feeling remorse eat him from the inside.

Remorse? Why would I be feeling remorse?

... I don't even think I've ever felt remorse.

His partner finally spoke, still giving his back to him:

"Ivan, what you said yesterday... were you serious?".

By then they were both settled up, tied and secure, so the words of the American were the only thing occupying their minds right then.

"Serious about what, little American?".

The affection on those last words made Alfred shiver, becoming even more confused about the Russian's feelings. He finally turned to face him.

"Please, don't- You were talking with Ludwig yesterday".

Ivan tilted his head, his expression almost resembling one of a puppy.

"For fuck's sake... Ivan, just tell me, I'm getting sick of all of your contradictions: do you love me?".

His words penetrated Ivan's skull like a missile, and Alfred swore that his lilac eyes had suddenly turned paler. Growing impatient, he asked again:

"Are you queer, Ivan?".

"No, I'm not! Stop asking me that, please".

Now it was Alfred the one who froze in place, feeling as miserable and contradicted as ever. All of this time... he had been messing around with him for fun?

"You fucking-".

"Shuttle gate opening in t minus 10 seconds. Please activate your communication devices".

The voice of the speakers put them both in place, interrupting Alfred's rage indefinitely. They'd have to focus on their work momentarily and leave the topic for later. Or at least that was what Ivan hoped for, oblivious to Alfred's thoughts.

 

" Well, you do remember the procedure, right? You shouldn't have any problem today; just check that everything is in order".

"...".

"Braginsky, Jones? Do you copy?".

"Affirmative! We do copy. We will proceed as usual; over".

Ivan responded for his companion, who was usually the one to answer calls from the crew. He always tried to stay calm and keep himself down, but the queries Alfred had just thrown him were slowly unveiling a part of himself he liked to remain covered. The frustration on his tone only made things worse. If he hadn't been wearing his spacesuit, he'd probably have already begun to caress his right forearm, falling again to his compulsion.

From the frontal cabin, the remainder of the unit listened expectantly to the silence that came from the radio; it was like Alfred wasn't even there. Even Natalya was failing to catch her breath, still uninformed of what was going to happen.

The American finally addressed himself to the Russian, on a conversation he'd later wish that he hadn't started.

"You know what? You're actually just like your looks indicate: colder than liquid nitrogen or the planets beyond the Asteroid Belt. And a freaking piece of shit".

Each one of his words resonated through everyone's radio, leaving the crew frozen at that hostility.

Natalya stepped further towards the mic.

"Alfred, please back off" . Her tone held no trace of anger, but of distress.

On the other side, Ivan started to shake, reminiscing about cold times that he wanted to forget. He was almost mumbling something. It's getting cold, it's getting cold.

The American, however, didn't stop himself, all of his embarrassment now becoming a burst of rage.

"I was excited, you told me you liked me. Were those just words to you?".

"I... I do like you". Ivan was holding as he could to the metallic rope that secured him, almost glued to the ship compared to Alfred. "I don't understand you".

His sister was now gripping to the mic. She couldn't see him, but the way his voice fluttered couldn't mean anything good.

"Please, just stop. If you have issues, figure them out first".

Issues.

The Russian's gaze clouded, his mind full of fog that brought him to years ago. Troublesome. Won't you ever learn? Resolve your issues for once, сын . He reached out for Alfred's cable, his hand shaking like himself.

"...What? Is this because of some family issues?".

Matthew took the mic from Natalya, voicing her request: "Alfred, stop".

Ivan mumbled again: It's getting cold.

Albeit his crew's calls, the American did not surrender.

"Is it your father? Is that why you cover yourself, why you are so shallow, why you are so-".

Click.

It took a couple of seconds for Alfred, and for the rest of the team who was on the frontal cabin, the silence only disturbed them even more.

"What... Ah, oh, no; oh, no; oh, no. Please, Ivan. Don't let go. FOR FUCK'S SAKE, DON'T LET GO".

Elizabeta asked through the mic: "Alfred, what's going on?!".

"My, oh... my cable... I- MAYDAY, MAYDAY. PLEASE HELP ME!".

" Ivan... what's going on?" .

But the latter could not reply. The Russian was on the verge of tears, his head out of place and a hideous grin drawn his pale face. He held on his left hand the metallic rope that attached Alfred to the ship, now just holding Alfred with the bare strength of the Russian. If he let the rope slip, the American's fate would be settled.

"Alfred, we can't help you if you don't talk to us".

"Alfred!".

"The- The rope. Ivan-he cut loose my rope".

Fear consumed every single one of the astronauts, none of them knowing what to do. Some tried to ask Ivan to secure Alfred back to the ship, and Natalya remained quiet all the while.

Realising that his fate was on his hands,  Alfred ventured himself again:

"Ivan, it's okay. I stepped out of the line. I'm sorry. But I really don't want to die like this".

Grasping his rope, he tried to propel himself towards his partner; always cautious not to let himself go. At just a couple of feet away from him, he finally noticed his twisted expression: he was scared, and he was absent. Seeing the paleness of his iris made him forget about his position and worry about his partner.

"Ivan... let's go back".

Ivan finally remembered those words. It's getting cold, let's go back . His eyes then widened, his cheeks wet from the tears that had already escaped his lacrimals. Without hesitating, he used all of his strength to pull the rope towards him and catch Alfred. The two men hugged each other as tightly as they could, both to secure Alfred and to comfort each other.

 

Once back at the ship, they were surrounded by the rest of the crew, all anxious and confused about what they had just heard. Nevertheless, neither of the two spacemen had the energy to respond.

Natalya gave side-glances to his brother, wondering if he was okay.

Eliza and Gilbert tried to defend Alfred, questioning Ivan about his dangerous action and almost losing their papers.

Ludwig did not say a thing, believing that he had nothing to say about what just happened; sensing that it was too intimate for them to meddle in.

But, surprisingly, Matthew was the one who reacted the worst.

"I told you to shut your mouth, Alfred".

"Fuck off, Matt, I'm not in the mood to hear you scold me- ARGH !".

His sibling had just punched him in the face, leaving some pain that would surely annoy his brother for a while.

"You never listen, do you? Just come with me, I want to get you checked".

Following his words, he grabbed Alfred and got out of the room, leaving the other startled.

Ivan didn't raise his glance, not even for one second, still startled and frozen; thousands of words echoing in his mind. He gave a furtive look towards his right forearm, hidden from everyone under his long sleeves. I snapped again, after all these years...

Not even the quiet and vast space surrounding them was able to calm them down after what had happened. No one dared to speak, and the recordings that were sent to them that day remained unseen for a couple days. From that day on, Ivan would surely spend lonely and terrifying nights on his own.

 

Once the brothers arrived at the Canadian's room, he took out his tools out and finally hugged the American.

"For a second I feared he would let you go. You should have listened to me".

"...You're right. But there was no way I'd know that he'd react like this".

He let Matthew examine him, while his thoughts consumed him and his chest keep expanding and contracting itself from the fear he had just experienced.

"It wasn't until I got close to him that I saw his face, Matt. His eyes... everything tells me that there's something wrong with him. I need your help”.

His brother knew what he was hinting at, but he didn't want to voice his thoughts.

"What do you mean?".

"I think... that there's something that makes Ivan be this way. Something that I triggered when I spoke about his father ".

"I don't understand why you'd want to help him given the circumstances".

"Tch- It was my fault, I messed up. I always overreact with this stuff. And, despite what happened today, I still like him, haha. I guess I am indeed an American idiot".

With determination, the Canadian stared at his brother. Seeing him act so mature for once was something that he wasn't expecting. However, he knew pretty well the strength behind those blue eyes; Alfred would not halt.

"Alright then. I'll look through Ivan's medical reports".

Chapter Text

Elizabeta sat against the fence of her little garden, enjoying the silence granted to her by the vales isolating her small town. After the news of the proposal, her parents had invited Roderich to their place to have lunch together.

She had to momentaneously excuse herself and go outside, to finish preparing her reports for the Nerio's mission. She had discussed it with her fiance, and although he had seemed indulgent to her ambitions so far, she couldn't help but worry that she was somewhat gonna abandon her betrothal for two years...

"There. I found this red tulip and all I could think about is about how gorgeous you'd look with it".

Roderich was now kneeling in front of her, adjusting the crimson flower on Elizabeta's hair.

"Are you then confessing that all of the sonnets that you wrote to me praising my beauty were a fraud?".

"Uh... what?". Roderich's glasses fell to the bridge of his nose, something that happened to him when he was outsmarted. She chuckled and brought herself closer to him.

"It's okay, I won't ask for your brain to overwork today".

"Oh, darling! You know that a single flower can't make you any better, not when you're going to become the head of your own astronauts' crew".

"Haha, thanks, kedvesem... No man had ever given me a flower before".

"Not even Gilbert?".

"For the last time, I did not date that German... did you?".

"No!".

Elizabeta looked away.

"... My previous significant ones considered me to act too boyish to be given such a thing".

"Since when are flowers just a thing for feminity, anyway?".

Her lips corners' curved, picking the tulip from her lover's hands and pressing it against his chest.

"You're right, it would favour you much more anyway, Roderich".

 

"Eliza, wake up".

Her head began to hurt as she slowly started to wake up. The voice that brought her back from sleep kept on pushing her, and she finally waved her arms in hope to hit the owner of that voice.

"Hey! Stop doing that!".

She finally opened her eyes wide.

"Gilbert? You better have a good reason to come wake up your commander".

"Jeez, I don't know how we're still friends... I just wanted to ask you something. Besides, we've all been awake for a while now".

The Hungarian slowly sat up, now curiously hearing his friend's words and trying to recall yesterday's events, now clouded by her recent dream.

"We're all concerned about yesterday's incident".

She finally remembered Ivan's actions and the crew's panic as they all discovered that they had almost lost a peer out there in space. Her expression now almost made her look older than she was. As the captain of the crew, she had been meddling last night about the possibles outcomes of any decision she were to make. Never before she had felt like she had that much responsibility.

"What is your decision?".

"I don't know, Gilbert. I've been thinking about it, but I don't want to make the wrong decision".

"Well, we have to find one; he almost killed Jones".

"I know...".

"Then act like that! I can't help but imagine Roderick or Ludwig on his place. Would you worry more if it were him in his place?".

"You know I would, you are like brothers to me, Gil. I can't imagine what must be going on through Alfred's mind".

The German sat next to her, almost paler than he already was. He mumbled out loud:

"You can't take Ivan out of the crew; in the middle of space, what are we to do?".

"And Matthew mentioned that it might have been something like a psychotic break. We should first hear from him".

"What are we gonna do while we wait?".

Elizabeta forced a smile as she tied her wavy hair on a ponytail.

"We'll try to avoid Ivan as much as we can, see how he acts".

 

"Matty, did you find anything?".

"Would you stop pestering me and let me work in peace?".

"But I'm concerned, Matthew! You don't know how busy has my mind been these last hours...".

Alfred tried to lean closer to his brother's tabs on his tablet, but the latter quickly noticed it and put his electronic device away.

"What about you listen to me for a goddamn time and think about how you feel?! You had a near-death experience in less than 24 hours, and the only thing you seem to be caring about is your assaulter's well-being".

The American finally stopped reaching for the machine, turning pale; memories of vertigo and anxiety came to him as he reminded yesterday's incident. He unconsciously reached for his stomach, near to where the rope had been securing during the episode.

"Okay, Al. I'm sorry; I shouldn't have brought it up".

Alfred rubbed his eyes behind his glasses, trying to shake his thoughts away. I'm alive, Ivan wouldn't have left me to die out there.

"Ugh".

The Canadian sheepishly reached for his sibling for a soft embrace, hoping to ease his distress.

"I'm okay, Matthew. I just need... I just need to breath".

"Yeah, let's pretend that I believe you".

"Bro, you're a piece of shit".

 

With time, Alfred learned to live with his newly acquired PTSD*, spending most of his days watching over his Russian comrade from afar and looking for his background with the physician of the crew. He tried to collect every detail that had been nudging him so far, close to becoming obsessed over it; to his brother's misfortune. Eventually, Matthew attained the courage to show his sibling what he had been longing for:

"Alfred, I found Ivan's medical record".

The American's eyes, now paler than ever, shone brightly behind his glasses and quickly sat beside his brother.

"First of all, you must remember that this is supposed to be confidential; don't do anything reckless with it or put yourself in evidence, okay?".

"Yes, yes; I already know this. It's not like I'll be singing it in front of a crowded stadium Matt- Just show me the thing".

"It's a legal issue- And I'm only doing this so that you can stop obsessing over it".

He then proceeded to open the document on his laptop. Concerning mental health issues or extra notes, they only found a brief summary of some old therapy meetings and meds receipts of Lurasidone* and Citalopram*. Apparently, Ivan had been dealing with depression and bipolar disorder until 6 years ago, but the resume seemed oddly imprecise to the doctor. However, he decided to keep that to himself.

"This... this makes complete sense! It explains why he seemed to be the one who understood Ludwig the best, the manic expression during the incident-" His gaze turned momentaneously blank after that."- why he always tries to smile...

I should make a list, I don't want to forget anything".

"Alfred".

"Oh! But what about him covering himself with long t-shirts? Or why he snapped?".

"Al".

"Huh, maybe I'm missing something, I should-".

"ALFRED!".

The American suddenly snapped out of his train of thoughts, startled by the other's tone. He listened to him attentively:

"I told you not to get too involved into it; you're forgetting who's the victim here". He had been trying to tone his anger down, but he could already feel the blood rush his cheeks, and judging by his sibling's reaction, so did he. Nevertheless, he continued:

"You wouldn't be able to help him even if you knew what is going on inside his mind. You can't fix him, Al; it's not your job. I don't even think Natalya can help him".

Suddenly, a figure appeared near the door; after all, they were meeting in a public space- everyone could show up any time. Alfred stood up nervously, afraid that it was his roommate, but fortunately, it happened to be Natalya. Matthew excused himself before leaving.

"I- I'm sorry, miss; I really don't know how to address this issue with my brother".

They both let the latter close the door before speaking:

"I've been hearing about your not-so-secret detective inquiries. It's funny, I don't recall being that attentive myself to his issues back to those days".

"Nat... You know that I care about him. I need to know what I can do to help".

Her lips parted, almost gasping for air.

"I'm not mad... I actually appreciate that someone is trying to understand him; I simply do not want you to make him fall deeper than he already has".

The two friends stared at each other silently, consuming the meaning of every word they said. Alfred ventured himself:

"I need to know if his father has anything to do with his antics-".

He stopped mid-sentence after adverting Natalya's gaze, which had turned visibly grimace and rageful. Maybe I should have been more discreet about it.

He looked down to his feet, almost embarrassed and frustrated with his plans. He trod to the door before hearing his friend speak again:

"Do whatever you have to, Alfred".

 

Ludwig, Gilbert and Elizabeta were gathered together on the younger German's room, spending their free time as they used to on their childhood; but the ambient was far from similar to those days: Ludwig had been flailing a bit emotionally, and his crisis hadn't toned down. Gilbert and Eliza were in distress as well, since they could not get Ivan's situation out of their head. The latter voiced her concerns out loud.

”I've been thinking about it, and perhaps it would be for the best that Ivan and I board a joint ship and return to Earth".

No one answered her, trying to ruminate why would she even think about it. After instants that seemed like an eternity, Ludwig spoke:

"Ivan might have had a psychotic break, but his role on the mission has been extremely profitable so far, he has aided me-".

"West, let me speak. The pods have enough fuel to bring us back; and, if we run out of it, we can always call a distress call. Besides, I have Roderick back home; and these last months I've thought that leaving him right after getting promised wasn't a great idea, and I- I...".

The albino held her hand tightly in support, soon saying some words of comfort:

"We all have people that we miss back on Earth, Eliza; but you're our leader, and we need you here. I want you to stay here, but we-" He looked back at his brother. "- we will support you no matter what".

Half a smile was drawn on Elizabeta's face, but her concerns still clouded her head. She still had to think it over.

 

Nevertheless, the one that was going through the worse right now was Ivan. He had never liked it when he loosed control, less even if he hurt others during a psychotic break. He hadn't had one for a long time, and it had only taken one sentence to bring him back to those tedious days. His father. He wasn't the biggest of his problems, Ivan thought; but he could not deny the truth of his sequels. Lately, he hadn't stopped looking at his arm, tracing his scars and reminiscing every single emotion that assaulted him when he got them. He didn't feel the need to hurt himself even more, yet fear didn't stop rushing his whole body and shaking him: He had just lost a friend. An ominous and particular friend, but, after all, someone that cared about him. Now, except for Natalya, everyone stood away from him.

His sister once spied him recording his response to his older sister's videotape, requesting her about a song. When Natalya peeped a bit closer and saw his expression, she almost jolted back. If she could choose any word to describe his smile, she'd choose eerie.

The thought of it made her remember about conversations she overheard on the phone between her sister and his brother. “I dreamt you died this time, sestra”. She was young at the time, but she knew that he was talking about his nightmares, in which he always died in the end. She lived in a different country at the time, with her sister and her mother, since their parents had divorced, but her love for Ivan had never diminished.

She thought about what the American had told her last time, how Ivan tried to avoid Alfred but still left his scarf on Alfred's bed like some kind of sign. Maybe, after all, Alfred could make a change on this. She closed her eyes with vehemency, thinking about all the negative outcomes it could have; but after all, what did she have to lose?

 

Eliza finally made her choice to stay in the crew, to everyone's relief; and a couple of days forward, the day of the space-walk came. Since Elizabeta had forbidden Ivan from going, Natalya went on his place. Alfred was supposed to accompany her as well, but his brother kept on trying to convince him to stay in.

"Every single time I mention the space-walk or you reminiscent about the incident you turn pale, close to shaking. Going out there so soon would only make it worse and-".

"You know what? He's been trying to avoid me this month, but he keeps on leaving his scarf on my bed. It must be something really personal for him... Bro, you gotta help me out, I'm almost close to getting it...".

"Okay. I'm done".

Alfred stopped pacing, now observing his brother grimace. Matthew continued:

"Stop being so selfless, I can't be the only one to care about you. So... if you want to continue that path, you'll have to do that on your own".

The American then pressed his lips firmly, torn between devastation and fury.

"Well, you know what? I'll go to the space-walk then".

"You don't get to decide that, if you're not a kid then start acting like so!".

Alfred's lower lip started to tremble, fraught and dubious about his brother's accusations. It was rather uncommon of him to stand against him or even to call him out.

While halting from words, he got interrupted by the other:

"Don't... don't look at me like that, I get tired of having to constantly keep you out of danger because of your massive ego and your tenacity that throw you on undesirable situations".

Once again, the youngest of the siblings remained frozen, mumbling later in a low voice:

"It's not like your annoyance doesn't bother ME as well-" Matthew started to walk away, which only made the American raise his voice a semitone:- "I think that at 28 I'm old enough not to stand this kind of lecture! Matt! Don't-"- His brother closed the door before letting the other finish, mumbling something like going to have some tea.

Alfred then wandered around the room flapping his arms with a deadpan expression. He was sure that his aim was not only to cope with the trauma but to overcompensate with his guilt... he needed to convince himself of that.

 

For some unexplainable reason, the American was the only one that remained inexpugnable to the common tension that suffocated the whole crew.

Ludwig dictated the instructions to Natalya and Alfred vaguely, who listened to the German in silence.

Once he finished his speech, he excused himself, an anxious expression already governing his face. Alfred gave then a quick glance to Ivan, who easily understood what the other meant; almost like nothing had happened between the two of them. The Russian left the room as well and followed Ludwig; he didn't feel like he would be needed in the command room anyway.

Shortly after, the two chosen astronauts left to the shuttle room, and just by seeing his younger brother leave without a trace of shame painted on his face, Matthew rolled his eyes and left rambling the following:

"Fuck it, I'm not gonna insist more with him. If he needs me, he'll know where to find me".

And like that, Gilbert and Elizabeta were left alone in the command cabin, startled and almost petrified. Nevertheless, they slowly began to move and work.

 

Ludwig and Ivan gathered together in the common room, talking like they had been doing along that month (almost being the only people they had communicated with). It had become a recurrent topic for them; to simply speak about their humble feelings; but this time, Ivan decided to give more of himself:

"Despite what I did to Alfred, he's been extremely attentive to how I've been these days. I still can't explain it, I don't understand why he'd worry about me with such intensity". He turned to the German, a broken smile drawn on him: "Why do you think he's doing this?".

His companion smiled as well, his own gesture being more hopeful though. He answered in a low voice:

"Maybe he's just drawn to you. Try and show him that you're more than what happened that day". The Russian shook his face uncomfortably. "What, what are you hiding?".

"I... I don't like to remember those days. I've managed to minimize my psychotic outbursts, but it's still embarrassing...".

"As a grown man with a similar problem, I think that I can understand that".

"That's because you're more sound and mature, Ludwig. Compared to you, I'm a chaotic adult that doesn't... doesn't know how to settle down".

The German clicked his tongue, unsure about what to say. He was saved, however, by the Russian's following speech.

"I can't deny that my father's influence during my childhood affected me too much; and, since I was 5 until my twenties, I lived alone with him, my mother and sisters leaving after my parents' divorce.

Only my older sister's calls helped me stabilise... Natalya was too young anyway, and mother didn't tell her about me until it was too late...". His expression turned grimace, and his skin even paler than usual.

Ludwig could sense that Ivan wouldn't be able to continue with his story, so he ventured his hand to the other's shoulder, trying to show support. The Russian, however, moved away.

"I'm sorry... I haven't learned how to cope with it, after all".

He needs someone to help him out, Ludwig thought; but just by looking at him, he could tell that his companion wouldn't let others get too close, not even his sister. His mind then wandered, and he thought about Alfred helping. Love can't cure everything, I should know about that, but Alfred seems to be stubborn enough to try and make him smile. He has a happy nature. "Like Feli".

"Excuse me?". Ludwig hadn't noticed about his long period of silence and how he had burst out those two words.

"Ah, nothing; I was thinking out loud". And for a moment, Ludwig swore that he saw Ivan smile. "They're probably already done, we should go back".

 

Natalya and Alfred had remained silent during the whole trip outside, the first one dubious about telling Alfred Ivan's story. He was already too insisting, so feeding his hunger wouldn't be a wise decision. On the other hand, Natalya thought him to be a nice person… the temptation rose too much on her.

So abstracted had she been thinking about that that she hadn't heard the others calling her from the radio until Alfred patted her arm.

“Natalya, let's go back inside”.

The girl tried to return to her neutral, porcelain expression; however, traces of confusion did not abandon her. Should she… should she not…

 

All absent into their own reality, none of the remaining members of the crew noticed Alfred's stern movements and forced smile. Nobody asked if he was alright, nobody could see past their concerns; and with that, Alfred started to wander around the ship, thousands of fears collapsing within himself.

Matthew had been waiting for him, but he didn’t show up.

The American could not stop thinking about the antenna and the rope securing his torso, and as a result, he started to experience vertigo, chained by the horrible sensation of his stomach pulled out. I’m alright. I’m alright. He didn’t know where he was going, he just felt the need to keep moving forward: it was expected of him.

After what seemed like an eternity to the blonde, he arrived to the common room and let his body experience the force of gravity. Alfred attempted to make a few steps but barely managed to get to the sofas and immediately fell to the ground. Helpless as he was, he started to laugh:

“Maybe Matt wasn't wrong after all”.

He closed his eyes, still laying on the ground, hidden by the couch of the room. Alfred unconsciously reached his left hand towards his neck, and the soft caress of his fingertips reminded him of Ivan's scarf. He was conscious that Ivan's shy actions were his way to apologise for what he did, but none of that lilac silence had seemed to help him with Alfred's trauma. Still with his eyes closed, he wondered to himself: How can I help myself, then? Soon, he heard footsteps near him. He finally opened his eyes. Had he really been that absort not to notice the door opening? Not long after, he recognised Natalya's figure.

Chapter Text

Looking at him in that position, Natalya couldn't help but think that she had never seen him in such a pitiful situation. Alfred, an ambitious but oblivious genius, a man who never ceased to smile and always stood up. Growing up with him through college, she thought that she had already seen all of his colours, but the scene she was witnessing showed her a new face of his. She kneeled next to him, seeing that he was still laying down.

"Are you alright?".

Alfred scoffed, he didn't remember Natalya ever voicing that question; her support had always been quieter. He finally sat down, his eyes starting to water.

"I don't know... I don't know, Nat". He took his glasses off to massage the bridge of his nose. "I'm 28, a young man with lots of responsibilities... just like everyone in this ship. But I- I can't help but feel things I don't fucking understand! And I-".

"And it's alright to feel things. To be emotional, not to be... does anything really matter in the end, if we'll eventually die anyway?".

Alfred's impulse to cry ceased, a single tear streaming down his right cheek.

"I was certainly not expecting your nihilism to arise today".

"I'm not nihilistic, just existential".

The American smiled at her; despite how comic the situation seemed to him, her appearance was still as expressionless as always. And that familiar sight brought comfort to him. He slowly started to get up.

"We should get back to work...".

"Alfred, there's no work to do now. Just go ask Elizabeta for your videotapes and then go rest a little bit". She patted the other's back, trying not to make any eye-contact. "That's the least I could say after today".

Alfred's eyes shone like they usually did, almost drawing stars on his blue iris and regaining the vigour that characterised him.

"Hey, I'm not a child. I should know better, shouldn't I? I'll overcome this!".

Not leaving any time for the other to react, he hugged the Belarusian as tight as he could. The girl slowly returned the gesture, her heart slowly melting. She had never hugged anyone besides Toris and her family, but now...

"Come with me to the control cabin; I'd like to show you something".

 

Matthew sighted once again after checking his clock: Alfred had supposedly finished his spacewalk four hours ago, but he hadn't shown up yet to check up with him. Concerned from his brother's absence, he stood up and put his books aside, decided to find about his brother's wellbeing. However, before he could even venture towards the door, the albino entered the room with an equally sombre expression. The two of them stared at each other; they didn't need any words to understand the other's concern. All in all, the ambient of the room was as helpless as it could be.

They seemed to make a unanimous pact not to talk about each other's brothers, knowing that they had had enough of worrying about them by themselves. Gilbert found his way naturally to Matthew's side by his bed, sinking into that little space as he took a deep breath, closing his eyes and rubbing them exhausted. Matthew caressed the German's thigh, his gazed faced towards the contact his hand made with the other's leg. Gilbert finally spoke up:

"I suppose none of us has anything important to do".

The other chuckled at the German's comment.

"No, we never do".

"That's why we're always meddling with others' problems; it's almost as we need to fill that space".

The Canadian nodded in agreement. Deep inside, they both knew they had great responsibilities, equally significant to the other astronauts' work. They were the only ones that had built all of the basis of their work by themselves along with their intellect, contrary to the qualifications that made the others' paths. But, despite that, the recognition or income that they would receive would surely be the half of the rest: they were not that valuable. And they were close to believing that assertion.

Finding comfort in that little act, Gilbert held the hand of his partner that had been resting on his thigh. And that little thing spoke more than words for them.

They soon started talking about everything and anything and eventually reached Elizabeta's issue.

"How has our commander been? She came two weeks ago for a check-up, but she seemed inattentive".

Gilbert clicked his tongue, becoming absent himself.

"She blames herself for all the trouble that has been happening these days, and I know that deep inside she doesn't trust herself to be fit to be a commander".

"But she is".

"I know. Everyone but herself knows. I wish we could make Eliza realise that".

Matthew thought in silence for a couple of seconds, shortly after saying the following:

"Then let's do something for her: let's talk with her".

 

Natalya brought Alfred to the communication cabin, always looking back to assure that no one was following them- and more specifically, not Ivan.

The American observed her with curiosity as she downloaded her received messages from Earth to her personal tablet, a sudden shy expression crowning her. It was, however, a disregarded gesture, as Alfred did not try to process the meaning of that.

After she was done, she pulled him to her side and played the video to him. He soon recognised Toris and realised that this was not something of the professional area. Alfred's mouth slightly opened in stupefaction, glancing sideways towards Natalya. This is why she was so adamant to check Toris' messages by herself... and why she kept it silence. He ruminated in silence as the video continued to play, ignoring how Natalya's lips curved slightly. It was only when the screen turned black that he darted his question:

"Is there any... you know- restriction? I mean, with dating coworkers and such".

She turned off her device and stood face-to-face with Alfred with a puzzling expression.

"If it doesn't interfere with our job, we're technically allowed to be closer with on-board members of the NSS. Toris, however...".

"...he's your boss". Alfred started to put two and two together, a little saddened by the realisation that her friend's love life was restricted because of some stupid etiquette. The girl nodded absent-mindedly.

Natalya skipped a beat after she heard a small noise coming from the door, her whole body in tension and in the watch for the intrusion. She finally relaxed once she saw Ludwig.

"Hey, Lud!". The American crossed his arms and made a small nod towards the other, and Ludwig responded with a modest wave. After beaming one of his radiant smiles to the German, he turned to his friend in amusement. He nudged her with his elbow.

"What's wrong, Nat? You look like a ghost just entered the room".

She turned to him with her usual frown.

"Who says I haven't seen a ghost?".

Alfred mildly froze, unaware of what to say, at the same time that Ludwig made a questioning glance towards her. Noticing the reactions caused by her rhetoric question, she rolled her eyes and sighted:

"I don't know why you're so shocked: it is indeed a surprise that I haven't ended up in a psych ward".

Alfred snickered at her, propelling himself towards the big window of the room.

"Dude- you're really weird".

She followed him in silence, thinking about all the things she wanted to tell him. Seeing that they were still not alone, she yielded herself by touching the glass and making the blond some silent company; like she usually did.

Luckily for Natalya, it wasn't long after that Ludwig found what he had been looking for and left the room with some whispered goodbyes and light pink painting his cheeks.

Her frown abandoned her face, and she stared straight at Alfred. He was the first to talk, not shifting his gaze from the glass:

"Do you think they'll notice? You know, back-".

"They haven't, at least not yet. But the truth is, we don't really care. Toris'  thinking about resigning and looking for a new job; he's getting tired of his current position".

"Even with his current power at the enterprise?!".

She silently nodded, and he finally stared back at her. Silence filled the room for a few seconds before he gave up and grew nervous.

"Why did you show this to me now?".

"... It wouldn't be fair otherwise, for me to ask you to share how you feel about... about Ivan".

Alfred forced a small smile, acknowledging her struggling efforts to help him. He tried to keep that smile on him, but his eyes cried silent sadness within him.

"I'm sorry, Natalya. I know you told me not to get close to him but I...". He started to struggle to catch his breath, his smile almost disfigured. "I'm starting to like this man, and I only want to save him...".

"You're not a hero, Alfred".

"I freaking know that! I know- but that only fires me up even more". Natalya gazed at him, her frown adopting then a concerned tone; which the blond quickly averted. "No, don't intervene, Nat. I'll figure something out".

Her dark, lilac eyes shone with hope.

"Do you promise- that you won't leave him?".

She feared that her question had sounded too demanding, but was reassured once she saw the other's blue eyes lit with beaming confidence:

"I promise".

"...okay". Natalya headed out, and before crossing the lintel, she thanked him: "Thank you for hearing me out".

Alfred couldn't help but smile; he knew that what his friend had just shared with him must have been hard to word for her.

 

Ludwig sat on the bed of his room, and he couldn't help but think about how lonely it felt. He took out his tablet and pressed play, smiling at the sound of his parents and Feli's voice. He hadn't managed to capture the courage to formulate a single answer for them, but he knew that he'd have to eventually. The German tried to ignore the anxiety rising through his body and set the tablet to record, pressing play as a shiver shook him whole.

In the end, he barely got to word a few apologies and salutations, but he was glad about his results. Thinking about Feli's reaction made his day completely.

 

It was getting late, and the majority of the crew had already gathered together for dinner at the main room. Natalya, however, was troubled by the absence of her brother. She rose and left the room, only filled by the light conversation Elizabeta, Gilbert and Matthew were having. Alfred gave her a last glance before she disappeared behind the door, almost like a dog abandoned by their owner.

She quickly found him in the gym, sitting beside the wall with his old, pink scarf surrounding his neck. She sat beside her brother.

"You should go and have some dinner".

Ivan dug his head even more into his scarf.

"I'm not hungry. I'll do just fine".

"No, you won't". Nat took a small, aluminium package out of her belt pouch and pressed it against her brother's chest. The other sighed and took it slowly eating the content of it. Natalya leered opportunistically at him as he did that, and God, how helpless he looked. They sat in silence, side to side, with no intention to rush or force a conversation. After all, they had never been eloquent people.

Once he finished his meal, Ivan embraced himself and, looking at the floor, he asked his sister:

"Haven't you eaten anything yet?".

"I will, but I first wanted to talk with you". The girl opened her mouth to continue, but her inhibition stopped her before she voiced her concerns. праклён!* Why can't I be more like my sister?

The Russian turned to her:

"Do you remember that time, when you said that you couldn't believe that Matthew had just lost his position of the only straight of the crew? Does that... does that mean that you're not straight, Nat?".

A small laugh escaped her lips. "Is that really your question?". Ivan dug his hands into the ends of his scarf, making him look years younger than he actually was, but in spite of that, he looked at her sister with a solemn expression. She eventually gave up. "I'm not.I've liked girls in the past too".

"But you're with Toris now!".

She opened her mouth to reply but stopped as soon as she realised how much her sibling actually knew about her.

"How...?".

"Please, I'm your brother. Besides, it's not that difficult to make Toris sing if you try hard enough".

Nat's eyes flickered, almost as if she was solving a complex physics equation, before taking a breath and answering the initial question.

"You can like girls and boys both. And it doesn't have to be a 50/50 thing... I don't think it ever is...". The Russian bit his tongue, a sinuous blush running through his snow-like pale skin. Natalya ventured a question: "Is this about Alfred?".

His silence confirmed her statement. She continued: "Nothing worthwhile is easy, Ivan. If you... appreciate your partner, you'll have to do a little more than long for him".

"I should apologise to him".

"Yeah, you should". Natalya almost sensed Ivan's eyes turning to lilac glass, guilt devouring him, fear consuming him. "Come on. In all of your thirty years, you've never liked anyone?". He limited himself to bury his head inside his scarf. Natalya bit her lip in regret. "I'm sorry".

She stood up and glanced back at him. At times like that, he looked younger than her, and a complete stranger to her heart. Natalya could not, however, fix the situation herself, so she merely walked away and dived to the main room, leaving the Russian alone with his thoughts.

 

The moment Natalya opened the main room's door, she heard Elizabeta laughing with Matthew, Gilbert cupping his head with his hands as his brother told him something and Alfred standing up to receive her.

"Is Ivan okay?".

"Yes, you'll see him when you go back to your personal cabin, I suppose".

She took out her meal and finally ate her dinner, letting the young blond make her company.

Once she was done, she told Alfred:

"...he dances with chains".

"What?".

" METRE ! I believe Nietzsche once said that metre is like dancing in chains".

"What is that supposed to mean?".

"Ah, you'll know".

"I never manage to understand you, dude". Despite his tone, he couldn't help the smile drawn on his lips. "Goodnight, everyone!".

The crew replied to him, and Natalya made half a smile: she wished for everything to settle down.

 

Seeing Ivan on his bed, tickling with his personal tablet, made the American beam as if Apollo himself had decided to bless him. It was, however, a spectacle unappreciated by the Russian, as he had stubbornly decided not to fall into temptation and raise his head to see him enter.

Content with the situation, Alfred skipped towards the bathroom. Leveraging that the other was out of sight, Ivan allowed himself to breathe in and out a couple of times and began to change into some more comfortable attire for the night. He stopped midway, his arms still not dressed with the sleeves of the jumper, hidden under the cloth. He took a deep breath once again, and his cheeks turned flushed, the sight of a beaming American playing in repeat on his head. The incident didn't take long to pop on his mind as well, reminding him that he hadn't properly apologised yet. Would it be worthy, nonetheless?

With his moved childhood, all of his half-assed apologies hadn't helped him much. They never did, and Ivan had always thought that it was his own fault, despite his psychologist and his sisters' arguments. And what had happened with Alfred may have looked like a minor accident in the end, but had he snapped a little bit more, his companion would've been left stranded away in space.

"But I wouldn't have let that happen...".

Are you sure?

He closed his eyes firmly, the faint scars on his neck making him suffocate.

You haven't changed, Ivan. You're still ungrateful-

"Stop...".

-after everything that happened-

"пожалуйста…*".

It had been twelve years since that happened, seven since he stopped taking part of his medication because he had recovered; but his mind was still as naive as it had always been.

His eyes flickered instinctively towards the bathroom door, and when several seconds later Alfred came out of the cubiculum, he didn't stop staring. Alfred gently smiled in return and sat on his bed, right in front of Ivan, leaving his used clothes aside.

"Извините*". The Russian stopped glancing towards the other, with his eyelids falling and his lower lip parting away from the upper. The silence only confirmed it: Alfred had understood him. However- "I'm sorry Alfred. I'm sorry for putting your life at risk, for being... ungrateful for what I have".

Alfred kneeled in front of him and caressed his cheek, letting gestures speak for him for once. And when the Russian raised his eyelids and stared back at him, Alfred's heart skipped a beat. Ivan felt the fingers of the other running through his face and started drifting away; he would have if that wandering hand hadn't started heading towards his neck and collarbones. The sudden contact with his cold skin reminded him how undressed he still was, and so pulled back and hid his arms inside his jumper.

Alfred quickly caught the cue and leaned back to his own bed.

"I'll check some stuff on my tablet".

Ivan listened carefully as the other man turned to the aforementioned activity and then started to effusively dress up. Once his sleeves were down to his wrists, his heartbeat finally relaxed. However, one of his hidden scars had been discovered by the American without his partner's realisation: Alfred had felt the wound on Ivan's neck, and now he finally understood why he always brought turtleneck jumpers and the possible meaning of that scarf. The realisation made him swallow and think about all that he had discovered so far about Ivan. He felt small in comparison with his mundane problems. And then...

Natalya...

No wonder why she had been so adamant of protecting her older brother... so far away and still aware of her brother's pain... He was lucky to have Matt as his brother, he was a silent white knight to him.

He blinked twice, staring at his tablet's screen- he had to do something to fool both Ivan and his own mind.

Half an hour went by, and Alfred was already submerged into one of his video games. At one point, he couldn't help but laugh, and Ivan, who pretended to be asleep, smiled as well. He soon started to understand just how much that American could shape him.

 

He woke up with teary eyes, and he wondered if it was because of something he had dreamt or because of the bright light he encountered once he opened his eyes. He rubbed the wet traces and exhaled a tired breath. If the lights were on it was probably because Alfred had already started off the day. He wondered if he had stayed up late as long as he had last night thinking about that intimate moment they shared but soon relegated that idea.

Thinking about it in a loop wouldn't help him, he knew that obsessive compulsion hadn't brought him anywhere in the past and that it wouldn't do a thing then, so he left the bed and started stretching. Checking his mission files and arranging any necessary equations might be worth his time, and who better than Ludwig to have near him to discuss his job? After all, spending time with his new friend had helped them both scrutinize better through the fog their thoughts created.

 

And so, he abided by the premise he had set to do and spent most of his day with the German. Seeing his comrade flit between his tablet and the papers in front of him with half a smile was enough to prove that the man found comfort in his job. He held in doubt his undying passion for numbers once he compared himself to Ludwig. Yes, he was a proficient engineer, but that only made the times he got frustrated with numbers increase. As a man with a doctoral degree on Maths, Ludwig could have grown tired of such a pure and infuriating science, but he hadn't. Ivan admired that facet of his.

 

After having dinner, both him and Alfred walked in silence towards the gym, leaving behind the rest of the crew speaking and sharing mundane anecdotes. As far as he knew, Alfred had already trained at the morning, and he doubted that he'd do that again at night.

Ivan did, nonetheless, not care about having some company around him, despite his cold aura, he was a pretty clingy man. He first stretched a little bit, and then went and picked a small cloth bag that hung on one of the walls, the American sitting and watching him in the meantime with his back against a gymnastic mattress. Ivan took his shoes off and replaced them with some beige ballet ballerinas. Alfred gasped.

"Am I finally gonna see the ballerino dance?!". He said.

The Russian chuckled in response.

"Just you wait".

Ivan tossed his scarf next to Alfred, who wore it himself as Ivan started to move. Alfred soon noticed that he was dancing to Dmitri Shostakovich - a name that he wouldn't recognise if it weren't because of Natalya. His movements were swift and equilibrated, precious but contained. Alfred knew nothing about ballet, but seeing the other man moving so gracefully was enough to convince him of the countless hours that man had probably consumed dancing. When Ivan extended his arms, he thought him to be a prisoner to his body, to invisible chains that the notes of the melody spurred. He unconsciously let out a small Woah , to which Ivan exhaled through his nose with conspicuous pride painting his expression.

"I suppose you could say... that I came, I saw... and I conquered".

Alfred lowered his gaze and sunk his face into the scarf.

"Damn, you are difficult".

Ivan ceased his movements, unsure of what to say. With a timid smile, Alfred continued:

"But beautiful things are difficult".

He closed his eyes. He didn't want to hear or see a thing, simply wished time to stop. Ivan slowly approached, having never heard such enticing words. Alfred's aura was so warm, his heavenly smile hard to look at. He sat in silence next to him, the classical music adorning their ears, and in little time, he felt Alfred falling asleep and his rhythmic breathing sending soft vibrations all around his body.

Ivan picked him up and brought him to his bed. Once he had settled Alfred under the covers, he left the room and roamed towards one of the cabins; the one with the biggest window of the NSS. It was quiet, the whole crew must have been sleeping. Through the window, he could only see the blackness consume space, although that did not stop him from thinking about Starry Night and the song Don Mclean made about it.

And when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night, you took your life like lovers often do. But I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you

Chapter Text

"Ludwig".

The German raised his head slightly, breaking from the stupor that had been devouring his thoughts. The way his eyes shifted through copious emotions that Natalya wasn't able to identify and how his brows frowned almost into a permanent gesture explicitly indicated how the man had lost focus of their current activity. Natalya sank farther into her chair, sighing in resignation.

"All this... concern spread across your face- It's not because of the equations you stopped writing ten minutes ago, isn't it?" She stated, accompanying her words as she slid the other's tablet in front of her. As suspected, Ludwig's own file hadn't progressed much since the beginning of their meeting. She switched the device off and returned it to Ludwig, ceasing to work herself and considering their work meeting terminated. "Lud, you don't need to do this if you're not okay".

"We need to".

He wasn't even glaring at her, clenching his eyes firmly and deepening his frown. He eventually had to remind himself to take a few of deep breaths, sensing the anxiety crawl onto his every molecule.

"Now, do we? None of our teammates back on Earth had a clue of what was going on, and neither did we; even with the tools we had at our hands. What makes you think that we, stranded away in space, will have any better chance than people back on Earth?".

"That's exactly why: we're trapped in a spaceship, months before arriving at Mars and having to proceed with our mission. If not speculating, what else are we supposed to do?". He reached for his tablet but was interrupted when Natalya grasped his wrist, urging him to look up. "Natalya, I must work on something, I-".

"You need a breathing space; letting your mind wander from one problem to another won't help, and confining your comfort zone to your work time is not it".

Ludwig opened his mouth, ready to accuse her of uttering of something she didn't know about; but soon shut it when he realised she might do... He didn't know Natalya as much as he presumed to, and if her looks indicated anything, it was that she had tried to lecture someone about this in the past. It didn't take him long to figure who. The realisation made him fall into silence: that was not the way he was; he was letting himself be demolished by the mania of his tumultuous thoughts. He crossed his arms, his usual demeanour radiating from that familiar gesture of his, and then asked her:

"What about the odd interference the NER-10 satellite of Mars detected then?".

"We've tried... and failed. The most we could do now is send a broadcast back to Toris and see if our scientists back home have discovered anything new".

"... we won't have to wait until the next monthly antenna thing, right?".

"No, we won't". A sly smile curved Natalya's lips. "I can get in touch with Toris whenever I want to".

Ludwig raised his eyebrows, but no answer came to his silent queries.

"Well then... I'll leave it to you".

 

Toris was Natalya's guilty pleasure. As much as she wanted to dismiss it, the moment she laid eyes on that bashful Lithuanian that his brother used to bother so much something inside her shifted; and when he admitted his feelings to her, notwithstanding her current obsession with her sibling, she couldn't help but share the sentiment. Which equated to the reason she hadn't shared her relationship with anyone besides Alfred and Ivan and had gone to record her message alone, without Ludwig: she didn't solely hide it because of work policies, it was also a way for her to preserve her stoic reputation, and if anyone were to ask:

No, she did not experience sinking feelings in the pit of her thoracic cage for Toris.

Once she arrived at the frontal cabin, she recorded her message; in which she also took advantage of her time and got personal with him: thinking about the long vacations they would take the moment her mission finished pleased her dearly.

 

A couple of days later, the whole crew assembled again to watch a film together, this time inviting Alfred as well. The latter was the one who picked what to view as well, and since their tastes were similar, everyone agreed.

"Oh, Guardians of the Galaxy ! It's been long since I last saw it!" Gilbert said, getting comfortable as Alfred put the film on his laptop. Ludwig made a movement forward; he had already seen it, but he always got invested like a little kid when he watched movies or TV series, peculiarity that he shared with Feliciano.

"I don't think I've ever seen it...". Ivan was pouting, sitting right next to Alfred.

"Don't worry, Ivan. I haven't either". Elizabeta claimed across the room.

"Are you serious, Eli? It's a story about space and superheroes-!"

"And it has an amazing soundtrack" Natalya added.

"It does. All in all, it's a must-see for people like us".

"For people like us? Last time I checked we were not superheroes, Gil".

"Speak for yourself, Eliza. I, for instance, deeply relate with the main character of this movie". Alfred had already settled the file to reproduce and let the film begin.

It wasn't long, however, until Natalya broke the silence with a whisper:

"With what? Perhaps the fact that Peter poses as a hero no one recognises until the very end-?"

"WOAH, spoiler alert!".

Ivan chuckled from his corner.

"It does sound a little bit like you, Alfred".

The American looked at him over the rim of his glasses, not knowing if he should feel amused or offended at that remark. Matthew darted another comment:

"Then that would make Ivan become Gamora-".

"Let's just watch the film, for God's sake...". Alfred was now visibly blushing, having a confused Ivan by his side wondering who in the world was that Gamora.

 

Later on, enough evidence was provided to both Elizabeta and the Russian to confirm their suspects: the character that had been assigned to the latter by the others was indeed the love interest of Peter Quill. With that realisation, Elizabeta gazed towards Ivan, dumbfounded, who just sighed and said in a low voice:

"I wish I could have a glass of vodka right now...".

And, despite his non-alcoholic style of life, Alfred couldn't help but agree with him.

Content with the situation, both Matthew and Natalya shared a thoughtful and victorious look between them.

 

Seeing the movie and hearing his mates' observations about his and Ivan's relationship as a metaphor for the characters of the film only made the American ponder even more about what he had with Ivan, and that brought him to his recent discovery: Ivan's scar on his neck. Alfred wanted nothing but to help his partner, but alas, he had no filter and rushed towards his brother's room, in hopes that Gilbert was not in there.

Fortunately for him, the noisy German was not in the cubicle, which meant that he'd be able to converse with his sibling alone.

The expression on Alfred's face was enough for Matthew to realise what the other wanted, but since he had a soft spot for his brother, he still let him in.

"I'm going to have to put a price to our therapy meetings at this pace, Al".

"Tch- don't be like that. I seriously need your help".

They both sat on the Canadian's bed.

"And I seriously reckon you should acknowledge what's going on".

"Care to explain?".

"You're one inch away from becoming obsessed with Braginsky. And if my experience as your brother tells me anything, is that you must really care for him if you're still longing for him months after meeting him".

"Excuse me? Are you trying to imply something about my past relationships? 'Cause -I'll tell you this: I've never been a flit from one lover to the next kind of guy!".

"And they never lasted long- but that's beyond the point. You just confirmed what you feel about Ivan".

Alfred stared at him as if he was trying to solve an enigma.

"Matty, of course, I like Ivan. I'm not that blind or oblivious-".

"Yet you're still here...".

His brother bumped him softly, half a smile darting through his lips. Once he regained his composure, Matthew asked him:

"What do you need, little brother?".

"...do you remember when I told you about my speculations? How I suspected that Ivan had scars and that that was the reason he always wears long-sleeved shirts and turtlenecks or his scarf? I was right: he has one on his neck".

Matthew's smile dropped, both because of the revelation and because of what was coming next. His brother continued rambling:

"I don't know if it was self-inflicted, or if his father is somehow related but this- it freaking confirms it all. And I'm sure he has some on his arms. Why would he wear long-sleeved shirts, then? But I didn't get to see those... I should ask him and-".

"Woah, Al. Take a step back and listen to yourself: if what you say is right, he more than likely won't answer nicely to a question like that. Not only does he cover his body to hide...them... but it's also a sensitive topic amongst self-harmers or people who've undergone some kind of trauma. You can't discuss this with Ivan unless he lets you".

"But, Matt! He has scars-".

"Did he purposely show them to you?".

"...No. Ivan tried really hard not to".

Matthew let a deep breath out after hearing his sibling's confession. This was becoming a concerning situation: both for him and for the Russian.

"Then it was an invasion of his privacy; you have to understand that".

Alfred fell into silence, probably pondering about his brother's words and consuming their meaning. Seeing the preoccupied frown his brows drew on his face, Matthew put an arm around his shoulders to comfort him.

"I know you're worried about him... but if he really needs to speak about it, he'll tell you. Just- don't discuss what you saw with him nor Natalya. Let him make the first step; be respectful".

The American glared at him, trying to hide his genuine emotions.

"...okay".

 

Nevertheless, Alfred knew he wouldn't give up until he confirmed his suspicion about his partner's scars on his arms; and so decided to do something incredibly foolish and- as Matthew had warned- disrespectful.

He let the night fall and waited until Ivan fell asleep and started breathing rhythmically. Once that happened, he slid off his sheets and propelled himself cautiously towards the other bed. He double checked to assure that his partner was sleeping, and then uncovered him from his bedsheets to reveal his arms.

Alfred took a deep breath and carefully unrolled one of the sleeves of Ivan's arms, only to show him a small tattoo of a sunflower on his forearm.

A flower? He'd certainly would have to talk about this with him once he woke up.

He knew, despite the relieve that the tattoo had given him, that he still had to check his other arm. Now he was getting anxious. He slowly unrolled the other sleeve, revealing what he feared he'd encounter: more scars; cuts aligning with each other copiously into a disdain pattern. Alfred backed away, keeping his hands for himself now. This was not what he wanted to see, this was not it. He blinked several times and looked closer again, but his sight didn't change: Ivan had self-injured in the past, and Alfred didn't know how to cope with that. His brother's words then popped on his mind, and despair filled him completely. What have I done?

He quickly put Ivan's sleeves down and covered him again, rushing towards his own bed once he was done. He resigned himself to sit and observe the other man: soundly sleeping and unaware of what Alfred had just done. He did not understand why someone would cut themselves, no matter the situation; but given his intrusion, he was in no place to judge or demand any question.

He closed his eyes, but he knew he wouldn't be able to get any sleep that night.

 

The next day he was the first to head to the kitchen, but he did not take anything for breakfast, too consumed by the thoughts of his last night.  Ludwig settled on the other end of the room, also ruminating about impossible outlines that took the colour out of the German's face; but he was already convinced that no one in the crew would take a second to study him that day.

Once they were all together, Matthew asked his little brother:

"You're unusually quiet this morning, what's wrong?".

The American turned to face him, a strange veil covering his eyes- be it for his lack of sleep or because of the tears that he had fought to keep that night.

"Uh...". Alfred opened his mouth, not too convinced of formulating any sound sentence. His throat felt dry, and he wanted to think about everything but the regret that curled inside his stomach. Think, Alfred.

Gilbert glanced at Matthew with a questioning look, which was answered with equal confusion, and the others went on with their breakfast. The Russian finally moved closer to him and took one of his hands between his own, softly caressing the joints of his fingers as if to soothe him. Alfred curiously observed the other's paler and bigger hands, inevitably bringing to mind last eve's incident.

"Your arm..." He mumbled, low enough for it to be barely heard by the Russian. Ivan responded with the same tone:

"What about my arm, Alfred?".

Don't say anything about what you saw .

"You... you have a sunflower. I have a tattoo on the same arm".

Alfred let go of Ivan's hands to unroll his sleeve on his right arm to show the tattoo of a small UFO covering his forearm.

"How did you know about my tattoo?".

Ivan unrolled his own sleeve to show his tattoo as well, one that Alfred had to pretend he hadn't seen yet. The Russian had raised his voice enough this time for the others to listen, which brought Natalya's attention towards them.

"Natalya told me".

She squinted at him, trying to remember if she had ever shared that information with him. The rest of the crew assembled among the two men, admiring the tattoos on their forearms, and a bizarre thought came to Matthew:

What if...?

He looked at his brother, who merely laughed and repeated himself once again.

It was then when Elizabeta, starting to see some kind of tension build between Matthew, his brother and Natalya (because poor Ivan had remained oblivious to the American's words), brought up the topic of the interference of the NER-10 satellite.

"So! Natalya, would you care to inform the rest of the tribulation about what our scientists back on Earth had to provide on the interference's issue?".

The Belarusian blinked, trying to adapt and to remember the exact words Toris had said.

"To put it short, we still know nothing about the source of it. It has been pondered whether it could be that the satellite has detected a relaxed cluster, which is gravitationally mature and could affect our signals".

Elizabeta joined the conversation, wondering to herself about that information.

"Well, if you relate it to how they are excellent probes of non-luminous "dark" matter... it might be the reason of why we couldn't exactly figure out what was affecting our spacecraft".

Matthew and Gilbert observed them in awe, not being able themselves to add any valuable information to their conflict. Ludwig stepped into the conversation as well.

"It could also be failing and detecting CMB... Although when we were checking the issue with Ivan and Alfred we did consider cosmic microwave background as well and it still brought us to a dead end...".

The astronauts sighted, resigning and giving up about figuring the origin of that anomaly half of the crew had to solve for their mission.

Elizabeta then proceeded to ask Gilbert about his job, making a mental report on the progress of the whole crew.

"Everything is in order" Gilbert claimed. "Only a dozen of the plants got contaminated by its substrate, but it was already expected. Apart from that... I've got no feedback".

The commander switched her focus then towards Matthew, who eagerly got the hint and spoke about his health reports on the whole tribulation's health. He stated that, overall, none of them had any issue physically, but that mentally... it was debatable; and, to some of them not precisely because they were on space. He didn't need to look at whom he was alluding for them to understand those words. The Canadian proposed continuing with their check-ups, and then Elizabeta thanked him. Matthew smiled at that, he always appreciated people being grateful or noticing him at all.

Alfred stretched up, ready to leave.

"Well then... Now that we're done, I'll go-".

"You're not going anywhere until I'm done: I have to show you some of the stuff you'll be working with next month" Elizabeta insisted.

The American pouted, but soon enough changed his expression to a more relaxed one and nodded. At least that would evade his mind a little bit. The two astronauts then said farewell to the rest of the team and left the room.

 

What Alfred had imagined that would last merely a couple of hours eventually turned into the whole day, with Elizabeta cutting off every attempt the American made to run away. She made him a list of the issues him and Ivan would have to take care of the next month, following the protocol, as the engineers of the ship.

"And don't forget to change the performance of the ship's biofuel and to diagnose any performance problem if required. I'll trust you won't have any problems with that. Do you copy?".

"Yep".

Elizabeta made a triumphal smile, while Alfred battled within him to resolve one issue that would happen before all of his new mandatory work. He ended deciding to share his doubt with his commander.

"Eliza, who are you planning to send to check for the antenna next time?".

She fluttered her eyelashes at him, processing his query.

"I thought of sending both you and Natalya since you seem to cooperate well enough... But I could send her and Ludwig if you'd like to-".

"It's just that- I don't feel ready to go again. Not that I don't want to do it! I-".

The commander steadied him by grabbing his shoulders, forcing him to look at her.

"Hey, Jones. Don't eat your head over that. Matthew told me that you shouldn't have gone there after the incident in the first place, and I was blind enough not to realise. Take your time, there are lots of things you can do on the inside of the ship".

Alfred bit his lips, still confronted with himself.

"Will you eventually let Ivan go as well?".

She batted her eyes open, surprised by his question, and pondered out loud.

"Maybe next month? He proved himself worthy enough to remain on the ship but considering the incident... I don't want to rush things".

Alfred sighed, half defeated and half relieved, and then they continued their work.

 

At night, Elizabeta announced her answer of sending Ludwig and Natalya outside to check the antenna on the upcoming week, and before heading to sleep, Matthew thanked with a hug. Seeing everyone pleased with her decisions, Eliza started to accept her role as the leader a little bit more.

 

The rest of the month went by quickly, with a cautious Alfred always roaming near Ivan; and so, the day to check the antenna came. Natalya and Ludwig went outside to outer space and strived normally, and afterwards, the whole squad got their messages from Earth: none of them rose anything new except Feliciano's, whose's recorded video had been enough to make Ludwig bit his lip to evade a smile  because of the Italian's words, making the blond man's heart melt. Ludwig then immediately excused himself out of the room, filled with excitement and ready to reply to his endeared Italian, followed by the warm-hearted gazed of his teammates.

 

During the following month, the two engineers started to work together due to Elizabeta's instructions, testing any aerospace performance problems by inspecting them and making reports of any malfunctioning or damaged products, as well as evaluating the biofuel performance of the ship. Having their schedule filled with duties, Alfred and Ivan barely had any time to think about what the other made them feel... well, at least Ivan didn't. Alfred had started to view Ivan as his personal damsel in distress despite the Russian's firm appearance, to which the other remained oblivious, as always.

Gilbert also managed to work with Ludwig's stress, insisting on doing together something to ease his mind. The albino had thought that playing the keyboard on his tiny tablet would distract them both, and notwithstanding his fury contemplating the small space that he had to play, he contented himself when his brother began to sketch figures on his notebook as the tunes went by. Gilbert decided not to annoy him and ask about what he was drawing, and neither did Alfred nor Ivan- who had been spying from the frame door as Ludwig found his breathing space.

After a while, the latter two went back to their room, ready to end that day and fall into slumber sleep.

The Russian started to mumble a little tune that was foreign to his partner, pursuing his lips together to form soft words that seemed to relish the tall man immensely.

" Речка движется и не движется,

Вся из лунного серебра- "

"What are you singing?".

Ivan stopped at the door, ceasing his singing and trying to find a valuable answer.

"It's a song about my city, it makes me miss it a little less...".

Alfred observed him as he entered the room and went back to whispering his song. How many things was he unaware of about Ivan?

He sat in his bed and started to clean his glasses, only not to disturb his partner's comfort zone.

" Песня слышится и не слышится

В эти тихие вечера ".

"It sounds sad".

"It isn't. I'm just... melancholic".

"Do you want to go back, to your city?".

Ivan shifted, half a smile drawn on his lips. "No". Seeing Alfred tilting his head as if to show his confusion, he explained himself: "I miss Moscow, but the happiness it could have given me was already consumed during my childhood. I may visit it anew, but it has changed- I have to find a new home now".

Alfred gasped.

"That's so insightful... I wish I could visit it with you-you know, to see what this song's talking about".

Ivan brightly smiled, joyous about that proposition.

"Perhaps, who knows...".

 

Eventually, the seventh month passed, and the next space-walking date came to the astronauts. Elizabeta had decided to send Natalya and Ludwig again, to everyone's comfort- which left Gilbert, Elizabeta, Matthew, Alfred and Ivan alone at the frontal cabin. The commander had resigned herself to monitor the two astronaut's wellbeing with the German and his roommate, while Ivan and Alfred were facing the window shoulder to shoulder, stargazing and letting their minds wander around the deepness of space. Something about that sight softened the American, who gently positioned himself behind Ivan and hugged him from the back.

" -Ah !".

The Russian whimpered at the same time that he jolted, surprised by the sudden contact.

"What's wrong, my ballerino ?".

Ivan looked back with nothing but embarrassment and untangled himself, unable to hide his blush. He picked on his left sleeve, which seemed to be enough for Alfred to nod and wink at him, and then head to where his brother was. Matthew mumbled something to him:

"What was that, you lascivious bastard?".

Alfred started blankly at his sibling. "Are you fucking serious? Are you seriously blackmailing me with prepubescent humour and your condescending words?".

"Uh-no. You did that yourself".

Eliza and Gilbert observed the scene while the brothers provoked each other, unsure of what to think, while Ivan smiled at them with sheer innocence, not knowing that he was the topic of their conversation.

 

Alfred was delighted with his messages: amongst others, he had received a recompilation from Kiku, his Japanese friend with whom he shared most of his hobbies. At least now he'd be up to date to the memes of the moment, although he did not understand the majority of them. He made a mental note to ask him about a little bit of context.

Once he was done, he turned to see how the rest of the crew were doing; and discovered Ivan and Natalya's blue looks. Whatever they had been sent, it didn't make them happy in the slightest. He approached them in silence:

"Sometimes one has a bad day, but it doesn't mean that one has a bad life-!".

None of the siblings had the strength to even fake a smile to those fragile, encouraging words; and Alfred couldn't help but suddenly feel unpowered as well. Maybe there were times when he couldn't be a true hero.