“Spasibo.” Osamu muttered as Likhachova helped haul him out of the fiberglass upper torso of his suit, the Russian slipping clumsily off his tongue.
“Don’t mention it.” She smiled, before offering a ‘Dō itashimashite’ in equally clumsy Japanese. “Enjoy the rest of the evening.”
That term had become utterly meaningless to Osamu over the past three months. What exactly was evening when they orbited the Earth sixteen times in the span of twenty-four hours? Their lives were a near endless cycle of sunrises and sunsets.
Well, Osamu couldn’t exactly complain about that.
Nothing could quite compare to the sunset igniting the vast curve of the Earth in cobalt and crimson. Then — a mere forty-five minutes later — the auroras dancing over the darkened poles were swallowed by a starburst of brilliant gold and a blue-tinged white glow.
Osamu carefully unzipped the cooling suit and shimmied it down his legs, leaving him in just his navy blue jumpsuit. “Thanks, Sashenka~!” He teased, barbing each syllable of her nickname with poison.
Likhachova swiped at him with her elbow, narrowly missing as he floated away in the microgravity of the station. “Stop bothering me and go see your little boyfriend. He’s in the cupola.”
“He’s not—” Osamu mumbled, halting the moment he noticed the vicious gleam in the other astronaut’s eyes. Bait. Bait. Bait.
“Aha~!” Likhachova grinned as she unraveled her plaited salt-and-pepper hair, letting it flow freely like a galactic siren. “I see you knew exactly who I was talking about.” A wink.
“Shut up. Goodnight.” He muttered, slipping into the narrow hallway to escape any more sharp-tongued jibes from his spacewalk partner.
It wasn’t exactly difficult to narrow down who Likhachova spoke of. There were only four of them on the station, including Osamu.
Likhachova was the mission’s commander — a veteran with over forty hours spent on spacewalks. She and Osamu were tasked with installing parts to the outside of the station. Prepping the whole thing for the future arrival of a new module — one their successors will eventually live and work in.
Russell, one of two Americans on the station, was a rather elusive biochemist. Most of his time was spent in the Kibo lab, getting lost in his experiments for hours on end. Osamu typically saw him in the galley, squeezing copious amounts of Sriracha on packages of irradiated beef. Then he’d disappear again. Back to work.
Osamu slipped past the bathroom stall and the wall of toiletries held down by magnetic strips. There, tucked carefully in the cupola, he found the final member of the station team.
Rintarou Suna. A computer scientist and robotics engineer from SoCal, roughly Osamu’s age. This was his first ever spaceflight — brought on by NASA to perform critical upgrades to several of the station’s robotics.
Even after three months on the station, Suna still spent much of his free time just staring out the windows of the cupola. Narrow eyes watching sunset after sunset. Long fingers hovering over his camera’s shutter button. Socked feet hooked under the bars keeping him as grounded as one could possibly be in microgravity.
“Room for one more?” Osamu poked his head over the cupola, hands gripping the edge as his legs free floated behind.
Suna was curled up as much as his six foot pushing three inch figure could manage, head resting on the two suede-covered cushions. He didn’t turn to face Osamu, eyes still transfixed on the window beneath him. “Yeah.”
Osamu pushed himself downward into the windowed module. He caught a glimpse of what Suna was staring at. Sure, the view of Earth below was gorgeous — the brilliant reds and oranges and yellows of a rocky desert. But those eyes were instead fastened to the spacecraft docked to the station.
The very Soyuz vessel that would soon send Likhachova back to Earth. Home in time to see her daughter give birth.
Osamu settled into the cupola across from Suna, both sets of knees bumping together in the compact space. "Rin."
It was then his colleague finally looked at him. Suna's deadpan poker face betrayed none of his emotions. "What?"
But Osamu understood.
He, Likhachova, Russell. They all knew what Suna felt. Aching homesickness. Desire to be on the gorgeous planet below and not in their outer space aquarium. Standard fare for your first spaceflight.
"When yer mission ends in a few months, what'll be the first thing ya eat?" Osamu asked.
A tiny glisten of joy shone in Suna's eyes. "I dunno if you've got them in Japan, but an Otter Pop. Anita Fruit Punch."
"I... understood all of those words individually."
A laugh. Crinkles at the corners of his eyes. "Popsicles in plastic tubes. They're pretty much just artificially flavored frozen water but…" Suna paused, shifting his position so his head rested on only one cushion. A silent invitation. "They're comfort food. Reminds me of home."
Osamu followed suit, settling on the other cushion. Face mere centimeters away from Suna's. "On my last spaceflight, NASA sent us ice cream." There wasn’t a freezer on the station, so any frozen treats had to be consumed quickly. Not that Osamu cared, he rarely got to put his voracious appetite to good use anymore. “Maybe we can request some Otter… Pops."
"No, it's okay." Suna set his hand on the glass near their faces. A temptation. Another silent invitation? Maybe not. "I wanna enjoy one properly. Walking down the Venice Boardwalk on a hot summer’s day. Sea salt breeze whipping at my hair, sun shining on my skin.” His voice was gentle and melodic as he spoke, lulling Osamu into his own brand of yearning homesickness.
"You should come with me." Suna said, eyes trailing back to the Soyuz craft. "I'll treat you to one."
They were scheduled to return to Earth in early December. A three and a half hour trip from the space station to the snowy steppes of Kazakhstan. Twenty hour flights from Astana to Moscow to Tokyo. Then Suna would leave him — another ten across the Pacific.
He could go.
He wanted to.
God, did he want to.
"We'll see." Osamu adjusted his position, letting his hand rest near Suna's. Not quite touching but close enough. “Never been to California. Might be nice.”
“What about you?” Suna said. “What’re you craving?”
“Fresh fish. Sushi.” He watched Suna’s eyes close, head tilt back and lips press into a silent ooh. Fantasizing over tuna plucked straight from the ocean, filleted right on the dock, brilliant red flesh. Crisp cucumber, vinegared rice, pickled ginger, and freshly ground wasabi.
“We’ve got sushi in Cali.” Suna grinned. “Good sushi.”
“You have good sushi?” Osamu gestured at the Japanese flag patch on his bicep. “Maybe ya should come with me.”
Suna’s eyes narrowed. “Oh? Maybe I will.”
Osamu’s pinky bumped against Suna’s as his fingers settled back against the glass. Suna’s gaze slowly slid to their hands, his lips exhaling a faint sigh.
Always so close.
Always too far.
He knew exactly what this dance was. Some elaborate waltz of two adults with mutual romantic attraction. A lindy hop of two professionals on a mission with no time to fall in love. A merengue of two co-workers who just might be falling in love anyway.
They shouldn’t. They can’t. Not yet.
“Hey, Samu?” Osamu felt a soft touch as Suna’s pinky curled over his. The tiniest of allowances. “When you look down, what do you see?”
The vibrant fire of the desert had shifted into verdant greenery laced with spidering waterways. If Osamu wagered a guess — without looking at the SATNAV open on the computer behind him — he’d say they were somewhere over central Africa.
“I’m guessin’ yer not lookin’ for the answer ‘Earth’ are ya?”
“Of course not.” Suna squeezed his pinky tighter. “Dig deeper.”
“Hmm. It’s like lookin’ at one of those mirror cakes. Like some great big cosmic baker poured multicolored glaze over it.”
Suna laughed, beautiful and bright. “Do you only think about food?”
“Rintarou Suna.” Osamu said sternly, scrunching his nose. “I am a JAXA astronaut on my third spaceflight with over 25 hours spent on spacewalks.”
“So… I’m right.” A toothy, wolfish grin.
Osamu chuckled. “Yeah, pretty much.”
They fell silent for a long time, both of them shifting their faces to stare out the cupola’s main window. The Earth below had slipped into darkness, the sun setting over the Savannah. In the corner of his vision, Osamu could see a bright cluster of lights. Pretoria and Johannesburg.
“I feel selfish.” Suna finally said.
Osamu said nothing, opting to slide his pinky free. He ran his fingers over the bony planes of Suna’s hand before clasping them closed, brushing against a calloused palm. A faint stardust of rose settled high on Suna’s cheeks.
Osamu was selfish too.
“I’m so stupidly lucky to be here. Been dreaming of this since I was a kid but now that I’m here... all I wanna do is go home.” He laughed, bitter. The surface below them was completely blackened, no bright cities to be found in the southern Indian Ocean. “Not even just back to Cali. Everywhere. Anywhere.”
Osamu remembered his first spaceflight, spending all his free time — much like Suna — staring out this very window. Yearning to see all the magnificent places they soared over in person. To gaze out over the red and gold ravines of the Great Rift Valley — the same view their ancient ancestors saw millions of years ago. To clutch the lifelines of a ship as its hull glides over the black velvet waters where the Rio Negro meets the Amazon. To watch the sun kiss the Pacific Ocean — whether the sunrise in Japan or the sunset in California — as he stood hand-in-hand with the man in front of him.
“Distance makes the heart grow fonder.” Osamu said softly. “I get it.”
Suna rotated his hand in Osamu’s grasp, slotting their fingers together. But no more. This was the predetermined limit of their relationship. A boundary never verbalized but understood nonetheless.
More can wait.
“But at least it's only a few more months.” Osamu smiled, brushing his thumb over Suna’s skin. “Then I can treat ya to sushi in Kobe.”
Suna adjusted his position, letting their foreheads rest together. “Then popsicles in Cali?”
“Then popsicles in Cali.” Osamu echoed.
“It’s a deal.”