Actions

Work Header

Reprieve

Chapter Text

Stage one [penal institution of origin]: Inmate Application and Selection

  • Application is limited to inmates up to 30 years of age, serving 25 year to life sentences and with no physical or mental health concerns;
  • The selection process gives priority to individuals with medium to high IQ, no living blood relatives and “lab babies”;
  • Official inmate’s death.

 

Stage two [intermediate Reprieve facility]: Identity, Provenance and Criminal Record Expurgation

  • All data about the inmate’s previous identity, provenance and criminal record is erased and rendered inaccessible to subsequent processing stages;

 

Stage three [executive Reprieve facility]: Consent Verification and Sedation Induction

  • The inmate’s consent to the Protocol is verified in the presence of at least one element from the medical and carer teams and recorded. *Consent rescission at this state renders the inmate ineligible for Protocol re-entry. In case of consent rescission, the inmate will be returned to the intermediate Reprieve facility and serve a life sentence there.*;
  • A deep sedation level is induced and monitored. It must be maintained for a minimum of 24 hours, with no interruptions (resurfacing);
  • Official terminology change from “Inmate” to “Reprieve”.

 

Stage four [executive Reprieve facility]: Erasing (Sleep Treatment)

  • Sleep Treatment is initiated at an intermediate sedation level, with two daily pauses of up to 1 hour each, for assisted feeding and hygiene activities, and one weekly pause of up to 2 hours, for medical psychological evaluation of the Erasing effectiveness. *Two consecutive “no change” evaluations or a “marked mental health deterioration” from one week to another must be assessed for Unreprievable criteria. Unreprievable individuals are ineligible for Protocol re-entry. They are returned to the intermediate Reprieve facility, where they will serve a life sentence, or they are committed to a palliative mental health facility for life.*;
  • Physical rewriting plan (plastic surgery and other cosmetic interventions) is initiated during the final week of the Sleep Treatment;
  • Erasing Verification marks the last day of the Sleep Treatment. It is scheduled by the medical team when Erasing effectiveness has been ascertained by the psychological evaluations and is done in the presence of the Reprieve Council and at least one element of the medical and carer teams.

 

Stage five [executive Reprieve facility]: Rewriting (Reprogramming Treatment)

  • For the duration of 4 weeks, a new identity is reprogrammed. Autobiographical memories are implanted through the same schedule of the Sleep Treatment, with two daily pauses of up to 1 hour each, for assisted feeding and hygiene activities, and one weekly pause of up to 2 hours, for medical psychological evaluation of the Rewriting effectiveness;
  • Physical rewriting plan continues and is completed by the end of this stage;
  • Electrical muscle stimulation is implemented at varying intensity levels for 12 hours each day;
  • From this stage onwards, the Reprieve must always be called and referred to by their new name.

 

Stage six [executive Reprieve facility]: Accommodating and Physical Rehabilitation

  • The Reprieve initiates the Virtual Reality Program, living their new life in an altered reality simulator inside the facility for 4 weeks;
  • If muscle atrophy is relevant despite electrical stimulation up to this point, the Reprieve must incorporate a Physical Rehabilitation programme during this stage.

 

Stage seven [new host location]: Monitored Reintegration into Society

  • The Reprieve is placed in their new life under surveillance for up to 2 years.

Chapter Text

 

The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook.

― William James

 

“Bye-bye, Makkachin. Look after the house while I’m gone!”, Viktor brightly singsonged to the greyish brown poodle lazily sprawled on the armchair. Makkachin wagged his tail once in reply.

Satisfied grin in place, Viktor closed the door to his unit, waiting for the telltale click of a biometric lock being activated by the house's security system. He put on his gloves, relishing in the cold winter air filling his lungs.

With a spring in his step, Viktor walked down his small cacti and pebble garden towards the already open steel door overlooking the street. Said door  was white-coloured and sported the label "STP-5W" in bold black lettering, similarly to the other doors in the neighbourhood.

Viktor paused again outside this door, like many of his neighbours were doing right at that moment. Within few seconds after they all stepped out of their units, the doors quietly locked themselves behind them simultaneously. There was a flurry of movement as the people started walking in the same direction, greeting and talking to each other as they went.

But Viktor remained motionless on the grey sidewalk. He took a deep breath and looked up at the clear blue of the sky, easily ignoring the thick aircraft traffic. A cold breeze caressed his hair, blowing his silver fringe away from his face and, for a blissful moment, he felt like he was gliding... weightless and free. It was a good feeling.

Today was the beginning of a new Reprieve Protocol for Viktor’s carer team; they were taking in another inmate and he couldn’t help but be excited about the prospect. What would they look like? What name would the System give them? What wonderful new life would they be conceded?

“Chilly, isn’t it?”, a familiar voice interrupted Viktor's musings.

Viktor detached his gaze from the sky to look at the blonde standing next to him. The green-eyed man kept rubbing his gloved hands together, clearly uncomfortable in the cold.

“Good morning, Chris!”, Viktor replied with a warm smile.

Chris chuckled, olive eyes glittering with empathetic mirth, “Someone is in high spirits today! A new Reprieve?”

Viktor nodded excitedly, heart-shaped smile in place. Chris shook his head good-humouredly.

“Come on, then! Let’s get out of this iceberg so you can meet your new project.”

They resumed a brisk walk, passing by dozens of similar white steel doors and walls protecting dozens of similar geometric tiny units.

This neighbourhood housed people who lived alone, no families, no children. Most of its inhabitants were “lab babies”, like Viktor and Chris. Which meant that they had been born in a laboratory, more specifically, from a gestational pod, and raised to adulthood in a sorting and training facility, alongside other humans from their production batch.

Lab babies consisted on about half of the human population on Earth and an even bigger proportion of the population on other human-colonized planets. They were also increasing in number, contrariwise to the declining human fertility.

Chris wouldn’t be Viktor’s neighbour for much longer, though, as he was soon moving into a double unit neighbourhood with his partner.

“What about you guys? How is your current Reprieve doing?”

Chris hesitated, countenance becoming slightly stiff. He worried at his lower lip as they got closer to the intra-terrestrial teleportation capsules.

“The Reprieve Council is considering to prolong his Erasing period. The inmate is not… responding to the Sleep Treatment.”, Chris said slowly, seemingly choosing his words carefully.

Viktor frowned.

“Didn’t you do that already? Are you extending it to three weeks? But… Rewriting can take up to two weeks, and then the Accommodating and the Physical Rehabilitation-”

“I know that!”, Chris interrupted him, raising his voice in badly concealed exasperation. A few of the people waiting in line for the capsules beside them turned to curiously stare at the blonde man.

Chris smiled at them apologetically, lowering his head.

Now that Viktor paid closer attention to his friend, he could see how tired Chris looked.

For a few moments, none of the two spoke, then Chris whispered a subdued reply, “We all know that.”

“If the treatment doesn’t take, it could be due to psychological or biological resistance. He may meet the criteria for Unreprievable. How is the emotional response?”

“That’s the thing. Apparently, he doesn’t meet the criteria. Doctor’s psychological assessments never accused resistance to the Sleep Treatment and his response to the medication is good too.”, Chris sighed, “There is something… This inmate… Or maybe-”.

Chris stopped himself, seemingly thinking better about what he was about to say. He settled for shaking his head, unavailing, and remit himself to silence.

Because his turn at the teleportation capsule had come, Viktor decided to let Chris drop the matter. Despite the strict confidentiality policy that was paramount even between carer teams, Viktor couldn’t deny his curiosity towards Chris’ difficult case. He vowed to himself that he would try to gather more intel on the matter later.

But, for now, he focused on the teleportation process.

The empty capsule opened, the vacuum inside it suctioning the cold air of the street in. Viktor pushed the lid further so he could sit on the capsule’s single seat. The lid closed itself with the pressurised clasp deafening all sounds aside from Viktor’s calm breaths.

“Biometric analysis in progress.”, a vaguely female machine voice stated, “Welcome. STP-5W, Viktor Nikiforov, clearance level E. Please state your destination.”

“Reprieve Facility GPF-17.”, Viktor enunciated clearly.

“Recalibrating coordinates. Prepare for teleportation.”

Viktor closed his eyes, remaining as immobile as he possibly could while the suctioning force made him feel like his body was being sucked from the inside out. After years of going through this at least twice a day, he still felt that split second of panic between the overwhelming suctioning and the sudden drop into the destination’s soft seat.

He released the breath he’d been holding, opening his eyes to the inside of his workplace as the lid of the receiving capsule opened to let him out.

“Have a good day at work, Carer Nikiforov.”, the machine said as he rose from his seat with a little stretch.

He hadn’t taken two steps away from his capsule before a familiar voice uncouthly demanded his attention.

“Hey, Old Man! Why has our new Reprieve passed through Consent Verification without notification of the whole team?”, a young, angelic-looking blonde male growled a few feet away from Viktor’s capsule.

The boy was completely dressed in white loose-fitting clothes, white shoes and gloves included, and he was positively fuming. A few steps behind him, another taller, dark-haired young man, stood very collected, ever solemn expression in place. He was older than the jade-eyed little tiger that was about to pounce on Viktor and was clad in a light grey version of the other’s outfit.

“Good morning, Yuri!”, Viktor brightly greeted down at the short boy, who rewarded him with a very cat-like hiss, which he ignored.

“Otabek.”, Viktor nodded in the direction of the other young man, who nodded back, immediately getting in pace with Viktor’s brisk walk as he passed him in the direction of the changing rooms.

“Explain, please.”, Viktor told him.

Otabek looked uncharacteristically taken aback, worry flashing through his dark brown eyes as he quietly asked, “You don’t know either?”

“Hey! Don’t ignore me!”, Yuri complained from behind them, “My grandfather didn’t trust me under the wing of the Oh-So-Great Carer Viktor Nikiforov so you can exclude me from fundamental parts of the Reprieve Protocol! I will-”

“Quiet.”, Viktor whispered dangerously, effectively interrupting Yuri’s little tantrum.

Yuri stopped in his tracks and frowned.

“What happened?”, Viktor demanded from Otabek.

Otabek’s lips became a thin line; he had stopped looking worried to look like Viktor was beginning to feel.

 


 

“I just want you to explain to me how was it that my team’s new Reprieve passed through Consent Verification without any of us being notified!”, Viktor let out in exasperation, trying very hard not to scream in the presence of the recently sedated inmate.

The balding older man in front of him released an irritated sigh as Viktor dexterously detached the IV line from the inmate’s neck catheter and capped it, releasing the pressure he had been keeping on the vein afterwards.

“Who placed the venous catheter? And the electrodes? Otabek and Yuri were here before me and they weren’t even called to do that much-”

“The carer from the team that was on prevention.”, the man clad in dark grey clothes calmly interrupted him, command palpable in his voice, “Calm down, Vitya. These things happen sometimes.”

“Not to me, Yakov! I have never missed any of my Reprieve’s Consent Verifications before!”, he nearly screamed in rage.

The unconscious man on the articulated stretcher released a soft whimper. Yakov fixed Viktor with a deeply judgemental set of piercing ice blue eyes.

“Listen to me. This inmate is not the Reprieve who had been previously assigned to your team.”, Yakov enunciated clearly, words bearing no space for rebuttal, “He is an urgent case that was assigned just this morning through priority high clearance levels. This had nothing to do with punctuality or hierarchical disrespect; we were ordered to start the necessary protocol before he had even been assigned to any team.”

Viktor breathed slowly through his nose, jaw clenched tightly. Without a word, he punched in the code to detach the intelligent articulated stretcher from the admission room control panel, perhaps with more force than necessary. The quiet beeping of the multiple vital signs monitors stopped as the stretcher became airborne, silently hovering beside Viktor as it waited further directives.

“Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”, he sighed, shoulders slumping slightly, “What about our scheduled Reprieve? And why the mad rush to push this inmate in like this?”, he calmly asked as he directed the gliding stretcher, and the unconscious man on it, towards the exit.

“The other inmate was redirected to a different facility and…”, Yakov hesitated, looking at the pale dark-haired unconscious man on the stretcher between them, “… apparently, this inmate presented imminent life danger to himself.”, the older man sighed and shook his head in something akin to pity, “The short admittance report he arrived with describes self-inflicted stab wounds on his forearm and thigh. I’ve forwarded it to you and your team.”

Viktor nodded as the steel door of the admission room opened for them.

“I would like to see the recording of the Consent Verification interview.”, Viktor requested.

He could see the displeased twitch of Yakov’s mouth in the corner of his peripheral vision as he gently aligned the stretcher in the direction he intended it to go.

“You don’t have access to it. It requires a clearance level that neither you nor I possess.”, Yakov said slowly.

 


 

“What??”, was Yuri’s enraged but quiet hiss, mindful of the slumbering man between them as Viktor and he started striping the inmate of his admission robes.

Viktor had just finished recounting everything he’d learned about their new Reprieve to his team. He was still seething with anger at the way things had been handled and at the highly irregular clearance level blockade even his direct superior, Chief Carer Yakov Feltsman, had been subjected to.

Viktor had relayed the information in what he hoped was a collected tone, but Yuri, their very talented 18-year-old Carer-in-Training, hadn’t hidden his displeasure at the whole situation. Otabek, their highly competent 21-year-old Junior Carer, on the other hand, stood at the feet of the intelligent stretcher, still holding his electronic pad, supposedly reading the painfully short admission report of the now completely undressed inmate. Otabek was very pale and, the moment his eyes settled on the poorly bandaged wounds of the unconscious man before him, his hands started shaking.

“Otabek? You okay?”, Yuri asked as he threw the Reprieve’s old gown into a white trash can that sat near the stretcher and began carefully peeling the blood stained adhesive bandages off the inmate’s hidden wounds, so Viktor could see them and instruct him on how to best care for them.

“That thigh wound is very close to the knee… I wasn’t expecting…”, Viktor murmured under his breath, pensive.

Otabek’s eyes seemed glued to the inmate’s wounds, face going from livid to a slightly greenish shade. Yuri threw the old bandages into the same white trashcan as the gown and turned to look at Otabek, surprised by his silence. Viktor reluctantly detached his trained eyes from the wounds so he could stare at his Junior Carer too.

“Carer Altin? Do you need a minute?”, Viktor asked in his most professional tone.

Otabek jumped in place, dark brown eyes immediately dropping to the floor.

“I… Yes. Please excuse me.”, he croaked, looking slightly lost, and hurried to leave the room.

The door locked itself behind him with a small beeping sound, leaving Yuri and Viktor staring at each other in confusion.

“You guys don’t see wounds on the inmates often?”, Yuri asked.

“We do. Worse than these, too. Otabek has treated hundreds of them in his time here…”, Viktor trailed off hesitantly, “Perhaps he ate something expired this morning.”, he mused with a shrug.

Yuri nodded slowly, looking just as unconvinced as Viktor felt.

“But back to our Reprieve. Give me your assessment of his wounds. Take your time. I’ll go get the urinary catheter and the nasogastric tube while you’re at it.”

Viktor crossed to the other side of the room, rummaging through the cabinet for the items he needed, unaccustomed to do it now that Otabek mostly did that kind of job for him.

When he returned to Yuri’s side with only the urinary catheter in hand, he found the boy looking between the inmate’s wounds and the electronic pad in his hand, frowning.

“Viktor…”

“Mm?”

“In the report, it says that the inmate presents two single self-inflicted stab wounds, one on his right forearm and another on his right thigh.”

“Yes.”

“And you said that he got priority because of the high risk of suicide.”

Frowning too, Viktor leaned to take a closer look at the now clean wounds, absent-mindedly admiring Yuri’s faultless technique. Beside the gash on the man’s forearm, resting on the bloodied gauze Yuri had used to clean the wound, stood what was unmistakably a shard of glass. As to the thigh wound, although Yuri hadn’t pulled any glass out of it, it wasn’t a single cut, but rather a multitude of small ones, that looked an awful lot like the thigh had fallen or been hit by more broken glass. None of the wounds, due to the aforementioned characteristics and their location, looked like they had been self-inflicted, much less with suicidal intent.

“Also…”, Yuri interrupted Viktor’s thoughts by carefully turning and raising the right hand of the unconscious man, “… as I cleaned the blood from that wound which had dripped down to his hand and had been poorly cleaned up previously, I found this.”

Viktor’s eyes went wide with surprise. The knuckles stood purplish red against the strikingly unblemished pale skin of the inmate’s hand.

“He punched something or someone. Hard. Which made me wonder if he was right-handed…”, Yuri almost whispered, carefully turning their Reprieve’s elegant and unblemished fingers so Viktor could see the discreet writing callus there.

“Would a right-handed person use his left hand to cut his right wrist?”

No.

“The bruised knuckles, the wound placing, the glass… Viktor, this doesn’t look like a suicide attempt at all.”

Chapter Text

Through old abuses the world condones.

― Amy Lowell

 

Otabek returned only after Yuri had finished applying the necessary stitches, stem-cell regenerative gel and dressings to the inmate’s wounds, urinary catheter already in place.

Before placing the urinary catheter, though, Viktor had helped the young Carer-In-Training sponge the Reprieve’s whole body with a pungent antiseptic solution and change the stained stretcher’s linens with a new set of clean sterile ones.

Currently standing by the supplies cabinet, Viktor was requesting an urgent restock of nasogastric tubes through the small teleportation device only he and Otabek had the clearance to use. The silver-haired Carer looked up at the sound of the room door opening to curtly nod at Otabek.

The Junior Carer still looked pale and wide-eyed. As he got closer to the stretcher and started helping Yuri dress the inmate in a new clean white gown, Yuri could see the slight shadows underneath his eyes and smell the very faint notes of vomit in the air. Perhaps Viktor was right and Otabek really had eaten something bad that morning. But… but that didn’t feel right. To Yuri, it seemed like Otabek had been… crying…?

Yuri frowned, trying to make sense of this particular train of thought. He observed the way the brunette almost tenderly tucked their Reprieve in the sterile blanket and looked at the closed eyelids of the drugged man between them, very faintly whispering, “… Yu-uri… I’m… so so-sorry...”, in such a pitiful, shaky, tiny whisper, that Yuri could barely make out his words.

“It’s okay.”, Yuri whispered back in surprise, wanting to comfort Otabek, but not wanting to lose face, “Just help me attach the electrodes for the sedation depth monitor. I always struggle with those and Viktor says we’ve got to hurry or the sedation will be too little to place the nasogastric tube without risk of fully awakening him. You know how resurfacing during the first 24 hours can decrease the probability of-”

“Of successful Erasing. ”, Otabek deadpann ed, promptly cutting him off.

Geez…! , Yuri thought, suddenly pissed, What the hell is wrong with him today?? , and remitted himself to a seething sort of silence as he and Otabek placed the adhesive electrodes on their Reprieve’s forehead.

“Alright! We have the nasogastric tube!”, Viktor sing-songed as he came closer to the intelligent bed, “Let’s go, team! Next medication dose is due in less than ten minutes. Otabek, do you want to do the honours?”

Otabek nodded slo wly. And, a bit too much like an empty automaton, he prepared for the simple procedure by first directing the intelligent stretcher to raise the patient into a ne arly sitting position.

“Yuri.”, Viktor called, quiz mode on, efficien tly diverting Yu ri’s attention from Otabek, “Tell me what the sedation depth monitor is showing and its relevance for this specific procedure.”

“Er… It’s showing a relatively lo w sedation lev el. Which is needed for this procedure because the patient's cooperation is required .”

“Correct.”

There was an awkward moment where no one moved. Then, Viktor and Yuri expectantly looked at the Junior Carer.

“Otabek? You may proceed.”, Viktor urged.

For a couple of seconds, Otabek looked like he was going to refuse. His unreadable gaze travelled from Viktor to the Reprieve, a s if as sessing a puzzle that no one else in the room could perceive. Then his expression became set, almost cold. His gloved hands touched the unconscious man’s face with practiced purpose as he inserted the tube into the man’s nose. Soon, the sedation depth monitor started beeping as the Reprieve tried to gag against the intrusion.

“You are all right. Breathe through your mouth. Swallow.”, Otabek calmly instructed the struggling patient, “Swallow, please.”, Otabek insisted as the Reprieve futilely tried to raise his right arm to protect himself from the unpleasant feeling, coughing a nd gagging.

“Yuri.”, Viktor said calmly, alerting Yuri to gently hold the Reprieve’s hand down.

At that very moment, though, the man’s struggle abruptly stopped and he obediently swallowed, just as his huge brown eyes snapped open and looked straight at Viktor.

Everyone froze and Viktor felt his breath catch. Then, heavy eyelids dropped back over beautiful chocolate coloured eyes and Otabek was again urging the patient to swallow. But the man whimpered something unintelligible and resumed his gagging and coughing double fold. The sedation depth monitor beeping was almost continuous now.

“The sedation is too low…”, Viktor breathed, “Yuri, go grab the-”

“No.”, Otabek interrupted, “He  was swallowing just now. Keep talking to him, Viktor.”

Indeed. Otabek was right.

“Swallow, please.”, Viktor told the Reprieve, reaching over the Junior Carer to touch the struggling man’s cheek, “You’re all right, breathe through your mouth. Now swallow. That’s it, good boy. Swallow again. Yes, that’s it. We’re done. It’s over. Good boy.”, Viktor kept his gloved hand in place while Otabek attached the tube to the man’s other cheek, thumb drawing small little circles in the space under one long-lashed closed eyelid, “Good boy. Good boy…”, he breathed absent-mindedly as something started nagging at the back of his mind.

“Hey, Old Man!”, Yuri’s urgent whisper broke through his musings, “Sedation level is still very low, we need to administer his medication before he can start telling us about who he murdered or raped.”

Oh yes, the Reprieve System was only considered for inmates on sentences over 25 years. Which meant, man slaughterers, rapists and the like.

Viktor let go of the Reprieve’s cheek as if he’d been stung. As he did so, Otabek suddenly turned to him, forcibly capturing Viktor’s gaze with his ironclad own, “He didn-”, and abruptly interrupted his own outburst, turning back towards the Reprieve and diverting his gaze from Yuri’s surprised green eyes.

He didn’t . Viktor knew that was what Otabek was going to say. And, somehow… he agreed.

If working in the Reprieve System had taught Viktor anything, it was that looks had nothing to do with humans’ ability to do evil. But this beautiful, soft, doe-eyed man, who would soon become a blank canvas... This man… did not feel to Viktor like a murderer or a rapist.

“Carer Nikiforov! Permission to administer medication!”, Yuri dragged Viktor out of his own head with an uncharacteristically professional voice that denoted a badly concealed panic.

The Reprieve sat nearly awake between the three of them, drug-weakened arms ineffectively trying to reach for the foreign object on his face, closed eyelids continuously fluttering in a clear effort to regain full consciousness. The sedation depth monitor was letting out a continuous beeping sound and the heart rate monitor showed something very close to awake baseline.

“Administer medication.”

And, neck catheter co-opted syringe in hand, Yuri did.

The Reprieve’s hands fell limply against the stretcher and he released a shaky sigh as his head dropped back against the white sterile linens. The sedation depth monitor stopped beeping and the room became eerily quiet.

In the silence that issued, while Viktor and Otabek stood frozen in place, Yuri detached his syringe and lowered the stretcher’s headrest into a horizontal position, making sure the inmate was adequately tucked in the blanket. Then, he turned to Viktor, a fierce look in his jade eyes.

“What were you thinking? He almost resurfaced!”, he spat, “And what the hell is wrong with you?”, he accusingly asked Otabek.

At their stunned silence, Yuri tsked.

“I’ll go have lunch.”, he informed the room in general, then grabbed his electronic pad and left.

For a few seconds, Otabek and Viktor just stood there, unmoving, listening to the Reprieve’s slow, deep breaths. Then, in a clear voice, without turning from the now stuporous Reprieve, Otabek spoke.

“I’m so sorry.”

And, without sparing Viktor a glance, he left too.

As Viktor stared at the sleeping form before him, a long finger touching his own lips in thought, he wondered which one of them, Viktor or the Reprieve, had Otabek apologised to.

And that’s when he felt it again. There, at the very back of his mind. That same odd feeling...

The feeling that he had met this complete stranger before.

Chapter Text

Death, they say, acquits us of all obligations.

― Michel de Montaigne

 

“But, Yakov!”, Viktor quietly insisted over a spoonful of spinach soup, “The Reprieve’s wounds are not compatible with self-inflicted stab wounds. Their characteristics and placement do not indicate suicidal intent and-”

“Vitya, what do you want me to say?”, Yakov interrupted him, tiredly.

“I…”, there was a pause during which Yakov kept calmly chewing his lunch, “I don’t know.”, Viktor confessed, setting this spoon down in defeat.

“So, the inmate’s admission report may not be completely accurate…”, Yakov raised a placating hand before Viktor could interrupt him, “… or it may be quite inaccurate. So, what? Someone with clearance level B or A, someone very powerful, wanted this inmate to be reprieved here. And they wanted him to start today. Y ou don't need to know more than that to do your job .”

Viktor remained silent, the feeling of unease insisting on having his brow stuck in a deep frown. With a quiet huff, he grabbed his previously discarded spoon only to mindlessly move it through the almost cold soup.

Yakov stared at him in contemplation, then sighed.

“I’ve actually been meaning to ask you about something, Vitya.”, Yakov hesitantly started. “Do you remember the name of the Junior Carer that was in our team back at our previous facility?”.

“Mm, no. Didn’t we usually only get trainees back then?”, Viktor absentmindedly said, finally laying his spoon down for good, in defeat.

Looking round the cafeteria, Viktor’s gaze slid to Chris’ hunched back. The other Carer was sitting by himself a couple tables away from theirs, having his lunch. Viktor suspected that, much like Otabek and Yuri right now, the rest of his team was probably still with their assigned Reprieve.

Viktor couldn’t help but recall their conversation fro m this morning. T he Reprieve Council had probably decided to prolong their Reprieve’s erasing period again. Why weren’t they classifying that inmate as Unreprievable?  Were they trying to fry his brain? Push their luck until muscle atrophy was not fully responsive to Physical Rehabilitation?

Chris had told him that he felt there was something odd about their Reprieve.

Viktor sighed once more, eyes aimlessly sliding to the two women that had just arrived at the cafeteria. He sat up straighter on his chair.

“… besides, I don’t remember you tutoring anyone before this facility…” Yakov trailed on, unaware of Viktor’s complete lack of attention towards his words, “… and I know there were two of you, I just can’t remember and I can’t seem to access the old records-”

“Whose team was on prevention tonight?”, Viktor interrupted him.

“Mm? What? Georgi’s.”, the other man answered, “I don’t know who, specifically. Why do you…”

Viktor didn’t hear the rest of that sentence because he was already halfway to the women quietly chatting over their dish options.

“Mila, Sara! Hello!”

Carer Sara Crispino turned from the holographic food display to look at him with a smile.

“Oh, hi, Viktor. How are you?”

“Hello, Viktor. Do you need something?”, Junior Carer Mila Babicheva immediately asked, visibly bothered by his interruption.

“As a matter of fact, I wanted to ask you something.”, Viktor replied with a wide smile, making Sara blush to the roots of her hair, “ Was Georgi on prevention last night?”

“Yes. Why?”

“He was present at the Consent Verification of my team’s new Reprieve, but the recording is blocked to clearance levels C and below…”

“Oh.”, Sara frowned, looking disappointed, “I’m sure Georgi would help you with whatever little he might be allowed to tell you, but-”

“Georgi was not present at that Consent Verification. He merely performed a short physical screening, calibrated the biometric monitorization and placed the catheter. He said the inmate was already sedated on arrival. He thought Consent Verification had been done beforehand?”

Viktor shook his head.

“Record says it was done here.”

Sara and Mila exchanged a short, surprised look.

“That’s… odd.”, Sara whispered, pensive.

“It was probably done at an Intermediate Reprieve Facility or something. Right, Sara? I remember Georgi saying that was what happened with that Reprieve from Chris’ team a few weeks back.”

“Mm, yes.”, Sara replied, clearly unconvinced, “Could have been some sort of freaky computer error, too. But, yeah, that’s probably what happened.”

 


 

 

Yuri attached the feeding line to the nasogastric tube and huffed.

He was pissed. He really was. Pissed at Viktor for being stupid and asking Otabek to feed the Reprieve when Otabek was clearly uncomfortable dealing with this inmate. But mostly, he was pissed at Otabek because he was uncomfortable dealing with this Reprieve in the first place!

Said Junior Carer wordlessly passed Yuri the inmate’s warmed up liquid meal in its pre- prepared dispenser. Professional as always, Yuri started to slowly push the murky-looking fluid into the nasogastric tube and directly into the inmate’s stomach.

No, that wasn’t true. Yuri might be pissed at Viktor, but he wasn’t pissed at Otabek, not really. Yuri was pissed at himself because he couldn’t understand why Otabek was acting like this.

He seethed. They hadn’t exchanged a single word since that morning, not even during lunch.

Otabek’s movements were stiff, almost mechanical, his jaw set like stone. He looked like… like he was in pain. And, for some reason, Yuri couldn’t accept that.

“Do you think he has any notion of hunger like this?”, he tried, motioning to the Reprieve.

Otabek didn’t answer. But Yuri wouldn’t give up.

“Maybe they dream of food when they’re hungry.”, he suggested with a straight face, valiantly fighting against the urge to correct himself.

“Medication in this stage doesn’t allow for dreams. That is actually one of the main reasons why we use it…”, Otabek blurted out, the drive to teach apparently too strong for him to dodge Yuri’s trap. He looked Yuri in the eye for the first time since they had met the Reprieve this morning, a strained but sincere smile on his lips, “But you already knew that.”

Yuri mischievously grinned back. Although only a shadow of what it normally was, Yuri was relieved to see Otabek smile a bit.

But even that poor sample of a smile was short-lived. Otabek’s eyes again rested on the Reprieve’s peacefully sleeping face with such a pained expression, Yuri wanted to grab his face with both hands and make him look away.

But he didn’t. Because he remembered it too well. The way he had felt when he first saw what an erased person looked like…

Yuri had been working in Viktor’s team for about a month now. Carer Viktor Nikiforov’s team had been the most highly recommended by his senior schoolmates, not only from Reprieve Facility GPF-17, but from all the reprieve facilities their school worked with. That team had a Reprieve success rate of 100% for two consecutive years, no fatalities and its members were said to be excellent teachers. It didn’t hurt that they were also nice and good looking. Yuri’s grandfather, Nikolai Plisetsky, happened to be the Director of Reprieve Facility GPF-17. So, naturally, Yuri had him make sure that he would be that team’s next Carer-In-Training.

Viktor was nothing like Yuri had imagined. Outside the procedures room, he had this airy, outgoing, almost eccentric attitude about him and was an overt dog lover. If Yuri didn’t know better, he would have pegged him for a complete idiot.

Otabek… Otabek was quiet and nice and never spoke about himself. He had this badass vibe about him, a good badass vibe and Yuri had recently found out that he drove a ground motorcycle instead of using teleportation capsules... How cool was that? Anyway, Yuri thought he was okay.

Despite their quite contrasting personalities, Viktor and Otabek worked surprisingly well together. When it came to their work, the two carers were perfectionists. Although Viktor was more experienced – he had worked with now Chief Carer Yakov Feltsman at a different Reprieve Facility before they had both transferred to GPF-17 three years previously – he treated Otabek as his equal and had great trust in his work.

They had welcomed Yuri by making it clear to him that they expected exemplary work from him and that they would help him reach perfection in every area where he might be lacking it.

And that was when Yuri’s first Reprieve arrived. He felt like he had learned more during that inmate’s Erasing week than during all his formal training. At the end of that week, Yuri had been very proud of their work, feeling like they had managed to achieve something amazing. He had never felt surer about his career choice.

Until he didn’t.

He still remembered Otabek’s emotionless expression and Viktor’s almost creepy glee when they sat beside the medical team and one member from the facility’s Reprieve Council behind the one-way glass panel of the Erasing assessment room. How the then fully resurfaced Reprieve had simply sat there, looking… empty. The middle-aged man, who had just started his physical Rewriting plan, had replied to all questions with a detached “I don’t know.” and had then been given a name that he had accepted without question or any sort of resistance. A blank canvas. No name, no life story, no memories, no personality, no likes or dislikes, no sense of self... Just an empty human shell.

Yuri had looked around him, to the faces of the people sitting beside him in the Erasing assessment room and had to fight against his desire to just… scream at their faces. Most of them sported huge proud smiles and a few, like Otabek, seemed completely nonplussed by the heart-cringing aberration they had produced. Yuri had had to keep telling himself that the inmate had wished for the treatment, that he had wanted them to do that to him. But he still couldn’t stomach dinner that night, still had slept badly for days after that.

Yes, he remembered it too well. That feeling… That feeling that everything he’d been taught was so good and amazing, that what he had helped achieve... was wrong.

“-ri? Yuri, are you listening?”

Yuri shook his head, abruptly returning from his reverie and blushing furiously. He had been staring at Otabek for who knows how long, to the point that the other had noticed.

“Mm, sorry. I spaced out.”, he blurted, vexed.

He hurried to busy himself with disassembling the feeding apparatus. As he did so, touching the inmate’s cheek to make sure the nasogastric tube was still securely held in place, the Reprieve whimpered, eyelids fluttering. Yuri froze.

“… Otabek.”, he breathed out in surprise. Help .

Otabek remained silent. And unmoving.

“Ngh…”, the inmate murmured, head voluntarily rolling away from Yuri’s touch.

That was when Yuri noticed that the sedation depth monitor was not beeping. He looked at the monitor. It had been turned off. Yuri turned to Otabek in alarm, mouth dry.

“What…?”

The door opened.

 


 

 

“Hey guys!”, Viktor sing-songed as he walked in, “I have more fascinating information! How is the…”, he stopped himself, eyes becoming frostlike as they took in Yuri’s panicked expression. Professional mode on, he rapidly assessed the situation, taking in the inmate’s abnormally low state of sedation, the darkened monitor and Otabek’s blank gaze.

He swiftly grabbed the appropriate pre-filled syringe from the medication cabinet to his left and purposefully walked to the stirring Reprieve. The moment he successfully co-opted the syringe to the patient’s neck catheter, though, glassy big chocolate-brown eyes met Viktor’s, something akin to recognition in them. Although it was a split-second event, for some reason, it made Viktor hesitate.

“Please, Viktor. I’ll do it. Please don’t. Not you.”, Otabek was saying, even going as far as pulling at Viktor’s arm. As if in a daze, Viktor let go of the syringe and took one step back, allowing Otabek to do the job.

“O-”, the Reprieve’s voice cracked, eyes trying to roll back into his head even as he struggled against the tendrils of unconsciousness, “P-please... Phi…”

But no sense could be made of this babbled whisper before the man’s eyes slid closed as the medication swiftly took him back down into the empty land of dreamless stupor.

There was a heavy pause and then Yuri noncommittally turned the sedation depth monitor back on. In the silence that issued, Otabek valiantly turned to face Viktor, clearly ready to shoulder whatever consequences Viktor might want to issue on him. Viktor stared at the other’s dark eyes, part of him trying to figure Otabek out, the other part trying to figure himself out.

“I’m sorry, Viktor.”, Yuri spoke, unexpectedly interrupting their stare off, “I must’ve turned the monitor off by accident when I set the stretcher into a sitting position for the feeding. Next medication dose wasn’t due for about half an hour more and...”

He was lying. It hadn’t been Yuri who had turned the sedation depth monitor off. Viktor was sure of that.

He carefully considered the two young men before him. Yuri, prodigy perfectionist Yuri, was clearly trying to protect Otabek. And, for some reason, Otabek was allowing it. Professional, hard-working, righteous Otabek, who Viktor had worked with and trusted for two years. What the hell was going on today?

Viktor released a tired sigh.

“Carer-in-Training Yuri Plisetsky. I want a report on the importance of consistent sedation depth on the first 24 hours of Erasing for the success of a Reprieve Protocol on my e-pad desktop tomorrow morning. You are excused for today.”

Yuri opened his mouth to say something, but seemed to think better of it. He nodded, shoulders slightly hunched.

“Yes… sir.”, he said, and left.

After the biometric lock of the door made itself known, Viktor turned to Otabek and was met by a stoic expression that bore no regrets.

“I don’t have to look at today’s sedation depth record to know that the minimum number of hours spent in deep sedation where not enough to start the Sleep Treatment protocol tonight. The patient almost resurfaced twice. He may even have fully resurfaced on that last time… We can’t know for sure because the monitor was conveniently off. Either way, the medical team will likely up his dosages because of this. And you know that the higher the Erasing medication dosages are the nastier the consequences on the patient’s immune system…”

Otabek’s expression remained unchanged. Viktor sighed again, a headache beginning to bloom at his forehead.

“Take care of the excretory bag. I’ll go prepare his drug cocktail for tonight.”

A few minutes later, Otabek was just finishing repositioning the softly snoring Reprieve into the now horizontally set stretcher, carefully tucking the blankets around his body, when Viktor co-opted the fluid therapy bag to the venous catheter on the inmate’s neck with a soft click.

Otabek looked up at the sound, body tense as he took in the already slowly dripping drugs.

Viktor noticed this change in his peripheral vision. He turned to look at the Junior Carer and what he saw left him speechless.

Pale and shaking in place, Otabek stood looking at Viktor’s hands by the Reprieve’s neck, crying.

Before Viktor could fully understand the veracity of the tears running down Otabek’s face, the young man swiftly wiped them off with the back of his light grey gloved wrists.

“I’m sorry.”, he rasped, voice deep and shaking.

Once again, Viktor wasn’t exactly sure of who Otabek was apologizing to.

Viktor awkwardly cleared his throat. He was awful at dealing with crying people, he never knew what to do. Thankfully, Otabek rapidly pulled himself together, solemn stoic expression back in place.

“Otabek, I don’t know what is going on with you, whether you are sick or are dealing with some personal issues… but we are professionals. We cannot let our personal life interfere with our work. Remember that.”

Otabek nodded once, dutifully. Viktor sighed.

“Look, whatever it is, I hope you know that you can talk about it with me. I consider you my friend and I will help you in whatever I can.”

Otabek’s dark brown eyes fixed Viktor’s for a few seconds as if he was searching for something. But whatever that was, he didn’t find it.

“Thank you, Viktor.”, he said instead.

“Okay, let’s go. It’s been a long day.”

The door closed behind them as they left for the day, dutifully locking the deeply slumbering inmate in his comfortably warm and darkened cell.

Chapter Text

Forgiveness does not exonerate the perpetrator. Forgiveness liberates the victim.

― T. D. Jakes

 

Yuri yawned, jaw almost dislocating, and blinked sleepy tears away. Swaying slightly in place in the deserted corridor, he hugged his hoodie closer and shivered. Eyes stinging with lack of rest, he forced himself to stare at the terrestrial access way.

After dutifully finishing his report the previous night and sending it to Viktor, Yuri could not fall asleep. His mind kept going back to Otabek, worrying that he might be in trouble for what had happened. For what he’d done. Why had he done that, anyway?

The empty eyes of his first Reprieve flashed, mighty and stingy like a slap, in the back of Yuri’s mind. Wrong, wrong, wrong , the Reprieve in his memories seemed to be chanting. Yuri shook his head and tried again to focus on the grey entryway.

Still no sign of Otabek. He released a shaky sigh, hunching further into himself.

The sun had barely risen in the sky yet but, as Yuri couldn’t sleep, he had decided that he might as well leave home early. Perhaps he would meet Otabek before Viktor arrived and properly talk with him.

His grandfather had just come out of his own bedroom, bleary-eyed and in his pyjamas, when Yuri had been about to leave for the teleportation capsules. He’d seemed concerned by Yuri’s tired ashen face, but didn’t question nor attempt to stop him.

“See you later, Yuratchka.”, he had simply said.

Their unit was just Yuri, Gramps and Tigr - their cat. Always had been. Yuri had never met his mother, as he had been conceived many years after her death.

Yuri’s mother, Anna, had been Nikolai’s and Alina’s only child. She had been a rare case of successful in vitro insemination with in vivo gestation, and the joy of her parents’ lives. However, due to her poor health, she had passed away before her 5th  birthday. Broken-hearted, after years of fruitless struggling for another baby, Alina became severely depressed and, eventually, put an end to her own life.

Despite losing both the joy and the love of his life, Nikolai bravely soldiered through. As a researcher, he did his best to find a way of extricating the disease from his dead daughter’s cryopreserved genome and, just as gestational pods became a reality, he achieved it.

Nikolai then waited for the pods to be thoroughly tested, selected a healthy sample from a male donor gene pool and produced a grandson, thus fulfilling his and Alina’s biggest dreams and acquiring a source of comfort and company to see him through his old age.

Although Yuri had attended a sorting and training facility from an early age, unlike his lab baby classmates, he was one of the very lucky few that, at the end of the day, returned to a family. Gramps was his only family and he loved him with all his heart.

There were actually very few people who Yuri cared about. And, despite their relatively short acquaintance, Otabek was probably one of those people already.

Yuri rubbed at his eyes, forcing himself to keep them open. The corridor he was waiting at was like a glass sleeve connecting the two main towers of the Reprieve facility. It was Yuri’s favourite place in the building because it made him feel like he was flying. It had also been where he’d first seen Otabek arriving to work on his old fashioned black terrestrial motorcycle.

So cool …, he daydreamed as he relived the experience in his head with a soft smile on his lips.

Oh, there you are ., he thought when he finally spotted the familiar black shape.

Yuri turned to go down to the parking lot level, thinking he would meet Otabek there, where it was unlikely they could be overheard, especially that early in the morning.

He’d actually heard Junior Carers Babicheva and Yang commenting once on how one of them had accidently found Carer Giacometti and one of the doctors making out in one of the darkened corners of the mostly deserted terrestrial parking lot. Yuri tsked at himself when he felt his traitorous cheeks annoyingly blushing at the thought.

Yes, it seemed Otabek was basically the only one who used the place as an actual parking lot.

When Yuri walked into the parking lot, though, Otabek was nowhere to be seen. His beautiful black motorcycle was the only ground vehicle in there and there were no humans in sight.

Thinking that they might have lost each other by taking two different paths, Yuri turned and was about to go back the way he had come, when he heard a sound, like faintly whispering voices. He turned, about to call out Otabek’s name, but stopped himself, suddenly remembering Mila’s and Isabella’s spicy gossip. Was that Carer Giacometti and his mysterious lover? Or was it Otabek and his…

No. , Yuri tried to reason with himself, That’s silly. Otabek wouldn’t… Right?

Although Otabek was a handsome young man that could certainly catch the eye of many people, for some reason, even just considering the possibility that Otabek might be romantically and/or sexually involved with any of the staff – any of the humans , really – seriously pissed Yuri off.

Curiosity getting the best of him, the blonde Carer-in-Training slowly, quietly, got closer to the source of the soft sounds. His ears took him to one of the many closet-like compartments that existed on either side of the parking lot.

All compartments were enveloped in darkness, the few light sources of the place located closer to the middle of it, in the vehicle designated area. Perhaps those had been used as storage rooms in the past? Yuri wouldn’t know.

What he did know, just by looking at them, was that each of the small rooms had an old-fashioned light switch by each door and, although, judging from the whispering, someone was inside one of them, none of the compartments had their light on.

For reasons Yuri was yet unable to identify, this fact made his chest tighten painfully. He was about to turn on his heels and bolt, never to look back, when he clearly heard Otabek’s voice saying his name.

“… didn’t. I’m sure Yuuri…”

Odd. It was his name but it didn’t really sound like his name. Otabek didn’t say his name like that. Against his best judgement, Yuri leaned closer to the door.

“… recognized the both of us. But he immediately tried to ask me about Phichit. I was almost glad to put him back to sleep then. If the others had heard Phichit’s name they might repeat it to Christophe and that would probably be bad-”

Who the hell was Phichit?

“I’m actually not sure about that anymore.”

Yuri almost bit his own tongue in shock. Carer Lee Seung Gil? Yuri had never seen Otabek and Seung Gil interact with each other before, he wasn’t even sure Seung Gil interacted with anyone .

“I think he’s figured out what Minami and I have been doing and he hasn’t done anything to stop us. He doesn’t agree with the Council’s decision. He seems heavily guilt-ridden ever since Phichit told him his name.”

There was a short silence, then a sigh.

“I would try to tell him right now if it weren’t so risky…”, Seung Gil said in the form of a reluctant confession.

“You can’t risk it. Especially not now. At this point, it’s better to keep him in the dark till the end, anyway. Yuuri ending up in my team was not a coincidence. Viktor has been stumbling on protocol incongruences from the first hour. It’s like they didn’t even bother to hide them, they are so sure this will get a reaction out of us.”

“And won’t it?”

Yuri’s mouth felt parchment-dry. Were they… were they talking about their Reprieve?

“This is clearly a trap.”

A trap?

“I’ve believed that since Celestino showed up. Do you think that fact will stop Lilia and the other commanders this time, though?”

“I hope not.”, Otabek breathed out.

Lilia… that name sounded vaguely familiar to Yuri. Who was Lilia? And… stop what? What were they talking about??

“Will you be able to interfere with Yuuri’s Sleep Treatment?”

“I…”, Otabek’s voice shook and failed him.

Yuri’s chest tightened in tandem with Otabek’s clear despair.

“… I don’t think I will. Yuri… Plisetsky will not cooperate and I can’t fool him for more than a few minutes, he’s too good. And, after what happened yesterday, Viktor will be all over my work, I’m sure.”

That was his name now. Without a doubt. Did that mean that the other Yuri was… their inmate?

“Genealogy aside, Plisetsky still is the grandson of one of the higher ups. You must be especially careful around him.”, Seung Gil gravely agreed, then asked, hesitant, “Didn’t Viktor react in any way? Not even to Yuuri’s wounds?”

Otabek must’ve shaken his head or given another non-verbal negative response to Seung Gil’s question.

“That’s…”, there was a heavy pause, “Sad. Expected, sure. But sad.”, Seung Gil finished poorly.

“We can’t lose him too, Seung Gil. Not like this… not through his hands. Every time he… I…”, again, Otabek’s voice faltered and failed.

Yuri’s hands became tight fists on either side of him. He didn’t really understand what he was hearing, but he wanted to take the pain off Otabek’s voice. It just… didn’t fit there.

“We haven’t lost any of them yet. That’s the reason why we’re here, after all… For now, we will do what we can and wait for further directives. Please don’t do anything rash, Otabek.”

There was a short silence.

“Promise me, soldier.”, Seung Gil pressed, firmer this time.

“I was never a soldier.”, Otabek declared.

There was movement from the inside and that was all the warning Yuri got before he could slip into the darkness of an adjacent compartment. A fraction of a second later and the door was opening, letting Otabek out.

Yuri stood as still as he could, holding his breath against the dark dusty wall of the claustrophobia-inducing room, as he watched Otabek walk to the elevators through the sliver of his compartment’s slightly ajar door.

An eternity seemed to pass before Seung Gil slowly followed Otabek’s lead.

When he felt like it was safe to breathe again, Yuri let his shaking body slid down onto the dirty ground. He sat there catching his breath, trying to control his racing heart and his scattered thoughts.

What had he just witnessed?

 


 

 

Viktor left the briefing room wearing a deep scowl. As he walked in the direction of the Reprieve quarters, Michele and Emil passed him by, both seemingly alarmed by his uncharacteristic expression.

Although he’d been expecting something like this due to the small amount of their Reprieve’s deep sedation hours, which had delayed the beginning of the Sleep Treatment, Viktor was once again pissed at how things were being handled.

Past night’s vital signs registry had, very peculiarly, been forwarded only to the medical team. As Viktor arrived at the briefing and complained about this, the matter had been immediately scratched off as a software error, one of the doctors sending him her own files for him to look at.

The charts were horrible. Vital signs had peaked early in the night, then had slowly gone back down a bit, but never to the levels expected in deep sedation. The medical team had exponentially increased the Reprieve’s medication doses and decided for the Sleep Treatment to be started this afternoon, regardless of deep sedation statistics.

Viktor fumed. It was like they wanted this Reprieve Protocol to fail. He felt very much like disregarding the group’s decision.

The executive decision of the whole Reprieve process did, ultimately, rest in the carers’ hands. So did, logically, the full responsibility of the Reprieve’s outcome, be it success, no success, or, rarely, death. That’s why carers were so fundamental to the System. And, also, why they could be so easily discarded of as well…

“Viktor.”, Otabek called in ways of greeting as they met at a corridor cross-link, the younger carer easily stepping into pace beside him.

“Good morning.”, Viktor tried to impart a cheerful tone to the words and failed, “You didn’t go to the briefing.”, he said, settling for a neutral tone of voice.

Otabek frowned and looked at him, confused.

“Let me guess, you guys didn’t get notified about this morning’s medical briefing.”, Viktor sighed, not even bothering to hide his exasperation.

Otabek nodded, a deeper frown in place.

“Yet another software error, I wager.”, Viktor scoffed, then looked around Otabek and himself, “Where is Yuri?”

“I… haven’t seen him yet…?”, Otabek replied, sounding surprised, almost as if he’d only now noticed Yuri’s absence.

“I would say he was still finishing his report if he hadn’t sent it to me already.”, Viktor said with a chuckle, “Odd. He’s never been late before.”

Otabek noncommittally nodded in agreement, looking perhaps slightly concerned.

They made the last corner to their Reprieve’s procedures room.

Yuri, clad in his loose white uniform, was leaning heavily against the closed sliding metal door. The Carer-in-Training looked pale and tired, deep shadows under his bright green eyes.

Oh yes, the door would only unlock in the morning with either Viktor’s or Otabek’s biometry. This meant that, because apparently this morning Yuri hadn’t met with Otabek like he usually did, he’d been waiting for them like that, locked outside. Probably for a while, too.

As he took in his student’s appearance, Viktor couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty for requesting that report.

“Fucking finally!”, Yuri growled when he saw them and straightened, stepping away from the door so the sensors could scan Viktor for his biometry.

“Good morning to you too, Yuri.”, Viktor cheerfully greeted, inwardly taking back the guilt he had felt just seconds before.

“Welcome back, STP-5W, Carer Viktor Nikiforov.”, the mechanical voice of the room greeted as the heavy door silently slid open before them, the room’s fluorescent lights automatically coming to life.

“What the hell?”, Yuri bellowed at the sight before them.

“His vitals were all over the place last night…”, Viktor said, immediately going to the sleeping Reprieve.

The man was laying in an odd position on the intelligent stretcher, bed clothes twisted and pooling lopsided about his body, denuded left arm and leg hanging limply out of the bed.

“But it looks like he trashed around... like he tried to get up, even! I didn’t know they could do that under meds like those...!”, Yuri observed, sounding fascinated, as he helped Viktor move the Reprieve into a more comfortable position.

“They can’t.”, Viktor whispered, looking at the monitors on the wall above the inmate’s head and frowning, “These only refer to the last 3 hours… Where are the rest of the charts?”

“Maybe that software error you mentioned.”, Otabek deadpanned.

Viktor turned to him, mouth open and about to tell him how-

“Guys?”, Yuri interrupted, “There is blood on the sheets and it’s not from the catheter. The bandages are still in place, too…”

Otabek and Viktor simultaneously turned to the Carer-in-Training with matching confused expressions.

Then, right hand shaking slightly, Otabek grabbed the sheets and pulled them all back, exposing the Reprieve’s lower half. The white gown was riding up at around the man’s chest, exposing the inmate’s flat abdomen and an innocently patent urinary catheter.

Between the Reprieve’s thighs, though, there were bruises… there was blood.

Chapter Text

The offender never pardons.

― George Herbert

 

Their Reprieve had been raped. The inmate, no, the pardoned criminal, no, the defenceless young man whose well-being and, ultimately, whose life they were responsible for, had been sexually assaulted during the night. Hurt in his most vulnerable state, unable to fight against his attacker… while they were gone.

Yuri swallowed painfully against the lump in his throat as he fought scorching tears of rage. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t take his eyes off the bloodcurdling sight of the bruised and torn skin. The evidence laid bare and unforgiving before them from the second Viktor carefully lifted one of the Reprieve’s thighs to evaluate the damage.

“No.”, Otabek’s voice rang clear and expressionless in the eerily quiet room.

Viktor gently set the Reprieve’s leg down, partially blocking Yuri’s field of vision and effectively breaking his trance-like seething state.

“No.”, Otabek repeated.

Yuri turned to look at him. He was trembling. Yuri might or might not be in a similar state.

“The only people that could’ve unlocked this room, besides Otabek and I, are Yakov, the on-duty element of the team that was on prevention tonight and any clearance level A personnel.”, Viktor stated in an eerily professional tone of voice as he walked towards the room’s control panel.

“There is no employee with that clearance level in this facility.”, Otabek coldly supplied.

“But only someone with a clearance level A could erase the traces of someone ever coming inside this room.”, Viktor whispered, turning the holographic screen towards Yuri and Otabek so they could see the door biometrics log.

The record immediately before the one from when the three of them came in, just a few minutes ago, was the one from yesterday noon, when they’d left for the day. The rapist had erased their trail.

“They called it a software error and made it so that we wouldn’t report it or would become the main suspects if we did report it.”, Otabek’s words, icy clear and painfully hollow, dug into them like a stab.

“But…”, Yuri tried, then stopped himself, feeling himself pale as the meaning of Otabek’s words hit him full force.

They wouldn’t be able to prove that there hadn’t been a software error, nor would they be able to prove that a clearance level A individual had entered the room. The on-duty element of the prevention team would certainly be able to biometrically prove that they hadn’t left the emergency room. Which meant that the only tangible suspects would be Viktor, Otabek and Yuri during the day and Viktor, Otabek and Yakov during the supposed software error period of the night.

“No!”, Yuri exclaimed through a nearly collapsed throat, “We can’t do nothing!”

“We can’t do anything.”, Otabek corrected, gaze zeroing on Yuri’s own, dark eyes emptier of emotion than his words.

Yuri’s initial rage was slowly but surely morphing into something akin to despair. A cold heavy silence stretched between the three of them, the quiet rhythmic beeping of the Reprieve’s heart rate monitor marking the passing of a time none of them wanted to face.

“No. We must do something.”, Viktor calmly said, voice slicing through the ice like a hot-red blade, “I will report this to Yakov. Otabek, Yuri, please anesthetise and disinfect the lacerations. Then, apply the stem cell gel. No need for an occlusive dressing.”, he instructed, then turned to go.

“Care r Nikiforov.”, Otab ek called, “Permission to not administer the patient’s scheduled medication.”

Viktor stopped in front of the still closed door.

“Permission denied.”, Viktor answered without turning, then walked out of the room, door closing behind him.

 


 

 

Yakov nodded once, no discernible emotion on his wrinkled face.

For a second Viktor wondered if he hadn’t heard him over the howling wind, but then he noticed the dead grip the older man had on the railing. Yakov was holding the metal so hard that his fingers had become white. He had heard Viktor. And he was pissed.

When Viktor approached the Chief Carer a few minutes previously, the other, perhaps noticing Viktor’s distress, had immediately suggested that they went outside to talk.

Outside being the tall uncovered metal bridge that connected two parts of one of the facility’s buildings. It had been used in the past as a place where people would go to smoke. Also, the place where one of the doctors… What was his name again? Oh, yes, Cialdini … had committed suicide less than a couple years before. But, perhaps most important was the fact that it was an extremely windy and cold part of the facility, with almost no direct sunlight and unpleasantly damp. Viktor didn’t like it at all, but he had to confess he was grateful for the privacy it conceded them now.

Yakov leaned closer to Viktor so he didn’t have to scream over the howling gale.

“I was unsure about this before, but now I know that I must do it.”, he said, then sighed, fixing Viktor with a deep glare, “I want you to relay a message to Junior Carer Altin.”

“Otabek?”

Yakov nodded.

“Tell him the ballerina will make the skaters fly in two seasons, before the gold medal is won, as long as there are pirozhki.”

“What the hell does that mean?”, Viktor demanded with a bewildered chuckle.

Yakov didn’t smile. In fact, his solemn blue eyes seemed to go rock hard. Viktor dry-gulped.

“I don’t know. I don’t want to know. And, if you are smart, you will do the same.”, Yakov said, “Did you memorize the message?”

“Hm? I… Y-yes.”, Viktor nodded slowly as he fought against the rising worry over Yakov’s mental health. He shook his head in an attempt to gather his thoughts. They had more pressing matters at hand than Yakov’s gibberish messages to Otabek, “And what about what I just told you? What should I… What should we do? Someone with a high clearance level-”

“Don’t initiate the Sleep Treatment.”, Yakov interrupted him, “Other than that, just… lay low. And relay that message.”

“Yakov!”, Viktor finally let out, unable to contain his perplexity any longer, “Please listen to yourself! What are you saying, telling me to… to… what? Play the spy? Are you… are you tired? Have you been sleeping badly?”, he tried to reason.

Yakov shook his head. There was a sad look in his eyes. Sad, but resolved.

“It seems I have been sleeping too much up till recently.”, he whispered, then steely held Viktor’s gaze, “Lay low but do what I told you. Promise me, Vitya.”

Viktor couldn’t help but numbly nod in reply.

 


 

 

Yuri pretended not to notice when Otabek administered only three quarters of the outdated medication dose to the Reprieve. And he completely ignored the fact that such dose was administered about half an hour later that what the schedule stipulated.

As a matter of fact, Yuri suspected that, independently of Viktor’s permission – or lack of it, in this case –, Otabek would’ve actually ignored both the medication and the schedule altogether, where it not for the pained whimpers that the inmate started emitting when the sedation level became too low. Heck, Yuri wouldn’t have batted an eye to that breach of protocol at this point.

But, listening to that helpless instinctual manifestation of hurt, made something in Yuri want to protect that person from the pain that had, quite literally, been dug into him.

Yuri could no longer see the sleeping man as a terrible criminal on a life sentence – perhaps he had never seen him like that, really – all he could see now was a victim. And, if he could, at least for now, prevent that victim to be painfully faced with the atrocity of what had been done to him, then he would.

Whoever this person was to Otabek, whatever he meant to the Junior Carer, Yuri was sure this was what Otabek was thinking too as he pushed the drug into the inmate’s bloodstream.

As per Yuri’s rather bright suggestion, they’d used a DNA scanner to search the Reprieve’s body as well as the whole room, right after Viktor’s departure. But they could only find their own DNA and the Reprieve’s in it. Whoever did this had been very careful and thorough. Which begged the question regarding the violence necessary to inflict damage like that on the Reprieve’s body. They had deliberately hurt him. They hadn’t only tried to frame the carer team, they had wanted to leave a mark on that man. And they had wanted them to see it. Why?

Yuri’s eyes slid to Otabek’s slightly shaking hands as the Junior Carer lowered the imaging equipment on to the Reprieve’s lower half.

They did this because they wanted to elicit some sort of reaction from us. , Yuri mused, then zeroed in on Otabek’s tense tired features, From him ?, he theorized as he remembered the conversation he had overheard that morning.

Both Carer-in-Training and Junior Carer carefully inspected the image on the holographic screen. Thankfully, there didn’t seem to be any viscera perforation.

Otabek put the machine away. Yuri took a deep breath, then spoke, voice cracking the silence like a walnut, “Do you know this person?”

Otabek’s dark eyes met his straight on, blankly. Yuri valiantly held his inscrutable gaze.

“Why would you ask me that?”

“I want to help.”, Yuri offered.

Otabek frowned, gaze suddenly piercing, almost accusing. No way… Could he possibly suspect Yuri’s earlier accidental spy activity?

“You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“… No.”, Yuri easily agreed. He didn’t know why someone so powerful would deliberately hurt a nameless Reprieve, he didn’t know what that inmate meant to Otabek, he didn’t know what Otabek and Seung Gil were involved in, or who Lilia was… Yes, he didn’t know any of those things, “But I still want to help.”, he declared.

Otabek opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out. He closed it, jaw muscles going visibly tense as he fixed Yuri with a steely look that Yuri boldly mirrored. Then he shook his head and… smirked.

Yuri could see it in the other’s eyes, hope and self-preservation waging each other.

The noise of the door biometrics unlocking to let Viktor back inside seemed to be the decisive turn to the battle going on inside Otabek.

“Then help me tamper with the Sleep Treatment.”, he said in a rush, under his breath, immediately busying himself with the vital signs monitors.

Yuri nodded once, then turned to go prepare the Reprieve’s liquid meal as Viktor walked inside.

Chapter Text

Those who lack the courage will always find a philosophy to justify it.

― Albert Camus

 

“So? How did it go?”, Yuri asked Viktor as soon as the door closed itself behind him.

“I don’t know.”, he tiredly replied.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”, Yuri demanded. Otabek turned to look at Viktor too, expectant.

Viktor sighed.

“Yakov wasn’t of much help. He told me not to start the Sleep Treatment and… to lay low.”, he informed them, shaking his head.

That information got no reaction out of the two young men before him, not even a single outraged growl from Yuri. Surprised, Viktor tried to observe them more closely. They were both still expectantly staring at him.

“So? What are we going to do?”, Yuri finally urged him, irritated.

“We will not start the Sleep Treatment. It feels like the least of our worries right now and the inmate didn’t spend enough time in deep sedation anyway, that is a fact. The Council would have to come here and do it themselves, because we won’t.”

Yuri and Otabek immediately showed their support by nodding once in wordless acquiescence, both clearly relaxing at his words.

“But I cannot stay quiet about this!”, Viktor said,voice raising with every word, “Someone came in here and hurt our patient! I can’t-”

“Someone invisible enough to avoid being blamed and powerful enough to erase all evidence that could point to them.”, Otabek interrupted in an eerily calm and clear tone.

“I-”, Viktor tried to counter.

“I think we should follow Yakov’s advice.”, Otabek cut in again.

“You and Yakov make it sound like we are fighting against something terrible, something bad inside the System! Like there is reason to insurge… or something silly like that!”, Viktor accused, raising his voice over Otabek’s, “The system is good! We save lives, we give people a second chance!”

The silence that followed that outburst found Viktor catching his breath and standing in front of Otabek’s silent and perfectly stoic countenance. He hadn’t even noticed his feet taking him across the room to the place where he was standing now.

The Reprieve released a weak groan, then a sigh. They all turned to look at him, but the young man remained unconscious, the sedation level monitor behind him indicating an intermediate sedation level.

“Is it?”, Yuri whispered into the awkward silence that followed, “Is the Reprieve System really that good, Viktor?”

Viktor was at a loss for words. At the face of what had happened, he could merely blink in surprise and stare at Yuri’s bitter expression, unable to counter his young student’s words.

“We call it Reprieve . How ironic is that?”, Yuri nearly spat, “Pardon, forgiveness. But we don't really forgive them, do we? As a matter of fact, we erase them, we even call the procedure that.”, Yuri paused to draw in a shaky breath and try to control his rising tone of voice, ever mindful of their sleeping patient, “We are taught that we’re doing something good, that we are giving them a second chance but, for them, it's their first. Because we erased the person they were before, the one we could not forgive. This is like... Like we're killing them. No.”, he shook his head, looking dangerously close to tears now. Enraged tears, but still, “No. It’s… it’s worse than that.”

“Yes, Yuri.”, Otabek gravely agreed, leaning over the prone figure between them to lay a comforting hand on one of Yuri’s discreetly shaking shoulder, “It’s… worse than that.”

Perplexed by the scene playing out before him, Viktor just stood there, chest tight at Yuri’s outburst. An outburst that seemed to translate all the doubts Viktor himself had never been brave enough to put into words.

He could barely register how seemingly odd it was that, as silent dry sobs wracked his thin frame, Yuri did not fend off from Otabek’s touch.

While waiting for Yuri to gather himself, Otabek turned his face towards a shaken Viktor.

“What did you mean, Yakov made it sound like we should insurge against the System? Why did you say that?”, he quietly inquired, dark eyes shining with an odd mix of hope and caution.

“Mm? Oh.”, feeling the need to busy himself with something, anything, Viktor took the warmed up liquid meal dispenser from Yuri’s lax hands, “He asked me to tell you some gibberish about skaters and ballerinas.”, Viktor hesitated, looking at the Reprieve’s peaceful face, “Or maybe it really wasn’t gibberish…”, he shook his head, avoiding Otabek’s focused stare as he prepared to pump the Reprieve’s meal into the nasogastric tube.

“Skaters and ballerinas?”, Yuri quietly asked, sounding calmer.

Otabek took his hand off Yuri’s shoulder – leaving the boy looking slightly lost without his touch – and stood straighter, suddenly tense.

“What was it?”, he asked Viktor.

Viktor didn’t immediately reply, trying to remember Yakov’s precise wording as he slowly pushed the liquid inside the inmate’s stomach. His wasn’t the best memory, so the process required a bit of effort on his part.

“It was…”, he finally said, “The ballerina will make the skaters fly in two seasons, before the gold medal is won. Mm… as long as there are pirozhki.”

“What… the hell does that…”, Yuri whispered, then looked at Otabek, going quiet.

Otabek was staring at Viktor, looking pale, lips pressed into a thin line.

“He said two seasons. Are you sure of that?”, he asked Viktor, equal amounts of urgency and hope suddenly bleeding into his voice.

“Mm, yes.”, Viktor replied as he disassembled the feeding apparatus.

“And pirozhki. You are positive that was the word he used?”

“Yes. Why?”

Otabek didn’t reply. Although his eyes looked brighter, hopeful, he looked conflicted. Viktor and Yuri didn’t press. For a few minutes none of them said anything.

Viktor touched the inmate’s cheek to make sure the nasogastric tube was still securely held in place and the Reprieve’s eyelids fluttered, eyelashes gently brushing against his gloved hand. That odd feeling of familiarity returned to Viktor’s chest and gave him pause, but he determinedly pushed it away. He looked at the sedation level monitor, which, unsurprisingly, showed a relatively low sedation. Viktor no longer felt like he should be doing something about that.

“You said it’s even worse. Can you at least tell us why?”, Yuri asked, jade-green eyes meeting Otabek’s openly, “Why was this person deliberately hurt like this?”

Otabek held Yuri’s clear, honest gaze for a whole minute, as if testing him, then he gravely nodded and spoke, words falling over them like a heavy, scratchy blanket.

“Because, like many of the people erased by the Reprieve System, this man is not a criminal. He’s a hero and his name is Katsuki Yuuri."

Chapter Text

Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.

― Mahatma Gandhi

 

“Did you just… tell us the name of our Reprieve?!”, Viktor breathed out, looking scandalized by Otabek’s revelation for all the wrong reasons.

The Reprieve System worked on the foundations of a strict confidentiality policy. Absolute secrecy was paramount at all stages.

The handful of high clearance level personnel responsible for handling the Reprieve request at the penal institution of origin, the ones responsible for the inmates’ death at the eyes of the Justice and of everyone they knew, those were the last ones to connect a face to a name and to a crime. The intermediate Reprieve facility would make even their provenance vanish. When the inmates got to the final stage, an Executive Reprieve Facility, like GPF-17, they would already be no one, already halfway to be rewritten. The only name carers would ever get to know was their Reprieve’s new name. Never the original one. Never the erased one.

“Hey, Old Man, did you hear anything Otabek said? This person is not a Reprieve. And his name is Yuuri…”, Yuri paused and scrunched up his nose, “Which is annoying as hell. Let’s just call him Katsuki.”

Viktor took a step back, face pale and eyes wide like he’d seen a ghost.

“This is insane! You’re insane!”, Viktor nearly hissed at Otabek as he took another step away from them and closer to the door, still looking very pale, breathing rate going up.

“Viktor-”, Otabek tried in a placating tone, raising his hands, palms exposed, but staying put. Yuri didn’t know what to do, so he didn’t move away from the stretcher either.

Viktor was clearly struggling to control himself.

“The System would never reprieve an innocent man.”, he said in a hoarse, wavering voice, “You are lying. Why would you say something like that?”

“I know this is a lot to take in-”, Otabek tried again, this time taking one step towards Viktor.

“Stop! Stop.”, Viktor interrupted him, looking so pale that, for a second, Yuri thought he was going to pass out. Viktor didn’t take any more steps back, though.

Yuri mostly understood Viktor’s reaction. Unlike Yuri, who had been wondering about something like this for a while, Viktor – no, Carer Nikiforov – had, most certainly, always had great faith in the System, in that what he was doing was doubtless good. Being told otherwise, and in a way that he obviously felt credible, was difficult.

Still, as he watched Viktor going into what looked a lot like a panic attack, he couldn’t help but be fascinated by how deeply Otabek’s words had hit the silver-haired man.

“Viktor, please. I know that your head his telling you that I’m lying and it’s okay if you’d rather believe it, but please don’t do anything rash-”

Viktor laughed at that for a few seconds, then all but sat cross-legged on the floor, in a movement that looked too much like a controlled fall to Yuri.

“My head...”, he wheezed, then dry-gulped and took a few steadying deep breaths, looking a bit more like himself when he looked back up at a concerned Otabek, “I don’t know what to think right now.”, he admitted, shoulders sagging in apparent exhaustion.

Otabek sat on the floor as well, keeping a respectful distance from Viktor as the other’s breaths became progressively slower.

“Why are you sitting on the floor? That’s so unsanitary. We have stools, you know?”, Yuri complained after a while, sitting down as well as soon as the words were out of his mouth.

“It’s okay. The bots disinfect the floor every night.”, Viktor informed him with a chuckle, looking almost completely back to himself now, “Also, the floor was closer.”

Otabek chortled. Yuri derisively rolled his eyes at Viktor and suddenly they were all laughing.

Well, Yuri tried very hard not to. But he wasn’t very successful.

It was a rather peculiar short moment, but it did considerably lighten up the mood.

“Who are you?”, Viktor calmly asked Otabek after a short silence.

“My name is Otabek Altin. I am a second year Junior Carer at Reprieve Facility GPF-17.”

Yuri tsked, impatient, “Good to know, but aside from that, what are you?”

“I am an undercover Hasetsu operative.”

There was a short awkward pause. Then Viktor and Yuri spoke at the same time.

“A what?”

“Hasetsu?”

Otabek took in their twin confused expressions and nodded once, serious.

“I will begin from the start, then.”, he said, “How much do you know about the implementation of the Reprieve System?”

Viktor frowned. Yuri released a jaded sigh.

“What we now call the Reprieve System was implemented over 30 years ago, after the development of the Erasing Protocol and its successful results on multiple experimental groups of willing inmates. After the experiment, those subjects were relocated into different planets, led new crimeless lives as completely different people and were happily ever after… or something.”, he supplied, bored, “The whole thing was not only seen as a very humane and compassionate process which promised to retain productivity, decrease any losses on the lab babies investment and lessen the penal system’s long-term expenses, but it could also help populate other parts of the galaxy. For this, the System was met by all with a great level of acceptance and became fully functional within a few years.”, Yuri shrugged, “It has been up and running for all of my life.”

“So, you’ve been taught that the implementation of the Reprieve System was met by absolutely no resistance on everyone’s part? That it has always been running perfectly smoothly?”

“Hasn’t it?”, Viktor asked.

Yuri frowned, suddenly remembering, “Well, there was that electric accident a few years ago that my grandfather told me about…”, he supplied, pensive, “It destroyed a whole facility. But aside from that, yeah. Pretty much.”, he shrugged.

“Electric…?”, Otabek whispered, eyes wide with surprise, then shortly glanced at Katsuki Yuuri and shook his head. He sighed and straightened his back as if preparing to give a long speech.

“The implementation of the Reprieve System, like any game-changing human innovation, was met with resistance by many. There were people who believed such criminals should not be forgiven, people who believed the process was inhumane, regardless of the subject’s consent, and, also, people who feared that the secrecy in which it was based could be easily used for evil. Interestingly enough, all those voices quietened almost as soon as the System’s beta version went online. No one seemed to notice that, though, despite the fact that some of those voices belonged to important people on some of the planets.

“One of the developers and strongest initial apologists of the Reprieve System was neuroscientist Lilia Baranovskaya. To her, the Reprieve System was like her own child and, for years, she was very proud of it. Much like the other three original developers, she believed that the Reprieve System was a step towards a human utopia, a perfect universe…

“But Lilia’s husband was a Carer and he started noticing odd patterns within the facility in which he worked. Some of the Reprieves’ consent verifications would be blocked or seemed to have never occurred, the Reprieve Council pressured Carers into hasty protocol phase progressions that sometimes turned the inmates into corpses or vegetables… One of his patients had accidently resurfaced and revealed not only her lack of consent, but also the fact that she had never been imprisoned or committed any crime. She was a ballet instructor and, in fact, the last thing she remembered doing was showing her disagreement towards the Reprieve System during one of her ballet lessons.

“Equipped with the high clearance level and general power her position allowed her, Lilia soon found a frightening reality hiding under the layers of fake beneficence of the terrible thing she had helped create. The Reprieve System was being used to erase people’s free thought, simply rewriting them as soon as they stepped a bit out of line, be it politically or ideologically. All and any protesters along the way had either been murdered or Erased.

“Lilia thought that the other three creators had, much like herself, been deceived by all the political powers surrounding them, that none of them knew the monster that laid beneath their thrones. So, she confronted them with the truth.”, Otabek paused, hesitant.

“They knew, didn’t they?”, Yuri breathed out, voice heavy with dread.

Otabek slowly shook his head, features somewhere between sadness and repulse.

“Not only that. They knew and they had planned it from the start. They had deceived Lilia for years.”

Yuri gasped. Viktor just kept staring, looking pale and conflicted, mouth a thin line.

“They were ready to eliminate Lilia and, for all that they know, they did kill her that night. I don’t know all the details, but, basically, Lilia had been ready for the possibility that someone might try to murder her along the way and she had prepared accordingly. I was told that it involved a non-viable clone of herself and some well-timed incineration…”, Otabek trailed off.

“So, she escaped?”

“Yes. She disappeared. She was – is – a very intelligent woman and she had many trustworthy and powerful connections. She managed to find others that knew the truth or at least suspected something. With them, she built a secret organization whose main goal is to dismantle the Reprieve System from the inside. Hasetsu.

“With Lilia’s privileged knowledge, Hasetsu started producing agents that infiltrated the Reprieve System at various levels. Yuuri was one of those operatives . He worked as an undercover Carer, and, together with his team, he rescued dozens of innocent people, deleted or forged hundreds of personal records of those who needed to flee from the system and collected valuable data.”

“So, he is kind of a criminal, in a way…”, Yuri mumbled. Then louder, “What happened? How did he get here?”

Otabek gave him a sad half-smile, but answered.

“About three years ago, during a rescue mission, something went terribly wrong. The facility was alerted to their activities and the agents were caught red-handed. Yuuri’s cover was blown. As were the covers of every one of the other fourteen agents that were undercover in that facility. The Reprieve System itself ordered the activation of the facility’s self-destruction protocol, thus murdering nearly a hundred people, staff and Reprieves alike.”

“But Katsuki escaped.”, Yuri declared.

“Yes, him and a few others managed to escape. But not unscathed. Yuuri was hurt, physically and mentally.”, Otabek’s eyes slid to the gently snoring prone figure, “He lost everything that day.”, he added softly.

“But… if that was three years ago…”

“Well, after that, the Reprieve System became aware of the existence of an organized group that had infiltrated at least one of their facilities. So, the System changed a few crucial things in its functioning. They made it very difficult to extract patients from most facilities and, also, for Hasetsu operatives to communicate with each other and with Headquarters. Despite our efforts to try and find other means to do it, in some of the facilities, we’ve been mostly unable to rescue anyone in… a while. But, about one month ago, one of our operatives managed to single-handedly rescue a young man in one of the toughest facilities. He was reckless, and he was caught. He’s the Reprieve currently under Carer Giacometti’s team’s care.”

“Phichit?”

Two pairs of wide eyes were suddenly fixed on Yuri. He fought the desire to lower his gaze as he felt his cheeks getting warmer, but decisively held it up regardless.

“You were there.”, Otabek said, not sounding specially surprised.

“Got a problem with that?”, Yuri blurted out.

“I should.”, Otabek said as he combed his right hand through his short dark hair in what looked like a nervous action, “But I don’t.”, he confessed.

“So? What does that Phichit person have to do with Katsuki?”

“They are old friends. After Yuuri lost… After the fiasco from three years ago, they became even closer. Yuuri had turned into one of the System’s most wanted, so he started working exclusively from Headquarters. He’s been an operative trainer and high-level information handler since then. So, when the message that Phichit had been brought here got to him, Yuuri acted without Headquarters’ knowledge and tried to infiltrate a low clearance level staff position here. He was captured and immediately put into the System. He seems to have put up a fight, but…”, here, Otabek’s voice wavered, his expression became sad and he opened and closed his mouth, then slowly shook his head, apparently unable to finish the sentence.

“But this looked like a suicide attempt.”, Viktor finished with a hoarse voice, speaking for the first time since Otabek had started telling his story, “It was too reckless, wasn’t it? He came here alone, without a plan, knowing fully well that he would most probably get caught, maybe even expecting to be eliminated in the process... I’m sure he didn’t plan this .”, he said, gesturing towards the stretcher.

Otabek stared wide-eyed at Viktor. He looked almost afraid. Then, he slowly inclined his head in acquiescence.

Yuri cleared his throat, “What about Lilia’s husband?”

“He mourned her supposed death and laid low, being exemplary at his job and all the while working as a Hasetsu operative. His information was very valuable to us. Yuuri eventually joined his team and they worked together for a considerable amount of time… until the fiasco from three years ago. His cover was blown as well back then, but, unlike Yuuri, he never made it back to us...”

“Oh.”

“How can you be telling us all this?”, Viktor suddenly asked, “How do you know this room isn’t under surveillance?”

At this, Otabek smiled. He took a small object from the inner pocket of his light grey garb and laid it on the floor between the three of them.

“With this.”, he simply said.

Yuri leaned closer to look at the thumb sized object. It was a keychain for a single key that Yuri immediately recognized as being the motorcycle’s. Said keychain was a light brown teddy bear with thick eyebrows.

It was cute.

“What is this?”, Viktor asked taking the small teddy bear in his palm.

“That keychain is a device that I helped develop. It detects and nullifies most types of surveillance, causing interference on the ones it doesn’t abolish. It also produces an error message that makes it look like there was a problem in processing the information on the receiving end of the surveillance system and sends malware capable of prolonging these effects up to three hours after it leaves its range of effect.”, Otabek explained with pride.

Yuri couldn’t help but smile at that, “That’s so cool.”, he said, sincerely fascinated by the small teddy bear, “How do you know if there is any surveillance?”

“It vibrates continuously. Regulations prohibit surveillance in the Reprieve’s room. And, in fact, there has never been any in this room, even now that Yuuri is here. Except for the old terrestrial parking lot, the whole facility is continuously under surveillance, even the locker rooms and the bathrooms.”

“That’s fu-”

“Disturbing.”, Viktor interrupted.

“-up!”, Yuri finished with acrid disdain, “Don’t regulations forbid surveillance in those places too? Like… shouldn’t they?”

“Surveillance of the Reprieve’s rooms is the only type of surveillance expressly prohibited. It’s basically a loophole that the System abuses to their convenience.”

“And I bet they play it in their advantage most of the time… That way there are fewer traces of the innocent people that are erased…”, Viktor said, looking disgusted.

“Yeah. The other operatives currently in this facility each have one of these too, fashioned into a personal everyday object that they can have on them at all times. But we keep them off most of the time so as not to call the attention of the IT department too much.”

“Is it on right now?”, Yuri asked.

“Yes. When you and I were searching for DNA, I tried to take it around the whole perimeter, just to make sure yesterday’s visitor hadn’t planted any surveillance device last night. They didn’t.”

“I wonder why.”, Viktor surprised them both by saying in a rather uncharacteristic sombre tone of voice, “All the obvious irregularities, yesterday’s assault… they were provocations, weren’t they? The System apparently believes Yuuri is an important person for you guys – and I guess he is – but it all only makes sense if they suspect someone in this team specifically, right?”

Otabek nodded.

“But why would they? Our team has one of the highest rates of successful Reprieves. We’ve given them no reason to suspect us, right? Have you done someth-? No. If they knew it was you, they would simply take you, just like they did Phillip-”

“Phichit.”, Yuri corrected.

“Phichit, right. Installing surveillance here would be the logical step, don’t you think?”

“… Yes…”, Otabek hesitantly agreed.

“Unless they have us under surveillance, like… at our homes!”, Yuri growled, “I mean, you just said that they have the bathrooms under surveillance!!”

Otabek didn’t react in any way to this outburst, which sent both Yuri and Viktor into a small outraged fit.

“No way.”

“WHAT??”

“Unfortunately, I cannot disprove that notion.”, Otabek said as he retrieved his keychain from Viktor’s lax fingers and resolutely avoided the others’ scandalized stares.

There was some movement from the stretcher, accompanied by a scratchy pained grunt. This made the three men turn to look at a half sitting, bleary eyed Katsuki Yuuri.

“Urgh… What…”, he managed to say before one of his drug-weakened arms gave out under him and his upper body was suddenly tipping downwards and out of the stretcher, in the direction of the floor.

Chapter Text

... to mitigate another's grief is to alleviate or dispel your own.

― Tryon Edwards

 

“Viktor!”, Yuri exclaimed.

Even though Viktor was the one farthest away from the articulated stretcher, he was also the one who reacted faster, easily crossing the distance to Yuuri and catching him by the chest right before he hit the ground. Legs still midway up the bed, tangled in the white linen, Yuuri ended up half sitting on one of Viktor’s bent legs.

“Vik-tor…”, he rasped, bleary warm brown eyes aimlessly sliding on Viktor’s face before they rolled back into his skull and his body became heavy and limp in the Carer’s arms.

Viktor held his breath. Katsuki Yuuri’s weight was warm and familiar through the multiple fabric layers that separated them. He had long thick eyelashes that were now laying restlessly on his cheeks, slow warm breaths caressing the side of Viktor’s neck as the Carer stared down at him.

Katsuki Yuuri had said his name.

Viktor knew that Yuuri was most probably just mindlessly repeating Yuri’s outburst. But, for some reason, hearing it had sparked something painful inside Viktor’s chest. Something painful but good, something like… like nostalgia.

Viktor must’ve zoned out for a while, because he jumped in surprise at Otabek’s hand on his shoulder.

“… you all right?”

It took Viktor a great deal of effort to take his eyes off Yuuri’s face, but, eventually, he did, looking up at Otabek. The Junior Carer was half kneeling in front of him, concern carved deeply into his features.

“Yes. I’m fine.”, Viktor replied, “Help me put him back on the bed.”

Yuuri whimpered quietly, but didn’t open his eyes.

Otabek nodded, immediately grabbing Yuuri’s legs to help Viktor position the slumbering man back on the intelligent articulated stretcher.

A couple of the electrodes had been displaced and a few monitors were presenting an error message. Yuri gingerly touched the ones on the Reprieve’s forehead.

“Ngh…”, Yuuri complained in his sleep, making the Carer-in-Training halt in his damage assessment.
“What are we going to do?”, he quietly whispered at Viktor.

Otabek silently observed him too, expectant.

“Our regular shift is ending soon. I don’t want to sedate him, but he will be in pain soon, if he isn’t already. Plus, awake stats will be sent straight to the higher ups. I can only imagine that that would be a good enough reason for them to decide we all are insurgents and act accordingly?”, finished, looking at Otabek for an answer.

Otabek hesitated for half a second, then nodded affirmatively.

“That’s a very real risk at this point, yes.”

“Locking a person that would only become fully awake after we were gone, alone and in pain in a strange and completely dark room sounds like a terrible option, too.”, Yuri breathed, “Needless to say that, as soon as the resurfaced warning reached the prevention room, the Carer on duty would come here and send him into deep sedation without a second thought…”

“There is a way to partially cheat the monitoring software, make it show a deep sedation curve.”, Otabek whispered, making the other two turn to him, hopeful, “I don’t have the necessary means to do it – not right now – but it has been used in Carer Giacometti’s team without detection so far. We call it a cloaker. For it to work, though, at least a low sedation level is still needed most of the time...”

“So, to avoid suspicion, he still must be under a deep or an intermediate sedation level tonight.”, Viktor inferred, disappointed.

Otabek nodded, looking regretful.

Yuri turned and promptly walked to the medication cabinet where he grabbed both the sedation cocktail and the drip bag.

“Then, tomorrow, after I install the device, we can let him rise as far into consciousness as the cloaker allows and, the next day…”

Yuri wordlessly passed Viktor the medication as he carefully co-opted the fluid therapy line to Yuuri’s neck catheter.

“The next day?”, Yuri gently urged Otabek to finish, as the three of them mournfully watched the drugs slide into Yuuri’s bloodstream and his eyelids quietening against his pale cheeks.

“The next day, we leave this place.”

 


 

 

“I’m home.”, Yuri yelled when he got back to the unit he shared with his grandfather and the old, fat, fluffy Tigr. The cat was sat waiting for him by the door, leisurely sweeping the floor with his fuzzy tail. Yuri leant to pick him up and released a long sigh before burying his face in the cat’s fur. Tigr purred lazily.

Yuri was exhausted. The day had been long and emotionally fraught. On top of that, he had slept very little the previous night. His whole body ached.

Although his reaction to Otabek’s suggestion had been an immediate resounding negative, his heart was ambivalent. He felt divided, lost.

Otabek had asked them for help. He had asked Yuri and Viktor to work alongside him and the other undercover Hasetsu operatives towards the rescue of the two Reprieves, Katsuki Yuuri and Phichit Chulanont. Obviously, they had both agreed to that.

But Otabek’s request came with a heavy warning.

Due to the desperate nature of the plan they were going to put into action, their loyalty to the Reprieve System would likely be put in check. If Viktor and Yuri didn’t accompany Hasetsu’s rescue party out of the facility in two days, they would risk being arrested, most probably Reprieved, possibly executed.

Viktor had immediately voiced his reluctance in parting from his pet dog and Yuri had vehemently refused to abandon his grandfather.

Although, according to Otabek, taking pets to Headquarters could be arranged, people’s insurgence logically involved consent. And Yuri didn’t know how to breach such a theme with his grandfather, the Director of Reprieve Facility GPF-17, especially when Otabek had made it quite clear that he suspected their homes to be under surveillance.

Nose deep into Tigr’s thick fluffy fur, thinking that he would rather die than leave his only family behind, Yuri slowly inhaled. The delicious smell of freshly baked pirozhki warmed his soul and, despite his inner conflict, he smiled.

“Yuratchka!”, his grandfather called from the kitchen.

“Gramps, you made pirozhki!”, Yuri exclaimed, mouth already watering as he put Tigr down and walked to the kitchen.

Nikolai was just taking the baking tray out of the oven.
Yuri’s stomach grumbled loudly as he took in the lovely, steaming pirozhki that his grandfather – equipped with Yuri’s paw-shaped mittens – was now carefully placing onto the wire rack.

That was when Yuri truly noticed just how starved he was. He had barely managed to stomach lunch that day.

“Let them cool down a bit.”, Nikolai instructed with a chuckle, “And sit.”
Yuri obeyed, sitting down at the table, where a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice sat waiting for him.

“Thank you, Gramps!”, Yuri exclaimed before taking a couple gulps of his juice, “It’s been a while since the last time you baked these! I’ve missed your pirozhki!”

“I’ve missed baking them too. I hope they came out well.”, Nikolai replied, turning to put the dishes in the dishwasher.

As Yuri was again eyeing the pastries, his gaze rested on an object that didn’t use to be on the kitchen table. It was a dynamic photography of his late grandmother. In the digital moving picture, a young-looking Alina sat in front of a huge chocolate birthday cake beside another woman. An elegantly built woman with her hair tightly bound atop her head. The two looked remarkably alike and were both smiling as they hugged and seemed to happily comment on the deliciousness before them.

Yuri turned the photo to read the printed caption on its back. There was a date from over 40 years back and a place that Yuri assumed was a restaurant’s name, followed by the words “Long live the Baranovskaya sisters!”

Oh yes, that was his grandmother’s sister. What was her name again?

Yuri turned, mouth open to ask his grandfather about it, but the words got stuck in his throat. Heart suddenly beating twofold its normal rate, he turned to look back at the caption. Baranovskaya. Yuri had forgotten that was his grandmother’s family name.

Yuri tried to reign over his rising excitement. He cleared his voice and tried to sound uninterested as he asked, “Gramps, what was gran’s sister name again?”

Nikolai turned and walked closer, carefully putting the salad saucer on the table before Yuri.

“Lilia. May their souls rest in peace.”, he said.

Lilia. Was the Lilia Baranovskaya his great-aunt?

Yuri stared at his grandfather in surprise, mouth soundlessly opening and closing a couple times.

The ballerina will make the skaters fly in two seasons, before the gold medal is won, as long as there are pirozhki.

Could the pirozhki be a weird reference to Nikolai, like some sort of private joke on Lilia’s part? Could it be-

“Eat your pirozhki. Tell me how they turned out!”, Nikolai said putting a pirozhok and plenty of salad onto Yuri’s plate, “Eat as many as you want, neither of us are aspiring ballerinas, anyway!”, he said with a carefree chuckle.

When Yuri froze at these words, realization finally hitting, Nikolai winked at him and sat down at the table.

“Pass me the juice, please.”

Relief and happiness immediately washed over Yuri. He smiled a big smile that was knowingly reciprocated by his grandfather.

… as long as there are pirozhki. Nikolai was the pirozhki. His grandfather knew everything. He was going to help them, he was going to come with. Yuri didn’t have to leave his grandfather behind.
They ate the pirozhki with gusto while sharing a wordless conversation full of hope and excitement… and a healthy dose of anxious fear.

 


 

 

“Makkachin!~ I’m back!~”, Viktor exclaimed as the front door of his unit closed behind him.

A big fluffy ball or grey-brown curls promptly bumped against him, almost making him loose his balance as it insistently tried to lick his mouth.

“Hey, there! I missed you too, buddy!”, Viktor giggled, enfolding the dog in an awkward bear hug, “What have you been up to all day? Did you bark at the neighbours and the shuttles?”

Makkachin barked once as if saying yes. Viktor laughed and enthusiastically rubbed his loyal companion’s head.

“Let’s go have dinner, then!”

Viktor leisurely walked over to his intelligent kitchen, where a premade dinner had been put into the microwave oven the moment the door to his garden had opened to Viktor’s biometry.

The minimalist kitchen – where Viktor never cooked – was seamlessly attached to the living room, which was also very little personalized. That is, aside from Makkachin’s toys laying around, of course. Still, one would easily say that the whole house looked very little lived in. Because it was. Viktor’s life was his work. After all this time, this house didn’t feel familiar to him, only his dog and his job did.

As Viktor watched the dish with his computer-chosen nutritionally-balanced food twirl inside the heating appliance, mind nearly blank with weariness, he felt something bump against his bare feet.

Makkachin had gently dropped his favourite squeaky toy on his toes and was expectantly sitting in front of him, tail wagging happily. Viktor chuckled and grabbed the rubber chicken.

“Fetch!”, he said, throwing the toy across the room.

As the dog happily set off after it, an intense pang of pain hit Viktor. Makkachin had been with him ever since he emancipated from his production batch. He was an old dog now but, to Viktor, he would always be a puppy. It was a relief to hear Otabek say that they could arrange for Makkachin to go to Hasetsu Headquarters ahead of them…

Viktor halted his own thoughts, suddenly uncertain.

What am I doing?, he thought, Why am I trusting Otabek so blindly? What if this is all a lie? I had never heard of a Lilia Baranovskaya before. I was taught that the Reprieve System had been the creation of three people, not four. And today was the first time I ever heard about a facility’s destruction… What if he’s lying to us?

Viktor’s breathing became erratic and he could feel the panic blooming in his chest. Doubt and fear tasted sour on his tongue.

Makkachin whimpered at his feet, toy forgotten beside him as he tried to call for Viktor’s attention. Viktor promptly patted his dog’s head in a soothing motion and looked around himself, realizing that the food was ready. He hadn’t noticed the beep.

Viktor took a deep breath.

No., he reasoned with himself, I can feel it too. I know he’s telling the truth. And Katsuki Yuuri is merely more proof of that. Something bad is happening in the Reprieve System, probably always has been, from the very start.

The automatic dog food dispenser served Makkachin his dinner too, distracting the dog who, somewhat reluctantly, turned to his kibble.

Viktor sat down at the kitchen table and picked at his own food without really paying attention to it.

Chris’s team was the one on prevention that night and the next. Otabek had explained to them that, although Chris was not an undercover Hasetsu operative, the other two elements of his team, Carer Lee Seung Gil and Carer-in-Training Kenjirou Minami, were.

Otabek had convinced Yuri and Viktor that not letting anyone else know about Katsuki Yuuri’s rape was the best course of action for them right now. Not calling attention to themselves would make their extraction easier. It had been the System setting a trap, he said. They wanted their team to make it known. They suspected that at least one of them was an insurgent. So, that way, they would have a reason to detain and charge them all and just get it over with. And so, them not making it known logically wouldn’t prove their loyalty to the System, but it wouldn’t give the System a reason to squish them, either. This way, while the System thought about the next move to expose or dispose of them, they could work on an extraction plan.

Although Otabek was insistent that both Viktor and Yuri came under Hasetsu’s protection during and after the rescue, he seemed oddly reticent about Chris’s stand in all this, mumbling something about Chris’s fiancé representing a difficulty. Although he had not told Otabek that, Viktor still wanted to talk to Chris the next day, evaluate his reaction to the matter. He was positive that his friend would easily join Hasetsu’s cause and, if his fiancé was anything like what he had told Viktor, so would he.

For now, though, Viktor was just relieved that, with one of the Hasetsu operatives on prevention duty that night and the next, a repeat of last night’s attack would be very unlikely to pass unnoticed. As Viktor’s thoughts drifted back towards the terrible thing that had been done to their Reprieve, the odd nostalgic feeling that was now his close acquaintance, returned.

Katsuki Yuuri. A beautiful caged raven, whose ignorant jailor was Viktor. Or had been. Viktor was going to help him now, they were going to help him. Yes, they were going to rebel and escape. Yes, he was going to make this right. Everything was going to be all right.

Viktor blinked as he suddenly noticed how he’d been holding his closed fist against his chest, designer spork tightly grasped in it. He chuckled and shook his head.
How odd that, after all these years blindly working as a Carer wholly faithful to the System, he would now turn against it so promptly. It was almost as if he’d been waiting to be proven wrong all along.

Chapter Text

Any excuse will serve a tyrant.

― Aesop

 

“… ‘Morning.”, a deep voice greeted as Viktor was walking out of his unit.

“Oh. Hi, Chris.”, he replied, taking in his friend’s dishevelled, tired appearance.

Viktor didn’t feel much better than Chris looked. In fact, he had had a restless night, waking up multiple times thinking that it was already morning, each time making himself anxious over Katsuki Yuuri’s wellbeing.

Would he be hurt again while they were gone, despite Seung Gil – the Hasetsu operative on carer prevention duty that night – being specifically alert to the situation now?

Chris noncommittally inclined his head to Viktor’s greeting and they both started walking towards the teleporting station.

They walked at a fast pace, in silence. But, unlike many times before, this wasn’t a comfortable silence. It was a heavy, nervous sort of silence. A silence that wanted, needed to be shattered.

“Any new developments?”, Viktor tried, voice coming out a little rough. He coughed to clean his rusty vocal cords.

Chris tiredly shook his head.

Yesterday morning, he had told Viktor about the Council’s decision to extend the Sleep Treatment of the Reprieve under his team’s care, in place of deeming him Unreprievable, like they should – a decision that the blonde Carer was deeply frustrated about.

Viktor had decided not to tell Chris about what had been done to Katsuki Yuuri, but, despite Otabek’s hesitance about letting Chris into their plans, Viktor still wanted his friend to know that he wasn’t alone. From what Otabek had told them, if Chris were to know everything, to help them escape and still decide to stay afterwards, there was a big chance that he was going to be either Erased or killed. Viktor logically didn’t want to be responsible for that, but he even more selfishly didn’t want to lose his closest friend after Makkachin. The absolute closest one if you only counted Viktor’s human friends, really.

“Chris, do you ever… think about how the System works?”, Viktor hesitantly asked in a quiet tone of voice.

“What do you mean? Am I familiar with the protocols I use every day?”, he chuckled, “Or… Do I ever think about the things that might be wrong in the System? Do I ever think about how odd everything feels sometimes?”, Chris blurted out in a quiet sad imitation of laughter as he shook his head, face just a bit too pale, eyes just a bit too wide.

Viktor felt hopeful.

A neighbour passed by them. They exchanged polite pleasantries.

“Do you ever doubt what you were taught?”, Viktor gently pressed when the man was no longer within hearing range, words barely more than a whisper.

Chris didn’t reply. He stared at Viktor, suddenly considering him with different eyes.

“Viktor. What…? Do you…?”

Viktor put on his best poker face, consciously commanding his legs not to stutter, despite his nervousness. What if Otabek was right and Chris was likely to relay intel on them to his doctor fiancé? Viktor may have very well just doomed their plans, just gotten them all a death sentence...

They were nearing the teleporting station. Suddenly, an arm was thrown over Viktor’s shoulders and Chris’s mouth was dangerously close to his right ear.

“Do you know of a way out?”, he whispered in a sexy purr that could only partially hide the true desperation of his words, arm simultaneously sliding down Viktor’s back as he spoke, “Julian and I have been looking for one for years.”, he finished his movement with a playful slap to Viktor’s left buttock.

Immediately understanding what Chris was doing, Viktor blew him a kiss.

“Yessss…”, he replied in an exaggerated sultry voice, then discreetly looked around, satisfied with how all the passers-by seemed to be keeping a polite distance from their theatrical display of affection.

So, Chris believed he might be under surveillance even on the street. That was disturbing. But the cautious approach spoke only of his friend’s sincerity. As did Chris’s bright wide smile.

He pulled Viktor in for a noisy kiss on each cheek, then squeezed him in a hug for just enough time to breathe out against Viktor’s hair, “We will help you, just take us with you when you leave. Whatever it takes.”

Viktor nodded a silent promise, “Talk to your team.”, he said. Chris nodded decidedly and pulled away with a hopeful glint in his tired green olive eyes.

They walked the few remaining meters to the capsules side by side in light comfortable silence.

 


 

 

The three men were holding their breath when the door to Katsuki Yuuri’s comfortable cell opened before them. And they kept holding it while carefully – but hastily – denuding the peacefully sleeping young man.

Aside from the treated wounds of the previous day – which had greatly improved overnight thanks to the regenerative gel – and the almost completely healed arm and leg wounds, Katsuki Yuuri laid before them, pale skin warm and unscathed under their gloved hands and worried searching eyes.

Viktor shakenly let all the air out of his lungs. Otabek’s shoulders relaxed into a more natural slope. Yuri smiled, head tilting forward in relief.

“So, Otabek, have you-”, Yuri started after a short pause.

“Let’s get the inmate changed.”, Otabek interrupted in a calm, professional voice, noncommittally waving his teddy bear in front of them, “I’ll go get a new excretory bag.”, he said as he started slowly walking to the other side of the room while waving the surveillance scrambler before himself.

“Yes, you do that. I’ll prepare the Reprieve’s morning dose. Yuri, clean and apply more gel to the wounds.”, Viktor said, easily playing along Otabek’s façade.

“Er… sure.”

For a few minutes, they busied themselves as described, patiently waiting for Otabek’s verdict.

“We’re clear.”, he declared from the farthest corner of the room.

Viktor released a relieved sigh. Yuri tsked, “Damn it, I almost forgot.”

“It’s okay.”, Otabek said with a smile, joining the others around the intelligent stretcher.

“So? Have you brought the cloaker thingy?”

Otabek nodded an affirmative and took what looked like a classic ink pen out of one of the inner pockets of his grey robes. He checked the time on the digital clock of the control panel.

“We would be giving him his medication dose about… now.”, Otabek whispered while carefully attaching the pen-looking device to the place where the electrode wires connected to the sedation monitor with a soft click. He twisted the cap slowly until the graph over Yuuri’s head started showing a progressively deeper sedation level. It went from an intermediate-low sedation level to a satisfyingly deep curve.

“Aaaand, that’s as deep as it can go…”, he whispered, looking at the digital chart. He smiled appreciatively, “That is pretty good! I wasn’t expecting such an efficient cloaking.”

“What does that mean?”, Yuri asked.

“We may be able to keep him under much lighter oral medication and still get the monitor to show no less than an intermediate sedation level.”, Viktor said.

“Yes.”, Otabek agreed, “I think he won’t be needing the nasogastric tube or the urinary catheter anymore. Even if we have to keep him slightly groggy to get the most out of the cloaker, he will probably be able to eat and use the bathroom with just a little help from our side.”

“So… will he be able to, like, speak with us?”, Yuri asked.

“Yes.”, Otabek replied with a kind smile.

 


 

“Take a deep breath for me, please. That’s it. Now let it out slowly. Slowly…”

Katsuki Yuuri gagged as the last piece of the nasogastric tube left his body, eyes still glazed over and confused.

Despite the heavy medication still coursing through his bloodstream, the young man had cooperated with Viktor’s instructions. But then, Viktor inferred, if Katsuki really had been a carer once, all these procedures were familiar to him; he was probably able to understand what was being done to him even in this barely conscious state.

Otabek took the slimy tube off Viktor’s hands and passed him some compresses. Viktor returned the focus to his patient. Said patient sluggishly blinked up at Viktor as the Carer gently cleaned his nose and mouth.

“Good morning, Yuuri. How are you feeling?”, Viktor softly asked him, not yet expecting a verbal reply at this point.

“… N-nemui...”, Yuuri replied in a raspy whisper.

Viktor gaped at him, “Sleepy.”, he automatically translated, something soft and warm subtly blossoming in his chest, “Yes, you would be.”, he chuckled.

Yuuri sleepily smiled back at him. He had a beautiful smile.

“What language is that?”, Yuri asked him. Viktor didn’t answer. He didn’t know what language that was. He just… he just somehow knew what it meant.

“Yuuri? Do you know who I am?”, Otabek asked Yuuri.

Yuuri blinked slowly, eyes reluctantly leaving Viktor’s face to look at Otabek.

“… Yes...”, he replied.

“Do you know where you are?”

“Mm…”, he released a sleepy sigh, “Yes...”, he replied, eyelids closing for a beat too long.

“Yuuri?”, Viktor urged the sleepy young man by gently tapping his cheek.

Yuuri opened his eyes and they again seemed to search Viktor’s face.

“Hello.”

“Hi.”, Yuuri replied with a slight blush to his cheeks, “… S-sorry.”, he added sounding sincerely apologetic.

Viktor reassuringly smiled at him, “It’s all right.”, He’s cute. , he thought, “I’m Carer Viktor Nikiforov. This is Junior Carer Otabek Altin, who you already know, yes?”, Yuuri nodded slowly, “And this is Carer-in-Training Yuri Plisetsky.”

Yuuri turned his head to properly look at Yuri.

“Hajimemashite.”, he politely said, attempting to make a small bow.

“Uh?”, Yuri blurted back.

“Nice to meet you.”, Otabek and Viktor simultaneously translated. Viktor blinked, surprised for being able to understand this language whose designation he didn’t even know. Or couldn’t remember.

“Oh... Yeah. Likewise.”, Yuri replied.

“Do you know where you are?”, Viktor pressed gently.

“Mm… Reprieve Facility GPF-15.”, Yuuri replied.

“No, Yuuri. This is GPF-17, remember?”, Otabek gently corrected him.

Yuuri frowned, looking from Otabek to Viktor, confused.

“But. No… Viktor is-”

“No, it’s been three years, remember?”, Otabek interrupted him, somewhat insistent, coming closer and putting a hand on Yuuri’s shoulder as if trying to ground him.

Yuuri blinked up at Otabek, then at Viktor, then back at Otabek, eyes suddenly more focused.

“Oh. Yes. It’s been three years.”, he said slowly as his eyes again returned to Viktor’s face, sadness deeply engraved into them.

“Wasn’t GPF-15 the one that was destroyed?”, Yuri asked Otabek in a murmur.

Otabek nodded.

Yuuri yawned, eyelids heavy again, “I… I couldn’t… they caught me...”, he said.

“Yes. That wasn’t a very good plan, you know.”

“Gomen...”

“Save it for Lilia and Minako.”

Yuuri chuckled, eyes closed.

“Mm, it will take him a while to rouse enough to maintain a longer conversation than this one.”, Viktor quietly remarked, taking in Yuuri’s even slow breaths, “We should let him sleep it off for a bit.”

“Yeah…”, Yuri unheedingly agreed, “Oh! I have something important to tell you!”, he exclaimed.

 


 

 

“So, the Director, Nikolai Plisetsky, is the pirozhki…”, Otabek pensively murmured after Yuri told them about his discovery of the previous day.

The three of them were sitting in a small circle – on stalls, this time – by the supplies cabinet. At this distance from the stretcher, Yuuri’s sleep would likely not be disturbed by their conversation.

“Yes… that makes sense.”, Otabek declared, “Although, right before our communication with headquarters was cut, the higher ups still weren’t sure about your grandfather’s standing. We were told not to let him or you in for as long as we could. I wonder how they ascertained that they could trust your grandfather after all…”

“Wait, you knew?”, Yuri exclaimed. He felt betrayed, “You knew Lilia was my great-aunt??”

“Not really, no.”, Otabek confessed, “Lilia didn’t know of your existence until about a month ago, when you were placed in our team. And, even then, we all suspected you to be a fake. You know, just part of a trap.”

Yuri nodded, although he was still frowning.

“What made you change your mind about me, then?”

“My mind? Scanning your DNA yesterday. You are, in fact, related to Lilia.”, Otabek chuckled in response to Yuri’s silent scandalized reaction to this revelation, “So, although headquarters have not directly given me a green light, I decided to take my own risk and let you in. It seems like I made the right choice, as it seems that your grandfather is already in on it, as well.”

“Well, we technically are family, but my genetic material came out of two flasks, so I guess you guys had reason to suspect my identity. Gramps grew me in a gestational pod. And, if communication between you is difficult, it’s certainly more so between headquarters and, say, my grandfather. I understand.”, Yuri shrugged, sounding uninterested, “Either way, as you may have guessed by now, I change my answer. Gramps is coming along, so I want to go with you, too.”, he declared.

Otabek graced him with a sincerely happy smile.

“That’s great, Yuri!”, Viktor agreed.

“So, your grandfather is the one who’s going to disable security and open the doors for us, then. Seung Gil and I couldn’t understand that part of the plan.”, Otabek nodded, solemn, “Yes, makes sense… he’s the only clearance level B employee of this facility, after all.”

“No? He is not? Nathalie Leroy, the Subdirector, is the same clearance level as Gramps. I know this because he keeps complaining that she sometimes overrides his directives.”

Otabek’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.

“She is?? No. How…? Why have I never…?”

“Maybe because you are a lousy secret agent.”, Yuri laughed.

Otabek didn’t laugh. He looked concerned.

“What kind of directives does she override?”, he asked Yuri, serious.

“Mm…”, Yuri tried to remember, “… contracts with pharmaceuticals, Reprieve assignment to teams, Carer-in-Training distribution, prevention duty schedule sometimes, fatality disposal routes once or twice, Reprieve admittance a few times… Oh.”, he said, suddenly realizing the meaning of the information he was sharing.

“Do you… do you think that she acts to hide the irregularities of the innocent people that we erase here?”, Viktor carefully asked Otabek.

Otabek didn’t immediately reply. Eventually, he nodded affirmatively.

“As you probably know, the governments of the various planets often run the Reprieve System through audits. Hasetsu knows that the System ensures that a few of its higher positions have ignorant people in them so it’s harder for audits to find any irregularities. As I think I told you yesterday, politicians have been Erased before... The power of the Reprieve System is exerted through ignorance… So it makes sense that, if the Director himself is out of the loop, someone else would have to...”, he trailed off, then sighed, “We’ll have to take her into account if we hope that your grandfather can properly enable our extraction tomorrow.”

“Yeah, but how?”

“I’ll discuss it with the other operatives. I don’t think any of us had this intel on Nathalie Leroy; we were positive her clearance didn’t go beyond level C, at best… all we knew was that she had an important role in the medical staff coordination…”

“Yes, all medical decisions pass through her.”, Viktor seconded.

“Are there no Hasetsu operatives in the medical staff?”, Yuri asked, hopeful.

Otabek shook his head.

“Then, I think you’ll love what I have to tell you!”, Viktor exclaimed, “Chris and Julian want out of the System. They will help us as long as you guys take them with us. Julian is part of the medical staff, so maybe he can help with Nathalie!”

“Woah, good job, Old Man!”, Yuri exclaimed.

Viktor smiled wide, despite the nickname.

Otabek showed no reaction to this information.

“Are you sure we can trust them, Viktor?”, Otabek asked, serious.

“I don’t know Julian that well, but I can vouch for Chris. He will help in whatever he can. He’s probably talking about it with his team as we speak.”

Otabek looked unconvinced, but eventually nodded in acquiescence.

“Is the shuttle big enough for all of us?”, Yuri suddenly asked.

“Mm? Oh, yes. The ballerina is a reference to Okukawa Minako, our second in command. She captains a very fast SEXTANT navigated spaceship with the best cloaking and stealth modes of our fleet and a quite unique defence system. We call it the Ice Castle.”, Otabek told them, proud.

“Sounds cool.”, Yuri agreed.

“We’ll go over most of the plan’s details later today, after I talk to the other operatives and after we receive the final word from headquarters. But keep in mind that the plan is flexible to change at all times and things may turn very sour very fast.”, Otabek stressed, “It will most probably not run as smoothly as we envision it. People have lost their lives and… themselves in extractions like this. And, even if we are completely successful, your lives will never be the same after this.”, he paused to fix them with grave dark eyes, “You must be certain of your decision.”

Viktor and Yuri nodded decidedly, without a moment’s hesitation.

Chapter Text

There's time enough, but none to spare.

― Charles W. Chesnutt

 

“Mmm… oishii…”, Yuuri whispered as he savoured the pirozhok Yuri had given him, “It’s delicious. Thank you.”, he said, making a point of directing those last words at Yuri, along with a thankful smile.

“N-no problem.”, Yuri gruffly replied, pink suddenly dusting his cheeks, then cleared his throat, speaking in what was supposed to be a detached tone, “Otabek told me yesterday that we might be taking your nasogastric tube out today and I figured we couldn’t order you a meal through the room’s teleporter, because that might ring some bells...”

Viktor doubted that ordering meals through the teleportation device would turn any heads. Many Carers had their meals at the Reprieve ward. Either Yuri was unaware of that fact, or he had done this purely out of the kindness of his heart and didn’t want to admit it. Viktor smiled knowingly. Yes, probably the latter.

“So, you brought them from home?”, Yuuri asked, impressed, “Did you make them yourself?”

“No. Gramps made them.”

“They are really tasty. Thank you, Yuri-kun.”

“Right. Just eat them.”, Yuri spat, annoyed, “You don’t need to thank me that much, geez.”, he said under his breath as he walked away from the stretcher where Yuuri was currently sitting up and looking perfectly content apparently just for being able to chew his lunch.

Viktor couldn’t take his eyes off him.

Katsuki Yuuri was still groggy and was currently unable to sit up without support due to intense dizziness. He had awoken about 20 minutes ago like he had just slept a night’s worth of a normal drug-free sleep. He could mostly hold a conversation now, although he still looked a little out of it when Otabek had tried to discuss their extraction plan with him a few minutes previously. Eventually, he confessed he was starving and Yuri produced a small plastic container of pirozhki seemingly out of nowhere.

He’d been pleasurably chewing his food ever since, with Otabek insistently reminding him to eat slowly, as there was a risk that he could choke on his food due to the medication still coursing through his veins.

The skin around his warm brown eyes wrinkled in tandem with the upwards movement of his cheeks at a particularly tasty bite and then zeroed in on Viktor’s own gaze. Yuuri lowered his hands, setting them on his lap along with the pastry, and smiled. Viktor smiled back and felt something warm and right fill his chest. He didn’t really understand it – no, he didn’t understand it at all –, but it felt good to look at those chocolate eyes.

Yuuri looked away, tears in his eyes and face red in a sudden coughing fit.

“See? Told you to take it easy.”, Otabek chastised, words calm and kind as he guided Yuuri to lean forward and rubbed his back through the cough.

“I’m… I’m all right. Thank you. I’ll be more careful.”

Otabek glanced at the panel and frowned. Viktor followed his gaze and his mouth went dry. The sedation level monitor was displaying a relatively low sedation. Otabek looked at Viktor, one eyebrow raised in question. Viktor came nearer the stretcher.

“It was probably the cough. He shouldn’t talk or move too much.”, Viktor told him.

Otabek nodded in agreement.

Yuuri tried to twist his neck to look at the panel too.

“You’re using a cloaker? Mm, you should probably give me a mild oral hypnotic.”

Otabek looked displeased at the prospect. Viktor sympathized.

Tomorrow, they would need Yuuri to be awake and as mobile as possible and he hadn’t even been able to sit up by himself yet.

“Or you could just try to remain still and quiet for a while to see if that gets better? It was very good just a minute ago. I’ve been keeping an eye on it.”, Yuri said, joining his teammates around their ex-Reprieve.

Yuuri nodded and closed his eyes for a few seconds. Indeed, after just a couple slow breaths, the tampered sedation readings improved to an intermediate level and Yuri smiled smugly at Viktor.

“That’s great! Okay, Otabek, disconnect the electrodes now.”

Otabek promptly obeyed.

“Huh?”

“Why?”

The two namesakes said simultaneously.

“Bathroom.”, Otabek said.

“We can register this as an accidental disconnection during a hygienic procedure like sponging or changing gowns or bed clothes.”, Viktor explained, “Now, Yuuri, try to sit up so you can go to the bathroom, wash yourself and change your own gown.”

Yuuri chuckled at that, but nodded, and immediately attempted to sit up on his own.

 


 

 

As soon as Phichit felt Minami’s hands pull the Sleep Treatment headpiece off his head, he dropped his playing unconscious act and enthusiastically helped the Carer-in-Training. He wriggled free of the device, sight and sound being suddenly returned to him, and sat up. He was about to remark on how hungry he felt to the room at large, when he finally took in the scene before him.

“… and just what were you planning on doing to me tomorrow if I hadn’t offered my collaboration?”, Carer Christophe Giacometti was asking Seung Gil.

Unsure if he should play unconscious again or just run for it, Phichit looked at Minami for help. Minami smiled back reassuringly.

“If you didn’t accept our invitation to come with, we would not force you, but we were planning on dosing you with Phichit’s medication and put you on the stretcher in his place.”, Seung Gil replied, emotionless.

Phichit chuckled. Seung Gil and Minami would do nothing of the sort, not after all the years they’d invested in this job.

Chris slid a hand down his face as he released a small nervous laugh, “Of course you were….”, he looked exhausted. He sat down – more like collapsed – on a stall, then looked at Phichit right in the eyes.

Phichit forced himself not to gasp. Christophe Giacometti had huge gold-dusted green eyes.

“And you’ve been faking sleep all this time? That’s really impressive.”, he said with a smile that was far too sexy for the conversation they were having.

“Er… I…”, Phichit very eloquently said.

“No.”, Seung Gil deadpanned, “Not for the whole time. But for most of it, yes.”.

“We are using a device that makes the sedation level look deeper or lighter, depending on necessity.”, Minami kindly explained, “During the first couple days, before we started the Sleep Treatment, we kept Phichit at an intermediate sedation level in order for the monitor to show a deep sedation curve. Then, when we started the Sleep Treatment, we kept him under deep sedation and made the curve look intermediate – as the procedure requires – for about a week while we tried to hack the Sleep Treatment software.”

“It was hard.”, Seung Gil supplied.

“Yeah. We weren’t sure if, despite the protective deep sedation we were keeping Phichit on, he was actually being exposed to the Sleep Treatment. It was kind of terrifying…”, Minami said, turning to look at Phichit with teary brown eyes.

Phichit gently patted him on the shoulder. Minami and his big, soft heart.

“So, you’ve been faking it ever since they hacked the helmet’s software? Which was… what? Three weeks ago?”, Chris said, eyebrows going up, “You’ve been playing unconscious for three weeks??”

“It took me a while to completely recover from deep sedation.”, Phichit said, “But, yeah, I’ve been aware of the situation and faking it for at least two weeks.”

Chris shook his head and chuckled.

“Unbelievable. And here I was convinced that we were frying your brain, that you’d only be leaving this facility as a vegetable… A good-looking human-shaped vegetable, sure, but…”, he paused to stare between the three Hasetsu operatives before him and smiled, “I’ve never felt happier about being wrong.”, he laughed, relieved.

“Will you be joining Hasetsu, then?”, Phichit asked, jumping off his articulated bed and stretching his arms over his head. His joints cracked pleasurably under the tension.

“Yes.”, Chris replied, “I have a few more questions, though.”

“Shoot.”, Seung Gil encouraged, as he moved to pull the bed clothes off the stretcher with Phichit’s help. He could still catch a little glimpse of Seung Gil’s smug smile at Chris’ yes . Chris had probably behaved just as Seung Gil had predicted he would.

“What did your hack do? Did it turn the helmet off? Has Phichit been staring at a silent black screen the whole day?”, he asked with a serious – or, one might say, disturbed – expression.

Chris sounded honestly worried about this matter.

Phichit looked at Minami with pitying aww eyes and they both started giggling uncontrollably.

“No.”, Seung Gil curtly replied over their sniggering.

“I…”, Minami wheezed, then seemed to put more effort into controlling himself and tried again, “I connected it to a channel that broadcasts classic animation, series and movies during daytime and relaxing beta waves music pieces during night-time.”

“Oh.”, Chris said looking somewhat relieved, “That’s… good.”

He’s a good man, even like this ., Phichit thought at that, as he took the clean gown Minami was offering him and walked towards the bathroom , I wonder what took Seung Gil so long to trust him. So what if he’s banging one of the evil doctors? You don’t have to be a bad guy to bed a bad guy, unfortunately .

“Then, I guess this is why at least one of you would always stay here during lunch break.”, he heard Chris tell the other two before he closed the bathroom door behind himself.

Yes, this is why ., Phichit thought as he relieved himself in the toilet.

Every day, as soon as Chris left for lunch, Seung Gil or Minami would take off his Sleep Treatment headpiece, usher Phichit into the bathroom and then sit down to share a meal with him while keeping him updated on their progress – or lack of it thereof.

If they had the time, they would also force Phichit to do a little physical activity, for both his mind’s and his muscles’ sake. They had a tracker planted on Chris’s uniform that allowed them to know when exactly he was coming back and they had managed this routine for over two weeks without being caught.

Chris did show that he was suspicious of something on several occasions, though. Like that time right after Phichit had begun to wake up from deep sedation, in which Phichit had groggily attempted to introduce himself while being sponge-washed by Chris and Seung Gil.

Phichit chuckled to himself as the foggy memory of the event – kept alive by Seung Gil’s constant chiding about the matter – again rose to the forefront of his mind. He remembered feeling very confused and thinking that he should absolutely introduce himself to those handsome men who were so diligently washing his naked body. He was seriously high for not recognizing his friends but, on the one side, it was good that he didn’t.

Minami or Seung Gil or both would sometimes stay in the room after Chris left at the end of each work day. They would often encourage Phichit to run around the room or dance and they would share another meal with him while discussing any further developments of the day or waiting for other Hasetsu operatives – like Emil, Otabek or Guang Hong – to be freed from their carer duties, for intel exchange meetings that Phichit obviously couldn’t attend.

So, it seems things are going to be easier than what we’d anticipated. , Phichit thought as he got undressed and under the warm spray of the shower.

He hastily washed himself, thoughts automatically drifting to Yuuri.

It was still hard for Phichit to believe that Otabek had actually managed to successfully convert both his teammates. They couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome, really. It didn’t erase the fact that Phichit had almost had a heart attack when Seung Gil told him what Yuuri had done, though.

Phichit still felt very guilty about the whole situation. After all, if he had been more careful, he wouldn’t have gotten himself into this situation and Yuuri likely wouldn’t have followed his breadcrumbs. Maybe. Yuuri had been itching to get himself into GPF-17 for about two years, after all… Maybe Phichit was just the perfect excuse for him to do what he’d been planning on doing for months… He wasn’t sure anymore…

No, Yuuri wasn’t trying to kill himself. He wouldn’t give up like this. Not now, after everything, he wouldn’t. He just was stupidly optimistic, that all. But… But Yuuri is a pessimist... No! He was only reckless, just like I was. That is all. , Phichit insistently told himself as he got himself dry.

He put the clean gown on and stepped back into the room where lunch was waiting for him.

If everything went according to plan, he would see all his questions answered by the end of the following day.

Chapter Text

 

By telling our woes we often assuage them.

― French Proverb

 

Yuuri had needed help to get to the bathroom but, once there, he shyly asked to be left to his own devices.

Although it was only used by the team during the Erasing period, the private bathroom had also been designed for usage by the Reprieve during the Rewriting and Accommodating periods – it had plenty of hand supports on the walls and a special soft polymer covered most surfaces, including the floor. Perhaps because of this, they had acquiesced to  Yuuri’s request with no hesitation, despite how wobbly he still stood.

It wasn’t until after Yuri finished helping Otabek change the bed linens that he noticed Viktor staring fixedly at his own palm as if he’d realized something.

“What is it, Old Man?” Yuri asked, coming closer. Otabek was standing close by and turned to look as well.

The regenerative gel tube laid innocently on Viktor’s palm.

“Should we… tell him?” he quietly asked, addressing but not naming the elephant in the room.

Otabek frowned, “He might have figured it out already…” he said.

“Do you think so?” Yuri whispered, “It’s mostly healed. I bet it doesn’t even hurt anymore, especially with the drugs still in his system…”

They were quiet for a few seconds, just staring at the container. Yuri tried to put himself in his namesake’s place. Would he want to know? Even if it didn’t leave any physical or psychological marks on him? Even if he could just go on living in comfortable ignorance?

“I think that, unless he asks about it, we shouldn’t tell him,” Viktor said.

“Yeah…” Yuri slowly agreed, “What difference would it make when we don’t even know who did it, when we can’t catch them… Telling him about it would just hurt him. Because there is nothing to be done about it,” he shook his head, releasing a frustrated sigh, “I say we don’t tell him. He wasn’t conscious back then, so he will never remember it, anyway.”

Otabek didn’t say anything. Eventually, he nodded, solemn, “No need to intentionally hurt him if it’s on us to allow him to escape without further injury,” he said.

And that settled it.

 


 

 

“… although feasible, teleporting the pets here when you come to work tomorrow morning would be too suspicious, so this is the best way to do it.”, Otabek finished, “Did you understand everything?”

“Yeah.” Yuri replied with no hesitation.

“… Yes.” Viktor uttered, unsure. Otabek had explained that he should call the veterinary clinic as soon as he got back to his unit. He should then ask for a check-up for Makkachin and book a ground transportation service to get Makkachin to the clinic in the morning. He should then pick a specific transportation service from the list the clinic would provide him: Ombra Express Deliveries. In the morning, an undercover Hasetsu operative called Leo would come to get Makkachin and any other absolutely fundamental belongings – as Otabek had put it – before Viktor left for work. And those would get safely on board the Ice Castle before they all did. And that was it. It felt a little too simple. A little too real. Viktor was beginning to feel nervous about the whole thing.

“Viktor? Did you not understand something?”, Otabek patiently asked him.

Viktor blinked. Both Yuri and Yuuri were looking expectantly at him, too.

“I… er…” Viktor shook his head to clear it, “No. I understood everything,” he said.

Yuri tsked, immediately losing his interest and turning to Otabek.

“I’ll give you my unit’s coordinates, then,” he said as he fished his e-pad out of his loose white robes.

As for Yuri’s cat and any belongings Yuri and his grandfather wanted to take with them, Otabek would get them straight from Yuri’s place tonight, because, as it turned out, his home was at a short enough distance from the facility for Otabek to go visit on his ground motorcycle tonight. Yuri’s things would, similarly to Viktor’s, already be on board the Ice Castle when they got there the next day.

“Will you be going there right after leaving here today?” Yuri asked after sending the coordinates to Otabek’s e-pad.

“Yeah. I’ll probably stay here for a while after you guys leave today, though. I need to talk with the others to settle some details for the extraction…”

“Sure. But you will be staying over for dinner, right?” Yuri asked in an oddly neutral tone, clearly trying to hide his true excitement at the prospect.

“I...” Otabek paused, eyes wide, “What…? I mean…” he spluttered, taken by surprise, “It… It would be a better cover, I suppose. Staying for dinner would certainly be… less suspicious.”

“You will.” Yuri decided, “Gramps won’t have it any other way.” He shrugged, seemingly nonchalant, “And I’m sure he’ll like to meet you. Properly,” he added in a softer manner.

Otabek nodded once, blushing, suddenly captivated by the floor in front of his feet.

Viktor tried very hard not to laugh or coo at them. He turned his head to the left and away from the scene and his eyes met Yuuri’s smiling ones straight on. Viktor instinctively returned his smile as a vaguely familiar warmth filled his chest. Viktor had the peculiar urge to touch Yuuri’s face and he was still trying to rein in this displaced desire when he noticed Yuuri was actually speaking to him.

“… your dog’s name?”

Viktor blinked once.

“Oh. Makkachin. His name is Makkachin. He’s been with me for almost thirteen years.”, he replied proudly.

Yuuri’s eyes went wide, immediately sliding to Otabek’s face as if searching for something. But Otabek only stared back blankly. Viktor’s smile dropped.

“Is there something the matter?”

Yuuri looked at Viktor as if he’d been reprimanded, “No, nothing. He is… he is a senior dog,” he awkwardly finished. “What does he look like? Is he a big dog?” he asked, polite interest in his voice.

As always, Viktor immediately jumped at the prospect of showing photos of Makkachin to someone. He had his e-pad in front of Yuuri’s nose in less than a second.

“You just dug your own grave, Katsuki,” Yuri informed derisively.

“This is Makkachin! He’s a poodle!” Viktor happily exclaimed, completely ignoring Yuri’s input, as he swiped from photo to photo. “This was his birthday last year. And this was when we went to the canine amusement park with Chris. And this one was when we… Yuuri? Are you okay?”

Yuuri was pale, mouth ajar in an unmistakable expression of surprise.

“Yuuri,” Otabek stated calmly.

The man sitting on the stretcher seemed to get some of his composure back with that. “Mm, so you got him before you became a Carer-in-Training, huh?” he asked Viktor, eyes carefully fixed on the screen.

“Yuu-”, Otabek started to say again, more quietly this time.

“No,” Viktor automatically replied to Yuuri’s question, then stopped himself, blinked, “I mean, yes.” He frowned. Was he still living with his production batch siblings when he acquired Makkachin? No, he couldn’t have been. Lab babies were only allowed fish, birds, small reptiles, amphibians or rodents as pets in the shared units.

There was suddenly an odd taste on Viktor’s tongue. He knew he had gotten Makkachin as a puppy, he remembered the cute fluffy ball he had been, but Viktor could only have left the shared units once he’d reached eighteen years of age, during his first Carer-in-Training year. Could it be that Makkachin was already over a year old when Viktor got him?

But… no… he was a little puppy , Viktor’s confused memories unhelpfully supplied. He shook his head. “I actually don’t remember,” he laughed. “What matters is that he is the one I’ve been coming home to for all these years. He’s the closest thing I ever had to a family… or to a spouse, actually!” he said, releasing a hearty, carefree laugh.

“Oh, please…!” Yuri complained loudly. Yuuri and Otabek gave Viktor two equally small, swift smiles.

“I would die for Makkachin,” Viktor told Yuri seriously while politely taking his e-pad back from Yuuri’s lax grasp.

Yuri rolled his eyes and gagged mockingly. Yuuri and Otabek had similar blank expressions on their faces.

“These past few years, there were days in which, if it hadn’t been for Makkachin…”, Viktor quietly trailed off.

Yuri didn’t even try to mock him this time, dumbfounded.

“Viktor…” Yuuri started in a voice that felt painfully heavy with emotion. But he seemed to think better of it and laboriously gulped his words back inside his throat.

“Oh, I’m sorry Yuuri, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable!” Viktor began apologising.

“No. It’s… it’s all right,” Yuuri said, warm brown eyes carefully searching his. “I’m happy he was there for you when… no one else was,” he finished, sincere.

Viktor smiled at him, grateful for the words.

“Why are you apologizing only to him?” Yuri asked Viktor. Otabek elbowed him lightly on the side. The other two completely ignored this exchange, so focused they were on each other.

“You wouldn’t leave here if you couldn’t take Makkachin with you, would you?” Yuuri asked.

Viktor nodded. Brown eyes tenderly met his. A wave of comfort passed through Viktor.

“I was wondering how you could make a decision like this so easily, something so sudden and so drastic, leaving all the life you have here… But I think I understand it now,” Yuuri said quietly.

Viktor nodded.

“For the longest time, my life has consisted of only two things: work and Makkachin. Work stopped making sense the moment you arrived here… and Makkachin… Makkachin will be with me.” Viktor shrugged, “Leaving became an easy choice.”

He hadn’t thought about any of this before but, as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew they were true. The realization frightened him a little.

Yuuri became very quiet, clearly trying to keep his own emotions in check, then nodded.

“Arigatou.”

Chapter Text

The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.

― Albert Einstein

 

“But only Viktor and Otabek will go, though? Not Plisetsky?” Julian asked.

“Yes. That’s what they told me. They don’t trust Plisetsky because of his grandfather,” Chris answered as he took their dinner out of the heating device. “Why are you asking me this again? Are you worried Plisetsky will notice something and tell the Director? I admit that I am a bit concerned about that, too...”

“No. Not really,” Julian chuckled, hugging Chris from behind and dropping a kiss on his neck. “I was just wondering about what they’ll do to him at the moment of the extraction.”

“Maybe they’ll do what Seung Gil said they were going to do to me,” Chris said and gently shrugged Julian’s arms off so he could reach the plates on the cabinet above his head.

“What? Sedate him and put him in Katsuki’s place?” Julian laughed as he set the glasses on the table.

“Yeah, probably,” Chris answered seriously. “Give Emperor his dinner, will you?” he said and started to plate their food.

Julian hummed pensively as he walked past Chris.

Emperor meowed happily when he noticed Julian opening a can of one of his favourite gourmet cat food. “Will Viktor take his dog to work tomorrow, too?”

Chris blinked.

“I… have no idea… Are you sure you don’t mind taking Emperor with you tomorrow? I was thinking about taking him to work and leaving him in one of those cubicles in the terrestrial parking lot until the extraction, but it would be great if you could take him instead...”

“Yeah, he can stay in the doctor’s break room for a few hours. Nathalie often leaves her cats there, there’s a veranda with a litter box and everything, it’s quite comfortable… But...” Julian said slowly as he patted Emperor’s soft fur, “You really don’t know how Viktor is going to do it?”

“No, Julian,” Chris replied, trying to reign over both his anxiety and exasperation. “I didn’t think about asking them and it’s not like I can go to Viktor’s place and pull all the surveillance out of his walls just to ask him about it…!”

“Yeah…” Julian murmured as he sat down at the table with his e-pad.

After about one month of Chris confessing his doubts about the System to Julian, his fiancé had finally given in to Chris’ constant nagging and had checked Chris’ unit for surveillance. They found it and rendered it useless, then decided they had to escape, somehow. Chris hadn’t been able to relax since then and always felt like he was being watched. Now they had a way out and Chris still couldn’t help worrying.

Chris set their plates on the table and sat down in front of a completely screen-absorbed Julian.

He knew that his fiancé was right. Viktor would never part with Makkachin, he had planned the dog’s extraction for sure. And yes, Chris hadn’t asked about any of those things that Julian wanted to know specifically, but he was increasingly uncomfortable with Julian’s insistent questioning. Also, he was beginning to wonder if Seung Gil, Minami and Phichit had intentionally left all that information out; he couldn’t help but wonder what more they hadn’t told him.

Do they not trust me? Do they not trust Julian? Or do they just… not plan on taking us with them? Are they using us somehow and then planning on ditching us? Chris worried, feeling his chest become tighter.

“Are you alright, cher ?” Julian whispered, gently interrupting Chris’ inner micro meltdown.

“Yes,” Chris said, smiling at him, “I’m just a little anxious about tomorrow.”

“Of course you would be, our lives will change a lot tomorrow.” Julian calmly validated his feelings. “Now, let’s eat before the food gets cold.”

“You are always so calm about everything. I honestly envy your cool head,” Chris chuckled nervously. “Remember that time I lost control of our shuttle and we had to make an emergency landing on water? You were so calm during the whole thing, you didn’t even shout! And there I was, crying like a little baby…”

Julian laughed.

“That’s why you love me, right?” Julian laughed, “Because I always carry tissues for your tears and snot.”

Chris hit him playfully.

“No, I love you because you are a brave... smart... sexy…” he purred while leaning across the table to steal a kiss, “... macho man with a beautiful big fat-”

Julian bit his lip to shut him up.

“Ouch!” Chris complained.

“Eat your food,” Julian chided.

Chris obeyed, memory taking him back to those wonderful holidays they had shared together at the lake.

“Do you think we’ll ever be able to go back there after tomorrow?”

“To the seaside?”

Chris blinked.

“No, to the resort. On the lake. What did you think I was talking about before? That was the only time my pilot skills failed me! Who do you take me for?” Chris joked.

Julian laughed, rapidly fingering through something on his e-pad, then setting it on the table.

“Yes, I’m tired. Words are already betraying me,” he said. “To Lake Sheridan Resort, yes. Well, I’m sure the operatives don’t live in a cave. There must be ways of having fun and go for a romantic-”

“Dr. Accola, you have a call from Dr. Leroy. Do you wish to take it?” the house computer interrupted him.

“Yes, I’ll take it in the library,” Julian told the machine, immediately getting to his feet.

“We’re having dinner, Julian, you should refuse-”

Julian shushed him with a kiss.

“I’ll make it fast. Promise.”

Chris sighed. That annoying woman, always pulling Julian to work… And Julian had been so insistent that they have dinner at Chris’ place tonight…

He sighed again and turned his attention back to the food in front of him.

He could hear Julian’s voice in the distance, exchanging medical jargon with Nathalie Leroy two rooms over.

Chris dry gulped, then cleared his throat. He took a sip of water that didn’t help the unpleasant feeling in his throat go away. The anxiety was beginning to build up again.

To try to take his mind off the unpleasant psychosomatic sensations, Chris reached for Julian’s e-pad, thinking that he should probably look at the weather for the next day or something. He unblocked it and promptly froze.

What is this? he thought as he stared at the holographic screen that popped up from the device.

The e-pad was open in a written document. The text consisted of a list, more specifically, a chronological record of sorts. It had years and days under a header that read «Important Dates». «First Meeting», «First Kiss», «First Date», «First Sexual Intercourse», «First Penetrative Sexual Intercourse»… And one of those dates was from about 4 years previously, «First shared vacations - Lake Sheridan Resort». Under that item there was a danger mark that read in bold red lettering «POSSIBLE MEMORY INCONGRUENCIES, BE LACONIC».

Chris stared at the device, refusing to process the information that his eyes were gathering.

That was all... about them. About him.

He stopped reading, locked and set the device on the table, then sat back on his chair, trying to make sense of what he’d just seen.

He couldn’t hear Julian talking in the other room anymore, so he got to his feet and went to find him, moving much like an automaton.

When he got to the dimly lit library, Julian was standing by the window, looking out into the night and combing his fingers through the soft fur of a purring Emperor. He didn’t noticed Chris’ presence.

Chris stood in the doorway and just observed in silence, the happy fat cat and the pensive, beautiful man he loved. Julian’s profile was a tantalizing mix of light and shadow, openness and mystery, safety and danger.

Julian turned to look at him and smiled warmly. Chris smiled back, uneasiness completely forgotten.

“Your food is cold,” he told him.

Julian smiled, predatory, coming closer in a couple elegantly sensual strides.

“Who cares about the appetizer?” he purred against Chris’ neck.

Chris pulled him towards the corridor with a growl.

Behind them, out of the window, the lights of the unit Julian had been staring at  went out as Viktor retired to bed.

Chapter Text

 

The hour of our release draws near.

― Nick Spencer

 

Yuri’s day started innocuously, like thousands before it.

Okay fine, Tigr wasn’t there to lick Yuri’s face with his rough, smelly tongue and Yuri kind of missed that. Not the smelly sandpaper molesting his cheek, obviously, but the cat it belonged to. If all went according to plan, though, that rotten fish stench would return to Yuri’s mornings as soon as tomorrow.

As he made his way to the kitchen, Yuri stared at the walls of the unit that had surrounded him for almost two decades. If everything went smoothly, he would probably never see these walls again. Oddly enough, Yuri felt like he wouldn’t miss them.

“Good morning, Yuratchka,” his grandfather greeted. He was sitting at the dinner table, drinking his coffee while perusing the news headlines on his e-pad’s holographic screen.

“’Morning,” Yuri yawned as he sat down across from Nikolai, wishing that he could sleep at least a couple more hours. It had taken him a while to fall asleep the night before, with all the excitement of Otabek coming over, Tigr leaving and the impending, life-changing adventure of the current day.

“I liked speaking with Junior Carer Otabek yesterday. We had met at work before, of course, but we had never had the opportunity to share a conversation,” Nikolai said, not taking his eyes off his reading material. “He’s a decent young man and you two seem like good friends.”

Yuri stuffed his face with cereal and nodded noncommittally.

“I like him,” Nikolai decided.

Yuri couldn’t help but feel proud over his grandfather’s approval and was about to admit that he liked Otabek too, when he stopped himself – Nikolai was smiling knowingly at him over his coffee. When their eyes met, the senior man released a hearty, but fond, laugh.

Yuri tsked , face violently heating up, and focused all his attention on the breakfast before him.

 


 

 

“Carer Nikiforov!” a female voice called out to him from behind.

Viktor turned to face whoever was addressing him and his heart nearly stopped.

Nathalie Leroy, clad in her long, deep red robes – which incidentally complemented the shade of her hair – stood before him, an unpleasant, cold expression on her round face.

Beside her, stood the even rounder-faced Executive Consultant Norman Myers, a large, rather disgusting man that sometimes showed up sniffing around the facility, typically in Leroy’s company. Viktor hated that man, although he couldn’t explain why. There was just… something about him… something that Viktor could not pinpoint… that gave Viktor the creeps.

“Good morning, Doctor Leroy!” Viktor greeted in his best faux-enthusiastic voice, “… Professor Myers.” The big man nodded to him in greeting. “What can I do for you?” Viktor asked the Subdirector.

Nathalie Leroy’s face didn’t even twitch in reaction to Viktor’s words. Viktor tried his damnedest to maintain the smile on his lips as he became all too aware of the bitter panic rising in his throat.

“Can you explain to me why your team’s Reprieve still hasn’t started their Sleep Treatment?”

“The priority Reprieve hasn’t started Sleep Treatment yet??” Myers high-pitched reproach grated unpleasantly against Viktor’s eardrums.

For a portion of a second, Nathalie Leroy looked like she’d been reprimanded, but then she just looked pissed. Gosh, Viktor despised that man.

“The sedation level-” Viktor started.

“I have personally looked at their charts and ascertained that, even if we don’t account for the unstable period before that unfortunate software abnormality, …”

Myers gave Viktor a wide, greasy, frog-like smile. Viktor did his best not to visibly shiver.

“… there has been more than enough permanency in deep sedation to safely proceed with protocol,” Nathalie Leroy said, “I-”

“We,” Myers interrupted.

“Yes. We want to know why haven’t you done so,” the Subdirector finished.

“I’m sorry, but you are mistaken. My Junior Carer and I went through the charts yesterday noon and concluded there were still about six hours of deep sedation to-”

Myers giggled loudly. Viktor wanted to murder him.

“I assure you, Carer Nikiforov, that you are wrong,” the Subdirector cut through his words like a hot knife. “Make sure to implement the Sleep Treatment first thing this morning or your team will be subjected to an internal audit before the day is gone.”

Before Viktor could open his mouth to try to fight back, the woman was imposingly stalking away from him, metallic heels ominously striking the likewise metallic floor.

“Mummy!” a male voice called from the farther end of the cold white corridor. There stood Junior Carer Jean-Jacques Leroy enthusiastically waving at his mother, Junior Carer Isabella Yang partially draped over his left side.

Viktor could only gawp in shock as the Subdirector’s rigid countenance melted right before his eyes. She had her back to him now, so Viktor couldn’t really see her smile, but oh boy did he feel it.

“JJ! Bella! My darlings! How are you today?” she exclaimed, her voice sticky with an insanely saccharine inflection to every syllable.

“Careful now, Viktor,” Myers sing-songed in his irritating high-pitched sickly-sweet voice, before dragging his big, heavy body after the Subdirector.

Viktor wanted to throw up on that man’s face. Instead, he pirouetted on himself and simply left the disgusting company.

 


 

 

“Today is the day when we least want someone to interfere!” Yuri exclaimed, outraged after listening to Viktor’s recounting of his encounter, “Is there a way to fake it?” he asked Otabek.

“The helmet has multiple sensors that detect and evaluate the presence and mental wave reactivity of the subject to the Erasing program. We can hack the helmet’s software and change the virtual reality settings, we can even downgrade the sensors’ sensitivity a little, but we can’t make the helmet believe that it is around a living human’s head if no head is actually in it.”

“So, no,” Viktor concluded.

“Yep, I’ll have to wear it. At least for a few hours,” Yuuri piped in. “Can you use the same hack pathway they created for Phichit?” he asked Otabek.

Otabek nodded slowly, “I can, but it’ll be done faster if you give me a hand. You are the computing expert here, Sensei.”

Yuuri laughed. He had a beautiful, clear laugh. Viktor wanted to keep hearing that laugh. He wanted to protect it and he wasn’t sure if he was already failing.

“Do you think they’re onto us?” Yuri quietly asked him.

Viktor reluctantly took his eyes off Yuuri, who was now leaning over the Sleep Treatment’s headpiece with Otabek.

“No, I don’t think so,” he answered. “And, if she eventually does become suspicious, we can still count on Julian, remember?”

Yuri’s lips became a thin, concave line, “Sure,” he whispered.

 


 

 

Phichit pulled his helmet out and greeted the three men before him with a radiant smile. “Today is the day,” he sing-songed.

Minami immediately returned his smile. Seung Gil nodded, solemn as always. Chris just looked nervous.

“Is everything ready for later?” he asked sitting up on the bed and stretching his limbs.

“Yes. It should all go smoothly. Julian will lend us a hand, too, if need be,” Minami told him, then looked at Chris, who nodded and smiled.

Phichit truly hoped they could trust Julian.

“Yuuri had to be started on hacked Sleep Treatment,” Seung Gil reported.

“Ah, sucks. It’ll be just for a few hours, though. I’ve been handling it for weeks. It’s actually good entertainment content,” he chuckled, winking at Seung Gil, who shrugged.

“You say that but I’m sure you are dying to get rid of it,” Chris said.

Phichit just laughed. The sound was a bit manic even to his own ears. He wondered how much longer he would have been able to pretend he was fine about this if today wasn’t the day he would finally get his life back.

“Yeah,” he admitted, nonchalant. “You guys hungry?”

 


 

 

“The pirozhok will ensure that the ballerina’s twirl will go undisturbed.” Nikolai said between puffs of cigarette smoke, without looking his way. Yakov knew he was talking to him, though, and immediately understood the message.

“Thank you. But please make sure pirozhki are served to the ballerina at the backstage afterwards,” Yakov told him, lighting his own cigarette, an action made especially difficult by the wind that blew through the connecting aerial bridge.

The Director and the Chief Carer of Reprieve Facility GPF-17 were standing on each side of one of the concrete blocks of the bridge, looking straight ahead, for all appearances, ignorant of each other’s presence. They were perhaps the only two Reprieve employees of this facility who actually used the bridge for the purpose it had been intended for when it was built so many years ago. If all went according to plan today, this moment would be the bridge’s last nod to its original function. If all did not go according to plan, too.

Nikolai released a hearty laugh, “I don’t intend to miss the drop of the curtains,” he assured Yakov. Then, after a short pause, “Make sure you get there too. I’m sure it is you who she most wants to meet again, not me.”

Yakov frowned, throwing a confused look at the Director, “Meet again?”

Nikolai’s eyes grew wide for a second, but then he closed them against the wind as if in deep thought. Yakov thought he looked sad. Or regretful. Then, just as fast as that change had happened, Nikolai stood straighter in his place and extinguished his cigarette against the cinder box of the concrete pillar between them.

“I’ve got to go,” he said. “Leroy can’t see us together. Wait a few minutes, then leave in the opposite direction,” he paused and locked eyes with Yakov for a second. “Good luck, brother.”

All Yakov could do was nod to that, dumbfounded.

Chapter Text

Sacrifice is not setting oneself up to die. It is liberating oneself to live.

― Craig D. Lounsbrough

 

Yuri and Viktor stood on each side of the prone, helmeted man, ready to go at Otabek’s signal. Viktor couldn’t help but stare at Yuuri’s collarbone as it moved with Yuuri’s respiratory movements. He fleetingly felt like touching it with his ungloved hand, to feel Yuuri’s skin under his own… would it be soft…? Warm…?

Viktor blinked, shocked at what he’d just been thinking and forced himself to look at Otabek.

The Junior Carer, no, the Hasetsu agent, was staring at his analogue timer, like hopefully all the other Hasetsu operatives in the facility at the moment.

“… three, two, one,” he whispered and looked up.

The lights flickered, the monitors over Yuuri’s head went black and all the beeping stopped.

“Go!” Otabek said.

Viktor hurried to help Yuri pull the helmet off Yuuri’s head and then guide him into a sitting position. Yuuri got to his feet and stood between Viktor and Yuri without missing a beat. His balance seemed fine, but, for some reason, Viktor still wanted to hold him. He turned his hands into fists, trying to focus. This was not the time to delve into these thoughts. All their lives were in danger.

The machines started beeping a low continuous sound and the room’s door slid open without being told to.

“It’s resetting. Looks like Guang Hong-kun was successful,” Yuuri commented.

Otabek nodded. “Okay, let’s go!”

This is it , Viktor thought as the four of them walked down the flickering corridor at a fast pace, Otabek at the front, Yuri, Yuuri and him following close behind.

Soon, Carer-in-Training Guang Hong Ji came running up to them from the left and immediately positioned himself at the rear of the small group.

“We have 5 minutes,” he reported. “Mila had a head start, she’s already at ground level. Georgi, Sara, Michele and Emil are with her. Hello, sensei,” he nodded to Yuuri with a smile that the latter immediately returned.

Georgi? Sara? Michele?? Emil?? They are Hasetsu agents, too?? Viktor wondered, suddenly very confused. Otabek had only told them about Minami, Seung Gil, Guang Hong and Mila. Had they all rebelled, like Viktor, Yakov, Yuri and Nikolai? He was about to open his mouth to ask Guang Hong about it when something that was definitely not planned happened. The lockdown corridor gates started descending. His stomach twitched uncomfortably.

“Run! Come, come!” Otabek commanded. They all obeyed, running after him without pause as an alarm started playing.

“There has been a security breach. For your own safety, either do not leave your Reprieve’s quarters or proceed in an orderly fashion to the closest staff room on your floor. Do not attempt to leave the premises,” the walls started commanding on repeat.

“How is this possible? That was too fast!” Yuri screamed over the alarm.

“There must be a mole,” Yuuri said somberly.

“Sensei, do you think…? One of them…? So, was it really true…?” Guang Hong was saying between breaths as he ran right behind Viktor.

The lights flickered again and the gates stopped moving, still about 2 meters from the ground. The alarm, too, went silent and soon the gates started sliding back into the ceiling.

They didn’t stop running, though, and, before any of them could voice their confusion about what was happening, a figure clad in red robes collided against Yuri from the left.

“Gramps!”

“Yuratchka!” Nikolai exclaimed, clearly winded from the physical exertion, and hugged his grandson tightly.

“Director!” Guang Hong yelped.

“Leroy knows! I just had to override her lockdown directive. We must make haste!”

“What are you doing, standing there?” Seung Gil shouted from their right. Running after him came Minami, Phichit and Chris. Yakov was at the rear of the group, looking flustered, but with a smile on his face.

The young man Viktor assumed was Phichit all but threw himself into Yuuri’s arms, then looked at Viktor with a huge smile on his lips and fat tears in his eyes.

“Vik-”

Before Viktor could process the fact that the stranger apparently knew who he was, the lockdown corridor gates started descending again, as did the alarm loop message.

“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” Otabek commanded, getting back to a sprint that they all mimicked without a beat.

“This… is not possible…” Nikolai was saying as he ran. “The kind of directive I implemented… could not be overridden by someone with the same clearance level as myself… Could that Executive Consultant have a higher clearance level than mine…?”

Not really understanding why, Viktor thought that idea incredibly repulsive. He hoped Nikolai was wrong because, for someone as disgusting as Norman Myers to have a… clearance level A…

For a minute, they didn’t slow down, not even the two seniors, though they naturally fell back to the rear of the group.

Viktor squinted ahead. They were getting close to the stairs that lead to ground level, but…

“If we don’t halt the progress of the gates… we are not… gonna make it….” Yuuri panted between breaths, right beside him. Viktor tried to look behind himself as he had to fold nearly in half to pass under a descending gate.

“Director Nikolai! Is there something…?” Viktor shouted.

“I need… access… to a biometric lock!” Nikolai screamed back amidst wheezes, as he too had to lean under the sliding gate to keep going.

“This one!” Otabek said from the front, abruptly halting his run to catch Nikolai and practically throw them both under the threshold of a Reprieve procedures room.

“Lockdown directive override!” Nikolai immediately screamed at the biometric lock.

“ATY-0A, Director Nikolai Plisetsky, clearance level B. Override denied. Please state your directive,” the program said.

Nikolai hesitated, clearly trying to devise a way around a higher clearance level obstruction.

“Initiate silent evacuation protocol!” he shouted at the ceiling.

The gates stilled.

“Silent evacuation protocol initiated.”

They all sighed in relief.

“Come on!” Seung Gil said, about to resume his sprint.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING??” the grating high-pitched voice of Executive Consultant Norman Myers made itself heard from inside the Reprieve procedures room. Behind him stood one dumbfounded Jean-Jacques Leroy, one frightened Isabella Yang and one sleeping Reprieve.

“YOU!” Otabek growled at the gigantic round man while Yuuri visibly froze by Viktor’s side.

Those two clearly knew Myers from before, but not by name, it seemed, as they had apparently not identified him earlier that morning, when Viktor told them about their happenstance meeting.

“We can’t let him get close to the biometric lock!” Yuri yelled, skidding inside the room in the direction of the man’s feet. Myers laughed at this, promptly kicking Yuri in the stomach and sending him flying a meter back. JJ and Isabella stepped further into the room and away from the scene.

“Yuri!” Otabek and Nikolai screamed in unison, both rushing to Yuri’s side, who, amongst the obvious pain, very pointedly looked at Viktor and then at…

“…the drug cabinet…” Viktor breathed, on impulse skidding inside the room in the opposite direction to Yuri’s. As he did so, Otabek, Phichit, Seung Gil, Chris, Minami and Guang Hong bodily threw themselves at the Executive Consultant, who, surprisingly, didn’t collapse under their combined weight and brunt clash, but was still mostly immobilized. He kept laughing his mocking, high-pitched laugh, though, and still managed to land a couple punches on Otabek and Seung Gil.

While this was happening, Viktor blindly grabbed three sedative-filled syringes and rushed to the centre of the commotion. Myers must’ve finally figured out what Viktor was up to, because he suddenly stopped laughing and just started shrieking, “Security! GUARDS!”

But it was too late, Viktor had already stabbed the syringes on his neck. The others let go of him as he stumbled and fell to his knees on the floor.

“You’re not getting away with this, you hear me? You… are… miiiiiiiiiiine…!” he screamed, then fell forward, hitting the metal floor face first.

Otabek kicked the fallen man’s head hard. Twice.

“Woah, dude…!” Phichit exclaimed, gently pushing Otabek away from the unconscious human pile.

“This monster hurt Yuuri,” Otabek growled, but walked away with no resistance, “And he hurt Yuri, too.”

“What do you mean, he hurt Katsuki?” Yuri asked.

Viktor turned to look at a very still Yuuri, who immediately avoided his stare.

If Myers had level A clearance…

“Guys, we have no time for this!” Seung Gil interrupted, “We’ve got to keep moving. Everyone out! Go! Go!”

Most of the group obeyed, except for JJ and Isabella – who didn’t even stir from their place against the wall most distant from the door – and Nikolai. Yuri, Otabek, Viktor, Yuuri and Yakov kept moving, but a bit more slowly so that they stayed a little behind to wait for him.

“Initiate quarantine protocol for this Reprieve procedures room, including communications quarantine,” the Director instructed, then stared at the entrance to the stairwell that lead to ground level. “Also, quarantine this corridor in thirty seconds,” he continued, clearly thinking about a way of preventing any guard access to the ground level after they’d gotten through.

“Quarantine protocol of room 097-O initiated. Corridor BG-4 quarantine protocol initiation countdown. Twenty-nine, …”

Nikolai spared the frightened carers an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry about this,” he told them as the Reprieve procedures room door sealed itself in front of him, then turned to follow Seung Gil’s lead. They all resumed their run. It looked like they were going to make it without any more issues.

And then there was a gunshot and a scream.

It all happened so fast that Viktor could barely understand what had occurred before he and Yuuri were forcibly holding a screaming Yuri back. Otabek bodily threw himself against Yuri, pushing him out of the shooting lines and getting hit on his left bicep instead. He winced, but still helped Viktor and Yuuri pull Yuri along as they resumed their hurried escape amongst multiple other gunshots.

Otabek had been grazed, but Nikolai had been hit. Nikolai had been hit straight in the head.

Nikolai was dead. Nikolai was dead. Nikolai…

“GRAMPS! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO... PLEASE, NO! GRAMPS! NOOOOO!! NOOOOO…” Yuri wailed in complete despair as he violently fought their hold.

There were armed guards at the end of the long corridor. They were speedily approaching them, and they were shooting at them. Nikolai had been hit by their first shot, from the back, dying instantly.

As they hurriedly dragged Yuri down the stairs, where the shots could no longer reach them thanks to the walls and the rapidly closing quarantine door, Viktor felt oddly disconnected, almost like an observer. His eyes were telling him that both his grey uniform and Yuri’s white one were sprinkled with tiny droplets of bright red blood and, for a few seconds, he couldn’t place this information. Although he’d seen it with his own eyes, his brain wanted to reject the data it was receiving. Was any of this really happening?

He winced as Yuri elbowed the side of his chest for the second time. Viktor held his wrist tighter, but found much less resistance in the movement. Yuri’s screams were also getting weaker, going from murderous denial to intense, despairing loss.

Otabek was talking to him.

“You have to make it, Yuri. He wanted you to make it. You have to run, you have to survive.”

Yuri was pale, crying and shaking, but no longer trying to get to his grandfather’s corpse. Otabek let go of his lower half and Yuri started running beside them, still half leaning against Yuuri as the merciless sobs made him stumble. Otabek followed them close behind, right hand applying firm pressure on his wound.

Viktor was the first one of this smaller group to reach ground level. He located the rest of the Hasetsu operatives and carer teams running towards one of the land vehicles parked in the terrestrial parking lot. As he came closer to it, Viktor could see that it was a big sturdy-looking black truck with the logo of a white winged sneaker, labelled, in discreet grey colours, “Ombra Express Deliveries”. Waiting for them beside the open back door, frantically gesticulating for them to hurry inside, was the young man Viktor had trusted Makkachin with that very morning, Leo, although he was driving a much smaller flying vehicle then.

Leo helped everyone get on the truck, finishing up with Yakov.

“All in! Okay, hang tight!” he exclaimed, then he hopped on as well and, with Guang Hong’s help, closed the truck’s door, leaving them in relative darkness and silence. Relative, because there was some light of the parking lot coming in from the wide windshield and because Yuri was quietly sobbing on Otabek’s chest. Leo hurried to the front of the truck.

And then, just as the truck started moving, there were gunshots. There was a line of armed men shooting at them at the exit of the parking lot.

“Don’t worry, this sweetie is an armoured vehicle!” Leo screamed from the driver’s seat as he pressed the accelerator pedal completely flat.

The sudden increase in speed threw them all off-balance and that got Viktor an armful of Yuuri.

“Th-thanks,” a very red Yuuri breathed against Viktor’s neck, sending shivers down his spine. He delicately pushed and stepped away from Viktor’s chest and held on to one of the handrails.

“It’s okay…” Viktor awkwardly replied, immediately missing the other’s touch and feeling very confused by that.

“Dude. HEY! THERE’S A WALL!” Georgi screamed at Leo over the gunshots as the truck kept gaining speed in the direction of something that was definitely not an exit.

“Not for long!” Phichit exclaimed, pointedly looking at Guang Hong, who was opening the front passenger window while holding what looked like a short bazooka. Then, as Phichit held a small black metal shield out of the window - a bullet proof shield, Viktor assumed -, Guang Hong leaned out of the window and pointed the bazooka straight at the wall in front of them. He shot less than a second before they crashed against it.

The wall was all but pulverized and they went with no resistance through the vaguely circular hole the gun had created for them.

The three Hasetsu agents cheered and high-fived each other as bright daylight came inside the truck through the large intact windshield.

“Nice one, Sensei!” Guang Hong turned to exclaim back at Yuuri. Yuuri blushed but looked a bit smug.

Viktor and perhaps a few others must’ve looked confused, because Otabek hurried to explain.

“That’s a centralized soundwave cannon that Yuuri altered in our lab so that it could do that, just for this extraction,” he informed the group.

But no one had the time to give Yuuri their congratulatory thanks as they were suddenly all too busy staring at the Reprieve System aircraft whose cannon laser gun was clearly pointing at them from ahead.

Leo did not slow down. Guang Hong leaned out of the window again and shot his sound canon at the ship. The ship moved and apparently dodged the hit.

“Leo, how far?” he screamed, getting ready to lean out of the window again for a second shot.

“Almost there!” Leo shouted, relentlessly keeping the truck’s speed up, a line of sweat sliding down his temple.

This time, though, before Guang Hong could shoot, the System’s ship shot at them, hitting the dirt a few meters behind them and sending them slightly off their trajectory, but not too much. It was a big, heavily armoured truck after all.

“Leo!” Guang Hong screamed, leaning out of the window again.

“Almost there, almost there…” Leo groaned as he readjusted their trajectory.

“Almost where?” Viktor blurted out. Georgi, Chris and Michele looked equally bewildered. There was nothing but a desert-like plain up ahead.

“The Ice Castle,” Seung Gil calmly informed them.

Viktor was even more confused now. There was nothing there.

Until there was.

Just as it looked like the System’s aircraft would shoot to kill, a huge blueish white ship materialized out of nowhere right in front of the truck and pulverized the enemy ship to ash with a single, white, laser beam attack.

The truck drove right up the lowered hatch ramp and into the ship. The ramp started being drawn up and the ship became airborne even before the truck was all the way inside.

There was a moment during which Viktor could see the facility down on the ground and vehicles, both terrestrial and airborne, coming closer. He thought he could discern the red form of Nathalie Leroy standing by one of the land vehicles, apparently just gaping at the Ice Castle. Standing beside her, was the blue clad figure of a medical staff member. Just as Viktor realized the man’s identity, a couple of enemy attacks hit the Ice Castle with a loud bang. Despite the ominous sound, the vessel didn’t even shake.

After that, all was quiet.

Chapter Text

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.

― Lewis B. Smedes

 

“You can relax now,” Leo said with a smile, turning to his disheveled passengers. “The ship has engaged teleportation cloaking mode, the System can’t pursue us like this.” He walked to the back of the truck and unfastened the lock on the door. “Welcome to the Ice Castle, everyone!” he said cheerfully, throwing the door wide open and letting in the bright white lights of the inside of the big ship.

Through the momentary blindness of this drastic illumination change, Viktor could hear new voices of the people – a small welcoming party – waiting for them outside of the truck.

Hugs were being exchanged. Some people were laughing, some people were crying.

And then a woman slapped Yuuri hard across the face.

“Why did you do this?” she screamed.

“Yuuri!” Viktor exclaimed, bodily positioning himself between Yuuri and the woman.

The woman, a brown-eyed, brown-haired, elegantly beautiful older woman with a mole on her left cheek, stopped still and looked utterly shocked by Viktor’s behaviour, tears suddenly flooding her eyes. She opened her mouth, but no words came out, so she seemed to give up on that and simply hugged Viktor in a surprisingly gentle way. Viktor froze, wholly confused.

“Er…” he very eloquently tried to say.

But the woman released him just as suddenly and stepped around him at the same time that Yuuri rested a hand on Viktor’s shoulder, thus telling him that it was okay. Viktor figured it was best not to interfere.

“I had to, Minako-sensei,” Yuuri told her, calmly meeting her eyes. “If I hadn’t done this, Phichit would only be the first of many comrades they would reprieve unknowingly. I couldn’t allow this to go on, I needed to force your hand.”

“Yuuri, you could’ve died,” Minako said, voice shaking slightly.

“At least I would have died close to him.”

“Yuuri…” Minako started, reproachful.

“Yuuri!” Another woman that resembled Yuuri, but with brown and blonde hair, slid between the pair and hugged Yuuri tightly. “How could you do this to us?”

“Mari-neechan…”

As Yuuri started profusely apologizing to his sister, Viktor felt a bit like he was intruding on a private scene and decided to take a look at the others.

Phichit seemed to be on a mission to hug everyone, behaviour which everyone seemed to accept and reciprocate without question or reserve.  

Mila was guiding Sara by the hand, Georgi, Michele and Emil closely following them around as Mila introduced them to everyone.

“This is Nishigori Takeshi,” Mila was saying, “He is a married man and proud father of three little demons born of a spontaneous in-human gestation! He and his wife, Nishigori Yuuko, are the two pilots of the Ice Castle! And, speaking of her, this is Yuuko…!”

Yuri was sitting on the edge of the truck, pale and dazed, Otabek standing in front of him, hands on the other’s knees like anchors, speaking quietly.

Yakov, Seung Gil, Minami and Guang Hong were surrounded by a handful of cheerful people, amongst them, someone Viktor had met before - the doctor who had supposedly killed himself on the connecting aerial bridge of Reprieve Facility GPF-17, Celestino Cialdini. Yakov seemed to be in deep conversation with him.

Shocked by what he was seeing, Viktor was about to approach the very much alive man, when he noticed Chris.

Chris was standing a meter or so to Viktor’s right, alone and looking… empty. He looked Viktor’s way when he noticed him staring and slowly walked over to him.

“Julian betrayed us. He… betrayed me,” he told Viktor in a hollow voice, thus confirming the identity of the doctor Viktor had seen by Nathalie Leroy’s side as they were escaping. “He didn’t care if we were caught, killed or reprieved, he didn’t care… about me…” Chris looked at his feet, taking a shaky breath in. “If he hadn’t reported to the Subdirector, none of us would’ve gotten hurt, Yuri’s grandfather would be here with us… My sweet Emperor...” Chris violently rubbed at his face. Viktor threw an arm over the other’s shoulders, uncertain of what he should do. Chris shook under his arm, still staring at his feet. “Seung Gil said Julian was a spy for the System whose sole mission was to get close to me. But I don’t understand… Julian and I have been together since the training facility…”

As he was about to voice his sympathy for Chris’ heartbreak, there was sudden movement in Viktor’s peripheral vision.

“Otabek!” Yuri exclaimed hoarsely, as he knelt by Otabek’s fallen body. “No, not you too!” he screamed, vigorously shaking the unconscious young man.

Viktor and Chris let go of each other to together hold Yuri back and stop him from hurting Otabek further. A cursory inspection of Otabek’s bloody prone form on the floor reminded him that Otabek had been hit and shot and had been bleeding for a while now. Minako and Mari approached too and carefully moved Otabek’s limp blood-drenched arm to inspect the wound.

“Yuri, he’s not dead, he’s just passed out, he lost a bit of blood,” Viktor told the panicked blonde thrashing in his arms. Chris released the hold he had on Yuri’s arm and the young man must’ve been truly exhausted, because he stopped fighting Viktor almost instantly, partially leaning against him and just shaking.

“Morooka-san, Oda-san bring a stretcher, please. We need to take agent Altin to the infirmary,” Minako said from her place leaning by Otabek’s head.

“Yes, captain!” the men said, hurrying to do as they were told.

There was a pained groan from the floor and Otabek opened his eyes. “Yuri…” he breathed.

“He’s right here, Otabek. He’s safe. Everyone is. You can go back to sleep if you want. You did a great job and must be tired,” Minako told him.

Otabek nodded and almost immediately passed out again.

“Is anyone else injured?” Mari asked the crowd as Oda and Morooka carefully transferred Otabek onto the levitating stretcher.

At everyone’s negative reply, Mari came up to Yuri. “Do you wanna come to the infirmary with Otabek, Yurio? I’ll take you.”

Yuri didn’t react to the nickname and simply nodded. Mari gently took him from Viktor’s hold.

“Chris, you should come too,” she told Chris, who simply shrugged, but moved to follow her. “See you later, Viktor,” she told him, then walked with her small group deeper into the ship proper.

“So, Viktor…” Leo said suddenly from right beside Viktor, making him jump slightly. “I’m sure you’re also tired, but would you like to see Makkachin before eating, then maybe catch a little sleep?”

“Yes, please!” Viktor exclaimed.

“Can I go, too?”, Yuuri asked shyly, coming closer.

“Sure,” was Viktor’s immediate reply. “I’m sure Makkachin’s gonna love you! He’s such a good boy,” Viktor told him proudly.

Yuuri smiled.

Leo chuckled. “Okay then, follow me.”

 


 

 

Although at a comfortable temperature, the huge ship really did look like a castle made of ice, even on the inside. The floor, the walls and the ceiling were all made up of a bluish-white metal and the finishing details of the design were flowing and gentle, like ice that had partially melted to look even softer and more inviting.

It felt comfortable, peaceful, and, despite never having seen or touched it before, that colour, even the feel of it under Viktor’s digits, felt oddly familiar to him.

“This design… it’s ice,” Viktor observed.

“Yes,” Yuuri agreed. “And the landing area we just left can turn into an actual ice rink.”

“Eh? Why put an ice rink in an aircraft?” Viktor asked, bewildered.

To his surprise, both Leo and Yuuri immediately started guffawing at his question.

“Well, I guess…” Leo started between laughs, “You’d have to ask the… the creators of the ship.”

“Alright… I will...” Viktor said, confused by their reaction, but assuming that this was some kind of private joke. “Who are they?”

Leo folded in two with laugher at this. But Yuuri seemed to sober up a bit.

“You can ask Lilia later,” he offered kindly.

Viktor frowned, but nodded.

Leo cleared his voice, then opened the door at the end of the corridor they’d been walking down.

“There you go,” he said.

Behind the door was a large room with a large window with curtains drawn – probably because looking at the rapidly changing landscape now would make you sick.

Between other pieces of light coloured furniture, the room had a large double bed, an impressive wardrobe, a small round table with two chairs next to it, a door that surely led to a private bathroom, a dog bed that was just the right size for Makkachin at the foot of the bed and many dog toys strewn around.

If you ignored the odd vibe of the multiple photo frames facing down on top of the various surfaces, the room felt lived in and cosy, a home.

Makkachin started happily whining and wagging his tail as soon as he laid eyes on them. Leo stepped back and quietly left the room, closing the door behind himself.

“Oh, hey buddy!” Viktor exclaimed as the dog enthusiastically approached. To his surprise, though, the first person Makkachin went to was not him, but Yuuri.

And what an enthusiastic greeting that was! Makkachin jumped, throwing himself at Yuuri, who, laughingly bent down, meeting the dog halfway with a hug.

“Hey, Makkachin… You still remember me?” Yuuri breathed out as he embraced the fluffy dog and Makkachin started shaking and whining louder in response, tail wagging like mad.

At first, Viktor didn’t even try to process what he’d heard, he could only stare at Makkachin in confusion and wonder. He had never seen his furry friend that happy. He seemed to be sobbing from happiness. And Yuuri looked close to tears himself, seemingly having some trouble controlling his words and laugher.

“I missed you so much, Makkachin! I thought you were gone, I didn’t even want to believe… I’m so glad they didn’t hurt you, Makkachin, I’m so happy… I love you so much…” he was saying as he enthusiastically rubbed Makkachin’s brown fur and the dog kept trying to jump and lick at his face.

Viktor was speechless. At first, he didn’t know what to think, mind blank as he watched this heart-warming scene unfold before him. Then, he felt jealous and finally, finally… he felt happy.

This… this was right. This was how it was meant to be.

As Makkachin calmed down a bit, he detached from a disheveled-looking Yuuri and happily turned to Viktor, greeting him as he normally would. Viktor hugged the pup and rubbed at his fur, but his eyes didn’t leave Yuuri, who was still hunched by his side.

He was looking at them with emotion in his eyes… It was a warm and familiar sort of emotion, something that had been once spontaneously given and received, something… something Viktor could only describe as… love.

And, heart clenching painfully in his chest, Viktor grabbed the nearest photo frame, eyes sliding over the familiar couple smiling back at him in it, and he understood. He gently set the frame down, facing the right way this time, and focused solely on patting a calmer but still grinning Makkachin for a while.

Neither broke the silence. Neither moved.

Then, Viktor took a deep breath and said, “He was reprieved, wasn’t he?”

He looked up at Yuuri’s impossibly wide eyes, finding him expectant, hesitant, perhaps hopeful, perhaps afraid… Yes. He was afraid. He feared rejection. How unfair for him to feel like that about Viktor… how wrong.

“The Viktor you knew,” Viktor explained, then rested his palm on his own chest, further clarifying, “The one I was before. He was reprieved, wasn’t he?”

Yuuri didn’t say anything. His lips opened but no words came out. He gulped, chin shaking minutely as his eyes became damp. He settled for merely nodding once, tears overflowing from his unblinking brown eyes and streaming down his face in a display of emotion too complex for Viktor to fully take in.

“He was,” he simply said, before completely breaking down beside Viktor.

Feeling like it was the only thing he could do, Viktor slowly, carefully, gently hugged Yuuri’s shaking body against his chest.

And all the pieces clicked together.

Chapter Text

Why is it easier to claim those we lost while forgetting those we rescued?

― Sonali Dev

 

Three Years Ago

 

There was a repetitive sound in the dark. It was muffled and had a liquid quality to it, like he was listening to it underwater… Maybe he was underwater, submerged by comfortable warmth… So peaceful…

“… hear me?”

Oh. The sound… could it be that it was a person talking? He sighed sleepily, wishing to be rocked back to sleep by the gentle, dark, warm water surrounding him, which… was not so gently rocking him anymore. He grunted in displeasure at being jostled and, suddenly, the shocking realization that humans can’t breathe underwater hit him like a slap.

He was now desperately gasping for air and trying to sit up as the voice near his ear calmly instructed him to lay back down.

“There you go. Good boy. That’s it…” the voice was saying.

He opened his eyes and the light promptly blinded him. It was so bright. He whimpered lowly.

“Take your time. Breathe in, breathe out…” a different voice was saying from a little farther away. He followed this voice’s gentle instructions as well as he could.

As his breathing slowly came under control, his eyes also adjusted to the brightness and he could see the person in front of him, who, moments before, seemed to be glowing on their own. 

They had long, straight, glossy silver hair, pale skin, bright blue eyes and a beautiful big smile that extended vaguely in the shape of a heart. The man’s grey robes were almost a perfect match to his hair colour and the effect was something mesmerizing and a bit confusing to him at that point.

“Who…? Where…?” he rasped, flinching in surprise at how rusty his voice felt. What the hell had happened to him?

Another man, also clad in grey, came into view. This one was not smiling, but his kind, large brown eyes transmitted a sense of goodness that put him at ease.

“Welcome back. You are in Reprieve Facility GPF-15. I’m Carer Katsuki Yuuri and this is Carer Viktor Nikiforov. We are part of the team who will manage your Reprieve. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

Panic flourished in his chest and he sat up, immediately feeling lightheaded and swaying back into Viktor’s hold and the stretcher underneath him.

“No. This can’t be happening…” he breathed out, feebly fighting against Viktor’s kind but firm grasp while his breathing and heart rate struggled to keep up with his emotions. Something beeped insistently behind his head. Hushed, incomprehensible words were rapidly exchanged between the carers. There was movement outside of his field of vision and he thought he caught the glimpse of a syringe.

“Please focus on my voice. Breathe in like this, follow my lead…” Yuuri was saying, now closer.

“That’s it… Good boy…” Viktor murmured against his side as Otabek struggled to comply with Yuuri’s instructions. A soft warm cloth caressed his brow, gently pushing his hair back.

“I’m not a criminal,” he managed to say.

Yuuri and Viktor exchanged a meaningful look, then Viktor pinned him down with his gaze alone.

“Did you apply and consent to be reprieved?” Viktor asked him.

“No!” he answered immediately. “I’m not a criminal. Please believe me.”

“We believe you,” Yuuri told him.

Viktor voiced his agreement. Then, he gently asked, “What is your name?”

He blinked up at Viktor, suddenly feeling tired and confused.

“My name is…” Why was it so difficult to remember? His thoughts were slow, heavy against his eyelids. He sighed, feeling his body relax against the cushion. “… Otabek. Otabek Altin…” he breathed out. “I was… investigating the Reprieve Protocol’s… origins… and…” His head tried to loll against Viktor’s elbow, but he gasped, forcing himself to open his eyes and ask, “What… what are you going to do to me?”

“We are going to get you out of here,” Yuuri promised as his gloved hand squeezed Otabek’s subtly shaking one.

Otabek sighed in relief and smiled at him, feeling immensely grateful. Then, he promptly passed out.

 


 

 

“So… Hasetsu?” Otabek asked.

“Yes, that’s how you pronounce it,.” Viktor patiently confirmed with a nod and a smile.

Yuuri and Viktor had just finished explaining the plan for his extraction and Otabek wanted to confirm that he had understood everything. He took a steadying breath, then looked the two Hasetsu operatives in the eye.

“You will give me a drug that will make me seem dead,” Otabek repeated slowly. Viktor nodded enthusiastically. “Then, I’ll be taken to the morgue, where, instead of being cremated, like all the deceased reprieves, I will wake up inside a metal box,” Viktor nodded again, a proud smile on his face. “And that box will be loaded onto an Hasetsu aircraft that will take me to your base.”

“That’s correct,” Yuuri, standing by Viktor’s shoulder, confirmed calmly.

“Do you have any questions?” Yakov asked from across the room, where he stood with his arms crossed. Otabek sat up straighter in his stretcher in order to look at him properly.

“Yes. You said that I had to keep still and quiet inside the box.”

“Yes,” Yakov confirmed immediately. “It’s very important that you do not move or speak or produce any loud sounds inside the box.”

Yuuri vehemently nodded to that. Viktor threw an arm over Yuuri’s shoulders, pulling him closer.

“And for how long will that be?” Otabek asked.

“We can’t give you a certain time, but it can be anywhere from 30 to 120 minutes, from your awakening to shipment...” Yuuri said apologetically.

“Not that this estimation will matter much to you. You will likely have no perception of the passage of time, being that you’ll be in complete darkness during that time,” Yakov said with a chuckle.

“Yes,” Viktor cheerfully chimed in. “After you wake up from the drug, I advise you to try to go back to sleep, if you can.”

Otabek dry-gulped and nodded once, solemn.

Viktor leaned to peck Yuuri chastely on the lips. Yuuri chuckled and gently swatted him away. Yakov shook his head at them, looking judgemental of their attitude, but feeling to Otabek like he actually found them cute.

Their relaxed attitude should be enough to reassure Otabek, but Otabek had never been an optimist. He stared at the spotless white linen of his stretcher, trying to find the best way to voice his worries.

“What if there is something wrong with the aircraft and I stay in that box till the next day? Or if I’m detected before the aircraft takes me? What are my chances of dying in this?”

Yuuri blinked at him. Viktor and Yakov laughed.

“Well, transport came late once. Yuuri has free access to the morgue. When we learned that transport had a delay of more than 3 hours, Yuuri went there and just let our rescue out for a while. She is safe and sound now. Right, love?”

“Yes. Johanna. You’ll meet her when you get to Hasetsu,” Yuuri told Otabek with a kind smile.

“As for detection…” Yakov said, “Obviously that has never happened before. We’ve been doing this for a few years and these are thoroughly tested and verified extraction procedures, put into action on a daily basis by Hasetsu operatives at multiple Reprieve facilities. Of course, risk of detection is always present, but you are looking at the same odds of everyone before you.”

“It’s a matter of faith,” Viktor said with his most angelic smile. “You just have to trust us and believe that it will be alright.”

 


 

 

But, then again, Otabek had never been an optimist.

So, when the darkness surrounding him sang its ominous metallic hum and a light-haloed Yuuri peeked inside his cold hard box, Otabek saw the suspicions he’d quietly been holding for hours immediately confirmed.

“Otabek-kun. Are you okay?”

Otabek nodded, temporarily blind.

“The transport got delayed, huh?” he asked Yuuri, sitting up inside his box and shielding his eyes as he got used to the light again.

When Yuuri didn’t immediately reply, Otabek knew that something was wrong. He carefully observed the Hasetsu operative. Yuuri was very pale, eyes wide and restless in their sockets, a thin sheen of sweat on his brow.

“Not exactly,” he replied, visibly trying to sound calm. “The transport was intercepted. Hasetsu lost contact with the pilot, but we believe the System currently has him under custody. He…” Yuuri cleared his voice. “Chris… will not speak, but… he is a comrade. A friend.” He cleared his voice again. “We… don’t know what will happen to him.”

“I’m so sorry, Yuuri,” Otabek said, putting a comforting hand on the carer’s shoulder.

Yuuri shook his head and made a visible effort to collect himself.

“Even with him not speaking, it’s only a matter of time before the System has access to the aircraft’s directives and logs and they figure out where it was headed. So, now, headquarters sent a bigger, faster vessel to execute our emergency extraction. Yours and all fifteen of the Hasetsu undercover operatives currently working in this facility.”

Otabek didn’t know what to say, so he nodded once, trying to stay calm for Yuuri’s sake.

“They should be arriving any minute now; Viktor, Yakov and the others,” Yuuri said, eyes sliding to the metal doors of the morgue. “I biometrically barricaded us in here and it will only open up to their signal.”

Otabek nodded again, changing positions to stand by Yuuri’s side, facing the door. Yuuri was tense and restless in his lateral field of vision, a far cry from the generally confident posture he had exhibited by Viktor’s side. Otabek felt compelled to reassure him somehow, but he didn’t know how, so, for a long couple of minutes, they simply stood there, in tense, expectant silence.

Then, there was a rhythmic rap at the door, and Yuuri visibly relaxed.

“Viktor…” he breathed out in relief, moving to open the door.

That relief all but vanished as the metal doors slid open.

“No…!” Yuuri exclaimed in horror, stumbling away from the open doors where Viktor stood, hands behind his back, a gun resting on his temple, surrounded by a handful of heavily armed military individuals, who immediately trained their weapons on both Yuuri and Otabek.

A tall, very round bespectacled man, clad in deep red robes, entered the room, slowly clapping his sweaty chubby hands as he came closer to a shell-shocked Yuuri. Before being taken into custody, Otabek had studied the System’s colour code and, because of that, immediately knew that the man was a very high-ranking individual.

“So, this is what Yakov has been up to, huh,” he said in a gratingly sharp tone of voice, coming to a stop right in front of Yuuri and grabbing his jaw in a forceful, white-knuckled grip.

“Director Bates...” Viktor’s captor dug the gun on Viktor’s temple harder against his head at this outburst, compelling him to stay quiet.

The fat man – Reprieve facility Director Michael Bates, Otabek would later learn – ignored them completely, malicious smile directed solely at Yuuri’s terrified face, which he  held in a vice-like grip. “But not to worry, Yakov and all the other little traitors will be dealt with accordingly,” he drawled in his strident voice as he popped the middle finger of his left hand inside his mouth, speaking around it. “They will never interfere with the precious Reprieves under our care, ever again,” he said, now suckling on his index finger. “Or, really, they will never interfere with anything, ever again. They will belong to me.” His ring finger now. “As will you,” he finished, harshly jabbing his right thumb and middle fingers on either side of Yuuri’s maxillomandibular joint to force it open and brutally thrusting his spit-covered fingers down Yuuri’s throat, once, twice, thrice

“No!”

“Stop!”

Otabek and Viktor screamed simultaneously, trying to move in Yuuri’s aid. Otabek was promptly shot through his left thigh and Viktor was hit on his temple with the butt of his captor’s gun. Both crumbled to the floor with groans of pain as they listened to Yuuri’s gagging, coughing and wheezing.

four times , five times, six times, seven times

Yuuri was hitting at the man with his arms and legs, but Bates was taller, wider, heavier and stronger than him and kept going as if Yuuri’s fight represented no more than an especially persistent flock of mosquitoes.

“No, no. Stop! Yuuri…” Viktor screamed as he tried to drag himself across the floor, face bloody. One of the men kicked him on the stomach and he stilled with a wheeze and a grunt.

eight times, nine times

Yuuri stilled and the wheezing stopped. The man kept going for a couple more times, then laughed and released him. He hit the floor without a sound.

“Oops,” Bates said, inspecting his thick blood-streaked, drool-covered fingers, “He’s a tight fit, huh,” he chuckled.

Viktor whimpered from the floor. Otabek felt like throwing up as shock, disgust, fear and pain made the bile rise up in his throat.

“You’re a monster,” Otabek rasped, ineffectively trying to apply pressure on his abundantly bleeding thigh wound.

The revolting man merely chuckled at that, wiping his fingers with a handkerchief as he used his foot to roll Yuuri’s limp body onto his back. He chuckled again and walked away.

“Are you ready to speak now, Viktor?” he asked, going to kneel by Viktor.

Viktor spat at his face.

For a couple chilling seconds, no one moved, except for the Director, who took his glasses off and calmly wiped Viktor’s spit from them. He put them back on his face, then easily pushed the handcuffed, and likely concussed Viktor onto his back and sat his very large body on his chest.

“Who is your boss?” he asked, punctuating the sentence with a slap across Viktor’s face, “Where have you been taking our Reprieves?” Another slap. “How long have you been operating here?” Another slap. “What other facilities did your people compromise?”

Viktor wasn’t breathing, and his face was rapidly turning a worrisome purple shade. The man got off Viktor’s chest with a high-pitched chuckle.

Viktor took a big intake of breath, then rolled to his side, wheezing and coughing. Amongst all the wheezing, though, words were being spoken.

“Mm? What was that?” Bates asked, leaning down and mockingly cupping his right ear over Viktor’s curled up form. “Speak up, man!”

“I’m… glad…” Viktor wheezed, a triumphant smile on his rapidly bruising, blood-stained face, “you… you don’t know… anything.”

Viktor’s ensuing laughter was not a pleasant sound, tinged as it was by hysteria and unmeasurable, murderous rage. It was the laugher of a solitary man cheerfully walking towards his death while slaughtering everyone around him. Otabek felt like crying and hugging Viktor and magically blasting all those terrible people into fine, fine dust for him, but he was having enough trouble just keeping his own eyes open.

“Oh, but you will talk,” the Director drawled, decidedly walking to Yuuri’s vulnerable form. He pushed the brunette’s legs apart with his foot, then sat between them, “You will tell me everything I want to know, Viktor. You, make sure he watches,” he told Viktor’s captor, who forced Viktor into a sitting position facing the Director. The disgusting man then leaned down and licked the blood off Yuuri’s unresponsive lips, tongue dipping inside while producing some truly off-putting sounds. As he did this, one of his hands went down on himself, amongst his robes, and started rubbing.

“Stop,” Viktor said, again trying to go to Yuuri’s aid, but he was too hurt. Otabek thought he was probably just as close to passing out as Otabek himself. Maybe he should pass out. Then the man would probably stop doing that to Yuuri… right?

“Tell me what I want to know, and I will,” Bates sing-songed in his gratingly high-pitched tone, his hand never stopping its disgusting rhythm, as his other hand dipped underneath Yuuri’s top robes to grope at his chest. He leaned down to lick at the insides of Yuuri’s mouth again.

“STOP!” Viktor screamed, kicking at his captor, who promptly silenced him by again kicking Viktor’s stomach.

“Then, speak,” the Director told Viktor sweetly. He momentarily let go of Yuuri to move up and sit on his chest instead, then started fumbling with his lower robes, “Who do you answer to?” he shouted, finally freeing himself from his robes, “Where have you been taking our inmates?” he asked, holding Yuuri’s head into position and using his fingers to keep Yuuri’s already abused jaw open as he kept rubbing himself. “What other facilities did your people infiltrate?” he drawled, almost tenderly, as he lined himself up against Yuuri’s lower lip.

Viktor screamed in pain and despair. Otabek looked away, throwing up bile into the sizable crimson puddle he was currently sitting in.

And then there was a piercing, thundering loud sound – a powerful explosion that threw everyone to the ground and sent dust and debris flying everywhere.

Otabek couldn’t hear or see anything and he was about to give up and allow himself to fall into sweet, peaceful oblivion, when two arms grabbed him and firmly pulled. Amongst the dust and the smoke, he could recognize Yuuri, bewildered expression on his eyes, blood dripping from his mouth…

Yuuri spat something onto the ground – a bloody… finger? – and was trying to tell or ask Otabek something, but all Otabek could hear was a loud white ringing in his ears. He tried shaking his head, to show Yuuri that he couldn’t understand him.

Then, a woman showed up in front of them. Amongst all the dust and the blood loss, all Otabek could discern about her was the fact that she was neither in a military outfit or in any kind of colour code clothing system. She was an ally. And she was grabbing Otabek’s other arm to help Yuuri drag him towards… somewhere.

And that somewhere was apparently an aircraft hatch, which was hooked onto what had once been the morgue’s farthest wall. On seeing this, Otabek noticed that red lights had started pulsating from inside the facility. With that, he realized his hearing was also coming back. Everything was too loud and indiscernible for a while, but then, as another stranger – a young man, this time – came to take his left arm off Yuuri’s shoulders, he could clearly hear the audio warning blasting full force through the facility on repeat.

“Self-destruction protocol activated. Please exit the premises orderly.”

“Thanks, Phichit-kun,” Yuuri told the newcomer in a rasping, painful-sounding voice. “I’m going back inside,” he croaked out with a wince, immediately turning on his heels.

“Stop! You can’t! Don’t you hear the warning?” the woman on his right side screamed, grabbing Yuuri’s wrist.

An explosion made itself heard, followed by countless others, seemingly from all over the facility. The whole building started shaking.

“Viktor is still in there!” Yuuri screamed, stark red blood staining his hauntingly pale face, frantic eyes like saucers, pulling his wrist out of the woman’s grasp.

There was the sound of gunfire, and both Yuuri and the woman were hit before they all could duck or jump inside the aircraft - Yuuri in the abdomen, the woman on the shoulder. Large pieces of cement began falling from the ceiling.

“Mari! Phichit! Come, come, come!” another woman emerged from the aircraft, ducking and shooting a few times into the dust and smoke behind them. She promptly hoisted a screaming Yuuri and forcefully dragged him inside while the other two pulled Otabek along.

The aircraft detached from the blasted-in wall even before the hatch was closed. Countless explosions could be heard and seen as the vessel distanced itself from the crumbling building, fire consuming it at various points of the infrastructure. Then the hatch closed completely and there was silence inside the ship as they watched the Reprieve facility cave in on itself amongst a thick cloud of dust and smoke that was fast to engulf them too. The aircraft shook, and a few alarms blasted as the crew rushed to take control of its flight trajectory.

Amongst the confusion that followed, Otabek could only listen to one thing clearly. A continuous wailing, much like that of a dying animal, a name being frantically repeated over and over, like a hopeless mantra… He lost consciousness listening to this name being screamed in despair, loss and guilt, and his last sensible thought was that Yuuri had been broken beyond repair.

Chapter Text

A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory .

― Steven Wright

 

Three Years Ago

 

And, for almost one year, during which Otabek was trained to become an Hasetsu operative, Yuuri did seem irreparably broken. He had eaten himself almost into a replica of the crimson monster who had raped him and had tortured Viktor – in what Yuuri believed to be his husband and fellow figure skater’s last living moments – he’d barely left his quarters or talked to other people, he’d basically stopped living… Until Celestino Cialdini was rescued.

Celestino had been a doctor at the yet-to-be-infiltrated Reprieve Facility GPF-17. He had rebelled against his superiors and the Reprieve System and had been sent to an intermediate Reprieve facility after being forced to stage his own suicide.

Through conversations with Celestino, they soon discovered a fantastic, nightmarish reality, so amazing that they started sending scouts there before even considering that it might all be a trap.

A sizable portion of the staff at Reprieve Facility GPF-17 were lost Hasetsu operatives, comrades they thought were dead or reprieved into distant planets with different stories and appearances… Not only were they alive, they were working every day to keep the beast they had once so fiercely fought against alive and healthy. Their names had not been changed and, when they showed Celestino photos, it was clear that their faces hadn't either.

They didn’t know if their comrades were under duress or if they had all been put through the Reprieve Protocol and were just doing what they had been reprogrammed to do. If so, then the whole thing resembled some sort of twisted, mocking danse macabre that they couldn’t really make sense of.

Because the intel they had collected seemed to point to the fact that the System was still unaware of the existence of an organized group intent on destroying them and due to the fact that the System also believed that their vessel had been destroyed alongside Reprieve Facility GPF-15, therefore wiping all the rebels out of existence, there seemed to be three main possible explanations to the scenario Celestino described:

 

1) Reprieve Facility GPF-17 was an experiment on the effectiveness of the Reprieve Protocol on especially difficult cases;

2) Reprieve Facility GPF-17 was a giant trap designed to capture and extinguish every last rebel;

3) Both.

 

Regardless of all this, the information that brought Yuuri out of his all self-consuming guilt, first with intense rejection, then with immeasurable hope, was that, amongst the list of names Celestino had worked with at GPF-17, was Viktor Nikiforov. 

Suddenly, Yuuri had a reason to live again and he grabbed at life with renewed intensity, throwing himself back into training, despite everyone’s concerned warnings that he should take it slow.

He had gone from spending his days in a nearly comatose state to getting almost no sleep at all. He lost a lot of weight. After being forbidden to attend field missions, Yuuri started teaching the new recruits, including Otabek, although he could not set foot near the Ice Castle or an ice rink. He also took over information handling directly from their intel scouts.

Soon, Yuuri pressed the commanders into sending undercover agents into GPF-17. Lee Seung Gil, Kenjrou Minami and Guang Hong Ji were selected for the job. And, surprisingly enough, all of them were accepted into the jobs for which they applied. Seung Gil and Minami were automatically put into Chris’ team and Guang Hong into Michele’s. After all of them reported back to Headquarters on the fact that their old friends didn’t remember them and that security protocols at the facility now made it virtually impossible to extract inmates from there, Hasetsu was faced with a dilemma:

 

If they allowed Seung Gil, Minami and Guang Hong to stay at the facility, where they were unable to extract inmates without being detected or bring back the uncooperative reprogrammed operatives, they would basically be cooperating with the enemy.

 

“Unless we do it in one go,” Yuuri said, making all of the Hasetsu commanders - Lilia Baranovskaya, Okukawa Minako, Katsuki Toshiya, Odagaki Kanako, Park Min-so and Josef Karpisek - turn to stare at him. 

He blushed at the attention, but his large brown eyes did not lose any determination. “We do it in a single mission, we take the Ice Castle there and attack, make ourselves known and bring the rescues, our loved ones… our friends and comrades, we bring them all home.”

“Yuuri, they are not our friends anymore…” Okukawa Minako, one of the commanders and one of Otabek’s rescuers, said from the conference table at which the commanders were seated.

“The Reprieve Protocol doesn’t change one’s personality, nothing can. It alters memories, it…” Yuuri started, engaging a discussion they had had multiple times before.

“It alters life experiences, it records an alternative behavioural pattern into the subject’s memories,” Lilia interrupted, rising from her chair on the table and walking to Yuuri. “It does, in essence, change a person’s personality. At least the one we can evaluate through our interaction with that person.”

“No,” Yuuri said, face a livid steely mask that Otabek knew was his most valiant effort at fighting against a teary melt down. “Even I, who have never been reprieved, can remember multiple behavioural patterns of my own that I regret and would not maintain nowadays. It is possible to not keep behaving as we always did if your perspective on life changes. All we need to do is change their perspective…”

“Yuuri, your Viktor will never come back,” Lilia interrupted him again.

Yuuri froze as if he’d been slapped, staring at Lilia with tears now falling freely down his otherwise expressionless face.

“But a Viktor will,” he breathed out. “I don’t care if he doesn’t love me, if he doesn’t remember me. I love him, I remember him. And I can’t leave him there, not again . I won’t. Yakov, either.”

Yuuri turned on himself and left the conference room at a fast pace. Lilia didn’t even blink.

“Yuuri, wait!” Phichit exclaimed, getting to his feet. “Please excuse us. Carry on,” he told the table, then ran after Yuuri.

In the silence that followed, Otabek stood up too.

“Operative Otabek Altin. Permission to speak freely.”

“Yes, Otabek?” Minako replied as she rubbed the bridge of her nose tiredly.

“I understand that it would be impossible to bring our lost operatives back against their will and that, if they are too willing to come, we must suspect that they have been reprogrammed into becoming spies for the System. So, I suggest we don’t try to bring them back, not yet, at least. I think we should go and work by their side, do the job we’re supposed to do as perfectly as we possibly can and gain their trust that way. Get to know them again, get to really know them, and understand the changes that were done to the Protocol over there, so we can either evaluate if it’s safe to try to bring them back or not, while also letting enough time pass that they let their guard down.” Otabek paused to take a big breath. 

His mouth felt dry. Everyone was still looking at him; most just seemed surprised, a few seemed like they were about to interrupt and tell him off. Otabek hurried to finish his plea. “I am aware that this may become a very long mission, during which no rescues will likely be made and where your operatives will be dangerously stalling in adverse conditions. But you already sent agents who knew these people from before. I think you should send one or two more operatives. It’s probably better if they are young enough to take the post of Junior Carers or Carers-in-Training so that the others see them as harmless and they are in a position where making a lot of questions about the workings of the facility will not be odd.” Most of the people facing him seemed to be considering Otabek’s words. Lilia opened her mouth to speak, but Otabek already knew what she was going to ask, Who else, except for Yuuri, would volunteer for such a job? , so he answered her before she could voice her question, “I volunteer.”

There was rumble in the crowd.

“I volunteer, too,” Mila Babicheva offered.

Everyone turned to look at the petite redhead. She caught Otabek’s eyes and smiled. Otabek nodded.

 


 

The thing that most surprised the Hasetsu agents at GPF-17, after their reprogrammed friends, the curious distribution of surveillance in the buildings and the laughable security measures for the ground vehicles entrance, was the fact that, for almost 2 years straight, all the Reprieves handled by the infiltrated teams were, in fact, real consenting inmates previously serving life sentences.

That was the case until Phichit, who had been deployed at a different facility, was detained during a failed extraction. Hasetsu had mourned him for a couple days, but then he arrived at GPF-17, where he was promptly deprived of his consent verification, as was customary among fake inmate cases.

Phichit was the first non-criminal Reprieve landing on one of the GPF-17 infiltrated teams. And this fact resulted in an odd reaction from Yuuri.

“I think they have put them all in there like collectibles. It’s like a weird sort of vengeance. They want us to Reprieve our own,” he had told Otabek through the protected line they used to relay information to Yuuri, as a high-level information handler.

“You can’t conclude that with just this single piece of evidence,” Otabek told him.

“Yes, I guess you’re right, Otabek-kun,” Yuuri chuckled. He’d just learned that his best friend, who he believed they had lost forever, was currently in an extremely precarious position and he actually chuckled . “So, is there anything else you’d like to add to your report?”

“Er… No. This is all.”

There was a sigh on the other side of the line. Otabek blinked his surprise away and smiled a sad smile, fully expecting the next question.

“How is he?” Yuuri whispered.

“Same as always. Cheerful, diligent, aloof… In love with his dog.”

“Do you think it really is Makkachin?”, Yuuri asked, hopeful.

“I wouldn’t know. He keeps showing me photos. I told you how he looks like in those pictures, but I can’t take a photo of them or get my hands on his e-pad to send them to you, you know this.”

“Yeah… I know.”

A short silence followed.

“Mm, actually, he’s been slightly more cheerful as of late,” Otabek said suddenly. “Our new Carer-in-Training, Plisetsky, he’s quite brilliant and Viktor is very impressed with his skills. So am I. He’s smart and quirky and he often bickers with Viktor. Viktor… I think he likes that. He’s been having a lot of fun.”

“I miss him. I miss skating with him,” Yuuri stated simply, like a detached observation about the weather. Otabek felt something unpleasant stir inside of him at that.

“I know. I think it won’t take us much longer. There isn’t much we can gather from here anyway and I think that we can pull Chris out too, if we excise him from that man. Seung Gil agrees, but Minami keeps arguing that it would be inhumane of us...” Otabek trailed off and noticed the uncharacteristic silence of the line. “Yuuri? You still there?”

“Mm? Yeah. I think I’ll see you guys soon, too,” he said cheerfully. And, again, Otabek was confused by Yuuri’s odd reply.

He made sense of it less than a month after this conversation.

Chapter Text

It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution .

Oscar Wilde

 

Present

 

Yuri woke up to the feeling of fingers carding through his hair. For a second, he felt like a little boy again, after calling for Gramps in the middle of the night because he’d had a bad dream.

A flash of his grandfather with his eyes wide in frozen surprise as blood left the wound in his forehead, spraying Yuri, made him sit up with a jolt and a shout.

He felt like he was back at the facility, like Gramps was dying all over again. He wailed in despair; he couldn’t bear this pain, he wanted it to stop, he wanted to die.

There was a gentle shush and then a solid warm body hugged him firmly as he whimpered, trying to control his breathing.

As he started to calm down, he could understand the words that were being exchanged over his head.

“Thank you, Muramoto-sensei,” Otabek – the one holding him – whispered.

“You’re welcome,” a kind female voice replied in the same tone. “It would be great if he was up to eating something, but, most importantly, have him drink this,” Muramoto instructed.

“I will.”

“Call me again if you need something. You’re welcome to stay and rest for as long as you need.”

“I will. Thank you.”

Quiet footsteps disappeared into the distance and Otabek’s fingers returned to his hair.

Yuri felt exhausted, almost raw inside, and dark oblivion felt too much like a good option at the moment. But Otabek seemed determined to not let him become unconscious again.

“Yuri?”

Yuri roused at this, eyes opening slightly, pulling against the dried tears that were stuck to his eyelashes and, for the first time, he became aware of his position.

He was laying against Otabek’s chest, sitting between the other’s legs. He sat upright on the infirmary bed, suddenly very confused as to how they’d gotten to laying like that.

Otabek immediately let him go and sat back against the headboard, looking hesitant and worried as Yuri moved to sit on the edge of the bed with his bare feet touching the cold floor.

“Yuri, I…”

Oh yes, after the doctor treated Otabek’s wound and put some IV fluids in him, Otabek had woken up and asked for Yuri. Yuri had been sitting still on a small chair nearby and had refused to talk with the doctor or take any sort of sedative. So, when Otabek asked for him, the doctor suggested Yuri lay down next to Otabek and just rest. Yuri did.

In retrospect, he should probably feel embarrassed about it, but he couldn’t find it in him to even try. He rested his forehead on his palms and just tried to breathe for a while.

“Yuri… I’m so sorry.” Otabek finished.

“Meow…” a muffled sound made itself heard.

Yuri raised his head to look at the closed door and, before he had completely processed what he’d heard, he had walked up to it and opened it.

Sitting at the door, tail dancing behind him, was Tigr.

Yuri fell to his knees beside the cat and hugged him, taking a big breath off the animal’s fluffy fur.

Memories flooded him with no mercy and tears fell down again.

But, this time, when Otabek hugged him, Yuri felt like maybe, just maybe, he could survive this.

 


 

 

Viktor woke up surrounded by warmth.

He looked at the man and the dog laying on him, a smile dancing on his lips.

The last thing he remembered was helping a sobbing Yuuri lay on the bed and then feeling Makkachin join them. The three of them had apparently fallen asleep after that.

He had no idea how long they’d been napping, but, judging by the hunger he was feeling, certainly longer than an hour.

By now, Viktor had known Yuuri asleep for longer than he’d known him awake, but he honestly couldn’t get enough. Yuuri had such beautiful long lashes and looked so peaceful in his sleep, head moving slightly with Viktor’s respiratory movements… Viktor just couldn’t look away.

His stomach growled loudly and Yuuri blinked awake, immediately locking eyes with Viktor and smiling up at him.

“Hello,” he said, sitting up.

“Hello,” Viktor replied, sitting upright as well.

Makkachin didn’t move except for his tail, which wagged happily as he looked between the both of them. Viktor chuckled at that and ruffled the top of the dog’s head playfully, which resulted in Makkachin turning on his back for a tummy rub, to which both men happily complied.

Viktor noticed a photo frame facing down on the nightstand and grabbed it. In the dynamic photography there, Yuuri and a strange, yet familiar, long-haired Viktor were holding each other in the middle of an ice rink, both wearing blades on their feet and colourful outfits. The stranger Viktor in the photo leant own to tenderly kiss Yuuri’s forehead, making the other blush intensely.

Viktor laughed. Yuuri looked shocked by that. Viktor knew he should stop laughing, but he just couldn’t. A crease appeared between Yuuri’s eyebrows and he felt immediately more distant.

“I’m sorry, I…” he started saying as he got to his feet, hands up in the air like he’d done something wrong.

“Yuuri…” Viktor said between laughs, stretching to grab the other’s wrist and prevent him from leaving, “No, it’s alright. I just…” he rubbed the laugher tears from his eyes, “I just realized why you and Leo were laughing at me before.”

“Oh,” Yuuri said, smiling hesitantly. “… Yes.”

“I was one of the creators of this ship, right? The… what…? The designer, perhaps?”

Yuuri nodded, a wide smile on his lips.

“And I bet I included this room in this ship to pay myself for my hard work or something?” he chuckled.

“Hm. Yes, something like that,” Yuuri hesitantly confirmed.

“And you clearly shared this room with me and Makkachin.”

Yuuri nodded, blushing slightly.

“Yuuri… we were… lovers?” he tried to guess, hoping with all his heart that he was correct.

Yuuri looked fixedly at Makkachin’s paw and chewed at his lower lip.

“Married,” he whispered, again looking like he expected to be rejected, like he expected Viktor to flee from him in disgust at this revelation. Viktor wondered if the other Viktor, the stranger long-haired Viktor, would do something like that, but seriously doubted it. Because all he could feel was pure, immense happiness.

“Wow!” he shouted, making Yuuri jolt in surprise. “We were married? Well, I suppose we still are married, as I don’t remember getting a divorce…” he chuckled. “Amazing! Yuuri, that is amazing!” he exclaimed.

Yuuri smiled back at him, looking relieved.

“Aren’t you… isn’t it uncomfortable for you?” Yuuri asked carefully, signalling the photo frame. “Knowing of this… this relationship you don’t remember? To you, I’m…” Yuuri avoided Viktor’s eyes again. “I’m just a… stranger.”

“But, to you, I am the man you’re willing to die for,” Viktor whispered, fingers gingerly caressing Yuuri’s temple.

Yuuri closed his eyes at the action, chin shaking slightly as he tried not to show his emotions.

“You are right,” Viktor purred, “I can’t really say I love someone I don’t know. But I can get to know you, I know I can learn to love you. Again,” he chuckled, leaning towards Yuuri until their noses touched. Yuuri opened his eyes in surprise at that, blushing sweetly as his eyes searched Viktor’s, still unsure. Viktor smiled and Yuuri smiled back, immediately reassured.

And then, slowly, deliberately, Viktor covered the rest of the distance between them and kissed Yuuri’s lips in a slow, gentle kiss full of yearning and promise.

They broke apart just as Yuuri’s stomach growled in hunger. They both stared down at his abdomen and giggled. Makkachin sat up and cheerfully wagged his tail, happy just to see them happy.

“I have so many things I want to ask you and so many things I want to tell you, but I think we should start that long process over a platter of food, what do you say?” Viktor said, wiggling his eyebrows in a silly seductive way.

“Sounds perfect to me!” Yuuri replied laughing.

 


 

 

“This is your pilot speaking. We have just made a safe landing at headquarters,” Yuuko’s amplified voice reverberated through the ship. “If you don’t know the way out of the Ice Castle… er… just follow the nearest Hasetsu agent and stick to them. We are expected to take part in a small welcome ceremony with the commanders… again, just follow the nearest Hasetsu agent if you don’t know what to do. See you all in a bit.”

“Are we in Hasetsu, then?” Yakov, who was sitting next to Viktor, asked Yuuri.

The three of them were at the ship’s cafeteria, eating the late dinner Fujiwara Hikaru, a young Hasetsu agent, had kindly served to them. Viktor and Yuuri hadn’t spoken much yet, as they’d barely had the time to devour their food.

“Yes,” Yuuri answered, getting to his feet.

Phichit joined them on the way to the ship’s exit. He hugged Yuuri again and they exchanged a few whispered words that resulted in Phichit throwing himself into Viktor’s arms and Yuuri blushing profusely.

“Welcome back, Viktor,” Phichit whispered close to his ear, then released him with a wide smile. “I’m so happy for you,” he continued, and it actually looked like he was about to cry from joy.

Yakov just looked confused and slightly uncomfortable.

A large crowd of people was waiting for them at the foot of the Ice Castle, in what looked like the interior of a well-lit gigantic cave. When the crowd saw them come out, they started cheering enthusiastically.

Phichit was waving at the crowd. And, although Viktor didn’t know, or rather, didn’t remember any of them, he waved at the crowd too, which seemed to make people cheer even louder.

The passengers of the ship walked through the crowd, with the Hasetsu agents, Okukawa Minako, Katsuki Mari and Nishigori Takeshi and Yuuko, leading the procession. The crowd parted to make a path for them, in the direction of what looked like a large stone stage.

“Are they all Hasetsu agents?” Viktor asked Yuuri, pointing at the crowd.

“Mm? Oh, no. Most of the people who live in Hasetsu are families of the agents or of the people we’ve rescued,” he explained.

“And did they know me?”

Yuuri chuckled at that.

“Oh, yes. You were much more than an Hasetsu agent to them.”

“Yeah! Yuuri didn’t tell you yet?? You were like a celebrity here!” Phichit piped in. “You and Yuuri, both. You were like… really important for morale three years back!”

“How come…?” Viktor was intrigued.

“Remember that photo on the nightstand?” Yuuri asked shyly.

Viktor nodded. He did remember the outfits. He and Yuuri apparently liked to ice skate. So, what?

“Every year, there would be a figure skating contest and show. And you were the best.”

“Yeah, you were crazy good at it!” Phichit enthusiastically confirmed. “Especially considering that the only figure skating coach in Hasetsu was Yakov and most of the practice work came from two ballet instructors, Lilia and Minako…”

“You were quite good at it, too, Phichit-kun,” Yuuri said.

Phichit shrugged, looking smug. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Yakov was the only what??” Yakov asked them, looking shocked. “What nonsense is that??”

“Yakov was reprieved as well??” Viktor asked in surprise, although, in retrospect, it only made sense. Viktor had too many memories of Yakov from farther than 3 years before, which meant that they’d either been implanted there or changed. For Yakov to remember them the same way Viktor did could only mean that he’d been implanted with those same memories or had had them changed as well. Which logically meant he had been a reprieve as well…

Yakov went quiet for a few footsteps, then turned to Yuuri, a curious expression on his wrinkled face. “So, my suspicions were correct! The facility that we’d worked at before really was Reprieve Facility GPF-15 and you… you were the other carer!”

Yuuri nodded, “Yes, sir. I was.”

“So, that story Junior Carer Altin told Viktor and Yuri… What Nikolai said, too…” he said, eyes going impossibly wide, forehead wrinkling deeply, “… your superior, the carer that was Lilia’s… husband… is…” he stopped talking and just stared at the figures waiting for them on the stone stage, mouth agape.

“Yep,” Phichit confirmed. “You are basically a high-ranking war hero to us, sir.”

Yakov just looked at Phichit like he’d grown a second head.

When they reached the stone stage, they were directed to stand behind a group of five people.

Yuuri leaned closer to Viktor and said, “Those are the current Hasetsu commanders, Lilia Baranovskaya, our first in command, my father, Katsuki Toshiya…” he paused to wave at his father, a fluffy, kind-looking, smiling man who was staring at them with shiny eyes and happy sobs, “… Odagaki Kanako, Park Min-so and Josef Karpisek. Minako is a commander too, she is our second-in-command. Yakov used to be a commander as well.”

“We are happy to welcome back the Ice Castle crew, commander and captain Okukawa Minako, sub captain Katsuki Mari, pilots Nishigori Takeshi and Yuuko, doctor Muramoto Satsuki, and agents Celestino Cialdini, Oda Nobunari, Morooka Hisashi and Fujiwara Hikaru…” Lilia’s amplified voice spoke above the crowd’s cheers as she indicated the persons she was mentioning by pointing behind herself at the arrivals, “… scouting agent, Leo de la Iglesia, deployed agents, Otabek Altin, Mila Babicheva, Lee Seung Gil, Kenjrou Minami and Ji Guang Hong...”, the crowd cheered louder, “… rescued agents, Phichit Chulanont and Katsuki Yuuri,” the crowd applauded and Lilia paused.

She turned to look at the group behind her, eyes resting for a little longer on Viktor, Yakov and, lastly, Yuri, “We are also happy to welcome my great-nephew, Yuri Plisetsky...” she said with a kind, sad smile, then turned back to the crowd, “… and to welcome back the reprieved ex-agents, who we believed had been lost in the GPF-15 incident three years ago, Yakov Feltsman, Viktor Nikiforov, Christophe Giacometti, Georgi Popovich, Michele and Sara Crispino and Emil Nekola.”

“WHAT??”

“Huh?”

“Say what?”

Michele, Georgi and Emil shouted in confusion just as the crowd went completely crazy with cheers and applause.

Sara didn’t look at all surprised by this revelation, simply turning to lay a small kiss on Mila’s cheek.

Chris seemed incapable of feeling surprised, he just stared far into the distance blindly. Viktor threw an arm over his friend’s shoulders in an attempt to ground him.

“Thank you, Chris,” he told him, “for always being there for me.”

“Chris was the pilot that was captured in our GPF-15 extraction attempt,” Yuuri told Viktor, then looked at Chris straight in the eyes. “The fact that you didn’t reveal any information to the System bought us enough time to put together a plan B that resulted in the successful extraction of nine Hasetsu agents, out of fifteen, that day,” he said, then gracefully bowed. “Thank you.”

Chris nodded and smiled faintly.

“I don’t remember. But that’s good to know,” he said.

“Thank you for your hard work, everyone. It’s good to have you here safe and sound,” commander Josef’s amplified voice said. The crowd cheered its agreement.

“We deeply mourn the memories you’ve been stripped of,” commander Kanako’s amplified voice rang kindly against their ears and the crowd quieted down in sympathy. “But we hope to help you make new, better ones.”

“And we won’t ask you to join or re-join our fight against the Reprieve System which has hurt you so deeply, but we hope that you can become a part of our family again or from anew,” commander Min-so added.

“Okaeri. Welcome home,” commander Toshiya said amongst tears of joy.

“Tadaima,” Yuuri replied with a big smile.

That seemed to do it.

As the crowd went crazy once more, a handful of people from the crowd invaded the large stone stage and Toshiya all but ran to his children for a big hug. A sweet-looking lady that quite resembled Yuuri and Mari showed up out of nowhere and joined the hug, but she soon poked her head out of her family’s embrace and called Viktor over, “Vicchan, you come too.”

Viktor laughed and complied.

“Oh, Vicchan, you look so thin! I know it’s late and that you must be tired, but please come over for katsudon tomorrow!” the lady Viktor could only assume was Yuuri’s mother told him.

“I don’t know what that is, but sounds good to me!” he cheerfully replied.

“We’ll see if it still is your favourite tomorrow, then!” she exclaimed. “Chris-chan can come too!” she declared, winking at Chris, who just looked extremely confused.

“Er…” he very eloquently replied.

In his peripheral vision, Viktor could see Yakov hesitantly talking with Lilia, who had an arm over a very red Yuri, Otabek awkwardly standing nearby. As Viktor observed them, Otabek locked eyes with him and nodded, always the solemn, loyal Otabek. Viktor made a small bow to him and the other shook his head, pointedly looking at Yuuri, then at Viktor and bowing deeper than Viktor had.

We’re even, more than even .

Viktor smiled.

 

They were home.

Chapter Text

No one saves us but ourselves .

Buddha

 

The following days were filled with amazing yet confusing revelations, a lot of rest and healing, and the creation (or mending) of many bonds.

Viktor learned that Hasetsu was a huge subterranean city on a planet that was relatively close to Earth, but that most of the universe believed to be devoid of life. They were a completely self-sustained nation, although their multiple scouting agents often brought in products from other worlds. They were a small nation wholly dedicated to the rescue and protection of victims of the Reprieve System and their ultimate goal was to destroy, abolish or dismantle the Reprieve System.

Which… was clearly much easier said than done, Viktor soon learned. The root of the problem was political power, which Hasetsu did not have, as it didn’t exist in the eyes of most of the universe and would definitely be slaughtered if it revealed itself to them…

Toshiya had told him one evening, while they were soaking in Yuuri’s family onsen, that Hasetsu actually had multiple agents in high political positions on multiple planets, but gaining power through them was obviously a slow, treacherous path that could take decades to bear fruit. So, during that time, all they could do was send undercover agents into the Reprieve Facilities and rescue as many of the innocent “unwilling reprieves” as they possibly could.

Viktor had also learned that the room at the Ice Castle was not only a perk past Viktor had built into the ship, it had been Viktor’s, Yuuri’s and Makkachin’s permanent abode. If they were not on a mission, they would live and practice figure skating in it. Whenever the ship was deployed while they were at base, they would captain it.

Initially, both Viktor and Yuuri stayed over at the Katsuki residence, each occupying a bedroom of their own, as per Yuuri’s insistence. He had taken onto himself the silly mission of “not forcing my presence on a person that barely knows me”.

Although this gave Viktor the valuable opportunity of (re)acquainting himself with Yuuri’s family, he found the situation highly unsatisfying, as he was of the opinion that sleeping together would allow them to get to know each other (again). So, after a few consecutive days of untiring insistence on Viktor’s part, Yuuri ended up agreeing for them both to share their Ice Castle room again on the condition that all they would do was sleep by each other’s side.

“Just sleep, nothing more,” he’d said.

“What about cuddling? And can’t I kiss you? I’ve been doing that during the day…!” Viktor had tried to reason.

“No. Just sleep,” Yuuri had declared, unwavering.

They did end up doing some cuddling and kissing, though. Viktor was moderately satisfied by that. Small victories and all…

Another thing Viktor soon learned was that Hasetsu’s people… they really did love them. Many approached Viktor and Yuuri on the streets to thank them for rescuing them or their loved ones. But even more approached them to ask if they’d be skating any time soon. And that made Viktor very interested in that possibility.

“Please be careful, Viktor,” Yuuri was saying, “The System might’ve somehow gotten to know about this specific ability and erased it from you…”

“Yuuri, the only way they could get to know about this was if I’d specifically told them about it. Why would that even come up during questioning or torture or whatever they put me through?” Viktor reasoned as he tightened the laces of his ice blades. He immediately regretted his wording when he saw Yuuri flinch in his peripheral vision. He hurriedly tried to cover up for his morbid imagination “Besides, you heard what Lilia said. They cannot erase muscle memory. My body will remember how to skate.”

“But…”

“And, if I suck because it’s been three years since I last did this, I’ll just start to practice from scratch, like Yurio,” Viktor said with a wink, getting to his feet and walking to the edge of the rink where Yuuri already stood “Yuuko told me he’s quite talented, by the way.”

“Yes, I heard,” Yuuri replied, with a small anxious smile.

Yuri had been thirsty for activities that could take his mind off constant grief, so, on top of agent training, he’d also started taking ballet and figure skating lessons from his great-aunt, Lilia, who had taken him and Tigr under her wing with no hesitation.

“Don’t be afraid, Yuuri. I won’t attempt any jumps. After the thorough warm up program we just completed, the risk of injury is very low and…” Viktor used his index finger to gently push Yuuri’s chin upwards, so they could lock eyes, “… I’ll be happy no matter the outcome.” He left a small kiss on the corner of Yuuri’s mouth and smiled.

Yuuri smiled back, then nodded, took off his skate guards and turned the music on, skating to the centre of the rink with the first notes of the song, Stammi Vicino.

When Yuuri played this song to him a couple days before, Viktor was immediately able to hum along with it, even though he didn’t recall ever listening to it before. This fact had made Viktor excited about the possibility that he might be able to actually skate this, which had been the last program he’d practiced. Yuuri had shown him a video of the two of them skating to it and Viktor begged him to try this experiment.

And here he was, sliding on the ice like he’d been doing it for years. Which, well, he had. He just didn’t remember.

He could see the surprise on Yuuri’s face slowly turning into a deep nostalgic happiness as they twirled around each other and into each other’s arms. Their bodies were in perfect synchrony, balancing each other’s movements perfectly, fitting together like they were two pieces of a set. Tears were streaming down Yuuri’s face and he was looking at Viktor like he was the most precious living thing in the whole wide universe.

The song came to an end with the two wrapped around each other in the middle of the rink. Viktor smiled broadly, squeezed Yuuri’s hands on his own, then got down on one knee.

“V-Viktor?? D-Don’t kneel on the ice. What…” Yuuri spluttered, trying to pull Viktor back to his feet.

“Katsuki Yuuri…” Viktor solemnly said, taking a silver ring out of his pocket. Yuuri’s eyes went wide, tears again flooding them. He opened his mouth to speak but only a sob came out. “Will you do me the honour of marrying me?” Viktor chuckled. “Again?”

Yuuri fell to his knees in front of Viktor, just hugging him and sobbing against his neck.

Unsure if this was a positive reaction, Viktor committed himself to rubbing Yuuri’s back comfortingly until the other could gather enough composure to form words again.

“… Viktor…” Yuuri breathed against his skin.

Viktor turned his face to kiss Yuuri’s temple. “I know that you already have one ring and I want you to keep it, but mine… I don’t think I’ll ever get it back, so…”

Yuuri nodded against his shoulder. “It’s perfect,” he whispered.

There were a few moments of silence during which they just kept holding each other on the cold ice.

“Yuuri. Does that mean…” Viktor started, hesitantly.

“Yes! Of course it’s a yes!” Yuuri exclaimed, putting some distance between them so he could look at Viktor in the eyes. “I’ll marry you again, Viktor Nikiforov!” he declared, laughing.

They got to their feet and slid out of the rink holding hands.

“Does this mean that we can do more than just sleep in the same bed now?” Viktor purred as he sensually wiggled his eyebrows.

Yuuri went redder than a tomato. He stared fixedly at the ground then gave a tiny nod.

“Wow!” Viktor shouted, grabbing Yuuri and swirling him around.

“Viktor!” Yuuri giggled.

And then a beeping noise reverberated around them.

“Incoming call from Nishigori Takeshi,” the ship told them.

Viktor put Yuuri down. Yuuri frowned.

“Ice Castle, accept the call.” Yuuri told the ship.

There was a sound of the call connecting and them a lot of noise coming from the other side of the line.

“Yuuri? Viktor?” Takeshi spoke, “I’m so sorry! My daughters infiltrated the ice rink’s camera system… the one we use for the contests…”

“Aw, that’s so sweet!” Yuuko’s muffled voice cut through Takeshi’s words as the noise over the line intensified.

Yuuri stared at Viktor. He was livid.

“They posted it on Hasetsu’s intranet just a minute ago,” Takeshi shouted over the noise. “Everyone’s going crazy… I’m so sorry, guys…”

Yuuri looked like he was about to faint.

“That’s okay, Takeshi,” Viktor replied. “We won’t be leaving the Ice Castle for a while, anyway,” he said, winking at Yuuri, who immediately regained some of his healthy colour.

“Oh,” Takeshi said with an impressively blank tone of voice. “I will leave you to it, then. Have fun.”

“Bye! We will!” Viktor cheerfully replied, and the line was disconnected.

Viktor turned to an openly smiling Yuuri.

“Where were we?”

 

THE END