Chapter 1: Amber
The world was starting to blur before Jongin's eyes. If his cheek wasn't still so firmly mashed into the dirt, he'd be void of any sense of direction.
If his vision was leaving him, maybe so would the pain. It was a dull, vague hope writhing in the throbbing agony. Jongin had struggled, had attempted to fight and find a solution, but at this point he was just lying in the dirt, waiting for death to come. His entire world consisted of nothing but searing hot pain, burning him up from inside and squeezing at his intestines. Jongin felt crippled, deprived of his nerves and senses one by one as he found a pitiful, slow death. Well, with the world blurring away and his eyesight leaving, he at least didn't have to see his friends and comrades around him anymore. Didn't have to see the blisters covering their skin, the last twitches as everyone he knew was slowly leaving this world, leaving him.
He had stopped hearing them, too. Or maybe they had stopped making noises.
Jongin wanted to cry and scream and panic but he felt paralyzed, forced to stay conscious until the very end. If only it would end already. He wasn't ready, but he never would be, and this was as good a time as any. If only it would stop.
The world blurred out even further, and for a moment, Jongin thought he was seeing the sky, bright and white. There was thumping, too, a sensation between sound and feeling, a featherlight tap in comparison to the pain. Dark blobs of color appeared in his vision, and then something was pawing at him, causing a numb kind of pressure. Jongin simply hoped that no matter who it was, friend or foe, they would finally end him.
A cold, icy wave of air filled his lungs and his eyes flew open in shock.
A wave of noise crashed down on him, colors and senses invading him all at once. Jongin thrashed, wanted to cover his ears or eyes, but was firmly held down.
Another icy breath and then Jongin harshly sucked in the next one, his survival instincts kicking in. Something was pressed against his face, a mask, something. Something that gave him cold air. What was it?
Whatever it was, the world was returning, smudges of color were sharpening into the shape of people. Strangers. Uniforms. Weapons.
Jongin heard the blood rushing, his own heart pounding, a heavy drum mercilessly driving him forward. There was one person beside him, pushing down on the mask. He was sitting up - when had they sat him up?
The cold was freezing him up from inside, and it was painful, but much less painful than the burning wounds it covered.
Words were being spoken, but Jongin couldn't understand any of them. There was a second person right in front of him. A person who knelt down, staring at Jongin. A man maybe. He had bright eyes, and wore a uniform that Jongin knew.
Cerians. Cerians hated Jongin's kind - and yet they had come to rescue them? Or to rob them? Why were they keeping him alive though? Maybe they wanted to know what happened.
Jongin had to warn them. He didn't care much for Cerians, but he would never wish death upon them. Or anyone. They had to be stopped.
Exhale. Violent coughing, pain, Jongin wanted to writhe and cry, but he had to say it. The mask was pressed against him even harder, someone told him to shut up, someone questioned his language, not recognizing the foreign word.
"Stop the Quor'i," Jongin choked out, and felt like throwing up. Quite impressive that his stomach was still bothering, considering the overall state he was in.
The person across him was still staring, and he seemed to be confused. Next to Jongin, someone began to speak, but the Cerian lifted his hand, silencing them.
"They did that to you?" he asked, his speech slow and clearly enunciated. Jongin attempted to nod, and it made his head ache, but it got the message across.
"You need..." Jongin began, his words muffled by the mask, every syllable mere torture to form, "...to stop them."
Someone huffed. Not the Cerian across him.
"We need to? Why would we give a crap-"
Another wave, and they shut up again. The bright-eyed one must be the leader.
"I'll find them for you," he offered, and his gaze was intense, almost calculating, though that wouldn't make any sense to Jongin.
"What?" the other soldier asked incredulously, but the Cerian wasn't deterred.
"On one condition," he added calmly, and Jongin didn't understand. What could he possibly ask of him, a man with no wealth and on the verge of death?
"You form a bond with me."
There were loud protests, and Jongin remained confused. He didn't know much at all about Cerians, just that bonds were their way of marriage.
"Why?" Jongin rasped out, and the Cerian simply stared at him with his piercing, bright eyes.
"Accept it or don't."
Jongin's mind was racing, even though it felt porose and insecure still.
If he declined, would they leave him to die? Maybe.
If he accepted, would they keep him alive as a prostitute or a slave? Maybe.
Maybe, it was all maybes.
Jongin couldn't be certain and he had neither the time nor the lung capacity to ask more questions. The Cerian didn't seem willing to show his intentions, anyway.
There was just one certainty - if he agreed, they would track down the monsters that had murdered everyone Jongin knew and loved. This was his only chance.
What if he was lying though? Jongin had heard about their lack of honour, but maybe that was a prejudice. Jongin sucked in a deep breath, allowing the ice to cover his mind.
Even if he was lying, it was still his only chance.
The Cerian nodded and got back up to his feet, making Jongin feel small and insignificant.
"Alright. Take him to the ship," he demanded almost casually. The other soldier began to protest, arguing that he had lost his mind, that the captain would be mad, but it didn't faze the man.
"Just do it, Tao. I'm taking full responsibility."
An order. His tone left no room to argue and Jongin felt himself be dragged to his feet, dangling uselessly in a strong hold.
"Put him to sleep until Yixing has time for him. And be careful. I want tona avoid lasting damages."
There were more protests, weaker and resigned this time, and then the air coming from Jongin's mask shifted, taking on a minty note. He knew what this meant and spent his remaining five seconds in fear of what the future would hold for him. Then everything turned black.
Now he was slipping back into consciousness though, and he started to question those hazy images.
Which were real, and which weren’t?
Even the memory of his acquaintances and friends dying was so blurry that Jongin could delude himself into thinking it had never happened. At least for a short while. Then the pain slipped into focus, and Jongin couldn't deny it any longer.
It was nowhere near the terrifying ache he'd felt before everything went to hell, but his body still felt sore both inside and out. Everything felt roughed up, like someone had chafed him down with sandpaper.
They had been attacked, and everybody had died.
Then Cerians, of all people, had come to save Jongin.
As the facts trickled in, half of Jongin's mind was coherent enough to subconsciously test his senses, carefully prodding at them, asking for responses. He was lying on a soft ground, harder than a mattress but comfortable enough, and there was a really subtle scent lingering in the air. Jongin couldn't place it.
On one condition. You form a bond with me.
The words echoed through Jongin's head and he furrowed his brows, unwilling to open his eyes before he was certain of his own state of mind.
Right. The Cerian soldier had offered to track down the ones responsible for the death of Jongin's race (there was no way anyone had survived, and this fact was too bitter to really dwell on right now), but only if they formed a bond.
Jongin didn't know what a bond was, but he remembered now. Remembered how they had roused him from his artificial sleep, the unfriendly soldier and a medic. The medic had confirmed that Jongin had meant what he said about entering a bond. He'd promised that they would try to save him either way, that it was his own decision, and he'd even explained a few things.
Jongin's mind was wiped though, and he could already tell that the medic had wasted his time. Jongin would have agreed to anything in his state. Still, he could appreciate the sentiment. After that, the Cerian soldier had entered and they'd exchanged blood, a process or ceremony of which nothing remained clear to Jongin. Whatever happened, he was now bonded to a Cerian soldier he knew nothing about, and was located in an unknown area among unknown people. Heck, he didn't even know what a bond exactly was.
He was alive though. Now he could only hope that the medic hadn't meant to convince him otherwise. That whatever was awaiting him wouldn't make him wish he was dead.
Jongin blindly lifted his hand to rub at his eyes, first the outer part, then the inner one, rubbing at the crust that told that he must indeed have been asleep for forever. His eyes thanked him by tearing up at the sight of a bright ceiling. The material was artificial, and now that he had paid attention to it, he could feel the low buzz lying in the air, running through every surface he was touching; a characteristic trait of a running spaceship. There was a beeping sound, too. Jongin was sure it hadn't been beeping earlier, but not so sure about when it had started, either.
It was a statement, not a question.
There was a movement in the corner of his vision, and Jongin turned his head. Someone had swung over to him in a chair, and Jongin scrunched his eyes closed, blinking away the sleep, trying to remember this person. He felt familiar, if only a little.
The Cerian - he was obviously a Cerian, judging by the faintly shimmering scales scattered across his cheekbone - reached over Jongin, plucking a device off the wall.
"Do you feel any pain?"
It took a moment for Jongin to realize that he'd been asked a question. He blearily observed the man tapping something on the device, fingers flying over the screen, and then bright eyes met his.
"Nausea maybe? A headache? Burning lungs?"
Jongin lightly shook his head.
The medic - the same medic who Jongin had seen earlier? - only hummed, tapping away on his device.
"Anything else worth noting?" he then asked, sounding nothing but patient. He was looking rather soft, Jongin noted. Nothing like how mean Cerians were usually portrayed. Maybe it was that kindness that coaxed the next words out of him.
"I just feel sore."
He cringed at the sound of his own voice, trying to clear his throat, and the medic wordlessly offered him a glass of water. Jongin slowly sat up, well-aware of the watchful gaze he was under, but he really didn't feel any pain.
He couldn't believe that he was still alive. For a moment, Jongin didn't reach for the glass of water, didn't look at the medic, didn't do anything but breathe. And look down at his own hands, bronze-colored skin against white sheets. Then he looked up at the medic, who was still silently observing him, expression not betraying anything.
"You saved my life. I don't know how, but..." Jongin trailed off, lightly shaking his head to focus, "thank you. I'm. I don't really know what to say-"
The medic shut him up with a dismissive gesture alone, handing him the glass of water.
"There's no need to say anything," he said gently. "You only just woke up and are likely confused and overwhelmed. I'd advise you not to strain your mind too much right now and not think too hard about what happened."
If he hadn't been drinking water, Jongin might have laughed at this - or not, considering how beaten he was still feeling. How could he not think about the last events he could remember before his entire life faded to the sterile white he was currently seeing?
The medic seemed to pick up on that and smiled apologetically.
"I'm sorry, you're right. That was insensitive of me."
He placed the device back into its holder on the wall and fully turned towards Jongin.
"I'm also sorry for immediately questioning you. It's necessary, especially after the procedures we had to go through to restore your lungs. Anyway, my name is Zhang Yixing, and I'm the captain and medic of this ship."
Jongin couldn't keep the baffled look off his face, and then quickly averted his gaze. That had probably been very inappropriate. Cerians were known to be hot-headed and prideful, after all. Zhang Yixing didn't look mad though, maybe even slightly amused.
"Anything wrong with that?"
"No!" Jongin hurried to say, shaking his head, "It's just. Unusual. A medic being a captain. That is. I'm not trying to offend you right now, I'm sorry."
He felt like an idiot, but thinking straight was still so very hard, and even if Jongin would have loved to be guarded and cautious, all the words just tumbled out before he knew it. Thankfully, Zhang seemed to be all-too aware of that, for he only shook his head with a benevolent smile.
"You're not. It's alright. It may be unusual indeed, but it works."
"So... what's going to happen now? With me?" Jongin asked, certainly a little more intimidated now that he knew he was facing the captain of the ship he was on. He may not be a crew member, but as long as he was on this ship, the captain was his highest authority, as well.
"Ah. I'm afraid you're stuck with us for now," Zhang admitted, looking slightly sorry for Jongin. "Your bond is pretty fresh, and it's not recommended for two bonded people to be in great distance of each other."
Jongin nodded as if that made perfect sense to him. To be honest, he was infinitely glad that they were not going to kick him out at the next available station - he was still weak and had nowhere to go.
"Ah, but there's no need to worry too much. The Oasis has never lost a crew member as of now. You should be safe."
Right. He was on an unknown ship. With unknown people. Focus, he had to focus.
"What is it that you do?" Jongin asked, to keep the conversation going, to hopefully receive more information, or at the very least to drown out his own thoughts.
"Oh, this and that."
Jongin's expression must have said it all, cause the captain chuckled.
"Nothing illegal, no. We're a small and flexible unit carrying out whatever our government would like to see done. There is simply no singular definition for what we do."
Just as Jongin was about to ask more questions (preferably about what exactly this bond was), the captain clapped on his thighs, switching topics.
"Anyway, let's get you all settled in, shall we? I'm afraid I still got a few things to do, but I'll have someone show you the ship and your room."
Jongin nodded, because what else was he supposed to do or say?
"Have you been on a spaceship before?"
Another nod. The captain smiled again.
"Great. Then you should be aware of the safety precautions. You're free to move around the ship as you please, with the exception of the machinery rooms, unless in company or invited in, but that should be a given, no?"
Jongin nodded again. Now he was talking to the captain, not the medic, though the difference was pretty hard to spot. He simply had a hunch that taking the other’s soft demeanour for weakness would get him into trouble.
"Unfortunately, Minseok isn't around right now, so I'll get someone else."
Jongin saved himself another nod because the captain wasn't looking at him. Who was Minseok? The name seemed familiar.
Zhang pushed his chair back to his desk, where he pressed a few buttons on yet another device that looked slightly unfamiliar, but Jongin could identify it as a communicator. When a voice suddenly filled the air, Jongin flinched at the crystal clear quality that made it sound like a third person was in the room.
"Hey. Can you come over and show Jongin around?"
Jongin fiddled with the sheets, and the prospect of already meeting a second stranger made him a little anxious.
"Oh, he woke up at last?"
The voice was soft, but energetic, the tone interested.
"He did. You're free right now, aren't you?"
The voice hummed, and the sound of objects clanking filled the room.
"Yeap. All free now. I'll be there in a sec."
The connection was severed with a small, pleasant sound and the captain sighed.
"This guy. Well. Anyway. He'll show you around. There's no need to look intimidated, Luhan's a good person."
Jongin was starting to feel embarrassed over how easily the captain read every single emotion off his face. He slowly swung his legs over the bed to properly face him and bowed, a gesture he was pretty sure was familiar to Cerians.
"Thank you, Mr. Zhang, for letting me stay," he began, cringing at the uncoordinated way this sentence came out. "I'll adhere to all the rules and won't be a bother."
"Yixing's the name," the captain laughed. "Don't bother using secondary names here - Cerians don't really use them; they're merely a formality for dealing with other civilizations."
"Oh. I'm sorry," Jongin awkwardly said, avoiding the actual use of his name. Calling a ship's captain by their first name right after meeting them seemed wrong.
Yixing waved him off.
"It's nothing, and there’s- ah."
Jongin followed his gaze, looking at the circular door which was sliding open to reveal another Cerian, a young man with light pink hair and bright eyes.
"Hi Xing," the guy replied, but his eyes were resting on Jongin, who wanted to shirk away under the curious stare. Luhan was wearing the same kind of uniform pants as the captain did, but seemed to have lost interest beyond that, judging by the colorful hoodie he had paired with it.
"Show him around a little, will you? He'll stay with Minseok, like planned."
With this, they both looked at Jongin, who awkwardly slipped off the bed, bare feet meeting the cold, white floor. He was endlessly glad that he was wearing a pajama right now, though the thought of either of these two undressing and then re-dressing him was a bit embarrassing.
"You can take those," Yixing offered, gesturing over at the simple pair of shoes that was neatly rowed up under the nightstand. "There will be fresh clothes at your quarters."
With this they were softly, but surely ushered out and before Jongin knew it, he was standing outside in a hallway with slightly rounded edges. Jongin felt the ground hum beneath him, and everything was really bright.
"Sorry, he's just a little busy right now. Yixing's usually pretty chill."
Jongin looked to his right, at Luhan. Who offered his hand - an unusual kind of greeting Jongin failed to place.
"Hi, I'm Luhan. I'm in charge of anything software-related, all the internal programs and systems and whatnot that keep this baby purring like this."
Jongin stared at his hand, and prompted to action, he awkwardly lifted his own hand to mirror the action. Luhan didn't seem to notice his hesitance and firmly grabbed Jongin's hand, squeezing it.
"Jongin. I- I thought you knew that already," Jongin defended himself, receiving an amused grin in return.
"Well, yeah. I was just being polite. So what do you do?"
He already started walking as he asked that, and Jongin followed suit.
"Uhm. Nothing anymore, I guess," Jongin answered honestly. He could see the other grimace.
"Right. And, uh, before that?"
Yixing had told him not to think too deeply, and he was definitely right. Jongin couldn't afford falling into that hole right now.
"This and that," he said vaguely, and Luhan hummed. He seemed inclined to ask more questions but luckily for them, they had reached a door leading to a semi-big and complex-looking room.
"That's our lounge, I guess," Luhan announced quite anticlimactically, gesturing at nothing in particular. Jongin felt like he was underselling the ship so far - the room was clean and felt like the core of the ship, with stairs and doors leading away from it, as well as a spacious window showing a vast, black ocean sprinkled with stars.
"To be honest, we rarely hang out here. If people feel like socializing, they usually go to the bridge and bother the pilots. They're usually bored, anyway, so it's cool unless there's lessons going on."
"Lessons?" Jongin asked, still trying to spot all the doors, familiarizing himself with the layout of the room.
"Piloting lessons. So down there," Luhan began, graciously waiting until Jongin spotted the door he was pointing at, "is the machinery. Probably not interesting to you. Up there... we can actually go there, why not?"
Jongin followed him up a few stairs and into a small room with a tiny table. Only two chairs were placed around it while other chairs were lined up and secured at a wall.
"Here's our poor excuse for a cantina. Again, people rarely actually eat here and you can get the food sent to your room, as well. But the dirty dishes go here, you know how these things work?"
Jongin did know, and Luhan didn't demand him to show which buttons to press and where to place which dishes. He whisked Jongin away, complaining about their lack of nice drinks available, because apparently someone had forgotten to stock up on them. He quickly showed Jongin a circular training room, vaguely pointed out a storage room and the crew member's quarters, telling him that sorry, there are no name tags, we just know which room is which, and pointed out a bathroom in passing. Jongin wasn't about to complain about the lackluster tour, seeing as he was busy enough keeping track of all the information and understanding the ground view of the ship. It was small, but very efficiently built, making it feel much larger, that much he could tell already.
"That pretty much leaves the bridge and your quarters. The bridge is over here," Luhan trailed off, and they crossed the lounge again, taking the stairs on the other end of the room.
"So, how many crew members are there?" Jongin asked, finally managing to find time to speak. He hadn't seen a single person so far.
"Six," Luhan chirped, and wow, six was not a lot to keep such a ship afloat. Not that Jongin was very knowledgeable in this area.
The bridge was easily half as big as the lounge, though most the room was gained through the curved windows which stretched up way above the pilot's heads, making the room seem huge. Two heads turned upon their arrival, and Luhan waved at them.
"Yo. I'm showing the newbie around."
He received a casual nod from the pilot - an ordinary-looking man around their age - and a rather cool look by the co-pilot - who was very tall and looked like the picture book example of a Cerian with his strong features and almost haughty expression. Jongin grimaced for a lack of a genuine smile, and then Luhan was blabbering on, pointing out a few spots and buttons, mostly those he was not supposed to push or move or even look at, if he could avoid it.
"Great. Now lemme show you your quarters."
Jongin followed without looking back. The pilots didn't seem all that friendly, but maybe they had just caught them at a bad time.
Six crew members. In his head, Jongin tried to list them all.
There was Yixing, the captain. Luhan, the programming guy, the two pilots, and then Minseok. Minseok was apparently the guy he was bonded to (there was no way Jongin would ask for confirmation though, that would be just ridiculous).
"Who is the sixth' crew member?" he asked as they walked down a short corridor, past the captain's quarters - which apparently also lend themselves as a nursery room - and Luhan hummed dismissively.
"Ah, that's Yifan. Our mechanic. He's probably lurking around the machinery right now, as usual. You'll probably meet him soon."
Jongin was about to ask about Minseok, but they'd already reached the last door. Luhan punched in a code ("I don't know why we even bother anymore, but I'll write it down for you"), and then Jongin entered what must be the nicest room he had seen so far.
"Welcome to your not exactly humble quarters on this humble ship."
It looked spacious, with the wall across them being almost entirely made up of a window, and a sofa placed in front of it. The sofa had a front and back seating area, with one pointing towards the window and the other towards a low table that was very obviously retractable. To his right was a small aisle with a countertop, housing what looked like food and a white board showing numbers and diagrams on the wall.
"Are all the quarters this big?" Jongin asked, walking towards the table to get a better look at everything. Luhan actually snorted.
"Nah, just this one. It's even way bigger than Yixing's, though Minseok insisted on the captain getting the largest room. But, yanno, he's royalty and everything. Wouldn't look good to give him tiny quarters."
Luhan only shrugged, and Jongin felt slightly nauseous. Just who was this Minseok guy and what had he done by becoming his bond?
"Anyway, that's Minseok's room," Luhan began, pointing to the right, where Jongin could catch a glimpse of a bed behind an opening that didn't look like it had a door.
They took two large steps to the left end of the room, where another small opening (this one definitely had a door, though) led to a tiny room that obviously used to be a storage room. Now it consisted of nothing but a makeshift bed that touched three of the four walls. On the free wall, clothes hangers confirmed Jongin's theory of it being a former storage room.
"It's kinda small and claustrophobic, but, eh... it's a temporary solution," Luhan rambled, but Jongin shook his head.
"I like it. It's nice like this."
"Oh? In that case, great! You can also hang out in the other rooms, of course, so there's that."
Jongin flinched when the other clapped his hands.
"Alright then! I left the code at the whiteboard, and I guess I'll leave you to settle in and rest?"
"Right. Thank you," Jongin murmured, awkwardly clenching and unclenching his fists. "Uhm-"
"There's sensors and shit put up in your room though, just a heads up," Luhan cut him off sheepishly. "It's just for the time being, in case anything happens. Since you're not all back up to health and everything. Sorry about that."
"It's okay, it's necessary. I appreciate it," Jongin reassured him and with another awkward send-off, Luhan left the room.
"Wait!" Jongin called after him, just in time.
"Uh. When will Minseok return?" Jongin asked, the name sounding foreign on his tongue. Luhan only shrugged.
"Who knows? He often returns around 30, but no promises."
30. In Space, a time unit was made up of 40 hours, Jongin reminded himself. 30 would mean three-quarter of a day being over (an entirely useless information, he realized belatedly). He had no idea what time it even was, but there had to be a clock around here somewhere.
"Alright. Thanks again."
"You're welcome," Luhan casually said, and then he was gone, and the door closed behind him.
Jongin turned around to look into the quarters, his new home.
It was perfectly silent, except for the humming of the ship.
Jongin pushed himself to further explore the room, to do something, anything that distracted him from doing anything silly. Like thinking. Or crying.
No, Jongin. That's what Yixing had called him.
To Minseok, it didn't matter either way.
When the door to his quarters slid open, nothing seemed to be amiss. There was no change in the air, no noise, nothing that indicated Minseok wasn't alone anymore.
With slightly furrowed brows, he went over to his open bedroom, slipping out of his heavy gear and placing a few weapons back in their respective containers. Then he walked back inside the main room. The storage room's door was open, but the boy wasn't in there, either. Maybe he had went out. Minseok felt obligated to know - after all, this was his bond now, his companion. He had to make sure he was safe, even if he didn't particularly care.
Before he could call up Yixing, though, he caught sight of a shape mirrored in the window.
With a barely audible sigh, Minseok lowered the communicator on his wrist. The boy was lying on the couch, on the side that faced the window.
Minseok stepped closer, slowly and quietly. The boy didn't seem inclined to wake up any time soon.
He observed him for a moment, his gaze unreadable.
Then he left, took a shower and went to bed, leaving the boy be. There was no reason to move or wake him. Minseok didn't have anything to say to him, anyway.
Chapter 2: Cerians
It was the fifth time unit, or cycle, as it was commonly called, and Jongin had yet to see Minseok. Or anyone, to be honest. Minseok's quarters had a small bathroom, and he could indeed order food from the little aisle in the main room. There was no real reason to leave the quarters.
He didn't mind during the first cycle. it was nice to be on his own, to be able to sleep and rest as much as he needed. It was nice to curl up and cry all on his own. To be honest, Jongin could probably get teary-eyed at any given moment, if only he remembered that day. Images of writhing bodies and basic instincts clawing their way up, of red blisters being scratched open to reveal blood, and the sounds. The sounds of people choking, the uncontrollable noises of pain that became more and more airy, slurry, until they sounded like a tortured animal rather than human-
Jongin clutched his head, eyes scrunched closed as he screamed at his brain to stop.
This isn't doing any good to anyone.
He focused on breathing, and the incessant humming of the ship seemed louder than usual, heavy vibrations pressing on his head-
Almost mechanically, Jongin got to his feet.
He needed a glass of water.
Where was Minseok? Where the heck was he?
Jongin knew that he'd been around, he saw it in the subtle changes around the quarters, but whenever he awoke, the other was gone already.
Jongin was tired of this game. He'd wanted answers, answers about what exactly this bond entailed, because apparently, this Minseok person didn't want anything of him. During his third unit, he fantasized about confronting this blurry image of a Cerian, asking him about his end of the promise - it might seem a little early and ungrateful, seeing as how they had just saved Jongin's life, but he had made a promise.
Now it was the fifth unit though, bordering on the start of the sixth, and Jongin just wanted to not be alone anymore. He wouldn't even mind if he got no answers, if Minseok didn't want to talk to him. He just wanted someone to be around.
Jongin was standing in front of the door, staring at it.
He could just leave and wander around the ship. The captain had given him permission.
Initially, he'd meant to stay until he met Minseok, but maybe that just wouldn't happen anytime soon.
Jongin reached out for the pad next to the door, fingers hovering over the button to open the door.
But... he couldn't.
For some reason, the simple action made him freeze in his tracks.
He could walk around the ship and then what? Jongin would probably be a bother. If he had nothing to contribute, there was no reason to be in the way.
Sure, there was this apparently unused lounge, but if Jongin was being honest, he just felt intimidated by the people he had seen so far. The captain had been nice, but the mere fact that he hadn't checked up on him told Jongin that he was busy. Luhan had seemed alright, but...
Jongin ruffled his hair in frustration and turned away from the door, back to the couch. He felt like a trapped animal. It was only the fifth unit and he was driving himself insane already.
He'd even started to grow a little resentful over the way he was being ignored. He'd been ready to cast aside every single prejudice he had about Cerians, but some of them begged to be confirmed. Like how Cerians were said to be unwelcoming, emotionally distant, and terrible hosts.
Jongin sighed. He shouldn't be this petty. After all, he was still alive. These people had saved his life (though he clearly remembered one of them being quite reluctant about it).
He allowed himself to sink into the plush couch, cheek mashed against the low arm rest, gaze fixed on the door.
If he didn't show up by the end of the sixth unit, he'd go outside. He could ask about him, that seemed like a valid thing to do.
Or maybe the seventh.
No, Jongin thought, chastising himself. The sixth.
No more compromises.
This time, Jongin woke up when the door opened. He'd probably slept too much for his body to do anything but lightly doze at this point. He sat up abruptly, fast enough to have the person in the entrance flinch, and shoot him a slightly disturbed look.
This was him. His appearance hardly lined up with what Jongin remembered, but his eyes were the same, that much he could tell even from afar. This was Minseok.
"Hi," Jongin said, and it came out less determined or brash, like intended and more sleepy.
The guy gave him a nod.
Then he simply went over to his own bedroom, and Jongin blinked. Certainly, this wasn't all he was going to say, right? He couldn't follow him into his bedroom though; that would be weird, right?
Jongin unsurely got to his feet. He had only caught a sleepy glance of him, but he already knew that Minseok was more intimidating than the rest of the crew combined. He had cat-like features, with slanted eyes and his jawline, brows and nose were rather defined, none of which were overly prominent nor too soft. He had also never seen black hair on a Cerian, but it looked natural on Minseok. He looked like royalty indeed, and the silent aura of confidence only added to it.
Jongin shifted his weight from one foot to the other and had just put together some possibly accusing questions to throw after Minseok when he re-entered the room. He shot Jongin a questioning look, who in turn felt rather silly standing around uselessly.
"Uhm. I was waiting for you to return."
It came out all sorts of awkward and weak, and Jongin wanted to hit his head against a wall.
"Oh? Why?" the other asked, his voice controlled and mature, and Jongin wanted to gape at him. Why ?
Honestly, this was so brazen that Jongin was at a loss for words.
"Because... because we haven't met each other yet?" he asked slowly, probingly even, though he was yelling inside his head. What was this guy thinking?
Minseok nodded lightly, and then walked into the small aisle, obviously picking out food on the menu to be sent to this quarters. Jongin was about to say something much less nice, because if he was ignoring him right now-
"You drink coffee?"
Jongin blinked. And shook his head.
"I'd rather not, to be honest. I usually drink tea..."
Minseok nodded again, and confirmed the order. For a few awkward seconds, it was silent as they waited for the order to travel the tubes around the ship. It was still silent while Minseok methodically uncapped the various containers and placed them on a tablet. The smell of warm food filled the air, and when Minseok placed two steaming cups on the aisle, Jongin was too taken aback to be petty or stubborn. While Minseok carried the tablet over to the low table, Jongin took the cups. He was surprised to see the intimidating man sit on a cushion on the floor, opposite of Jongin, who now felt awkward sitting on the couch. He also realized that Minseok had ordered two bowls of stew.
"I'm not that hungry," he said, more to fill the silence than anything. An imploring look was the reply.
"You haven't ordered anything today," Minseok stated. There was no accuse or sharp edge to it. It was a mere statement, maybe with the faintest question lingering in between.
"It's already 35. And you haven't left the quarter since you arrived."
Jongin felt his cheeks warm up and he looked down at his bowl to conceal it. Again, there was no accuse to what he said. Clearly, he was reasoning why he was sure that Jongin hadn't eaten anything in awhile. He wasn't wrong.
Silently, Jongin took a spoon and dipped it inside the red stew. It did smell really nice, but he just didn't feel like eating. He wasn't even mad anymore - just miserable. Maybe he wanted to be alone, after all. It had been arrogant of him to think that this person had been avoiding him on purpose. Looking at him now made it obvious that this man just didn't really care about him. Which wouldn't be so bad if Jongin had anything else to hold on to. Any purpose, anything-
"We already started looking into those Quor'i you mentioned," Minseok calmly mentioned in between spoonfuls of soup - he seemed pretty hungry himself. "Of course we can need every detail we can get. If Yixing is free, he'd like to have a talk with you. Talk about what exactly happened. Of course you can tell me, as well, if that makes you more comfortable."
The last statement was off-putting, and Jongin could hear that it wasn't Minseok's own idea. It had probably been a suggestion by the captain.
Jongin didn't really want to talk about that right now, and especially not with Minseok. Saying that would be slightly rude, however, so all he said was a small ' oh '.
For a while it was silent, with both of them eating while Jongin thought of what to say, while Minseok seemed perfectly comfortable.
"You're gone a lot," he finally began, and he received a look in return that could only be described as mild, neutral interest. Jongin wasn't in a position to make demands and took it as an invitation to continue.
"What do you do?"
"I'm a soldier," Minseok answered evenly. It made sense in retrospect - the other was clearly built and exuded an aura of control over his body and mind.
"And you fight for your nation?"
"Somewhat. Depends on the mission."
Jongin hummed. He couldn't expect a soldier to spill sensitive information just like that, so there was no use in prodding further. That didn't mean his curiosity was sated though.
"But you're still on this ship," he stated, waiting for Minseok to fill the blank again. Why would he return to this tiny ship if he was of high importance to his nation and constantly needed?
"Because I want to."
Before Jongin could think of the next question, Minseok took the reigns.
"And what did you do? Were you a soldier as well?"
Jongin's gaze dropped to his soup, to the red liquid clinging to his spoon and suddenly, he felt sickened by the sight. He swallowed and discreetly lowered the spoon again, looked back up at Minseok.
"Not really," he said slowly, focusing on keeping the bitter bale down. Minseok didn't comment on it, didn't hurry him either. He just kept on eating his soup, occasionally looking up at him.
"I used to be part of the communication unit. They're the ones-"
"In charge of translating and communicating with different species, I know," Minseok cut him off. He was obviously the type who wasn't interested in wasting time, no matter how menial the situation.
"So you're more of a scholar."
For some reason, Jongin felt the need to defend himself.
"I can shoot. A little. I was taught. We don't really have an army or anything."
Minseok shot him a look that told him he was itching to say something along the lines of ' and look where that got you ', but thankfully, he held back on it. Jongin still felt a little humiliated. It was against logic, and probably more based on the fact that everything about Minseok seemed so imposing and impressive.
"Am I useless to you?"
It had been meant to sound like a joke. A sad failure.
"What makes you say that? The fact that you're not a sniper?" Minseok asked, and right, it sounded silly when he put it like that, but what was Jongin supposed to think?
"I don't know what I need to do for the bond, so..." he trailed off, stubborn gaze fixed on the table.
"Nothing. You don't need to do anything at all," came the calm answer, and Jongin shot him a confused look. Minseok didn't return his gaze and licked his lips, rising to his feet with ridiculous elegance to place his used dishes on the countertop.
"But what does a bond mean?" Jongin finally asked, internally pleading that Minseok wouldn't leave him hanging now.
"It means that we're linked now," Minseok said, and then, like an afterthought he added, "it also means that I'll notice if you're trying to starve yourself."
For a second, Jongin was confused, then he followed the other's eyes to look at his barely touched soup.
"I'm not," he stubbornly countered, but refused to eat any more. He didn't want to risk retching.
Minseok only lightly shook his head and then went for his part of the quarter, before he seemed to remember something.
"Don't mistake it for a blessing though. The bond. Because it's not. At least not to you."
His expression was serious, and there was a clear distance between them. He left before Jongin could question him further, but it was alright. As elusive and mystifying as this encounter had been, it was enough social interaction for now, and Jongin was glad about a break.
While Minseok used the shower, Jongin threw the soup in one of the recycling containers. The mere sight of the little clumps in the red mush made him vomit.
He managed to clean it all up before Minseok was done. If he was irritated or confused by the buzzing air conditioner, he didn't mention it.
Jongin was well-aware of the fact that he hadn't simply been called to meet Yixing, the captain, to provide him with information. The person sitting across him in a tiny, but cozy quarter was also Yixing, the doctor.
He had never been to a counselor before, so he had no idea if this was how it usually went, but the atmosphere Yixing was setting up was relaxed and gentle, which was nice. Still, if he had a choice, he'd much rather sit in Minseok's quarter now, maybe in his own, tiny room, buried under the blankets. Instead, he was staring at the table in between them, searching for words and a way to coherently string them together to relive that dreadful day. He'd rather not, but Jongin was also aware that it was necessary. Many wounds were able to scab up and heal on their own, but it was nothing to rely on. Right now, Jongin felt like his own psyche was a separate, intimidating entity that he wasn't sure how to handle at this delicate time. Like any wrong move might tip the balance, have the wound fester instead of heal.
So he calmly breathed in and forced himself to look up.
"The raw facts are that on that day, around four in the afternoon our time, a highly toxic gas was released simultaneously all over our biggest colonies," Jongin started matter-of-factly. "It was emitted through our air nutrition system, which is a local facility that enrichens the air with valuable vitamins and keeps it clean. Just about any colony has it, no matter how small."
"And only the big colonies were affected?" Yixing asked. Jongin was glad that he was asking questions, that he was also resembling a captain right now, giving the entire conversation a focus other than Jongin's possibly screwed up mind.
"I don't know," Jongin honestly replied. "We heard from the big colonies, and then everything was lost to chaos. It's possible that all the smaller ones were attacked as well. Maybe even likely."
Yixing hummed, and Jongin took it as a sign to continue, mentally back-tracking.
"There have always been rumors about cities abusing the cleansing system to make people crave certain things, or maybe even to make them sick. It was just rumors, the usual mistrust people have. But this gas was beyond anything we had ever seen, and so highly concentrated that wiped out everyone within hours."
Jongin shifted a little in his seat, thinking of how different the cream-colored furniture was from the stark white interior of Minseok's room.
Focus. He had to focus, even if he didn't want to.
"It went straight to the nervous system, numbing them, starting from the lung. I'm not a doctor, of course, so sorry for talking nonsense."
He paused, but Yixing only lightly shook his head, so he continued.
"...but it felt like a numbness spreading from your lungs, and then a slow burn followed. Moving became tough, then impossible, and people weren't able to fiddle with the machine enough to stop it. The fine motor skills were gone almost immediately, and tapping complex patterns wasn't possible. We managed to send an emergency signal, but no one was close enough to come to our aid in time."
Yixing looked thoughtful, as if he was running through multiple scenarios right now, which made it more acceptable to break eye contact.
"After roughly 12 hours I lost my sense of time, so I don't know how much time passed until you found us."
"Around 22 hours in total, following your information," Yixing provided freely. "We were only passing by when someone noticed the emergency call you had made hours ago. Sadly, there was no one we could have saved, aside from you. I was really surprised to hear that Minseok found you. I had them search some more after that, but it was futile. Now the future of the planet is in the hands of the union."
"It's alright," Jongin was quick to say. "I'm glad you showed up in the first place. I'm glad you saved me."
Yixing looked at him imploringly as he said it, as if this statement was of importance to him.
"Alright. You're very welcome. I told you before - we would have tried our best to keep you alive either way, bond or not. Now - you don't mind me taking a few notes, right?"
Jongin shook his head and for a few moments, he watched Yixing scrawl things across a tablet. This had turned out better than he anticipated so far, but they weren't done yet. For some reason, he was sure Yixing knew that as well.
"Good. So if you don't mind me asking, how do you know who is responsible for the toxic gas?"
"They told us," Jongin said without missing a beat. "It was a message displayed all over our screens in the communication center. No one has ever managed to hack us before, but they did, and there were big, black letters saying something about how we meet the fate we deserve, and that the Quor'i would take back their place."
"Can you recite it word for word?"
Jongin wasn't too sure. He still tried, attempted to write down the exact words on Yixing's tablet. The other watched him as he did so, eyes glued to the foreign symbols.
"So that's how you know for sure it was them."
"It's likely," Jongin corrected as he added more possible ways the message might have been worded. "This language is very unusual and the dialect nearly forgotten. Barely anyone could read it, not even among us."
"Do you know anything about this race?" Yixing asked,and Jongin could only shrug.
"That they're near extinct and hate living in the same radius as other sentient species? They're supposed to be a small population living in a corner of the outest systems. I don't know why they would suddenly do this - we have no history together."
Yixing hummed. More notes were taken. Then Yixing placed the tablet on top of the table and leaned back.
"I think this is good enough for now. It might seem like a burden to you, but I'm afraid we have to meet up a few more times. I'm not doubting what you told me just now, but through further reconstruction, we might be able to draw out more information from this."
Then he changed directions, wearing a small smile.
"You seem to be faring rather well right now."
Jongin was unable to agree to this, and just guiltily lowered his gaze. Yixing seemed to read his mind, anyway.
"It's alright to approach this slowly. I know you're impatient to find those perpetrators, so we focused more on that today, and will focus on that the next time, as well. But your well-being is also on my mind, and I'm not placating you when I'm telling you it's looking promising so far."
Jongin couldn't help looking a little doubtful, but Yixing wasn't fazed, showing enough confidence for both of them.
"Just try to trust me on this. I have seen countless tragedies on many people's faces, and you're holding up well. It's important to accept the weight of what has happened, that it had an impact and that it's a real problem. Just by the way you were presenting yourself today I got the impression that you're aware of this already."
Jongin had no idea how he came to that conclusion, but it was strangely freeing. It was alright. That he was feeling a little messed up right now was alright.
"Now for overcoming such a very real obstacle, it requires training, just like with everything else," Yixing stated calmly, and Jongin nodded. Training to overcome an obstacle.
"We'll go at this slowly, in a pace that's comfortable for both of us. Next time, I'd like you to tell me the story again - this time from your point of view."
Jongin nodded again. He had purposefully avoided all the messy, emotional stuff so the captain might get useful information from him, and Yixing had accepted that, for the time being. Still, he didn't feel pushed or threatened, merely guided along. Maybe things really were going to be alright.
After that, Yixing taught him a few breathing exercises, and then, when Jongin was almost out the door, did he address that dreadful little issue Jongin had hoped would go by unnoticed.
"You should join the others for dinner later. I'm not sure if I'm able to attend, but Luhan will probably be there."
Jongin must have looked as stony as he felt, for Yixing encouragingly patted his shoulder.
"They're all good people, and at the very least you might become comfortable moving around the ship. Minseok's quarters are big, but they're not that big."
"I know..." Jongin mumbled guiltily, and luckily, Yixing left it at that, promised to make time for another session as soon as he could.
After what must have been thirty minutes of staring into space, back in Minseok's quarters, Jongin had to finally admit that Yixing was right. He couldn't stay cooped up in this room forever, especially considering that Minseok was hardly ever around. Sure, he was very worried over the others’ reaction and all the inconvenient questions he might be asked, but the little session with Yixing had fueled him with fresh energy and determination. So he left the room around 25 hours into the cycle, a popular dinner time according to Yixing. What added to his nervousness was the fact that he didn't know where exactly people ate. It wasn't the cantina, apparently, and Luhan had claimed that hardly anyone ever sat in the lounge. He'd entertained the thought of approaching Luhan straight away, but it felt like such a clingy move to do. Jongin felt his heart beat painfully fast when he encountered someone on the way to the cantina. It was the pilot, the shorter one. When he noticed Jongin, he gave him a casual greeting not unlike the first time they had met.
Not unfriendly, but curt. Jongin mirrored his greeting, and then trailed after him. Just like Minseok, this guy didn't seem interested in talking to him.
But Minseok had ended up talking to him, Jongin told himself. It was probably a Cerian thing. He just had to be a little persistent.
There were already two people in the cantina, bickering over what they wanted to order. One Jongin recognized right away as Luhan. The other was ridiculously tall, and entirely unfamiliar - he had to be the mechanic Yifan.
"It works perfectly fine, I'm telling you," Luhan insisted.
"Then it can work perfectly fine for you, while I take my salad," the mechanic replied in a deep, calm voice. The pilot Jongdae just wriggled himself in between them with a total lack of consideration.
"Move it, I'm hungry," he quipped easily, and Luhan verbally pounced him.
"What do you think, Dae? Mirq cabbage and fried eggs are a match right?"
"See?" the mechanic began under Luhan's protests, but the pilot wasn't done yet.
"-at least add some panko."
" See ?" Luhan victoriously claimed, and in his eagerness for confirmation, he noticed Jongin standing unsurely in the entrance.
"Oh, Jongin! You're here! What do you say, match or nah?"
"Uhm," Jongin began under the intimidating gaze of the mechanic, "I... don't know what mirq cabbage is..."
Luhan’s following oh was long and dramatic, but not exactly accusing.
"I see," he said, and then turned to push some buttons on the menu. "Then clearly, you want some. With fried egg."
"Yeah, just poison people straight up, why don't you?" the mechanic muttered, but Luhan was busy wrestling for control over the menu with Jongdae, who was apparently convinced that adding panko to Jongin's meal was a necessity. Yifan seemed exasperated, but in a relaxed way, while Jongdae seemed to try and rival Luhan in whining and complaining. Neither Jongdae nor Yifan were addressing him directly though. Jongin felt like a spectator watching three good friends squabble.
It went on like this, with the four of them sitting in the lounge, after all, where they discussed ship-related things, news and missions they had been offered while Jongin silently watched them. He had met one or two Cerians in the past, but he'd never been around them like this, outside of a job-related context. They looked very similar to Jongin's race overall, but there were small differences, like the pale, but bright colors of their hair and eyes. The pilot Jongdae had sandy blond hair with darker roots and matching bright eyes to go with it, and Yifan's brows were dark, but his hair was silver. To Jongin, whose race was characterized by dark hair and dark eyes, all in shades of brown, this was a fascinating sight. What was more fascinating than their natural hair colors were the scales though. Cerians were actually a mixed race, a result of two species breeding many centuries ago - and the less humanoid part of them had left them with a few scales scattered around their skin. Most of them were placed in spots that were strained a lot, like the elbows or inside of their palms. Jongin equaled them to having calloused skin. Some were sprinkled across their skin randomly though, it seemed, differing in number, size, and color. Yifan easily had the darkest scales, and they seemed to concentrate around his throat, looking a bit like a turtle neck. They looked almost black but the light revealed violet hues. Luhan, on the other hand, had his scales more scattered out like freckles, and unlike Yifan or Jongdae's, they were almost transparent, blinking in shades of orange and dusty pink, depending on how the light hit them. Jongdae's scales were rather distinct in placement as well, and all had a gradient going from dark, rich green to a cream tone. Jongin tried not to stare too much, but they didn't seem to mind. In fact, they generally didn't pay Jongin any mind as they laughed at inside jokes and talked about upcoming missions. He really did feel like an outsider and faintly wished he was back in his room already.
"I am not the worst pilot on this ship," Luhan insisted at some point, and then he looked over at Jongin. "Yifan can't fly either!"
Oh. He'd looked past him and at the mechanic. That was... alright. Jongin poked around his food - which was admittedly nice, both the foreign cabbage and the crispy panko sprinkles on top of everything.
Jongin fished out a piece of egg only to stop taking a bite mid-way, awkwardly looking at the eyes resting on him. Oh.
Luhan didn't even make fun of him.
"Yeah! Can you pilot a ship?"
Jongin shook his head, and he could feel the interest of Jongdae vanish.
"I never had to..." Jongin trailed off, even though technically, he didn't have to explain himself. Luhan clicked his tongue and waved him off.
"Eh, anyone's gotta pilot at some point, 's just a question of sooner or later."
"With how things currently are, I'd rather you do so later," Jongdae cut him off with an arched brow. "Our baby deserves better."
"You're all pilots?" Jongin asked, because he was curious, but also because he wanted to take the chance to integrate himself into the group.
"I mean, as of now I'd not call myself a pilot," Luhan began, ignoring Jongdae's statement about how that's for the best, "but if shit went downhill and both Chenchen and Zitao were unavailable, both Yixing and Minseok could take over the cockpit. With a small crew, it's handy if everyone can cover as many areas as possible."
"If you're staying with us for longer, you can get used to the idea of learning these things as well," Jongdae provided, and Luhan dismissed him with nonchalant certainty.
"He will. After all, he's Minseok's bond now. Which do you wanna learn first?"
"Uhm," Jongin began, hoping his brain would provide him with a reckless statement to seal his fate, but nothing would come out. He was supposed to learn how to pilot a ship? That seemed mighty overwhelming considering that he didn't even have a license for a transporter.
"What are my options?" he asked carefully.
"Well, aside from piloting and system maintenance," Luhan began, meaningfully emphasizing his own area of expertise, "you could also learn all the first aid and other basic medic stuff- though Xing is rather busy right now - or venture into strategizing and weaponry with Minseok, or - oh right!"
Struck by a seemingly great idea, Luhan pointed at Yifan.
"Weren't you lamenting that there's still no real backup for you? You could teach Jongin here!"
"Luhan, please," Yifan only said, and Luhan rolled his eyes. Jongin didn't want to burden any of them. They all seemed like good friends who didn't mind teaching each other, but didn't really care for teaching Jongin. Or Jongin in general.
"I'mma take a bath later," Jongdae stated out of nowhere, and Luhan reacted too fast for Jongin's brain to follow.
When Jongdae only reacted with a slightly exasperated look, Jongin re-evaluated the overall social construct.
"You'll join, too, won't you?" Jongdae bugged Yifan, who easily gave in.
"You're all... taking a bath together?" Jongin asked awkwardly, and now even Luhan looked uncomfortable.
"Uh, I mean. Yeah! Around 37, probably - you should be fine to go around 38,5."
It sounded almost defensively, as if he feared Jongin might ask whether he could join them.
"Okay, thank you," Jongin muttered, and he didn't say anything else after that, silently finishing his food to leave slightly earlier than the rest. When the doors of Minseok's quarters closed behind him, he finally relaxed, letting out a deep breath. Familiar loneliness was nestled into the air and in that moment, it was comforting.
He walked around to sit on the couch facing the wide window. For quite some time, nothing but stars filled his vision. That, too, was comforting, and made his own worries seem so insignificant and less jarring. Cerians and Zivrans really didn't harmonize all that well. It was probably nothing but silliness on Jongin's end, but he just didn't feel very welcome. It kinda resonated within every syllable, gesture and eye contact. Luhan seemed a little more friendly than the rest - probably the reason why Yixing had called him up in the first place. He couldn't imagine how awkward things would have been if Jongdae had shown him around. Or Yifan. Or that grumpy soldier Zitao, who didn't really want to save him in the first place.
Then again, would Minseok have been so bad?
Jongin awkwardly pressed his cheek into the headrest as he stared into the stars. Minseok was kinda like them, as well, and he hadn't even been overly friendly to him. Still, he had the impression that Minseok wasn't so bad. Maybe he was just starved for attention at this point.
Or maybe their bond just made Jongin think that.
Like this, Jongin spent his time staring into the vastity of space, allowing his thoughts to echo through the sheer endless space.
It was hours later when Minseok returned and enough time had passed to warrant a second meal. As per usual, he didn't ask what Jongin wanted - or if he wanted anything at all, for that matter - and simply got two sets of what he was having. Jongin didn't mind. He'd looked through the menu before, and for most dishes he had no idea what they were supposed to taste like, so Minseok's choice brought some variety to what he was eating.
Jongin carried their drinks over and settled on the ground, the sofa cushioning his back. He didn't like not sitting on eye-level with Minseok. It felt wrong.
Wordlessly, Jongin tugged the container closer to inhale the foreign smell of what looked like dumplings.
"How are you holding up?" Minseok asked all of a sudden and Jongin blinked up at him in surprise, only barely keeping an unsophisticated 'huh?' to himself. Minseok had never asked about his day, much less about how he was feeling. Maybe he'd heard of the session with Yixing.
"Good?" Jongin asked back, obviously asking for an explanation of the sudden interest.
Minseok only nodded and scooped up a few small dumplings with his spoon.
For a second, Jongin just stared, before his brain handed him a helpful reminder about social etiquette.
The tiny, tiny huff Minseok emitted told Jongin that he hadn't even been expecting him to turn the question back at him. Or maybe he was disappointed in Jongin's selfishness, after all.
"It's not like I could stop holding up," Minseok stated, and alright, he didn't seem disappointed in Jongin. "So I guess I'm holding up well."
"Sounds like you're tired," Jongin commented before he could stop himself. Minseok looked at him, a look Jongin had no chance to decipher, but it had an unnerving intensity to it, like all of Minseok's looks. If only he had a better brain to mouth filter.
Minseok let him be, however, and turned back to his food.
"It's been a long day," he stated vaguely, and Jongin left it at that with a soft hum. He still lacked any clear idea of what Minseok was doing, but the sheer number of weapons and protective gear he was wearing when he returned should say it all. It was just so hard to imagine that someone would actually be in life-threatening situations on the daily and then return to eat soup with Jongin, just like that.
"There's an upcoming event. In three cycles."
Jongin seized the struggle of separating the crispy dumplings from each other in favour of another sceptic look. Was he going for small talk now? That would be - quite literally - unheard of.
"Do you wanna come along?"
This time, Jongin didn't hold back.
"Huh? An event? What... kinda event?"
"The usual. Dinner, small talk. It won't be very interesting, to be honest."
Jongin thought back to how Luhan had called him a royal, and he felt instantly nervous. It had better been a joke.
"Are the others going as well?"
"Then who's gonna run the ship?" Minseok asked back, and well. They could have landed, maybe? Before Jongin could defend himself, Minseok lightly shook his head.
"They're not usually on the guest list, aside from Yixing, maybe. Not like they're even interested in anything but the food. It's really not that exciting."
"So why me," Jongin began, remembered that they were bonded and, "-oh."
"You don't have to," Minseok said, not too fast or abashed. It was quiet. Secure.
"It might be a little rough for you."
Because there will be a lot of Cerians with a lot of prejudices and you're the unexpected wife of a royal. Or bond. Companion.
Jongin didn't really get it, but he could imagine the hassle of attending such an event. He had a choice and he could decline. He also had this silly urge to prove himself though, and to get a little closer to understanding Minseok. Not to mention that the idea of leaving the confined ship, if only for a while, seemed enticing.
"Okay as in 'You're right, I guess I'll stay home' or...?" Minseok asked, and this might be the first time he showed insecurity regarding Jongin.
"Okay as in 'I'll come'," Jongin elaborated, and the other nodded, going back to his food as if the conversation had never taken place. For a while, nothing but the scraping of spoons against aluminium was heard.
"Is it a formal event?"
"Pretty formal, but don't sweat it."
"What should I wear?"
Minseok had obviously not thought about that, Jongin could see it in the way he blinked, brows furrowing even as he kept his eyes on the food.
"Right. You're... taller than me," he mused, thoroughly assessing Jongin.
"Ask Luhan," he then said, and like this, the minor issue was solved. "He's around your height. If his wardrobe is too whacky for you, have him get you something else. He loves shopping, he won't mind."
"I... have no money," Jongin admitted. It was obvious, and so was the fact that Minseok would have to pay for him, but it had to be said nonetheless.
To his surprise, Minseok snorted.
"Neither has Luhan. Never stopped him."
When Jongin just stared at him, entirely overwhelmed in the face of a joke, he only dismissed him with a light wave.
"Just don't worry about it."
"Okay..." Jongin trailed off, feeling a little humiliated and socially inept. He spent the following minutes mulling over the event, and when Minseok naturally took away the empty dishes, Jongin had found his resolve.
"How much can it cost?"
Minseok actually raised a brow at him, and was there a hint of a grin tugging at his lips?
"Why, you want jewelry?"
Jongin didn't know what to say to that. He couldn't even deny that since technically...
Minseok only lightly shook his head.
"Fine, do whatever you want. Have Luhan help you though."
"It won't be expensive," Jongin weakly promised, but Minseok was dismissing him already, leaving the room to take a shower.
Jongin looked after him, and then down at himself. His body still felt a bit battered after being injured for so long and adjusting to the life on a spaceship. Still, he'd been running through a daily routine of small exercises for a while now. He should be fine. Both mentally and physically.
If Minseok wanted to show off his trophy wife, then so be it. Jongin could be that, he honestly didn't mind.
Jongin was sitting on the floor, stretching his limbs, when the itching started. It felt slightly sour, like the taste of bale rising up, an unforgiving burn that made the stars before his eyes blur.
It was happening again.
He wanted to call out for Minseok, but his voice came out garbled and slurry. The burning sensation was taking over again and Jongin panicked. He stumbled towards the door, but his legs were giving out and he twisted his ankle as he fell. It hurt, but Jongin pushed through, tried to pull himself up at the door frame to reach the keypad.
The numbing sensation was spreading fast, running through his thighs and down his calves, and then Jongin collapsed, his jaw smacking into the ground.
There were tears welling up, but the panic was stronger, more important, all-consuming.
He wanted to turn his head, and the simple movement alone was just so terribly hard to do. Moving became tough, required all his will and strength, but he had to at least warn Minseok.
He tried even harder, fighting the way his lungs started to clog up. Just a little further-
Minseok's room slipped into his vision, and through his tears, he saw a shape on the ground, a familiar mop of black hair and no -
Jongin awoke with a start, gasping for air so hard that it hurt. Darkness encased him, and for a terrifying second, he didn't know where he was, and his lungs were burning again. Then reality sank in.
He was in his room, in Minseok's quarters, on the spaceship. The Oasis.
His lungs were burning, but it wasn't the sour, clogged up feeling he'd felt that day. Though just thinking about it made Jongin want to retch in between greedily sucking in too much air.
Calm, he had to stay calm.
Jongin focused on relaxing his cramped up insides, and for a long time, he just lay there, staring at the ceiling and inhaling the fresh air until his lungs stopped feeling so empty.
Steady. Calm. He was alright. The air was alright.
Slowly, he moved his fingers and toes, feeling them move without any strain.
He thought of Yixing's breathing exercises.
Then he thought of Yixing. And Minseok. And Luhan.
They had told him that he was being monitored, that they were keeping an eye on him.
But no one was coming to check on him, despite his entire body going haywire.
Jongin listened to his own ragged breathing a little longer.
There was no sound of footsteps, no lights turning on, no one calling out for him. Nothing.
Jongin turned to the side and curled up together as tightly as he could, feeling hot tears well up, wetting the sheets.
For the first time since he arrived, Jongin felt the weight of the situation. The weight of being on a spaceship. A tiny little being encased in a metal cage, aimlessly floating through a sheer endless ocean of nothingness - and death, should he stepped outside. Suddenly, the pressure was just so high, so strong, squeezing his lungs together again, making him feel nauseous. Outside this little ship, there was no one in the whole world who still knew him, who would remember him, who liked him.
When he realized that it was the exact same for all the people inside the ship, he burst into tears.
And he cried and cried.
Minseok felt a sting. He didn't think anything of it at first, because who didn't feel a random sting once in a while? But then another followed, a little weaker this time, and oh.
Yixing had stopped talking in favour of checking something on his desk.
Minseok used the moment to touch his own chest, where the pain was coming from.
"Are you alright?"
At the sound of Yixing's voice, he lowered his hand again. The pain was gone already.
"Yeah. It's nothing."
Yixing was looking at him knowingly, but Minseok didn't budge. After a few seconds of tense silence, Yixing sighed and leaned back against his desk.
"Anyway. As I was saying... he's faring rather well, but you should keep an eye on him nonetheless."
If he was Zitao, or even Jongdae, he'd roll his eyes right now. He wasn't, though, so Minseok only sighed.
"He's a grown man and I'm not his babysitter," he stated slightly annoyed, and Yixing was growing uncharacteristically angry at that.
"You're not, no, you're more than that. You're his companion," he countered strictly. "Get your shit together, Minseok."
Minseok reacted with defiance and the most unimpressed look he could muster, before he turned to leave the captain's quarters. Even Yixing had such a traditional strike left to him, growing emotional over this bond that Minseok himself was feeling nothing about.
It wasn't the first time that they had argued or snapped at each other, though, so Minseok wasn't all that worried. For the time being, he went to the training room to take off some steam.
When he returned to his quarters much later, Jongin was fast asleep and perfectly fine.
Chapter 3: Gemini
Jongin was feeling better the next unit. The nightly breakdown had settled in his bones like dust, making him feel a little sluggish and mellow, but overall, he was alright. It helped that he had something to do, something to think about.
Luhan had been nice about his request, had looked through store inventories with him and even volunteered to check the garments out in person. Minseok was obviously right about Luhan's enthusiasm when it came to shopping. Not that Jongin could blame him - getting off the ship if only for a few hours seemed desirable, even if it was your treasured home. Not to mention that Luhan could handle teleportation, a skill that Jongin's race had trouble learning and Cerians seemed to be similar in that regard. As far as he understood it, only Luhan and Minseok could use the small teleporter that was located in the back of the ship - even the captain avoided it.
Jongin wished he could use it as well. He wondered whether Luhan would teach him. Minseok would probably be too busy...
After seeing Luhan off at the teleporter, Jongin didn't return to Minseok's quarters. Now that he was out already, he could just as well stay somewhere else, at least until Luhan returned. He spent a few blissful minutes on his own in the cantina, deciding on a small snack, and then aimlessly sat in the lounge for a while. Different interior or not though, the stars outside remained the same, and Jongin sighed. He really needed something to do. He should ask Minseok for a spare tablet of any kind, so he could at least go back to reading. There was also the option of working out, but after that dream last night, Jongin wasn't in the mood for it, wasn't even in the mood to return to Minseok's quarters and be alone there. It was silly, and it would surely pass, but for the time being-
Someone noisily walked down the stairs and Jongin's head whipped up to see Jongdae leaving the cockpit. He looked surprised to see Jongin, but didn't say anything as he crossed the room, presumably to go to the bathroom.
Jongin stared after him, and then looked out of the window again, trying to decipher the feeling writhing in his stomach.
Annoyance. Yes, he was annoyed. He'd understand if they were busy, like Yixing, or if they plainly didn't like him - which seemed to be the case with Zitao - but Jongdae didn't even seem to have any issues with him. He simply treated him like a piece of furniture. Maybe he did hate Jongin's race, or maybe Jongin in particular, but it just didn't feel that way. He didn't get any vibes at all, and Jongin didn't understand.
Maybe it was because he'd seen such a violent shade of sadness and loneliness the night before, but instead of feeling miserable at the silent treatment, Jongin was simply irked. He hadn't done anything to deserve this.
When Jongdae returned a while later, Jongin was ready.
"How are you doing?" he asked, a little loud and sharp maybe. Jongdae looked taken aback.
"Good, good. You?"
"Didn't you want to teach me how to pilot?" Jongin asked, crossing his arms and hoping he didn't sound too petulant. "You said I should be ready to make myself useful on the ship."
The natural reaction should have been something along the lines of 'I didn't say it like that,' or maybe even 'I didn't mean it like that'. Jongdae only blinked, the stupid surprise still lingering in his expression.
"You wanna learn to pilot, after all? I mean, sure."
He went a few more steps, only to stop at the stairs and look back at Jongin expectantly. A little baffled over how this exchange had went, Jongin scrambled after him.
Was it that easy? Why did nothing about this guy make sense?
Jongdae went straight for the cockpit and flipped a switch somewhere on the side. In the pilot's chair sat Zitao, who shot them a mildly interested look.
"Eyes on the charts," Jongdae commanded lightly, and Zitao followed - not without rolling said eyes.
A roundish, cozy-looking chair rose from the ground, right of Zitao, and Jongdae waited patiently until it was set before letting go of the switch and gesturing towards it.
"Take a seat for now," he ordered, before swinging himself in the co-pilot's chair. With Jongdae, an order sounded like a suggestion, but Jongin was no fool to mix them up. It quickly turned out that Jongdae was already teaching Zitao at the moment, but Jongin didn't mind. He observed them closely, even though nothing of what they said made any sense to him. It was obvious that Zitao was a capable pilot already and that they were fine-tuning his skills. Jongin stared at all the buttons, switches and charts, trying to draw a connection between them and what they talked about. Jongin felt like his brain was noticeably booting up after so many days of not really challenging it. At no point during the lecture did the pilots address Jongin, but that was alright. Jongin recognized a lesson for what it was, and this one was both for Zitao and for him.
When Jongdae announced much later that he was hungry, and when Zitao had managed to set the ship to autopilot in a satisfactory manner, Jongin felt like his butt had fallen asleep. Jongdae seemed to share the sentiment, for he got to his feet to leisurely stretch himself with a yawn.
"Come in when I'm piloting next time," he told Jongin, and it clearly wasn't meant in an accusing way.
"When is that?" Jongin asked carefully, watching as they retracted the additional seat.
"Most of the time," Jongdae waved him off under a protesting Zitao.
"You act like I never pilot! When are we gonna have your next co-piloting session, Mr. Know-it-all?" he demanded as he walked towards the door, and Jongin wasn't sure how to put his harsh tone.
"When you can dock with another ship without risking collateral damage we can't afford to pay for," Jongdae quipped back, and then he looked back to check whether Jongin was following them or not.
It was probably simply to make sure he wasn't alone in the cockpit. Jongin took the gesture, though, and hurried to follow, asking whether anything like that had happened in the past.
The gloomy cloud enveloping him had dispersed almost entirely.
Jongin was sitting in the back of the small ship, using a reflective wall as a mirror. He was glad Minseok knew about this nifty little trick or else he'd be stuck in the tiny, tiny bathroom right now. Behind him, Minseok was piloting, and whenever Jongin snuck a glance at him, he'd see the way he slightly bobbed his head to the melodic sounds coming from the speakers.
They'd been flying for an hour, maybe. Minseok didn't seem to mind Jongin's inability to teleport. It was mostly silent, as usual, so Jongin busied himself by getting ready. He'd started with the tiny gems Luhan had bought him. They were nothing more but little drops of Bright Ice, which was really just ice with a higher melting point of around 300 degrees. It was extremely cheap to come by, but sparkled beautifully when polished, and although they looked nothing like the gems Jongin's kind usually used, he appreciated them. He'd thought about how he wanted them arranged, but actually doing it was both nostalgic and difficult. It had been so long. He decided to go for a depiction of the star constellation commonly known as allies, or gemini. It was an unusual choice for him, as a scholar, who could proudly wear aquarius, but he felt like gemini suited the occasion, and the fact that he attended as Minseok's bond. Seeing the finished constellation bloom over his temple made Jongin pause, and he could feel some involuntary heat reach his face.
Gemini, allies, friends, lovers - gemini was a sign for two people, but what exactly it meant equaled from culture to culture. In Jongin's culture, wearing gemini was reserved for weddings, and anything related to it. He would have never thought to see it on himself in such a context.
With a deep inhale, he closed the box of makeup and stones.
It didn't really matter. No one on that event would know, because no Zivran would be there. Aside from Jongin.
He dimly wondered whether there were any survivors of his race on other planets, but sad as it sounded, it wouldn't change much. Jongin's kind had never been very patriotic, and meeting a traveler of his kind would be almost like meeting any other stranger. It would be nice, for sure, but no one would be able to retrieve the familiar culture that had surrounded Jongin all his life. He was well on his way of coming to terms with it, but thinking of it still stung a little, so he busied himself by opening the small clothes bag he had brought along.
A small ringing signalized an incoming call, and to his surprise, Minseok didn't take it immediately, like he usually would. It rang, the sound rather deep and pleasant, but knowing its purpose, Jongin eventually turned his head at it. A futile thing to do, of course, considering that Minseok sat with his back to him, but he still relented and accepted the call. Jongin saw the corner of a video appear on one of the screens, and turned back to the mirror. It wasn't his business, really.
A female voice, rather pleasant to the ear. Jongin carefully reached inside the clothes bag, fingers running over soft fabric.
"Zhi Ruo. Greetings."
Jongin furrowed his brows. Minseok didn't like her, that much he could tell after these few syllables and the way he'd enunciated them. Minseok was always curt, but this time he sounded overall reluctant to even speak in the first place.
"How are you feeling?" the woman asked, to which Minseok replied with nothing but 'fine'. He didn't even bother returning the question, and if this encounter taught Jongin anything at all, it would be that Minseok had never been purposefully hostile towards him, because that would have looked something like the way he was talking now.
The woman wasn't fazed.
"Really? That is good to hear. I'm doing fine as well; that is, considering the circumstances."
Minseok didn't ask about her circumstances and Jongin took the long strip of fabric, looping it through one of the little slings on his simple, but sturdy vest. The other end was looped around his own hand in a certain manner.
"So when are you arriving on Nila?" the voice asked almost casually, and Minseok sounded reluctant still.
"Why are you asking?"
"So we can meet up before the gala, obviously! It's always best to enter the venue together, isn't it?"
Jongin halted his movements, staring at nothing in particular as he openly eaves-dropped.
"I know you like being on your own, but considering how many deputies are going to be there, it really would make a good impression if-"
"I'm already in company today," Minseok cut her off, and with a small sigh, Jongin started to gently loop the fabric through another sling on his vest, and then another, forming a triangle.
"Is it Luhan again?" the woman asked, sounding exasperated. "You know what the deputies think of him-"
"It's my companion."
There was a subtle, sharp edge to Minseok's words, and to Jongin's surprise, she merely huffed.
"That Zivra boy? You won't get in their good books by appealing to their pity, especially not for their kind."
Jongin kept on looping the fabric, forming a pattern around the triangle. The fabric was white, but not blindingly so. It had a shade of vanilla to it, light as the incredibly subtle shimmer. It was a plain, but beautiful choice.
"I am doing no such thing," Minseok argued, and Jongin silently wondered whether he was speaking the truth - not that it mattered much to him. "I am simply attending an event with my companion, like a respectable, bonded person. I will see you around later-"
"Minseok. We both know you that you couldn't care less about the boy, so what's this show for?" the woman demanded, growing impatient and increasingly less pleasant. "He's not a respectable bond, he's some Zivra rat you plucked off a dying planet. How far are you willing to go just to avoid having someone decide for you? Is being in control that much more important to you?"
A rat. She had just called Jongin a rat.
He halted again, stared at his vest through the mirror.
"Your confidence is as mind-blowing as your horizon is tiny, but that's nothing new," Minseok replied, and if his voice had been sharp before, it was icy cold now. "It might be hard to believe, but not every single action I take happens in relation to you. You are not the main focus of my life, and neither are politics. And if you think calling my companion a rat is making me fond of you, then I fail to see how you could help me get in any one's good books, to be honest. I'll see you around, Zhi Ruo."
The last sentence was spoken with finality, and the call was ended before the woman could reply anything.
Jongin was still staring at his half-knotted vest.
Nothing but the soft hum of the space ship filled the air. Minseok didn't say anything, either, but Jongin wasn't waiting for an apology.
He... didn't feel miserable. Much to his own surprise.
"How long until we arrive?" he asked Minseok, his voice calm, tone neutral.
"Two hours, maybe two and a half," Minseok replied, and Jongin nodded to himself, methodically opening the tight pattern again to tug the fabric free. Then he looked inside the clothes bag, reassuring himself that next to the other white shawls, there were still the two golden ones. He'd lacked the heart to tell Luhan those two were a little flashy for his purposes, and now he was glad about it. With determination, he pulled the white fabric through the loop close to his shoulder, beginning to weave a different pattern.
He wasn't feeling dejected or anxious.
He was pissed.
By the time an automated voice announced that the docking process was about to be initiated, Jongin was all set. He was most definitely still mad, though he wouldn't let it show. Instead, he slipped into one of the two seats in a corner, not bothering with the seat belt.
"What do I have to expect?" he asked, feeling the little rumble as the ship was set on automated tracks. It was a vague question at most, but Minseok wasn't a soldier for nothing.
"Lots of deputies from the Saturn system, lots of Cerians in particular. Talk about how to handle the parasite infection taking over sectors A to D of the Jupiter system," Minseok listed, pushing a few buttons and checking charts. "Rants on the new voting system. And for you, uncomfortable questions, backhanded compliments and possibly degrading attitudes."
It seemed like he was waiting for Jongin to complain, only so he could tell Jongin that it had been his own decision to come along. Jongin didn't complain though, and when the ship came to a slightly jerky hold, he quietly waited by the hatch. Minseok shut down the ship and walked over to him. Whichever words had been resting on his tongue died as he caught an actual look at Jongin. He looked a bit taken aback, almost comically so, and Jongin could see him giving him a quick once over.
"Look, I," he then began, shaking off the surprise a little and catching Jongin's eyes. "If you want to leave, just give me a sign. We don't have to stay long. You can stay back, as well, if you want."
"Don't worry about me," Jongin simply reassured him. Minseok kept distractedly glancing at the glittering stones on his temple, and Jongin didn't bother defending himself. The stones were a pretty standard procedure for his kind, but he had gone all out for the vest, the centerpiece of Zivra clothing. He had woven all the shawls into a complex, traditional pattern, with the two golden ones forming a pattern of their own. It was tightly knotted, and on Jongin's left shoulder, the ends of a few shawls loosely hang down his back, all the way down to his thighs - another sign of formal, pompous Zivra attire. It would have been even more traditional if Jongin had skipped the flowy dress shirt he wore beneath it, but he wasn't in the mood to show much skin. He didn't need to, not for them.
Minseok was about to leave when Jongin half-covered the hatch.
"One more thing," he began, and Minseok looked more... not attentive, he was usually attentive. Was he worried?
"I heard you're royalty. Are you?"
Minseok actually groaned and averted his gaze.
"I'm not. Who told you that? Never mind, it was Luhan, right?"
"So you're not?" Jongin insisted, and Minseok licked his lips, disregarding whatever lip balm he was wearing.
"Cerians don't really have a royal line. It's just... in the past, people with clear scales were treated like nobility. It's an old custom."
He was obviously dismissive about it, but Jongin couldn't help studying his face a little closer. He had seen the scales blink in the light from time to time, but he'd never been close enough to realize that every single one of the few scales sprinkled along Minseok's temple was perfectly transparent. Not only that, they were also crystal clear, looking like tiny plates of glass covering specks of his skin. It was pretty for sure, enough so that Jongin would have liked to stare at them a little longer, but Minseok ducked his head away and opened the hatch with routined movements.
"Don't misunderstand," he added. "I'm here as a rank four soldier, not as some pseudo noble."
Jongin hummed in understanding. It was definitely food for thought, but for the time being, he had other things to focus on. Minseok stepped out into the harbor, and then looked back at him in question. In his showy, military uniform and lined eyes, he looked amazing in his own right, and could pass as nobility in pretty much any society, Jongin was sure. Could he live up to this image?
He took a deep breath, emptying his mind.
Not with that kind of attitude, he told himself.
He remembered the nasty tone the woman had used during the video call earlier, and a fresh wave of determination came over him.
He could do this.
With measured steps, he followed Minseok down the harbor. He wasn't scuffling and slouching, but striding confidently, but not harshly, retaining a perfectly straight posture.
When they rounded a corner and the first people came in sight - presumably waiters and other staff members - Jongin put on a pleasant smile.
Jongin was actually a good chunk taller than Minseok. This wasn't new, but Jongin had never really noticed it before this day. It had probably something to do with Minseok's commanding aura and confident stance. Now, though, with Jongin standing tall, exuding an air of confidence and mystery himself, it was painfully obvious. He had no idea whether Cerians cared about height gaps between partners - or comrades, or bonds, or whatever they named it - but he generously assumed that even if they did, Minseok was mature and reassured enough to be above that.
They both turned towards a middle-aged man and what Jongin assumed to be his wife. He had obviously preyed on them from afar, waiting until they were finally free to talk to. He could have joined the little group of important-looking people that were crowding them earlier, but if there was one lesson Jongin had learnt from dealing with people like him, it was that they liked attention. Preferably attention by those they deem wealthy, beautiful or powerful. Jongin liked to think that all of those applied to Minseok, but the man's eyes were resting on him before Minseok could even finish his own greeting.
"And this is your companion?" he asked, the eagerness poorly concealed. If he was being honest, Jongin would have to admit that the guy seemed terribly unlikeable already, but he smiled at him, anyway. Despite him interrupting their way to the buffet. The food looked really delicious, at least judging by the tiny creations that waiters kept carrying past them.
"Nice to meet you," he said gently, respectfully ducking his head for both him and his wife. "I'm Jongin."
Second names were useless to Cerians, so Jongin deemed it good manners to leave them out.
"You're really handsome," the wife stated straight away, earning a slightly raised brow of Minseok (probably not out of possessiveness and simply over the blunt way she said it); Jongin remained graceful.
Graceful was overall the best word to describe traditional Zivra etiquette. Every single movement had to flow with gentle purpose, from the tilt of his head when he was listening closely to the way his hands were folded in his lap. There was even more that Jongin had to keep in mind though, considering who he was, who he was dealing with, and what he was representing.
"You're too kind," Jongin replied with a light laugh - it wasn't all empty pleasantries, though, as he paired it with a warm expression, allowing a boyish charm to play into it. It strung all the right chords which was apparent during the rest of their conversation.
Jongin had intended to be the perfect trophy wife, but to him, that entailed not coming across as a trophy wife. It seemed illogical, but it worked even more for Cerians, an extremely proud species. Looking beautiful and exotic was helpful, but not to the point of looking like an escort. Jongin felt like he was safe on that front, with his perfectly fitted suit pants and the simple, yet distinctly sophisticated dress shirt he wore beneath his vest.
In the end, it all came down to not looking or sounding like an escort, to be your own person. That way, fellow Cerians would be impressed at the kind of catch Minseok had made. It was just a theory, but it worked out fine so far. It helped that in a way, Jongin could almost treat this as a business gala he attended alone. Almost.
"Minseok, there you are! I was wondering when you'd arrive."
They both turned at the sound of yet another newcomer approaching them - though Jongin had not yet forgotten this particular voice. They were greeted by meticulously applied makeup, a simple yet elegant dress, and the most spectacular hairdo Jongin had ever seen.
"Did you not find our table?" the face behind the makeup asked sweetly.
"Zhi Ruo," Minseok began with an acknowledging nod, obviously cueing her name for Jongin to hear. "We only just arrived."
It was a polite lie (in Jongin's mother tongue, they had a word for that; lies that weren't technically lies but rather far from the truth and served the purpose of smoothing out social interactions); the woman probably realized that and was graceful enough not to address it.
"I see. It's good to see you alive and well," she simply stated, and the uniformed man from earlier laughed.
"And it's good to see you, too, Zhi Ruo. Only got eyes for Minseok as always, don't you?"
Zhi Ruo acted embarrassed, playfully slapping the man and Jongin tried not to stare at the enormous tower of hair on her head and how it wobbled at the action. The fashion choices of wealthy people never ceased to amaze him.
"This is Jongin, by the way," the old general's wife jumped in with dimly concealed excitement, directing the general attention to Jongin, who was wearing a perfectly pleasant poker face.
Zhi Ruo didn't look mean with her thin, glossy lips that were tugged into a youthful smile, but her eyes betrayed an edge.
"Right, Minseok bonded you recently, didn't he?"
A rhetorical question. She made it sound like a bond was something casual, and like it was something Minseok alone had decided to give to him instead of it being the result of mutual love it was apparently supposed to be - which was true, but Jongin would rather die than have her know about that. He simply smiled.
"Yes, we're bonded," he said vaguely, trying his best to look like he was glowing, like he was immensely happy about it. The fact that he had something this woman desperately wanted certainly helped. Jongin didn't even feel a little sorry for being petty. She had called him a rat earlier.
"Ah, Minseok is such a nice guy, isn't he?" she continued, and Jongin nodded, waiting for it. He wasn't an idiot.
"So full of pity, too! He's really empathetic, don't you think?"
Jongin could feel the atmosphere getting awkward, though it was subtle. Maybe it was just Minseok glaring daggers at her - being portrayed as an overly empathetic person seemed to be a bad thing in Cerian society, but Jongin was more bothered by the implication that Minseok had bonded him out of pity. He had to get that off the table, and as gracefully as possible.
"Ah, I used to think that, as well," he began softly, an almost apologetic smile on his face, and his brain was frantically searching for a way out. This was the part he had dreaded all evening - the one where he had to come up with an excuse as to why they're even bonded in the first place. It was a miracle no one had asked yet (maybe the reason was really obvious to them), but Jongin really wasn't sure which reasoning would make Minseok look the best. Which reasoning Minseok wouldn't hate, which one he wouldn't regret.
"...but I realized that it wasn't really about pity," he added slowly, dearly hoping his insecurity would come across as shyness. A side glance told him that Minseok was averting all their gazes, staring at the ground unhelpfully, so Jongin just went through with it.
"We just fit together," he said, looking into the small round. It was a simple, yet disarming statement implying love, but also companionship.
"We just fit and Minseok realized that very quickly."
There was a beat of silence, and the general's wife seemed flustered, indicating that Jongin's choice of words had been just daring enough. He could only pray that he hadn't misinterpreted the entire etiquette surrounding bonds; or their purpose, for that matter. Before he could say another word, he felt a hand on his hip and couldn't help jumping a little at the sudden touch. When he realized that it was Minseok who was casually, but also kind of intimately holding him close, Jongin hurried to relax, to subtly lean into the touch. It was alright. Minseok was playing along.
Jongin wanted to sigh in relief.
"Is that how it is?" Zhi Ruo asked, and much to Jongin's satisfaction, she sounded a bit strained.
"That's... the sweetest," the wife sighed, actually holding on to the arm of her husband. "Look at these two. What a match."
Minseok had never touched him before, not even a pat on the shoulder or during their rescue. Jongin felt tingly and a little silly. Zhi Ruo was definitely staring at Minseok's hand, then at Minseok, and before she could open her mouth to pester them any further, Jongin cut her off.
"I'm kinda hungry," he blurted out, and then, more calmly, he added, "I'm sorry, I've meant to go see the buffet but there was no opportunity yet, and I'm so curious about Cerian cuisine. Do you have any recommendations?"
His awkward stumble seemed to endear the other two more than anything, and the general took the chance to speak about something less intimate than bonds.
"Oh, but of course. It's a pretty international buffet, though, with lots of exotic-looking food."
"Really? Then I might have a few recommendations for you, as well," Jongin threw in brightly, and then retold a vivid little story about the cooking habits of a species close to Zivra. As they made their way to the buffet together, it blended into a conversation on accents and languages, an area where Jongin felt the most reassured in, and Zhi Ruo was left out entirely. It was probably incredibly rude, but Minseok didn't even bother trying to talk to her as he silently followed along, his hand still resting on Jongin's hip.
The first thing Jongin did when they were out of sight was scratch the side of his face. It probably left an obvious mark in the makeup, but this spot had been itching forever and it had driven him crazy.
The harbor was only dimly lit, but Minseok apparently didn't need light to open the ship.
Jongin was exhausted, both physically and mentally. Social gatherings of this size always had that effect on him. It felt more like work than anything - though that feeling was oddly comforting and nostalgic now. Jongin fleetingly wondered whether he'd ever get to work a job similar to his old one again.
Minseok stepped inside the ship and Jongin mindlessly followed. Before he could walk past him, however, Minseok loosely grabbed his upper arm while he closed the hatch with his free hand, eyes on the control panel. Jongin waited patiently, vaguely expecting to be scolded for saying stupid things. When the ship was properly closed, however, Minseok immediately let go of him, only to shoot him a look he couldn't decipher. For the first time ever, Minseok seemed to be at a loss for words. He parted his lips, just barely so, but no words came out and his eyes flitted down from Jongin's eyes to his chest, lingering on the intricate knots.
"It's a pretty formal, showy knot," Jongin explained silently, almost apologetically. The silence was simply too heavy to bear, and simultaneously, Jongin felt too weak to tear it down with ease. Following Jongin's explanation, Minseok lifted his hand to trace out the lines of the tightly knitted shawls, his fingertips running over the fabric in the most careful, respectful way.
"It looks impressive," he admitted quietly. "And beautiful."
Jongin was by far not the most skilled at weaving a centerpiece, and maybe that's why the praise made him feel so fluttery inside. Then Minseok was looking at him, his bright eyes reflecting the dim, pale blue emergency lights of the ship.
"Why did you try so hard?"
His voice was quiet. Not accusatory, but maybe a little puzzled.
"I'm sorry," Jongin said before he could help it. "Did I mess up?"
Minseok lightly shook his head, but didn't avert his gaze this time.
"No, but why? What for?"
"I was just winging it, really," Jongin said evasively, but Minseok wouldn't have it.
"You strode in there looking like nobody even deserved to look at you," he began hesitantly, gathering his thoughts out loud, which Jongin hadn't seen him do before. "You moved like a dancer, and talked like a scholar to the soldiers and like a noble to the nobles. And you made yourself look like a fool for me."
Jongin felt his cheeks heat up, unsure whether it was flattery or embarrassment causing it. Minseok seemed to come to a conclusion and met his gaze again, more serious and assured this time.
"If you think that any of them can harm you - or me, for that matter - then you don't have to. No one is influencing my decision and no one will make us break the bond and kick you out. No generals, no admirals and no Zhi Ruo."
Jongin shook his head before Minseok could convince himself even further of his theory.
"No, it's- it's not that deep, to be honest."
Minseok was tilting his head just a little, and it looked so unguarded and surprised that Jongin would have smiled if he wasn't currently feeling so sheepish.
"Maybe... I was just kinda ticked off because of that Zhi Ruo girl earlier," Jongin admitted with a light shrug. "I was... alright, I was pretty pissed to be honest, and I wanted to show her up. I figured you wouldn't mind."
Minseok was still just staring at him, so Jongin kept filling the silence.
"And I don't really mind looking like a fool. I don't have any obligations anymore, and my reputation is irrelevant. It's alright."
Minseok was tilting his head again, his expression looking confused still.
"I see," he murmured, although it sounded more like a memo to himself. He seemed to have more words resting on his tongue, but instead, he turned away to sit in the piloting chair, loosening the various belts adorning his uniform.
"We're departing," he informed Jongin, who hurried to get seated.
Minseok didn't say another thing during the entire trip but that was alright. Jongin was positively surprised that his spiteful demeanour had gone by unscolded, and that was really all he could have asked for.
He spent the ride back leisurely unknotting the centerpiece until all the components were orderly resting in his bag again. The stones and makeup stayed - he'd take care of that under a hot shower back on the Oasis. By the time they docked into the Oasis, Jongin had been dozing for a while already, blearily following Minseok down the hallways. They didn't encounter anyone, which Jongin was rather grateful for. He probably looked like a mess after smudging his makeup over the entire passenger seat.
They entered Minseok's quarters, and with a pang of sentimentality, Jongin realized that he was feeling at home. These few little rooms had become his home already, and it only took leaving them for a few hours to acknowledge it.
So caught up in his own thoughts, Jongin almost didn't realize Minseok was staring at him from the doorway, holding a bunch of towels in his arms.
"I'm going to take a bath," he announced. "Do you want to join me?"
"Huh?" Jongin asked before he could help it. A bath? His first reaction would have been to ask questions, to allow himself to be openly flustered, but then he remembered the way the other crew members had talked about this before and how common shared baths seemed to be among Cerians. It was probably a friendly offer, and even though Jongin was tired, he'd be a fool to deny it.
"If you don't mind?" he asked back carefully, and Minseok shrugged ever so slightly.
"I wouldn't have offered if I did," he said evenly, and walked towards the door, only to shoot Jongin an expectant look.
"You wanna grab some clothes to change into afterwards or...?"
Right. Jongin strode into his tiny room to grab his sleepwear and clean underwear, and then they were on their way to the bathroom already. He had fleetingly seen the white, tiled room during Luhan's half-assed tour, but this was the first time he had actually stepped inside. There was no denying that Jongin was nervous, and he actually hoped they wouldn't be joined by anyone else. Not because he refused to share Minseok's attention (that would probably easen his nerves, to be honest), but simply because he had no idea what to expect and how to behave, and Minseok felt like the only person aside from the captain who was truly aware of that. Was it going to be just a regular bath? Did Minseok want to talk to him?
While they entered the brightly lit room, Jongin was hit by a thought.
What if it was... more than just a bath? Had he just agreed to getting frisky? Cerians reproduced differently than Jongin's species (something like kissing, as far as he knew), and they were pretty private people, so Jongin couldn't be too sure of any unspoken implications that might be attached to taking a bath together.
Minseok placed the towels in the hollowed out section around the bath, and with a flick of a switch, the lid covering the bath was mechanically drawing back. A very strong, but not unpleasant smell filled the air as steaming, cerulean water was revealed. Jongin had never seen bath water colored so strongly - Zivrans loved to put herbs and dried flowers into their bath water, but nothing would ever create such a vivid color.
"Have you taken a bath here before?" Minseok asked as he popped open the buttons along his sleeves. Jongin shook his head and stalled time by finding a place to put his pajamas in.
"You can shower before you go in, but there's no need to," Minseok explained calmly, slipping out of his uniform jacket. "The water is enriched with a lot of solutions that dissolve what we perceive as dirt. If you roamed unexplored terrain, however, a shower is definitely advised. But that should be a given."
Jongin hummed and awkwardly wriggled out of his vest, half-dragging his dress shirt along. By the time he had freed himself of both, Minseok was already stepping out of his underwear and before Jongin could even feel guilty over staring, the other had left through an automated door. Right. A toilet. Jongin used the sudden privacy to get even more nervous, because he was resourceful like that. He chucked his pants down, tugged off his socks and placed them all on a semi-messi pile away from the bath. Then he stared into the relatively large tub. It was shaped like the quarter of a circle, and the water would probably reach up to his chest if he sat inside. He could picture multiple people sitting in this tub together - there was enough room for sure.
Jongin shifted his weight on his feet, stalling more time. He was still wearing his underwear. When the door opened, he actually flinched, but then put on a poker face as Minseok walked past him, butt-naked and very much unbothered, to slip into the tub.
"I'll- be right back," Jongin muttered, hating the way he had stammered and vanished into the tiny adjacent room to save himself from further embarrassment. Next to the toilet and a sink, there was also a tiny shower cubicle which Jongin decided to use. Minseok said it wasn't necessary, but he wanted to be sure not to appear dirty in any way.
During the quick, luke-warm shower Jongin rubbed off as much makeup as he could, gathering the stones in one of the small trays, next to the soap, and finally slapped his cheeks once. If it wasn't a big deal to Minseok, then Jongin didn't have to worry about anything, either. Not to mention that he had caught an involuntary glimpse of Minseok's... lower regions earlier, and it had looked at least somewhat similar to his. So that was reassuring.
Jongin returned to the bathroom, not looking up to see whether Minseok was staring or not. He'd meant to just slip into the tub as quickly as possible, but the water was steaming hot, causing him to hiss. Now Minseok was chuckling for sure. Or rather he was exhaling noisily, but going by Minseok's standards, this seemed like a big reaction already.
"Careful. I can lower the temperature if it's too hot for you," he offered, and a quick glance told him that Minseok looked amused indeed, but not smug or condescending.
"No, thanks. I'll just sit down slowly..." Jongin trailed off, and slowly inched down. At least he now had an excuse for his flaming red cheeks. It must look mighty silly next to the cerulean water. The heavy scent seemed to entirely coat his lungs, in a good way. It was soothing, strangely filling, and Jongin wished he could take this feeling with him in case the panic ever came back.
By the time he was properly seated, back against the polished tub, he felt oddly tingly. The distance between him and Minseok was comfortable, just enough to ensure that they wouldn't accidentally touch. Jongin's gaze traveled down the other's pale skin, spotting a few faint scars and scales around his neck and chest area. It was so strange, being in such an intimate setting with the aloof fighter Minseok, of all people.
"Do you feel any different already?"
"Hm?" Jongin hummed, tearing his gaze away to meet Minseok's eyes instead.
"Do you feel anything?" Minseok repeated, still vague. Jongin thought about that.
"It's... nice? It tingles a bit, like my muscles fell asleep," he admitted. With a soft, knowing 'ah' Minseok leaned back, shifting into a more comfortable position.
"I wasn't sure whether it would work for you, but apparently, it does. At least to an extent. You don't know anything about Cerian culture, do you?"
The question came out of nowhere to Jongin, and it was so spot on that it was a little embarrassing. As a scholar, Jongin should know more about a race that's so genetically close to his own.
"I- we didn't communicate with Cerians a lot. Rare enough for only two or three people to be adept regarding your culture," Jongin admitted. "I wasn't one of them. Sorry."
"Sorry for what?" Minseok asked right back at him, and he did look like he was goodnaturedly teasing him now. "For having a more important job?"
"I mean, if you put it like this, I'll take the compliment."
"Do that," Minseok said with a small smile. It was strange, everything about this exchange seemed a little foreign. As if Minseok was showing him an entirely different persona that had been reserved for his crew members to see only.
For a moment, it was silent again. The comfortable kind of silence Jongin could deal with by now. It was a nice opportunity to really focus on the way the tingling seemed to resolve, leaving him to feel relaxed and calm.
"You see, the planet we come from is full of various gases and solutions that influence the mind of people like us," Minseok eventually began, and Jongin diverted his attention to him immediately. It was rare to have Minseok share something out of his own volition, without being prompted to, so Jongin wanted to listen closely.
"There are gases that make us feel depressed, lake water that makes us feel unreasonably angry or joyful. Living on Cenra is hazardous for our genetical range, so we adapted over time. Cerians are... way less emotional than other humanoid species."
Jongin didn't know how to process this information just yet, so he kept listening to Minseok's calm, thoughtful voice.
"Because we were always bombarded with sensations and emotions, our own nature slowly evolved and scaled back on those, in order to keep our species and society alive," he explained, and then paused, seemingly thinking of how to put his thoughts into words.
"I didn't realize that," Jongin said, quiet and probing; testing the waters. "You seem capable of feeling things just fine?"
Minseok shot him a look that said something along the lines of 'no need to humor me, I'm seeing right through you,' but Jongin shook his head.
"No, really. I... I mean, maybe you guys seem a bit different, but I never thought you'd be emotionless or anything. It's hard for me to read you, but I never once thought there was nothing to read. If that makes sense..."
Jongin awkwardly trailed off, and this time Minseok really was chuckling, averting his eyes for just a second.
"If you're saying these things on a blue night already, I don't want to hear what you have to say on a green one."
Jongin wrapped his arms around his legs, cheek mashed into the heated skin of his knee.
"What do you mean?"
"The water is blue tonight, so it's commonly referred to as a blue night."
Jongin hummed as the explanations picked up again. He hadn't felt this good ever since he left his home planet.
"Obviously, there are no gases and chemicals messing with us in space, so it's become a tradition to dissolve some of these chemicals into bath water, to enjoy their full effect. There's blue, which is relaxing,"
Jongin looked down into the water with new-found understanding.
"There's amber, which brings joy, green for being truthful, violet for meditation and- rosé, which heightens sensitivity."
Jongin didn't address the way Minseok had stuttered ever so subtly, too distracted by what he was saying.
"So people gather to... feel things together?" he asked, and Minseok nodded.
"It may seem strange to you, but that's how we actually tie our bonds. Not just the bond like we share it, but any bond. We're rather distant, and making friends or bonding is not something that comes naturally to us, so this social convention kinda eases the process."
"I see," Jongin hummed, and now it made sense why even Luhan had seemed a bit uncomfortable at the thought of sharing a bath with him so early on.
"So it's something a little more private. Thanks for showing me this, then."
If Minseok was flustered, it only showed in the way he blinked more frequently.
"It's alright. It's probably useful for you to know. And also I was curious whether it would even affect you."
Jongin hummed thoughtfully, splashing around the water as he slowly moved his legs and arms, trying to judge how much of his relaxation was influenced by the blue chemicals, and not simply the hot water. It had to be way more effective for Minseok, that much was obvious. It was still very nice though.
"Maybe I feel relaxed because you're relaxed," he suggested, struck by an idea. "This is what a bond is about, right?"
Minseok seemed honestly surprised at the thought. His skin looked just a little flushed from the heat, a detail Jongin couldn't consciously ignore.
"I didn't think the bond was influencing you in any way, but technically, you're right," he said, absently massaging his own arms. "Bonded people share physical sensations, though it's dulled down. If you'd hit your head very hard, I'd know, though I wouldn't feel the same amount of pain."
So that was how Minseok had been keeping tabs on him. He'd confidently stated how he'd notice it if Jongin tried to starve himself - now Jongin had an answer to that. And maybe that also explained why Minseok had seemed so hungry himself, back then.
"It doesn't seem to be like that for you though, or is it?" Minseok asked imploringly, and Jongin could hardly hold back on information if Minseok was giving it out so willingly right now. In this case, the truth equaled a shrug though.
"I don't know," he admitted. "I don't think I've ever felt anything unusual."
Minseok looked thoughtful at that, leading to Jongin to think further, as well.
"You weren't hurt, were you?" he asked, unable to keep the suspicion out of his voice. Minseok shrugged.
"Not really. You should have felt something though. Maybe the bond doesn't affect you like that. Good for you."
Jongin was itching to take his chance and ask Minseok now. Ask him why he had initiated the bond in the first place. But right now, he seemed more vulnerable, and exploiting that felt like exploiting his fragile trust. Jongin felt like he was being too naive and unguarded himself, so he tried to convince himself that gaining Minseok's trust could only be of an advantage to him.
"I'll try to be less clumsy, then," Jongin hummed.
"A stubbed toe won't affect me," Minseok countered evenly, but Jongin shook his head.
"Maybe hardly so, but even small distractions are unnecessary when you're on a dangerous mission-"
"Don't hold back," Minseok cut him off, surprisingly sharp. It came out of nowhere to Jongin, who could only shoot him a confused look.
"You're already cooped up in this ship and tied to me," Minseok elaborated, a little softer, but still serious. "Don't hold back on living. I already took a lot from you; there's no need to be generous with what you have left."
Jongin allowed the words to echo around his mind for a moment while Minseok averted his gaze. He looked a tiny bit regretful, but of what, Jongin didn't know.
With a determined inhale, Jongin scooted closer, just close enough to comfortably place his hand on Minseok's shoulder, coaxing him to meet his eyes.
"I know you said that you did not do me a favour by bonding me to you," Jongin began slowly, his voice quiet but sure, "but you kept me alive when I was dying. That fact remains unchanged."
He couldn't read Minseok, not at all, and Jongin figured it was a good time to separate, to give them both some alone time after such a long day.
"I'll leave first - I hope that's not impolite?" he asked, trying hard to sound casual. Minseok only silently shook his head. He didn't seem mad or offended in any way, but what he was thinking remained a mystery. Jongin tried not to think about it too much, and the bath had left him so relaxed and calm that he just sank right into his fluffy cushions for the best sleep he had ever had on the Oasis.
Minseok leaned back in the bathtub with a deep sigh, staring at the clean ceiling.
His thoughts were much less sharp and linear than they would normally be, with everything softly blurring together. That was alright though. Right now, he wasn't in a hurry.
At some point, the door slid open, allowing a gust of cold air in. Minseok didn't even bother looking. He listened to the rustle of clothes, the quiet closing and opening of the door, and then the water around him sloshed softly.
There was a sigh, and then even breathing. And no words spoken.
"What am I doing, Luhan?" Minseok asked at some point much later, when a mop of wet hair came to a rest on his shoulder.
Luhan hummed, vaguely questioning.
"What was I thinking back then?"
Luhan didn't answer that.
"Well, it's too late now," he said instead, relaxed and not particularly depressed.
Minseok closed his eyes, breathing deeply.
"I'm pathetic," he sighed. Despite the hot bath, he felt worn out. And tired.
"There's worse kinds of pathetic," Luhan offered, and it was a small comfort, but at least it was true.
Minseok leaned back into Luhan's side, the touch tingling pleasantly. Claiming someone's life was bad enough already, but dragging him along like this? Involving him and talking to him, and having him smile at him?
...just what was he doing?
Chapter 4: Diamond Mind
The gun was light in Jongin's hands, and the form mostly unfamiliar.
It had been quite a few cycles since he had attended the gala with Minseok. He hadn't counted, but it had probably been around four time units since he’d told some snobby people about the Zivran culture in which it was common courtesy to study at least one form of art until you're off age. Jongin had always danced, pretty much ever since he could think. To make his family proud, however, he had also picked up on traditional shooting. It came in handy when Jongin had to learn to shoot with automated weapons for his job (purely for self-defense), and that came in handy when talking to all the generals and other soldiers he had met at the gala. Back then, he hadn't realized that Minseok had meant it when he said that he'd loved to see his skills one day. Now he stood in the training room, with Minseok fiddling with the controls, picking out obstacles and customizing them. Jongin weighed the slim gun in his hand, testing the feel of it. He was probably going to embarrass himself.
"Alright, all set," came Minseok's soft voice from his right, and Jongin involuntarily stood a little straighter, eyeing the targets a little warily. Next to him, Minseok was calm as ever.
"Let me go first. I'll show you how it works."
It almost felt like he was in for a lesson, and Jongin preferred that over having to show off his meagre skills.
He watched the way Minseok held the gun, paid attention when he showed him which buttons to press to activate certain modes. It didn't fire actual bullets, but apparently caused an accurate kickback and otherwise emulated a gun very well. Compared to the rough, heavy weapons Jongin had learnt to wield, these modern guns were almost quiet, and just as expected, Minseok's aim was deadly. Within a couple seconds he had hit the row of hologram targets. Perfect headshots. For a second, Minseok squinted at them - as if there was anything to criticize about his shots. Before Jongin could say as much, the bright eyes were resting on him again.
"Give it a try?" he offered with a faint, but encouraging nod towards the targets. Jongin swallowed, but positioned himself.
His first shot was pretty bad, and it was a miracle that he hadn't entirely missed the humanoid shape. The second didn't fare much better, flying straight over the head and hitting nothing. Jongin felt like dying of embarrassment, but Minseok didn't say anything, simply watched the way he aimed at every single target. When he had reached the last target and missed completely again, Jongin felt like crying.
"Not bad. You're getting nervous though," Minseok commented, and Jongin huffed, unable to meet his gaze.
"I'm awful," he muttered self-deprecatingly. "I know I told you I can shoot, but... yeah. I'm sorry."
"I would have told you if it was awful. Zitao can confirm that," Minseok replied equanimously, and then he was even closer to Jongin, who held his breath.
"You have a distinct way of shooting and a certain routine to it. Feels a little rusty though, and not like one that suits these guns very well."
He reached out, hands hovering over Jongin's sides, a soft 'is this alright?' lingering in the air. Jongin nodded, willed himself to relax, and then Minseok was adjusting his posture, pressing against his shoulder blades, gently, but surely turning him just a little to the side.
"These things are very neutral in aim," he explained, and Jongin couldn't help the goosebumps spreading wherever Minseok touched him. He was so touch starved, it was ridiculous.
"Unlike with old-fashioned bows and the likes, there is no need to counterbalance anything at all. Trust the gun to hit the exact dot you're aiming at."
Instead of a reply, Jongin calmed his breathing, willing himself to lose the unnecessary tension pulling his muscles taut. When he was content with Jongin's posture, Minseok stepped away again, giving him room to breathe. And aim. Jongin took his time, trying to stick to the posture he was in, and fighting the urge to aim a little higher, even though it felt unnatural.
This time he hit the head.
It wasn't a spectacularly clean shot, and the target was one of the closer ones, but a hit was a hit. Jongin bit his lip, and simply aimed at the next one. And then the next. He went down the whole row again, and it felt rough, like he could use a lot of practice, but he was getting somewhere. When the last shot met its target, Jongin looked back at Minseok, who wore the faintest grin.
"Good job. Want me to hike up the difficulty a little?"
If Jongin didn't know any better, he would have guessed Minseok was excited. There was this small sparkle in his eyes. Jongin had pictured him to be a very strict teacher, and maybe he was; he just didn't feel like a teacher at all right now, and more like an experienced... friend.
How odd, Jongin thought to himself, and then the targets started to move around the room, and Minseok led him to the center of it.
"Let's see who hits more," was all he said, before he was shooting at the targets already, leaving Jongin to scramble and follow along. They stood back to back, and sometimes Jongin would feel the other's shoulders touch his back. He couldn't allow himself to be distracted, however; Minseok may have wicked speed and precision, but that didn't mean that Jongin was going to go down without any fight at all. Not after Minseok had shown him such a free-spirited grin.
Now Jongin's kind hadn't been violent at all, and the mere idea of shooting and murdering humans didn't sit well with them. Jongin hadn't really thought anything into it while they were shooting at humanoid hologram shadows - now that they moved around the room, though, Jongin was starting to feel a bit uneasy. They started out slow at first, walking casually, and Jongin hit as many as he could, suppressing the natural reluctance. They were just holograms, after all. The longer they kept going, the faster they moved, though, until they finally advanced towards them, mock-attacking with what Jongin could only assume to be holographic knives. It shouldn't be a big deal, really, but the faster they moved, the faster Jongin had to shoot, and the faster he shot, the less time was left to think. Movements, reactions, a twitch, a shot, something going down. It felt like slipping into a zone, and then the program hiked up the difficulty even more by filling the room with mist, obscuring the targets, and then human-shaped things went down in the fog, the fog -
Something jumped at Jongin and he shot it, feeling way too late how the panic had wedged itself deep into his lungs already. Jongin breathed in hard, tasting the smoke on his tongue ever so faintly, and then he got too scared to inhale again, but he had to, and his insides were starting to cramp up again. Something else flickered past him, too fast to react in time, and Jongin let go of the gun, he just let go and bolted for the exit. The panic was still there, boiling up and tasting like bile, and thanks to the holograms, he had to feel around for a while until he found the door. He was being called after, but Jongin just wanted to get away, and when the door opened to reveal neutral, artificial light, he tumbled into the hallway and frantically smashed the door button until it was closed. The noise vanished, leaving behind nothing but the hum of the spaceship pressing down on his eardrums. It seemed so dull though, everything was dull and intangible. Jongin closed his eyes and covered his ears, slumping down against the wall. He had to calm down. Calm down, think of something random, maybe make a list of his favourite foods, do the breathing exercises.
The door opened again, but no disturbing noise came out - Minseok must have turned the simulation off.
Jongin didn't look at him. He kept his eyes closed and forced himself through the breathing exercise, no matter how pathetic he must look right now. Nothing mattered right now, not even Minseok. Just the sound of his breathing, the taste of air on his tongue, a little harsh against his dry throat, but not toxic.
It went on like this for a long time, with Jongin sitting on the floor, breathing in long, forceful drags and Minseok standing next to him. Miraculously, no one else walked past them.
When his heart rate had normalized again and he dared opening his eyes to squint at the bright light, Minseok spoke up.
"Me too," Jongin croaked, swallowing. He got to his wobbly feet, feeling nothing but shame and discomfort as reality started to slip into focus again. Minseok shook his head.
"It was my fault. I should have known better."
Jongin only shook his head, ignoring the upcoming headache and keeping his head low. His eyes were burning.
"It's okay," he forced out, and hated how weak his voice sounded. He walked away before he could embarrass himself any further, and before Minseok could say anything else. He had to be alone right now. Maybe he could face him again when he was feeling better.
Jongin didn't see Minseok for the rest of the day. At some point, very late in the cycle, he heard him enter the room and go to sleep, but Jongin had his door closed and Minseok didn't knock or call out to him.
The next day, when Jongin crawled out of bed for a much needed shower, he saw something lie on the table across the couch. It was unusual for Minseok to let anything lie around like that, so Jongin examined the object closer. It was a mask. The form was similar to that of a surgical mask like Jongin had seen it worn at hospitals, but this one looked... pretty. Chic. Like an accessory. It was covered in various dark fabrics and metals, decorative clasps running along the sides. Jongin had never seen Minseok wear anything like it. Beneath it, there was something digitally written on the table.
If you don't like it, we can have it changed.
Again, I'm sorry.
It was for him? A present?
Jongin carefully lifted the mask, trying to understand what he was looking at. It took a few curious touches and actually trying it on for it to click. This was a simplified version of the breathing mask they had put on him back then. The one that filtered the air, which, in turn made it extremely cold. Or maybe there were other substances in there, Jongin had no idea. What he knew, however, was that he could put on this mask should he ever get into a situation similar to that on his home planet again. Which was very unlikely. He knew that. But now his paranoid subconscious had something to cling to. And with the way it looked, he could wear it at all times.
Jongin absently touched the straps, feeling the smooth metal under his fingertips.
It was quite silly, but the mask felt like a charm. A charm that told him not to be afraid.
Rational Minseok calmly telling him not to be afraid.
Jongin took it off to shower, but left it to rest on his clean clothes. Within reach.
Jongin was still meeting up with Yixing on a semi-regular basis, and Yixing never failed to tell him that he was doing great. Apparently, Minseok hadn't informed him of his recent slip up during their shooting session - a fact Jongin was grateful for. He knew it was stupid, but he felt a mix of embarrassment and guilt, thinking back to it. Still, Jongin could finally agree with Yixing; it was getting better. He wasn't there yet, he was still feeling anxious at times, or nervous, or would have nightmares, but it was happening less frequently, and that gave him hope. The stretches of time in which everything was perfectly fine grew longer by the cycle. It helped that he finally had things to do with his time other than sitting in Minseok's room, staring into the ocean of stars. These days, he was having many piloting sessions with Jongdae, who didn't seem to mind teaching him this frequently.
To be fair, it was tough to read him at first, to really know where he stood but Jongin had gained a new insight on Cerians after the bath he had shared with Minseok. It was a little uncomfortable at first, but he tried to have faith in what little input he got, and to not read too much between the lines; not that Jongin was the most sensitive and mindful person in the first place, but Cerians were a level even below him in that regard. Either way, Jongdae treating him like air hadn't meant that he'd hated or even disliked him. It had meant nothing at all, Jongin was pretty sure of that by now. Genuinely neutral behaviour with no ill intent. He was so sure because after only a few piloting sessions, Jongdae seemed to warm up to him, seemingly developing respect for Jongin's diligence and perseverance. He might not be a natural, but Jongin wasn't stupid, and Jongdae wasn't a bad teacher.
After a couple of successful lessons, Jongdae offered him a seat even when he wasn't in the mood to teach him. Today was one of these days.
"Can I ask you a personal question?"
Jongdae hummed encouragingly, fingers routinely dancing over the keys and screens, checking various charts. They hadn't talked in a while, and Jongin had used the silence to muster up some courage. Luckily for him, Zitao wasn't around. Where Jongdae's attitude towards Jongin had been nothing but neutral, Zitao's was most definitely tinged by prejudices; at the very least he was wary of Jongin and they still hadn't broken the ice yet. With the moody co-pilot not being around, however, Jongin figured it was as good a time as any to ask.
"Are you bonded to someone?"
Jongdae shot him a fleeting side glance.
"No. You interested?" he asked teasingly, and Jongin huffed.
"In your dreams."
Jongdae didn't retort anything and simply smiled to himself, because he could be gentle like that.
"I was just wondering a few things..." Jongin began, trailed off, and Jongdae hummed again, wordlessly allowing him to continue. Jongin shifted a little in his seat, staring at the navigation board without really seeing it.
"Why do Cerians bond? And can you bond with just anyone?"
Jongdae seemed amused by the question.
"Asking why we bond is like asking why love exists," he replied, and, after a short pause, he added, "or sex. It's the way evolution found to keep our species alive and reproducing. By tying two people together, they form a unit that's stronger than the individual, and by sharing pain and pleasure alike, they're made to look after each other," Jongdae explained matter-of-factly, slipping into his teaching mode again.
"I see... but what if a bond is not mutual?" Jongin asked, and he saw the other grimace at that.
"Bonds ought to be mutual," he said immediately. One look at Jongin's puzzled expression told him that the other hadn't meant to be offensive or rude, and Jongdae sighed.
"I'm sorry. It's a touchy subject."
"I'm sorry. You don't have to talk about it," Jongin said vaguely, though he couldn't deny that he was very much curious about the whole matter. Jongdae sighed again, but went through with it.
"No, it's fine," he began, giving up on the pretense of doing any piloting and leaned back into his seat, lightly turning towards Jongin.
"You need to form a bond on mutual consent, or else it won't work or might end up half-formed and potentially dangerous to the individuals," he explained patiently. "You're probably thinking of people carelessly entering a bond, or even under influence. Stripping a person of a choice to make them enter a bond with you is considered a crime among us - not unlike rape. You require mutual consent to break a bond, too, so you can imagine what happens if someone is force-bonded. It's a dark part of our history, to be honest, and probably part of why many species - including yours - despise our kind."
"I see," Jongin replied quietly, nodding in understanding. It made sense, and also suited the prejudices of Cerians being cruel and oppressive. He had heard of their past dealing with slavery, but not how or why it had happened.
This was where Jongdae averted his eyes.
"You're wondering whether your bond is mutual, aren't you?"
"I mean. I am, not going to lie now," Jongin freely admitted, trying hard not to seem accusing or to push Jongdae too hard.
"You're an... edge case," Jongdae began carefully. "It is not yet fully studied how bonds between Cerians and other species work because they're rare. Some species seem to not be receptive at all, while the bond plays out very differently for others. I don't think I've ever heard of a Cerian and Zivran bonding."
Jongin listened patiently, watching Jongdae very briefly chew on his lips.
"Even disregarding that, you're still an edge case though, because you weren't under influence, but not exactly aware of what you were getting into either. It was a total shot in the dark, even though Minseok was convinced it was going to work."
"It's alright though," Jongin threw in before Jongdae could dwell on it too much - he didn't want him to feel bad or guilty over a situation he wasn't technically involved in. He reached out, but only placed his palm on the hand rest of Jongdae's chair. It was enough to make the other meet his eyes again.
"I may not have known back then, but I'm alright. I don't feel violated. And Yixing said the bond potentially saved my life, so it seems to be working somehow, right? I was really just curious, you can believe me."
The tension left Jongdae and he relaxed a little.
"Got you," he breathed out with an apologetic smile. "It's a little tough, still. Understanding how you tick and where you're going with things. Sorry."
"Same here," Jongin admitted awkwardly. "Our differences definitely aren't made up."
"And yet the bond worked, just like that," Jongdae said almost softly.
"Do you think it really saved me?" Jongin asked, not really knowing what kind of an answer he'd like to hear. Of course he had sometimes wondered whether Yixing could have saved him either way, and whether entering a bond had been of no use to Jongin. Jongdae was quick to nod though.
"It did. That I'm sure of."
"How can you be sure?" Jongin asked, and Jongdae grimaced again, this time in a more sympathetic way.
"Minseok was bedridden for days. The first two days, he didn't even attempt to get up and get busy, which is saying something."
"He was ?" Jongin exclaimed, suddenly very alert. He hadn't known about this, and just imagining tough Minseok being in too much pain to even leave the bed was sheer impossible.
"Well, I told you you're physically tied to each other and share pain," Jongdae elaborated now that it was obvious that Jongin had missed the gravity of that earlier statement. "A bond means that both bodies try to maintain a certain balance."
"So if I had died that night..." Jongin began, a little too horrified to finish. Jongdae actually hummed at that, thoughtfully swishing his chair a little from left to right.
"Hm... hard to say what would have happened, actually. There's a limit and it's very rare for the remaining person to die as well. It all depends on the dynamics of the bond, the intensity and age. All in all it's unlikely, but who really knows?"
One look into Jongin's shocked face made Jongdae turn the mood around again.
"But he lived. You lived, he lived, and everything's sorta good now, eh?" he asked, actually patting Jongin's knee. "Besides, Minseok never even had a doubt anyway, and his confidence can break down walls."
Jongin nodded. It was a lot of new information to take in, but Jongdae was right. They were fine now, both of them.
With this, Jongdae leaned back in his chair and made a dismissive gesture towards Jongin.
"And now shoo, my little pilot in the making, go and get me some snacks and prepare to entertain me, for a change," he demanded with an easy grin. Jongin didn't even protest, because he, too, could be gentle like that, if he wanted to. And he really liked Jongdae.
It was kind of ironic, how Jongin saw much more of Jongdae than Minseok, who was supposedly sharing this really intimate bond with him. It couldn't be helped though - Minseok was usually out, being an active part of their government's military projects. Jongin never really knew what those entailed, but apparently he did a lot of strategizing. It felt like a placating thing to say, considering the amount and shape of weapons Minseok was usually wearing when he returned. It was hard to imagine those being a mere precaution. Whatever he did, Jongin tried to be back in their quarters around the time he returned, simply to greet him. It seemed like in turn, Minseok went out of his way to spend part of his meagre free time specifically with him. They even went back to shooting practice at some point, with Minseok being more mindful of the whole process. One time, he had shown up in the cockpit, leaning over the piloting chair to watch Jongin struggle, while Jongdae sat on the armrest of the co-piloting chair, guiding him along. That particular time stood out to Jongin because he got to hear the two bicker and joke around, and just be very good friends in general. It displayed a very different side of Minseok; one that Jongin would also like to see aimed at him one day. There still seemed to be a certain barrier between them despite their budding friendship, and Jongin had a vague idea of what it consisted of. Their bond.
One of his current goals was to clear the air between them, but approaching Minseok for a serious talk was somewhat of a long term goal - even if he took his time to eat with Jongin after a busy day, the exhaustion was obvious on his face and Jongin didn't have the heart to trouble him any more.
It was one of those days where Minseok had left just around the start of a new cycle, a mere few hours after he had arrived, and Jongin awoke to empty quarters. He lightly shook his head at the other's workaholic nature and the government's lack of consideration towards him. Sure, they needed him, but straining him too hard could always cause him to snap or get injured.
Either way, it wasn't his business, and so Jongin started the day by stretching, and going through a small dance routine, followed by a hot shower and breakfast. Despite his already quite monotonous life, he liked routines, and this one felt productive. Afterwards, he sat down to read - another activity that kept his mind alert and was enjoyable. He kept reading a slice of life story told from the point of view of Belisians (the species with Jongin's favourite language by far) until it was acceptable to go and bother Jongdae. On his way to the cockpit, Jongin was already thinking of visiting Luhan afterwards, to see what he was up to. He was undoubtedly the person he spent the most time with, right after Jongdae. By now, he also understood why Yixing had sent Luhan for him when he awoke on the Oasis for the first time. He could see how Luhan was the least... Cerian of them all. He was pretty active and fit, like all of the crew members, really, but he also had this unquenchable curiosity for anything new and foreign. With his limited access to the world and his utter laziness when it came to reading, this often led to him and Jongin watching foreign movies and documentaries, or appreciate other forms of art. It was always fun to hang out with Luhan, so he was looking forward to that.
When he opened the door to the cockpit, he saw someone jump away from the pilot's seat. Mildly concerned, Jongin walked towards what turned out to be Zitao, in the piloting seat, and Jongdae, who had taken a step away from him. Currently, Zitao rose from the pilot's seat and glared at Jongin. He looked even more pissed than usual. He then looked back at Jongdae, as if daring him to say something. When he didn't, he huffed out in disbelief.
"You know what? Never. Mind," he spat, and then rushed out of the room with an innate elegance not even Jongin could deny.
The following silence was awkward, to say the least.
"Sorry," Jongin began, looking at his feet, "I'll... come back another time-"
"No, no!" Jongdae cut him off hurriedly, gesturing him over. "It's fine. It's all good, take a seat."
"It's okay, I'll just-"
"I mean it, don't worry about it."
Jongin nervously shifted his weight from left to right. It seemed like Jongdae actively wanted him to stay, and he had no idea what was going on. It didn't help that he'd been suffering a mild headache for awhile now.
"Are you sure?" he asked, and Jongdae nodded, looking perfectly relaxed.
"Yes, yes. Don't mind Tao. Come. You wanna pick up where we left off last time?"
Jongin tried, he really did, but it was obvious that neither him nor Jongdae were in this one hundred percent. Jongin was dying to at least ask him about Zitao, but he was pretty sure they weren't close enough yet. He might have asked if it was Luhan, who was pretty open and not very Cerian-like at all, but not Jongdae. Jongin just couldn't shake the feeling that it had something to do with him though. He'd probably been hogging the pilot's attention for too long.
"Pay attention to the map," Jongdae hummed, and Jongin hurried to comply. He could read most of the maps by now, and noticed the grainy cloud right away, pulling the ship up just a little, to avoid flying through it. It was nothing too dangerous, but the atmosphere very subtly chafed at the ship's surface, and should be avoided if possible. Jongdae's hand was on his immediately, gently correcting his course. Jongin would be a liar to say that the constant touches had never affected him in the least, but Jongdae was just being professional, and he knew that. Right now, he was simply staring ahead, perfectly concentrated on the stars ahead of them. Jongin wondered whether Zitao had misinterpreted the relationship between them. That would insinuate that Zitao wanted the pilot to himself, in a way, and this really wasn't any of Jongin's business. He concentrated on the various charts and maps, reading the heat and texture signatures around them, and noticed something odd. There was a part of the texture map that looked slightly glitchy. The color and rough texture looked just like the ones around them, but there was a certain flicker in the upper right corner. It flickered again, a little further to the middle.
"Is this normal?" he asked, nail softly tapping against the section of the map. Jongdae leaned in, then leaned in closer, all but pressing against Jongin's side.
"What..." he whispered, and for a moment, Jongin saw nothing but the other's frizzy hair. Then Jongdae cursed, and the atmosphere shifted drastically.
"Up," he commanded, voice sharp and tone urgent, all playfulness gone. Jongin scrambled to get out of the seat, and was about to stand behind and get out of the way, when Jongdae vaguely gestured to his left.
"Sit down, keep track of the heat signature," he ordered, already tapping away on the interface. Anxiously, Jongin obeyed and slipped into the co-pilot's seat. He wasn't ready for this - he was barely able to fly a straight line and had hardly any idea what a co-pilot's job really consisted of. Two pictures and numbers flashed up - Jongdae was making calls. Surprisingly, Zitao picked up first, after a mere three seconds.
"Fuck you," came the instant, hearty reply, but Jongdae was too high-strung to care.
"Move your ass over here, someone's coming for us," he barked, swiftly ending the call to switch to Yixing next.
"Boss, someone's approaching us, and I don't think they're friendly."
"I see. Don't end the call, I'll be with you in a moment," came the curt, but calm reply, and the lights in the piloting room changed from a neutral, white glow to a shade of green. Emergency lights, probably. Jongdae only hummed, too busy tapping away, checking the condition of the ship and shields. Jongin felt helpless and seeing Jongdae so serious and focused only added to his uneasiness.
"Is it because of a current mission?" he dared to ask, eyes glued on the heat signature. There was indeed something approaching, something the sensors hadn't picked up from the distance. Jongdae just grunted in denial.
"We're on an irrelevant escort mission with nothing of great value on board. Maybe they're pirates."
"What do you see, Jongin?" Jongdae asked impatiently.
"Uhm. Just one thing. Ship. I think it's only one ship," Jongin stammered, and was endlessly relieved when the door opened and Zitao rushed in to take Jongin's place.
"What's going on?" he asked, and there was a rapid exchange of information between the two pilots. Jongin was simply left to stand behind Jongdae, hands on the headrest of his seat. Yixing joined them not too soon after, exuding calm concentration as usual.
As far as Jongin understood it, this ship had tried to sneak up on them, and was unaware of having been spotted already. The pilots were playing it cool while Yixing commanded everyone on the ship to get into position. He had no commands for Jongin, who simply stood there and shut up, hoping he wouldn't be a bother. When Yixing left, he announced that he'd guard the teleporter. Jongin had seen a documentation before, with Luhan, where an enemy had hacked the other ship's system and then used their teleporter to infiltrate. Was that what's going on? A possibly hostile encounter was already scary, but having enemies on the ship ? What if it was the same people that had come for Jongin's race, what if it were the Quor'i?
The door slid open again to reveal the face Jongin had least expected but maybe most hoped to see - Minseok. He was still in full gear, with weapons and technical devices dangling from his belt. There were streaks of dirt on his face, Jongin noted. It was funny what the brain paid attention to, under stress.
Minseok made a beeline for Jongin, shoving a shooter against his chest.
"Here. Stay here and back the pilots up," he instructed him, like the soldier he was. Jongin wasn't a soldier though, Jongin was a regular person who felt panic welling up.
"I can't," he began, and then Minseok's gloved hand wandered up to his shoulder, fingers slipping under the breathing mask Jongin was wearing around his neck.
"You can," he said softly, a sudden streak of entirely unfamiliar gentleness seeping through. "No one's going to get here, anyway. I'll keep them out."
With this, Minseok left the cockpit, leaving Jongin behind with his mixed feelings. He wished he had time to sort them out, but for now, he had to stay strong. With his left hand, Jongin absently touched the mask around his neck as he turned towards the pilots with new-found determination. And then the ship jerked. It was just a small movement, a tiny bump that shouldn't occur when flying through space.
"We got hit in section E. Laser type A500, no damage," Zitao rattled down, and Jongdae scoffed.
"I doubt it's all they have," Zitao only replied, and that's when a second jerk made Jongin tighten his grip on the back of Jongdae's chair.
"A350. You may start at least trying to evade them now," Zitao continued with faux politeness thinly veiling his annoyance. Jongdae gently steered the ship around, and more hits were shown on Zitao's chart.
"Mhm. Just a little closer," Jongdae hummed. "How are the others doing? What's Luhan saying?"
Jongin couldn't see the ship as it was approaching them sideways, but it was coming closer on the map, and Jongdae's casual attitude lulled him into a potentially deadly feeling of security.
"Jongdae," Zitao said warningly, and the pilot hummed again, a little more impatient himself.
"Yes," he dragged out. "We're not sitting in a two person escape speeder; our mobility is limited. Now hush, I'm concentrating."
Zitao sighed in exasperation and tapped away, adjusting the shields and doing a lot of other things Jongin couldn't interpret at all. Another little bump, another blinking section on the map, and then Jongdae ripped the ship around and down in a move so sudden and violent that Jongin stumbled to the ground with a yelp, only barely avoiding slipping away even further by holding on to the co-pilot's seat.
"Oops, sorry. Hold on tight," Jongdae called out airily, and the ship was humming much louder than usual. Zitao lifted his head set and looked into Jongin's general direction, vaguely gesturing towards the wall.
"Stand over there and use the security belts."
Then he was back to listing information and Jongin obeyed, almost hitting his head at another brutal turn. Now it made sense that everything was so firmly secured, that there were padded sections and seats in the wall with belts to keep him from flailing around the ship. Jongin had never experienced anything like this.
He chose to stand, simply so he could better aim his shooter, should it come down to it, and hoped he wouldn't puke. Now he saw the other ship, which was roughly their size and kept shooting at them. Instead of simply evading, Jongdae seemed to charge right at them.
"Prepare to fire," Jongdae instructed.
"Awesome," Jongdae quipped and ripped the ship around again, diving right under the enemy. There was an almost terrifying delight to his voice.
Zitao just groaned.
"Fuck, Jongdae - You just said this is not a two person speeder!" he yelled over the hum of the engine.
"Aim at the front from below," Jongdae commanded. For all his complaints, Zitao complied to the instructions without a hitch and put Yixing on speaker as he fired his first shot.
"Thanks. I'm connecting you to Luhan," the captain said, and Jongin was painfully pressed into the padding as Jongdae flew a spiral around the ship, which failed to aim at them properly on such a tiny distance.
"Guys?" Luhan asked, and it was Zitao who replied as he kept firing few, but well-aimed shots.
"Yes. You holding up well?"
"They're trying to get in but they suck. I can't get into their systems, either though, cause the ship is coated with some metal that's blocking the signal."
"We might be able to shoot them down, but I wouldn't go for it," Zitao replied.
"It can't be coated all around though, there has to be an opening around the engine outlet."
"That's behind the ship. How much time do you need?"
Jongin couldn't do anything but listen to the rapidly exchanged information - no one was wasting a second and everyone worked together like a well-oiled machine.
"Try it," Jongdae dared, and this time Jongin was expecting the push and pull, but his headache was getting worse nonetheless. He wondered whether Minseok was doing alright, being shoved around like this. He had to be used to it. Zitao wasn't above cursing at Jongdae every other turn though, readjusting his aim and keeping the shields in the most effective places at the same time.
"Can you do it, Luhan? " Yixing asked urgently, and received a pressed "Just a moment," in return. Jongdae was actually grinning to himself as he faked out the other ship and kept hiding in its blind spot, angled just right for Luhan to do his work. His eyes were sparkling, and maybe they really hadn't lied when they told Jongin that he'd been a racer before piloting the Oasis.
"And..." Luhan began, dragging it out in anticipation, "...gotcha! Hah, they're done for."
He sounded immensely smug. The ship seized the shooting immediately, and Jongdae slowed down the Oasis. A few seconds later, Luhan added, "They're running on emergency power now. Opened the port. "
"We're going in. Seize the fire, stay out of their shooting range, Dae."
At the captain's words, Jongin felt a fresh wave of anxiety wash over him. He really hoped Minseok and Yixing wouldn't be hurt. His head was still pounding, and it felt like a bad omen.
The cockpit was dead silent as Luhan sent them a live feed of the enemy's ship. Jongin didn't know what he had expected, but humanoid people lifting their arms in surrender wasn't it.
Most of them gradually dropped to their knees, as well. It was strange. There was no audio, but Luhan informed them that most of them weren’t responsive while very few ones weakly begged for mercy. That it hadn't been their intent to fight them, that something made them do it. It was strangely unsettling, and Jongin remained tense from head to toe while the two soldiers slowly made their way through the ship, shackling any crew member on the way. None of them showed any resistance though. Jongin could only imagine how intimidating the two Cerians must be, but something else seemed to be inherently wrong with the crew.
After securing the entire ship and finding nothing to be off, Yixing instructed Luhan and Yifan to join them and take over their ship from inside.
"They're humans," Yixing announced, and his voice crackled a little. "We're taking them hostage for now. No one will be harmed if they comply. Pilots, you can go back to stand by for now."
It released an unspoken spell and the two pilots relaxed, which also made Jongin loosen up a bit at last. They trusted Yixing and so did he. It seemed to be over for now. He loosened the safety belts and unceremoniously sank to the floor, placing the weapon aside. Aside from his headache, he was also threatening to throw up any moment now, so for the time being, he did nothing but breathe.
Zitao seemed to share the sentiment as he huffed in annoyance.
"You can be a really shitty pilot, you know that?"
Jongdae just huffed, and although Jongin couldn't see his face from the floor, his voice sounded like he was smiling.
"And you’re the best co-pilot," he stated with a soft finality that sounded a little too intimate for Jongin to linger around any longer. With a strained smile and a nod, he left the cockpit - not even because he was that noble and wanted to give them privacy. The cruel reality was simply that their aggressive cat and mouse game had left Jongin sick to the stomach. He retreated himself to Minseok's quarters where he intended to lay down on the couch, waiting for the world to stop spinning and his stomach to settle again. After a big glass of water to cure his ever-present headache, Jongin did just that and eventually dozed off, with a flurry of thoughts quietly echoing around his mind.
When he came to, it was to laboured breathing. It took his muddled mind a moment to realize where he was and how he got there. Then the sounds slipped into focus and he sat up as fast as he could, squinting at the bright light. Minseok was standing at the counter, with the back to him, the tension obvious in his posture. Jongin felt his heart drop.
"Are you okay? Did you get hurt?" he asked, tumbling to his feet. Minseok flinched, and shot him a shocked look. His skin looked a little ashen, and covered in a thin sheen of sweat. It made the scales stand out more than usual. He blinked and averted his eyes.
"No, I'm fine," he said, and the lie was so obvious that it puzzled Jongin. Carefully, he approached him, and his head was still pounding.
Even though there was simply no reason for his headache.
Jongin stared at Minseok's strained posture as a suspicion snuck up on him.
"Are you really?" he asked slowly, keeping a respectful distance between them. "Because I've been feeling funny all day, and you don't look all that fine to me..."
Minseok shook his head, a simple sign of rejection, but for a moment, no words would leave his lips. After a deep breath, he stood up straight and looked at Jongin.
"It's nothing. I'll be going to sleep," he announced, and his composure was remarkable, but not nearly convincing enough. "We'll decide what to do with the hostages tomorrow, but don't worry. The others are keeping watch."
With this, he turned to leave for his bedroom, and Jongin jumped forwards without thinking.
"Wait-" he began, carefully grabbing the other's arm. Minseok flinched, way too violent for a gesture this harmless, and shook Jongin off as if he'd been burnt. Minseok looked beaten and if Jongin didn't know better, he'd say he looked like he was about to cry.
"Please," he began, eyes firmly cast on the ground. "Leave me be for tonight, okay?"
His voice sounded weak, as if he was incredibly close to breaking down, and Jongin wanted to respect him and his privacy, but whatever it was was mean enough to make even Jongin feel it, something that had apparently not happened before, at least never with such a noticeable intensity.
"Is there anything I can do to help you?" Jongin asked quietly and Minseok looked at him, parted his lips, another rejection probably waiting on his tongue, but then he said something very unexpected instead.
"Jongin, it's my cycle. I've hit rock bottom," he admitted, a certain finality suggesting that this was supposed to shut Jongin up.
Instead, Jongin only looked at him in confusion.
"What do you mean?"
"I'm in heat," Minseok burst out with a bitter smile, his voice still quiet but incredibly self-deprecating. Jongin felt like someone had tipped his balance.
"Oh," he said dumbly. "As in... you mean you need to..." he trailed off, feeling hot embarrassment travel up his insides.
"It's barely noticeable if you're not bonded," Minseok elaborated, misinterpreting Jongin's hesitation for further confusion. "And it's supposed to grow weaker as the bond settles. I just- this is new for me, as well."
Minseok ruffled his hair in frustration. His current, unstable state seemed to trouble him a lot. Jongin felt bad over even seeing him like this, especially while he himself felt nothing at all. It didn’t feel fair.
"I'm sorry. That's why I told you to just leave me be," Minseok murmured, gaining determination as he was going on. "I'll be fine. The fact that you're sleeping only two rooms away is helping enough already. It's alright."
"Really? Just being around is helping?" Jongin asked, not sure what he expected or wanted to hear. He just felt slightly helpless.
"That's what it's about," Minseok sighed. He seemed to grow more grounded the longer they talked. Or maybe it was the close proximity between them.
"Cerians used to be emotionally unstable and then developed to be emotionally distant; the necessity of the cycle didn't change, and it's firmly ingrained in just about every one of us. The cycle is there to make us seek each other out, to strengthen the bonds and keep the bonded ones within close proximity."
"Oh," Jongin uttered yet again, and he had no idea where he took the courage from - it might have been Minseok's slightly glassy eyes or the unusually scratchy, weak voice of his. But he took a step forward, and then another, to draw him into a firm hug. Minseok's breath hitched and for a short moment, he tensed up even more, before relaxing almost compulsively. Jongin felt his own heart hammer in his chest, and had no idea whether it was the bond's doing or not.
"So does that make it better?" he murmured into Minseok's unusually matte, black hair. They could both use a shower, but right now, Jongin didn't mind holding him. Not with the way his breathing was evening out.
"Yeah," he whispered, as if he'd rather not said it, as if he wished it wasn't true, but in contrast to that, Jongin felt the his hands travel up his back, hesitant and cautious.
A part of him was wary, of course. Would it require more to satisfy Minseok right now? He still wasn't sure how intercourse worked for Cerians and whether it was something Jongin was willing or even able to provide. Was he teasing Minseok right now, making it all worse? It didn't seem like it. They simply stood there for the longest time, with Minseok holding him, face buried somewhere in his neck, breathing evenly, causing Jongin to feel absurdly fluttery inside. At some point, he finally drew away, announcing that he had to shower and sleep with a raspy voice. He thanked Jongin as if he had made a big sacrifice by holding him like that.
When Jongin came out of the shower a while later, he had to cross Minseok's room, as usual, and saw him curled up on his bed, pretending to be asleep. He had thought this through already, had made up his mind during the shower, and yet he hesitated, standing in Minseok's dimly lit room with his heart beating so fast it almost hurt. He ultimately gave in though, and slowly sat down at the edge of his bed, waiting to see if Minseok was going to protest or stop him. He didn't, despite the dip of the mattress being all too telling. Jongin slipped under the blanket, wrapping his arms around Minseok's waist.
By the time Jongin fell asleep, they had reversed their position and Minseok was holding him from behind, his arm heavy and comforting. He had fallen asleep in record time, too, obviously pulled in by exhaustion. With the solid weight and warmth tethering him down and the foreign, heady scent lingering in the air, Jongin had a much harder time falling asleep.
His headache was gone though.
Chapter 5: Bonus I: Changing Directions
just a little something happening away from jongin - feel free to skip this, if you want ><
"And you're the best co-pilot."
The words echoed around Zitao's mind more than he'd like to admit while they both silently watched Yixing and the others explore the human ship.
This could be the end of that. The end of their little quarrel. They sometimes fought, it was natural. And they always ended it in a simple way, too.
This could be the end of that and tomorrow, everything would be back to normal.
Did he want that though? Did he really?
On his good days, Jongdae was reckless. On his bad days, he was a disaster. Zitao had always known that.
On his good days, Jongdae was playful, on his bad days he was quiet.
On his good days, he would patiently teach Zitao, on his bad days, he'd verbally poke at him until Zitao snapped. If you lived on such a cramped space, you eventually got to know every single side of each other, it was only natural. Zitao didn't mind.
What he did mind, though, was the way Jongdae treated their Zivran newbie. He noticed . It wasn't his imagination, either, because really, he knew Jongdae in and out. The way he spoke to the boy as if he was a precious, fragile thing, the way he gently guided his hands over the controls, the way he looked at him. That was what irked Zitao.
Jongin might be naive and unfamiliar to Cerian nature and etiquette, but Zitao knew that these looks meant something. The smiles, too, the way he showed general interest in anything about Jongin.
It was unethical and Zitao hated it.
And as it usually was with him, with them, he eventually addressed it.
"You are aware that Jongin is bonded, aren't you?" he asked one day, out of nowhere, while he was sitting in the piloting chair, with Jongdae hovering at his side. His voice was too neutral to be without insinuations, but Jongdae chose to ignore all of them.
"Well, obviously?" he asked back, and Zitao saw him grin in his stupidly carefree manner, saw it through a reflective surface because he refused to look at him.
"Then why do you keep acting like you wanna stick your tongue down his throat?"
The vulgar statement entirely pearled off of Jongdae. Or at least that's what he pretended.
"Oh, please," he huffed. "Are you that jealous?"
Zitao paused, feeling his mood drop even further.
Was he jealous? Over Jongin's many piloting lessons and the amount of attention he received? No. He could wholeheartedly say that without lying to himself. Maybe it was that easy because he knew Jongdae didn't do it to make him jealous. He was strangely sure of that. It wasn't his style.
"Jongdae, he is fucking bonded. To one of your best friends, at that. What are you doing?" he snapped, turning to see the exact way Jongdae would take his statement. To his satisfaction, it put a crack in his demeanour.
"I'm not doing anything," he said quietly, eyes averting his. To Zitao, the tinge of hesitation was clear as day.
"You don't believe that," Zitao scoffed and something about his tone drove Jongdae closer to the edge.
"Well, I also don't believe you're not simply jealous," he replied sharply, eyes narrowing. "What's it to you? You wouldn't usually care about these things."
"About Minseok, you mean?" Zitao countered, ignoring the prick Jongdae's words had left.
"About me and who I'm looking at in whichever way," Jongdae countered, unimpressed. "Or at the very least you never had the guts to say anything about it. Why now? You're using Minseok as an excuse?"
"You're getting pretty worked up over 'nothing' here," Zitao all but hissed. "You're also pretty adamant on making this about us. Is it about us, Jongdae?"
He looked up at him, feeling the challenge pulsing in his veins, angry and impatient. Jongdae responded with an almost bitter look.
"There is no 'us', or is there?"
It was a stalemate. It was always a stalemate between them, and there were a dozen reasons for that and yet none at all.
"You're avoiding the subject," Zitao said quietly, a little less aggressive now that Jongdae's voice had gone softer, too. "There is no point in what you're currently feeling. Jongin is Minseok's, and you know that."
Jongdae reached out, fingertips grazing Zitao's shoulder, and the air felt thicker now, sweeter.
"Of course I know that," Jongdae whispered, sounding sad in many ways. He was leaning down, too, a little closer towards Zitao,
"Then stop hurting yourself," Zitao muttered, eyes drinking in the sight of Jongdae's beautiful scales, and the way his lips curled into a bittersweet smile even now.
"So you can hurt me?" he asked quietly, and there was a funny tone in his voice, one that Zitao couldn't decipher at all.
In that very moment, Zitao didn't understand what was going on inside Jongdae's head. So he didn't try to respond to it.
"Just stop this. You cannot have Jongin either way."
And then, when Jongdae was already way too close, Zitao spoke without thinking, the words slipping out, rolling off his tongue, heavy and promising.
"Have me instead."
Jongdae huffed, his eyes dropped closed, and that's when the door opened and he jumped away from him. Zitao craned his neck to see Jongin stand in the doorway, because of course he would. If their positions had been reversed, Zitao wouldn't have backed away in shame. He would have dived in for a kiss for real, probably. Show Jongin exactly how things were and what his place was. Jongdae, though, Jongdae had backed away and was now staring at the Zivran boy in something only Zitao could probably identify as shock. Well, this was as good a chance as any, he thought, rising to his feet and staring at him expectantly, the annoyance still bubbling beneath the surface, only further fueled by the grave words he had so carelessly spoken, despite being entirely sober.
Say something, Zitao thought. Tell him you don't have time right now. I took a step towards you, now look at me and clear things up.
But Jongdae didn't say a single word, because of course he didn't. He could drive into a battle against a dozen ships all on his own, but deep down, he was also a damn coward.
Zitao was a coward, too, but at least he was sick of this side of himself.
"You know what? Never. Mind," he spat, and left the two alone.
He didn't want to see Jongin's naive face any longer, and he didn't want to see Jongdae anymore.
It could end right here.
Zitao could grin and make a joke and then they'd be quarreling and everything would be back to normal.
He didn't make a joke though, and maybe that was the first step towards unknown territory. They both stared ahead, pretending to pay attention to the screens. Zitao eventually gave up and stared into the stars around them, reminiscing the times where they had gone further, had ignored the boundaries of casual friendship, to mutually and silently return again. There had been a time where they'd been too drunk, and Zitao could still picture the way Jongdae had looked with marks on his neck. There had been those times when they were both too wound up, too emotional and lonely and ended up abandoning Zitao's bed in favour of sharing Jongdae's. Incidents like that seemed to be a random occurrence between them, and it did irk Zitao that they couldn't seem to decide on where to take their relationship, but only now was he growing too frustrated to ignore it any longer. Only now that Jongin had entered the scene. Only now that Jongdae's heart was beginning to stray from him...
But Zitao had taken a step. The ball was in Jongdae's court now. Then again, maybe he had told himself that one too many times now. That he had done enough, that one step was enough to reach a goal.
So no, he did not want things to go back to normal. Not this time.
And so he stubbornly stayed silent.
Eventually, Jongdae sighed, leaning back in his chair to give up all pretense of watching Yixing boss around the poor humans on the ship.
He didn't say what he was sorry for, and Zitao could think of at least three things he could be apologizing for right now, but he didn't want to fight anymore. So instead of demanding clarity, he simply said, "Me too".
For a long time, no one said a word.
"Is Jongin really that much more appropriate than me?" Zitao finally asked, his tone even and not accusing in the slightest. Maybe a bit resigned, at most. He didn't know why he was asking this, hadn't even realized that he had this question until he'd voiced it out, really.
Jongdae looked taken aback.
"No, of course not," he was quick to say.
Jongdae didn't immediately reply this time. He looked down in his lap, sighed, and then ruffled his hair.
"I don't know," he muttered. "I thought... that you're not serious, I don't know."
Zitao stared at him, but couldn't even manage to look affronted. It was too close to what he'd been feeling, as well. The eternal doubts. The assumption that this was a temporary fix, an unspoken arrangement of necessity.
"Jongin just... happened. And I just played along, because I'm weak like that."
"Don't say that you're weak," Zitao cut him off, and now it was his time to respond without a doubt. "You're not. You're just a coward."
Jongdae had the guts to huff out a self-deprecating laugh at this, and it made Zitao's heart hurt.
"Just like I am," he added, and despite his pounding heart, he activated the key lock, got out of his chair and sat on the edge of the control board, right in front of Jongdae, his legs spread to bracket him in, and hands resting on the arm rest of the chair.
"Jongdae," he said quietly, feeling the warmth bleeding through their pant legs where their legs touched. Jongdae was looking at him, slightly hesitant, slightly unsure, but he wasn’t moving. He wasn’t running.
"Have me. Please."
Jongdae's gaze seemed to get a little cloudy at the heady statement, and this time, Zitao had taken two steps, and Jongdae followed, pulling him closer.
Things weren't exactly the same after that, but that was alright.
Chapter 6: Strain
As expected, Minseok was gone by the time Jongin woke up. Next to him, the mattress was still a little warm though, so it couldn't have been that long.
Jongin contemplated going back to sleep; he didn't even have anything in particular to do, so there really was no reason to peel himself out of bed already. This wasn't exactly his bed though, and staying in Minseok's bed like this made him feel like an abandoned hook up. Which was probably exaggerated, but he should at least move to his own bed and face the potential awkwardness now, before it grew even bigger over time. Jongin was definitely prone to overthinking when nervous and out of his element, but not when he just woke up. He wasn't just bad when it came to mornings, he was the worst.
When he sat up, he saw Minseok look at him from where he stood at the counter of the main room.
It was a simple greeting, but even in his befuddled state, Jongin was certain that he sounded more gentle than usual. Jongin blinked and rubbed his eyes, mumbling a sleepy "Hi," right back at him.
"You want breakfast?" Minseok asked, his fingers hovering over the buttons.
Jongin wanted to sleep, but he also didn't want to deny or avoid Minseok.
When they sat down around the table a while later, the atmosphere was surprisingly comfortable. Jongin would have expected it to be awkward, especially considering how distant Minseok could be. The other seemed incredibly relaxed though - Jongin wasn't sure whether he had ever been this relaxed around him. He thought this side of Minseok was reserved for Luhan, or Jongdae. Or any of the crew members.
"It's mushy, isn't it?" Minseok asked with a small grimace aimed at pasty excuse for breakfast. "We're really running low on food. We should be docking somewhere soon."
"Can't you use the transporter?" Jongin asked, scraping around his bowl. It really was mushy, but not inedible, so there was that. Minseok hummed in negation.
"It's pretty troublesome to teleport big amounts of food over far distances, and not really worth the price and effort. It's more of a desperate measure."
"I see," Jongin replied, and ate another, small spoonful of what vaguely tasted like vegetables. It was quiet for a few seconds, and Jongin asked without thinking too hard about it.
"Do you feel better?"
He noticed the way Minseok's spoon hovered in the air for a second.
"Yes," he replied softly, only to lose an inner battle an look up at Jongin, after all.
"It's much better. I'll stay on the ship for today, maybe tomorrow, too, but the worst is over. It'll be fine."
Jongin just nodded in neutral acknowledgment. The last thing he wanted was to make things awkward for Minseok.
"You'll probably be needed here, anyway," Jongin began conversationally. "I heard you're a good strategist who works together with Yixing a lot."
Minseok hummed, gratefully accepting the diversion from this cycle that he seemed to be so ashamed of.
"There will be a meeting around five. To discuss our further steps."
He looked at the lit numbers on the edge of the table.
"We can leave as soon as you're done."
"We?" Jongin asked. The other stayed patient.
"It's a meeting for the entire crew - Yixing likes to involve everyone when it comes to decision-making, though he obviously has the final word."
"Yeah, but... I'm not a real part of the crew, so I thought..."Jongin trailed off, scraping at the last remains of the vegetable mush.
"You recently cleaned the bath and training room, did you not?" Minseok asked as if Jongin was being really dense right now.
"Well... Jongdae told me that I should be doing my part and added me to the cleaning schedule," Jongin shrugged, and Minseok shrugged right back at him in a rare display of playfulness.
"You're learning to pilot and you're on the cleaning schedule. Clearly, you're part of the crew."
Jongin slightly shook his head at this.
"Is it really that easy?"
"Why would it be any more difficult?" Minseok only asked, and got to his feet. Jongin followed suit, silently mulling over the fact that anyone would consider him a part of the crew.
"Are you sure you're not too busy? We can meet up another time, as well, it's not like it's urgent-"
"Oh no, it's perfectly fine. Take a seat," Yixing hummed as ordered two simple cups of hot water. It was a thing he did during his sessions with Jongin. Offering him a cup of tea and having him choose a flavour from his very extensive and interesting collection.
Jongin went for something called chamomile this time, and got comfortable while Yixing prepared the tea. He wondered whether the entire little ritual served a purpose, whether it was meant for him to relax or whether the routine itself was meant to do something to him. Maybe Yixing just liked tea, or maybe it was a bit of everything. Either way, Jongin didn't mind. It was simply odd timing to be having a session now, after their short meeting on how to proceed with their hostages. They hadn't found very clear or convincing answers as to what had happened to them and why they were attacked, but at least they'd decided on the next course of action - to take the hostages back to their own kind. As it was the case with humans, their mothership would be the most obvious place to go for. The ride over to them would take around three units, even using wormholes. At least the ship had reacted to their message, informing them that their location wasn't going to change drastically in the near future and that they were open to welcome them.
All in all, there was not much to do but wait until their arrival, but Jongin wasn't ignorant enough to assume the range of tasks a captain had. After all, Yixing was always busy with something. Right now, Jongin seemed to be that something though, and he was determined not to take up an unnecessary amount of his precious time.
"How are you doing?" Yixing asked. It was always the first thing he asked, and recently, Jongin's replies had become more confident.
"Good," he could say without hesitation. Then he remembered something though.
"I... I recently felt the bond," he admitted, "I don't know if this is relevant or not, but I thought I should mention it."
"Sure! That's interesting to know," Yixing assured him, looking genuinely curious, albeit not in the manner of a nosy friend and rather that of a fascinated doctor. "When and what did you feel exactly, if you don't mind me asking?"
"It felt like a headache to me, one that grew stronger when Minseok was- wasn't feeling well," Jongin explained awkwardly. Considering how ashamed and troubled Minseok seemed to be by his cycle, it felt wrong to bring it up to someone else, even if that someone was kind of his therapist. Yixing was also a close friend of Minseok, after all.
He didn't seem all that interested in that specific part of the tale though.
"A headache? That's... unusual," he mused, already scribbling down a note about it.
"Is it? I also felt kinda anxious. Maybe that caused the headache?" Jongin asked rather than stated, and Yixing shot him a curious look.
"Anxious over anything in particular?"
Jongin shook his head.
"No. It stopped when Minseok felt better."
While Yixing scribbled down even more notes, Jongin nervously reached for his cup of tea, simply to occupy himself with something.
"Is that so strange?"
Yixing tilted his head from left to right, before seemingly catching himself and returning to his reassured, calm self.
"Not strange, but unusual. Among Cerians, the only effects of a bond are physical, and easy to pinpoint at that," he explained, placing the little tablet away to lean back on his sofa and fully focus on Jongin. "If one of them gets shot in the leg, the companion would suddenly feel a piercing pain in the leg. The pain the companion feels is dulled down a lot, meaning that many minor pains will go by unnoticed. I'm pretty confident that Minseok gets hurt a lot, and yet you felt nothing."
Realizing how accusing this probably sounded, he hurried to continue.
"Not like there's anything bad about it. I simply assumed the bond would work one-sidedly. And yet you felt something for no discernable reason, and something so intangible at that."
He really didn't want to say it, but neither did he want to start a huge investigation over nothing.
"It was Minseok's cycle," Jongin admitted, shifting awkwardly in his seat, eyes trained on the reflective surface of the tea. Yixing wasn't perturbed though.
"Still. Experiencing the lowest point in your cycle does not make you feel physical pain, it's mostly mental discomfort- oh."
Jongin looked at him, too slow to follow.
"Oh?" he echoed cluelessly, while Yixing seemed to light up in a mix of fascination and glee.
"You're reacting to psychological pain instead of literal one! That's truly fascinating."
Jongin was too occupied with the statement itself to feel like a lab rat. He felt it when Minseok was bothered by something? Did that mean it worked the other way around as well?
"I've never seen anything like this before," Yixing continued, definitely infected with scientific curiosity now. "Did you feel anything like this before? Are there any other symptoms you suspect being the bond's doing?"
Before Jongin could even think of a reply, Yixing seemed to remember something.
"What about numbness? Did your limbs, muscles or nerves ever feel numb and unresponsive?"
"No? I... actually knew someone who had symptoms like that, though."
"Who?" Yixing asked without missing a beat, and he seemed even more tense now. Jongin gripped the cup of tea a little tighter, almost burning himself.
"Uhm. A friend of mine, back on Zivra. I think I mentioned him before - his name was Sehun. It's pretty irrelevant, sorry. I just thought that my race might be prone to symptoms like that."
"No, please keep going. Tell me more about Sehun," Yixing demanded gently, and Jongin swallowed. Talking about his co-worker and close friend was still rough. After all, they had been together during the catastrophe, and losing him in front of his very own eyes might have been the worst loss of them all. Still, Jongin tried. He described Sehun to him, talked about how they had met in the obligatory dance classes they had taken, how they'd worked at the same place, albeit in different areas. Sehun had been way more extroverted than him, but deep down, he had been a soft and thoughtful person, and also incredibly lazy on top of that. He wasn't one for too much physical activity, which made his complaints over occasional numbness even stranger. It didn't seem overly harmful and yet it was worrying, how Sehun would recall a prickly feeling followed by numbness in his fingers, legs or sometimes just general patches of his back, so he went to see a doctor about that. And then another one.
"No one ever figured out the source behind it though," Jongin ended. Yixing was tapping his finger against the rim of his cup. It didn't make a sound but betrayed his current, thoughtful state.
"And then the medics gave up?" he asked, and Jongin shook his head.
"Of course not! It was getting worse over time, so there was no way they'd give up. But before they could find anything, the air was poisoned."
There was a moment of silence, in which Jongin tried to stay as positive as possible. Sehun would have liked to put a smile on people's face upon remembering him. Jongin could only try and work towards that goal.
"I see," Yixing said calmly, and then took a deep breath. "One last question."
Jongin glanced up at him, keeping all the hurt at bay. His fingers found the breathing mask, touching it almost unconsciously.
"What kind of job did Sehun have?"
"Huh? He was part of the technicians, leaning more towards programming than literal mechanics. Why? What does that have to do with anything?" Jongin asked, but the other only lightly nodded, looking a little zoned out.
He declared their session done shortly after, and Jongin couldn't help but feel like he'd missed something very important. Where Yixing seemed oddly pensive, but satisfied, it left Jongin with more questions than it had answered. How odd.
Despite them keeping an entire ship hostage, the atmosphere on the Oasis was relaxed. People did what they always did - Luhan was playing games in his room, Yifan was teaching the captain more about their machinery and Minseok was out on a mission. And Jongin sat in the cockpit, learning how to program autopiloting routines and maneuvers.
Zitao was there, as well, and while he wasn't exactly engaging Jongin in small talk, he refrained from glaring daggers at him or making snide remarks. It was progress in Jongin's books.
Soon, they would meet up with humans. Jongin had never met humans in person - they were pleasant to communicate with though. Very simple-minded and easy to understand. He wondered whether he was even allowed to join in on their interactions but if he was being honest, he was really itching to. Cerians and humans weren't exactly a good match, and Jongin was convinced that he could aid the process without leaving anyone mortally offended. Then again Yixing was very professional and mild-mannered - it just another trait that made him a great captain.
"Alright, and now let’s say you made a mistake in the routine," Jongdae said, fingers hovering over the screen that listed the steps he had saved. "You fed it with the wrong calibration. How would you change that?"
Jongin subtly chewed on his lip as he went into a separate menu and hesitated. Think before you mess up in haste, had been one of the first lessons he'd been taught. Changing the calibration. But the system had calculated it on its own, how would he change the parameters-
"You're such a bitch," Zitao commented, clearly aimed at Jongdae. He received a hearty "Shut up," in return, and when Jongin glanced at him, Zitao was blankly staring at the screens in front of Jongin. That’s when he got it.
"If the destination calibration is wrong, it's not the routine's fault because the system calculated it," Jongin said, sounding semi-confident at best, "so I could try to have it re-calculate, see if it updates, and if it doesn't..."
"...we got some deeper issues with the system and should contact Luhan right away," Jongdae finished for him, and patted his shoulder. "Absolutely right, good job."
Jongin shot Zitao a quick look, wearing a small, almost sheepish smile, but Zitao only shrugged.
"Now let's pretend you actually had to change your routine," Jongdae continued. "How would you go about that?"
Jongin's fingers hovered over the menu, finally went for the third option, then the first- and stilled.
A drop of liquid landed on the screen, obscuring the options.
There were tears running down his face.
The information entered his brain in a stuttered, unnatural way as his mind was sent into a frenzy of analyzing something that didn't follow any of the known patterns. Just like that, without a warning or anything prompting it, Jongin had started to cry.
"Huh?" he mumbled, already wiping at the wet spots with his palm.
"What is it?" he heard Jongdae asking, sounding bewildered more than anything. Then Jongin's entire vision blurred, and he felt like he was being slammed into a wall, except from inside. That didn't make any sense, but nothing made sense anymore. He was scared. Terrified even. But not from the pain, he just- he just-
"Where's Minseok?" he asked, his fingers clawing at Jongdae's legs hard enough to bruise, the other pressing on the breathing mask without putting it on.
Zitao cursed, and then Jongdae dragged him to his feet. They were calling Yixing as they dragged him out of the cockpit, and Jongin wished they were calling Minseok instead. He wanted to tell them just that, but he couldn't. His head was pounding and there was a piercing pain in his windpipe, his stomach, his throat; everything was just convulsing and going into hysteria, burning out every coherent thought he'd had. Minseok. Something about Minseok. Something was very wrong.
He was pushed into a familiar room - Yixing's quarters - and Yixing was there as well, gently, but firmly pushing him to sit on the bed reserved for patients. Only when he hushed him did Jongin realize that he'd been wincing and whining in agony.
"Where's Minseok?" he asked again, voice high-pitched and foreign to his own ears. There was a strong pain beginning to bloom somewhere around his stomach, like someone was continuously pressing down on his skin until it bruised. And then kept going.
"We're trying to reach him. Hold on a little longer. Tell me where it hurts," Yixing demanded, and Jongin shook his head, overwhelmed and blocked by his own panic. He was terrified.
"I know," Yixing began, carefully running his hands up and down Jongin's arms, "your mind hurts. I understand. Does it hurt anywhere else though? I need to know so I can try to help you."
Jongin didn't know how he could possibly be helped if he was feeling phantom pain. The phantom pain that was mirroring Minseok's current condition. His palm hovered over the source of the pain though, and Yixing was quick to lay him down and carefully touch the perfectly unblemished skin. Jongin was still crying, and now that he was lying down, he just wanted to curl up and escape everything. It hurt so much.
Jongdae was yelling Minseok's name, and then asked what happened to him, so maybe he had managed to reach him, after all. Jongin wanted to talk to him, but at the same time, he wanted to be alone. Everything felt like it was burning him; touches, looks, existing.
Jongdae cursed some more, and then told him to hang in there.
"He's been hit. He's out of danger but he's alone," he told Yixing, but it was Zitao who moved first. Jongin didn't see that, but he saw him standing in the doorway and Jongdae holding him back.
"I'll contact the team. Maybe I can navigate them," he insisted, and as soon as Yixing gave him a small nod, he ripped himself free and ran off.
"Minseok, did you do all the first aid steps?" Jongdae asked urgently, and then he grew silent for a moment, before snapping at him.
"Put him on speaker, Dae," Yixing instructed, tugging some cords around Jongin's bare stomach and keeping them in place with belts. There was a cool sensation on his stomach, uncomfortable and soothing alike, and Jongin felt himself breaking into a cold sweat.
"He doesn't want to," Jongdae relayed, and he sounded angry, but not at Yixing. Jongin wondered whether hearing his voice would make everything better or worse. He had no idea. He couldn't think straight.
"Give him to me," Yixing ordered strictly, and Jongdae followed suit. Jongin knew that because Jongdae slipped into his vision shortly after, and Yixing wasn't talking to him anymore.
"Minseok- Minseok. Stop. Hang in there, they'll find you. Don't press on the spot too hard, you might hurt your organs."
The hot tears just wouldn't stop, and Jongin couldn't help silently moaning in pain. Yixing kept repeating Minseok's name, kept patronizing him, reining him in, and Jongin knew what was going on. He was dying. He was panicking because he was dying.
"Yes, he is with us. He'll be fine. He's barely affected by physical pain, so he'll be fine."
There was another pause, and Yixing sounded hesitant.
"You don't know that. Now, Minseok-"
Another pause. Then Yixing started arguing, told him that this was an awful idea, and now Jongin's hearing was growing unfocused, as well.
He felt something on his cheek, a hand. Yixing was slipping into focus, looking at him with an unreadable expression.
"He wants you to cut the bond," Yixing said, loud and slow, so even Jongin could understand.
"I can do that?" he tried to say, and somehow, Yixing interpreted the slurry mess correctly. He nodded.
"It needs to be mutual. He gave you permission. He already injected himself the solution we'll give to you as well, and if you let go of him, the bond will be gone-"
" No ," Jongin snapped, as firm as he could. Yixing was reaching out, and Jongin shook him off almost violently, sitting up even though it made his head spin. Jongdae steadied him instinctively.
"No," Jongin repeated, a little weaker, and then he retched.
"It's alright. He gave the permission," Yixing repeated calmly, but Jongin knew exactly what was going on - if he severed the bond now, Minseok would be on his own, without a healthy body trying to outbalance his state. His fate would be sealed.
"I don't want to," he argued, and Yixing was already holding up an injection.
"It's alright. He said-"
"But I don't want to, Minseok!" Jongin yelled, way too loud, hoping for the communicator in Yixing's hand to pick it up.
"You can't decide that on your own, you stupid prick!" he yelled, and retched again. Jongdae held him sideways, holding a bowl Jongin hazily tried not to miss. He almost choked on the bale, and blindly tugged Yixing closer, aimlessly yelling into the room, though his voice was growing weaker.
"And now calm the fuck down, okay?!"
What followed after was a fresh wave of pain, sharp enough to make Jongin scream. He gave up on holding on to reality and allowed himself to focus on nothing but breathing. Jongdae was there, and so was Yixing, and for the longest time of his life, there was nothing but pain. It was just as painful as that time where he had been dying on his home planet, albeit different. After a few feeble, pathetic attempts of his own, Jongdae helped him put on his breathing mask. It didn't help nearly as much as it had back then, but Jongin wanted it close. His feverish mind created the illusion of Minseok being close, thanks to the mask. He fought to stay conscious, but everything just frazzled under his fingertips, slipping away. Everything turned dark as Jongin eventually lost the battle.
"It's fine, he's breathing. I wouldn't move him for now though, so I'll stay with him. You go and represent me," Yixing said curtly, not even tearing his gaze off the charts and numbers running down the monitor. Jongdae was torn between jumping to action and hesitating.
"It will be fine. Humans are difficult, but they'll help. Offer them payment if you need to. Take Luhan with you and go."
"Alright," Jongdae said warily, and hurried out of the room, towards the teleporter, where Luhan was already waiting. The captain was tied to his office while the second in command would arrive any minute now, being shipped over by his team, and clearly dying. Yixing was well-equipped, but it was nothing in comparison to the massive ship hovering in front of them. Minseok’S fate depended on them. On the humans, Luhan, and him.
Jongdae swallowed one last time before activating the teleporter, which showed an array of green lights. Luhan squeezed his hand one last time, and then reality warped as they were transported right into the steel grey giant, the flying colony called Gaia.
Chapter 7: Gaia
When Jongin came to, he was feeling much better. He was feeling so good, actually, that it took him a few moments to remember the pain he had been in.
Abruptly, he sat up, squinting against the rather bright light coming from Yixing's desk.
"Minseok," he mumbled, looking around for any trace of him, but he was alone. No Yixing and no Minseok. Had Minseok not returned yet?
A terrible thought dripped down his spine like hot metal. There was no way that Minseok was back to perfect health already, so if he was feeling so good right now, did that mean...?
When Jongin slipped off the bed and into his shoes, he felt shaky. Whether it were remnants of pain or worry for Minseok, he didn't know. He didn't pause to think about it and made his way through the ship, looking for any of the crew members. His first destination was the cockpit, both out of habit and because someone was usually piloting, right? The cockpit was empty though. Jongin paused when his eyes fell on the scenery outside. In the lounge, he'd seen the familiar ocean of stars stretching out around them but from here, he could see a ship. He took the time to lean forwards and read the map, two quick taps revealing their current location and the ship's registered name.
The name rang a bell, and it took him a few seconds, but then he remembered it. Gaia was the mothership of the human race. He'd heard of it, had even communicated with people on it, and apparently, it was gigantic. What he was seeing was probably a mere fraction of it.
So they had reached Gaia, as planned.
But what about Minseok?
"There you are, Jongin."
As if on cue, Yixing had come to find him, looking as calm and collected as ever. Jongin dimly wondered whether he was wearing a tracker of sorts, but there were more pressing matters at hand.
"How is Minseok?" he asked in place of a proper greeting, and the captain smiled.
"He's doing alright. We've been sitting in the meeting room, come on."
Jongin followed without a hitch, firing more questions at him.
"What happened though? And where is he?"
"He's on Gaia. They're still keeping him asleep so he can heal properly. I'm assuming you feel much better?"
Jongin nodded, and he started to feel even better now that he heard Minseok was alive and healing.
"I thought so. With Minseok being asleep, his mental stress was put to a hold as well," Yixing explained, clearly talking from a doctor's point of view again. Jongin hummed. It was hard to believe that just hours earlier, he had feared for Minseok's life. And his own life, as well.
"How long have I slept? Not days again, right?" Jongin asked warily, but forget all about his question upon entering the meeting room - which was really just the training room with a table having been extracted in the center. They were all there, Luhan with his slouchy, bad posture and Jongdae, who was slurping a drink as he listened to the others. Yifan and Zitao seemed to be bickering but upon noticing Jongin, everything came to a halt in favour of small smiles (in the case of Yifan) to boisterous greetings and offered seats (in the case of Luhan).
"I'm glad you're feeling better," Jongdae said quietly when Jongin slipped into a seat next to him. Before, Jongin wouldn't have thought too much into what would be a common phrase on his home planet. He knew better now.
"Thank you," he replied, equally quiet but also equally genuine, and then Yixing took the word again.
"We were having a little briefing on our next steps," he explained for Jongin specifically, "So far, we have barely interacted with the humans aside from a quick confirmation that they would take care of Minseok, at the very least until he is back to his feet."
"Which can't be too long, knowing him," Luhan hummed, "he'll probably run off and escape the ship as soon he wakes up."
His words elicited a little smile here and there. Jongin felt like smiling, as well. The relief over Minseok's well-being was palpable.
"We better tell them to tie Minseok to his bed, then," Yixing said, and it was very obviously only partly a joke. He then put his palms on the table.
"Either way, we need to formally meet with whoever is in charge, to explain our little hostage situation. We have to determine who is accompanying me."
Jongin wanted to go with him. He wanted to see the infamous, flying society and talk to humans face to face. And he wanted to see Minseok, make sure he was alright with his own two eyes. But he wasn't sure Yixing would have any use for him, so he awkwardly kept his gaze down. Humans were usually able to speak the common dialect, so there was probably nothing to contribute for him.
"With Minseok being out, I was thinking Zitao and Jongin," he heard Yixing say, and looked up in surprise.
"Would you be alright with that?" Yixing asked simply, and while Zitao shrugged, Jongin couldn't help but voice his worries.
"I'm not sure if there's anything I can do though..."
Luhan lightly boxed his upper arm with a grin.
"Don't say that! Isn't this your expertise? Talking to foreigners?" he piped up.
"I heard you almost made some Cerian nobles cry," Yifan provided, and Jongin felt his cheeks heat up in embarrassment, muttering a weak "I did not". Yixing wasn't fazed by their banter and smiled at him in the usual, reassuring manner of his.
"You know more about humans than we do," he said. "Cerians and humans aren't said to be overly compatible, so having you with us will surely aid the communication. You'd be a valuable representative of the Oasis."
Now Jongin was both embarrassed and flattered.
"I'll do my best."
Jongin was reminded of that time he'd attended a gala with Minseok; of the moment he had listened to the rhythmic clanking of the ship running down the tracks to be parked in the harbor, of the lowly rumbling wariness in his stomach. Next to him, Zitao looked somewhat grim and determined while Yixing was having a casual conversation with Yifan about the machinery needed to run a ship of this size. The ship came to a halt and Jongin swallowed. He adjusted the mask around his neck one last time, and then Yixing was exiting the ship already.
His first impression was... not underwhelming, for that would insinuate disappointment. They were standing in a simple little hall hosting a handful of ordinary-looking ships, as far as Jongin was concerned. Everything looked neutrally grey, and before Jongin could try and soak in his surroundings, they were already approached by two men in uniforms. Neither was particularly tall, but their presence filled the hall nonetheless. Jongin could tell that these guys were of a high rank without getting a closer look at their uniforms.
"We welcome you to Gaia," the friendlier-looking one of them said, nodding at them in a neutral, polite greeting. He immediately reminded Jongin of Yixing himself, with his soft features, gentle eyes and the very-well hidden edge commanding respect.
"Thank you for having us," Yixing replied smoothly. "I'm the captain of this ship, Zhang Yixing. These are Zitao and Jongin."
Offering their own identity first was a definite display of humbleness for many proud species. Whether or not the humans realized that, Jongin wasn't sure.
"I'm General Kim - you can call me Junmyeon - and this is General Do," the man swiftly explained, giving the other general just enough time to nod curtly. "We shouldn't talk here though, should we? Please follow me."
Personally, Jongin found it a little estranging that someone would speak in behalf of another person of the same rank under such formal circumstances, but he knew that humans were more relaxed regarding the hierarchy etiquette. On their way out of the harbor, General Kim was exchanging pleasantries with Yixing, asking him about their journey and such, but Jongin's was too distracted to pay attention as he was staring at his surroundings in silent awe. They walked down a long, lone corridor and with the right wall being entirely made of something akin to glass, which offered a view of the actual harbor. It was humbling, to say the least. To Jongin, it had the size of a small town, and even though he wasn't particularly interested in ships, there were a lot of interesting-looking ones. Jongdae and Yifan would probably have a blast studying and discussing these together.
"Your commander is doing well, by the way. His condition is stable," General Kim said, and Jongin perked up at that. He was itching to ask questions, but didn't dare potentially embarrass Yixing. He shouldn't have worried though.
"Would it be possible for Jongin here to pay a visit to our commander at some point?" Yixing asked politely, and Jongin kept his gaze on the ground, watching the others walk just ahead of him. "They're bonded, so their relationship is a little delicate," Yixing vaguely added, but the general didn't even bother inquiring further information.
"Of course you can go see him. I'm afraid he is still asleep, but maybe your visit will do him good, anyway."
Was it an empty phrase or did they know more about bonds than Jongin did? Both were equally possible, and he decided not to dwell on it.
"Thank you," he simply said, unwillingly drawing attention to himself.
"You're not Cerian, are you?" the general asked, walking a little more slowly to throw Jongin glances as they approached what looked like a door, displaying a code on a small screen right of it.
"No," Jongin admitted, and then, after a short period of hesitance, "I'm from Zivra."
"From Zivra ?" Kim asked, sounding mildly shocked, and even the other general was looking at him with an unreadable gaze now. Jongin tried his best to keep his body language neutral despite wanting nothing but to shrink in on himself. They were standing in front of the door, but instead of opening it, General Kim was still looking at him with his lips pressed into a thin line.
"We heard of what happened to Zivra. We didn't know there were any survivors. It was a tragedy."
Jongin felt an irrational spark of anger, because clearly, this human had no idea what he was talking about. The spark quickly vanished, though, making way for reason. General Kim sounded genuine, and probably felt as much empathy as one could, for a race he had possibly never been in contact with.
"There might be a few more. Travelers and the likes," Jongin said evasively, forcing a small smile on his face. Kim nodded, and then pressed a glowing surface that opened the door. Jongin was glad that he left it at that and followed the others inside what turned out to be an elevator. A slightly glowing map on one wall displayed their position (at the harbor, sector 3), and it soon started moving. Yixing made an off-handed comment on the impressive technological standard of the ship, and the general provided him with trivia and even recommended him a few places, should they decide to stay for a while, which they were very welcomed to do. The longer Jongin studied the map, the more he realized just how huge this place really was. The various stations even had subtitles and notes, making the map very tourist-friendly.
The doors opened and General Kim and Yixing took the lead again. Jongin noticed that the second general was walking more slowly and a little away from them, as if reluctant to display his back. He reminded him of Zitao, who was easily last, and hadn't said a word so far. The corridor they were walking down now was less of a sterile grey and all the more impressive. The entire walls around them were displays, showing hyperrealistic surroundings of plants and trees, and a grey sky looming above them. With the technology known to Jongin's kind, this would make the corridor feel claustrophobic, but it seemed to do the opposite here. Jongin kept looking up at the sky, almost expecting first raindrops to hit his face. A hovering writing was announcing coordinates, a time and a planet. It was a real-time broadcast.
"This is one of our mixed offices, as people here call it," General Kim explained, stopping before one of the doors that seemed to be hovering in the foreign environment. "We unite experts from various fields in there to work together on certain projects."
The description was vague at best, and all the more reason for Jongin to straighten his posture and slip back into his professional demeanour. He shouldn't let his guard down now.
As soon as the door opened, a buzzing noise washed over them. Jongin internally scoffed at the misleading nature of the word office. They looked down into what looked like a massive control room with at least thirty people buzzing around, and at least twice as many work spaces. The generals didn't have to clear their throat or call for attention. People were looking their way already. Not everyone, not by far, but it got way more silent almost immediately. General Kim took the stairs snaking down along the walls of the room, and Jongin swallowed nervously. This was like a job, he remembered himself. This time he wasn't a mere communicator though, for the translating piece in between two or more groups was always neutral. He wasn't neutral anymore though. He was part of the Oasis.
"Soojung, Amber" Kim called as they reached the floor, and one intimidating woman got to her feet while another disappeared into the back of the room. Jongin could feel the tension radiating off of Zitao, and it made him nervous. General Kim seemed oblivious to that and continued to introduce them in a friendly voice.
"This is Captain Zhang Yixing and these are Zitao and Jongin, Cerian, Cerian and Zivran. Please meet Soojung, Communication Manager, human. We-"
"You're from Zivra?" a stranger's voice piped up, and then someone was right in front of Jongin, causing him to flinch back. Zitao took a step forwards immediately, half-covering Jongin, who was more surprised and wary over the strong reaction it pulled out of him than the original scare. Zitao's fingers were digging into Jongin's hips as he tensed up more and-
"Baekhyun," Kim said sharply, and then it was all over. "Down."
Jongin's vision was obscured by Zitao's back, but he saw the young man grimace in an entirely childish way.
"I'm not a dog, Junmyeon, yeesh."
"A dog would be less of an embarrassment," General Do said silently, but clearly audible, with his arms crossed and expression generally unimpressed. Before the noisy man could jump at this, General Kim made a dismissive gesture.
"Leave us alone for a moment, Baekhyun."
The other complied, not without muttering something about the entire room being crowded, anyway, but Jongin's heart was still racing a little from the shock. Just like this, things could have escalated. Simply because Zitao felt protective over Jongin. They weren't even on friendly terms and he didn't have to try and protect him, but he had.
The small commotion had caused more heads to turn, and Jongin saw a bunch of humans having their head turned at them, shooting them nervous looks. They looked just like he remembered them from his job - a little like him, but with a wider range of natural colors on them, ranging from black to white and including many shades of brown, rosé, peach and yellow pigments with splashes of red. There were people both darker and lighter than him, with fiery orange hair or wild curls.
And there was one mop of rose-colored hair.
"I'm very sorry," General Kim hurried to say, touching his forehead like he was feeling an upcoming headache, "please forgive him; he has some Re'nna genes that make it hard for him to fit in sometimes."
At the mention of this rather animalistic race, Zitao finally relaxed and they all sat down around a small, round table, the second woman returning with a third in tow. Jongin was still peeking back at the person with the pretty hair that reminded him of Cerians. It looked almost like Luhan's, but lacked the orange and salmon-colored pigments. Instead, it had lavender hues, Jongin thought. He didn't look too long though, because the person was looking back at them with unveiled curiosity. His eyes were of a piercing, light blue.
"First of all, we would like to thank you for addressing us with this manner and seeking a peaceful solution," General Kim began. "We're currently examining the criminals in question and our technicians and doctors are recreating the situation to try and get to the root of it. Unfortunately, the crew of the Ribbon seems mentally damaged. They are mostly unresponsive and around 80% show various signs of severe mental illnesses I shall not elaborate on here. We do not believe that you or your people have anything to do with it. Reacting so maturely and level-headed in the face of an attack is not a matter of course, so we have to thank you for that."
The guy was still staring, craning his neck as he leaned back on his chair a little. Jongin's gaze kept flitting between him and the table, and then to the other people sitting across him.
"We have to thank you, as well, for taking care of our injured crew member," Yixing added, both smooth and genuine. "Please let us know how we can repay you for the trouble."
General Do shook his head.
"You spared the lives of our kind even when they gave you no reason to. I'd say we're even."
"Very well. Then I shall be grateful for your judgement," Yixing replied with a small smile.
The little exchange made Jongin doubt his relevance for this meeting, but strengthened his belief in Yixing. This type of measured, smooth behaviour wasn't typical at all for Cerians, and made him an impressive leader.
"You are very welcome to stay until the end of our investigation, and if you'd like to give us any kind of additional information to speed up the progress, we would appreciate that," one of the women, Soojung, said. Jongin wanted to kick himself for being so distracted, but this guy was still staring. He just looked so interesting, too.
Yixing leaned forwards a little at this, his voice still clear, but slightly more subdued.
"We do have a few trails we're currently after, and we have reasons to believe that this happening has deeper roots, going back far enough to even connect to the obliteration of Zivra."
When the humans tensed up, Jongin hurried to add, "which isn't insinuating that humans are behind it, deliberately or not."
At least he hoped that's what Yixing was hinting at, because he had no idea how their run in with the rogue human ship would possibly be connected to the disaster on his home planet.
"Of course not," Yixing was quick to agree, placing both his palms on the table in a gesture that was signalizing harmlessness in Cerian etiquette and gave mixed, but not too negative signals among humans. "I believe that these humans we met were victims. Victims to the same criminals who murdered an entire race not too long ago."
Despite everything, Jongin's gaze flickered down to the table. His words stung, and he knew that Yixing wasn't meaning to rub it in. He may be an excellent medic and psychologist but right now, he was predominantly a captain trying to get his point across.
"A bold assumption," General Do commented, eyes narrowing ever so slightly. Yixing nodded.
"I realize that. That's why I propose we take our time looking into this, to get to the root of the issue together."
He emphasized the word together, and Jongin felt like he was one of the humans for a moment, because he had no idea where Yixing was going with all this. But he trusted him. And so did the humans.
"Alright. Let's start at the actual incident and go over it step by step, shall we?" General Kim suggested, and Jongin forced himself to pay attention and not look up to potentially meet those distractingly bright, bright eyes.
Minseok looked peaceful. Jongin had seen him in relaxed, even playful states, but never before had he seen him look so perfectly at peace.
Around him, the machinery hummed ever so quietly, and numbers were running down screens, graphs were showing curves that kept repeating over and over again. Steady as his breathing.
Minseok was unconscious, but he was alive. Jongin shifted a little in his seat. He'd been here for quite a while already, but somehow, he couldn't bring himself to leave. This wasn't his first visit. It was his third, and where he’d felt nothing but worry and slight fear upon his first visit, he was now fighting a stubborn little hope that Minseok would wake up in his presence. It wasn't even like he had a lot of things to say to him.
I was worried.
I'm glad you made it.
I would do it again.
All words he wasn't sure he'd have the bravery to say to Minseok's face. At this point, he just wanted him to be awake, to be able to partake in the happenings around them - which he surely would have wanted to, Jongin just knew. He yearned for him to be a part of his life again, to be there when Jongin turned to his lonely room in sector 33-2. He could see how rooms for two people were a big luxury on a ship like this, where room was sparse and valuable, and yet he would have appreciated rooms for three, simply so that someone could be around until Minseok would wake up. The other crew members seemed to be having a blast, treating this opportunity as something akin to a holiday. Ever since they’d arrived, Jongin had hardly seen a glimpse of their pilots or Luhan outside of the formal meetings with Junmyeon (who really didn't like being called by his second name) and General Do (who no one dared calling by his first name). Yifan, who shared a room with Luhan, didn't seem to mind all that much, and Yixing was busy as usual. Jongin wanted to venture out and explore the city as well, but he didn’t know where to start. He could of course ask the others whether he could tag along - in fact, Luhan had even offered just that - but deep down, it just didn't feel right to enjoy himself while Minseok was still in an artificially induced coma. Jongin had felt the panic Minseok had been going through when he thought he was going to die for real, all alone and with nothing to save him. He may be safe, physically speaking, but Jongin wanted to be around when he awoke at least.
Jongin suppressed the urge to reach out and touch Minseok, to run the pads of his fingers over the few, clear scales that had been blinking in the light whenever Jongin tilted his head a certain way.
With a sigh, he got to his feet. He'd been here for way too long already.
By now he knew the way from the hospital room and back to their temporary quarters by heart. He walked purposefully slowly as soon as he left the hospital sector, soaking up his environments that were starting to become familiar yet hadn't lost their appeal yet. Gaia had a population of three million people, which may not be that high of a number for the capital of a civilization, but three million people on a single ship was unthinkable. Jongin had always imagined Gaia to be some sort of claustrophobic nightmare in space, with thousands of people living on the tiniest room and slowly driving themselves insane like trapped rats, but as far as he could tell, that wasn't the case at all. Everything seemed sleek and modern, and he had never sat in a terribly crowded subway. Humans needed around 12 hours of sleep during a forty hour cycle, and the jobs were evenly spread out across the cycle, meaning that people tended to be out of each other’s way as much as possible. Humans had really thought this through, it seemed, and in turn, the numbers of visitors was limited and not everyone was easily allowed to permanently reside on the ship. They had to pass tests, had to prove their intellectual abilities simply to make sure that they'd fit into this kind of society. Long story short, it was far from a nightmare, but there were people everywhere, and not too few of them. It was a little rough, going from living among six familiar people to being surrounded by countless strangers. Zivrans used to be known for a lot of things, but not for adapting to change easily. Maybe that was part of the reason why Jongin preferred the less busy areas when he was on his own. His favourite places were actually those close to his quarters - with the quarters being reserved for special occasions, no unassociated person was allowed in the corridors leading up to them. It was one of those hallways with one of the walls being made of a long window that Jongin liked to be in the most. He'd stand there like it was an incredibly long balcony facing a busy district beneath. There was an emulation of a cloudy sky stretched above the city and artificial light imitating a sun. Jongin stared up at it for what felt like forever. The clouds were moving ever so slowly as if actual wind was pushing them along.
"Pretty realistic, isn't it?"
Jongin barely flinched, but his heart had most certainly jumped a beat or two at the sudden voice so close to him. He turned to his left and then up, into the apologetic expression of Chanyeol. Upon recognizing him, Jongin relaxed, if only a little.
Chanyeol was the name of the guy with the blue eyes, he knew that by now. He was one of Junmyeon's people, and had been nearby whenever they had a meeting. Apparently, he was someone from the tech department, judging by the remarks he occasionally threw in.
Still, it wasn't like they had ever talked. Not really, nothing above exchanging a sentence or two during the meetings, and during those, everything was in regards to the issue at hand.
This was new.
And Chanyeol was even more beautiful up close.
"The sky, I mean," he elaborated, his voice deep and with the lightest rough texture to it. It was funny how Chanyeol could sound so harmless and friendly with such a deep voice while someone like Minseok easily managed to sound scalding with his own light, soft voice.
Awkwardly, Jongin turned back towards the city below.
"Yeah. But if you actually look at it, it's kinda obvious that it's not," Jongin replied quietly, thoughtfully almost. It was making him feel odd, to see a reality emulated like that. It made him wonder whether he'd prefer the unglamorous reality of a spaceship over this fancy construct.
When no reply followed, he looked over to find Chanyeol looking honestly surprised, an unreadable kind of intrigue lingering in his eyes.
"...sorry?" Jongin asked, wondering if he had offended the human somehow. It seemed to snap Chanyeol out of it, who shook his head, pink curls whipping from side to side.
"No, no, it's alright," he assured him, making awkward hand gestures, and seemingly remembering that he was indeed holding something in said hands, which he then offered to Jongin.
"You want to try?"
Jongin stared at the waffle topped with fruits and cream and wondered how he would even be able to try any of it without making a huge mess, but Chanyeol didn't let him dwell on it for too long. He pried off a piece of waffle, generously dragged it through the whipped cream and syrup (fumbled, and almost let it all fall to the ground) and offered that to Jongin instead. His hands were huge, almost as large as Yifans, Jongin noted absently. He accepted it because he didn't know how else to react, and then they were silently looking down at the busy streets below. The food was delicious, especially after weeks of simple spaceship food. Jongin said so, and Chanyeol recommended him a few nice places to eat waffles at, as if they'd known each other for ages. As if this wasn't the first time they'd talked.
"I'll try those," Jongin said quietly, not mentioning that he didn't have any money and was living off of the guest card he had received to pay for his subway rides.
"You should," Chanyeol said, and then it became quiet again. Jongin swallowed, and felt the awkwardness press him down harder with every passing second. Ultimately, he excused himself with a mumbled "Someone is waiting for me at the Oasis, so I gotta go - thanks for the food," and fled the corridor with hurried steps.
When he lay in bed not too long after, he was still thinking of the way the other’s fingers had been brushing against his, and the way he’d lit up as he talked to Jongin. He’d seemed so strangely happy to be able to talk to him, but why? He was easily the most gorgeous human he had ever seen in his entire life, so why would this person go out of their way to waste their time on him?
It was a strange happening, to say the least, and Jongin wasn't sure whether his curiosity outweighed his wariness or the heavy cloud that Minseok's current absence had left over his head.
His eyes though.
They had been so strikingly blue, piercing and intriguing, making it impossible to look away.
What a strange human this Chanyeol was.
During the next meeting, Jongin avoided even looking in Chanyeol's direction. He felt slightly embarrassed over his awkward behaviour on the day before. That didn't mean he wasn't thinking of Chanyeol though. In fact, he was still thinking of him when he sat in Minseok's room at the hospital station. It made him feel guilty for some reason, thinking of someone else while Minseok was right there - a form of politeness that wasn't even all that necessary, since Minseok probably wouldn't mind. So what, I wasn't even conscious, he'd probably say.
Jongin flinched when a middle-aged nurse entered the room, carrying a tablet and checking his status.
"I got good news for you," she said with a kind smile. "He's doing really well. Tomorrow, we'll wake him up."
Jongin nodded, repeating that yes, this was good to hear, and thanked her for informing him. The other day, she had mentioned how unnaturally fast Minseok had healed, and how well he had taken such a serious procedure, making the bond responsible for it. Jongin wondered whether that was the reason why he'd felt so weird and tired the past days - because part of his energy was redirected to Minseok. Maybe this was just an excuse though. It was probably mostly due to the fact that his environments had changed so drastically. It irked Jongin - living on the Oasis hadn't even been very eventful and he had looked forward to getting out of there, to experience new places and gain new impressions, but now that his wishes had been heard, he yearned for the simple routine he’d had back on the Oasis. Now he felt aimless again. He really was Zivran through and through, including his inability to adapt quickly.
With a sigh, he walked down the corridor, so lost in gloomy thoughts that he almost missed the speck of blue on the ground. A closer look revealed that there was in fact nothing lying on the ground, not really. He was looking at the image of a blue flower lying among the equally virtual, neutral metals the ground displayed. Among the neutral simulation, it looked surreal, like a glitch, and yet also strikingly familiar. Jongin crouched down to take a closer look. It was a cornflower. It had a different name for Jongin - nahdi'a - and the shade of blue as well as the form of the petals was typical for a Zivran cornflower. It was intriguing enough for Jongin to reach out and run his fingers over the smooth floor. He knew that he wasn't able to feel it, and yet the urge to touch was strong.
That was when he noticed a second flower lying on the ground, a little further away. It was a different model, but the same flower. When Jongin had reached it, he saw another one, seemingly random in its position, but the trail was obvious. A virtual flower trail? Jongin had no idea what the meaning of all this was. Was it some sort of landmark? A seasonal attraction or event? It couldn't be an actual glitch, it looked too pretty for that. As Jongin followed the flowers, he wondered how often people went insane, living on a spaceship and being constantly surrounded by digital renderings of just about any environment. Could the technicians purposefully mess people up or manipulate them by choosing certain colors and images?
Jongin ended up at a little crossing, choosing to turn left, following the flower petals. They seemed to increase in number, and it felt like he was on to something. At this point, he had no idea where exactly he was, and he'd probably need to use a map to find his way home.
The flower petals ended in front of a door that was closed. Jongin stopped in front of it, looking for a sign to tell him what this room was for, whether it was a private space or not. The obligatory sign next to it was empty. Jongin fidgeted a little, before giving in and pressing the button in the center of the door. It opened without a hitch and behind it, green grass was waiting for him.
The sun was shining brightly, the grass and trees looked vivid and healthy, and the buildings looked so familiar that Jongin had stepped inside the room before he knew it. The door automatically closed behind him and Jongin stood on the square of Vandon, his home town. Surrounded by quaint buildings, all decked in flowers and plants twining around balconies and hanging down like well-groomed, living curtains. There were stones beneath his feet, and to his left stood the well Jongin had played in as a child. Slowly, with his hand outstretched, he walked towards it. It was only a few steps, but the awareness that he was in a simulation was lingering in the back of his mind, small as a candle flame that couldn't breathe. When his fingers touched the border of the well, the stone solid beneath his fingers, the candle flame died, and Jongin sank to his knees. The sun was warm on his back and there were the distant sounds of people talking, of birds singing, and Jongin started to cry.
He missed this place. His home.
It had been easier to accept that his old life was no more when he didn't have to return to the shambles. Now that he saw all this, he realized just how much he missed this place.
How sad he was that all this, all the memories and achievements of everyone were gone.
Jongin cried, sniffling and hiccuping, all curled up on himself.
He'd really, really loved his home. It hadn't been perfect, but it had been beautiful in so many ways.
Jongin's head whipped up to see Chanyeol stand in the doorway, and averted his gaze before he could decipher the look on his face.
"You always looked so sad, so I..." Chanyeol began, and then trailed off, sounding pained. Jongin rubbed his eyes with the hem of his sleeves, eyes still trained on the artificial stone of the well.
"I didn't mean to make you cry. It was stupid of me. I'm really sorry."
Jongin shook his head. He didn't trust his voice to come out smoothly, so he simply kept shaking his head.
It's alright, he would have liked to say.
Because it was alright.
He was crying, wallowing even, with puffy eyes and tears smeared all over his face.
He was sad, but it was a good kind of sad. It hurt, but it was a healing kind of ache. Seeing these surroundings, thinking back to the way he had chased around other kids on the square, how he had eaten snacks with Sehun on his break, how he'd touched the pretty blue flowers framing the bakery's store window... it really did ache, but the ache was filling a void he hadn't realized was there.
It was alright.
For the longest time, he sat in the simulation, crying his heart out while Chanyeol kept standing in the doorway, unsure of how to soothe this burn he had inflicted on him. At some point, he sat down a little away from Jongin, embracing his legs, curled in on himself as if he was waiting for Jongin to yell at him to leave.
The next day, Chanyeol found himself staring at his computer screen, unable to be actually productive.
He thought for sure that he had driven the Zivran beauty away for good. It was just like him, to chase away people by being too quick to act and not thinking things through enough. He was such an idiot. First he forced himself on him in such an awkward way, then he made him cry.
Good job, Chanyeol, really. Good thing you're not in politics.
He sighed, aimlessly swishing through menus of plants, placing a random vine on his model.
Yes, it had been stupid to the root, thinking that he was doing Jongin a favour by making him relive the past that was probably traumatizing beyond imagination.
He thought of asking Kyungsoo to transfer him to another office for the time being. If he had any scrap of morality left, he should at least never look him in the eye again. At least Chanyeol was pretty sure he would be sick of his own face, if he was in Jongin's position.
He was such an idiot.
The fact had been echoing around his head for hours now.
Ripped out of his thoughts, Chanyeol looked up from his monitor to look in the face of the exact person he'd been thinking about for days now.
He could feel the panic bubble up, and it was probably all-too obvious on his face, because there was a flicker of insecurity reflected in Jongin's warm, amber-colored orbs.
"Yes?" Chanyeol asked carefully, expecting an insult, a complaint, maybe a polite request for him to stay away from him forever. Jongin, however, kept surprising him.
"I wanted to thank you."
Chanyeol sounded dumb even to his own ears, and he immediately regretted his choice of words (or lack thereof), when he saw Jongin fidget.
"I... don't really have anything to give to you in return, and whatever I'd find on Gaia would probably be boring to you anyway, so... I only have words to express my gratitude. Pretty lame, I know."
"What do you mean?" Chanyeol heard himself ask. He wondered whether Jongin was feeling obligated to thank him despite hating what Chanyeol had done. He was unfamiliar with Zivran etiquette, but making the most handsome, dazzling person he had ever seen uncomfortable was the last thing he intended.
"You don't need to thank me. I should apologize and-"
"No, I do," Jongin cut him off, "I'm really grateful for what you've done, and I would like to give you something in return, but..."
Chanyeol was just so confused right now. He wanted to make the other feel at ease, but didn't know how to.
Once more, his mouth opened before his brain had finished processing his train of thought.
"How about we just go and eat a waffle together and we're even?"
Jongin sucked on his lips, considering it for a moment. Then he nodded.
Chapter 8: Impurity
Minseok woke up before Jongin reached the hospital wing. He felt it, like an additional sense returning to him. He felt Minseok's confusion, which quickly seeped away to make room for a very vague, strange feeling he couldn't place.
It seemed like their bond had only grown more intense after the accident. Before, Jongin had rarely ever felt anything that was going on within Minseok - or maybe he hadn't been able to place what he’d felt. Maybe Minseok had never been especially distraught before.
Jongin watched himself through the glass as he waited for the elevator to arrive. As per usual, he was wearing the face mask around his neck, and now he wondered whether there was anything that gave Minseok this kind of comfort.
He had thought a lot during the time Minseok had been asleep. About him, them, their bond... and he'd come to a conclusion. It made him a little nervous, but he had to talk to Minseok about it, no matter what.
He waited until Yixing and a human doctor left the room, allowing him to enter.
Minseok was sitting upright, looking a little tired, a little ruffled, but also thoughtful. Maybe even vulnerable. It made Jongin feel like an intruder immediately, but there was no backing out now.
"Hi," he said softly, waiting in the doorway. Minseok's gaze flickered over to him at once, and there was a split second of hesitation, long enough to make Jongin fear he was suffering from amnesia. But then he relaxed, shooting him a thin smile.
His voice had always been soft, but now it lacked the certain edge that was so characteristic for him. Jongin closed the door and took a seat at his bedside, just like he had done so many times before. Minseok was looking down at his bed sheets. Jongin placed his hands in his own lap, fingertips turning pale where he dug them into his skin.
"Should I leave for now?" he asked quietly, but Minseok shook his head immediately. He moved his hand, towards Jongin, maybe, but then changed his mind and placed it back on the bed. Jongin heard the unspoken request and placed his hand over Minseok's. It was slightly warm, meaning that Jongin's own hand was probably cold and uncomfortable, but Minseok exhaled audibly, posture relaxing even further.
"Thank you," he whispered. Jongin had never heard Minseok whisper before. He wasn't sure whether he wasn't able to talk more clearly or whether he couldn't bear saying these words any louder, in his current state. Cerians had little sympathy for weakness, and Minseok still looked a little frazzled. Understandable, considering that he had just woken up after a near death experience. For once, Jongin could at least begin to emphasize with him.
"You didn't have to..." Minseok trailed off. Jongin didn't ask what he was referring to. He just hummed.
"I wanted to."
For a long time, neither said a word. Jongin kept gently squeezing Minseok's surprisingly small hand, and Minseok kept staring at nothing in particular. It was quiet and almost soothing. Jongin wondered whether Minseok was feeling their bond right now. He himself felt nothing but what had to be comparable to a soft white noise, crackling along his mind, a fleeting prickle. Minseok was thinking.
Eventually, he spoke up.
"Can I ask something of you?"
The look Minseok had for him could be described as wariness, maybe even as expectancy.
"Would you take a bath with me later?" Jongin asked, and a flash of confusion flickered over Minseok's features. He looked around for a clock, and Jongin could see him calculate the human days to standard time units. He also saw the exact moment he realized which time it was. Nonetheless, he nodded.
"Sure," he said, his voice sounding almost resigned. Like it couldn't be helped. And maybe it really couldn't be. Jongin didn't leave upon hearing the confirmation though - or maybe he stayed because of it.
They were bonded, minds and bodies linked like two puzzle pieces of different puzzles, and wherever they were headed to, they gently tugged each other along, a process which would only be painful if they showed any resistance.
Minseok really wanted to attend their meeting a few hours later, but the scans hadn't finished running yet, tying him to the hospital bed for just a few more hours. Jongin was still looking forward to his presence in the meetings, but for now, he slipped into the seat next to Chanyeol, waiting for the others to arrive. He acted like it was not a big deal, like he wasn't growing warm just sitting next to the human. If Chanyeol was annoyed by his clingy nature, he didn't show it.
Despite Jongin's insistence, Chanyeol had paid for the waffle, had showered him with trivia about Gaia and funny stories he'd experienced during his job, and Jongin had pretended not to be completely mesmerized by him. Chanyeol just had something inherently captivating about him, something that Jongin felt drawn to. He was pretty sure that he only spend time with Jongin out of pity, but maybe Jongin could convince him that he was worth being around, that he wasn't entirely gloomy and boring.
"I miss my piloting lessons a little," he admitted in response to Chanyeol whining about attending lectures on boring, technical stuff. "I'm afraid I'll start forgetting everything I learned..."
"You can pilot?" Chanyeol asked, a little too loud, with his deep voice brimming with enthusiasm. He had his head supported on his palm and kept watching him attentively. Everything about Chanyeol was energetic, and it was infectious.
"Yeah. On our ship, everyone had to learn as many occupations as possible, so we remain versatile," Jongin explained, feeling too fluttered to notice how naturally he'd called the Oasis their ship, like Jongin really was part of the crew already.
"Oh, so you got nothing but practical lessons with a real pilot?" Chanyeol asked, and a third voice responded.
"With one of the best pilots, mind you," Jongdae quipped, all but throwing himself into the chair next to Jongin. Zitao was much more graceful in his movements, and Luhan went all the way around the table to pat Jongin on the shoulder.
"There you are. We were starting to suspect that you sleep in this room, considering how rarely we see you anymore. You wanna move in with the humans instead?"
Only Luhan would be able to say something so openly expressing affection in public, towards a rather new addition to the group. Not that humans would realize any of it - Chanyeol simply laughed.
"I- that's not it," Jongin weakly defended himself. "I've been visiting Minseok a lot..."
"Your sick crew member, right?" Chanyeol commented, and Zitao perked up at this.
"His bond," he corrected him, and his gaze was more piercing than the one of Chanyeol's naturally icy blue orbs.
"Oh? What's that?" Chanyeol asked cluelessly, and Jongdae grinned.
The shell-shocked expression on Chanyeol's face caused both Jongdae and Luhan to laugh, and Jongin to wince.
"It's not... like that," he whined, feeling his cheeks burn in embarrassment at the thought of being in an intimate relationship with Minseok. "We're not..." he trailed off, but then Yixing and Yifan entered the room, the generals in tow, and the atmosphere shifted immediately. Jongin respected Yixing, and feared General Do, who was currently calling over a handful of other people.
"We gathered all the information we could get our hands on regarding the Quor'i," General Do began without as much as a greeting. "We still cannot say for sure that they were behind the attack on Zivra and the Oasis, but the signs are pointing in this direction."
He nodded towards a woman who cleared her throat and tapped away on the table, calling up a three dimensional model of a planet and a being that looked more crustacean than human.
"The Quor'i are an old species who used to inhabit the crystalline system," the general began, easily swishing the projection of the planet around, minimizing it to see the rest of the system it belonged to.
"You can see the general measurements over here, and they're medium intelligent, estimated to be at around 32 on the LIM scale."
Which put them just slightly below humans, in terms of intelligence, Jongin thought.
"What's worth mentioning regarding this species is that they are unable to live on limited space. They need a lot of room to themselves and even a few individuals settling on a small planet are counted as overpopulation to them, causing mental distress to the point of serious health issues."
These information were new to Jongin. The Quor'i were a tiny species that wasn't very relevant to anyone Jongin knew off, so it made sense that no one had bothered to research them thoroughly.
"Are they known to be aggressive?" Yixing asked, and Junmyeon made a thoughtful sound.
"Not as far as we know, but it seems like something has triggered them."
"Their species is on the brink of extinction," General Do explained, calling up more maps that marked a single planet where Quor'i were still known to exist on.
"Space exploration, travel and colonization caused the Quor'i to retreat further and further, until they faded into oblivion."
"We didn't chase them away though," Jongin threw in, unable to help himself. His kind had been peaceful through and through, and repressing another species was not in their nature at all.
"Zivra didn't, or barely had any influence on it," General Do agreed.
"Then why...?" Jongin asked, and instead of receiving the scolding he was half-expecting, General Do sat down with a nod in his direction.
"That's a valid question."
He looked towards Junmyeon who gladly took the word.
"We might get closer to answering this if we take a closer look at the Quor'i's characteristics. Unlike humans and any of the species present in this room, they do not feel emotions like we do. They simply don't have any tendencies towards them unless they're highly stressed. Moreover it has been speculated that they use a mental connection to keep each other at distance. We don't know how exactly it would work, but they communicate via the mind somehow. It is suspected that this only works because they are void of emotions themselves."
This was complicated and hard to picture, and a look into the round told Jongin that the others were feeling the same. Junmyeon was nothing but patient though.
"Similar behaviour has been spotted in other species. Imagine people's minds like a box. The minds of the Quor'i are lacking the turmoil of emotions, so they're figuratively empty. That means there is enough room for another being to enter and make itself at home."
"So if they took over one of us, would our minds be destroyed?" Yixing asked, and Junmyeon pointed at him with a smile.
"You're on a good track. This would explain the state of the crew that attacked you. Still, we don't think that they could push our emotions aside to make room for themselves... that easily or instantaneously. Our systems are complex, and if some unknown force was to manipulate it, our bodies and mind would retaliate."
"And then they'd feel numbness and confusion..." Yixing whispered, shocked at a revelation unclear to Jongin.
"They might. It's what we suspect as well," Junmyeon nodded, voice dropping with the gravity of the next statement.
"And as soon as they wormed themselves inside someone's head, they can take control. The crew of the Ribbon - the very few we managed to gather information from - reported to us that they felt an increasing numbness, paired with mood swings and apathy shortly before they attacked the Oasis. And so did one of the highest technicians on Zivra, shortly before the air was deliberately polluted."
Jongin stared at the general, who met his gaze with no fear.
"Judging by the footage we have and the evidence we received, we think it's possible that technician Oh Sehun played a big part in the obliteration of the capital of Zivra," he said. There was no accuse in his voice, neither anger nor pity, but a certain gentleness couldn't be denied. Jongin remembered it now, the time Yixing had asked whether he'd ever experienced any numbness. He hadn’t known that the humans had reported a similar issue, it was something Yixing must have held back on.
He also remembered the times Sehun had left early to see a doctor, the times he had received a scolding for his sluggish work. The times Sehun had lethargically stared out of the window, running out of stories to tell.
The way he’d stumbled towards Jongin when it began, holding his head and wincing in pain. The control room hadn't been far from them.
Could it be true?
There was a hand on his thigh, and one on the small of his back. Chanyeol and Jongdae.
He barely paid them attention as stared at the table, rapidly blinking.
"We're not nailing you down here, neither do we want to accuse you," Junmyeon began softly, and General Do interfered, voice much more even and to the point.
"Do you think it's possible that it was him? Did he have access to the required places?"
Jongin wasn't mad at him. He felt a sudden emptiness clouding his mind, but there was no denying the truth.
Cerians were very particular about personal space, Jongin knew that by now. That's why he could count on them to leave him alone when he got to his feet and left the meeting room first. They would never follow him if he didn't specifically ask for it.
Chanyeol wasn't a Cerian though.
Jongin walked down the corridors aimlessly. He would have liked to retreat to his room, but Minseok might be back already, and he wasn't sure he could face him right now.
Sehun had been slowly taken away from him, right in front of his eyes, and yet he hadn't done anything to help him.
He stopped when he realized that he had no idea whether to turn right, left, or to sit down and curl in on himself until the buzz in his head died down. A touch on his arm had him flinch violently, and Chanyeol withdrew his hand immediately, looking apologetic. Then he slowly reached out again, carefully grasping Jongin's arm under his wary gaze, tugging him to the left. Jongin didn't know why he relented, but he did. They walked down a few corridors without a word. There were people occasionally crossing their way, but no one paid them any heed. Chanyeol stopped in front of a few doors, always punching in a code, always leading to a less crowded hallway.
Finally, they stood in an empty room. He had never set foot in it before, and yet it wore an odd sense of familiarity to it - dance practice rooms all looked the same, in a way. There were high mirrors covering three of the four walls, and for a moment, Jongin looked at himself in the mirror, and then at Chanyeol. He really was much taller than him.
"You wanted to do me a favour and you told me you've learnt Belisian dances for years," Chanyeol began quietly, and when Jongin turned towards him, he felt two unsure palms resting on his upper arms, coaxing him to look up.
"Will you dance for me?" Chanyeol asked, barely above a whisper, and Jongin blinked in surprise. It sounded like a request, maybe even a demand, but it was obvious that it wasn't. It was an offer. And Jongin took it.
He slipped out of his shoes, and then his socks as well, placing them next to the door. One helpless look was enough for Chanyeol to point out the control panel for the music system, and Jongin felt a little numb himself, as he scrolled through folders and folders of music.
Was this what Sehun had felt like?
He picked a familiar song, and a good minute or two he just stood in the center of the room, breathing deeply, with his eyes trained on the ground. Chanyeol didn't make a single sound, or at least none that was heard over the enchanting, slow-paced music echoing through the room. Then he lifted his arms and started moving. Slowly at first, seeking a routine that was long lost, probing and careful as he sought for his place in Sehun's favourite song. There wasn't much room to cry, and yet a few stray tears blurred his vision from time to time, contrasting the strong expression needed for this complex school of dancing.
Deep down, Sehun had been very nostalgic, emotional and thoughtful. But even deeper down, he'd been a positive person who loved to live. It was reflected in the song, which brightened up over time, bloomed into a strong, playful melody, calling for wide, exhausting movements. When it ended on a bittersweet note, Jongin was panting, and he felt much better. Sehun would have wanted him to move on. Not to leave him behind, but to carry the memories and to keep going.
That was when he finally turned to look Chanyeol in the eye with a small smile, ruffling his sticky bangs off his forehead.
Chanyeol wasn't smiling any wider than him, but there was nothing sort of adoration reflected in his eyes, and he was ready to jump to his feet when Jongin dropped down to sit next to him instead.
"That was amazing," Chanyeol breathed out, completely awe-struck. Jongin huffed out a little laugh at this.
"It wasn't even anything grand or special," he admitted, but Chanyeol wouldn't have it.
"It was beautiful. You're beautiful. I mean-"
Jongin looked at him with his head tilted, looked at the way Chanyeol fleetingly covered his mouth, eyes roaming the room and refusing to meet his gaze.
"I'm sorry. I don't- didn't mean to sound like a creep," Chanyeol muttered.
"You really think that?" Jongin asked, before he knew it.
"Of course," Chanyeol readily admitted, sounding almost accusing. "Did you not notice any of the mirrors in this room?"
When Jongin just looked at him in confusion, not quite sure if he was allowed to feel flattered or whether he was missing something, Chanyeol winced.
"You're amazing and I keep offending you and ruining things for you. I'm sorry," he rambled, wringing his hands in frustration.
"You don't," Jongin disagreed, and he felt so oddly excited and tingly, driven by the usual high he felt after dancing. "You really, really don't. I- I'm flattered you would even spend time with me, to be honest."
Chanyeol looked at him strangely, a mix of wonder and something deep, something that was impossible for Jongin to read even when he was suddenly so close to him. With the size of Chanyeol's hand, it was easy for him to cup Jongin's face.
"Do you love Minseok?" he asked, voice quiet but words so surprising that Jongin had a hard time listening to himself for a reply with how much everything was buzzing inside his head.
"Our bond is just a formality," Jongin murmured, and that was enough for Chanyeol to lean in and kiss him.
Jongin had been kissed before, a long time ago. His kind also kissed. Not like this, not so early after getting to know someone, but Jongin knew about kisses. And he knew right this instant that this was special, that he'd never forget this particular moment he was experiencing right now. Chanyeol was warm, his lips soft and just very slightly moist, invading his personal space almost carefully. Jongin responded to his best abilities, pressing back and feeling Chanyeol's lips between his. Right then, it felt like they were the bonded ones, sharing a feeling that was running deep enough to make him shiver, dragging sparks over his skin and tugging something loose in him. Tugging him towards Chanyeol.
He didn't fight the feeling.
Jongin couldn't remember a single instance in which Minseok had followed his lead, but now he did. Jongin navigated Gaia with ease at this point, and the only place Minseok had seen so far - aside from his hospital room - were his and Jongin's quarters. Even so, their walk was mostly quiet. Minseok wasn't asking any questions, quietly and attentively soaking up his new environment. Jongin was pretty certain that no matter how composed Minseok appeared to be, he was still a little rattled and exhausted. Maybe a bath would be called for, anyway, then.
Jongin couldn't deny that he himself was lost in his own thoughts and found it hard to focus or strike up a conversation. He imagined feeling his lips tingle, recalled Chanyeol's warm skin, and it called forth goosebumps even now. He was infinitely glad that Minseok didn't have a mental connection to him, or else he'd be either more distraught or judging Jongin now.
They finally entered the correct port section, and even though most of the ships were unfamiliar or had changed parking locations, Jongin could spot the Oasis right away. It was funny how familiar the ship's form was, despite him having rarely seen it from outside - the mere graphics and maps during his piloting lessons had been enough to make him deeply familiar with the ship's form and blueprint.
He stopped in front of the entrance, turning to Minseok for the first time. He didn't look as exhausted as he'd pictured him inside his head the past minutes, but the barely there smile had something sad to it.
"They still didn't show you how to enter the ship?" he asked, more teasing than accusing, really. "Here, come."
Jongin followed his invitation and stood closer, getting a good look at the little screen and buttons surrounding it. Minseok showed him the combination, showed him where to place his palm to let his DNA be read (Jongin was surprised to find that he actually had a spot in the database already), and before he knew it, the door closed behind them and they were standing inside what Jongin called home. It certainly felt like home, except for one thing.
"It's so quiet," he murmured, not daring to raise his voice, and forgetting all about the awkwardness between them for a moment. The lighting was on standby, bathing everything in a pale white, but what was way more jarring was the perfect silence. If he really, really strained his ear, he could hear a very quiet hum of the ship adjusting the standby mode to the two of them being on the ship; but it was nothing compared to the familiar, constant buzz he knew, vibrating through everything, steady as a heart beat.
Jongin wouldn't have expected Minseok to agree, and in response to his surprised look, the other shrugged lightly.
"It's rare, to see this ship on the ground. It feels a little lonely."
"It does," Jongin echoed quietly.
It was both sobering and confusing, how honest and outspoken Minseok seemed to be. Jongin wondered whether it was linked to the accident or whether it was simply the physical aftermath still wearing him down. Actually, it was quite ridiculous to think that Minseok was mentally fine, and yet he had never seen as much as a crack in the other's demeanor. Minseok was always stable, firm, strong and decisive, but never transparent.
He had to really love the Oasis and its crew.
"Can we just take a bath with the systems on standby?" Jongin asked as they made their way through the lounge. Seeing the harbor through the window instead of a sea of stars was almost surreal.
"Sure. The water is stored in an isolated container - it'll be heated up within seconds."
The silence creeped back and neither of them said a word until they had both sank into the tub, hissing at the pleasant heat.
The water was green today, not a pale or bluish shade, but what Jongin would describe as the purest green - deep, vivid, and rich. Jongin had never taken a bath on a green night, at least not with someone else, and taking a green bath on your own was more or less useless. By now he had gathered that sharing a bath on a green night was pretty much the most intimate choice of them all, and one that wasn't a given. Yet Minseok had agreed easily. Despite knowing where this was going. There was just no way he didn't know.
Green was the color of truth, and Jongin could feel his skin soaking it up, prickling pleasantly.
"I didn't think you'd actually agree to this," Jongin said, looking up at Minseok, who was sitting there with his eyes closed. It was an easy truth, one that Jongin would have shared either way, and Minseok hummed noncommittally.
"It's been a while," he said vaguely.
Jongin wondered whether this was uncomfortable for him, especially considering that these baths were far more effective on Cerians than on him.
"How are you feeling?" he asked cautiously. "Does it still hurt?"
"Barely," Minseok replied. "Nothing worth mentioning."
"Oh. That’s good. And how are you feeling?" Jongin repeated carefully, not sure if the water was already affecting him - this wasn't a question he wanted to force an answer to. Minseok thought about this for a while, looking around the room as if he didn't know it like the back of his hand.
"Strange," he finally said. "Fine, but like I shouldn't be. Like I'm forgetting to be distraught. I wouldn't usually mind."
"But now it feels like this suppression might jump you if you turn your back to it?" Jongin guessed, and Minseok looked mildly surprised, before a strange realization hit him. Jongin waited patiently, waited until the thoughts had been processed.
"I'm sorry," Minseok finally said, and Jongin didn't immediately understand what he was getting at.
"Even now you're still listening to me..."
"Well, it's not like you talk a lot," Jongin said lightly. "It's usually worth listening if you do have something to say."
"I didn't ask you how you were feeling, back then," Minseok continued, gaze lowered and he looked tired, but also genuinely guilty. "Because I just didn't care."
It was strange, seeing Minseok so high strung and vulnerable, and logically thinking, Jongin should gain a certain satisfaction from it. It was true, and Jongin had been so aware of it that these words didn't even prick him. Minseok hadn't cared about Jongin back then. He'd treated him like some kind of obligatory house plant, one that he didn't even particularly like. But even if the green water wasn't currently making Jongin feel so lax and open, he knew that he wouldn't feel resentful towards Minseok. It wouldn't be wrong if he did... but he just didn't.
"I know," he just said, and as he looked at Minseok who still refused to look up, their roles seemed strangely reversed. "I was mad at some point, but not anymore."
Minseok looked at him, and then exhaled, straightening his shoulders a little. It looked like he was reversing back to the familiar Minseok, the one who accepted burdens and guilt alike, simply shouldering them all and facing things head on. It seemed like the best possible moment to address it.
"There is something I wanted to ask," Jongin began, and Minseok nodded.
"Something you thought I wouldn't tell you outside of this bath," he stated rather than ask, and there was most certainly an emotion layered in between the syllables, but whether it was accusation, resignation or something alike to sadness, Jongin didn't know.
"I didn't think you would have lied to me," he said defensively, but Minseok didn't add anything to that, just waited for Jongin to move on, to get this out of the way. So Jongin scrapped up his courage and did.
"Did you bond me so I would keep you alive when you get hurt?"
Minseok looked him straight in the eye - an admirable feat - and for a moment, Jongin thought he wouldn't reply. When he did, his voice was soft, almost thoughtful.
"When we arrived on your planet," he began slowly, his piercing gaze finally straying, wandering over the surface of the water, "Everyone we met was dead."
Jongin didn't show a reaction to that. Was it painful to think back to this day? Yes. It even hurt a little right then, but he had been through many sessions with Yixing and a mere mention wouldn't trigger him.
"Not a single living being," Minseok continued, looking lost in memories, "except for that one guy who was so close to the core and yet still breathing. Still conscious, even."
His focus returned as he looked up at Jongin again.
"You were a true fighter. I thought if there was anyone, it would have to be you. In short... yes, you're right."
Jongin stared back at him, his own expression a carefully schooled, neutral mask as Minseok confessed to what he had been suspecting for a long time already.
"I didn't want to be in a useless bond and thought someone like you would be able to keep me alive if it came down to it."
Minseok paused, observing Jongin for a reaction, but he received none. Jongin really had known, and while he was torn on how to feel, whatever he was feeling was small. Enough to be cast aside for the time being.
"Since when have you known?" Minseok then asked, probing. Jongin didn't have to think.
"Since Jongdae told me that bonded people outbalance each other. He told me you were bedridden for days when Yixing nursed me back to health."
Minseok huffed, a gentle, fond type of exasperation painting his face. He and Jongdae were really close, and Jongin doubted he'd be seriously angry at him.
"And it worked," Minseok then said, voice growing even more quiet. Jongin lightly shook his head.
"It was my decision though. I chose to fight for you when I could have just severed the bond."
Minseok didn't believe him, that much was obvious. But instead of arguing, he only sighed.
"Either way, we're even now. I saved you and you did the same to me. You can sever the bond now, if you want."
The words hung heavy in the air, pressing silence in between them.
Jongin's very first thought was a question.
What made me hesitate just now? What is it that keeps me from saying something?
Minseok wasn't looking at him, but it was a favour on his part, not putting further pressure on Jongin.
"Do you... want me to?" Jongin asked, and when a flicker of hesitance flitted over Minseok's expression, he remembered their circumstances.
"You don't have to answer," he added quickly. This was another truth he wouldn't want to drag out of Minseok against his will.
With a deep exhale, Jongin leaned his head back, closing his eyes and dedicating his sole attention to his own thoughts. Like this, he missed the way Minseok was slowly shaking his head.
When Jongin climbed out of the tub a while later, none of them had voiced out their answer, and Jongin was pretty sure he needed more time to even find it. It was strangely alright though. What would be awkward to no end among others, worked just fine with Minseok. Sure, Jongin still felt awkward and uncomfortable, and a little torn in general, but he didn't flee. It was like they were quietly sharing this problem, which sounded way more normal than society made it out to be.
When Minseok attempted to get up as well, he hissed, freezing mid-way. Jongin immediately turned towards him and seeing the obvious pain on his face, he hurried to offer his arm for Minseok to hold onto. There was a prick in his stomach, telling him exactly what was wrong.
For a second, Minseok ignored him in favour of controlling himself in the face of pain, and then he looked up to ignore him consciously.
"It's fine," he said, quiet and strained, and then carefully adjusted his posture, trying again. For some reason, Jongin thought of Luhan and Jongdae, Minseok's best friends. Would they have quietly accepted his antics? Probably not.
He reached out to grab his arm.
"I said-" Minseok began, but this time, Jongin wouldn't have it.
"I'm just helping you up. It's no big deal, come on."
Jongin really didn't make a big deal out of it, aware that if he was turning this into a joke or worse, be smug about Minseok needing help, he'd likely be abandoned right on the spot. Minseok relented, but an uncomfortable headache for Jongin was the immediate result.
"Ouch, I get it, sorry," Jongin winced, letting go the moment Minseok was securely standing. Even such small, unwanted help seemed to cause Minseok enough stress for Jongin to feel it.
"Sorry," Minseok mumbled, wrapping himself up in a towel and focusing on evening out his breathing. By the point Jongin had slipped into his clothes, the headache had ebbed down almost entirely. It seemed to take quite a bit of focus for Minseok to keep his mind balanced, and Jongin could all but feel his inner conflict on the silent way back to their quarters.
The grainy feeling only fully disappeared when Minseok fell asleep, which didn't take all that long. Jongin couldn't see him behind the thin privacy wall, but he heard his even breathing. With a small smile - because no matter how iffy their situation was, he wouldn't wish any stress upon Minseok - he turned around on his fluffy bed, finally investigating the little green light that showed up on the room's communication panel right next to his bed. The screen lit up (only subtly so, adjusting to the semi-darkness of the room), displaying an unread message. Confused, Jongin opened it. He hadn't known that the device could be used to send messages, and immediately worried whether they had received a message by their housekeeper.
The mail address was long and complicated, not giving anything away, but the message itself did.
Hey, this is Chanyeol.
I tried to contact you, but maybe you weren't in your quarters.
Or maybe you don't want to see me. Which I'd understand.
I'm sorry if I upset you today. We can act like it never happened.
I won't make a big deal out of it, promise.
Again, I'm sorry.
Jongin stared at the message, feeling more surprised than anything. It took him a second to find the reply option, feeling a strong sense of deja-vú as he typed.
Do you want to act like it never happened?
He sent it before his doubts could stop him, and allowed himself to relieve that particular moment. It had been deeply intimate in a manner that was entirely unfamiliar to him, as if someone had carefully touched his heart while placing Jongin's hand over his own. Just thinking of his lips and the way they'd felt, nipping at his own in a cautious, but sure manner made the heat rise up to his face.
He most certainly didn't expect a reply right away, but the screen said otherwise.
Of course not!
I just don't want to make things uncomfortable for you.
Also, you're kind of with Minseok, are you not?
Jongin thought about the last part. He was linked to Minseok by a bond, one that had nothing to do with romance of any kind. Would Minseok actually mind Jongin seeing someone? It was hard to even picture it. Should he ask him first?
Then again, Minseok had told him not to hold back on living his own life. Not to compromise or submit.
So Jongin typed his reply while chewing on his lip, fingers flying over the glowing letters only to come to a halt. To hesitate, to give him time to re-read the message, and then to send it with determination so he could sink into the soft cushion and at least attempt to fall asleep.
We're not together like that.
And I wasn't uncomfortable at all.
When Minseok woke up around eight hours later, he relished the feeling of an empty head, his mind still too befuddled to bombard him with all the conflicts that had dragged him to sleep earlier. He dragged himself out of bed, one hand running through his messy hair as he took a few steps towards the tiny bathroom. His gaze fell on the rest of the room, on the small seating area in the center and the privacy screen covering Jongin's bed. It was translucent, meaning that Jongin wasn't around.
The room felt empty and dead, and the grainy feeling returned almost immediately.
Minseok groaned and pressed his eyes shut.
Empty your head. Breathe evenly.
It wasn't his cycle.
His cycle wasn't due for at least a few more days, which only meant that he was dreading the time it would break down on him.
It wouldn't be such a big deal, anyway - the pain was nothing compared to what he had endured in the past. But Jongin would know, would feel the imbalance inside his head. He couldn't have that.
After his shower, Minseok spent almost an hour meditating.
Forcing his body to function was second nature to him.
Making his appearance slip into a certain role was easy.
It was decidedly hard to force the heart to comply.
Chapter 9: Reflection
Jongin was expecting to regret jumping into this, letting Chanyeol in so easily, and maybe he would. Maybe he was being very foolish right now. Time would tell. There was no real reason to hold back though, and so he found himself eating breakfast with Chanyeol a few hours after their written exchange, in an almost empty cantina with windows showing footage of the starry sky around Gaia. He'd been nervous, but that was alright because Chanyeol was thrice as nervous as him. He'd spilled not only his, but Jongin's drink as well, and had stained his shirt with marmalade all before Jongin had eaten more than a single spoonful of rice.
"Sorry," Chanyeol muttered for the fifth time at least, and Jongin couldn't help grinning, no matter how hard he tried to bite his lips.
"It's okay," he said, amused but not actually teasing. "I have days like that, too."
"I rarely have days that are not like this," Chanyeol complained, obviously embarrassed as he rubbed at the stain with a little towel. He also seemed to need to hear his own voice before knowing what he was thinking. It wasn't the first time that he said something, and then quickly adjusted his course.
"I mean, no. It is worse today, I'm not always this bad," he promised, looking at Jongin almost pleadingly. As if Jongin was planning on going anywhere. As if he wasn't using Chanyeol's jumpiness and distracted behaviour to stare at his eyes, his hands, his lips.
"It's really okay," he repeated. "So what exactly are you programming? Is it usually landscapes and the likes? If you don't mind me asking, that is."
Chanyeol lit up even further at the mention of his job.
"Kinda, yeah," he began, finally forgetting about the vaguely red stain. "You see, humans aren't made to live in space, and it will take much longer for evolution to adjust our race. People get claustrophobic very easily, and it eats them up."
He was awake, alert, but also serious as he laid out the heavy points.
"Depressions would only be one of the possible results, and there have been entire crews which ended up destroying themselves because they couldn't take life on a spaceship any longer."
"It's that bad?" Jongin asked, mildly shocked. Only mildly because deep down, he could see this happening. Humans tended to be even more emotional than Jongin's kind, and Jongin had already felt a little claustrophobic on the Oasis from time to time. It had been the worst when he felt unwanted and like he had no place.
"It is. You can imagine how scary that prospect is on such a massive ship."
Jongin nodded, and sensing his dropping mood, Chanyeol put a smile back on his face and gestured at Jongin's food.
"It's all good though - eat up. I'm just saying that this is my job on this ship. I'm part of the division dedicated to mental well-being, specifically, the cosmetic programmers. In simple terms, I'm designing landscapes and surroundings that make humans feel less claustrophobic and at peace."
"Like the simulations of grass in the hallways or that of the sky in some sectors?" Jongin asked, feeling a strong admiration for Chanyeol. Surely, this required not only cleverness but also a vivid creativity and sensitivity.
"Yeah," Chanyeol grinned. "Like the sky you labelled as fake within the blink of an eye."
It was Jongin's turn to go a little wide-eyed.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know..." he trailed off, feeling like an idiot. Chanyeol actually laughed, loud and unrestrained.
"It's okay! It was funny, really."
"If you say so," Jongin hummed, feeling like an embarrassment nonetheless, and then he almost choked on his rice when Chanyeol placed a hand over his on the table.
"It was inspiring how easily you could see through the imagery. Makes me want to work even harder," Chanyeol said, too quiet for others to hear, and then his voice dropped even lower.
"And you're right, of course. Reality always looks and feels best."
How he could say such things with a small smile, Jongin didn't know. He was entranced by his energy though, by his slightly flushed cheeks and the way his eyes shone with shy nervousness. He was nothing but sweet and coy, and yet Jongin felt like he had no choice but to gravitate towards him. He'd never thought of himself as easy, in no way, actually, but with Chanyeol, everything was so, so easy. Natural, even.
Jongin wriggled his fingers a little - just enough to feel the warmth of Chanyeol's fingers covering his.
"It really does," he hummed, not withdrawing his hand for as long as he could get away with it.
Minseok should be feeling like a fish out of water, but the way he was holding himself didn't let any of that on. It was a complex feeling to put into words, but Jongin enjoyed seeing Minseok like this - sitting up straight, looking like he might as well own the place. He was probably used to having to adapt to unfamiliar situations quickly.
Did Jongin feel protected by him? Was it simple admiration? Whatever it was, he just knew that he enjoyed Minseok's presence at the table. There were still a couple of minutes left before the meeting, and more than half of their people were still missing.
The number decreased when Jongdae hopped down the stairs, lighting up the moment he saw Minseok.
"Eyy, you're back up!" he quipped, walking around the table just to pat Minseok's shoulder - it was as much intimacy as one would expect from a Cerian in public, and Minseok didn't even seem happy about that small gesture. He let it slide though, because this was Jongdae, and nodded towards Zitao, who slipped into a seat with a yawn.
"We're glad to have you back," Luhan added cheerfully, instead of a proper greeting as he, too, made his way to the table.
"Yeah, it was decidedly too fun without you," Zitao joked, and while Minseok shot him an almost offended look, Luhan laughed.
"Seriously though," he began, his eyes shining with mischief, "Jongdae has taken over the entire racing arena of Gaia while you weren't looking. That's why Taotao here is sulky."
"I am not," Zitao said.
"I did not," Jongdae said, speaking before he could be interrupted. "I sometimes let them win by letting Zitao pilot."
"Fuck you," Zitao snapped in annoyance, Jongdae countered with a sassy "prove me wrong first," and Yixing entered the scene with Yifan, causing the pilots to at least feign guilt over the attention they had brought upon themselves.
And all was strangely well.
Everyone had been cheerful enough before, but only now was it obvious that they were complete. Jongin was struck by an odd wave of affection for the crew of the Oasis and for a moment, he wished that their telepathic connection would work the other way around as well, so that he could share this feeling with Minseok.
"Such children," Yixing sighed, leaning on the table and smiling warmly at Minseok. "I'm glad you're back. Reining them in all on my own is more troublesome than I thought it would be."
In response, Minseok had nothing but a thin smile, but to Jongin, the respect between them was palpable.
Yixing had walked off to talk to a few important-looking humans, leaving the seat left of Jongin empty. Someone else dropped into it though, with much less elegance and a smile brimming with energy.
"Hey guys, hey Jongin," Chanyeol greeted, and he was sitting so unnecessarily close that their sides touched. Jongin smiled at him, keeping his behaviour casual in front of the others. Without warning, a hand touched his right thigh. Jongin twitched just a little, glancing at Minseok, only to see the other look past him and at Chanyeol with a stare so cool that Jongin almost flinched back in Chanyeol's place. Icy didn't even begin to describe it.
For a moment, Jongin was reminded of the way Zitao had stepped in front of him, protective over one of his own.
"It's alright, that's Chanyeol," he hurried to say, and Minseok's eyes flitted over to meet his, almost asking for further confirmation that he meant what he said.
"Jongin's human friend," Luhan commented, and Jongin was grateful for his choice of words. Minseok didn't even bother commenting on it or introducing himself, and after a last disparaging look, he leaned back in his seat, withdrawing his palm from Jongin's thigh.
"And this is Minseok," Jongdae added merrily, completely playing over the tense atmosphere, and Chanyeol smiled, hummed in acknowledgment, and then Luhan diverted the topic back to Jongdae's questionable career in racing as well as Yifan's potential as a human fashion model. Jongin felt a little uncomfortable, sitting between these two.
It was ridiculous, of course, since he didn't owe Minseok an explanation or exclusivity - there wasn't even anything between them, after all - but he would have liked to at least mention Chanyeol and not have him find out like this.
During the meeting, they talked about their progress on the research of how the Quor'i snuck into people's brains, what kind of side effects it brought for the victim and whether there was any way they could protect their minds. There wasn’t much progress on any front, really, aside from the realization that the infection could show very differently, which made things worse rather than better.
Still, Minseok was paying rapt attention, not showing even a little sign that this was the first of these meetings he attended. His posture was straight, his voice sharp and his questions full of purpose. Jongin felt a little uncomfortable, a feeling that was hard to explain. He usually felt calm and at ease whenever Minseok took control, but this time he seemed like he was playing it up a tad bit more than necessary, though not in an arrogant way. The headache was back as well, but it was barely noticeable. Jongin could only guess that Minseok was slightly pissed off. He couldn't exactly hold it against him, and he was strangely sure that Minseok wouldn't let it out on him - because he'd never done anything like that in the past - but the atmosphere remained unpleasant.
While they studied and compared medical results, and while big words were thrown around, Jongin waited for them to be dumbed down for them eventually. In the meantime, he silently wondered whether their bond would forever stay this intense and sensitive.
"So, are you alright?"
Jongin ripped his gaze off the aquarium around them, looking up at Chanyeol at the unexpected question.
"Why are you asking all of a sudden?" he asked right back at him when the simulation of an enormous fish swam by and Jongin's grip on the railing tightened. The corridor was relatively small and barely anyone passed through, much less stayed. It seemed to be part of the human etiquette not to disturb someone's privacy in a place this small. Chanyeol had called this section an insider's tip, and Jongin could see why.
"I mean, this Minseok guy looks..." Chanyeol began, trailed off before coming to the conclusion that there was no nice way of putting it, "...scary as fuck."
Jongin couldn't keep a the amused little snort to himself. He wasn't wrong. Chanyeol didn't seem all that amused though.
"I mean it, are you alright? You said you're bound by some blood oath... do you need help?"
The last part was asked quietly, as if Chanyeol feared being overheard. It took Jongin a moment to catch up on what he was insinuating. Then he laughed.
"And you could save me from him?" he asked, playfully nudging Chanyeol's upper arm. "Seriously though, it's alright."
He turned a little somber all of the sudden. Maybe it was the view on endless waters with life so calmly floating around. It reminded him of the hours he'd spent staring into sea of stars from Minseok's quarters.
"Minseok is..." he began, looking for words in true blue, waiting for it to bounce off of a fish scale blinking in an unknown light source.
"...genuine," he finally said thoughtfully. "Even a little sweet. He wouldn't even think of hurting me."
"Neither do I," Chanyeol said immediately. Jongin shot him a glance, and the regret was obvious on his face.
"I'm sorry," Chanyeol hurriedly said, looking down at their hands on the railing. "That was very petty of me. I spoke before I thought again. I swear I'm not usually like this-"
"It's alright," Jongin cut him off, soft but sure. He looked back into the ocean, and the atmosphere shifted subtly, growing a little more hollow, a little more sad.
"It's difficult, isn't it?" he asked, unsure who the question was aimed at. "With me and Minseok... and me and you."
There was a hand placed over his, and Jongin didn't pull it away, didn’t voicing his thoughts.
"I don't know what I'm doing either. It's all just happening, and so fast..."
"Sorry," Chanyeol muttered, drawing his hand away, but Jongin caught it in his.
"It's on me, too. If you apologize, I'd have to apologize twice as much," Jongin sighed, a little gloomy and unhappy about himself. Lips pecking his cheek managed to rip him out of his thoughts, and Chanyeol's steel blue eyes looked strangely warm, dipped in blue light and highlighted by the water reflections.
"We can't only talk in apologies, now can we?" he asked quietly, and there was a small smile on his lips that Jongin found himself focusing on. "That would be truly sad. Want me to show you something else?"
He agreed because there was no reason not to, and then he was already gently, but excitedly tugged along the corridors.
It was true that they were moving fast, and the reason behind it was as much obvious as it was pathetic - both of them were afraid that their time might be running out. That Jongin would leave any day now, that this was a fleeting opportunity that might go to waste and forever stay as a regretful what-if memory.
"I've been working on this for a really long time, as a hobby," Chanyeol rambled as they walked down another nondescript corridor Jongin had never set foot in before. The entire area seemed abandoned, which Chanyeol explained by it being mostly under construction. They stopped in front of a door that had nothing but a room number and sector code displayed on the tag next to it.
"This might be kinda anticlimactic though, so don't get your hopes up too much-"
"You're making it worse by stalling time," Jongin quipped, and opened the door. The room behind it was small and mostly empty, except for a question being displayed on the wall across them.
What makes you feel warm inside?
Chanyeol nudged him inside the room without warning, and as Jongin stumbled inside, a small, peaceful fire started blooming from the ground, right under the question. It wasn't just any fire, either. It was the fire that was lit on their square back home, the one that burnt on cold winter nights, simply existing to spread warmth. Jongin knew it was the campfire because the familiar, ornate little bowl beneath it bled into existence before his very eyes, and the harder Jongin looked for details, the sharper they became.
A suppressed little sound made him look up and to the doorway, where Chanyeol had fist bumped the air victoriously.
"I knew it would for you! It actually works?" Chanyeol asked more than exclaimed, and then he was behind him, one hand on Jongin's hip, the other on his arm as he, too, stared into the fire.
"How did you know I'd think of this?" Jongin asked in gentle surprise, and allowing the initially unusual touch.
"I didn't! You were scanned upon entering the room, and the AI tried to visualize what it found," Chanyeol explained excitedly. Jongin hummed in admiration.
"Creepy," he commented, mostly joking, but Chanyeol didn't take the hint.
"It's not creepy, promise!" Chanyeol whined, and having his voice so close to his ear made Jongin shudder. "None of the data is saved and it's all gone as soon as you leave the room. I wanted to try and have the computer recreate people's individual yearnings."
The more serious his voice became, the more distracting it was to Jongin, who felt like a bad person for not giving him the attention he deserved.
"It hardly works on humans, but they told us today that people from Zivra are a tad less emotional, and better organized when it comes to what they feel. I think that's why the computer was able to pick up something discernible."
"Really? It must do wonders for Minseok and the others, then," Jongin said without thinking. "Maybe you could ask them to add some data."
He realized the mistake as soon as it left his mouth, and the hand around his hips squeezed a little tighter. Jongin was about to apologize for being tactless when Chanyeol stepped into his vision, obscuring the fire and never once breaking the touch as his hands ran up Jongin's arms to land on his shoulders.
"I could," he said earnestly, and then, "but I wanted to see what makes you happy."
There it was again - that heavy pull, the merciless tug tempting Jongin to just give in.
It's something he seemed to be doing over and over again when it came to Chanyeol - giving in. Going with the flow. Opening up.
He had to stretch a little to reach Chanyeol, but with the way Chanyeol always angled his face to look at him, it was easy. Easy to kiss him.
One kiss became two, melting into something Jongin couldn't count anymore, until Chanyeol drew away just enough to whisper against his moist lips.
"My quarters aren't that far, so if you want to..."
Jongin's head was spinning, and he heard Chanyeol talk about not having to do anything, but he agreed. He agreed and let himself be led down the corridors and onto soft bed sheets because he, too, feared that they were running out of time. It was foolish, but never before had foolishness felt so fulfilling to Jongin, so intense, both physically and emotionally. They were both needy, eager to give comfort and show affection. Chanyeol was also tender with him though, shy touches exploring the foreign body as they both guided themselves along on where to touch, how to move, and when to slow down.
It was so new, and in a way it was sticky and gross, too, but Jongin didn't mind; in a weird way, it felt even more precious that someone shared this with him, and that this someone didn't mind his body, either. It felt so overwhelming that even high on a mixture of pain and pleasure, Jongin feared the moment it would stop, the future in which he would think back to this exact moment, having lost it in the past. It made him cling to Chanyeol harder, and maybe he felt it, too. Maybe that was the reason Chanyeol refused to let go of him, hugging him so tightly that it was hard to breathe even much later, when their heartbeats had calmed down. Jongin didn't fight it. He squeezed back just as hard, relishing in the feeling of hot skin against his own.
Jongin didn't realize what he had done, not until he entered his quarters a while later, looking a little too mussed up for it to be casual. Minseok was sitting at the small table, immediately looking up and getting to his feet as soon as Jongin opened the door. He was always pale, but now he looked a little sickish, a little ashen, with his face looking clammy. His gaze was mostly unreadable, but there was a sharp edge to it that wasn't usually aimed at Jongin.
"Hi," Jongin said slowly, closing the door behind him and feeling a wave of guilt prod at his still hazy mind. Minseok didn't return his greeting.
"So - you and that human?" he simply asked, and Jongin was about to give him a flimsy explanation, ask whether he was bothered- and then he got it.
And was mortified.
"You... felt that?" Jongin asked, shoulders drawn up and one hand instinctively covering his mouth. Minseok looked unimpressed.
"What do you think?" he asked, but his voice was a little scratchy, lacking any venom. It seemed very much like Minseok himself didn't know whether he was angry or not.
But of course. Jongin had been an idiot. Minseok's connection to him was based on physical impressions only. It wouldn't spark up for light touches, but what Jongin had been doing with Chanyeol earlier... was definitely something Minseok would take notice of.
"Oh my god," Jongin whispered, and he could feel how beet red his face must be. "I'm so sorry!"
Minseok shook his head, but didn't say anything else as he left the room, looking a little unsteady on his feet.
Jongin felt perfectly sobered up after this, and no matter how hot the water in the shower was, it just wouldn't surpass the scalding embarrassment washing over him.
Minseok's head was full. Stuffed full with too many emotions, and he hated it.
It was not a state he usually found himself in - like most of his crew members, Minseok's emotions were sparse and well-sorted. If he encountered a problem, he found a solution.
So why did it have to be so messy this time?
He had left Jongin to clean up and hopefully sleep. It at least eased Minseok's guilt over cluttering Jongin's mind with his own struggles. Hours had passed since then though, and maybe Jongin was awake again already. He didn't know.
Minseok had wandered the tunnels that were Gaia's streets, had walked around with no real aim or purpose. In a strange way, it made him feel closer to Jongin. He'd told him about exploring the ship on his own, sticking to regular-looking places that were the least crowded. This was what he'd seen. Easy.
What was he seeing in Chanyeol though?
Minseok wasn't even mad, at least not at Jongin. If he was mad at Jongin, he could simply grab him and they could sever the bond and be done with it.
Chanyeol, though... Chanyeol was strange, even by human standards. He was so much. So much energy, so much excitement or commitment or even distractedness. Whatever he did, it was all just so intense. Minseok didn't like it.
He didn't trust Chanyeol, because no one should trust a stranger right away, and especially not as much as Jongin was trusting the human with the piercing stare.
Was he jealous? Did he want Jongin to himself?
The answers to those questions were nearly impossible to find in Minseok's messy head. Why wasn't it clear and obvious? He was desperate enough to accept either yes or no as long as it would bring him closer to a solution. There was one big blockade it all came down to though.
Something inside him was reluctant to sever the bond.
He didn't want to.
'But I don't want to, Minseok!'
Minseok huffed as he walked down another lone corridor. Funny how he was remembering that now. Was Jongin feeling that, too? Was it the bond's doing?
Either way, if the bond remained, there was only one option left for him: to endure. He wouldn't mind enduring whatever kind of pain or trouble was ahead of him, but there was one problem still. Jongin would know. Just like how Jongin couldn't hide what he was doing with his body, Minseok couldn't hide his mind.
He had been loosely following paths Jongin had taken before, but now he was facing a dead end. A look to the little screen around his arm told him that Jongin had indeed been in that room, as well, judging by the Oasis crew-related data they had access to. He was pretty certain that it wasn't Chanyeol's accommodation, so Minseok opened the room without hesitating too long.
The room looked ordinary and empty, but as soon as Minseok stepped inside, big, sloppy letters greeted him.
What makes you feel warm inside?
It was like reading about violet clouds and trying not to immediately picture them. The question entered his brain, caused an immediate reaction, and that reaction was visualized around him with shocking accuracy. Minseok's eyes widened a bit and he could feel his body tense up despite the light pain it brought with it. The images around him didn't move though, and they didn't seem to be of a hostile nature. He was standing in his quarters back on the Oasis, right where the door would be. Like he'd just walked in. There was the white, polished ground, the low table and the sofa facing both the table and the giant window. There was a familiar mop of brown hair, too, facing the stars but eventually turning to face Minseok.
Jongin smiled, small but genuine, and Minseok felt it.
Minseok stared at him, rooted to the spot, and then everything vanished as a sound made him whirl around. His red-rimmed eyes met Chanyeol's wide ones, and time seemed to stop.
Minseok could feel his eyes burn, could feel the way his throat was clogging up, but he couldn't bring himself to avert his gaze and show weakness. He tried to look haughty, but it had to be a sad sight.
The human's surprise seemed to bleed into something like confusion, like he, too, wasn't sure what to feel. Surely he had seen the projection of Jongin. Minseok couldn't say that he knew what had just happened, but he was no fool. There weren't many assumptions a human would make upon seeing a scene like this.
A part of Minseok wanted to punch him, and a part expected the human to punch him. Or attempt to.
Neither of that happened though, and the human finally broke eye contact, staring to the ground. Minseok had taken the sad expression on his face for dejection, maybe even pity for Minseok, if he was foolish enough.
Again, neither proved to be true.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, and then awkwardly left the room, stumbling on the way out. He heard him yell after someone that the room was broken, that he had to fix it first, and with that, the strange human was gone and Minseok was alone. For a while, he stayed rooted to the spot, gaze averted from the door, but no one else entered. He had indeed made sure no one else saw Minseok like this. He should be mad at receiving such pity from a stranger, but there was no room for any anger in Minseok's already stuffed mind.
Crying was a mostly shameful thing to do for Cerians. Luckily, Minseok very rarely cried and he couldn't remember ever having done so in public. It was this kind of discipline that got him back to his quarters and made him hold it until he was alone.
Chapter 10: Bonded
Chanyeol had been very quiet all day, and it worried Jongin. What was wrong? Was he regretting sleeping with Jongin, after all? Jongin had offered to keep him company as he worked on a program, so he'd expected the other to be quiet, just not like... this. Chanyeol seemed gloomy and the usual, excited spark in his eyes was missing. Jongin spent a few hours pretending to read while he thought of how to address this, or how to appeal to Chanyeol again. Occasionally, Minseok crossed his mind as well, only adding to his troubles. At some point, he'd woken up from how strong his head had been pounding. It was all gone when he finally crawled out of bed to find Minseok fast asleep. Still, Jongin hadn't forgotten about his headaches that seemed to become a common thing. Despite everything, he wished himself back on the Oasis, where it was just the six of them and everything had been fine.
But nobody could turn back time, and now Chanyeol was part of this fragile present which could leave scratches and scars on the future.
Jongin looked up at the sound of Chanyeol exhaling deeply. He'd closed his program and Jongin used the chance to place his tablet aside and step beside him.
"You should take a break," he murmured, well aware of the other employees working at their stations, all spread out but well within hearing range.
Chanyeol only sighed again.
Jongin subtly touched his arm, hoping that the angle obscured it from any possible onlookers.
"Are you okay?"
Chanyeol didn't even look at him.
"Yeah. Sure. I..." he trailed off, seemingly thinking long and hard before lightly shaking his head.
"I'll be fine. I'm sorry."
"Oh. Alright then," Jongin began, awkwardly withdrawing his hand as Chanyeol kept staring at his empty screen. "I'll leave you to it, then. Cheer up, okay?"
Jongin had only taken a single step when Chanyeol reached out all-too suddenly to grab his arm, his foot loudly knocking against his desk. Chanyeol didn't even flinch, his attention fully focused on Jongin.
"Thank you. I mean it," he said, still rather quiet but with a small, sad smile on his face. Jongin squeezed his hand and smiled back.
With Chanyeol needing space and Minseok making himself scarce, Jongin suddenly found himself with no place to go to and nothing to do. In the past, this would have bothered him greatly, but Jongin had adapted during his time on the Oasis. He had learned to occupy himself, but he had also learnt that company was never more than a few steps or one call away.
He decided to go to sector 7C, to see if he got lucky enough to see Jongdae and Zitao race. He had accompanied them to the arena before, but had then gone shopping with Luhan before the race had even started. Sure, it would sound naive to simply show up and hope to see his friends zoom across the arena, but as far as he knew, that's where Jongdae spent most of his time these days - and wherever Jongdae was, Zitao wasn't too far away.
He received a message by Luhan, and none too shortly after, they were both sitting together in a nearly deserted block (no one showed up for these types of non-competitive flights, apparently), munching on snacks; the best snacks humans had to offer, Luhan had stated, confident in his extensive research regarding the subject matter.
"Which one is Jongdae's and Zitao's?" he asked, curiously looking through the clear, plastic-like layer that was keeping the audience safe.
"The greenish one," Luhan answered immediately. "You'll recognize it straight away. Mostly cause it'll make the others eat dust. You know how they like to show off."
"Are they really that good?" Jongin wondered aloud, taking a slurp of something cold and fruity. Luhan made a gesture and hum that could best be translated by the words 'they're not bad '.
"Honestly, they barely have any rivals here. Then again, humanity's best pilots are probably not lazing around the arena in their main capital, are they?"
"Fair enough," Jongin admitted.
"I heard General Do used to be an incredible pilot," Luhan commented off-handedly, and Jongin shot him an odd look.
"And where exactly did you hear that?"
"Eh, you know. Keeping my eyes and ears open. The usual. Also, information on attractive people are prioritized, so that helps-"
At Jongin's almost scandalized look, Luhan paused.
"What?" he asked challengingly. "You're off being lovey dovey with that hyperactive beanstalk and want to comment on my taste in people?"
Jongin choked on the candy, and Luhan was merciful enough to silently offer him his water bottle.
"Come on, don't act like you expected anyone of us not to notice- oh, there!"
Jongin followed his gaze but through his slightly teary eyes, he missed the green ship flashing by.
"Do you think Minseok is mad at me?"
The question had slipped out before he knew it, and Luhan seemed thrown off by it, if only a little.
"Huh? Because of your human?"
"He's not my human, and his name is Chanyeol..." Jongin trailed off, and Luhan sighed, putting down his bag of fried vegetables.
"I know, I know. Shouldn't you ask Minseok yourself?"
"So he is angry," Jongin stated dejectedly.
"I didn't say that," Luhan countered. Why do you think he'd be mad at you?"
This was the part Jongin had both looked forwards to and dreaded, at the same time.
"Because of Chanyeol, of course."
"Why 'of course'?" Luhan promptly asked.
"Because we're bonded."
"So...?" Jongin echoed, trying hard not to get frustrated with his little quiz going on. "You all taught me that a bond is something very important for Cerians, something exclusive, something for partners-"
"And are you something important, something exclusive, something like partners?" Luhan cut him off, and Jongin groaned.
"You know we're not. We didn't bond for that."
Luhan remained unfazed.
"Then let me ask again - why do you think Minseok would be mad at you?"
This made Jongin pause.
He grasped the only straw presenting itself.
"Maybe because I'm a burden to him. After all, he shares what I do with my body, whether he wants it or not."
It was an embarrassing confession to make, but Luhan didn't even bother making fun of him. "And you share his mental state, whether you want to or not. You think Minseok is that unfair?" he asked in between crunching on a fried piece of eggplant. It was a rhetorical question, and not simply because Luhan was Minseok's friend.
"Of course not," Jongin hummed almost miserably, already hearing the question before it came.
"I don't know, okay?" he snapped, more tired than aggressive. His shoulders hunched as he stared into the arena without really paying attention to the ships flying by. "I'm just... confused. We should really sever the bond and be done with it."
Luhan didn't ask another question after that. Maybe he was scared to accidentally coax Jongin into taking action. His fear was in vain though. Jongin already knew that he wasn't going to demand Minseok to sever their bond. He didn't know why, but he knew that he wouldn't.
As if on cue, the headache returned, small and grainy and unassuming. Jongin sighed.
"I just don't want him to be miserable because of me," he mumbled. Again, Luhan didn't have verbal comfort to offer, and Jongin couldn't blame him. Instead, he offered Jongin more snacks and when he declined, the bag was placed aside and Luhan placed his head on Jongin's shoulder.
"It could be worse," he said after the green ship had zoomed by yet again, with sharp precision. "It could be hopeless."
It wasn't the best comfort, but the weight of Luhan leaning on him might come close to it.
Jongin's headache continued to grow worse as the hours passed by, and he knew exactly what caused it. It was a familiar pain rolling over him in strong, steady waves that seemed to grow harsher. Minseok had hit the bottom of his cycle.
Jongin was absolutely ready to rush to his side, but he had no idea where Minseok was, and his public tracker denied his presence on the ship - he'd either left or switched off the tracker. Meaning that he didn't want to be found. Jongin was toying with the thought of waiting for him in their quarters, but then again, maybe Minseok didn't want to see him, cycle or not. He'd be stubborn enough, that much was certain.
Jongin decided that Minseok had the means to contact him, and if he wanted to, he would.
He managed to hold out on looking for him for quite a few hours. He'd meant to stay strong, he really had. But when the pain got bad enough for him to zone out entirely, the others sent him home. To his surprise it was Zitao who accompanied him back to his quarters, presumably because he was the most likely to be able to steady Jongin when it came down to it. Jongin thanked him, and under Zitao's watchful eyes, he entered his quarters.
He waved him goodbye and closed the door, not turning around. Stalling time, really.
Because he knew he wasn't alone-
Strong arms were wrapped around Jongin without warning, cutting off his surprised yelp.
For someone so short and with such dainty fingers, Minseok was ridiculously strong.
Feeling him so close made his skin prickle, and Jongin felt the headache calming down almost immediately.
"Sorry," he felt Minseok mumble into his neck, sending goosebumps down his arms. "Just a moment. Please."
Saying ‘please’ doesn't suit you, Jongin wanted to say, but he couldn't. Instead, he reached up to place his palms over Minseok's arms, squeezing him lightly.
"You could have called me," Jongin quietly said, leaning into the touch. "They gave me a com device, you know?"
Minseok exhaled, and it sounded irregular and shuddery. The headache was still so present, completely unlike the last time this had happened.
"I know," he whispered. Jongin stared at the door without really seeing it, rubbing circles into Minseok's skin, sneaking under his sleeves just a little.
"I figured I shouldn't ask this of you," Minseok added, and Jongin just knew that a sober, calm Minseok would have never admitted this.
"Because of Chanyeol."
Minseok's voice was entirely devoid of accusations, the human name sounding foreign on his tongue. He sounded raspy and weak, and maybe that was the reason his words stung Jongin the way they did.
He wrestled himself out of Minseok's grasp, and the other let go immediately, despite the sharp wave of pain following. They both winced almost simultaneously, and Jongin wanted to shake Minseok's shoulders and ask him what's wrong. He was right there, after all.
Jongin blinked away a stray tear and placed both palms on Minseok's shoulder to ground him, before slipping just a little lower to grab his upper arms and look him straight into the eye.
"Chanyeol has got nothing to do with the bond we share," he enunciated clearly, meeting Minseok's piercing gaze with one that he hoped looked calming.
"I may not know a lot of things for sure right now, but this one I know. I'm always ready to be around when you need me. I don't mind, not even a little bit."
Minseok's gaze remained intense and unreadable, but Jongin wasn't afraid of him. The headache was stammering, the pain skipping a beat, and Jongin wanted to make things better for him. Not for his own sake, but purely for Minseok's. So he cupped his face and leaned in without thinking. Their lips brushed for a fraction of a second, sending an electric zing through both of them, and then Minseok twitched away. When Jongin opened his eyes, he was faced with a completely shell-shocked expression that threw him off guard entirely. Minseok was staring at him, and then his lips, slightly wide-eyed and his own lips parted just a little, looking oddly pink-
Cerians reproduced via their saliva, and since they didn't produce huge amounts, the most common way to exchange it was through... kissing.
Jongin had messed up yet again.
"I'm sorry! Sorry, I, I forgot," he began, feeling entirely useless and wishing nothing more but to disappear to save himself from further embarrassment. He was about to draw away - not like there was any place to back away to, considering he stood almost directly at the door - but Minseok held on to the fabric of his shirt almost frantically.
"No," he began, gaze lowered as he shook his head, looking like he was trying to shake off the initial shock. "It's alright. Can you stay?"
Jongin didn't even hesitate.
"Of course I can stay, yeah-"
He was cut off by Minseok pulling him close, and then warm, moist lips lightly pressed against his right cheek.
"Forgiven," Minseok murmured, his usually soft voice oddly rough and a tad bit deeper. It sent more shivers down Jongin's spine that he resolutely ignored as he followed Minseok to his bed, where they ended up huddled together under his blanket. They didn't do anything aside from holding each other, but after that, the headache was nearly gone, only to fully disperse as soon as Minseok drifted off.
Jongdae whistled as soon as he saw Jongin and Minseok.
"Ayy, there's our power couple!"
Jongin only laughed him off goodnaturedly.
"If there's a power couple among us, it would be you guys. Congratulations."
Jongdae only laughed, smearing a bit of dirt off his sweaty face, while Zitao seemed oddly flustered (an adorable look on him that Jongin left wisely uncommented).
The two pilots were high on emotions after winning what was apparently a grand tournament among humans. They had barely taken the time to speak to the hosts or the audience and had made themselves scarce, meeting up with Jongin and Minseok to celebrate instead.
As they walked around to find a nice spot to have a little picnic in, Zitao and Jongdae were recapturing the race, animatedly talking among themselves. Minseko looked at them with a small smile and Jongin wasn't sure whether he was listening. They'd come to a mutual understanding of spending the day together to avoid the aftershocks of Minseok's cycle. At the moment, they were doing fine though, with not even a small headache to tarnish the nice atmosphere. Jongin still wanted to blush and hide like a kid upon remembering the past night, but Minseok really didn't seem to hold a grudge against him. If anything, they had grown even closer.
"This seems like a good spot, doesn't it?" Jongdae suddenly suggested, and like that, it was decided. The grass under them was artificial and soft, and Jongin found himself missing the way more scratchy reality. It made him think of Chanyeol. He had texted him and asked whether he was free in a few hours, to which he had received a very typical, enthusiastic response complete with a smiley face. Jongin knew he was moving on thin ice but he was determined to at least try and get Minseok to accompany him; maybe some other Oasis crew members were also free.
He couldn't force Minseok and Chanyeol to get along, but on the other hand, the other two had never even met each other properly. Maybe, if Minseok felt less wary around Chanyeol, it would ease his stress levels.
It was at least worth a try.
"Did you bring beer?" Jongdae asked excitedly, receiving a disapproving look by Jongin.
"You're entirely too excited about poisoning your intestines."
Jongdae waved him off and reached for one of the bags he had brought.
"Oh, psh. It's not like we're weak humans. An occasional beer won't kill us."
"I thought Cerians get drunk very, very easily?" Jongin asked suspiciously, and Jongdae countered with a swift "Prejudices!" while fishing out a container in the form of a can.
"A-ha! Here, have one as well."
"To be fair, it's kinda true," Minseok admitted in response to Jongin's stare as he accepted the beer from Jongdae. "The two of us are good though. No one else on the Oasis gets to drink, that's unwritten law."
"Not like I want to," Zitao quipped haughtily, greedy fingers already searching for the food instead.
"Hmm, yeah," Jongdae hummed in a dismissive, teasing manner. "A drunk co-pilot won't do."
Zitao complained and halfheartedly insulted Jongdae, and everything felt peaceful for a moment. He was so lost in thought that he flinched when Jongdae suddenly yelped in genuine pain.
"Can you not?" he whined indignantly, and Minseok perked up immediately.
"Did you get hurt?"
"It's nothing, just a few bruises..." Jongdae began, casually tugging up his sleeve to show a giant, dark blue and greenish bruise, and the dramatic accusation returned to his voice, "...that Zitao won't stop pressing on! Rude. Watch me kick your shin the next time I wanna be right. Though I usually am."
Where Zitao had looked sorry before, the concern vanished after his last words. Everything about this exchange was so very them. Jongdae never actually meant all the bragging seriously, but it made it easier for Zitao to interact with him. Minseok, on the other hand, wasn't too happy about the bruises.
"What kinda soapbox did you fly in there?" he asked with an annoyed sigh. "Humans."
"Ah, shit happens. The scales make it easier to bruise, to be fair," Jongdae shrugged. "Really though, humans bruise like peaches, too, so I have no idea why their technology isn't even trying to prevent itt."
Jongin actually laughed a little at that.
"I feel like they're sometimes too distracted by the big things to pay attention to themselves," he guessed. "Chanyeol has bruises all over himself as well, and most of the time he doesn't even realize getting them anymore."
"Well, the fact that he moves about as coordinated as a toddler probably doesn't help," Zitao commented in a deadpan voice, and Jongin could hardly deny that.
"At this point, he doesn't even flinch anymore when he hits himself on furniture. Or stumbles over nothing. It's pretty amazing," he said, and it was meant to be a joke, so why was Minseok staring at him so strangely?
"Where's Chanyeol?" he demanded, his voice surprisingly sharp. Jongin opened his mouth to answer-
And then the lights all around them dimmed down drastically with a distant thud.
The buzz of hundreds of people talking was silenced immediately, only to grow into an unnerved murmur.
Jongdae stared at Minseok, the beer forgotten.
Minseok stared back at him.
"Do you know where the Oasis is?" he asked, quiet and insistent. Jongdae nodded.
A neutral, automatized female voice boomed through the dome.
"Dear citizens of Gaia. Due to a technical error in sector 30, we are currently running on emergency power."
The mumbling around them grew in volume, but the voice was adapting, staying clearly audible.
"Sector 30 is being locked as a security measure. No danger has been identified yet. We still ask of you to follow the security procedure."
People lost interest after that, and the mood was a mix of wariness and exasperation. Jongin wondered whether this was a common occurrence.
Minseok didn't seem to believe it one bit.
"Go to the Oasis, as discreetly as possible," he instructed, and the other two paid rapt attention.
"Do you think this is serious?" Jongin asked quietly, but Minseok only replied by touching his arm, his gaze not straying from the pilots.
"Contact Yixing, then the others. We have to be prepared in case things go down."
"Got it," Jongdae said and got to his feet with an almost casual stretch, taking the food with him.
"What about Jongin?"
Minseok lightly shook his head, looking regretful.
"I need him with me."
"Alright..." Jongdae hummed, and both him and Zitao shot him a reluctant look, but ultimately complied and scurried away.
"What's going on?" Jongin asked yet again, and Minseok leaned in close, his voice dropping even further even though no one was all that close to them.
"We need to find Chanyeol. Do you know where he is?" he asked, gaze piercing. This was Minseok, the second in command talking. Jongin looked down at the small communicator around his wrist, forcing his shaky fingers to type in Chanyeol's name. Nothing.
"His tracker is off-"
"Where is he normally?" Minseok cut him off, dragging Jongin up to his feet.
Jongin looked over to the glass wall in the wall of the dome.
"Sector 30," he said quietly.
Minseok only huffed and then walked ahead, one hand on Jongin's arm making sure he was following.
"But- they just said the sector is locked," Jongin began as they squeezed themselves through streams of people all aiming for the elevators and exits.
"We'll find a way," Minseok said vaguely, tugging him away from the people and down an almost deserted corridor that lead nowhere of importance - except for sector 30. They took the flight of stairs, and it was only a matter of time until they'd run into a barricade.
"Do you think this is Chanyeol's fault?" Jongin asked in between gasping for air.
"I knew something was off about this guy," Minseok stated, sounding frustrated. Jongin didn't understand.
"But why? The symptoms are numbness and apathy-"
"You just said yourself that he's too numb to even flinch when he bruises himself!" Minseok cut him off, tugging him up another flight of stairs, and Jongin had a hard time not stumbling.
"That's not natural for humans, their nervous system forces them to react!"
Jongin didn't reply immediately as they rushed down the corridor, and while Minseok was arguing with the security, he tried to recall all the times Chanyeol had not reacted to pain in the way he should have. The way he had spilled Jongin's hot drink all over himself, the way he constantly hit his leg or foot against just about any furniture available... maybe Minseok was right. He had once seen Junmyeon accidentally jamming his finger and grimacing almost comically hard, but Chanyeol? Recently, he didn't even flinch anymore. As if he'd never even noticed the pain...
"The general gave green light," the security confirmed reluctantly, keeping Minseok from rushing past by a careful hand on his chest. "But only if you stay in contact with him. Please keep in mind that on this ship, he is your superior."
Minseok didn't protest, slipping on the necklace and putting on the single, attached ear phone.
Maybe Chanyeol had been feeling numb.
"But he's not apathetic at all," Jongin protested, feeling almost childish in the face of panic.
Minseok wasn't fazed, demanding Chanyeol's location over the head set.
"But is he a balanced, regular human? He's not, Jongin. He may have been emotional, but he rarely ever displayed more than one emotion at once, did he?"
Jongin thought about it, but it was impossible to come to a conclusion in mere seconds, and Chanyeol hadn't...
Minseok stopped almost abruptly, turning around and placing both palms on Jongin's shoulders to shoot him an intense, but also strangely calm look.
"Jongin," he began, making sure he had his full attention. "You thought he was special. I know. But in reality, he was just really, really strange."
Jongin felt like he was floating, like the ground beneath him had disappeared to leave him to battle insecurity.
Minseok's cold hand was cupping his cheek, running his thumb along his skin in a strangely intimate, comforting manner, before he started tugging him along again.
Jongin swallowed down the lump forming in his throat. Not now. He mustn't show weakness now, or they might all suffer the consequences.
You can cry later, he told himself, blinking his blurry vision into focus.
The lights in the corridor turned red, and a siren went off. Minseok stilled, listening to shouts on the other end of his communicator.
"Got it. Lead me," he ordered, and then they were taking a turn, running past alarmed-looking soldiers.
"Someone's messing with the oxygen distribution," Minseok said out loud, for Jongin to hear. Cold panic flickered up, and Jongin instinctively touched the mask around his neck.
"The system's not that easy to break - we're running out of time though!"
What were they going to do? They hadn’t found a way to chase out the mind parasites yet - would they have to kill him?
Jongin numbly watched Minseok slam the heel of his palm into a box next to the first aid one, punching in a combination only high rank military members knew, and it jumped open to reveal a variety of self-defense tools and weapons. Minseok didn't even bother with anything but the guns hidden in the back, pushing one against Jongin's chest.
Jongin couldn't help the small whimper escaping him but he took the weapon, deactivating the safety mode with shaky fingers.
"Can't we knock him out?" Jongin asked weakly, but Minseok shushed him and gestured for him to stay behind him.
Normally, he would surely have sent Jongin to safety, to the Oasis, with the others. Now he was risking muddling his clear mind without Jongin. That wasn't the only reason he kept him around though, and Jongin was cruelly aware of that.
When it came down to it, Chanyeol might be weak to Jongin. He was sure that's what Minseok was thinking.
Jongin wasn't so convinced though. Had he ever even met the real Chanyeol?
They entered a room with a certainty telling him that Minseok was receiving orders from Junmyeon. It looked like a mix between a machinery and a computing room, the air thick and heavy, with everything bathed in red, blinking light. Jongin could breathe just fine, but it didn't feel like healthy air, so he tugged up his mask to inhale clean, filtered air. Minseok was moving like a cat, careful and soundless, one hand keeping Jongin behind him. It was only a matter of minutes, maybe seconds, until the backup would arrive in form of tons of human soldiers. Jongin lifted his gun, ready to aim at anything that moved. Could he shoot though?
No doubt s, Jongin. No doubts, not now-
He saw something from the corner of his vision and whipped around, trying hard not to cause a noise. There, behind one of the machines, stood someone, hunched over screens and typing furiously. His hair looked pale in the light, his eyes wild as he ripped them away from the screens to stare at Jongin. He didn't look like himself - Chanyeol might have always had piercing, blue eyes, but they'd never been anything but warm. Now that Jongin was slowly approaching him, gun pointed at his chest, he could barely recognize him.
His voice was neutral, as if he was an android trying to place his face. Jongin's head was a mess.
"Stop doing this, Chanyeol," he said quietly. Chanyeol's fingers were hovering over a heavy-looking switch. With the gun pointed at him, he didn't move though.
"You did this to yourselves," he said, and it was Chanyeol's voice, but not his heart saying it. This wasn't him.
They had lost him.
"Drop everything," Minseok ordered from his left, the demand sharp as a knife.
Chanyeol's eyes flit from Minseok to the switch, and back.
"Chanyeol. Please don't. Please don't lose to them," Jongin whispered.
Chanyeol just stared at him, and it wasn't him, he knew that.
It was all he said, but the way he said it completely broke Jongin's resolve. It was almost entirely emotionless, but there was this thin, thin layer of longing to it, an emotion too subtle for a Quor'i to imitate, possession or not.
Jongin lowered his gun, shaking from top to bottom. He couldn't.
He glanced over at Minseok, who was still aiming at Chanyeol.
He felt so, so sorry, but he couldn't, and now he was relying on Minseok to do something horrible, to take on the burden he was too weak to carry.
Minseok kept staring at him, and now Chanyeol focused on him. Jongin's mind was racing despite all hope being lost. There had to be a way. He looked at the surroundings, wondering if they could distract him or knock him out - but even if they did knock him out, Chanyeol would remain infected, and a safety risk to all of Gaia. Even if the parasite left, his mind would very likely be destroyed beyond repair.
Meanwhile, Minseok... hesitated. Jongin knew he was a soldier, knew that he’d had blood on his hands more than once, knew that he was adept in actual warfare. Yet he wasn't shooting Chanyeol immediately.
Chanyeol looked at him, his expression twitching ever so slightly, as if the force inside his head was trying to make him do something. Or maybe that was Chanyeol himself.
"I'm sorry," he said, and it was probably a simple echo, something the parasite had found in his head and dragged to the surface, but Jongin saw Minseok's eyes widen just a fraction. The doubt was planted, the tiny feeling messing with Minseok's balance, and suddenly, Jongin knew what to do.
Without allowing his brain to think, he moved in a flash and pulled the trigger. The sound was deafening, and Chanyeol's face grimaced in grotesque surprise as the bullet bored itself into his leg, blood splattering the machinery and floor. When he looked up at Jongin, there was betrayal written all over his face.
Jongin felt Minseok's stare on him, but kept his expression blank.
The mix of pain and betrayal were overwhelming enough for Chanyeol to whimper, to moan as the Quor'i inside his head struggled. The thing had to clear Chanyeol's mind ot make room for itself, to plant itself in there, to synchronize with Chanyeol, and Quor'i couldn't handle emotions. Now these emotions were pushing the parasite out while also ripping it apart from inside.
Or so Jongin was hoping.
"I lied. I’ve been with Minseok all along," Jongin said out loud, hoping his voice sounded bitter and resentful enough. Chanyeol struggled, his hand twitching, and then ultimately ripping down the switch with a deafening clank. Jongin's eyes widened, and then Chanyeol was blindly reaching for another one when Minseok jumped forwards, the gun clattering to the ground.
Jongin saw Minseok move with precision, using the sharp edge of a knife he hadn't seen before to slice open his left arm before the knife, as well, met the ground. In one quick move, Minseok crowded him against the wall, dug his thumb into Chanyeol's leg, and then through his own wound.
Then he looked Chanyeol straight in the eye, voice steady and sure.
Chanyeol's eyes widened in confusion, and then Minseok swiped the blood over his own lips and leaned in to kiss him.
Jongin was stunned, gun half-lowered as he watched Minseok's bloody lips push against Chanyeol's, open-mouthed and lewd.
He saw Chanyeol struggle, saw him try to reach for the last switch, but then a surprised, choked sound left his throat, and Jongin's vision turned white from a sudden wave of pain. He gasped, stumbling back as a bond began to tie Minseok and Chanyeol together... and to him. Suddenly, his head was full, full with pain and thoughts and clutter, needles digging inside, trying to rip him apart. He felt Chanyeol's leg hurt, he felt his betrayal, his fear, and he felt Minseok's mind, solid and heavy, tugging at him-
Chanyeol screamed. It came out muffled against Minseok's lips, but it didn't stop even when he drew away, letting Chanyeol crumple down on the floor. Tortured groans, yells and cries ragged his body as his already full mind forcefully squeezed in Jongin's and Minseok's feelings. Too much, it was too much for Jongin as well, who was hyper aware of Chanyeol's state, and he felt the foreign presence. A cold and rough, numb patch that was itching, burning, hurting. It grew smaller, and he felt the urge to scratch his own head open, to get rid of it entirely. None of that made any sense, but Jongin couldn't think straight. He felt arms holding him up, pressing him against a wall to steady him, and then Chanyeol faded into unconsciousness.
Jongin's vision flickered, and everything seemed to come full circle, dragging him down. He retched, and then he was vomiting, his entire body repulsed by what was going on and retaliating with rejection. Minseok was holding his hand, squeezing it tightly, and then he was retching as well.
There was barely any food in either of their stomachs, and what the body was trying to get rid of was nothing that was found in their stomachs in the first place.
Through teary eyes, Jongin looked at the crumpled body on the floor, gripping Minseok so tightly it hurt.
What had they done?
When Junmyeon and the others arrived only moments later, they found one unconscious, breathing human and two shivering, miserable young men clinging to each other, refusing to be separated. Both of them passed out as soon as their captain arrived.
Chanyeol was pretty.
The most beautiful human Jongin had ever seen.
"I wonder when he'll wake up," he said quietly.
The light filling the room was artificial but the ceiling was simulating a blue sky and sunlight.
Next to him, Minseok hummed thoughtfully.
"They said it won't take much longer," he said softly.
For a long time, they watched Chanyeol breathe evenly.
"What's going to happen when he wakes up?"
Minseok, who usually had an answer to everything, lightly shook his head.
"I don't know."
Jongin would have accepted just that as an answer, and back when they had first met, Minseok wouldn't have bothered to elaborate. Now he did, though, and without Jongin having to ask him to.
"The bond is flawed, butchered in its execution and formed without his consent. Though there wasn't much of an option for consent in his state," Minseok explained, his voice deceivingly neutral and void of any emotion like guilt, shame or pity. Jongin knew what this sort of bond meant among Cerians, knew that it branded them forever, tarnishing their social status and reputation.
"Do you regret it?" he asked, and Minseok paused.
"I'll know when he wakes up," he finally said.
A part of Jongin wanted to thank him, but that would be arrogant and condescending of him, to assume that Minseok had done this for him. That he'd saved a life for him.
"They said there might be lasting damages," Jongin began, "not from the bonding, but from the Quor'i infecting his mind. They said there was no predicting it, since the infection played out unusually for him, and over a very long period of time."
Minseok didn't say anything to that, so Jongin just continued.
"But I'm sure he'd prefer it this way over being dead."
They both looked at Chanyeol, both of them remembering the times their own bodies had threatened to snap, to break into irreparable pieces of organic matter.
"We can’t know that," Minseok said. "But I know I would."
Then he placed his hand over Jongin's, lightly grasping his fingers over his lap. Jongin was surprised, both by the action and the warmth emanating from him. It wasn't something he could remember ever having done with Minseok - holding hands. Any touch outside of his cycle calling for it, really.
"You taught me that," he said quietly, steel grey eyes resting on the sleeping human in front of them. Jongin felt tingly, and it showed in the small smile he tried to bite back on.
"I didn't really do anything. You had it in you all along."
He turned to look at Minseok, who met his gaze almost immediately.
"You're not a bad person, Minseok, even though you might think that sometimes," Jongin said, and he meant it, but the shadow flickering over Minseok's expression wasn't what he'd intended at all.
"We should," Minseok began, averted his eyes and began anew. "We should sever our bond."
The words stung, and out of sheer instinct, Jongin wanted to pull his hand free, to turn and confront him properly, but Minseok squeezed his fingers, unwilling to let go. It was strange, an utter contrast to what he was saying, and Jongin was confused. Sure, he could probably rip his hand free if he tried hard enough but instead, he chose to listen.
"I probably won't be able to sever the bond with him, since it's broken to begin with. Things might get really messy for you as well," Minseok explained quietly, and then he paused. Jongin didn't ask questions this time. He waited. There was something more, he could see it in his slightly parted lips, could hear it in his held breath.
"And you're..." he began, but no words followed. Jongin looked at him expectantly, even though Minseok's eyes were still trained on Chanyeol. There was a twitch of something Jongin would interpret as annoyance or maybe even a strange kind of surprise on Minseok's expression. The words wouldn't come out, so he licked his lips, slightly tilted his head and tried again.
"You're," he started again, every word slow and deliberate, "very important to me."
Jongin tensed up in honest surprise, and Minseok's fingers squeezed harder, as if he feared the other might bolt.
"That's why I can't guarantee that I won't hurt you again in the future, due to the nature of our bond," he continued. "I don't know whether it will stop or when it would."
It. The... care? Affection?
Jongin could only stare at him, trying to pick up on all the implications and comprehend them. Sure, he could push Minseok to speak more clearly, but he was trying hard as it was. Jongin wanted to think for himself first, to wisely choose his words and the questions he needed an answer to.
"I... I didn't realize I was allowed to-" Jongin began, realizing that he sounded like an idiot, but having to end the statement somehow, "to think of you that way."
It sounded dumb, but it was the truth. It wasn't like Jongin didn't like Minseok, quite the opposite. He harboured deeply running admiration for him, always had. He hadn't consciously held himself back, either, and neither had he thought of him as someone he wasn't interested in.
He just genuinely hadn't considered this, them, to even be a possibility.
Minseok actually glanced at him now, trying to decipher Jongin's expression and tone, and he looked conflicted.
"I'm sorry," he then said. "You shouldn't have to deal with this. I told you to live your life as you please, without holding back for my sake. I still mean that."
The words flowed easier, now that Minseok was metaphorically offering him the door. Offering him to step away. The hard part had been the one where he'd held on to his wrist, telling Jongin that he liked him there. With him.
"You're still part of the crew, of course. If you want that."
Jongin couldn't help it - his eyes flit over to Chanyeol, who was still sleeping.
He felt like he had to choose between them, but the longer he thought about it, the more he realized that no matter who he would choose to stay with, the other party would not magically disappear. No matter whom he wanted to stay with, Chanyeol would still be bonded to Minseok, their lives inevitably intertwined. Even if Jongin put his selfishness aside, there were three of them now.
And one fact remained.
Jongin didn't want to break the bond.
Interpreting his silence as Jongin considering his life with Chanyeol, Minseok finally drew away his hand to give him space. Jongin caught him mid-action though, grasping his hand and pulling it up against his cheek. It was a little hard to look him in the eyes, especially with how warm and flustered he felt, but he locked gazes with Minseok as he pressed his cheek against the back of Minseok's hand.
"Let's not break the bond just yet," he said quietly. The look Minseok gave him was unwavering, intense, but also strangely gentle. Careful.
"Let's keep it for now," Jongin whispered. "I know this is a mess, but... maybe we can figure it out. I would like to try."
"Try what?" Minseok asked, equally quiet. Jongin knew many answers to this question, but ultimately, and after a look towards Chanyeol, and then back at Minseok, he made a decision.
"To find the future where you and I and Chanyeol can live contently. To our heart's content."
It was a saying, but Jongin meant it in a more literal sense, considering that only one discontent heart would affect the other two. Minseok, too, deserved to be happy.
He knew Minseok understood him, could see it in the genuine surprise blooming on his face.
Slowly, he pulled at Jongin's hand to mirror his gesture, pressing his cheek against Jongin's fingers before resting their hands in his lap.
They both looked at Chanyeol again.
Jongin's heart beat so fast it hurt.
"That might be difficult," Minseok admitted after a while.
"When has that ever stopped you?" Jongin asked, and finally the smile returned to his and Minseok's face.
"You got a point."
Like this, they spent many minutes sitting there, watching Chanyeol's chest rise and fall with each deep breath, waiting for him to awake and reveal the first step of their future path.
"But you know," Jongin began a long time later, and Minseok hummed in acknowledgment.
"You can't keep bonding people to save their lives. That's easily the most unhealthy habit of yours."
Minseok's laugh was short and breathy, and Jongin smiled.
It would be fine, he thought.
We got this.
When Chanyeol awoke, he was thoroughly confused. At the sight of Jongin and Minseok, he hurriedly sat up, shooting them a careful look. One of his formerly so pretty blue eyes had turned a deep red.
"Who are you?"
Jongin wasn't able to answer, so Minseok did, still squeezing his hand.
"That's Jongin," he said.
"You were crazy for him."
Yixing told them that there was a good chance of recovering Chanyeol's memory, but it would require time. What they wouldn't be able to cure was the decoloration of his eye, but Chanyeol didn't seem to mind. The only thing he cared about was recovering what's been lost, and trying to understand the presence of the two foreign people in his life.
To convince the beautiful, Zivran survivor that even without an infected mind, he really wanted to get closer to him.
And maybe, if he worked just a little harder, the Cerian prince would one day smile at him the way he smiled at his other companion. He would really like that.
Chapter 11: Bonus II: Shining
beware, there's a bit of smut in here - it's not overly explicit or hardcore though. still, you can skip this if it upsets you or you don't feel like it, you're not missing out on anything important~
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was 15 hours into the cycle when Chanyeol stepped out of the teleporter. As per usual, he didn't leave the room immediately, instead steadying himself at a wall with closed eyes. Teleporting was taxing on the human body, and no matter how much he'd like to just waltz into the ship or even fall to bed, he had to wait for his senses to regain balance.
He used the few seconds to think of where to look for Jongin. Not that it mattered much - the Oasis was tiny, and finding him couldn't take all that long.
He stopped by his and Minseok's room first, since it was on his way to the front of the ship. Neither of them was inside, which wasn't all that surprising. Minseok was rarely home, and never around this time, and Jongin didn't spend a terrible amount of time in his quarters, either. Still, Chanyeol took the opportunity to slip into his other pair of shoes, the one matching with the uniform every crew member wore (more or less). Not too long ago, he'd been added to the cleaning schedule, which served as the most efficient reminder not to carry dirt into the ship if he could avoid it. Zitao had called him a spoiled brat before, for taking cleaning bots and a self-cleaning everything for granted. That had sparked Chanyeol's stubbornness, for sure, because no one wanted to be called spoiled by Zitao, of all people.
He made his way to the cockpit next. Jongin spent a good chunk of his time there, and even if he didn't, the pilots usually knew what everyone was up to.
On the way there, he met Yixing and Yifan, who were calmly sitting in the lounge, eating dinner. They greeted him with a smile, and Yixing made it a point to add "Welcome home," as he usually did. Unlike on Gaia, where the fight against the Quor'i was an ever-present threat silently looming over them, the Oasis lived up to its name. They, too were part in all this, but the parasites seemed far too scared to attack them again, in any form or shape, after getting burnt twice. Yixing made sure their position remained involved, but on the safe end of things, too.
He was a great captain, and Chanyeol had nothing but respect for him. Yifan, on the other hand, told him to finally make some time for machinery lessons, which caused Chanyeol to flee. It was all in good fun - Chanyeol liked learning these technical things, and he'd make sure to stop by Yifan very soon.
Jongin came first though.
He always did.
To his surprise, he found not only Jongin, but also Luhan in the cockpit, with none of the original pilots to be seen.
"Hey guys," he greeted them, and Jongin awkwardly turned in his seat, expression brightening up as he saw him.
"Chanyeol! You're back," he said with a smile, looking up as Chanyeol leaned over his chair to press a quick kiss to his cheek.
"Yikes," Luhan complained half-heartedly, but they weren't fazed.
"Want me to give you one as well?" Chanyeol asked challengingly, and Luhan made a vivid choking sound like the child he was. Again, it was all in good fun - Chanyeol had stopped kissing Jongin on the lips in front of them, and this was a compromise they could all agree on. He was over being pouty at this point - like this, kissing Jongin had remained exciting and kind of scandalous, which was also fun.
"How was work?" Jongin asked, and Chanyeol threw himself into the spare chair next to him.
"Good, good. Made some progress. Encountered bugs, fixed them, the usual," Chanyeol hummed, making himself comfortable.
"How's Kyungsoo?" Luhan asked immediately, leaning over to look past Jongin. Chanyeol bit back a grin.
"Still acting like he hates your attention."
"Oh, what were his exact words?" Luhan asked with interest. Chanyeol pretended to think about it.
"I think something along the lines of tell him to stop pestering me. When will he take the hint and back off? "
Luhan sighed wistfully.
"What a catch."
"He probably doesn't mean it like that," Jongin trailed off, and Chanyeol grimaced.
"I don't know man, I wouldn't bet my money on it."
"He probably means it," Luhan said without hesitation, lightly nodding to himself and looking no less star-struck. "He's amazing."
Luhan's infatuation with Kyungsoo was grotesque at best to Chanyeol, but after spending a lot of time on the Oasis, he was beginning to see what Jongin had tried to explain to him all along - by Cerian standards, which were all about emotional distance, pride and hard work, Kyungsoo would be something equivalent to the most desirable bachelor on all of Gaia. And no matter how spikey Kyungsoo made himself out to be, Luhan found it... attractive. Maybe even adorable, there really was no telling what was going on in his head. The most ironic part of it was probably that Chanyeol had known Kyungsoo since they’d both attended public school years ago, and coincidentally, Kyungsoo really wasn't an ass, and really did have a tender personality slumbering under the thick layers of diligence and conscientiousness.
Well, there was a match for everyone, and if that match needed an entirely different DNA and upbringing to see the beauty in you, then why not?
Chanyeol was pretty sure that he was no different from them. Surely Jongin saw him in a completely different light than other humans did, or else he'd never smile at him like that.
That is, he might smile at him, but not like that. Not like he was the prettiest person he'd ever seen.
Maybe they were just all biased and strange creatures, but in the end, it all worked out.
Or would work out.
"Did Minseok find my present?" he asked, as casually as possible - not that Luhan was actually paying attention; he was still too busy swooning.
"He did," Jongin confirmed with a bright smile. "He loved it."
"He loved it," Chanyeol repeated suspiciously. Jongin was probably trying to placate him - he sometimes did that, when it came to Minseok.
"No, really, he did," Jongin insisted, not averting his gaze as Chanyeol gave him a dubious stare. "He didn't get it at first, but when he did, he had this funny, surprised look on him. Like he wouldn't have expected you to keep his needs in mind."
Chanyeol hummed, trying to picture it. It wasn't really an expression he got to see a lot, but he had a vague idea of what Jongin meant. He just hoped the gift would work properly - he'd spent a lot of time programming it.
It was a mere add on for Minseok's equipment, nothing too fancy. As soon as he got hurt, the little add-on would show the source of the pain. Nothing too complex, really, it was simply an unusual feature that had had to be custom-made. Apparently, it was pretty obvious to Cerians which impressions were their own and which were originating from their companion. Between Minseok and Chanyeol though, things were different. Their bond was a wildcard, entirely unpredictable in its effect. Days could pass without neither of them feeling a single thing, while other times, they would be hit with perfect synchronicity between their bodies, sharing even the slightest touch or feeling. They were a hazardous combination at best, and if it wasn't for Minseok's hard work and determination, his life as a soldier would have been over. A little device to assure Minseok whether what he was feeling came from his own body or not seemed to be the least he could do.
"I'm telling you, he's pretty fond of you," Jongin commented with a grin, and Chanyeol genuinely wished he could believe him.
With Jongin, everything was perfect, even though there was hardly anything bonding them like Minseok was bonded to each of them. Even the imperfections were perfect, even the tiny squabbles they occasionally had felt right. The fact that of all the beings in the world, someone as vibrantly shining as Jongin would choose to look at him remained mind-boggling, and only spurred him on to work even harder to live up to him. Aside from being a lover, Jongin was also his friend, and an idol, in a way. Everything had simply fallen into place, and then Chanyeol had woken from a coma, and things fell into place again. By now, he remembered pretty much everything he'd said and done under the influence of the parasite, but back then, he had simply fallen in love with Jongin all over again. Like that was simply how things were meant to be between them.
With Minseok though, things were different.
It had been alright when Chanyeol woke up, when Minseok was a strict-looking stranger who had chosen to save his life. He'd be a filthy liar to say he hadn’t been fascinated by Minseok right off the bat, and the atmosphere between them had been neutral, but also pleasant, in a strange way.
Until Chanyeol managed to regain his memory, and things got awkward. Really, really awkward.
After all, he had sort of successfully snatched Jongin away from him - his own companion. He had taken away the person he’d been in love with, and while Minseok had said no such thing, Chanyeol had kinda known about it. And to make matters worse, this love for Jongin had been the sole reason why Minseok had not only spared him but saved his life by putting his own life on the line... for good. There was no telling what would happen if Chanyeol were to die, not to mention the added risk of getting injured on his job.
Things were awkward, and Chanyeol needed some time to figure out what exactly he wanted things to be like between them.
It felt like he had gone through all sorts of feelings and impressions, from being intimidated by Minseok to feeling admiration, to feeling ashamed, and finally to a muddy mix of them all, with the added tingle he felt whenever Minseok would spare him a glance. Whenever he would look his way when Chanyeol talked, tilt his head ever so slightly to indicate that he was listening or whenever Chanyeol somehow managed to make him smile. It usually didn't happen after one of his jokes, especially not when he was trying too hard - it usually came as a reward for paying attention, for thinking along and for proving that he cared. For Minseok, but also for Jongin. It seemed to make Minseok happy to see Jongin happy.
Well, that made two of them.
There was just something about having Jongin under him. Sure, he loved Jongin in any way, sideways, above or under him, with or without clothes. But it were the times when he allowed Chanyeol to touch him, fully trusted him with his body, that were special to him.
It was by far not the first time they were doing this, but the sounds escaping Jongin, the high-pitched whimpers and tiny, hitched breaths sounded reminiscent of their first time. Chanyeol liked to believe that it was because he had a much better understanding of Jongin's body, that he was really enjoying himself. Chanyeol himself sure did - he could hardly see anything in Jongin's tiny room, with the only light source coming in through the door that they'd left ajar, but he liked it that way, and Jongin, too, seemed to like the thrill of not clearly seeing what was happening around him.
At first, Jongin had dimmed the light because he'd been awkward about his own anatomy. By now he was certain that Chanyeol didn't mind. He'd told him time and time again, with words, hands, and sometimes, like now, with his tongue. The sounds he made were rather obscene, but he didn't mean it in an obscene way - he wanted to make him feel loved, wanted to relish in the fact that his tongue was allowed to run around what Chanyeol called a slit in his head. There had to be a more accurate term for it, but it wasn't something he'd ever bothered asking Jongin about. There was something poking out just barely, a wet tip that Chanyeol lovingly kissed, making Jongin shudder.
One day, Jongin had told him that humans were kind of a vulgar species to the likes of him, because their genitals were always there, always visible and out in the open, hidden by nothing but thin fabric. The concept took quite a lot of getting used to for Jongin, whose private parts didn't look all that different compared to Chanyeols, but weren't usually visible. They were safely tucked inside his body, only to appear in states of arousal. Chanyeol had been clueless and careful during their first time, fingers probing around, slipping inside and just feeling. By now he knew that forcing his fingers inside right next to his organ had its own, certain appeal that was torturous, in the best way. And using his tongue was even better.
Would his dick work, too? Chanyeol wondered about that, and the mere idea, the mere fantasy was enough to get him off right now - he really had to scrape up his courage and ask Jongin about that, but not now.
The amount of lubricant Jongin's body produced spiked up the more his tongue lapped up, and a sick part of him wondered whether the salty slick was healthy for him.
Jongin whispered his name, twitching in his hold, and Chanyeol held him open a little tighter - not enough to actually hurt, just enough to keep him still.
It was then that light suddenly washed over them, illuminating Jongin's bare skin before slimming down again. Chanyeol looked up and towards the door behind him in alarm, only to see Minseok standing there, holding the sliding door open just a little. The light was barely hitting his face, and Chanyeol couldn't read his expression. He was just staring at Chanyeol, at his wet lips and mussed up state, and Chanyeol could feel himself shrinking under the intense gaze.
They didn't usually do this when Minseok was out on the field in order not to distract him, but none of them had expected him back so early, either. Apparently, the paper work had been less demanding than they had all assumed.
It wasn't the first time Minseok was on the ship while they were being intimate, either. But it was the first time he had opened the door instead of closing it.
Chanyeol felt Jongin's thighs work as he strained to look towards the door, towards Minseok.
Was he mad?
Even now, Minseok moved with undeniable elegance, controlled where Jongin was flowing, where Chanyeol was clumsy.
He left the door ajar and knelt on the bed, moving past Chanyeol without as much as a look as he leaned down to claim Jongin's lips. Chanyeol felt a zing going through him, a confused kind of arousal that had nothing to do with any bond.
He knew Jongin and Minseok did these kind of things. They'd just never done so in his presence.
Minseok didn't have genitals like them, that much Jongin had told him. Cerians kissed instead.
It's sweet, but not in a bad way, Jongin had vaguely said, and that was that.
Chanyeol felt captivated just looking at their vague shapes, listening to the strange way Jongin's moans slowed down, sounding less urgent, but just as intense as before.
It made Chanyeol twitch, and without thinking, he took the cold thumb of his left hand to bluntly press against Jongin's tip, causing him to flinch almost violently, and then Minseok moaned.
It was small, a tiny groan, but it had been Minseok for sure.
Chanyeol saw him sit up, leaving Jongin to heave in shallow breaths as he weakly held on to him.
It was nearly impossible to tell, but Minseok looked... challenging. But not in a hostile way. It was confusing.
He was inching closer, and then his small fingers were on the side of Chanyeol’s face, wiping his glistening lips clean with his thumb. Chanyeol was starting to give up being alert and afraid - he had no idea what was going on, the touch was prickly and nice, and Minseok didn't leave him much time to dwell on anything. He inched in closer, almost close enough to have their lips touch, and he felt the body heat radiate off him, as well as his sharp, distinct scent.
And then he stilled, calmly breathing, waiting for Chanyeol to fill the gap.
He did, and that was all the confirmation Minseok needed.
Chanyeol could feel him faintly smile against his lips, but he was too overwhelmed to waste a thought on that, absently gripping Jongin tighter as Minseok nipped on his lips, pressed and tugged, his movements hard but not aggressive, sensual and alluring - Chanyeol knew he was a goner before their tongues touched, before he felt the sweetness.
Jongin had been right, kissing Minseok was sweet, but not at all like the taste of saliva, and more reminiscent of fruit sugar, with a sour note. Unlike the taste of Jongin, this didn't take getting used to. Chanyeol was hooked straight away, and then his lips started to prickle. The strange little sensation wandered, stretching through his mouth and wandering down his insides, like hot numbness. Chanyeol was starting to grow worried, but Minseok left him no option of drawing away, holding his face, uncaring of the way Jongin's slick dried on his fingers.
The feeling kept spreading until it reached his lower regions. Until he felt pulled taut. And needy.
With a gasp, Chanyeol wriggled free, feeling the way his body went antsy, and he must be looking completely shell-shocked for Minseok to look this amused.
Chanyeol pushed him over before he knew it, hovering above him. He had acted without thinking, driven by the urge to take, or maybe to give, to do something that would press on his sensitive nerves and lighten that itch inside him on fire.
Beneath him, Minseok didn't look any smaller. The light was hitting the side of his face, fanning over his cheeks and reflecting in his infuriatingly calm eyes.
"Now what?" he asked quietly, syllables dripping with challenge. Next to them, Jongin was still moaning quietly, pressing closer to Minseok, holding on to Chanyeol, craving any form of touch, spurred on by the Cerian's kiss. He’d failed to mention this particular side effect of the sweetness, and somehow, Chanyeol already suspected it was worse for him, because everything was more intense for his apparently sensitive, human body.
"Why did you do that to me?" he rasped out, only barely resisting the urge to rut up against the body under him. He wasn't mad. He just- he didn't understand. This wasn’t a punishment, it felt too good for that.
Minseok remained unfazed.
"I want you to feel what Jongin feels," he said, not moving an inch under him. It was like he was waiting for Chanyeol, but he didn't know which gap he was supposed to fill now.
"What do you mean?" he asked, feeling a little desperate and helpless under the growing need.
"You spend a lot of time making him feel good. Making me feel good. It's only fair," Minseok explained with that strange expression of his that Chanyeol couldn't interpret. He was right though - whenever Chanyeol had pleased Jongin, the bond would share the feeling with Minseok. In a way, he had touched Minseok as well.
But only in a way. In reality, he looked blasé and put together, and that almost irked Chanyeol.
"I'm sure Jongin feels neglected right now," he responded, fingers running down Jongin's backside, dipping between his legs and eliciting a surprised groan. Minseok's expression twitched as the sensation traveled over to him, as well, and Chanyeol was itching to make him lose it. Itching to get closer to him.
"If you're not tired later," Chanyeol began, hands roaming Jongin's body, warming it up again, which the other took with a blissed out sigh.
"...then would you allow me to touch you?"
His question was quiet, maybe even awkward in its phrasing, but Chanyeol deemed it necessary to ask, because no matter the signs and signals, this was Minseok, and his respect for him was like a huge wall.
A wall that Minseok didn't deem necessary, apparently, because with one tug, Chanyeol was pulled down and sandwiched between them, facing Jongin, and held down by a strong grip.
"Why do you want to save it for later? You think I can't handle it?" Minseok asked, voice hot against Chanyeol's ear, sending goosebumps down his arms.
"No, but," Chanyeol began, helplessly looking for the reason through a haze of want, "I want to touch you, too. It's not the same," he whispered, feeling like an idiot under Jongin's warm, patient grin.
Minseok remained unpredictable, causing Chanyeol to make a very indignant sound as his cold hand slipped inside his pants without much preamble.
Sometimes, Chanyeol was a little dense when it came to Minseok, and his values and thoughts. Something Jongin loved to point out occasionally. Considering this, he seemed to be doing fairly well though.
They both did.
The three of them did.
if you made it to this point, i can only thank you from the bottom of my heart. thanks for giving this a chance. it means the world to me.
here's the prompts i worked with, in case anyone's interested:
• Jongin is the lonely dreamy eyed male caught up in someone else’s affair.
• Jongin is a prince from a nation under attack. Due to political leverage he has to unite with the warring nation. However, their marriage is anything but a happily ever after.
• Jongin is from a planet from another galaxy come to warn the galactic warship of Gaia that invaders are headed to wipe the human race out just as they did his race. Only he didn’t expect to meet a human he would fall in love with."